Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 76.djvu/80

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76
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY
THE THEORY OF STYLE
By Professor WALTER LIBBY
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY

ALTHOUGH signs of reaction are by no means wanting, the dominant form of criticism at the dawn of the twentieth century seems to be what is usually called literary impressionism. To keep his mind sensitized to all the influences his reading can bring to bear upon it, to disengage his impressions, and to set them forth in the choicest phraseology at command, are now recognized as constituting the supreme virtue of the critic. This attitude of impressionism towards literature is distinctly opposed to the literary dogmatism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and may be regarded as tending to supersede the subsequent phase, the so-called historical criticism, which traces calmly, if at times somewhat schematically, the evolution of poets and literatures, and even the more distinctly scientific criticism, which looks upon works of art as indices of the souls of artists and nations to be explained on the bases of esthetics, psychology and sociology. One remarks in all the more recent tendencies in literary criticism a certain degree of catholicity. Literature is no longer to be dogmatically approved or disapproved, but it is to be appreciated and placed according to recognized principles or a frankly individualistic point of view.

Of course impressionism is very far indeed from being democratic. Its high priest, the well-read, well-endowed, susceptible critic is still in some sense a public guide. He is a superior sort of camera, and a newly-acquired language may aid, like a new lens, to improve the quality of the impression. He starts, however, with no a priori principles of taste, and he may even be disdainful of esthetics. His desire for freedom from standards carries him perhaps too far in his contempt for theory. At any rate, it is not obvious that an emotionalistic esthetic which recognizes the conveyance and transmission of a mood as the essential of art is at variance with the spirit of genuine impressionism. In fact such an esthetic might ask, in view of the dearth of fixed principles, and the great stress laid in recent criticism on the mere ability to record impressions, whether literature about literature has not itself become art and renounced all claim to be called scientific. The difficult and tedious task of collecting and classifying impressions and striking averages and seeking bases of agreement from the broadest possible data is largely to be done before a science can be deduced from the mass of esthetic judgments.