Newsreporting is said by those who know to be a soul-destroying job. The book-reviewer, then, must find himself in a truly parlous state. As his function is partly that of a reporter, he is from the start 'damned like an ill- roasted egg, all on one side.' But he is not merely a reporter, keeping his readers informed of the latest developments in the world of literature. He is also expected to be a critic, able to digest, discuss, and appraise at comparatively short notice the productions of his compeers, who will dissent from his judgement, no matter how just it is. So he is like to be damned on the other side, too. What, therefore, are the ideals towards which the conscientious reviewer should strive?
His duties as a reporter are fairly obvious; he must be alive to every important book published in whatever particular field of literature he is cultivating - a qualification which in itself implies that he must have some measure of importance. Further he must be aware of what is essentially new in the works laid before him. These, his functions as a reporter, merge imperceptibly into his work as a critic. As such he has a more difficult course to steer. He has first to cast aside all manner of prejudices - individual whims and preferences, political and even moral antagonisms to persons - "resisting the temptation. "not to let the Whig(or Tory) dogs have the best of it." This does not mean that he must abandon or even forget his political and moral code. They have their place, although that is rarely in the foreground; and the critic must be sure that he has an understanding of the real tendency and purpose of his subject. It is pointless to inveigh against the moral tendency of, say, Marmion or the politics of the Waverley Novels. It is as bad to ignore the philosophy of The Excursion or the politics of the Revolt of Islam.
It is essential for the reviewer to have a standard by which to make his judgements, or they will into degenerate ilk capricious likes or dislikes. On the other hand a rigid set of rules will lead him into some such blind alley as neo-classicism. Broadly the two dangers here are false romanticism on the one hand and false classicism on the other. Now the critic must be sensitive to the intrinsic value of a work, no matter whether it can be labelled classical or romantic, and there is a standard wide enough to include the best and yet exclude the worst of both worlds. "As it must not," wrote Coleridge, "so genius cannot,be lawless: for it is even this that constitute its genius - the power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination." That power the critic must look for; what, he must ask, are the laws that this production makes for itself? does it fulfil these laws of its own? is it true to itself? So he will refuse to give the seal of his approval to a work which is utterly lawless, as well as to one whose laws are arbitrarily imposed on it by merely intellectual processes. By these means the critic will ensure that he applauds these works in which form and content constitute an organic whole. The value he sets upon that organic whole will be finally determined by the critic's estimate of its philosophic or moral worth.
This moral value is an ultimate one. But there are proximate values of peculiar interest to the reviewer, because they indicate to him how far the work before him is a new contribution to literature. He must look for new perfections of forms and ideas, not necessarily novel in themselves - "What oft was thought, But ne'er so well expressed." The poetry of Tennyson and the fiction of Jane Austen are relevant cases. To novelty of form he will also pay attention, and he will encourage that novelty in so far as it is the natural expression of the content. He will thus avoid praising either attempts to put new wine into old bottles or attempts to dispose of a poor vintage by retailing it in fantastic flagons. With any writer of merit, novelty of form will be one certain index of novelty of content; and for that too the critic will be on the alert. A great author widens his readers' horizons, sharpening their senses by the keenness of is own, awakening new sensibilities in their contacts with men or with things, increasing their moral knowledge by fresh disclosures of the springs of human action, stirring their imaginations every way. The critic must have eyes and heart and brain open to these new impressions, ready to welcome them no matter how strange they are, if only they are true.