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Title: Talks on the study of literature.
Author: Bates, Arlo, 1850-1918
Language: English
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  TALKS
  ON
  THE STUDY OF LITERATURE

  BY

  ARLO BATES

  [Illustration]

  BOSTON AND NEW YORK
  HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
  The Riverside Press Cambridge



  COPYRIGHT, 1897
  BY ARLO BATES
  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



This volume is made up from a course of lectures delivered under the
auspices of the Lowell Institute in the autumn of 1895. These have been
revised and to some extent rewritten, and the division into chapters
made; but there has been no essential change.



CONTENTS


                                    PAGE

      I. What Literature Is            1

     II. Literary Expression          23

    III. The Study of Literature      33

     IV. Why we Study Literature      45

      V. False Methods                60

     VI. Methods of Study             69

    VII. The Language of Literature   88

   VIII. The Intangible Language     111

     IX. The Classics                123

      X. The Value of the Classics   135

     XI. The Greater Classics        142

    XII. Contemporary Literature     154

   XIII. New Books and Old           167

    XIV. Fiction                     184

     XV. Fiction and Life            199

    XVI. Poetry                      219

   XVII. The Texture of Poetry       227

  XVIII. Poetry and Life             241



TALKS ON THE STUDY OF LITERATURE



I

WHAT LITERATURE IS


As all life proceeds from the egg, so all discussion must proceed from a
definition. Indeed, it is generally necessary to follow definition by
definition, fixing the meaning of the terms used in the original
explanation, and again explaining the words employed in this exposition.

I once heard a learned but somewhat pedantic man begin to answer the
question of a child by saying that a lynx is a wild quadruped. He was
allowed to get no further, but was at once asked what a quadruped is. He
responded that it is a mammal with four feet. This of course provoked
the inquiry what a mammal is; and so on from one question to another,
until the original subject was entirely lost sight of, and the lynx
disappeared in a maze of verbal distinctions as completely as it might
have vanished in the tangles of the forest primeval. I feel that I am
not wholly safe from danger of repeating the experience of this
well-meaning pedant if I attempt to give a definition of literature.
The temptation is strong to content myself with saying: "Of course we
all know what literature is." The difficulty which I have had in the
endeavor to frame a satisfactory explanation of the term has convinced
me, however, that it is necessary to assume that few of us do know, and
has impressed upon me the need of trying to make clear what the word
means to me. If my statement seem insufficient for general application,
it will at least show the sense which I shall give to "literature" in
these talks.

In its most extended signification literature of course might be taken
to include whatever is written or printed; but our concern is with that
portion only which is indicated by the name "polite literature," or by
the imported term "belles-lettres,"--both antiquated though respectable
phrases. In other words, I wish to confine my examination to those
written works which can properly be brought within the scope of
literature as one of the fine arts.

Undoubtedly we all have a general idea of the limitations which are
implied by these various terms, and we are not without a more or less
vague notion of what is indicated by the word literature in its most
restricted and highest sense. The important point is whether our idea is
clear and well realized. We have no difficulty in saying that one book
belongs to art and that another does not; but we often find ourselves
perplexed when it comes to telling why. We should all agree that "The
Scarlet Letter" is literature and that the latest sensational novel is
not,--but are we sure what makes the difference? We know that
Shakespeare wrote poetry and Tupper doggerel, but it by no means follows
that we can always distinguish doggerel from poetry; and while it is not
perhaps of consequence whether we are able to inform others why we
respect the work of one or another, it is of much importance that we be
in a position to justify our tastes to ourselves. It is not hard to
discover whether we enjoy a book, and it is generally possible to tell
why we like it; but this is not the whole of the matter. It is necessary
that we be able to estimate the justice of our preferences. We must
remember that our liking or disliking is not only a test of the
book,--but is a test of us as well. There is no more accurate gauge of
the moral character of a man than the nature of the books which he
really cares for. He who would progress by the aid of literature must
have reliable standards by which to judge his literary feelings and
opinions; he must be able to say: "My antipathy to such a work is
justified by this or by that principle; my pleasure in that other is
fine because for these reasons the book itself is noble."

It is hardly possible to arrive at any clear understanding of what is
meant by literature as an art, without some conception of what
constitutes art in general. Broadly speaking, art exists in consequence
of the universal human desire for sympathy. Man is forever endeavoring
to break down the wall which separates him from his fellows. Whether we
call it egotism or simply humanity, we all know the wish to make others
appreciate our feelings; to show them how we suffer, how we enjoy. We
batter our fellow-men with our opinions sufficiently often, but this is
as nothing to the insistence with which we pour out to them our
feelings. A friend is the most valued of earthly possessions largely
because he is willing to receive without appearance of impatience the
unending story of our mental sensations. We are all of us more or less
conscious of the constant impulse which urges us on to expression; of
the inner necessity which moves us to continual endeavors to make others
share our thoughts, our experiences, but most of all our emotions. It
seems to me that if we trace this instinctive desire back far enough, we
reach the beginnings of art.

It may seem that the splendidly immeasurable achievements of poetry and
painting, of architecture, of music and sculpture, are far enough from
this primal impulse; but I believe that in it is to be found their germ.
Art began with the first embodiment of human feelings by permanent
means. Let us suppose, by way of illustration, some prehistoric man,
thrilled with awe and terror at sight of a mastodon, and scratching upon
a bone rude lines in the shape of the animal,--not only to give
information, not only to show what the beast was like, but also to
convey to his fellows his feelings when confronted with the monster. It
is as if he said: "See! I cannot put into words what I felt; but look!
the creature was like this. Think how you would feel if you came face to
face with it. Then you will know how I felt." Something of this sort may
the beginnings of art be conceived to have been.

I do not mean, of course, that the prehistoric man who made such a
picture--and such a picture exists--analyzed his motives. He felt a
thing which he could not say in words; he instinctively turned to
pictorial representation,--and graphic art was born.

The birth of poetry was probably not entirely dissimilar. Barbaric men,
exulting in the wild delight of victory, may seem unlikely sponsors for
the infant muse, and yet it is with them that song began. The savage joy
of the conquerors, too great for word, found vent at first in excited,
bounding leaps and uncouthly ferocious gestures, by repetition growing
into rhythm; then broke into inarticulate sounds which timed the
movements, until these in turn gave place to words, gradually moulded
into rude verse by the measures of the dance. The need of expressing the
feelings which swell inwardly, the desire of sharing with others, of
putting into tangible form, the emotions that thrill the soul is common
to all human beings; and it is from this that arises the thing which we
call art.

The essence of art, then, is the expression of emotion; and it follows
that any book to be a work of art must embody sincere emotion. Not all
works which spring from genuine feeling succeed in embodying or
conveying it. The writer must be sufficiently master of technique to be
able to make words impart what he would express. The emotion phrased
must moreover be general and in some degree typical. Man is interested
and concerned in the emotions of men only in so far as these throw light
on the nature and possibilities of life. Art must therefore deal with
what is typical in the sense that it touches the possibilities of all
human nature. If it concerns itself with much that only the few can or
may experience objectively, it has to do with that only which all human
beings may be conceived of as sharing subjectively. Literature may be
broadly defined as the adequate expression of genuine and typical
emotion. The definition may seem clumsy, and hardly exact enough to be
allowed in theoretical æsthetics; but it seems to me sufficiently
accurate to serve our present purpose. Certainly the essentials of
literature are the adequate embodiment of sincere and general feeling.

By sincerity here we mean that which is not conventional, which is not
theoretical, not artificial; that which springs from a desire honestly
to impart to others exactly the emotion that has been actually felt. By
the term "emotion" or "feeling" we mean those inner sensations of
pleasure, excitement, pain, or passion, which are distinguished from the
merely intellectual processes of the mind,--from thought, perception,
and reason. It is not necessary to trespass just now on the domain of
the psychologist by an endeavor to establish scientific distinctions.
We are all able to appreciate the difference between what we think and
what we feel, between those things which touch the intellect and those
which affect the emotional nature. We see a sentence written on paper,
and are intellectually aware of it; but unless it has for us some
especial message, unless it concerns us personally, we are not moved by
it. Most impressions which we receive touch our understanding without
arousing our feelings. This is all so evident that there is not likely
to arise in your minds any confusion in regard to the meaning of the
phrase "genuine emotion."

Whatever be the origin of this emotion it must be essentially
impersonal, and it is generally so in form. There are comparatively few
works of art which are confessedly the record of simple, direct,
personal experience; and perhaps none of these stand in the front rank
of literature. Of course I am not speaking of literature which takes a
personal form, like any book written in the first person; but of those
that are avowedly a record of actual life. We must certainly include in
literature works like the "Reflections" of Marcus Aurelius, the
"Confessions" of Augustine, and--though the cry is far--Rousseau, and
the "Journal Intime" of Amiel, but there is no one of these which is to
be ranked high in the scale of the world's greatest books. Even in
poetry the same thing is true. However we may admire "In Memoriam" and
that much greater poem, Mrs. Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese,"
we are little likely to regard them as standing supremely high among
the masterpieces. The "Sonnets" of Shakespeare which we suppose to be
personal are yet with supreme art made so impersonal that as far as the
reader is concerned the experiences which they record might be entirely
imaginary. It is in proportion as a poet is able to give this quality
which might be called generalization to his work that it becomes art.

The reason of this is not far to seek. If the emotion is professedly
personal it appeals less strongly to mankind, and it is moreover likely
to interfere with its own effective embodiment. All emotion in
literature must be purely imaginative as far as its expression in words
is concerned. Of course poetical form may be so thoroughly mastered as
to become almost instinctive, but nevertheless acute personal feeling
must trammel utterance. It is not that the author does not live through
what he sets forth. It is that the artistic moment is not the moment of
experience, but that of imaginative remembrance. The "Sonnets from the
Portuguese" afford admirable examples of what I mean. It is well known
that these relate a most completely personal and individual story. Not
only the sentiments but the circumstances set forth were those of the
poet's intimate actual life. It was the passion of love and of
self-renunciation in her own heart which broke forth in the fine
sonnet:--

    Go from me, yet I feel that I shall stand
      Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
      Alone upon the threshold of the door
    Of individual life shall I command
    The uses of my soul; or lift my hand
      Serenely in the sunshine as before
      Without the sense of that which I forebore,--
    Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
    Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
      With pulses that beat double. What I do
    And what I dream include thee, as the wine
      Must taste of its own grapes: and when I sue
    God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
      And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

There came to Mrs. Browning a poignant moment when she realized with a
thrill of anguish what it would mean to her to live out her life alone,
separated forever from the lover who had won her back from the very
grasp of death. It was not in the pang of that throe that she made of it
a sonnet; but afterward, while it was still felt, it is true, but felt
rather as a memory vividly reproduced by the imagination. In so far both
he who writes impersonally and he who writes personally are dealing with
that which at the instant exists in the imagination. In the latter,
however, there is still the remembrance of the actuality, the vibration
of the joy or sorrow of which that imagining is born. Human
self-consciousness intrudes itself whenever one is avowedly writing of
self; sometimes even vanity plays an important part. From these and
other causes it results that, whatever may be the exceptions, the
highest work is that which phrases the general and the impersonal with
no direct reference to self. Personal feeling lies behind all art, and
no work can be great which does not rest on a basis of experience, more
or less remotely; yet the greatest artist is he who embodies emotion,
not in terms of his own life, but in those which make it equally the
property of all mankind. It is feeling no longer egotistic, but broadly
human. If the simile do not seem too homely, we might say that the
difference is that between arithmetic and algebra. In the one case it is
the working out of a particular problem; in the other of an equation
which is universal.

Mankind tests art by universal experience. If an author has really felt
what he has written, if what he sets down has been actual to him in
imagination, whether actual in experience or not, readers recognize
this, and receive his work, so that it lives. If he has affected a
feeling, if he has shammed emotion, the whole is sure to ring false, and
the world soon tires of his writings. Immediate popular judgment of a
book is pretty generally wrong; ultimate general estimate is invariably
correct. Humanity knows the truth of human feeling; and while it may be
fooled for a time, it comes to the truth at last, in act if not in
theory. The general public is guided by the wise few, and it does not
reason out the difference between the genuine and the imitation; but it
will in the end save the real, while the sham is forgotten through utter
neglect.

Even where an author has seemingly persuaded himself that his pretended
emotions are real, he cannot permanently deceive the world. You may
remember the chapter in Aldrich's delightful "Story of a Bad Boy" which
relates how Tom Bailey, being crossed in love at the mature age of
fourteen, deliberately became a "blighted being;" how he neglected his
hair, avoided his playmates, made a point of having a poor appetite, and
went mooning about forsaken graveyards, endeavoring to fix his thoughts
upon death and self-destruction; how entirely the whole matter was a
humbug, and yet how sincere the boy was in supposing himself to be
unutterably melancholy. "It was a great comfort," he says, "to be so
perfectly miserable and yet not to suffer any. I used to look in the
glass and gloat over the amount and variety of mournful expression I
could throw into my features. If I caught myself smiling at anything, I
cut the smile short with a sigh. The oddest thing about all this is, I
never once suspected that I was not unhappy. No one ... was more
deceived than I." We have all of us had experiences of this kind, and I
fancy that there are few writers who cannot look back to a stage in
their career when they thought that it was a prime essential of
authorship to believe themselves to feel things which they did not feel
in the least. This sort of self-deception is characteristic of a whole
school of writers, of whom Byron was in his day a typical example. There
is no doubt that Byron, greatly gifted as he was, took his mooning
melancholy with monstrous seriousness when he began to write it, and the
public received it with equal gravity. Yet Byron's mysterious misery,
his immeasurable wickedness, his misanthropy too great for words, were
mere affectations,--stage tricks which appealed to the gallery. Nobody
is moved by them now. The fact that the poet himself thought that he
believed in them could not save them. Byron had other and nobler
qualities which make his best work endure, but it is in spite of his
Bad-Boy-ish pose as a "blighted being." The fact is that sooner or later
time tries all art by the tests of truth and common sense, and nothing
which is not genuine is able to endure this proving.

To be literature a work must express sincere emotion; but how is feeling
which is genuine to be distinguished from that which is affected? All
that has been said must be regarded as simply theoretical and of very
little practical interest unless there be some criterion by which this
question may be settled. Manifestly we cannot so far enter into the
consciousness of the writer as to tell whether he does or does not feel
what he expresses; it can be only from outward signs that we judge
whether his imagination has first made real to him what he undertakes to
make real for others.

Something may be judged by the amount of seriousness with which a thing
is written. The air of sincerity which is inevitable in the genuine is
most difficult to counterfeit. What a man really feels he writes with a
certain earnestness which may seem indefinite, but which is sufficiently
tangible in its effects upon the reader. More than by any other single
influence mankind has in all its history been more affected by the
contagion of belief; and it is not easy to exaggerate the
susceptibility of humanity to this force. Vague and elusive as this test
of the genuineness of emotion might seem, it is in reality capable of
much practical application. We have no trouble in deciding that the
conventional rhymes which fill the corners of the newspapers are not the
product of genuine inner stress. We are too well acquainted with these
time-draggled rhymes of "love" and "dove," of "darts" and "hearts," of
"woe" and "throe;" we have encountered too often these pretty, petty
fancies, these twilight musings and midnight moans, this mild melancholy
and maudlin sentimentality. We have only to read these trig little
bunches of verse, tied up, as it were, with sad-colored ribbons, to feel
their artificiality. On the other hand, it is impossible to read "Helen
of Kirconnel," or Browning's "Prospice," or Wordsworth's poems to Lucy,
without being sure that the poet meant that which he said in his song
with all the fervor of heart and imagination. A reader need not be very
critical to feel that the novels of the "Duchess" and her tribe are made
by a process as mechanical as that of making paper flowers; he will not
be able to advance far in literary judgment without coming to suspect
that fiction like the pleasant pot-boilers of William Black and W. Clark
Russell, if hand-made, is yet manufactured according to an arbitrary
pattern; but what reader can fail to feel that to Hawthorne "The Scarlet
Letter" was utterly true, that to Thackeray Colonel Newcome was a
creature warm with human blood and alive with a vigorous humanity?
Theoretically we may doubt our power to judge of the sincerity of an
author, but we do not find this so impossible practically.

