Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

Colour-Blindness In Literature
by [?]

The singular phrase at the head of this Essay came to me from a correspondent who wrote in great perplexity. This unhappy man was quite miserable because he found that his own views of the masterpieces of literature differed from those generally expressed; his modesty prevented him from setting himself up in opposition to the opinions of others, and he frankly asked, “Is there anything answering to colour-blindness which may exist in the mind as regards literature?” The absurd but felicitous inquiry took my fancy greatly, and I resolved to examine the problem with care. In particular my perturbed friend alluded to certain movements in modern criticism. He cannot admire Shelley, yet he finds Shelley placed above Byron and next to Shakspere; he reads a political poem by a modern master, and discovers to his horror that he fails to understand what it is all about. Moreover, this very free critic cannot abide Browning and the later works of Tennyson; nor can he admire Mr. Swinburne. This is dreadful; but worse remains behind. With grief and terror this penitent declares that he cannot tolerate “The Pilgrim’s Progress” or “Don Quixote”; and he goes on to say, “How much of Milton seems trash, also Butler, very much of Wordsworth, and all Southey’s Epics!” Then, with a wail of despair, he says, “These works have stood the test of time. Am I colour-blind?” Now this gentleman’s state of mind is far more common than he supposes; only few people care to confess even to their bosom-friends that they do not accept public opinion–or rather the opinions of authority. The age has grown contemptible from cant, and traditions which are perhaps highly respectable in their place are thrust upon us in season and out of season. Regarding matters of fact there is no room for differences of opinion when once the fact is established; and regarding problems in elementary morality we perceive the same surety. No one in his senses thinks of denying that America exists; no one would think of saying that it is wrong to do unto others as we would they should do unto us; but, when we come to questions of taste, we have to deal with subtleties so complex that we are forced to deny any one’s right to dogmatise. If a man says, “I enjoy this book,” that is well; but if he adds, “You are a fool if you do not enjoy it too,” he is guilty of folly and impertinence. These dogmatists have given rise to much hypocrisy. By all means let them hold their opinions; but at the same time let them make no claims upon us. Our beloved old friend Doctor Johnson had many views about literature which now appear to us cramped and strange, but we should examine his sayings with respect. When however it is found that the old man used to foam and bellow at persons who did not approve of his paradoxes, one is slightly inclined–in spite of reverence for his moral strength–to set him down as a nuisance, and to wonder how people managed to put up with him at times. In reading the conversations and essays of the moralist we constantly meet with passages which we should think over temperately were it not that we are informed by the critic or his biographer that only fools would venture to question Johnson’s wisdom and insight.

Take the famous article on Milton. Speaking of “Lycidas,” Johnson coolly observes, “In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral–easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting; whatever images it can supply are easily exhausted, and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind. He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour.” Now this is blunt, positive speech, and no one would mind it much if it were left alone by ignorant persons; but it is a trifle exasperating when Johnson’s authority is brought forward at second hand in order to convince us that a poem in which many people delight is disgusting. Again, the dictator said that a passage in Congreve’s “Morning Bride” was finer than anything in Shakspere. Very good; let Johnson’s opinion stand so far as he is concerned, but let us also consider the passage–