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T would be easy, if need were, to devise a
theory of coherence for the Essays here .selected for re-publication, but the truth is that they are fortuitous. The only claim that I can consistently make, is that I have always chosen, for biographical and critical study, figures whose personality or writings have seemed to me to possess some subtle, evasive charm, or delicate originality of purpose or view. Mystery, inexplicable reticence, haughty austerity, have fascination in life and literature, that is sometimes denied to sanguine strength and easy volubility. I am well aware that vitality and majesty are the primary qualities to demand both in life and literature. I have nothing but rebellious horror for the view that languor, if only it be subtle and serpentine, is in itself admirable.
But there are two kinds of languor. Just as the poverty of a man born needy, and incapable of acquiring wealth, is different in kind from the poverty of one who has sacrificed wealth in some noble cause, so the deliberate, the self-conscious languor "about three degrees on this side of faintness," of which Keats wrote in his most voluptuous mood, is a very different thing from the languor of Hamlet, the fastidious despair of ever realising
ome lofty conception, the prostrate indifference of one who has found the world too strong. I do not say that the note of failure is a characteristic of all the figures in my narrow gallery of portraits. But I will say that they were most of them persons about whom hung an undefined promise of greater strength than ever issued in performance. The causes of their comparative failure are difficult to disentangle. With one perhaps it was the want of a sympathetic entourage; with another a dreamy or mystical habit of thought ; with this one, the immersion in uncongenial pursuits ; with that a certain failure in physical vitality; with another, the work, accomplished in dignified
serenity, has fallen too swiftly into neglect, and we must endeavour to divine the cause : and yet in no case can we trace any inherent weakness, any moral obliquity, any degrading or enervating concession.
Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes we make in literature and art is the passionate individualism into which we are betrayed. We cannot bring ourselves to speak or think very highly of the level of a man's work, unless the positive and tangible results of that work are in themselves very weighty and pure. We forget all about the inspirers and teachers of poets and artists. How often does the poet, and the artist too, in autobiographical allusion, speak with absorbing gratitude and devotion of some humble name of which we take no note, as the “fons et origo” to himself of enthusiasm and proficiency.
It is with no affectation of fastidious superiority, but with a frank confession of conscious pettiness, that I say that this book will only appeal to a few. The critic is no hero : he is at best but a skipping peltast, engaged as often as not in
inglorious flight. To flounder in images, criticism is nothing but a species of mistletoe, sprouting in a sleek bunch in the chink of a lofty forest tree, I had rather have been Lovelace than Sainte-Beuve, and write one immortal lyric than thirty-five volumes of the acutest discrimination. But a minority has a right to its opinions, and may claim to be amused: a man who thinks the Rhine vulgar, and the Jungfrau exaggerated, may be foolishly delighted with a backwater on the Thames, and a view of the Berkshire downs, In fact, the only kind of criticism of which one may be impatient is the criticism which abuses an author for not writing something else. What critics can do, what I have attempted to do, is to strengthen and define the impression that a casual reader may derive from a book, a reader who wishes to see what is good, but has not the knack described by the poet, who says “what is best he firmly lights upon, as birds on sprays."
On the other hand we may reasonably doubt what is the exact worth of the cultivation, of