Critics sometimes say of a book that it is or is not "convincing." What
they mean is that the author has or has not been able to make what he
has written seem true to the imagination of the reader. The man who in
daily life attempts to act a part is pretty sure sooner or later to
betray himself to the observant eye. His real self will shape the
disguise under which he has hidden it; he may hold out the hands and say
the words of Esau, but the voice with which he speaks will perforce be
the voice of Jacob. It is so in literature, and especially in literature
which arouses the perceptions by an appeal to the imagination. The
writer must be in earnest himself or he cannot convince the reader. To
the man who invents a fiction, for instance, the story which he has
devised must in his imagination be profoundly true or it will not be
true to the audience which he addresses. To the novelist who is
"convincing," his characters are as real as the men he meets in his
walks or sits beside at table. It is for this reason that every novelist
with imagination is likely to find that the fictitious personages of his
story seem to act independently of the will of the author. They are so
real that they must follow out the laws of their character, although
that character exists only in imagination. For the author to feel this
verity in what he writes is of course not all that is needed to enable
him to convince his public; but it is certain that he is helpless
without it, and that he cannot make real to others what is not real to
himself.

In emotion we express the difference between the genuine and the
counterfeit by the words "sentiment" and "sentimentality." Sentiment is
what a man really feels; sentimentality is what he persuades himself
that he feels. The Bad Boy as a "blighted being" is the type of
sentimentalists for all time. There is about the same relation between
sentimentality and sentiment that there is between a paper doll and the
lovely girl that it represents. There are fashions in emotions as there
are fashions in bonnets; and foolish mortals are as prone to follow one
as another. It is no more difficult for persons of a certain quality of
mind to persuade themselves that they thrill with what they conceive to
be the proper emotion than it is for a woman to convince herself of the
especial fitness to her face of the latest device in utterly unbecoming
headgear. Our grandmothers felt that proper maidenly sensibility
required them to be so deeply moved by tales of broken hearts and
unrequited affection that they must escape from the too poignant anguish
by fainting into the arms of the nearest man. Their grandchildren to-day
are neither more nor less sincere, neither less nor more sensible in
following to extremes other emotional modes which it might be invidious
to specify. Sentimentality will not cease while the power of
self-deception remains to human beings.

With sentimentality genuine literature has no more to do than it has
with other human weaknesses and vices, which it may picture but must not
share. With sentiment it is concerned in every line. Of sentiment no
composition can have too much; of sentimentality it has more than enough
if there be but the trace shown in a single affectation of phrase, in
one unmeaning syllable or unnecessary accent.

There are other tests of the genuineness of the emotion expressed in
literature which are more tangible than those just given; and being more
tangible they are more easily applied. I have said that sham sentiment
is sure to ring false. This is largely due to the fact that it is
inevitably inconsistent. Just as a man has no difficulty in acting out
his own character, whereas in any part that is assumed there are sure
sooner or later to be lapses and incongruities, so genuine emotion will
be consistent because it is real, while that which is feigned will
almost surely jar upon itself. The fictitious personage that the
novelist actually shapes in his imagination, that is more real to him
than if it stood by his side in solid flesh, must be consistent with
itself because it is in the mind of its creator a living entity. It may
not to the reader seem winning or even human, but it will be a unit in
its conception and its expression, a complete and consistent whole. The
poem which comes molten from the furnace of the imagination will be a
single thing, not a collection of verses more or less ingeniously
dovetailed together. The work which has been felt as a whole, which has
been grasped as a whole, which has as a whole been lived by that inner
self which is the only true producer of art, will be so consistent, so
unified, so closely knit, that the reader cannot conceive of it as being
built up of fortuitous parts, or as existing at all except in the
beautiful completeness which genius has given it.

What I mean may perhaps be more clear to you if you take any of the
little tinkling rhymes which abound, and examine them critically. Even
some of more merit easily afford example. Take that pleasant rhyme so
popular in the youth of our fathers, "The Old Oaken Bucket," and see how
one stanza or another might be lost without being missed, how one
thought or another has obviously been put in for the rhyme or to fill
out the verse, and how the author seems throughout always to have been
obliged to consider what he might say next, putting his work together as
a joiner matches boards for a table-top. Contrast this with the absolute
unity of Wordsworth's "Daffodils," Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn,"
Shelley's "Stanzas Written in Dejection," or any really great lyric. You
will perceive the difference better than any one can say it. It is true
that the quality of which we are speaking is sufficiently subtile to
make examples unsatisfactory and perhaps even dangerous; but it seems to
me that it is not too much to say that any careful and intelligent
reader will find little difficulty in feeling the unity of the
masterpieces of literature.

This lack of consistency is most easily appreciated, perhaps, in the
drawing of character. Those modern writers who look upon literature as
having two functions, first, to advance extravagant theories, and
second,--and more important,--to advertise the author, are constantly
putting forward personages that are so inconsistent that it is
impossible not to see that they are mere embodied arguments or
sensationalism incarnate, and not in the least creatures of a strong and
wholesome imagination. When in "The Doll's House" Ibsen makes Nora Helma
an inconsequent, frivolous, childish puppet, destitute alike of moral
and of common sense, and then in the twinkling of an eye transforms her
into an indignant woman, full of moral purpose, furnished not only with
a complete set of advanced views but with an entire battery of modern
arguments with which to support them,--when, in a word, the author, for
the sake of his theory, works a visible miracle, we cease to believe in
his imaginative sincerity. We know that he is dogmatizing, not creating;
that this is artifice, not art.

Another test of the genuineness of what is expressed in literature is
its truth to life. Here again we tread upon ground somewhat uncertain,
since truth is as elusive as a sunbeam, and to no two human beings the
same. Yet while the meaning of life is not the same to any two who walk
under the heavens, there are certain broad principles which all men
recognize. The eternal facts of life and of death, of love and of hate,
the instinct of self-preservation, the fear of pain, the respect for
courage, and the enthrallment of passion,--these are laws of humanity
so universal that we assume them to be known to all mankind. We cannot
believe that any mortal can find that true to his imagination which
ignores these unvarying conditions of human existence. He who writes
what is untrue to humanity cannot persuade us that he writes what is
true to himself. We are sure that those impossible heroes of Ouida, with
their superhuman accomplishments, those heroines of beauty
transcendently incompatible with their corrupt hearts, base lives, and
entire defiance of all sanitary laws, were no more real to their author
than they are to us. Conviction springs from the imagination, and
imagination is above all else the realizing faculty. It is idle to say
that a writer imagines every extravagant and impossible whimsy which
comes into his head. He imagines those things, and those things only,
which are real to his inner being; so that in judging literature the
question to be settled is: Does this thing which the author tells, this
emotion which he expresses, impress us as having been to him when he
wrote actual, true, and absolutely real? To unimaginative persons it
might seem that I am uttering nonsense. It is not possible for a man
without imagination to see how things which are invented by the mind
should by that same mind, in all sanity, be received as real. Yet that
is precisely what happens. No one, I believe, produces real or permanent
literature who is not capable of performing this miracle; who does not
feel to be true that which has no other being, no other place, no other
significance save that which it derives from the creative power of his
own inner sense, working upon the material furnished by his perception
of the world around him. This is the daily miracle of genius; but it is
a miracle shared to some extent by every mortal who has the faintest
glimmer of genuine imagination.

To be convincing literature must express emotion which is genuine; to
commend itself to the best sense of mankind, and thus to take its place
in the front rank, it must deal with emotion which is wholesome and
normal. A work phrasing morbid emotion may be art, and it may be
lasting; but it is not the highest art, and it does not approve itself
to the best and sanest taste. Mankind looks to literature for the
expression of genuine, strong, healthy human emotion; emotion
passionate, tragic, painful, the exhilaration of joy or the frenzy of
grief, as it may be; but always the emotion which under the given
conditions would be felt by the healthy heart and soul, by the virile
man and the womanly woman. No amount of insane power flashing here and
there amid the foulness of Tolstoi's "Kreutzer Sonata," can reconcile
the world to the fact that the book embodies the broodings of a mind
morbid and diseased. Even to concede that the author of such a work had
genius could not avail to conceal the fact that his muse was smitten
from head to feet with the unspeakable corruption of leprosy. Morbid
literature may produce a profound sensation, but it is incapable of
creating a permanent impression.

The principles of which we are speaking are strikingly illustrated in
the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. He was possessed of an imagination narrow,
but keen; uncertain and wayward, but alert and swift; individual and
original, though unhappily lacking any ethical stability. In his best
work he is sincere and convincing, so that stories like "The Cask of
Amontillado," "The Gold Bug," or "The Purloined Letter," are permanently
effective, each in its way and degree. Poe's masterpiece, "The Fall of
the House of Usher," is a study of morbid character, but it is saved by
the fact that this is viewed in its effect upon a healthy nature. The
reader looks at everything through the mind of the imaginary narrator,
so that the ultimate effect is that of an exhibition of the feelings of
a wholesome nature brought into contact with madness; although even so
the ordinary reader is still repelled by the abnormal elements of the
theme. There is in all the work of Poe a good deal that is fantastic and
not a little that is affected. He is rarely entirely sincere and sane.
He shared with Byron an instinctive fondness for the rôle of a "blighted
being," and a halo of inebriety too often encircles his head; yet at his
best he moves us by the mysterious and incommunicable power of genius.
Many of his tales, on the other hand, are mere mechanical tasks, and as
such neither convincing nor permanent. There is a great deal of Poe
which is not worth anybody's reading because he did not believe it, did
not imagine it as real, when he wrote it. Other stories of his
illustrate the futility of self-deception on the part of the author.
"Lygeia" Poe always announced as his masterpiece. He apparently
persuaded himself that he felt its turgid sentimentality, that he
thrilled at its elaborately theatrical setting, and he flattered himself
that he could cheat the world as he had cheated himself. Yet the reader
is not fooled. Every man of judgment realizes that, however the author
was able to deceive himself, "Lygeia" is rubbish, and sophomoric rubbish
at that.

There has probably never before been a time which afforded so abundant
illustrations of morbid work as to-day. We shall have occasion later to
speak of Verlaine, Zola, Ibsen, and the rest, with their prurient prose
and putrescent poetry; and here it is enough to note that the diseased
and the morbid are by definition excluded from literature in the best
sense of the word. Good art is not only sincere; it is human, and
wholesome, and sound.



II

LITERARY EXPRESSION


So much, then, for what literature must express; it is well now to
examine for a little the manner of expression. To feel genuine emotion
is not all that is required of a writer. Among artists cannot be
reckoned

    One born with poet's heart in sad eclipse
      Because unmatched with poet's tongue;
    Whose song impassioned struggles to his lips,
        Yet dies, alas! unsung.

He must be able to sing the song; to make the reader share the throbbing
of his heart. All men feel; the artist is he who can by the use of
conventions impart his feelings to the world. The musician uses
conventions of sound, the painter conventions of color, the sculptor
conventions of form, and the writer must employ the means most
artificial of all, the conventions of language.

Here might be considered, if there were space, the whole subject of
artistic technique; but it is sufficient for our purposes to notice that
the test of technical excellence is the completeness with which the
means are adapted to the end sought. The crucial question in regard to
artistic workmanship is: "Does it faithfully and fully convey the
emotion which is the essence of the work?" A work of art must make
itself felt as well as intellectually understood; it must reach the
heart as well as the brain. If a picture, a statue, a piece of music, or
a poem provokes your admiration without touching your sensibilities,
there is something radically wrong with the work--or with you.

First of all, then, expression must be adequate. If it is slovenly,
incomplete, unskillful, it fails to impart the emotion which is its
purpose. We have all sat down seething with excitement and endeavored to
get our feelings upon paper, only to discover that our command of
ourselves and of technical means was not sufficient to allow us to
phrase adequately that which yet we felt most sincerely. It is true that
style is in a sense a subordinate matter, but it is none the less an
essential one. It is manifestly of little consequence to the world what
one has to say if one cannot say it. We cannot be thrilled by the song
which the dumb would sing had he but voice.

Yet it is necessary to remember that although expression must be
adequate, it must also be subordinate. It is a means and not an end, and
the least suspicion of its having been put first destroys our sense of
the reality of the feeling it embodies. If an actress in moments of
impassioned declamation is detected arranging her draperies, her art no
longer carries conviction. Nobody feeling the heart-swelling words of
Queen Katharine, for instance, could while speaking them be openly
concerned about the effective disposition of her petticoats. The reader
of too intricate and elaborate verse, such as the French forms of
triolet, rondeau, rondel, and so on, has an instinctive perception that
a poet whose attention was taken up with the involved and artfully
difficult versification could not have been experiencing any deep
passion, no matter how strongly the verse protests that he has.
Expression obviously artful instantly arouses suspicion that it has been
wrought for its own sake only.

Technical excellence which displays the cleverness of the artist rather
than imparts the emotion which is its object, defeats its own end. A
book so elaborated that we feel that the author was absorbed in
perfection of expression rather than in what he had to express leaves us
cold and unmoved, if it does not tire us. The messenger has usurped the
attention which belonged to the message. It is not impossible that I
shall offend some of you when I say that Walter Pater's "Marius the
Epicurean" seems to me a typical example of this sort of book. The
author has expended his energies in exquisite excesses of language; he
has refined his style until it has become artfully inanimate. It is like
one of the beautiful glass flowers in the Harvard Museum. It is not a
living rose. It is no longer a message spoken to the heart of mankind;
it is a brilliant exercise in technique.

Literature, then, is genuine emotion, adequately expressed. To be
genuine it must come from the imagination; and adequate expression is
that which in turn reaches the imagination. If it were not that the
phrase seems forbiddingly cumbersome, we might, indeed, define
literature as being such writings as are able to arouse emotion by an
appeal to the imagination.

A sensational story, what the English call a "penny dreadful" or a
"shilling shocker" according to the cost of the bundle of cheap
excitement, may be an appeal to the emotions, but it aims to act upon
the senses or the nerves. Its endeavor is to work by the grossest and
most palpable means. It is an assault, so to say, upon the perceptions.
Books of this sort have nothing to do with imagination, either in reader
or writer. They would be ruled out by all the tests which we have given,
since they are not sincere, not convincing, not consistent, not true to
life.

One step higher in the scale come romances of abounding fancy, of which
"She" may serve as an example. They are clever feats of intellectual
jugglery, and it is to the intellectual perceptions that they appeal.
Not, it is true, to the intellect in its loftiest moods, but the
understanding as distinguished from the feeling. No reader is really
moved by them. The ingenuity of the author amuses and absorbs the
attention. The dexterity and unexpectedness of the tale excite and
entertain. The pleasure experienced in reading these books is not far
removed from that experienced in seeing a clever contortionist. To read
them is like going to the circus,--a pleasant diversion, and one not
without a certain importance to this over-wrought generation. It is
amusement, although not of a high grade.

Do not suppose, however, that I am saying that a story cannot have an
exciting plot and yet be literature. In the restricted sense in which
these lectures take the term, I should say that "The Adventures of
Captain Horn," an agreeable book which has been widely read of late, is
not literature; and yet "Treasure Island," upon which perhaps to some
extent the former was modeled, most certainly is literature. The
difference is that while Stockton in "Captain Horn" has worked with
clever ingenuity to entertain, Stevenson in "Treasure Island" so vividly
imagined what he wrote that he has made his characters human, informed
every page with genuine feeling, and produced a romance permanently
vital. The plot of those superb masterpieces of adventure, the
"D'Artagnan Romances," is as wild, perhaps as extravagant, as that of
the marrow-curdling tales which make the fortunes of sensational papers;
but to the excitement of adventure is added that unification, that
humanization, that perfection of imaginative realism which mark Dumas as
a genius.

