The unbearable rightness of criticism
On negative reviews of great poets.
"Once the genius of Shakespeare, or Coleridge and Wordsworth, or Whitman, or Eliot is generally agreed, the critics who backed the wrong horse are generally written out of literary history, or held up to ridicule. Yet those critics of whom time makes fools—John Wilson Croker on Endymion(“We almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody”), Francis Jeffrey on The Excursion (“This will never do”), and many another—are often more worth reading than the critics of the day who got it right. We know what the latter critics will say—their taste is what our ears have been filled with; but, unless we read the other critics with attention, we can forget what an uncertain thing a poet’s reputation was at the start, forget what withering glances the poems themselves had to overcome, forget that, if the naysayers had had their way, literary history might have been different. Reading the reviews that mistook genius is not simply cold comfort for critics whom taste passed by, or an exercise in antiquarian taste. The critics who got it wrong remind us that poets in whom we now see only virtues once seemed full of vices, and that, though we may value those vices differently, sometimes it is their presence that makes the virtues virtues."