George Edward Woodberry Criticism - Essay

H. A. C. (essay date 1900)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Heart of Man by George Edward Woodberry, in Poet-Lore, Vol. XII, No. 4, 1900, pp. 586-96.

[In the following excerpt, the critic praises Heart of Man.]

One of the most encouraging signs of the literary times is the coming into increased favor of the thoughtful essay among both writers and readers. There are enchanted realms of intellectual activity—who will deny it?—that cannot reach adequate expression in any form but that of the essay; neither in poetry nor in the novel, and most certainly not in so-called literature of knowledge. The essay is, indeed, pre-eminently the medium for the unfolding of the intricate mazes of creative thought, fitting itself to every whim of the fancy, to every profoundest feeling of the soul, as a silken glove to the delicate traceries or the deep lines of the human hand.

Is it not this intimacy of the form with man's thought that makes the essay so powerful a rival of the poem in the race for immortality? Poetry "shoots into a mould" the universal emotions of the race; but the creative essay does no less a service. It "shoots into a mould" the universal thought of the race, the mould in either case being of a piece with the imagination and tempered only by the ideal. Thus they each in their own sphere have a universality of appeal that the novel and the literature of knowledge, because concerned with the relational aspects of life rather than with the universal, rarely possess. Plato's 'Symposium' and Carlyle's 'Sartor Resartus' will no more cease to stimulate the imaginative thought of mankind than the creations of Homer, Shakespeare, and Browning, will cease to stimulate the imaginative emotion of mankind, while Scott and Dickens, even Zola, grow archaic. For these reasons a single volume of essays, like Woodberry's Heart of Man, appears a more enduring contribution to the literature of America than hosts of the popular novels, which, clever as they often are, smack of the mortality of the hour.

The Heart of Man is in many ways a remarkable volume, full of wisdom and beauty, and showing in the range of subjects and their treatment how various may be the charm of this form of literature. The first essay, 'Taormina,' combines an exquisite description of the natural beauties of that picturesque and historically interesting spot in Sicily with a striking sketch of the vicissitudes of fortune it has undergone for many hundreds of years. And, best of all, the manner of the telling breathes the rich human sympathy of the writer,—a perception of the beauty of earth, almost unearthly in its loveliness, and of the pathos of a great human woe that lies like a canker even in the heart of the beauty, letting itself be known only through the hopeless calm of the poor fisher-folk of Taormina, whom the centuries of life and tumult have at last cast adrift outside the wheel of progress, with no future before them but decay and death.

Not the least charming division of the essay takes one back to the ancient poets, whose songs are redolent of the perfume of this delightsome region. Our essayist saw with his own eyes a storm such as he had before wondered at in Virgil, and an idyl the counterpart of which he had loved for long in Theocritus.

Quite different is the second essay, 'A New Defence of Poetry,'—different in subject-matter, different in style. It is a closely reasoned argument to the effect that the very body of literary art must be the ideal, since "the subject-matter of literature is life in the forms of personality and experience, and the particular facts with respect to these are generalized by means of type and plot in concrete form, and so are set forth as phases of an ordered world for the intelligence, to the end that man may know himself in the same way as he knows nature in its living system." Those who deny this, and restrict literature to the actual in life, deny art, "which is the instrument of the creative, to literature; for as soon as art, which is the process of creating a rational world, begins, the necessity for selection arises, and with it the whole question of values, facts being no longer equal among themselves on the score of actuality, nor in fitness for the work in hand. The trivial, the accidental, the unmeaning, are rejected, and there will be no stopping short of the end; for art, being the hand-maid of truth, can employ no other...

(The entire section is 1827 words.)

A. C. Henderson (essay date 1913)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Confessional," in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. III, No. ii, 1913, pp. 69-72

[In the following review, Henderson offers sardonic commentary on The Kingdom of All-Souls.]

The most amazing feature of this small volume of poems [The Kingdom of All-Souls, and Two Other Poems] is the preface. It is at once a gloss upon the text, and a confessional. At least without this gloss, the spiritual crises in the first poem, and a large share of the spiritual intention of the other two poems, might not be comprehensible; yet, to be exact, the preface gives us so much more insight into the poet's mind, that the poems are in reality a gloss upon the...

(The entire section is 1394 words.)

Harriet Monroe (essay date 1917)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Modern Solitary," in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. II, No. 2, 1917, pp. 103-05.

