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There are, perhaps, few tests of excellence so sure as the popular verdict on a work of art a hundred years after its accomplishment. So much time must be allowed for the swing and rebound of taste, for the despoiling of tawdry splendours and to permit the work of art itself to form a public capable of appreciating it. Such marvellous fragments reach us of Elizabethan praises; and we cannot help recalling the number of copies of 'Prometheus Unbound' sold in the lifetime of the poet. We know too well "what porridge had John Keats," and remember with misgiving the turtle to which we treated Hobbs and Nobbs at dinner, and how complacently we watched them put on their laurels afterwards.
Let us, then, by all means distrust our own and the public estimation of all heroes dead within a hundred years. Let us, in laying claim to an infallible verdict, remember how oddly our decisions sound at the other side of Time's whispering gallery. Shall we therefore pronounce only on Chaucer and Shakespeare, on Gower and our learned Ben? Alas! we are too sure of their relative merits; we stake our reputations with no qualms, no battle-ardours. These we reserve to them for whom the future is not yet secure, for whom a timely word may still be spoken, for whom we yet may feel that lancing out of enthusiasm only possible when the cast of fate is still unknown, and, as we fight, we fancy that the glory of our hero is in our hands.
But very gradually the victory is gained. A taste is unconsciously formed for the qualities necessary to the next development of art—qualities which Blake in his garret, Millet without the sou, set down in immortal work. At last, when the time is ripe, some connoisseur sees the picture, blows the dust from the book, and straightway blazons his discovery. Mr. Swinburne, so to speak, blew the dust from 'Wuthering Heights'; and now it keeps its proper rank in the shelf where Coleridge and Webster, Hofmann and Leopardi have their place. Until then, a few brave lines of welcome from Sydney Dobell, one fine verse of Mr. Arnold's, one notice from Mr. Reid, was all the praise that had been given to the book by those in authority. Here and there a mill-girl in the West Riding factories read and re-read the tattered copy from the lending library; here and there some eager, unsatisfied, passionate child came upon the book and loved it, in spite of chiding, finding in it an imagination that satisfied, and a storm that cleared the air; or some strong-fibred heart felt without a shudder the justice of that stern vision of inevitable, inherited ruin following the chance-found child of foreign sailor and seaport mother. But these readers were not many; even yet the book is not popular.