A Criticism of Critics

by Bertil Falk


Thomas Thorild (1759-1808) was an interesting person, not so much for his poetry as for his essays and his ideas. He was a very active debater and writer and spent a couple of years in England.

After the assassination of King Gustav III at a fancy-dress ball in 1792, he was exiled in 1793 to Swedish Pomerania on the other side of the Baltic Sea. The reason was that the assassinated King’s brother, Count Karl, who later became King Karl XIII, did not like his writings.

Thomas Thorild was supposed to be a revolutionary, and verbally he sounded like one. The exile turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Thomas Thorild became a Professor at the University of Greifswald and flourished in his new environment.

That is probably the reason that now, two hundred years later, he is better known in Germany than in his native Sweden. He was a radical and had many ideas. Among other things, he claimed that there ought to be equality between women and men.

His most important work is a long essay, published in 1791 called A Criticism of Critics with Draft of a Legislation in the World of Brilliance. It is still referred to in Sweden.

The essay was an attack on a reviewer in a newspaper in Stockholm, and it is written in old-fashioned Swedish. In this so-called legislation he put forward what he called a Basic Truth (Grundsanning): To take every thing for what it is. — (Att taga hvar sak för hvad den är.)

After that he put forward three laws.

  1. The First Law: To know what one shall judge. — (Att veta hvad man skall döma.)

  2. The Second Law: To judge everything according to its grade and its kind. — (Att döma allt efter sin grad och sin art.)

  3. The Third Law: Nothing is done for the sake of its faults but for the sake of its value. — (Ingen ting göres för sina fels skull, utan för sitt värdes skull.)

And then he discussed all this in depth. But I will cite only what I consider to be his most important point of view as to criticism:

Nothing is done for the sake of its flatness but for its merits, nothing for its stains but for its beauty. A truth that one always should remember in all grades and kinds, genera and species within the world of Brilliance. People say, as wisely as tenderly, that “Every bird sings according to its bill,” and you yourself seem to be glad to huddle down under the shield of this insignificant proverb. Some share this happiness with you. And what would happen if one were freely permitted to judge Mina Löjen (a poem by the Swedish poet Kjellgren, who disagreed with Thorild) according to Milton or Ariosto and a poor little Prologue after Shakespeare or Homer?

The yardstick for where beauty lies within its grade and its kind — the Law to be judged by — is just this yardstick and should therefore be used there. A country girl can be quite pretty, but she is not made for the Assemblée or the Court. Someone making a speech in Skara is not doing it in order to please in Stockholm, nor in Paris or Rome, but in Skara. [Skara is a small town in Sweden and in Thorild’s days it was of course even smaller than it is today.] But when you with the fantastic despotism of Criticism ask him to come up to this the highest level of Belles-Lettres then his beauty will be lost, and his faults become monsters.

On the other hand in Skara — his beauty is beauty and totally compensates for his faults. Only there should he be judged. Or if you are very much in love with your critical omnipotence, then you must — and it cannot offend your loftiness, since Our Lord himself descends even lower — you must in fairness put your great brilliance in the middle of Skara.

Which, candidly speaking, I all the same consider to be an encroachment. For, if Skara, according to the mild laws of God, the Nature and the King, is free to have its own Poets, why should Skara not be free to have its own Examiners?

To put A Criticism of Critics into a time-frame context, it was published the same year that Brandenburg Gate was completed in Berlin, the world’s first Sunday newspaper, The Observer, was launched, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died.


Copyright © 2008 by Bertil Falk

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