Pleasures of the poisoned pen


Criticism, as one literary figure has suggested should not be used to dissect the author. Critics should not be only wasps, which sting and give only pain. Critics should be like bees, which though sting, are also providers of honey, opines GS Jolly. Many people who read books are not lovers of books. Perhaps not even the majority of those who review them. Critics have been chastised over time for deriving sadistic pleasure from tearing apart what may have been an author’s work of lifetime. History proves how wrong critics can be.

A literary myth found in older textbooks says that Keats was killed by an unfavourable book review, that he gave up struggle against tuberculoses because of despair and hopelessness over a reviewer’s scorn. Goethe himself by no means a stranger to writing book reviews, wrote Schlagt inh tot, denhunds; er istein rezensent (Beat him to death, the dog, he is a book reviewer).

Lord Byron (George Gordon), who became darling of London society and gave to Europe the concept of the ‘Byronic Hero’ was counseled “… to forthwith abandon poetry”. William Hazlitt went a step further in denouncing the romantic poet when he wrote, “he makes virtue serve as foil to vices… the noble lord is almost the only writer who has prostituted his talents in this way.”

Charles Dickens’ novels became classics and included vigorous campaign against some of the social abuses of that time and influenced several reforms. His works like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations not only became conscience pricker but also provided many successful theatre, cinema, radio and television adaptations. The reviewers and contemporary critics treated him with no charity.

Sir James Fitz James Stephen remarked, “No popularity can disguise the fact that his is the very lowest of low styles of art.” Henery James went to the extent of saying, “For the last ten years it has seemed to us that Mr. Dickens has been unmistakeably forcing himself. Bleak House was forced; Little Dorrit was laboured; the present work (Our Mutual Friend) is dug out as with a spade and pickaxe.”

Alphonse Daudet was less than charitable on Emile Zola when he wrote on publication of final volume of sequence of 20 book series called Les Raugon-Macquart. Daudet wrote, “If I were to write… it would be to advise Zola, now that the family tree of the Rougon Macquart is complete, to go and hang himself from the highest branch.”

William Shakespeare, the greatest English writer wrote on every hue of literary creations from comedies to histories, dark comedies to tragedies. This master of sonnets castigated by none other than William Wordsworth. The sonnets written (127-154) to a ‘dark lady’ “are worse than a puzzle-peg. They are abominably harsh, obscure, and worthless.” Though Wordsworth spared some praise for the other sonnets when he wrote, “The others are for the most part much better….”

Walter Savage Landor, a writer born in Warwickshire, who wrote poems, plays and essays and is mainly remembered for his prose dialogues, Imaginary Conversations did not spare the English poet. He wrote, “Not a single one is very admirable… they are hot and pothery: there is much condensation, little delicacy, like a raspberry jam without cream, without crust, without bread to break its viscidity.”

This has not only happened with men of literary excellence, the sting of wasps did not even spare the scientists and inventors. They were hooted, laughed at and dismissed as absurd only to be proved terribly wrong when their discoveries and inventions became part of our lives and changed the face of the earth. The fate of Gallileo and Socrates are the sad reminders.

Michael Faraday, the renowned chemist and experimental physicist contributed to an extremely broad area of physical science. His major work is in the series of Experimental Research on Electricity in which he reports a wide range of discoveries, notably electrolyses and the relationship between electricity and magnetism.

When Faraday showed proof of his discovery of electricity to Sir Robert Peel, The British Prime Minister asked, “Of what use it was.” Undaunted by the indifference shown by the Prime minister “Who knows Sir,” Faraday replied, “one day you might be able to tax it.”

Professor John Henry Pepper was also not very enthusiastic about Thomas Alva Edison’s electric light. It was pronounced, “The electric light has no future.” Graham Bell’s invention of telephone was also treated with same suspicion and ridicule. Prof. Tait on learning Bell’s invention reacted, “It is all humbug, such a discovery is physically impossible.”

Criticism, as one literary figure has suggested, should not be used to dissect the author. Critics should not be only wasps, which sting and give only pain. Critics should be like bees, which though sting, are also providers of honey.

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