The difference of effect between books which are not literature and
those which are is that while these amuse, entertain, glance over the
surface of the mind, those touch the deepest springs of being. They
touch us æsthetically, it is true. The emotion aroused is impersonal,
and thus removed from the keen thrill which is born of actual
experiences; but it depends upon the same passions, the same
characteristics, the same humanity, that underlie the joys and sorrows
of real life. It is because we are capable of passion and of
disappointment that we are moved by the love and anguish of Romeo and
Juliet, of Francesca and Paolo. Our emotion is not identical with that
with which the heart throbs in personal love and grief; yet art which is
genuine awakes emotion thoroughly genuine. Books of sensationalism and
sentimentality may excite curiosity, or wonder, or amusement, or sham
feeling; but they must have at least some spark of sacred fire before
they can arouse in the intelligent reader this inner throb of real
feeling.

The personal equation must be considered here. The same book must affect
different readers differently. From the sentimental maid who weeps in
the kitchen over "The Seventy Sorrows of Madelaine the Broken-hearted,"
to her master in his library, touched by the grief of King Lear, is
indeed a far cry; and yet both may be deeply moved. It may be asked
whether we have arrived at a standard which will enable us to judge
between them.

The matter is perhaps to be cleared up somewhat by a little common
sense. It is not hard to decide whether the kitchen-maid in question has
an imagination sufficiently well developed to bring her within the
legitimate grounds of inquiry; and the fiction which delights her
rudimentary understanding is easily ruled out. It is not so easy,
however, to dispose of this point entirely. There is always a
border-land concerning which doubts and disagreements must continue to
exist. In all matters connected with the feelings it is necessary to
recognize the fact that the practical is not likely to accord fully with
the theoretical. We define literature only to be brought face to face
with the difficulty which is universal in art, the difficulty of degree.
No book will answer, it may be, to a theoretical definition, no work
conform completely to required conditions. The composition which is a
masterpiece stands at one end of the list, and comes so near to the
ideal that there is no doubt of its place. At the other end there is the
rubbish, equally unquestioned in its worthlessness. The troublesome
thing is to decide where between comes the dividing line above which is
literature. We call a ring or a coin gold, knowing that it contains a
mixture of alloy. The goldsmith may have a standard, and refuse the name
gold to any mixture into which enters a given per cent of baser metal;
but in art this is impossible. Here each reader must decide for himself.
Whether works which lie near the line are to be considered literature is
a question to be decided individually. Each reader is justified in
making his own decision, provided only that he found it upon definite
principles. It is largely a question what is one's own responsiveness to
literature. There are those to whom Tolstoi's "War and Peace" is a work
of greatness, while others fail to find it anything but a chaotic and
unorganized note-book of a genius not self-responsible. "John Inglesant"
appeals to many persons of excellent taste as a novel of permanent
beauty, while to some it seems sentimental and artificial. Mr. Lowell
and others have regarded Sylvester Judd's "Margaret" as one of the
classics of American fiction; yet it has never appealed to the general
public, and an eminent literary man told me not long ago that he finds
it dull. To these and to all other varying opinions there is but one
thing to be said: Any man has a right to his judgment if it is founded
upon the logical application of definite principles. Any opinion which
is sincere and based upon standards must be treated with respect,
whether it is agreed with or not.

It is difficult, on the other hand, to feel that there is any moral
excuse for prejudices which are the result of individual whims rather
than of deliberate judgment. An opinion should not be some burr caught
up by the garments unawares; but a fruit carefully selected as the best
on the tree. The fact is that the effort of forming an intelligent
judgment is more severe than most persons care to undertake unless
absolutely forced to it. It sometimes seems as if the whole tendency of
modern life were in the direction of cultivating mental dexterity until
the need of also learning mental concentration is in danger of being
overlooked. Men are trained to meet intellectual emergencies, but not to
endure continued intellectual strain. The difficulty which is to be
conquered by a sudden effort they are able to overcome, but when
deliberation and continuous mental achievement are required, the
weakness of their training is manifest. The men, and perhaps still more
the women, of to-day are ready to decide upon the merits of a book in
the twinkling of an eye; and it is to be acknowledged that these snap
judgments are reasonable far more often than could have been expected.
When it comes, however, to having a reason for the faith that is in
them, it is lamentable how many intelligent persons prove utterly
incapable of fairly and logically examining literature; and it must be
conceded that there should be some other test by which to decide whether
a book is to be included under the gracious name of literature than the
dogmatic assertion: "Well, I don't care what anybody says against it; I
like it!"

       *       *       *       *       *

We have discussed the distinctions by which it may be decided what is to
be considered literature; and, did space warrant, we might go on to
examine the principles which determine the rank of work. They are of
course largely to be inferred from what has been said already. The merit
of literature will be chiefly dependent upon the closeness with which it
conforms to the rules which mark the nature of literature. The more
fully genuine its emotion, the more adequate its expression, the higher
the scale in which a book is to be placed. The more sane and healthful,
the more entirely in accord with the needs and springs of general human
life, the greater the work. Indeed, beyond this there is little to say
save that the nobility of intention, the ethical significance of the
emotion embodied, mark the worth and the rank of a composition.

I have tried to define literature, and yet in the end my strongest
feeling is that of the inadequacy of my definition. He would be but a
lukewarm lover who was capable of framing a description which would
appear to him to embody fully the perfections of his mistress; and art
is a mistress so beautiful, so high, so noble, that no phrases can fitly
characterize her, no service can be wholly worthy of her. Life is full
of disappointment, and pain, and bitterness, and that sense of futility
in which all these evils are summed up; and yet even were there no other
alleviation, he who knows and truly loves literature finds here a
sufficient reason to be glad that he lives. Science may show man how to
live; art makes living worth his while. Existence to-day without
literature would be a failure and a despair; and if we cannot
satisfactorily define our art, we at least are aware how it enriches and
ennobles the life of every human being who comes within the sphere of
its wide and gracious influence.



III

THE STUDY OF LITERATURE


When it is clearly understood what literature is, there may still remain
a good deal of vagueness in regard to the study of it. It is by no means
sufficient for intellectual development that one have a misty general
share in the conventional respect traditionally felt for such study.
There should be a clear and accurate comprehension why the study of
literature is worth the serious attention of earnest men and women.

It might at first thought seem that of this question no discussion is
needed. It is generally assumed that the entire matter is sufficiently
obvious, and that this is all that there is to it. The obvious, however,
is often the last to be perceived; and such is the delusiveness of human
nature that to call a thing too plain to need demonstration is often but
a method of concealing inability to prove. Men are apt to fail to
perceive what lies nearest to them, while to cover their blindness and
ignorance they are ready to accept without reasoning almost any
assumption which comes well recommended. The demand for patent
medicines, wide-spread as it is, is insignificant in comparison to the
demand for ready-made opinions. Most men accept the general belief, and
do not trouble themselves to make it really theirs by examining the
grounds upon which it is based. We all agree that it is well to study
literature, it is probable; but it is to be feared that those of us who
can say exactly why it is well do not form a majority.

The word "study," it may be remarked in passing, is not an entirely
happy one in this connection. It has, it is true, many delightful
associations, especially for those who have really learned how to study;
but it has, too, a certain doleful suggestiveness which calls up painful
memories of childhood. It is apt to bring to mind bitter hours when some
example in long division stood like an impassable wall between us and
all happiness; when complex fractions deprived life of all joy, or the
future was hopelessly blurred by being seen through a mist of tears and
irregular French verbs. The word "study" is therefore likely to seem to
indicate a mechanical process, full of weariness and vexation of spirit.
This is actually true of no study which is worthy of the name; and least
of all is it true in connection with art. The word as applied to
literature is not far from meaning intelligent enjoyment; it signifies
not only apprehension but comprehension; it denotes not so much
accumulation as assimilation; it is not so much acquirement as
appreciation.

By the study of literature can be meant nothing pedantic, nothing
formal, nothing artificial. I should like to call the subject of these
talks "Experiencing Literature," if the verb could be received in the
same sense as in the old-fashioned phrase "experiencing religion." That
is what I mean. The study of literature is neither less nor more than
experiencing literature,--the taking it to heart and the getting to its
heart.

To most persons to study literature means nothing more than to read.
There is, it is true, a vague general notion that it is the reading of
some particular class of books, not always over clearly defined. It is
not popularly supposed that the reading of an ordinary newspaper is part
of the study of literature; while on the other hand there are few
persons who can imagine that the perusal of Shakespeare, however casual,
can be anything else. Since literary art is in the form of written
works, reading is of course essential; but by study we mean something
more grave and more fruitful than the mere surface acquaintance with
books, no matter how high in the scale of excellence these may be.

The study of literature, in the true signification of the phrase, is
that act by which the learner gets into the attitude of mind which
enables him to enter into that creative thought which is the soul of
every real book. It is easily possible, as every reader knows, to read
without getting below the surface; to take a certain amount of
intellectual account of that which we skim; to occupy with it the
attention, and yet not to be at all in the mood which is indispensable
for proper comprehension. It is this which makes it possible for the
young girl of the present day to read novels which her more
sophisticated brothers cannot look at without blushing to see them in
her hands--at least, we hope that it is this! We all have moments when
from mental weariness, indifference, indolence, or abstraction, we slide
over the pages as a skater goes over the ice, never for a moment having
so much as a glimpse of what is hidden beneath the surface. This is not
the thing about which we are talking. We mean by study the making our
own all that is contained in the books which we read; and not only all
that is said, but still more all that is suggested; all that is to be
learned, but above everything all that is to be felt.

The object of the study of literature is always a means and not an end,
and yet in the development of the mind no means can fulfill its purpose
which is not an enjoyment. Goethe has said: "Woe to that culture which
points man always to an end, instead of making him happy by the way." No
study is of any high value which is not a delight in itself; and
equally, no study is of value which is pursued simply for itself. Every
teacher knows how futile is work in which the pupil is not
interested,--in other words, which is not a pleasure to him. The mind
finds delight in all genuine activity and acquirement; and the student
must take pleasure in his work or he is learning little. Some formal or
superficial knowledge he may of course accumulate. The learning of the
multiplication table is not to be set aside as useless because it is
seldom accompanied by thrills of passionate enjoyment. There must be
some drudgery in education; but at least what I have said certainly
holds good in all that relates to the deeper and higher development of
the mind.

The study of literature, then, is both a duty and a delight; a pleasure
in itself and a help toward what is better. By it one approaches the
comprehension of those books which are to be ranked as works of art. By
it one endeavors to fit himself to enter into communication with the
great minds and the great imaginations of mankind. What we gain in this
may be broadly classified as pleasure, social culture, and a knowledge
of life. Any one of these terms might almost be made to include the
other two, but the division here is convenient in discussion.

Pleasure in its more obvious meaning is the most superficial, although
the most evident, gain from art. In its simplest form this is mere
amusement and recreation. We read, we say, "to pass the time." There are
in life hours which need to be beguiled; times when we are unequal to
the fatigue or the worry of original thought, or when some present
reality is too painful to be faced. In these seasons we desire to be
delivered from self, and the self-forgetfulness and the entertainment
that we find in books are of unspeakable relief and value. This is of
course a truism; but it was never before so insistently true as it is
to-day. Life has become so busy, it is in a key so high, so nervously
exhaustive, that the need of amusement, of recreation which shall be a
relief from the severe nervous and mental strain, has become most
pressing. The advance of science and civilization has involved mankind
in a turmoil of multitudinous and absorbing interests from the pressure
of which there seems to us no escape except in self-oblivion; and the
most obvious use of reading is to minister to this end.

At the risk of being tedious it is necessary to remark in passing that
herein lies a danger not to be passed over lightly. There is steadily
increasing the tendency to treat literature as if it had no other
function than to amuse. There is too much reading which is like
opium-eating or dram-drinking. It is one thing to amuse one's self to
live, and quite another to live to amuse one's self. It is universally
conceded, I believe, that the intellect is higher than the body; and I
cannot see why it does not follow that intellectual debauchery is more
vicious than physical. Certainly it is difficult to see why the man who
neglects his intellect while caring scrupulously for his body is on a
higher moral plane than the man who, though he neglect or drug his body,
does cultivate his mind.

In an entirely legitimate fashion, however, books may be read simply for
amusement; and greatly is he to be pitied who is not able to lose
himself in the enchantments of books. A physical cripple is hardly so
sorrowful an object. Everybody knows the remark attributed to
Talleyrand, who is said to have answered a man who boasted that he had
never learned whist: "What a miserable old age you are preparing for
yourself." A hundredfold is it true that he who does not early cultivate
the habit of reading is neglecting to prepare a resource for the days
when he shall be past active life. While one is in the strength of youth
or manhood it is possible to fill the mind with interests of activity.
As long as one is engaged in affairs directly the need of the solace of
books is less evident and less pressing. It is difficult to think
without profound pity of the aged man or woman shut off from all
important participation in the work or the pleasure of the world, if the
vicarious enjoyment of human interests through literature be also
lacking. It is amazing how little this fact is realized or insisted
upon. There is no lack of advice to the young to provide for the
material comfort of their age, but it is to be doubted whether the
counsel to prepare for their intellectual comfort is not the more
important. Reading is the garden of joy to youth, but for age it is a
house of refuge.

       *       *       *       *       *

The second object which one may have in reading is that of social
cultivation. It is hardly necessary to remark how large a part books
play in modern conversation, or how much one may add to one's
conversational resources by judicious reading. It is true that not a
little of the modern talk about books is of a quality to make the
genuine lover of literature mingle a smile with a sigh. It is the result
not of reading literature, so much as of reading about literature. It is
said that Boston culture is simply diluted extract of "Littell's Living
Age;" and in the same spirit it might be asserted that much modern talk
about books is the extract of newspaper condensations of prefaces. The
tale is told of the thrifty paupers of a Scotch alms-house that the
aristocrats among them who had friends to give them tea would steep and
re-steep the precious herb, then dry the leaves, and sell them to the
next grade of inmates. These in turn, after use, dried the much-boiled
leaves once again, and sold them to the aged men to be ground up into a
sort of false snuff with which the poor creatures managed to cheat into
feeble semblance of joy their withered nostrils. I have in my time heard
not a little so-called literary conversation which seemed to me to have
gone to the last of these processes, and to be a very poor quality of
thrice-steeped tea-leaf snuff! Indeed, it must be admitted that in
general society book talk is often confined to chatter about books which
had better not have been read, and to the retailing of second-hand
opinions at that. The majority of mankind are as fond of getting their
ideas as they do their household wares, at a bargain counter. It is
perhaps better to do this than to go without ideas, but it is to be
borne in mind that on the bargain counter one is sure to find only cheap
or damaged wares.

Real talk about books, however, the expression of genuine opinions about
real literature, is one of the most delightful of social pleasures. It
is at once an enjoyment and a stimulus. From it one gets mental poise,
clearness and readiness of ideas, and mental breadth. It is so important
an element in human intercourse that it is difficult to conceive of an
ideal friendship into which it does not enter. There have been happy
marriages between men and women lacking in cultivation, but no marriage
relation can be so harmonious that it may not be enriched by a community
of literary tastes. A wise old gentleman whom I once knew had what he
called an infallible receipt for happy marriages: "Mutual love, a sense
of humor, and a liking for the same books." Certainly with these a good
deal else might be overlooked. Personally I have much sympathy with the
man who is said to have claimed a divorce on the ground that his wife
did not like Shakespeare and would read Ouida. It is a serious trial to
find the person with whom one must live intimately incapable of
intellectual talk.

He who goes into general society at all is expected to be able to keep
up at least the appearance of talking about literature with some degree
of intelligence. This is an age in which the opportunities for what may
be called cosmopolitan knowledge are so general that it has come to be
the tacit claim of any society worth the name that such knowledge shall
be possessed by all. I do not, of course, mean simply that acquaintance
with foreign affairs which is to be obtained from the newspapers, even
all wisdom as set forth in their vexingly voluminous Sunday editions. I
mean that it is necessary to have with the thought of other countries,
with their customs, and their habits of thought, that familiarity which
is by most to be gained only by general reading. The multiplication of
books and the modern habit of travel have made an acquaintance with the
temper of different peoples a social necessity almost absolute.

