Literary Criticism in the Dial
The literary purpose of the Dial was initially set out as to "strive to exercise a just and catholic criticism, and to recognize every sincere production of genius." These aims are specified in the editors' preface, written primarily by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He speaks of the confident transcendental spirit of the times and its appearance in a "higher tone of criticism" rather than in new books. He advocates the comparison of the record with nature, with the essence of life. This is the first indication of organicism in the Dial. He defines the type of literary criticism that will appear in the Dial:
All criticism should be poetic; unpredictable; superseding as every new thought does, all foregone thoughts, and making a new light on the whole world. Its brow is not wrinkled with circumspection, but serene, cheerful, adoring. It has all things to say, and no less than all the world for its final audience.
In another article in that first issue, Charles Lane states that the critic's function is "to bridge the waters which separate the prophet from the people, to compass the distance which divides the understanding in the auditor from the intuition in the utterer."
The general tone of the Dial's literary criticism came from Emerson and Margaret Fuller, not only because they were its editors, but because they wrote most of the articles on literary critical theory as well as much of the criticism. This tone Richard Fogle in The Development of American Literary Criticism describes as "transcendental, cosmopolitan but vigorously American, democratic but exacting in its literary standards." Fogle also considers the critical point of view of the Dial to be "Romantic organicism." It is difficult to dispute the validity of this label.
Emerson and Fuller expressed their literary critical theories in four articles during the first year of the Dial. The first essay in the Dial, "A Short Essay on Critics," was written by Fuller. She begins by classifying critics: the subjective, who state momentary impressions and opinions in no uncertain terms; the apprehensive, who reproduce the work of which they speak and enter into its spirit; and finally, the comprehensive, who not only enter into the nature of the creator and judge his work by its own laws, but evaluate the work in relation to universal principles. This, the best critic, must then be a poet, a philosopher, and an observer. He detaches the part from the whole, examines it, and returns it to the whole.
She believed that critics in journals should sift a work rather than dictatingly stamping it. They should not inform the reader about the work so much as rouse him to new thoughts of his own. Thus, the critic should teach us "to love wisely what we before loved well."
For the second issue of the Dial, Emerson wrote two critical articles on the literary of the time. In the first, "Thoughts on Modern Literature," he views literature as the natural result of necessary laws. Books are classified as those expressing the moral element, what out to be; works of imagination, what is; and works of science, what appears. Books survive in proportion to the truth and beauty they involve. He disparages style and knowledge in books when inspiration is lacking. The moral is better than the imaginative; thus, "highest originality must be moral."
Emerson's preference for the poet and his inspiration rather than his work is evident when he writes: "All just criticism will not only behold in literature the action of necessary laws, but must also oversee literature itself." The critic must judge by the absolute standards of nature, realizing the transient nature of the work while looking for the permanent suggestion of the whole. He finds that much of the writing of his time is done largely in the style of Walpole--in good taste and with regard for facts, but without depth, the life of the highest faculties. The question of true greatness in a poet is answered by the universality of his work.
Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Landor all exhibit the subjectiveness and aspiration of the era, although Goethe displays it most brilliantly. Goethe follows truth and deep realism and remains faithful to his literary nature, yet he is limited to the actual. Emerson complains that "I am never lifted above myself. I am not transported out of the dominion of the senses, or cheered with an infinite tenderness, or armed with a grand trust." He challenges his time and country to respond to the call of the Infinite and "write in a higher spirit, and a wider knowledge, and with a grander practical aim, than ever yet guided the pen of poet."
In "New Poetry," Emerson analyzes some of Ellery Channing's poems. However, as Perry Miller says, Emerson has probably said more that is pertinent to modern poetry than the poems themselves justify. He is interested in praising Channing as a man rather than an artist, the poet instead of the imperfect poem. He begins by noting the recent growth of "verses of society," a kind of "private and household poetry." Everyone seems to be trying to put the experiences of his (or her) life into poetry. These verses often lack the conventional finish, even when the touch of genius is evident. Emerson finds a lively joy in reading Channing's poetry and considers it more intelligent than other American poetry with its fine perception and use of unconventional imagery.
