I do not say that the General Public hates Poetry. But I say that those who care about it are few, and those who know about it are fewer. Nor do these assert their right of interference as often as they might. Just once or twice in the last ten or fifteen years they have pulled up some exceptionally coarse weed on which the General Public had every disposition to graze, and have pitched it over the hedge to Lethe wharf, to root itself and fatten there; and terrible as those of Polydorus have been the shrieks of the avulsed root. But as a rule they have sat and piped upon the stile and considered the good cow grazing, confident that in the end she must “bite off more than she can chew.”
Still, the aristocracy of letters exists: and in it, if nowhere else, titles, social advantages, and commercial success alike count for nothing; while Royalty itself sits in the Court of the Gentiles. And I am afraid we must include in the crowd not only those affable politicians who from time to time open a Public Library and oblige us with their views upon literature, little realizing what Hecuba is to them, and still less what they are to Hecuba, but also those affable teachers of religion, philosophy, and science, who condescend occasionally to amble through the garden of the Muses, and rearrange its labels for us while drawing our attention to the rapid deterioration of the flowerbeds. The author of The Citizen of the World once compared the profession of letters in England to a Persian army, “where there are many pioneers, several suttlers, numberless servants, women and children in abundance, and but few soldiers.” Were he alive to-day he would be forced to include the Volunteers.
[A] In a private letter, from which I am allowed to quote, Mr. Hall Caine (October 2nd, 1894) explains and (as I think) amends his position:—“If I had said time instead of the public, I should have expressed myself exactly. It is impossible for me to work up any enthusiasm for the service done to literature by criticism as a whole. I have, no doubt, the unenviable advantage over you of having wasted three mortal months in reading all the literary criticism extant of the first quarter of this century. It would be difficult to express my sense of its imbecility, its blundering, and its bad passions. But the good books it assailed are not lost, and the bad ones it glorified do not survive. It is not that the public has been the better judge, but that good work has the seeds of life, while bad work carries with it the seeds of dissolution. This is the key to the story of Wordsworth on the one hand, and to the story of Tupper on the other. Tupper did not topple down because James Hannay smote him. Fifty James Hannays had shouted him up before. And if there had not been a growing sense that the big mountain was a mockery, five hundred