UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Max Beerbohm as a literary critic. Norby, Beverly Joan


The purpose of this thesis has been to define Max Beerbohm's critical literary principles, to evaluate his contribution to aesthetic criticism and thereby to determine his place in the critical tradition. The methods of investigation have been: to study the formative influences on the development of his critical principles and to evaluate the results of their application in Max's essays and dramatic criticisms. From this study it is evident that as a man and as an artist Max was "formed" during the Eighteen-nineties. By nature he was an intellectual dandy who always preferred strong, narrow creative personalities like himself. He was detached, fastidious, witty, and humane, and he was noted for his wisdom and sound common sense, even as a very young man. Under the influence of the Aesthetic Movement at Oxford, Max turned to Walter Pater for ideas on impressionistic criticism, but he preferred Oscar Wilde for style. He felt that personality was the paramount thing in art and that an exact, witty and beautiful style was its finest expression. His early style was mannered, satirical and superficial. However, Max never belonged to the "precious school" of writers, because he was not satisfied with less than a perfect synthesis of matter and manner to produce a unified effect of sheer delight. To this end he employed literary principles he had derived from neoclassical "rules" and aesthetic concepts. When Max became drama critic for the Saturday Review, he used his literary standards to form the basis of his dramatic criticisms. Although these standards related almost exclusively to matters of form and style, Max saw their wider application, because they satisfied his requirements for what a work of art should be. Accordingly, they have been examined under four main headings: the illusion of life, an exact and beautiful style, form and the unified effect, ethics and aesthetics. As a drama critic, Max welcomed the rise of modern realism because it had restored to the theatre the illusion of actual life. However, he did not favour realism for realism's sake or for the sake of social reforms. He believed that art must appeal to the emotions, not to the intellect, and that the impact of the play may arouse either joy or sorrow, but it must be aesthetically satisfying. Max always tried to be fair and flexible in his criticisms but his extreme fastidiousness and his innate sense of detachment imposed serious limitations. For instance, he was too reactionary to appreciate radical experiments in form. Nor could he admire plays in which the ideas were more important than the emotional conflicts of flesh and blood characters. Inevitably, he failed to appreciate Shaw because Max was a nineteenth-century man attempting to apply aesthetic ideals and neoclassical principles to the experimental plays of a progressive, analytical dramatic genius of the twentieth century. Max's value as a critic comes from his important insights in matters of form and style. In his essay on Whistler he revealed the artist in a new light as the author of an exquisite literary style. His essay on Lytton Strachey is also valuable for the careful discrimination Max made between the satirist and the mocker which vindicated Strachey from the charge of malice. However, the fact that his interests were narrow and essentially pertained to small, minor works of art, limits his significance as a critic. Max was an "exquisite" critic of the dying impressionistic tradition, whose critical talents were best suited to minor artists with whom he had some affinity in temperament and style. Consequently, his place is out of the mainstream of the critical tradition.

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