An Essay on Criticism

'Tis hard to say if greater waste of time
Is seen in writing or in reading rhyme;
But, of the two, less dangerous it appears
To tire our own than poison others' ears.
Time was, the owner of a peevish tongue,
The pebble of his wrath unheeding flung,
Saw the faint ripples touch the shore and cease,
And in the duckpond all again was peace.
But since that Science on our eyes hath laid
The wondrous clay from her own spittle made,
We see the widening ripples pass beyond,
The pond becomes the world, the world a pond,
All ether trembles when the pebble falls,
And a light word may ring in starry halls.
When first on earth the swift iambic ran
Men here and there were found but nowhere Man.
From whencesoe'er their origin they drew,
Each on its separate soil the species grew,
And by selection, natural or not,
Evolved a fond belief in one small spot.
The Greek himself, with all his wisdom, took
For the wide world his bright Aegean nook,
For fatherland, a town, for public, all
Who at one time could hear the herald bawl:
For him barbarians beyond his gate
Were lower beings, of a different date;
He never thought on such to spend his rhymes,
And if he did, they never read the Times.
Now all is changed, on this side and on that,
The Herald's learned to print and pass the hat;
His tone is so much raised that, far or near,
All with a sou to spend his news may hear,--
And who but, far or near, the sou affords
To learn the worst of foreigners and lords!
So comes the Pressman's heaven on earth, wherein
One touch of hatred proves the whole world kin--
"Our rulers are the best, and theirs the worst,
Our cause is always just and theirs accurst,
Our troops are heroes, hirelings theirs or slaves,
Our diplomats but children, theirs but knaves,
Our Press for independence justly prized,
Theirs bought or blind, inspired or subsidized.
For the world's progress what was ever made
Like to our tongue, our Empire and our trade?"
So chant the nations, till at last you'd think
Men could no nearer howl to folly's brink;
Yet some in England lately won renown
By howling word for word, but upside down.
But where, you cry, could poets find a place
(If poets we possessed) in this disgrace?
Mails will be mails, Reviews must be reviews,
But why the Critic with the Bard confuse?
Alas!    Apollo, it must be confessed
Has lately gone the way of all the rest.
No more alone upon the far-off hills
With song serene the wilderness he fills,
But in the forum now his art employs
And what he lacks in knowledge gives in noise.
At first, ere he began to feel his feet,
He begged a corner in the hindmost sheet,
Concealed with Answers and Acrostics lay,
And held aloof from Questions of the Day.
But now, grown bold, he dashes to the front,
Among the leaders bears the battle's brunt,
Takes steel in hand, and cheaply unafraid
Spurs a lame Pegasus on Jameson's Raid,
Or pipes the fleet in melodrama's tones
To ram the Damned on their Infernal Thrones.
Sure, Scriblerus himself could scarce have guessed
The Art of Sinking might be further pressed:
But while these errors almost tragic loom
The Indian Drummer has but raised a boom.
"So well I love my country that the man
Who serves her can but serve her on my plan;
Be slim, be stalky, leave your Public Schools
To muffs like Bobs and other flannelled fools;
The lordliest life (since Buller made such hay)
Is killing men two thousand yards away;
You shoot the pheasant, but it costs too much
And does not tend to decimate the Dutch;
Your duty plainly then before you stands,
Conscription is the law for seagirt lands;
Prate not of freedom!    Since I learned to shoot
I itch to use my ammunition boot."
An odd way this, we thought, to criticize--
This barrackyard "Attention! d---- your eyes!"
But England smiled and lightly pardoned him,
For was he not her Mowgli and her Kim?
But now the neighbourhood remonstrance roars,
He's naughty still, and naughty out of doors.
'Tis well enough that he should tell Mamma
Her sons are tired of being what they are,
But to give friendly bears, expecting buns,
A paper full of stale unwholesome Huns--
One might be led to think, from all this work,
That little master's growing quite a Turk.
O Rudyard, Rudyard, in our hours of ease
(Before the war) you were not hard to please:
You loved a regiment whether fore or aft,
You loved a subaltern, however daft,
You loved the very dregs of barrack life,
The amorous colonel and the sergeant's wife.
You sang the land where dawn across the Bay
Comes up to waken queens in Mandalay,
The land where comrades sleep by Cabul ford,
And Valour, brown or white, is Borderlord,
The secret Jungle-life of child and beast,
And all the magic of the dreaming East.
These, these we loved with you, and loved still more
The Seven Seas that break on Britain's shore,
The winds that know her labour and her pride,
And the Long Trail whereon our fathers died.
In that Day's Work be sure you gained, my friend,
If not the critic's name, at least his end;
Your song and story might have roused a slave
To see life bodily and see it brave.
With voice so genial and so long of reach
To your Own People you the Law could preach,
And even now and then without offence