To a great extent is it also true that modern society expects a
knowledge of social conditions and æsthetic affairs in the past. This is
not so much history, formally speaking, as it is the result of a certain
familiarity with the ways, the habits of thought, the manners of bygone
folk. Professor Barrett Wendell has an admirable phrase: "It is only in
books that one can travel in time." What in the present state of society
is expected from the accomplished man or woman is that he or she shall
have traveled in time. He shall have gone back into the past in the same
sense as far as temper of mind is concerned that one goes to Europe;
shall have observed from the point of view not of the dry historian
only, but from that of the student of humanity in the broadest sense. It
is the humanness of dwellers in distant lands or in other times which
most interests us; and it is with this that he who would shine in social
converse must become familiar.

The position in which a man finds himself who in the company of educated
men displays ignorance of what is important in the past is illustrated
by a story told of Carlyle. At a dinner of the Royal Academy in London,
Thackeray and Carlyle were guests, and at the table the talk among the
artists around them turned upon Titian. "One fact about Titian," a
painter said, "is his glorious coloring." "And his glorious drawing is
another fact about Titian," put in a second. Then one added one thing
in praise and another another, until Carlyle interrupted them, to say
with egotistic emphasis and deliberation: "And here sit I, a man made in
the image of God, who knows nothing about Titian, and who cares nothing
about Titian;--and that's another fact about Titian." But Thackeray, who
was sipping his claret and listening, paused and bowed gravely to his
fellow-guest. "Pardon me," he said, "that is not a fact about Titian. It
is a fact--and a very lamentable fact--about Thomas Carlyle." Attempts
to carry off ignorance under the guise of indifference or superiority
are common, but in the end nobody worth deceiving is misled by them.

It is somewhat trite to compare the companionship of good books to that
of intellectual persons, and yet the constant repetition of a truth does
not make it false. To know mankind and to know one's self are the great
shaping forces which mould character. It has too often been said to need
to be insisted upon at any great length that literature may largely
represent experience; but it may fitly be added that in reading one is
able to choose the experiences to which he will be exposed. In life we
are often surrounded by what is base and ignoble, but this need not
happen to us in the library unless by our deliberate choice. Emerson
aptly says:--

  Go with mean people and you think life is mean. Then read Plutarch,
  and the world is a proud place, peopled with men of positive quality,
  with heroes and demigods standing around us, who will not let us
  sleep.

It so often happens that we are compelled in daily life to encounter and
to deal with mean people that our whole existence would be in great
danger of becoming hopelessly sordid and mean were it not for the
blessed company of great minds with whom we may hold closest communion
through what they have written.

One more point in regard to the social influence of reading should be
mentioned. Social ease and aplomb can of course be gained in no way save
by actual experience; but apart from this there is nothing else so
effective as familiarity with the best books. Sympathetic comprehension
of literature is the experience of life taken vicariously. It is living
through the consciousness of others, and those, moreover, who are the
cleverest and most far-reaching minds of all time. The mere man of books
brought into contact with the real world is confused and helpless; but
when once the natural shyness and bewilderment have worn off, he is able
to recall and to use the knowledge which he has acquired in the study,
and rapidly adapts himself to any sphere that he may find himself in. I
do not mean that a man may read himself into social grace and ease; but
surely any given man is at a very tangible advantage in society for
having learned from books what society is.



IV

WHY WE STUDY LITERATURE


In all that is said in the last chapter we have dealt only with the
outward and accidental, barely touching upon the really significant and
deeper meanings of our subject. The third object which I named, the
gaining a knowledge of life, transcends all others.

The desire to fathom the meaning of life is the most constant and
universal of human longings. It is practically impossible to conceive of
consciousness separated from the wish to understand self and the
significance of existence. This atom selfhood, sphered about by the
infinite spaces of the universe, yearns to comprehend what and where it
is. It sends its thought to the farthest star that watches the night,
and thence speeds it down the unsounded void, to search unweariedly for
the answer of the baffling, insistent riddle of life. Whatever man does
or dreams, hopes or fears, loves or hates, suffers or enjoys, has behind
it the eternal doubt, the question which man asks of the universe with
passionate persistence,--the meaning of life.

Most of all does man seek aid in solving this absorbing mystery. Nothing
else interests the human like the human. The slatternly women leaning
out of tenement-house windows and gossiping across squalid courts talk
of their neighbors. The wisest philosopher studies the acts and the
thoughts of men. In the long range between these extremes there is every
grade of intelligence and cultivation; and in each it is the doings, the
thoughts, most of all the feelings, of mankind which elicit the keenest
interest. The motto of the Latin playwright is in reality the motto of
the race: "Nothing human is indifferent to me."

We are all intensely eager to know what are the possibilities of
humanity. We seek knowledge of them as an heir questions searchingly
concerning the extent of the inheritance which has fallen to him.
Literature is the inventory of the heritage of humanity. Life is but a
succession of emotions; and the earnest mind burns with desire to learn
what emotions are within its possibilities. The discoverer of an
unsuspected capability of receiving delight, the realization of an
unknown sensation, even of pain, increases by so much the extent of the
possessions of the human being to whom he imparts it. As explorers in a
new country tell one another of the springs upon which they have
chanced, of the fertile meadows one has found, of the sterile rocks or
the luscious jungle, so men tell one another of their fresh findings in
emotion. The knowledge of life--this is the passionate quest of the
whole race of men.

All that most deeply concerns man, all that reaches most penetratingly
to the roots of being, is recorded, so far as humanity has been able to
give to it expression, in art. Of all art, literature is perhaps the
most universally intelligible; or, if not that, it is at least the most
positively intelligible. Our interest in life shows itself in a burning
curiosity to know what goes on in the minds of our friends; to discover
what others make out of existence, what they find in its possibilities,
its limitations, its sorrows, and its delights. In varying degrees,
according to individual temperament, we pass life in an endeavor to
discover and to share the feelings of other human beings. We explain our
feelings, our motives; we wonder whether they look to others as they do
to us; we speculate whether others have found a way to get from life
more than we get; and above all are we consciously or unconsciously
eager to learn whether any other has contrived means of finding in life
more vivid sensations, more vibrant emotions, more far-reaching feelings
than those which we experience. It is in this insatiable curiosity that
our deepest interest in literature lies.

Books explain us to ourselves. They reveal to us capabilities in our
nature before unsuspected. They make intelligible the meaning and
significance of mental experiences. There are books the constant
rereading of which presents itself to an imaginative man as a sort of
moral duty, so great is the illumination which they throw upon the inner
being. I could name works which I personally cannot leave long neglected
without a feeling of conscious guilt. It is of books of this nature that
Emerson says that they

  Take rank in our life with parents and lovers and passionate
  experiences, so medicinal, so stringent, so revolutionary, so
  authoritative,--books which are the work and the proof of faculties so
  comprehensive, so nearly equal to the world which they paint, that
  though one shuts them with meaner ones, he feels the exclusion from
  them to accuse his way of living.--_Books._

There are probably none of us who have lived in vital relations to
literature who cannot remember some book which has been an epoch in our
lives. The times and the places when and where we read them stand out in
memory as those of great mental crises. We recall the unforgettable
night in which we sat until the cold gray dawn looked in at the window
reading Lessing's "Nathan the Wise," the sunny slope where we
experienced Madame de Gasparin's "Near and Heavenly Horizons," the
winter twilight in the library when that most strenuous trumpet blast of
all modern ethical poetry, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," first
rang in the ears of the inner self. We all have these memories. There
are books which must to us always be alive. They have spoken to us; we
have heard their very voices; we know them in our heart of hearts.

That desire for sympathy which is universal is another strong incentive
to acquaintance with literature. The savage who is less miserable in
fear or in suffering if he find a fellow whose living presence saves him
from the awful sense of being alone is unconsciously moved by this
desire. The more fully the race is developed the more is this craving
for human companionship and human appreciation conscious. We know how
impossible it is ever completely to blend our consciousness for the
smallest instant with that of any other human being. The nearest
approach to this is the sharing with another some common feeling. There
are blissful moments when some other is absorbed in the same emotion as
that which we feel; when we seem to be one with the heart and the mind
of another creature because the same strong passion sways us both. These
are the mountain-tops of existence. These are the times which stand out
in our remembrance as those in which life has touched in seeming the
divine impossible.

It is of the greatest rarity, however, that we find, even in our closest
friends, that comprehension and delicate sympathy for which we long.
Indeed, such is human egotism that it is all but impossible for any one
so far to abandon his own personality as to enter fully into the more
delicate and intangible feelings of his fellow. A friend is another
self, according to the proverb, but it is apt to be himself and not
yourself. To find sympathy which comes from a knowledge that our inmost
emotions are shared we turn to books. Especially is this true in
bereavement and in sorrow. The touch of a human hand, the wistful look
in the eye of the friend who longs to help, or the mere presence of some
beautiful and responsive spirit, is the best solace where comfort is
impossible; but even the tenderest human presence may jar, while in
books there is a consolation and a tenderness unhampered by the baffling
sense of a consciousness still outside of our own no matter how
strenuously it longs to be in perfect unity. I knew once a mother who
had lost her only child, and who used to sit for hours pressing to her
heart Plutarch's divinely tender letter to his wife on the death of his
own little one. It was almost as if she felt her baby again in her arms,
and the leather covers of the book were stained with tears consecrated
and saving. Who could count the number to whom "In Memoriam" has carried
comfort when living friends had no message? The critical defects of that
poem are not far to seek; but it would ill become us to forget how many
grief-laden hearts it has reached and touched. The book which lessens
the pain of humanity is in so far higher than criticism.

Josiah Quincy used in his old age to relate how his mother, left a young
widow by the death of her husband within sight of the shores of America
when on his return from a mission to England, found comfort in the
soothing ministration of books:--

  She cultivated the memory of my father, even in my earliest childhood,
  by reading me passages from the poets, and obliging me to learn by
  heart and repeat such as were best adapted to her own circumstances
  and feelings. Among others the whole leave-taking of Hector and
  Andromache, in the sixth book of Pope's Homer, was one of her favorite
  lessons.... Her imagination, probably, found consolation in the
  repetition of lines which brought to mind and seemed to typify her own
  great bereavement.

      And think'st thou not how wretched we shall be,--
      A widow I, a helpless orphan he?

  These lines, and the whole tenor of Andromache's address and
  circumstances, she identified with her own sufferings, which seemed
  relieved by the tears my repetition of them drew from her.

This comforting power of literature is one which need not perhaps have
been enlarged upon so fully, but it is one which has to do with the most
intimate and poignant relations of life.

It is largely in virtue of the sympathy which it is possible to feel for
books that from them we not only receive a knowledge of the capacities
of human emotion, but we are given actual emotional experience as well.
For literature has a twofold office. It not only shows the possibilities
of life, but it may make these possibilities realities. If art simply
showed us what might be without aiding us further, it would be but a
banquet of Tantalus. We must have the substance as well as the shadow.
We are born not only with a craving to know what emotions are the
birthright of man, but with an instinctive desire to enter into that
inheritance. We wish to be all that it is possible for men to be. The
small boy who burns to be a pirate or a policeman when he grows up, is
moved by the idea that to men of these somewhat analogous callings come
a richness of adventure and a fullness of sensation which are not to be
found in ordinary lives. The lad does not reason this out, of course;
but the instinctive desire for emotion speaks in him. We are born with
the craving to know to the full the emotions of the race. It is to few
of us in modern civilized life that circumstances permit a widely
extended experience in actual mental sensations. The commonplace
actualities of every-day life show plain and dull beside the almost
infinite possibilities of existence. The realization of the contrast
makes not a few mortals unhappy and dissatisfied; but those who are
wiser accept life as it is, and turn to art for the gratification of the
instinctive craving which is unsatisfied by outward reality.

It may be that fate has condemned us to the most humdrum of existences.
We trade or we teach or are lawyers or housekeepers, doctors or nurses,
or the curse of the gods has fallen upon us and we are condemned to the
dreariness of a life of pleasure-seeking. We cannot of ourselves know
the delights of the free outlaw's life under "the greene shaw,"--the
chase of the deer, the twang of the bowstring, the song of the minstrel,
the relish of venison pasty and humming nut-brown ale, are not for us in
the flesh. If we go into the library, however, take down that volume
with the cover of worn brown leather, and give up the imagination to the
guidance of the author, all these things become possible to the inner
sense. We become aware of the reek of the woodland fire, the smell of
the venison roasting on spits of ash-wood, the chatter of deep manly
voices, the cheery sound of the bugle-horn afar, the misty green light
of the forest, the soft sinking feel of the moss upon which in
imagination we have flung ourselves down, while Will Scarlet teases
Friar Tuck yonder, and Allan-a-Dale touches light wandering chords on
his harp.--Ah, where are the four walls of the library, where is the
dull round of cares and trifles which involve us day by day? We are in
merry Sherwood with bold Robin Hood, and we know what there was felt and
lived.

We cannot in outward experience know how a great and generous heart must
feel, broken by ingratitude and unfaith, deceived and tortured through
its noblest qualities, outraged in its highest love. The poet says to
us: "Come with me; and through the power of the imagination, talisman
more potent than the ring of Solomon, we will enter the heart of
Othello, and with him suffer this agony. We will endure the torture,
since behind it is the exquisite delight of appeasing that insatiable
thirst for a share in human emotions. Or would you taste the passion of
young and ardent hearts, their woe at parting, and their resolved
devotion which death itself cannot abate? We will be one with Romeo and
one with Juliet." Thus, if we will, we may go with him through the
entire range of mortal joys and sorrows. We live with a fullness of
living beside which, it may be, our ordinary existence is flat and pale.
We find the real life, the life of the imagination; and we recognize
that this is after all more vital than our concern over the price of
stocks, our petty bother about the invitation to the Hightops' ball on
the twenty-fourth, or the silly pang of brief jealousy which we
experienced when we heard that Jack Scribbler's sonnet was to appear in
the next number of the magazine which had just returned our own poem
"with thanks." The littlenesses of the daily round slip out of sight
before the nobility of the life possible in the imagination.

It is not necessary to multiply examples of the pleasures possible
through the imagination. Every reader knows how varied and how
enchanting they are. To enter into them is in so far to fulfill the
possibilities of life. The knowledge which is obtained through books is
not the same, it is true, as that which comes from actual doing and
enduring. Perhaps if the imagination were sufficiently developed there
would be little difference. There have been men who have been hardly
able to distinguish between what they experienced in outward life and
what belonged solely to the inner existence. Coleridge and Wordsworth
and Keats made no great or sharply defined distinction between the
things which were true in fact and those that were true in imagination.
To Blake the events of life were those which he knew through
imagination, while what happened in ordinary, every-day existence he
regarded as the accidental and the non-essential.

It will probably be thought, however, that those who live most
abundantly are not likely to feel the need of testing existence and
tasting emotions through the medium of letters. The pirate, when decks
are red and smoke of powder is in the air, is not likely to retire to
his cabin for a session of quiet and delightful reading; the lover may
peruse sentimental ballads or make them, but on the whole everything
else is subordinate to the romance he is living. It is when his
lady-love keeps him at a distance that he has time for verse; not when
she graciously allows him near. It is told of Darwin that his absorption
in science destroyed not only his love of Shakespeare but even his power
of enjoying music. The actual interests of life were so vivid that the
artistic sense was numbed. The imagination exhausted itself in exploring
the unknown world of scientific knowledge. It is to be noted that boys
who go deeply into college sports, especially if they are on the
"teams," are likely to become so absorbed in the sporting excitement
that literature appears to them flat and tame. The general rule is that
he who lives in stimulating and absorbing realities is thereby likely to
be inclined to care less for literature.

It is to be remembered, however, that individual experience is apt to be
narrow, and that it may be positively trivial and still engross the
mind. That one is completely given up to affairs does not necessarily
prove these affairs to be noble. It is generally agreed, too, that the
mind is more elastic which is reached and developed by literature; and
that even the scientist is likely to do better work for having ennobled
his perceptions by contact with the thoughts of master spirits. Before
Darwin was able to advance so far in science as to have no room left for
art, he had trained his faculties by the best literature. At least it is
time enough to give up books when life has become so full of action as
to leave no room for them. This happens to few, and even those of whom
it is true cannot afford to do without literature as an agent in the
development and shaping of character.