In "Thoughts of Art," Emerson defines art as "the conscious utterance of thought, by speech or action, to any end." Art is the spirit creative. Since Spirit, in creation, aims at use or at beauty, so is art divided into Useful and Fine Arts. The accompanying principle is "the universal soul is the alone creator of the useful and the beautiful; therefore to make anything useful or beautiful, the individual must be submitted to the universal mind." Every word of poetry must be necessary, originating in the universal mind. Thus art must be spiritually organic, having been discovered and executed but not arbitrarily composed. It must spring from necessity and take its form from nature.
In the next to last issue of the Dial, Fuller analyzes modern English drama as an outgrowth of admiration of genius. Thus she feels regretfully that "the drama is not a growth native to this age, and that the numerous grafts produce little fruit, worthy the toil they cost." However, she believes that drama, although it must have roots in the mother-tongue, cannot die out. She concludes that Shakespeare's tremendous genius has made other potential geniuses lose courage to write drama. Some contemporary plays have value only as spectacle and as background for the actors' powers. Other plays are elegant and simple, yet lack any originality. Historical plays often reveal genius, such as Taylor's Philip Van Artevelde. She praises Sterling's plays, yet feels that he is inferior to Taylor, whom she places in the second rank of English poets.
In the same issue, Henry David Thoreau develops some of his ideas of the organic nature of poetry. He states that "As naturally as the oak bears an acorn, and the vine a gourd, man bears a poem, either spoken or done." Thus the work should seem as if "nature had spoken." Thoreau believes that as man became more civilized and separated from nature, his poetry became less organic and turned into one man's trade, split into many styles and genres.
Like Emerson, Thoreau divides literature into works of genius and those of intellect and taste. As works of genius live, they are sacred and they dictate their own laws to criticism. He too is more interested in the poet than the product. However, he emphasizes careful revision and polish. Whereas Emerson believed that form is revealed in the mystical experience, Thoreau thought that form develops as the poet revises and works out his conception of the experience.
Poetry is further defined in an essay on Transcendentalism by J. A. Saxton as thought, sentiment, insight, and not rhyme or rhythm or "the garment of words, in which it may be clothed." Poetry is prophecy; the poet is seer into the infinite significance underlying the veil of the visible who discerns his relation to all being and to eternity.
To summarize the general literary critical principles advocated in the Dial, we must keep in mind that the transcendentalists are more concerned with the poet's vision than with the literary product. The Dial is an instrument to stimulate American writing and criticism into new life by developing the idea of spiritual organicism, like that of nature. Ideas are far more important than the form and should be of a moral nature, dealing with higher reality. Discipline is stressed except when the editors detect errant genius. Criticism, or what Margaret Fuller calls reproductive criticism, should be constructive and comprehensive, judging each work by its own laws rather than imposing the subjective views of the critic. Fiction and drama are largely neglected in the Dial criticism. The critic is given a position second only to the poetic genius. Recognizing that most of the transcendentalists were not creative artists, the Dial demonstrates that literary criticism has a vital function to perform in the creation of great American literature.
Although the transcendentalists, especially Emerson, disparaged the imitative theories of neoclassicism, they examined the Greek and Roman classics with reverences as they searched for universal truth.
The first issue printed the recently deceased Charles Emerson's notes on Homer; in the last issue Thoreau's eulogy to Homer was printed. Charles Emerson finds true majesty and no fault in Homer. To him, Homer is one of the few greats to have described permanent facts of things. In this respect he ranks Socrates, Chaucer, and Shakespeare and perhaps Goethe with him. Thoreau praises Homer for his naturalness, his true picture of nature, and the magnificence e of even the smallest fact conveyed. Yet he ends by saying that "man is the great poet, and not Homer nor Shakespeare; and our language itself, and the common arts of life are his work."
