Wednesday, 4 December 2019

J.W. Mackail Revisited

In the dark backward and abysm of time I published in the Morris Society Journal an article entitled ‘J.W. Mackail as Literary Critic’, in which I argued that Mackail – best known now as Burne-Jones’s son-in-law and Morris’s first biographer – was also worth reading as a literary scholar and critic in his own right.  I would still defend the underlying project of that essay, and indeed I have just re-read Mackail’s Springs of Helicon (1909), which still strikes me as a useful account of Chaucer, Spenser and Milton.

In the years since I wrote that piece I’ve occasionally happened upon mentions of Mackail’s criticism.  In his lively volume The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800 (1969), John Gross gives what is I suppose the typical twentieth-century view of Mackail, who is here unceremoniously lumped in with some of his contemporaries: ‘the orthodox Late Victorian literati do seem to merge into an unusually compact group – the Courthopes and the Mackails, the Sidney Colvins and the Sidney Lees’.  While conceding that they had ‘the Civil Service virtues’, Gross concludes damningly that ‘they were also stuffy, conventional, sedate, out of touch with the growing points of literature in their time’. 

However, there is an alternative view possible here.  Thomas Hardy admired Mackail's work and coresponded wtih him in 1916: 'your lecture on Shakespeare ... suggests all sorts of ideas about him'. In June 1920 C.S. Lewis wrote enthusiastically to his friend Arthur Greeves: ‘the only book I have read with satisfaction lately is Mackail’s Lectures on Poetry: I think he is one of my favourite moderns – he always has just the right point of view and deals with the right subject: he has sent me back to “Endymion” … ’.  And even as late as his An Experiment in Criticism (1961), though admittedly in more muted fashion – ‘Yes, even Mackail’ – Lewis lists the Scot among the ‘emotive critics’ who communicate to you their own enthusiasm for literary works and thus send you off to authors you didn’t know about or had undervalued. In the twenty-first century, J.W. Mackail will certainly never be current again in any major way, but his critical writings might still be worth dipping into now and again.


Tony Pinkney said...

Arnold Bennett assessed Mackail in an article on 'English Literary Criticism' for the 'New Age' in November 1910. He writes: 'J.W, Mackail might have been one of our major critics but there again - he, too, prefers the security of a Government office'. Which seems an aptly judicious summary!

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