The good which we gain from the experiences of life we call insight. No
man or woman ever loved without thereby gaining insight into what life
really is. No man has stood smoke-stained and blood-spattered in the
midst of battle, caught away out of self in an ecstasy of daring,
without thereby learning hitherto undreamed-of possibilities in
existence. Indeed this is true of the smallest incident. Character is
the result of experience upon temperament, as ripple-marks are the
result of the coming together of sand and wave. In life, however, we are
generally more slow to learn the lessons from events than from books.
The author of genius has the art so to arrange and present his truths as
to impress them upon the reader. The impressions of events remain with
us, but it is not easy for ordinary mortals so to realize their meaning
and so to phrase it that it shall remain permanent and clear in the
mind. The mental vision is clouded, moreover, by the personal element.
We are seldom able to be perfectly frank with ourselves. Self is ever
the apologist for self. Knowledge without self-honesty is as a torch
without flame; yet of all the moral graces self-honesty is perhaps the
most difficult to acquire. In its acquirement is literature of the
highest value. A man can become acquainted with his spiritual face as
with his bodily countenance only by its reflection. Literature is the
mirror in which the soul learns to recognize its own lineaments.

Above all these personal reasons which make literature worthy of the
serious attention of earnest men and women is the great fact that upon
the proper development and the proper understanding of it depend largely
the advancement and the wise ordering of civilization. Stevenson spoke
words of wisdom when he said:--

  One thing you can never make Philistine natures understand; one thing,
  which yet lies on the surface, remains as unseizable to their wits as
  a high flight of metaphysics,--namely, that the business of life is
  mainly carried on by the difficult art of literature, and according to
  a man's proficiency in that art shall be the freedom and fullness of
  his intercourse with other men.

In a fine passage in a little-known pamphlet, James Hannay touches upon
the relation of literature to life and to the practical issues of
society:--

  A notion is abroad that that only is "practical" which can be measured
  or eaten. Show us its net result in marketable form, the people say,
  and we will recognize it! But what if there be something prior to all
  such "net results," something higher than it? For example, the writing
  of an old Hebrew Prophet was by no manner of means "practical" in his
  own times! The supply of figs to the Judean markets, the price of oil
  in the synagogue-lamps, did not fluctuate with the breath of those
  inspired songs! But in due time the prophet dies, stoned, perhaps, ...
  and in the course of ages, his words do have a "practical" result by
  acting on the minds of nations.... In England what has not happened
  from the fact that the Bible was translated? We have seen the
  Puritans--we know what we owe to them--what the world owes to them! A
  dozen or two of earnest men two centuries ago were stirred to the
  depths of their souls by the visions of earnest men many centuries
  before that; do you not see that the circumstance has its practical
  influence in the cotton-markets of America at this hour?--Quoted in
  Espinasse's _Literary Recollections_.

It is impossible to separate the influences of literature from the
growth of society and of civilization. It is because of the reaching of
the imagination into the unknown vast which incloses man that life is
what it is. The order that is given to butcher or baker or
candlestick-maker is modified by the fact that Homer and Dante and
Shakespeare sang; that the prophets and the poets and the men of
imagination of whatever time and race have made thought and feeling what
they are. "The world of imagination," Blake wrote, "is the world of
eternity." Whatever of permanent interest and value man has achieved he
has reached through this divine faculty, and it is only when man learns
to know and to enter the world of imagination that he comes into actual
contact with the vital and the fundamental in human life. Easily abused,
like all the best gifts of the gods, art remains the noblest and the
most enduring power at work in civilization; and literature is its most
direct embodiment. To it we go when we would leave behind the sordid,
the mean, and the belittling. When we would enter into our birthright,
when we remember that instead of being mere creatures of the dust we are
the heirs of the ages, then it is through books that we find and possess
the treasures of the race.



V

FALSE METHODS


The most common intellectual difficulty is not that of the lack of
ideas, but that of vagueness of ideas. Most persons of moderately good
education have plenty of thoughts such as they are, but there is a
nebulous quality about these which renders them of little use in
reasoning. This makes it necessary to define what is meant by the Study
of Literature, as in the first place it was necessary to define
literature itself. Many have a formless impression that it is something
done with books, a sort of mysterious rite known only to the initiated,
and probably a good deal like the mysteries of secret societies,--more
of a theory than an actuality. Others, who are more confident of their
powers of accurate thinking, have decided that the phrase is merely a
high-sounding name for any reading which is not agreeable, but which is
recommended by text-books. Some take it to be getting over all the books
possible, good, bad, and indifferent; while still others suppose it to
be reading about books or their authors. There are plenty of ideas as to
what the study of literature is, but the very diversity of opinion
proves that at least a great many of these must be erroneous.

In the first place the study of literature is not the mere reading of
books. Going on a sort of Cook's tour through literature, checking off
on lists what one has read, may be amusing to simple souls, but beyond
that it means little and effects little. As the question to be asked in
regard to a tourist is how intelligently and how observantly he has
traveled, so the first consideration in regard to a reader is how he
reads.

The rage for swiftness which is so characteristic of this restless time
has been extended to fashions of reading. By some sort of a vicious
perversion, the old saw that he who runs may read seems to have been
transposed to "He who reads must run." In other words there is too often
an assumption that the intellectual distinction of an individual is to
be estimated by the rapidity with which he is able to hurry through the
volumes he handles. Intellectual assimilation takes time. The mind is
not to be enriched as a coal barge is loaded. Whatever is precious in a
cargo is taken carefully on board and carefully placed. Whatever is
delicate and fine must be received delicately, and its place in the mind
thoughtfully assigned.

One effect of the modern habit of swift and careless reading is seen in
the impatience with which anything is regarded which is not to be taken
in at a glance. The modern reader is apt to insist that a book shall be
like a theatre-poster. He must be able to take it all in with a look as
he goes past it on a wheel, and if he cannot he declares that it is
obscure. W. M. Hunt said, with bitter wisdom: "As print grows cheap,
thinkers grow scarce." The enormous increase of books has bred a race of
readers who seem to feel that the object of reading is not to read but
to have read; not to enjoy and assimilate, but to have turned over the
greatest possible number of authors. This idea of the study of
literature is as if one selected as the highest social ideal the
afternoon tea, where the visitor is presented to numberless strangers
and has an opportunity of conversing rationally with nobody.

A class of self-styled students of literature far more pernicious than
even the record-breaking readers is that of the gossip-mongers. These
are they who gratify an innate fondness of gossip and scandal under the
pretext of seeking culture, and who feed an impertinent curiosity in the
name of a noble pursuit. They read innumerable volumes filled with the
more or less spicy details of authors; they perhaps visit the spots
where the geniuses of the world lived and worked. They peruse eagerly
every scrap of private letters, journals, and other personal matter
which is available. For them are dragged to light all the imperfect
manuscripts which famous novelists have forgotten to burn. For them was
perpetrated the infamy of the publication of the correspondence of Keats
with Miss Brawne; to them Mrs. Stowe appealed in her foul book about
Byron, which should have been burned by the common hangman. It is they
who buy the newspaper descriptions of the back bedroom of the popular
novelist and the accounts of the misunderstanding between the poet and
his washerwoman. They scent scandal as swine scent truffles, and degrade
the noble name of literature by making it an excuse for their petty
vulgarity.

The race is by no means a new one. Milton complained of it in the early
days of the church, when, he says:--

  With less fervency was studied what St. Paul or St. John had written
  than was listened to one that could say: "Here he taught, here he
  stood, this was his stature, and thus he went habited," and, "O happy
  this house that harbored him, and that cold stone whereon he rested,
  this village where he wrought a miracle."

Schopenhauer, too, has his indignant protest against this class:--

  Petrarch's house in Arqua, Tasso's supposed prison in Ferrara,
  Shakespeare's house in Stratford, Goethe's house in Weimar, with its
  furniture, Kant's old hat, the autographs of great men,--these things
  are gaped at with interest and awe by many who have never read their
  works.

All this is of course a matter of personal vanity. Small souls pride
themselves upon having these things, upon knowing intimate details of
the lives of prominent persons. They endeavor thus to attach themselves
to genius, as burrs cling to the mane of a lion. The imagination has
nothing to do with it; there is in it no love of literature. It is
vanity pure and simple, a common vulgar vanity which substitutes
self-advertisement and gossip-mongering for respect and appreciation.
Who can have tolerance for the man whose proudest boast is that he was
in a crowd presented to some poet whose books he never read; for the
woman who claims attention on the ground that she has from her
seamstress heard particulars of the domestic infelicities of a great
novelist; or for the gossip of either sex who takes pride in knowing
about famous folk trifles which are nobody's business but their own?

A good many text-books encourage this folly, and there are not a few
writers who pass their useless days in grubbing in the dust-heaps of the
past to discover the unessential and unmeaning incidents in the lives of
bygone worthies. They put on airs of vast superiority over mortals who
scorn their ways and words; they have only pitying contempt for readers
who suppose that the works of an author are what the world should be
concerned with instead of his grocery bills and the dust on his library
table. Such meddlers have no more to do with literature than the spider
on the eaves of kings' houses has to do with affairs of state.

It is not that all curiosity about famous men is unwholesome or
impertinent. The desire to know about those whose work has touched us is
natural and not necessarily objectionable. It is outside of the study of
literature, save in so far as it now and then--less often, I believe,
than is usually assumed--may help us to understand what an author has
written; yet within proper limits it is to be indulged in, just as we
all indulge now and then in harmless gossip concerning our fellows. It
is almost sure to be a hindrance rather than a help in the study of
literature if it goes much beyond the knowledge of those circumstances
in the life of an author which have directly affected what he has
written. There are few facts in literary history for which we have so
great reason to be devoutly thankful as that so little is known
concerning the life of the greatest of poets. We are able to read
Shakespeare with little or no interruption in the way of detail about
his private affairs, and for this every lover of Shakespeare's poetry
should be grateful.

The study of literature, it must be recognized farther, is not the study
of the history of literature. The development of what are termed
"schools" of literature; the change in fashions of expression; the
modifications in verse-forms and the growth and decay of this or that
phase of popular taste in books, are all matters of interest in a way.
They are not of great value, as a rule, yet they will often help the
reader to a somewhat quicker appreciation of the force and intention of
literary forms. It is necessary to have at least a general idea of the
course of literary and intellectual growth through the centuries in
order to appreciate and comprehend literature,--the point to be kept in
mind being that this is a means and not in itself an end. It is
necessary, for instance, for the student to toil painfully across the
wastes of print produced in the eighteenth century, wherein there is
little really great save the works of Fielding; and where the reader
has to endure a host of tedious books in order properly to appreciate
the manly tenderness of Steele, the boyishly spontaneous realism of
Defoe, the kindly humanity of Goldsmith, and the frail, exquisite pipe
of Collins. The rest of the eighteenth century authors most of us read
chiefly as a part of the mechanics of education. We could hardly get on
intelligently without a knowledge of the polished primness of Addison,
genius of respectability; the vitriolic venom of Swift, genius of
malignity; the spiteful perfection of Pope, genius of artificiality; or
the interminable attitudinizing of Richardson, genius of sentimentality.
These authors we read quite as much as helps in understanding others as
for their own sake. We do not always have the courage to acknowledge it,
but these men do not often touch our emotions, even though the page be
that of Swift, so much the greatest of them. We examine the growth of
the romantic spirit through the unpoetic days between the death of
Dryden and the coming of Blake and Coleridge and Wordsworth; and from
such examination of the history of literature we are better enabled to
form standards for the actual estimate of literature itself.

There is a wide and essential difference between really entering into
literature and reading what somebody else has been pleased to say of it,
no matter how wise and appreciative this may be. Of course the genuine
student has small sympathy with those demoralizing flippancies about
books which are just now so common in the guise of smart essays upon
authors or their works; those papers in which adroit literary hacks
write about books as the things with which they have meddled most. The
man who reads for himself and thinks for himself realizes that these
essayists are the gypsy-moths of literature, living upon it and at the
same time doing their best to destroy it; and that the reading of these
petty imitations of criticism is about as intellectual as sitting down
in the nursery to a game of "Authors."

Even the reading of good and valuable papers is not the study of
literature in the best sense. There is much of profit in such admirable
essays as those, for instance, of Lowell, of John Morley, or of Leslie
Stephen. Excellent and often inspiring as these may be, however, it is
not to be forgotten that as criticisms their worth lies chiefly in the
incitement which they give to go to the fountain-head. The really fine
essay upon a masterpiece is at its best an eloquent presentment of the
delights and benefits which the essayist has received from the work of
genius; it shows the possibilities and the worth within the reach of
all. Criticisms are easily abused. We are misusing the most sympathetic
interpretation when we receive it dogmatically. In so far as they make
us see what is high and fine, they are of value; in so far as we depend
upon the perceptions of the critic instead of our own, they are likely
to be a hindrance. It is easier to think that we perceive than it is
really to see; but it is well to remember that a man may be plastered
from head to feet with the opinions of others, and yet have no more
genuine ideas of his own than has a bill-board because it is covered
with posters. Genuine emotion is born of genuine conviction. A reader is
really touched by a work of art only as he enters into it and
comprehends it sympathetically. Another may point the way, but he must
travel it for himself. Reading an imaginative work is like wooing a
maiden. Another may give the introduction, but for real acquaintance and
all effective love-making the suitor must depend upon himself if he
would be well sped. Critics may tell us what they admire, but the vital
question is what we in all truth and sincerity admire and appreciate
ourselves.



VI

METHODS OF STUDY


We have spoken of what the study of literature is not, but negations do
not define. It is necessary to look at the affirmative side of the
matter. And first it is well to remark that what we are discussing is
the examination of literature,--literature, that is, in the sense to
which we have limited the term by definition: "The adequate expression
of genuine emotion." It is not intended to include trash, whether that
present itself as undisguised rubbish or whether it mask under
high-sounding names of Symbolism, Impressionism, Realism, or any other
affected nomenclature whatever. It has never been found necessary to
excuse the existence of the masterpieces of literature by a labored
literary theory or a catchpenny classification. It is generally safe to
suspect the book which must be defended by a formula and the writers who
insist that they are the founders of a school. There is but one school
of art--the imaginative.

"But," it may be objected, "in an age when the books of the world are
numbered by millions, when it is impossible for any reader to examine
personally more than an insignificant portion even of those thrust upon
his notice, how is the learner to judge what are worthy of his
attention?" To this it is to be answered that there are works enough
universally approved to keep the readiest reader more than busy through
the span of the longest human life. We shall have occasion later to
speak of especial authors and of especial books. Here it is enough to
say that certainly at the start the student must be content to accept
the verdict of those who are capable of judging for him. Herein lies one
of the chief benefits to be derived from critics and essayists. As the
learner advances, he will find that as his taste and appreciation
advance with them will develop an instinct of choice. In the end he
should be able almost at a glance to judge rightly whether a book is
worthy of attention. In the meanwhile he need not go astray if he follow
the lead of trustworthy experts.

In accepting the opinions of others it is of course proper to use some
caution, and above all things it is important to be guided by common
sense. The market is full of quack mental as well as of quack physical
nostrums. There is a large and enterprising body of publishers who seem
persuaded that they have reduced all literature to a practical
industrial basis by furnishing patent outsides for newspapers and patent
insides for aspiring minds. In these days one becomes intellectual by
prescription, and it is impossible to tell how soon will be advertised
the device of inoculation against illiteracy. Common sense and a sense
of humor save one from many dangers, and it is well to let both have
full play.

I have spoken earlier in these talks of the pleasure of literary study.
One fundamental principle in the selection of books is that it is idle
to read what is not enjoyed. For special information one may read that
which is not attractive save as it serves the purpose of the moment; but
in all reading which is of permanent value for itself, enjoyment is a
prime essential. Reading which is not a pleasure is a barren mistake.
The first duty of the student toward literature and toward himself is
the same,--enjoyment. Either take pleasure in a work of art or let it
alone.