Thoreau writes a more specifically critical essay on the Roman Persius in the first issue of the Dial. He discredits the complaints of Persius as being completely outside the province of poetry. He finds lines which express well, in Latin, familiar truths. The earnestness of these lines calls for serious consideration of all his otherwise uninspired satires. He concludes with the statement that "the artist and his work are not to be separated."
Samuel Ward writes on Boccaccio in his "Letters from Italy on the Representatives of Italy." He claims for Boccaccio equal ranking with the geniuses of modern literature, Dante, Petrarch, and Shakespeare, as he is a seer of the law and the powerful design of God. Boccaccio is characterized by perpetual youth drawn to the one noble pattern rather than by minute and delicate traits of the pattern. Ward is delighted by Boccaccio's constant freedom from the spirit of his time, from false and imposed religion, and from traces of classical pedanticism. Boccaccio's writings last well because he is a "true painter of man, the creature of passion and circumstance." However, Ward wonders at the end: "is Boccaccio a mechanical artist? Are his figures too much made, too little conceived from within outwards?"
The only criticism on Shakespeare is found in the notes from Charles Emerson's journal. He was overwhelmed by the thought that "Humanity was indeed one, a spirit continually reproduced, accomplishing a vast orbit, while individual men are but the points through which is passes." He notes, however, that Shakespeare had no experience of Christianity, of the "beauty of holiness." Yet he "chanted the eternal laws of morals" and combined perfect poetic inspiration with the "inspired tongue of humanity.:
Thoreau comments on two other notable writers of the past: Ossian and Chaucer. Ossian he believes to be considered with Homer himself. In Ossian "only the simplest and most enduring features of humanity are seen." Thoreau praises the grandeur of the similes, saying that "Ossian seems to speak a gigantic and universal language."
To come to Chaucer from Ossian, one must narrow his vision somewhat, in spite of Chaucer's broad humanity. Yet Chaucer is the Homer of the English poets, with the same kind of innocence and serenity of youth. Thoreau praises Chaucer for his humanity, character, sturdy English wit, and calls his genius a genial and familiar one.
Much of the Dial is devoted to critical comments on contemporary writers, both European and American, and reviews of current works.
In the last issue Emerson's "Europe and European Books" appears. He acknowledges America's debt to European culture, but notes that "Europe has lost weight recently." However, he treats specifically the age of Wordsworth and Tennyson. He recognizes Wordsworth's faults of poetic execution but praises him for his moral perception. He speaks of the pleasure given by Tennyson's elegant and witty style and his power of language. He admires his lyricism but regrets his lack of rude truth. He divides novels into those of costume or of circumstance and those of character, such as Wilhelm Meister, preferring the latter. However, to even speak of novels seems to him gossip rather than criticism.
One of the most notable articles is Theodore Parker's vigorous assertion of the value of German literature against current New England prejudices. He calls it "the fairest, the richest, the most original, fresh, and religious literature of all modern times." He demonstrates that the Germans outrank the English not only in literature but in history, religion, and philosophy. He dwells at length on the religious character of German works as coming nearer than any other to the Christian ideal of literary art."
The latter part of his essay is a critique of Menzel's somewhat distorted picture of German literature. Parker rebukes Menzel for his "unmanly hostility to Goethe" and for his judgment of works by moral instead of critical or artistic standards.
Margaret Fuller follows Parker's essay with one on "Menzel's View of Goethe." She begins by criticizing Menzel for judging Goethe as a Philistine who refuses to enter Canaan, who tries the writer by rules under which he never lived. Here she states the organic doctrine that a man must be judged by what he is rather than what he is not. The vital question is, "did he live up to his own standard?" Historically considered, she writes, Goethe has no faults and is attuned to the needs of his age by being the artist-critic to the chaotic world of thought. Yet he failed to reach his highest development. He didn't see quite deeply enough to the most divine nature and yielded to the too determined action of the intellect.
Two issues later Fuller continues her analysis of Goethe. After a certain crisis in his life, she finds in him a "wide and deep wisdom" rather than the "inspirations of Genius." She correlates his major works in relation to his changes as an artist and as a man. In Iphegenia she experiences more completely than ever the organizing power of genius and sees Goethe's higher tendencies.
