Item 7 - Letter from William Whewell

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Letter from William Whewell


  • 30 Aug. 1817 (Creation)

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4 pp.

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[Tom] Paynter has informed WW that HJR has 'a curiosity to know whether you have puzzled me about Pope & Poetry. You would have the less merit in doing so as I have completely puzzled myself. I have vacillated among systems of criticism till I am rather giddy - and seem to myself to be advancing fast to that glorious state of poetical scepticism in which no one principle of criticism is more certain than its opposite: and this by arguments wh., according to Hume's admirable definition of scepticism, admit of no answer and produce no conviction. At present however I have not time to reason or even to doubt upon such matters: instead of the "feast" & the "flow" of poetical analysis to which your letter tempted me, I must pick the dry bones and swill the watery soup wh. are the preparatory diet of the gymnasium here. - I hope you will allow this - viz the having you, myself, the college examination, and very possibly truth also for antagonists, - to be a satisfactory reason for not attempting sooner or for not attempting at all to defend the opinions that you attribute to me. However that you may not consider me as absolutely one of the ungodly and those that perish, or, what is much worse, live & do not admire good poetry - that you may not fancy me fallen away from a state of poetical grace beyond even the saving influence of Wordsworth - I must disclaim some of the opinions you give me - a sceptic may deny though he may not assert - though he is very likely to be troubled with doubts whether denial be not a species of assertion. I do not, then, make Pope my idol. I should not rejoice to see his style restored. I do not perceive in him or from him the love of nature. I do not even insist upon his being called a poet. It is sufficient for me, who would not break the king's peace for a definition, that I receive from his writing pleasure greater & of a different kind from that wh. I should receive from similar writings in prose. - You may certainly analyse the pleasure his pieces give into many elements wh. are not generally understood to be poetical elements; wit for instance, wh. all the world can understand & delight in at all times wh. is more than you can say for feeling of any kind. - He is moreover invariably alive to the ridicule wh. in polished society lies in wait for bursts of feeling wh. are not selon les regles - but everyman - except Adam before the creation of Eve - has had his feelings and the manifestation of them in some measure regulated by regard for the opinions & views of others and then come the sceptic's questions how far? - where to stop & why? - But as for defining poetry or analysing the feelings which it puts in action - explaining what it is or may be or ought to be what is its origin its laws and its end - cela me passe. I have been much delighted by several critical works but convinced by none - the negative part of most systems seems good. A little while back I was in great transports with Schlegel - if you have not read the book I think you will find it will repay you for the perusal. Hare [Julius Hare] considers it as the ideal of criticism. Even if you do not believe it, wh. I think you will in a great measure, you will allow it to be fine writing - a little German or so but still fine. - But as Cicero's interlocutor says of Plato, when I laid down the book I could not recall the conviction. In fact I think you will find when you examine, that most of the good criticism you see produces its effect rather as eloquence than as philosophy - rather excites poetical emotions than analyses them. I was much astonished to find that Coleridge takes his critical ground so low. - It is not so much the absolute extent of his disapprobation of Wordsworth wh. made me consider it as indicating a revolution in Lake criticism, as the principles on wh. he founds it - and those are obviously such that they will irresistibly extend themselves much further than he has carried them - his critique on the daffodils for instance might serve as a model for similar strictures on all Wordsworth's Wordsworthian poems. It pleases me to find that it is in consequence of his theory that Wordsworth is got wrong - what has a poet to do with a theory? - let him mind his business or it will be worse for him. As for Coleridge he has almost too metaphysical a head to be a good poet - a man who is always looking for symptoms in himself will not often be healthful - a man who studies all the motions of all his limbs will not probably be graceful - and a man who is everlastingly watching the operations of his own mind & imagination is not likely to think or to feel truly. - By this time you will begin to suspect that the tendency of all this profound reasoning is to prove my right to be inconsistent. I hope I have fully established that, and that [therefore], if you think it inconsistent to admire both Wordsworth and Pope, you will do me the favour to believe that it may nevertheless be my case: nay, more, that I may admire one or the other, or neither, according to the state of the barometer'. Deighton [Cambridge printer] expects them to pay for the carriage of the Lacroix [Silvestre F. Lacroix] paper to him. If HJR comes to Cambridge would he be interested in resuming the plan [presumably to translate Lacroix].

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