Birth of the Critic

The Birth of the Critic

Aristocratic poetic culture of the sort celebrated by Sydney collided with a rising popular culture on the restoration stage. In 1668, not long after the foundation of the Royal Society, another position authorized by the crown was formalized— the poet laureate. John Dryden, poet and dramatist, offered an entirely new model for the hero. Dryden was caught between the ancient and the modern, and responded with a new role for the hero. Rather than a militaristic hero, or a martyred saint/hero, or an impartial poetic hero, the hero becomes the critic.

The critic was seen as intermediary between producers and consumers of literary products. On the restoration stage, audiences would sit directly on the stage and were notoriously free with their criticisms of the product. Pamphlets and broadsides multiplied with deep criticisms of literary, political, and social concerns of the day. Who had the highest authority to judge the truth of these claims? The aristocratic model offered by Sydney contains the seed of one solution— the producer of the products. Any poet must first judge his own products, and thus if the poet was great then he was in the best position to judge. After the reopening of the theaters, the crucial question was a deeply historical one— which model should English drama follow, the classical tradition or the example set by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher?

Flouting the classical divisions between comedy and tragedy, and the unities of time and place was a constant source of debate. Dryden’s An Essay on Dramatic Poesy explores these issues in a distinctly modern form. It is neither a Platonic dialogue nor a formal treatise like Sydney’s. Instead, it is a drama without being a play. Four speakers debate the issues, which revolve around integrity. The problem is ultimately the definition of the play. Does a play follow rules, or is it “a just and lively image of human nature?” The shift occurring in the seventeenth century was not only to a greater “realism,” but to redefine of what realism is. If there are rules, who makes them? Royal and poetic authorities were tenuous and fleeting, and Dryden lost his laureateship with the accession of William and Mary. The redefinition of time, space, and realism was a battle fought among the critics of the popular press. Though he was opposed to critics, Jonathan Swift certainly was a critic.

The Battel of the Books addresses the same crisis dealt with by Dryden in An Essay on Dramatic Poesy but to a different conclusion. In the mock library battle, the ancient works triumph over the upstart moderns. In his introductory apology to these works, Swift proposes that “Wit is the noblest and most useful Gift of humane Nature.” The duty of the witty critic is to deflate. And yet, in his dedication “to His Royal Highness Prince Posterity” Swift undercuts the role of critic as mediator, damning it in no uncertain terms:

WE confess Immortality to be a great and powerful Goddess, but in vain we offer up to her our Devotions and our Sacrifices, if Your Highness’s Governour, who has usurped the Priesthood, must by an unparallel’d Ambition and Avarice, wholly intercept and devour them.

In Tale of a Tub the heroic role of the critic is elevated and deflated simultaneously. It is elevated in the sense that the scathing attack on the emergent authority of critics is itself criticism. While Swift celebrates the ancient, he satirizes the modern penchant for endless apologies, panegyrics, and inflations to the front of books. In the third piece of front matter, the preface, Swift marks out the heroic nature of the satirical critic:

Nature her self has taken order, that Fame and Honour should be purchased at a better Pennyworth by Satyr, than by any other Productions of the Brain; the World being soonest provoked to Praise by lashes, as men are to Love.

In A Digression concerning Criticks Swift proposes three critical types: the critic as judge who praises or acquits, who only reads to censure or reproof. Second, there is a critic who reads to restore “Antient Learning from the Worms, and Graves, and Dust of Manuscripts.” Given the nature his own work in the volume, though he ridicules it, Swift seems to fit his own satiric categories. In his third division, he uses the heroic tools of a critic to lampoon the authorizing modes of romance— the heroic genealogy.

THE Third and Noblest sort, is that of the TRUE CRITICK whose Original is the most Antient of all. Every True Critick is a Hero born, descending in a direct Line from a Celestial Stem, by Momus and Hybris, who begat Zoilus, who begat Tigellius, who begat Etcetera the Elder who begat B— — tl— y and Rym— r, and W— tton, and Perrault, and Dennis, who begat Etcetera the Younger.

The critic is descended from the Greek god of blame and mockery Momus, and the goddess of insolence, excessive pride, and violence— Hybris. Their offspring is traced to a carping grammarian, Zoilus, used as a foil by Plato and Isocrates, and then to Tigellius, a friend of Julius Caesar, who was a musician and a talented singer. The modern critic is thus positioned as both a practitioner, and as a rule maker. Swift moves quickly to connect this heroic stature with heroic virtue, and points directly to the self-involved priesthood of criticism emergent at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Swift’s view of humanity’s progress is clearly tragic, unlike the affirmative Puritan vision of Defoe. Romantic genealogy, the dominant trope for centuries, was out— though it continued to reassert itself in the poetic genealogy represented through imitation. New authorizing tropes emerged, and in Defoe the new tropes were used both as an assertion of a new realism, and a new dependence on testimony as evidence.