What Do Critics Know? by D J Taylor

D J Taylor

What Do Critics Know?


Literary historians often amuse themselves with the sensibility time-lag, which can be defined as the gap – usually only a few years, but sometimes amounting to several decades – between popular taste and highbrow taste. John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) is full of this kind of thing. Among its many case studies, one might note the fate of Robert Montgomery’s epic poem The Omnipresence of the Deity (1828), a colossal pre-Victorian bestseller that had reached its eleventh edition before being demolished by one of Macaulay’s famous broadsides.

In fact, as Gross reveals, The Omnipresence of the Deity went through another seventeen editions before falling off the map. It is a similar story with the work of the Reverend George Gilfillan (1813–78), a dissenting minister from Dundee, who beguiled unsophisticated readers with his three-volume A Gallery of Literary Portraits, written up in a billowing, hyper-emphatic style. Gilfillan was, additionally, a champion of the so-called Spasmodic school of early Victorian poets (such as Sydney Yendys and J Stanyan Bigg) and it was a lampoon of this patronage – Firmilian, A Spasmodic Tragedy by William Aytoun – that supposedly sent his reputation tumbling over the

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