It is idle to force the mind to attend to works which it does not find
pleasurable, and yet it is necessary to read books which are approved as
the masterpieces of literature. Here is a seeming contradiction; but it
must be remembered that it is possible to arouse the mind to interest.
The books which are really worth attention will surely attract and hold
if they are once properly approached and apprehended. If a mind is
indolent, if it is able to enjoy only the marshmallows and chocolate
caramels of literature, it is not to be fed solely on literary
sweetmeats. Whatever is read should be enjoyed, but it by no means
follows that whatever can be enjoyed should be read. It is possible to
cultivate the habit of enjoying what is good, what is vital, as it is
easy to sink into the stupid and slipshod way of caring for nothing
which calls for mental exertion. It requires training and purpose. The
love of the best in art is possessed as a gift of nature by only a few,
and the rest of us must labor for it. The full appreciation of the work
of a master-mind comes to no one without effort. The reward of the
student of literature is great, but his labor also is great. Literature
is not like an empty public square, which even a blind beggar may cross
almost unconsciously. It more resembles an enchanted castle beset with
spell-infested forests and ghoul-haunted mountains; a place into which
only that knight may enter who is willing to fight his way through
dangers and difficulties manifold; yet a place, too, of infinite riches
and joys beyond the imaginings of dull souls.

It is a popular fallacy that art is to be appreciated without especial
education. Common feeling holds that the reader, like the poet, is born
and not made. It is generally assumed that one is endowed by nature with
an appreciation of art as one is born with a pug nose. The only element
of truth in this is the fact that all human powers are modified by the
personal equation. One is endowed at birth with perceptions fine and
keen, while another lacks them; but no matter what one's natural powers,
there must be cultivation. This cultivation costs care, labor, and
patience. It is, it is true, labor which is in itself delightful, and
one might easily do worse than to follow it for itself without thought
of other end; but it is still labor, and labor strenuous and long
enduring.

It is first necessary, then, to make an endeavor to become interested in
whatever it has seemed worth while to read. The student should try
earnestly to discover wherein others have found it good. Every reader
is at liberty to like or to dislike even a masterpiece; but he is not in
a position even to have an opinion of it until he appreciates why it has
been admired. He must set himself to realize not what is bad in a book,
but what is good. The common theory that the critical faculties are best
developed by training the mind to detect shortcomings is as vicious as
it is false. Any carper can find the faults in a great work; it is only
the enlightened who can discover all its merits. It will seldom happen
that a sincere effort to appreciate a good book will leave the reader
uninterested. If it does, it is generally safe to conclude that the mind
is not ready for this particular work. There must be degrees of
development; and the same literature is not adapted to all stages. If
you cannot honestly enjoy a thing you are from one cause or another in
no condition to read it. Either the time is not ripe or it has no
message for your especial temperament. To force yourself to read what
does not please you is like forcing yourself to eat that for which you
have no appetite. There may be some nourishment in one case as in the
other, but there is far more likely to be indigestion.

An essential condition of profitable reading is that it shall be
intelligent. The extent to which some persons can go on reading without
having any clear idea of what they read is stupefyingly amazing! You may
any day talk in society with persons who have gone through exhaustive
courses of reading, yet who from them have no more got real ideas than a
painted bee would get honey from a painted flower. Fortunately ordinary
mortals are not so bad as this; but is there one of us who is not
conscious of having tobogganed down many and many a page without pausing
thoroughly to seize and master a single thought by the way?

It is well to make in the mind a sharp distinction between apprehending
and comprehending. The difference is that between sighting and bagging
your game. To run hastily along through a book, catching sight of the
meaning of the author, getting a general notion of what he would
convey,--casually apprehending his work,--is one thing; it is quite
another to enter fully into the thoughts and emotions embodied, to make
them yours by thorough appreciation,--in a word to comprehend. The
trouble which Gibbon says he took to get the most out of what he read
must strike ordinary readers with amazement:--

  After glancing my eye over the design and order of a new book, I
  suspended the perusal until I had finished the task of
  self-examination; till I had resolved in a solitary walk all that I
  knew or believed or had thought on the subject of the whole work or of
  some particular chapter; I was then qualified to discern how much the
  author added to my original stock; and if I was sometimes satisfied by
  the agreement, I was sometimes armed by the opposition, of our ideas.

It often happens that the average person does not read with sufficient
deliberation even to apprehend what is plainly said. If there be a
succession of particulars, for instance, it is only the exceptional
reader who takes the time to comprehend fully each in turn. Suppose the
passage to be the lines in the "Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of
Chamouni:"--

    Your strength, your speed, your fury, and your joy,
    Unceasing thunder, and eternal foam.

The ordinary student gets a general and probably a vague impression of
cataracts, dashing down from the glacier-heaped hills; and that is the
whole of it. A poet does not put in a succession of words like this
merely to fill out his line. Coleridge in writing undoubtedly realized
the torrent so fully in his imagination that it was as if he were
beholding it. "What strength!" was his first thought. "What speed," was
the next. "What fury; yet, too, what joy!" Then the ideas of that fury
and that joy made it seem to him as if the noise of the waters was the
voice in which these emotions were embodied, and as if the unceasing
thunder were a sentient cry; while the eternal foam was the visible sign
of the mighty passions of the "five wild torrents, fiercely glad."

In the dirge in "Cymbeline," Shakespeare writes:--

    Fear no more the frown o' the great,
      Thou art past the tyrant's stroke;
    Care no more to clothe and eat;
      To thee the reed is as the oak;
    The sceptre, learning, physic, must
    All follow this, and come to dust.

As you read, do you comprehend the exquisite propriety of the succession
of the ideas? Death has removed Fidele from the possibility of
misfortune; even the lords of the world can trouble no longer. Nay,
more; it has done away with all need of care for the sordid details of
every-day life, food and raiment. All that earth holds is now alike
indifferent to the dead; the pale, wind-shaken reed is neither more nor
less important than the steadfast and enduring oak. And to this, the
thought runs on, must come even the mighty, the sceptred ones of earth.
Not learning, which is mightier than temporal power, can save from this;
not physic itself, of which the mission is to fight with death, can in
the end escape the universal doom.

    All follow this, and come to dust.

Hurried over as a catalogue, to take one example more, how dull is the
following from Marlowe's "Jew of Malta;" but how sumptuous it becomes
when the reader gloats over the name of each jewel as would do the Jew
who is speaking:--

    The wealthy Moor, that in the eastern rocks
    Without control can pick his riches up,
    And in his house heap pearls like pebble-stones,
    Receive them free, and sell them by the weight
    Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts,
    Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds,
    Beauteous rubies, sparkling diamonds,
    And seld-seen costly stones of so great price
    As one of them indifferently rated,
    And of a carat of this quantity,
    May serve, in peril of calamity,
    To ransom great kings from captivity.

I have not much sympathy with the trick of reading into an author all
sorts of far-fetched meanings of which he can never have dreamed; but,
as it is only by observing these niceties of language that a writer is
able to convey delicate shades of thought and feeling, so it is only by
appreciation of them that the reader is able to grasp completely the
intention which lies wrapped in the verbal form.

To read intelligibly, it is often necessary to know something of the
conditions under which a thing was written. There are allusions to the
history of the time or to contemporary events which would be meaningless
to one ignorant of the world in which the author lived. To see any point
to the fiery and misplaced passage in "Lycidas" in which Milton
denounces the hireling priesthood and the ecclesiastic evils of his day,
one must understand something of theological politics. We are aided in
the comprehension of certain passages in the plays of Shakespeare by
familiarity with the conditions of the Elizabethan stage and of the
court intrigues. In so far it is sometimes an advantage to know the
personal history of a writer, and the political and social details of
his time. For the most part the portions which require elaborate
explanation are not of permanent interest or at least not of great
importance. The intelligent reader, however, will not wish to be tripped
up by passages which he cannot understand, and will therefore be likely
to inform himself at least sufficiently to clear up these.

Any reader, moreover, must to some extent know the life and customs of
the people among whom a work is produced. To one who failed to
appreciate wherein the daily existence of the ancient Greeks differed
from that of moderns, Homer would hardly be intelligible. It would be
idle to read Dante under the impression that the Italy of his time was
that of to-day; or to undertake Chaucer without knowing, at least in a
general way, how his England was other than that of our own time. The
force of language at a given epoch, the allusions to contemporary
events, the habits of thought and custom must be understood by him who
would read comprehendingly.

When all is said there will still remain much that must depend upon
individual experience. If one reads in Lowell:--

    And there the fount rises; ...
      No dew-drop is stiller
      In its lupin-leaf setting
    Than this water moss-bounded;

one cannot have a clear and lively idea of what is meant who has not
actually seen a furry lupin-leaf, held up like a green, hairy hand, with
its dew-drop, round as a pearl. The context, of course, gives a general
impression of what the poet intended, but unless experience has given
the reader this bit of nature-lore, the color and vitality of the
passage are greatly lessened. One of the priceless advantages to be
gained from a habit of careful reading is the consciousness of the
significance of small things, and in consequence the habit of observing
them carefully. When we have read the bit just quoted, for instance, we
are sure to perceive the beauty of the lupin-leaf with its dew-pearl if
it come in our way. The attention becomes acute, and that which would
otherwise pass unregarded becomes a source of pleasure. The most sure
way to enrich life is to learn to appreciate trifles.

There is a word of warning which should here be spoken to the
over-conscientious student. The desire of doing well may lead to
overdoing. The student, in his anxiety to accomplish his full duty by
separate words, often lets himself become absorbed in them. He drops
unconsciously from the study of literature into the study of philology.
There have been hundreds of painfully learned men who have employed the
whole of their misguided lives in encumbering noble books with
philological excrescences. I do not wish to speak disrespectfully of the
indefatigable clan characterized by Cowper as

                        Philologists, who chase
    A panting syllable through time and space;
    Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark,
    To Gaul, to Greece and into Noah's ark.

These gentlemen are extremely useful in their way and place; but the
study of philology is not the study of literature. It is at best one of
its humble bond-slaves. A philologist may be minutely acquainted with
every twig in the family-tree of each obsolete word in the entire range
of Elizabethan literature, and yet be as darkly and as completely
ignorant of that glorious world of poetry as the stokers in an ocean
steamer are of the beauty of the sunset seen from the deck. It is often
necessary to know the derivation of a term, and perhaps something of
its history, in order to appreciate its force in a particular usage; but
to go through a book merely to pick out examples for philologic research
is like picking to pieces a mosaic to examine the separate bits of
glass.

While, moreover, attention to the force and value of details is insisted
upon, it must never be forgotten that the whole is of more value than
any or all of its parts. The reader must strive to receive the effect of
a book not only bit by bit, and page by page, and chapter by chapter,
but as a book. There should be in the mind a complete and ample
conception of it as a unit. It is not enough to appreciate the best
passages individually. The work is not ours until it exists in the mind
as a beautiful whole, as single and unbroken as one of those Japanese
crystal globes which look like spheres of living water. He who knows the
worth and beauty of passages is like an explorer. He is neither a
conqueror nor a ruler of the territory he has seen until it is his in
its entirety.

I believe that to comparatively few readers does it occur to make
deliberate and conscious effort to realize works as wholes. The
impression which a book leaves in the thought is of course in some sense
a result of what the book is as a unit; but this is seldom sharply clear
and vivid. The greatest works naturally give the most complete
impression, and the power of producing an effect as a whole is one of
the tests of art. The writer of genius is able so to choose what is
significant, and so to arrange his material that the appreciative
reader cannot fail to receive some one grand and dominating impression.
It is hardly possible, for instance, for any intelligent person to fail
to feel the cumulative passion of "King Lear." The calamities which come
upon the old man connect themselves in the mind of the reader so closely
with one central idea that it is rather difficult to escape from the
dominant idea than difficult to find it. In "Hamlet," on the other hand,
it is by no means easy to gain any complete and adequate grasp of the
play as a unit without careful and intimate study. It is, moreover, not
sure that one has gained a full conception of a work as a whole because
one has an impression even so strong as that which must come to any
receptive reader of "King Lear" or "Othello." To be profoundly touched
by the story is possible without so fully holding the tragedy
comprehendingly in the mind that its poignant meaning kindles the whole
imagination. We have not assimilated that from which we have received
merely fragmentary impressions. The appreciative reading of a really
great book is a profound emotional experience. Individual portions and
notable passages are at best but as incidents of which the real
significance is to be perceived only in the light of the whole.

The power of grasping a work of art as a unit is one which should be
deliberately cultivated. It is hardly likely to come unsought, even to
the most imaginative. It must rest, in the first place, upon a reading
of books as a whole. Whatever in any serious sense is worth reading
once is worth rereading indefinitely. It is idle to hope to grasp a
thing as a whole until one has become familiar with its parts. When once
the details are clear in the mind, it is possible to read with a
distinct and deliberate sense of the share that each passage bears in
the entire purpose. It is necessary, and I may add that it is
enchanting, to reread until the detached points gather themselves
together in the inner consciousness as molecules in a solution gather
themselves into a crystal. The delight of being able to realize what an
author had in mind as a whole is like that of the traveler who at last,
after long days of baffling mists which allowed but broken glimpses here
and there, sees before him the whole of some noble mountain, stripped
clean of clouds, standing sublime between earth and heaven.

Whatever effect a book has must depend largely upon the sympathy between
the reader and the author. To read sympathetically is as fundamental a
condition of good reading as is to read intelligently. It is well known
how impossible it is to talk with a person who is unresponsive, who will
not yield his own mood, and who does not share another's point of view.
On the other hand, we have all tried to listen to speakers with whom it
was not in our power to find ourselves in accord, and the result was
merely unprofitable weariness. For the time being the reader must give
himself up to the mood of the writer; he must follow his guidance, and
receive not only his words but his suggestions with fullest acquiescence
of perception, whatever be the differences of judgment. What Hawthorne
has said of painting is equally applicable to literature:--

  A picture, however admirable the painter's art, and wonderful his
  power, requires of the spectator a surrender of himself, in due
  proportion with the miracle which has been wrought. Let the canvas
  glow as it may, you must look with the eye of faith, or its highest
  excellence escapes you. There is always the necessity of helping out
  the painter's art with your own resources of sensibility and
  imagination. Not that these qualities shall really add anything to
  what the master has effected; but they must be put so entirely under
  his control and work along with him to such an extent that, in a
  different mood, when you are cold and critical instead of sympathetic,
  you will be apt to fancy that the loftier merits of the picture were
  of your own dreaming, not of his creating. Like all revelations of the
  better life, the adequate perception of a great work demands a gifted
  simplicity of vision.--_Marble Faun_, xxxvii.

Often it is difficult to find any meaning in what is written unless the
reader has entered into the spirit in which it was composed. I seriously
doubt, for instance, whether the ordinary person, coming upon the
following catch of satyrs, by Ben Jonson, is able to find it much above
the level of the melodies of Mother Goose:--

    "Buz," quoth the blue fly,
      "Hum," quoth the bee;
    Buz and hum they cry,
      And so do we.
    In his ear, in his nose,
      Thus, do you see?
    He ate the dormouse;
      Else it was he.

If you are not able to make much out of this, listen to what Leigh Hunt
says of it:--

  It is impossible that anything could better express than this, either
  the wild and practical joking of the satyrs, or the action of the
  thing described, or the quaintness and fitness of the images, or the
  melody and even harmony, the intercourse, of the musical words, one
  with another. None but a boon companion, with a very musical ear,
  could have written it.--_A Jar of Honey._

If the reader has the key to the mood in which this catch is written, if
he has given himself up to the sportive spirit in which "rare old Ben"
conceived it, it is possible to find in it the merit which Hunt points
out; but without thus giving ourselves up to the leadership of the poet
it is hardly possible to make of it anything at all. The example is of
course somewhat extreme, but the principle is universal.

It is always well in a first reading to give one's self up to the sweep
of the work; to go forward without bothering over slight errors or small
details. Notes are not for the first or the second perusal so much as
for the third and so on to the hundredth. Dr. Johnson is right when he
says:--

  Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils. Let him that
  is yet unacquainted with the powers of Shakespeare, and who desires to
  feel the highest pleasures that the drama can give, read every play
  from the first scene to the last, with utter negligence of all his
  commentators. When his fancy is once on the wing, let it not stoop to
  correction or explanation.