[In the following review of Ideal Passion, Monroe describes Woodberry's poetic style as outdated.]

Mr. Woodberry's sonnet sequence [Ideal Passion] has the frail beauty of perfumed summer days, days spent in an old garden, out of range of the winds of the world. The garden is formally patterned but softly overgrown—a sweet refuge for a sensitive solitary soul. In its paths, beside its mossy marble finials, a poet may live in the spirit and be indulgent of dream. He may see the light that never was, and celebrate a mystic marriage with a lady too fine and...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Mark Van Doren (essay date 1922)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "George Edward Woodberry," in The Nation, Vol. 114, No. 2956, 1922, pp. 261-62.

[In the following review of a reissue of six volumes of Woodberry's essays, Van Doren characterizes Woodberry as a mediocre critic]

By collecting his literary criticism, or by permitting the Society which bears his name to collect it, Mr. Woodberry incurs the query whedier he is to be known among America's critics, and indeed the world's. The challenge of these large volumes [Literary Memoirs of the Nineteenth Century, Studies of a Literateur, Heart of Man and Other Papers, Appreciation of Literature and America in Literature, The Torch and Other Lectures and...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

John Erskine (essay date 1930)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "George Edward Woodbury, 1855-1930: An Appreciation," in George Edward Woodberry, 1855-1930: An Appreciation, edited by R. R. Hawkins, The New York Public Library, 1930, pp. 3-7.

[In the following essay, Erskine gives a laudatory assessment of Woodberry as a poet, critic, and teacher.]

George Edward Woodberry was first and last a poet. He used to say that his life had somewhat missed its aim, since he enjoyed the leisure to produce only a few volumes of verse; his time was necessarily taken up with teaching and with the miscellaneous writing of the man of letters. But the importance of his teaching lay precisely in the fact that he treated all literature as...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)

Robert Underwood Johnson (essay date 1930)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "George Edward Woodberry," in Commemorative Tributes of The American Academy of Arts And Letters, 1905-1941, Books For Libraries Press, 1942, pp. 247-52.

[In the following essay, which was delivered as an address in 1930, Johnson offers an appreciation of Woodberry.]

In paying this tribute to our colleague, one of America's foremost men of letters, I feel derelict, almost disloyal in its inadequacy. Woodberry's literary activity subtended so large an arc that I have only been able to encompass a small part of its flowing beauty. I am the more chagrined by knowing that, were the situation reversed, he would be more just and comprehensive in his judgment of me. I...

(The entire section is 1719 words.)

Walter de la Mare (essay date 1933)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Letters of George Edward Woodberry, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933, pp. ix-xxv.

[In the following essay, de la Mare describes who Woodberry was, as reflected in his letters and other writings.]

In a brief paper on Thackeray's letters, written in Woodberry's earlier years, he remarked how often and how easily biography may distort the truth, and may mislead its readers concerning the very man whom it was intended to reveal. 'A quarrel that was but an incident of a lifetime becomes a long episode in the book … an imprudent witticism, a blunder in some fit of dullness, a piece of self-deception mat was only momentary, and all the...

(The entire section is 4673 words.)

John Paul Pritchard (essay date 1956)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "George Edward Woodberry," in Criticism in America, University of Oklahoma Press, 1956, pp. 156-62.

[In the following essay, Pritchard discusses the influence of Aristotle on Woodberry's criticism.]

George Edward Woodberry entered Harvard when Lowell was finishing his career as a professor. Lowell became interested in the impecunious undergraduate who aided in cataloguing his library, and in 1891, shortly before he died, recommended the young scholar for the new chair of comparative literature at Columbia University. There for fourteen years Woodberry taught. He established the new department upon the firm basis which has ever since been its characteristic, and...

(The entire section is 2487 words.)

Charles I. Glicksberg (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "George Edward Woodberry," in American Literary Criticism: 1900-1950, Hendricks House, 1969, pp. 91-108.

[In the following essay, Glicksberg identifies the aesthetic principles of Woodberry's criticism.]

Born at Beverly, Massachusetts, on May 12, 1855, Woodberry was educated at Phillips Exeter and then attended Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard, he taught at the University of Nebraska and served for a short period on the staff of The Nation. From 1882 to 1891 he settled down to literary work, contributing material to the Atlantic Monthly and acting as literary editor of the Boston Post. His distinguished lifework began in...

(The entire section is 1357 words.)