Perry Miller shows that these essays on Goethe present a dilemma which neither Fuller nor other transcendentalists were able to resolve--the struggle of writers to be free and at their ease in the literature of the world, but at the same time to hold to the simple moral virtues of New England.
Margaret Fuller also wrote an article on "Romaic and Rhine Ballads." She examines the Rhine ballads and modern Greek songs, as translated by Müller. The Greek ballads please by scenery and exhibition of character. However, they lack the rich symbolical character of the Rhine ballads. These ballads impress her because they are the living testament of growth of a national thought and a religious faith.
Articles on contemporary English writers covered Shelley, Thomas Carlyle, and Walter Savage Landor.
The transcendental and Romantic concept of the ideal poet is clearly seen in John Mackie's essay on Shelley. He finds Shelley's misguided understanding and extreme self-confidence to be the infirmity of a noble mind. Shelley sacrificed himself for principles that were often unsound. As a poet, he did not have the large wisdom of Shakespeare, but the full expression of the imagination and love of the beautiful. He was complete master of all poetic measures, although his poetry contains many stylistic faults. Although unfit for the ordinary business of life, he possessed true poetic genius and uttered the divine and sublime truths.
Emerson criticizes Carlyle's Past and Present as a disproportioned picture painted by a "sick giant." However, Carlyle does deliver such great and simple truths as honesty and insight which remedy current superficial political aims. IN spite of the brilliant talent displayed in the book, Emerson regrets the too weighty obtrusion of Carlyle's whims. The latter part of the essay is concerned with Carlyle's magnificent and adroit style.
Emerson also writes on Walter Savage Landor, the eccentric English author of "Imaginary Conversations." Although he criticizes Landor for English partialities and occasional coarse language, he finds him to be one of the few contemporaries to write pure literature. Emerson appreciates his delight in genius, his love of liberty, and especially his perception of character. However, it is not so much as an artist that Landor impresses Emerson, for he is too willful and never submits himself to his genius. His merit lies in the values of his sentences, which Emerson calls the genetical atoms of which both plants and animals are composed.
The Dial also contains essays on transcendental writers, specifically Orestes Brownson and Bronson Alcott. George Ripley says of Brownson that "his native force of mind, combined with rare philosophical attainments, has elevated him to a prominent rank among the living authors of this country." His works, rather than being the result of education, "are the fruit of a mind filled with earnest convictions that must needs be spoken out." His works live because they are fired by a search for divine truth. Ripley treats at length Brownson's search for religion revealed in "Charles Elwood; of the Infidel Converted."
Bronson's Alcott's works are criticized by Charles Lange from Alcott's own "love insight" point of view. He regrets that Boston did not examine more closely the merits of Alcott's case in opening the ageless world of spirit-culture to children.
At the end of most issues of the Dial is a section of critical reviews of current works. during the first two years of publication most of these were written by George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and Emerson. In the last two years, Emerson and Theodore Parker did most of the reviews.
Margaret Fuller defined the transcendental and Dial stance on book reviews. They should be dissertations on the subjects of the books rather than on the books themselves. She sought a larger view of the subject than that created by a book with its own set of values.
The books reviewed were usually of a philosophical, theological, or historical rather than literary nature. Some of the significant ones dealing with literary works were on National Hawthorne, Tennyson, Richter, Dana, Carlyle, Lowell, and Jones Very. Also of note are Emerson's review of Taylor's translation of "Michael Angelo considered as a Philosophic Poet" and Lane's review of "An Essay on Transcendentalism."
Criticism in the Dial was, on the whole, a constructive consideration of work viewed organically, judging by the work's own standards. There was emphasis on the discipline necessary to shape the expression of the genius' vision. At the same time, men of talent rather than genius were considered for what they did contribute rather than the truths they missed. The transcendental emphasis on the ethical and moral quality of literature did not blind critics to merits of work which defied current views of morality. In short, the literary criticism of the Dial was a largely intellectual and enlightened presentation and application of the organic, or expressive, aesthetic theory.