One of the great obstacles to the enjoyment of any art is the too
conscientious desire to enjoy. We are constantly hindered by the
conventional responsibility to experience over each classic the proper
emotion. The student is often so occupied in painful struggles to feel
that which he has been told to feel that he remains utterly cold and
unmoved. It is like going to some historic locality of noble suggestion,
where an officious guide moves the visitor from one precious spot to
another, saying in effect: "Here such an event happened. Now thrill.
Sixpence a thrill, please." For myself, being of a somewhat contumacious
character, I have never been able to thrill to order, even if a shilling
instead of sixpence were the price of the luxury; and in the same way I
am unable to follow out a prescribed set of emotions at the command of a
text-book on literature. Perhaps my temperament has made me unjustly
skeptical, but I have never been able to have much faith in the
genuineness of feelings carried on at the ordering of an emotional
programme. The student should let himself go. On the first reading, at
least, let what will happen so you are swept along in full enjoyment. It
is better to read with delight and misunderstand, than to plod forward
in wise stupidity, understanding all and comprehending nothing; gaining
the letter and failing utterly to achieve the spirit. The letter may be
attended to at any time; make sure first of the spirit. I do not mean
that one is to read carelessly; but I do mean that one is to read
enthusiastically, joyously, and, if it be possible, even passionately.

The best test of the completeness with which one has entered into the
heart of a book is just this keenness of enjoyment. Fully to share the
mood of the author is to share something of the delight of creation. It
is as if in the mind of the reader this work of beauty and of immortal
significance was springing into being. This enjoyment, moreover,
increases with familiarity. If you find that you do not care to take up
again a masterpiece because you have read it once, you may pretty safely
conclude that you have never truly read it at all. You have been over
it, it may be, and gratified some superficial curiosity; but you have
never got to its heart. Does one claim to be won to the heart of a
friend and yet to be willing never to see that friend more?

One may, of course, outgrow even a masterpiece. There are authors who
are genuine so far as they go, who may be enjoyed at one stage of
growth, yet who as the student advances become insufficient and
unattractive. The man who does not outgrow is not growing. One does not
healthily tire of a real book, however, until he has become greater than
that book. The interest which becomes weary of a masterpiece is more
than half curiosity, and at best is no more than intellectual. It is not
imaginative. Margaret Fuller confessed that she tired of everything she
read, even of Shakespeare. She thereby unconsciously discovered the
quality of mind which prevented her from being a great woman instead of
merely a brilliant one. She fed her intellect upon literature; but she
failed because literature does not reach to its highest function unless
its appeal to the intellect is the means of touching and arousing the
imagination; because the end of all art is not the mind but the
emotions.

It may seem that enough has already been required to make reading the
most serious of undertakings; yet there is still one requirement more
which is of the utmost importance. He is unworthy to share the delights
of great work who is not able to respect it; he has no right to meddle
with the best of literature who is not prepared to approach it with some
reverence. In the greatest books the master minds of the race have
graciously bidden their fellows into their high company. The honor
should be treated according to its worth. Irreverence is the deformity
of a diseased mind. The man who cannot revere what is noble is innately
degraded. When writers of genius have given us their best thoughts,
their deepest imaginings, their noblest emotions, it is for us to
receive them with bared heads. He is greatly to be pitied who, in
reading high imaginative work, has never been conscious of a sense of
being in a fine and noble presence, of having been admitted into a place
which should not be profaned. Only that soul is great which can
appreciate greatness. Remember that there is no surer measure of what
you are than the extent to which you are able to rise to the heights of
supreme books; the extent to which you are able to comprehend, to
delight in, and to revere, the masterpieces of literature.



VII

THE LANGUAGE OF LITERATURE


Whatever intelligence man imparts to man, at least all beyond the
crudest rudimentary beginnings, must be conveyed by conventions. There
must have been an agreement, tacit or explicit, that a certain sign
shall stand for a certain idea; and when that idea is to be expressed,
this sign must be used. In order that the meaning of any communication
may be understood, it is essential that the means of expression be
appreciated by hearer as well as by speaker. We have agreed that in
English a given sound shall represent a given idea; and to one who knows
this tongue the specified sound, either spoken or suggested by letters,
calls that idea up. To one unacquainted with English, the sound is
meaningless, because he is not a party to the agreement which has fixed
for it a conventional significance; or it may awake in his thought an
idea entirely different, because he belongs to a nation where tacit
agreement has fixed upon another meaning. The word "dot," for instance,
has by English-speaking folk been appropriated to the notion of a
trifling point or mark; while those who speak French, writing and
pronouncing the word in the same way, take it to indicate a dowry. In
order to communicate with any man, it is necessary to know what is the
set of conventions with which he is accustomed to convey and to receive
ideas.

The principle holds also in art. There is a conventional language in
sound or color or form as there is in words. It is broader as a rule,
because oftener founded upon general human characteristics, because more
directly and obviously borrowed from nature, and because not so warped
and distorted by those concessions to utility which have modified the
common tongues of men. Indeed, it might at first thought seem that the
language of art is universal, but a little reflection will show that
this is not the case. The sculpture of the Aztecs, for instance, is in
an art language utterly different from that of the sculpture of the
Greeks. If you recall the elaborately intricate uncouthness of the gods
of old Yucatan, you will easily appreciate that the artists who shaped
these did not employ the same artistic conventions as did the sculptors
who breathed life into the Venus of Melos, or who embodied divine
serenity and beauty in the Elgin marbles. To the Greeks those twisted
and thick-lipped Aztec deities, clutching one another by their crests of
plumes, or grasping rudely at one another's arms, would have conveyed no
sentiment of beauty or of reverence; while it is equally to be supposed
that the Aztec would have remained hardly moved before the wonders of
Greek sculpture. The Hellenic art conventions, it is true, were more
directly founded upon nature, and therefore more readily understood;
but even this would not have overcome the fact that one nation had one
art language and the other another. Those of you who were at the
Columbian Exposition will remember how the music in the Midway Plaisance
illustrated this same point. The weird strain of one or another savage
or barbaric folk came to the ear with a strangeness which showed how
ignorant we are of the language of the music of these dwellers in far
lands. To us it was bizarre or moving, but we could form little idea how
it struck the hearers to whom it was native and familiar. It was even
all but impossible to know whether a given strain was felt by the savage
performers to be grave or gay. Of all the varieties of sound which there
surprised the ear, that evolved by the Chinese appeared most harsh and
unmelodious. The almond-eyed Celestial seemed to delight in a
concatenation of crash and caterwauling, mingled in one infernal
cacophony at which the nerves tingled and the hair stood on end. Yet it
is on record that when in the early days of European intercourse with
China, the French missionary Amiot played airs by Rossini and Boieldieu
to a Chinese mandarin of intelligence and of cultivation according to
eastern standards, the Oriental shook his head disapprovingly. He
politely expressed his thanks for the entertainment, but when pressed to
give an opinion of the music he was forced to reply: "It is sadly devoid
of meaning and expression, while Chinese music penetrates the soul."
After we have smiled at the absurdity, from our point of view, of the
penetration of the soul by Chinese music, we reflect that after all our
music is probably as absurd to them as theirs to us. We perhaps recall
the fact that even the cultivated Japanese, with their sensitive feeling
for art, and their readiness to adopt occidental customs, complain of
the effect of dividing music into regular bars, and making it, as they
say, "chip-chop, chip-chop, chip-chop." The fact is that every
civilization makes its art language as it makes its word language; and
he who would understand the message must understand the conventions by
which it is expressed.

We are apt to forget this fact of the conventionality of all language.
We become so accustomed both to the speech of ordinary intercourse and
to that of familiar art, that we inevitably come to regard them as
natural and almost universal. No language, however, is natural, unless
it be fair to apply that word to the most primitive signs of savages. It
is an arbitrary thing, and as such it must be learned. We acquire the
ordinary tongue of our race almost unconsciously, and while we are too
young to reason about it. We gain the language of art later and more
deliberately, although of course we may owe much to our early
surroundings in this as in every other respect. The point to be kept in
mind is that we do learn it; that it is not the gift of nature. This is
of course true of all art; but here our concern is only with the fact
that literature has as truly its own peculiar language as music or
painting or sculpture,--its language, that is, distinct from the
language of ordinary daily or common speech.

The conventions which serve efficiently to convey ordinary ideas and
matter-of-fact statements, are not sufficient for the expression of
emotions. The man who has to tell the price of pigs and potatoes, the
amount of coal consumed in a locomotive engine, or the effect of
political complications upon the stock-market, is able to serve himself
sufficiently well with ordinary language. The novelist who has to tell
of the bewitchingly willful worldliness of Beatrix Esmond, of the
fateful and tragic experiences of Donatello and Miriam, the splendidly
real impossibilities of the career of D'Artagnan and his three friends,
the passion of Richard Feverel for Lucy, of Kmita for Olenka, of Marius
for Cosette; the dramatist who endeavors to make his readers share the
emotions of Lear and Cordelia, of Caliban and Desdemona, of Viola and
Juliet; the poet who would picture the emotions of Pompilia, of Lancelot
and Guinevere, of Porphyrio and Madeline, of Prometheus and Asia,--all
these require an especial language.

The conveying from mind to mind of emotion is a delicate task. It is not
difficult to make a man understand the price of oysters, but endeavor to
share with a fellow-being the secrets of a moment of transcendent
feeling, and you have an undertaking so complex, and so all but
impossible, that if you can perfectly succeed in it you may justly call
yourself the first writer of your age. This is the making of the
intangible tangible; the highest creative act of the imagination. The
cleverness and the skill of man have been exhausted in devising means to
impart to readers the thought and feeling, the passion and emotion,
which sway the hearts of mankind. It is not necessary here to go into
those devices which belong especially to the domain of rhetoric,--the
mechanics of style. They are designated in the old-fashioned text-books
by tongue-twisting Greek names which most of us have learned, and which
all of us have forgotten. It is not with them that I am here concerned.
They are meant to affect the reader unconsciously. It is with those
matters which appeal to the conscious understanding that we have now to
do; the conventions which are the language of literature as Latin was
the language of Cæsar or Greek the tongue of Pericles.

I have spoken already of the necessity of understanding what is said in
literature; this is, however, by no means the whole of the matter. It is
of even greater importance to be clearly aware of what is implied. We
test the imaginative quality of what is written by its power of
suggestion. The writer who has imagination will have so much to say that
he is forced to make a phrase call up a whole train of thought, a word
bring vividly to the mind of the reader a picture or a history. This is
what critics mean when they speak of the marvelous condensation of
Shakespeare; and in either prose or verse the criterion of imaginative
writing is whether it is suggestive. Imagination is the realizing
faculty. It is the power of receiving as true the ideal. It is the
accepting as actual that which is conjured up by the inner vision; the
making vital, palpitant, and present that which is known to be
materially but a dream. That which is written when the poet sees the
unseen palpably before his inner eye is so filled with the vitality and
actuality of his vision that it fills the mind of the reader as a tenth
wave floods and overflows a hollow in the rocks of the shore. When Keats
says of the song of the nightingale that it is

          The same that oft-times hath
    Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
      Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn,

all the romance and witchery of faery-lore are in this single phrase.
The reader feels the glow of delight, the fascination of old tales which
have pleased mankind from the childhood of the race. Into two lines the
poet has condensed the fragrance of a thousand flowers of folk-lore.

In the best literature what is said directly is often of less importance
than what is meant but not said. In dealing with imaginative writers, it
is necessary to keep always in mind the fact that the literal meaning is
but a part, and often not the greater part. The implied, the indirect,
is apt to be that for the sake of which the work is written.

In its earlier stages all language is largely made up of comparisons.
The fact that every tongue is full of fossil similes has been constantly
commented upon, and this fact serves to illustrate how greatly the force
of a word may be diminished if its original meaning is lost sight of.
If, in ordinary conversation, to take a common illustration, some
old-fashioned body now speak of a clergyman as a "pastor," it is to be
feared that the word connotes little, unless it be a suspicion of rustic
seediness in apparel, a certain provincial narrowness, and perhaps a
conventional piety. When the word was still in its prime, it carried
with it the force of its derivation; it spoke eloquently of one who
ministered spiritual food to his followers, as a shepherd ministers to
his flock. A pastor may now be as good as a pastor was then, but the
title has ceased to do him justice. The freshness and force of words get
worn off in time, as does by much use the sharpness of outline of a
coin. We need constantly to guard against this tendency of language. We
speak commonly enough in casual conversation of "a sardonic smile," but
the idea conveyed is no more than that of a forced and heartless grin.
As far back as the days of Homer, some imaginative man compared the
artificial and sinister smile of a cynic to the distortions and
convulsions produced by a poisonous herb in Sardinia; and from its very
persistence we may fancy how forcible and striking was the comparison in
its freshness. Of course, modern writers do not necessarily keep in mind
the derivation of every word and phrase which they employ; but they do
at least use terms with so much care for propriety and exactness that it
is impossible to seize the whole of their meaning, unless we appreciate
the niceties of their language. Ruskin says rightly:--

  You must get yourself into the habit of looking intensely at words,
  and assuring yourself of their meaning, syllable by syllable, letter
  by letter.... You might read all the books in the British Museum (if
  you could live long enough), and remain an utterly "illiterate,"
  uneducated person; but if you read ten pages of a good book, letter by
  letter,--that is to say, with real accuracy,--you are forevermore in
  some measure an educated person.--_Of Kings' Treasuries._

Unless our attention has been especially called to the fact, there are
few of us who at all realize how carelessly it is possible to read. We
begin in the nursery to let words pass without attaching to them any
idea which is really clear. We nourish our infant imaginations upon
Mother Goose, and are content to go all our days in ignorance even of
the meaning of a good many of the words so fondly familiar in pinafore
days. We are all acquainted with the true and thrilling tale how

    Thomas T. Tattamus took two tees
    To tie two tups up to two tall trees;

but how many of us know what either a "tee" or a "tup" is? We have all
been stirred in our susceptible youth by the rhyme wherein is recounted
the exciting adventure of the four and twenty tailors who set forth to
slay a snail, but who retreated in precipitate confusion when

    She put out her horns like a little Kyloe cow;

but it is to be feared that the proportion of us is not large who have
taken the trouble to ascertain what is a Kyloe cow. Or take the
well-worn ditty:--

      Cross-patch,
      Draw the latch,
    Sit by the fire and spin.

Have you ever stopped to reflect that "draw the latch" means to pull in
the latch-string, and that in the days of homely general hospitality to
which this contrivance belonged the image presented by the verse was
that of a misanthropic hag, shutting herself off from her neighbors and
sulking viciously by her fire behind a door rudely insulting the caller
with the empty hole of the latch-string?

Perhaps this seems trifling; and it may easily be insisted that these
rhymes become familiar to us while we are still too young to think of
the exact meaning of anything. The question then is whether we do better
when we are older. We are accustomed, very likely, to hear in common
speech the phrase "pay through the nose." Do you know what that means,
or that it goes back to the days of the Druids? When you hear the phrase
"where the shoe pinches" do you recall Plutarch's story? Does the
anecdote of St. Ambrose come to mind when the saying is "At Rome do as
the Romans do"? It happens every few years that the newspapers are full
of more or less excited talk about a "gerrymander." Does the word bring
before the inner eye that uncouth monster wherewith the caricaturist of
his day vexed the soul of Governor Gerry? I have tried to select
examples which are not remote from the talk of every day. It seems to me
that these illustrate well enough how apt we are to accept words and
phrases as we accept a silver dollar, with very little idea of the
intrinsic worth of what we are getting. This may be made to do well
enough in practical buying and selling, but it is eminently
unsatisfactory in matters intellectual or æsthetic. In the study of
literature approximations are apt to be pretty nearly worthless.

The most obvious characteristic in literary language is that of
allusion. Constantly does the reader of imaginative works encounter
allusions to the Bible, to mythology, to history, to folk-lore, and to
literature itself. To comprehend an author it is needful to realize
fully what he had in mind when using these. They are the symbols of
thoughts and feelings which are not to be expressed in ordinary ways.
When we are familiar with the matter alluded to we see by the sudden and
vivid light which is cast over the page by the comparison or the
suggestion how expressive and comprehensive this form of language may
be. To the reader who is ignorant the allusion is of course a
stumbling-block and a rock of offense. It is like a sentence in an
unknown tongue, which not only conceals its meaning but gives one an
irritated sense of being shut out of the author's counsels.

