The eleven volumes of Paul Elmer More’s SHELBURNE ESSAYS, written over a long period of years and for various occasions, grew chiefly out of book reviews. More was an erudite and intelligent critic who has come to be considered a “lesser” critic because he was primarily a moralist and was only secondarily concerned with art. However, he was an extremely careful and perceptive reader. His standards were high, and he gave no undeserved praise; he would praise any deserving part of a writer’s work even though he felt an antipathy for the rest of it. He believed in character, discipline, and responsibility, and he searched for these qualities in literature in addition to aesthetic ones. His style is discursive, but often paragraphs that seem to be rambling come together to make a point with force and clarity. He avoided the distasteful, the sensual, and the weak, and sought a literary standard that was essentially religious. His entire life was a slow but steady submission to religious dogma. He felt that literature divorced from life is an empty pursuit and that an honest search for meaning must inevitably lead one to a simple theistic faith. Because he looked to the classics and tradition for standards, he judged writers according to their relation to the classics and historical trends. Such literary standards, he felt, were enduring and represented man’s total experience. More believed that a critic’s contribution is as great as a creative artist’s, and he quoted Nietzsche to the effect that valuing is creating.
Among his essays on English writers, one of the best is that on Sir Thomas Browne, regarded by More as a truly honest man. Browne had a respect for both religious traditionalism and scientific rationalism. He was by intellect progressive; by temperament reactionary. To him the whole mass of Nature was a mystery and the visible world but a picture of the invisible. More was particularly sympathetic with these ideas. In this essay he also demonstrates his intense interest in language and verbal felicities.
His essay on Christina Rossetti illustrates his insistence on praising that which is worthy and his ideas as to women’s “place.” He found her poetry refined and exquisite but lacking in artistic restraint. She bent under adversity but endured with patience. More compares her with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and finds her superior in that she stayed within women’s realm: earthly love and spiritual love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, on the other hand, ventured into the sphere of masculine poets: reform, scholarship, and politics. More was interested in the limitations, which he felt sure existed, that distinguish a woman writer from a man. He felt that Mrs. Browning thought of woman not according to a separate standard but according to a common standard for human nature. Christina Rossetti thought of woman according to a separate standard. More points out that the Bible draws an unalterable distinction between the position, duties, and privileges of men and women.
More traced clearly the progress of George Gissing as a writer, from his early years when he felt that art must express misery because misery was the keynote of modern life, to his later ones when he felt that art should express a zest for life. Preferring him in one respect at least to Dickens, More believed that Gissing showed the inner life of his characters which he himself felt, whereas Dickens portrayed his characters with humor but from the outside, failing to identify himself with them. However, More said that in the end Dickens was the greatest artist because he stood above his material while Gissing did not. Gissing was no friend to the people, but put all his reliance on God, an attitude to which More was sympathetic.
Romanticism was abhorrent to More. To him it signified the infinitely craving personality and the complete usurpation of emotion over reason. He compared it to a fever, a disease. He distrusted the unchecked imagination. As a result he found Shelley...
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