To Lesser Breeds expose their lack of sense.
Return, return! and let us hear again
The ringing engines and the deep-sea rain,
The roaring chanty of the shore-wind's verse,
Too bluff to bicker and too strong to curse.
Let us again with hearts serene behold
The coastwise beacons that we knew of old;
So shall you guide us when the stars are veiled,
And stand among the Lights that never Failed.
Le Byron de Nos Jours; or, The
English Bar and Cross Reviewers.
Still must I hear?--while Austin prints his verse
And Satan's sorrows fill Corelli's purse,
Must I not write lest haply some K.C.
To flatter Tennyson should sneer at me?
Or must the Angels of the Darker Ink
No longer tell the public what to think--
Must lectures and reviewing all be stayed
Until they're licensed by the Board of Trade?
Prepare for rhyme--I'll risk it--bite or bark
I'll stop the press for neither Gosse nor Clarke.
O sport most noble, when two cocks engage
With equal blindness and with equal rage!
When each, intent to pick the other's eye,
Sees not the feathers from himself that fly,
And, fired to scorch his rival's every bone,
Ignores the inward heat that grills his own;
Until self-plucked, self-spitted and self-roast,
Each to the other serves himself on toast.
But stay, but stay, you've pitched the key, my Muse,
A semi-tone too low for great Reviews;
Such penny whistling suits the cockpit's hum,
But here's a scene deserves the biggest drum.
Behold where high above the clamorous town
The vast Cathedral-towers in peace look down:
Hark to the entering crowd's incessant tread--
They bring their homage to the mighty dead.
Who in silk gown and fullest-bottomed wig
Approaches yonder, with emotion big?
Room for Sir Edward! now we shall be told
Which shrines are tin, which silver and which gold.
'Tis done! and now by life-long habit bound
He turns to prosecute the crowd around;
Indicts and pleads, sums up the pro and con,
The verdict finds and puts the black cap on.
"Prisoners, attend! of Queen Victoria's day
I am the Glory, you are the Decay.
You cannot think like Tennyson deceased,
You do not sing like Browning in the least.
Of Tennyson I sanction every word,
Browning I cut to something like one-third:
Though, mind you this, immoral he is not,
Still quite two-thirds I hope will be forgot.
He was to poetry a Tom Carlyle--
And that reminds me, Thomas too was vile.
He wrote a life or two, but parts, I'm sure,
Compared with other parts are very poor.
Now Dickens--most extraordinary--dealt
In fiction with what people really felt.
That proves his genius.    Thackeray again
Is so unequal as to cause me pain.
And last of all, with History to conclude,
I've read Macaulay and I've heard of Froude.
That list, with all deductions, Gentlemen,
Will show that 'now' is not the same as 'then'.
If you believe the plaintiff you'll declare
That English writers are not what they were."
Down sits Sir Edward with a glowing breast,
And some applause is instantly suppressed.
Now up the nave of that majestic church
A quick uncertain step is heard to lurch.
Who is it? no one knows; but by his mien
He's the head verger, if he's not the Dean.
"What fellow's this that dares to treat us so?
This is no place for lawyers, out you go!
He is a brawler, Sir, who here presumes
To move our laurels and arrange our tombs.
Suppose that Meredith or Stephen said
(Or do you think those gentlemen are dead?)
This age has borne no advocates of rank,
Would not your face in turn be rather blank?
Come now, I beg you, go without a fuss,
And leave these high and heavenly things to us;
You may perhaps be some one, at the Bar,
But you are not in Orders, and we are."
Sir Edward turns to go, but as he wends,
One swift irrelevant retort he sends.
"Your logic and your taste I both disdain,
You've quoted wrong from Jonson and Montaigne."
The shaft goes home, and somewhere in the rear
Birrell in smallest print is heard to cheer.
And yet--and yet--conviction's not complete:
There was a time when Milton walked the street,
And Shakespeare singing in a tavern dark
Would not have much impressed Sir Edward Clarke.
To be alive--ay! there's the damning thing,
For who will buy a bird that's on the wing?
Catch, kill and stuff the creature, once for all,
And he may yet adorn Sir Edward's hall;
But while he's free to go his own wild way
He's not so safe as birds of yesterday.
In fine, if I must choose--although I see
That both are wrong--Great Gosse!    I'd rather be
A critic suckled in an age outworn
Than a blind horse that starves knee-deep in corn.
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Submitted on August 03, 2020

Modified on March 12, 2023

9:10 min read

Quick analysis:

Scheme Text too long
Closest metre Iambic pentameter
Characters 9,534
Words 1,797
Stanzas 23
Stanza Lengths 22, 26, 2, 18, 10, 6, 12, 10, 6, 16, 2, 10, 8, 2, 2, 12, 12, 10, 6, 12, 6, 10, 4

Henry John Newbolt, Sir

Sir Henry John Newbolt, CH was an English poet, novelist and historian. He also had a very powerful role as a government adviser, particularly on Irish issues and with regard to the study of English in England. He is perhaps best remembered for his poems "Vitaï Lampada" and "Drake's Drum". more…

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