Italy is the classic land of dictators. To her long line of emperors and popes, to her commercial titans of Venice and Genoa, to her art masters of Florence and Rome, and to her indomitable Mussolini of contemporary fame, is now added another picker up of the discarded toga of Cincinnatus. All literary Europe is agog over Benedetto Croce who poses, and by many is accepted, as the Doctor Johnson of his day. Scholar, statesman, and philosopher, his most recent work in the field of literary criticism is an astonishing volume upon "European Literature of the Nineteenth Century."
The criticism of Signor Croce is not warmed by the appreciative apathy of a Matthew Arnold. Like that of the pompous old English bigot, his criticism is the God-given and incontrovertible judgment of the dogmatist. He approaches his task with a theory to expound, and deaf to all confuting evidence, he picks and chooses and maintains his position.
Selecting only twenty-six names from the galaxy of genius which the nineteenth century brought forth, he includes only one Englishman among them. This fortunate is Sir Walter Scott. With a Pecksniffian wave of his hand, he disposes of all the array of poetic brilliance from Wordsworth to Tennyson. It is evident on the face of it that Signor Croce has not written a history of European literature in the nineteenth century.
In his main thesis he draws a sharp dividing line between poetry and prose. Poetry is lyrical expression. All else is prose. Ruskin thought he had stripped his definition of non-essentials when he wrote that poetry is "the suggestion, by the imagination, of noble grounds for the noble emotions." Later he discovered he had left out rhythm, and he amended his definition to include it. But Signor Croce stands upon his knife-edge distinction, and is not at all daunted by the necessity of calling de Maupassant a poet. The practical value of his theory is very doubtful. If one could overlook all but the simplest facts, as Signor Croce has done, that would certainly make matters much easier, but it would hardly solve complexities.