1762
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elements of Criticism.

Elements of Criticism. In Three Volumes.

Lord Kames


Responding perhaps to the current popularity of allegorical odes (and anticipating romantic Spenser criticism to come), Henry Home, Lord Kames rejects extended allegory, which becomes "disagreeable by over-straining the mind." This is the only reference to Spenser in what would become a standard textbook of literary criticism (Spenser is not mentioned at all in the other great Scottish contribution to English studies, Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres).

Andrew Erskine to James Boswell: "In my own name, and in the name of Lord Kames, I desire to see you immediately. I have been reading the Elements of Criticism. You and the Reviewers have pronounced enough of serious panegyric on that book. In my opinion, it has the good properties of all the four Elements. It has the solidity of earth, the pureness of air, the glow of fire, and the clearness of water. The language is excellent, and sometimes rises to so noble a pitch, that I exclaim in imitation of Zanga in the Revenge, 'I like this roaring of the Elements.' If this does not bring you, nothing will" 19 October, 1762; in Letters between the Honourable Andrew Erskine, and James Boswell, Esq. (1763) 151.

Samuel Johnson: "Sir, this book (The Elements of Criticism, which he had taken up,) is a pretty essay, and deserves to be held in some estimation, though much of it is chimerical" 1763; in Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 1:455.

Joseph Warton: "In the dispute about the respective merits of rhyme and blank verse, Lord Kaims seems to have observed with acuteness and judgment, that rhyme is but indifferently suited to elevated and sublime subjects, as producing a certain gaiety, airiness, and cheerfulness, not according with the gravity of the sentiments. In his 18th chapter of Elements of Criticism, are many just observations, with some exceptions, on the comparative merits of rhyme and blank verse, worth a diligent perusal" in Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Warton (1797) 8:78n.

Percival Stockdale: "it has, for many years, been the custom of our northern neighbours (I am only sincere, and ingenuous, I am not speaking the language of prejudice, and disrespect) — because it has been their custom, to drag poetical genius to the slow alembick of metaphysicks; where it should no more have been tortured than in the chemical alembick. One or the capital tormentors, to whom our poets were given over, was the late lord Kaims; in his Elements of Criticism; a book, which must have immediately sunk, by its own weight, had it not been supported by national partiality. The style proves its authour disqualified to judge of poets; in his application of his metaphysical criteria, he is often palpably wrong; and his ideas of the cadence of verse, as it should fall, on certain occasions, betray the most gothick ignorance of harmony, and taste. How could one get through such a book; such a dreary Caledonian heath; were it not for the verdant, and flowery spots, with which it is frequently interspersed; were it not for its profusion of fine quotations? Voltaire, who was as good a critick, and a poet as a Frenchman could be, expressed concern for the civil justice of Scotland, this authour was not a better judge a critick" Lectures on the Truly Eminent English Poets (1807) 1:42.

J. W. Croker: "Henry Home, one of the Lords of Session in Scotland, author of the Elements of Criticism,, Sketches of the History of Man, and several less celebrated by valuable works" Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. Croker (1831) 1:119n.

Edmund Gosse: "A writer of less brilliant rank than Lord Chesterfield, but, like him, the darling of society, was the psychologist and critic Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782), a Scotch law lord, who, starting from Shaftesbury, found himself violently affected by Butler. His Art of Thinking (1761), and Elements of Criticism (1762), especially the latter, were widely read in that age of universal metaphysical curiosity. Lord Kames managed a country estate with vigour, and wrote a practical work, The Gentleman Farmer (1771), which was long esteemed. In the present day, if Lord Kames is read at all, it is for his ingenious and acute speculation into the sources of aesthetic pleasure" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 280-81.

George Saintsbury: "though it is easy to be smart upon Kames, and not very difficult to expose serious inadequacies and errors both in the general scheme and the particular execution, the Elements of Criticism is a book of very great interest and importance, and worthy of much more attention than it has for a long time past received. To begin with, his presentation, at the very outset of his book, of Criticism as 'the most agreeable of all amusements' was one of those apparently new and pleasant shocks to the general which are, in reality, only the expression of an idea for some time germinating and maturing in the public mind. Even Addison, even Pope, while praising and preaching Criticism, had half-flouted and half-apologised for it. Swift, a great critic on his own day, had flouted it almost or altogether in others. The general idea of the critic had been at worst of a malignant, at best of a harmless, pedant. Kames presented him as something quite different, — as a man of the world, 'amusing,' as well as exercising himself, and bringing the fashionable philosophy to the support of his amusement" History of English Criticism (1911) 201-02.




Thirdly, These figures, a metaphor especially, ought not to be crowded with many minute circumstances; for in that case it is scarcely possible to avoid obscurity. A metaphor above all ought to be short: it is difficult, for any time, to support a lively image of a thing being what we know it is not; and for that reason, a metaphor drawn out to any length, instead of illustrating or enlivening the principal subject, becomes disagreeable by over-straining the mind. Here Cowley is extremely licentious: take the following instance:

Great and wise conq'rer, who where'er
Thou com'st, doth fortify, and settle there!
Who canst defend as well as get,
And never hadst one quarter beat up yet;
Now thou art in, thou ne'er wilt part
With one inch of my vanquish'd heart;
For since thou took'st it by assault from me,
'Tis garrison'd so strong with thoughts of thee,
It fears no beauteous enemy.

For the same reason, however agreeable long allegories may at first be by their novelty, they never afford any lasting pleasure: witness the Faery-Queen, which with great power of expression, variety of images, and melody of versification, is scarce ever read a second time.


[(1839) 356-57]