It is probable that in English literature the allusions to the Bible are
more numerous than any other. We shall have occasion later to speak of
the place and influence of the King James version upon the literature of
our tongue, and here we have to do only with those cases in which a
scriptural reference is made part of the special language of an author.
Again and again it happens that a writer takes advantage of the
associations which cluster about a phrase or an incident of the Bible,
and by a simple touch brings up in the mind of the understanding reader
all the sentiments connected with the original.

With many of the more common of these phrases it is impossible for any
one who associates with educated persons not to be familiar. They have
become part and parcel of the common speech of the time. We speak of the
"widow's mite," of a "Judas' kiss," of "the flesh-pots of Egypt," of "a
still, small voice," of a "Jehu," a "perfect Babel," a "Nimrod," of
"bread upon the waters," and of a "Delilah." The phrases have to a
considerable extent acquired their own meaning, so that even one who is
not familiar with the Scriptures is not likely to have difficulty in
getting from them a general idea. To the reader who is acquainted with
the force and origin of these terms, however, they have a vigor and
significance which for others they must lack. The name Jehu brings up to
him not merely a driver on a New England stage-coach, but the figure of
the newly crowned usurper rushing down to the slaughter of King Joram,
his master, when the watchman upon the wall looked out and said: "The
driving is like the driving of Jehu, the son of Nimshi; for he driveth
furiously." The phrase "bread upon the waters" affords a good
illustration here. Perhaps most readers are likely to know the origin of
the quotation, and probably the promise which concludes it. The number
is smaller who realize the figure to be that of the oriental farmer
casting abroad the seed-rice over flooded fields, sowing for the harvest
which he shall find "after many days." The phrase "a still, small voice"
has become dulled by common use,--one might almost say profane, since
the quotation is of a quality which should render it too dignified and
noble for careless employment. It speaks to the reader who knows its
origin of that magnificently impressive scene on Horeb when Elijah stood
on the mount before the Lord:--

  And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the
  mountain, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord
  was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord
  was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the
  Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still, small voice. And
  it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his
  mantle, and went out and stood in the entering in of the cave. And
  behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: "What doest thou here,
  Elijah?"--_1 Kings_ xix. 11-13.

It is not necessary to dwell upon this class of allusions. The reader
who expects to get from them their full force must know the original;
and while in ordinary speech these phrases are used carelessly and with
little regard for their full significance, they are in the work of
imaginative writers to be taken for all that they can and should convey.

There are other Biblical allusions which are less common and less
obvious. When in the "Ode on the Nativity," Milton speaks of

    ----that twice batter'd god of Palestine,

the verse means much to the reader who recalls the double fall of the
fish-tailed god Dagon before the captured ark of Israel, but to others
it is likely to mean nothing whatever. To be ignorant of the tale of
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego is to miss completely the force of
Hazlitt's remark that certain artists are so absorbed in their own
productions that "they walked through collections of the finest works
like the Children in the Fiery Furnace, untouched, unapproached." Not to
know the declaration of St. Paul of what he had suffered for his
faith[1] is to lose the point of Tennyson's verse

                    Not in vain,
    Like Paul with beasts, I fought with death.

Prose and poetry are alike full of scriptural phraseology. In short, for
the understanding of the language of allusion in English literature a
knowledge of the English Bible is neither more nor less than essential.

[Footnote 1: If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at
Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not?--_1 Cor._ xv.
32.]

Another class of allusions frequent in literature is the mythological.
Here also we find phrases which have passed so completely into every-day
currency that we hear and use them almost without reflecting upon their
origin. "Scylla and Charybdis," "dark as Erebus," "hydra-headed," and
"Pandora's box," are familiar examples. We speak of "a herculean task"
without in the least calling to mind the labors of Hercules, and employ
the phrase "the thread of life" without seeming to see the three grisly
Fates, spinning in the chill gray dusk of their cave. We have gone so
far as to condense a whole legend into a single word, and then to ignore
the story. We say "lethean," "mercurial," "aurora," and "bacchanalian,"
without recalling their real significance. It is obvious how a
perception of the original meaning of these terms must impart vividness
to their use or to their understanding. There are innumerable instances,
more particular, in which it is essential to know the force of a
reference to old myths, lest the finer meaning of the author be
altogether missed. In "The Wind-Harp" Lowell wrote:--

    I treasure in secret some long, fine hair
      Of tenderest brown....
    I twisted this magic in gossamer strings
      Over a wind-harp's Delphian hollow.

In the phrase "a wind-harp's Delphian hollow" the poet has suggested all
the mysterious and fateful utterances of the abyss from which the
Delphic priestess sucked up prophecies, and he has prepared the
comprehending reader for the oracular murmur which swells from the
instrument upon which have been stretched chords twisted from the hair
of the dead loved one. To miss this suggestion is to lose a vital part
of the poem. When Keats writes of "valley-lilies whiter still than
Leda's love," unless there come instantly to the mind the image of the
snowy swan whose form Jove took to win Leda, the phrase means nothing.
The woeful cry in "Antony and Cleopatra,"

    The shirt of Nessus is upon me; teach me,
    Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage,

is full of keen-edged horror when one recalls the garment poisoned with
his own blood by which the centaur avenged himself on Hercules. In a
flash it brings up the picture of the demigod tearing his flesh in more
than mortal agony, and calling to Philoctetes to light the funeral pyre
that he might be consumed alive. It is not needful to multiply examples
since they so frequently present themselves to the reader. The only
point to be made is that here we have another well defined division of
literary language.

Allusion to history is another characteristic form of the language of
literature. References to classic story are perhaps more common than
those to general or modern, but both are plentiful. Sometimes the form
is that of a familiar phrase, as "a Cadmean victory," "a Procrustean
bed," "a crusade," "a Waterloo," and so on. Phrases like these are
easily understood, although it is hardly possible to get their full
effect without a knowledge of their origin. What, however, would this
passage in Gray's "Elegy" convey to one unfamiliar with English
history?--

    Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast
      The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
    Some mute, inglorious Milton here may rest;
      Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

It is necessary to know about the majestic figure of ivory and gold
which the Athenian sculptor wrought, or one misses the meaning of
Emerson's couplet,--

    Not from a vain or shallow thought
    His awful Jove young Phidias brought.

Shakespeare abounds in examples of this use of allusions to history to
produce a clear or vivid impression of some emotion or thought.

    I will make a Star-chamber matter of it.

                                _Merry Wives_, i. 1.

    Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.

                         _Merchant of Venice_, i. 1.

    Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless,
    So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone,
    Drew Priam's curtain in the dead of night,
    And would have told him half his Troy was burnt.

                                _2 Henry IV._, i. 1.

The reader must know something of the Star-chamber, of the gravity and
wisdom of Nestor, of the circumstances of the tragic destruction of
Troy, or these passages can have little meaning for him.

Sometimes references of this class are less evident, as where Byron
speaks of

    The starry Galileo with his woes;

or where Poe finely compresses the whole splendid story of antiquity
into a couple of lines:--

    To the glory that was Greece
    And the grandeur that was Rome.

If we have in mind the varied and inspiring story of Greece and Rome,
these lines unroll before us like a matchless panorama. We linger over
them to let the imagination realize the full richness of their
suggestion. The heart beats more quickly, and we find ourselves
murmuring over and over to ourselves with a kindling sense of warmth and
glow:--

    To the glory that was Greece
    And the grandeur that was Rome.

Poe affords an excellent example of this device of historical allusion
carried to its extreme. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," there is a
stanza which reads:--

    Wanderers in that happy valley
      Through two luminous windows saw
    Spirits moving musically
      To a lute's well-tunèd law,
    Round about a throne, where sitting
        (Porphyrogene!)
    In state his glory well-befitting,
      The ruler of the realm was seen.

If the reader chance to know that in the great palace of Constantine the
Great at Constantinople there was a building of red porphyry, which by
special decree was made sacred to motherhood, and that here the princes
of the blood were born, being in recognition called "porphyrogene,"
there will come to him the vision which Poe desired to evoke. The word
will suggest the regal splendors of the Byzantine court at a time when
the whole world babbled of its glories, and will give to the verse a
richness of atmosphere which could hardly be produced by any piling up
of specific details. The reader who is not in possession of this
information can only stumble over the word as I did in my youth, with an
aggrieved feeling of being shut out from the inner mysteries of the
poem. I spoke of this as an extreme instance of the use of this form of
literary language, because the knowledge needed to render it
intelligible is more unusual and special than that generally appealed to
by writers. It is one of those bold strokes which are tremendously
effective when they succeed, but which are likely to fail with the
ordinary reader.

After historic allusion comes that to folk-lore, which used to be a good
deal appealed to by imaginative writers. Some knowledge of old beliefs
is often essential to the comprehension of earlier authors. Suckling,
for instance, says very charmingly:--

    But oh, she dances such a way!
    No sun upon an Easter day
      Is half so fine a sight!

The reference, of course, is to the superstition that the sun on Easter
morning danced for joy at the coming of the day when the Lord arose. To
get the force of the passage, it is necessary to put one's self into the
mood of those who believed this pretty legend. In the same way it is
only to one who is acquainted with the myth of the lubber fiend, the
spirit who did the work of the farm at night for the wage of a bowl of
cream set for him beside the kitchen fire, that there is meaning in the
lines in "L'Allegro:"--

    Tells how the grudging goblin sweat
    To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
    When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
    His shadowy flail hath thresh'd the corn
    That ten day-laborers could not end;
    And, stretch'd out all the chimney's length,
    Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
    And crop-full out of doors he flings,
    Ere the first cock his matin rings.

There is much of this folk-lore language in Shakespeare, and in our own
time Browning has perhaps more of it than any other prominent author.
It may be remarked in passing, that Browning, who loved odd books and
read a good many strange old works which are not within general reach,
is more difficult in this matter of allusion than any other
contemporary. References of this class are generally a trouble to the
ordinary reader, and especially are young students likely to be unable
to understand them readily.

The last class of allusions, and one which in books written to-day is
especially common, is that which calls up passages or characters in
literature itself. We speak of a "quixotic deed;" we allude to a thing
as to be taken "in a Pickwickian sense;" we have become so accustomed to
hearing a married man spoken of as a "Benedick," that we often forget
the brisk and gallant bachelor of "Much Ado about Nothing," and how he
was transformed into "Benedick the married man" almost without his own
consent. When an author who weighs his words employs allusions of this
sort, it is needful to know the originals well if we hope to get the
real intent of what is written. In "Il Penseroso," Milton says:--

    Sometime let gorgeous Tragedy
    In sceptered pall come sweeping by,
    Presenting Thebes or Pelops' line,
    Or the tale of Troy divine.

There should pass before the mind of the reader all the fateful story of
the ill-starred house of Labdacus: the horrible history of OEdipus,
involved in the meshes of destiny; the deadly strife of his sons, and
the sublime self-sacrifice of Antigone; all the involved and passionate
tragedies of the descendants of Pelops: Agamemnon, the slaughter of
Iphigenia, the vengeance of Clytemnestra, the waiting of Electra, the
matricide of Orestes and the descent of the Furies upon him; and after
this should come to mind the oft-told tale of Troy in all its fullness.
Milton was not one to use words inadvertently or without a clear sense
of all that they implied. He desired to suggest all the rich and tragic
histories which I have hinted at, to move the reader, and to show how
stirring and how pregnant is tragedy when dealing with high themes. In
two lines he evokes all that is most potent in Grecian poetry. Or again,
when Wordsworth speaks of

    The gentle Lady married to the Moor,
    And heavenly Una with her milk-white lamb,

it is not enough to glance at a foot-note and discover that the allusion
is to Desdemona, and to the first canto of Spenser's "Faerie Queene."
The reader is expected to be so familiar with the poems referred to that
the spirit of one and then of the other comes up to him in all its
beauty. An allusion of this sort should be like a breath of perfume
which suddenly calls up some dear and thrilling memory.

Enough has been said to show that the language of literature is a
complicated and in some respects a difficult one. Literature in its
highest and best sense is of an importance and of a value so great as to
justify the assumption that no difficulties of language are too great if
needed for the full expression of the message which genius bears to
mankind. In other words, the writer who can give to his fellows works
which are genuinely imaginative is justified in employing any
conventions which will really aid in expression. It is the part of his
readers to acquaint themselves with the means which he finds it best to
employ; and to be grateful for the gift of the master, whatever the
trouble it costs to appreciate and to enter into its spirit. If we are
wise, if we have a proper sense of values, we shall find it worth our
while to familiarize ourselves with scriptural phrases, with mythology,
history, folk-lore, or whatever will aid us in seizing the innermost
significance of masterpieces.

It is important, moreover, to know literary language before the moment
comes for using it. Information grubbed from foot-notes at the instant
of need may be better than continued ignorance, but it is impossible to
thrill and tingle over a passage in the middle of which allusions must
be looked up in the comments of the editor. It is like feeling one's way
through a poem in a foreign tongue when one must use a lexicon for every
second word. The feelings cannot carry the reader away if they must bear
not only the intangible imagination but a solidly material dictionary.
As has been said in a former page, notes should not be allowed to
interrupt a first reading. It is often a wise plan to study them
beforehand, so as to have their aid at once. It is certainly idle to
expect a vivid first impression if one stops continually to look up
obscure points; one cannot soar to the stars with foot-notes as a
flying-machine.

One danger must here be noted. The student may so fill his mind with
concern about the language that he cannot give himself up to the author.
The language is for the work, and not the work for the language. The
teacher who does not instruct the student in the meaning and value of
allusion fails of his mission; but the teacher who makes this the limit,
and fails to impress upon the learner the fact that all this is a means
to an end, commits a crime. I had rather intrust a youth to an
instructor ill-informed in the things of which we have been speaking,
and filled with a genuine love and reverence for beauty as far as he
could apprehend it, than to a preceptor completely equipped with
erudition, and filled with Philistine satisfaction over this knowledge
for its own sake. No amount of learning can compensate for a lack of
enthusiasm. The object of reading literature is not only to understand
it, but to experience it; not only to apprehend it with the intellect,
but to comprehend it with the emotions. To understand it is necessary
and highly important; but this is not the best thing. When the gods send
us gifts, let us not be content with examining the caskets.



VIII

THE INTANGIBLE LANGUAGE


We have spoken of the tangible language of literature; we have now to do
with that which is intangible. Open and direct allusion is neither the
more important nor the more common form of suggestion. He who has
trained himself to recognize references to things historical,
mythological, and so on, has not necessarily become fully familiar with
literary language. Phrase by phrase, and word by word, literature is a
succession of symbols. The aim of the imaginative writer is constantly
to excite the reader to an act of creation. He only is a poet who can
arouse in the mind a creative imagination. Indeed, one is tempted to
indulge here in an impossible paradox, and to say that he only is a poet
who can for the time being make his reader a poet also. The object of
that which is expressed is to arouse the intellect and the emotions to
search for that which is not expressed. The language of allusion is
directed to this end, but literature has also its means far more subtile
and far more effective.

Suggestion is still the essence of this, but it is suggestion conveyed
more delicately and impalpably. Sometimes it is so elusive as almost to
seem accidental or even fanciful. The choice of a single word gives to
a sentence a character which without it would be entirely wanting; a
simple epithet modifies an entire passage. In Lincoln's "Gettysburg
Address," for instance, after the so concise and forceful statement of
all that has brought the assembly together, the speaker declares "that
we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." The
adverb is the last of which an ordinary mind might have thought in this
connection, and yet once spoken, it is the one inevitable and supreme
word. It lifts the mind at once into an atmosphere elevated and noble.
By this single word Lincoln seems to say: "With the dead at our feet,
and the future for which they died before us, lifted by the
consciousness of all that their death meant, of all that hangs upon the
fidelity with which we carry forward the ideals for which they laid down
life itself, we '_highly_ resolve that their death shall not have been
in vain.'" The phrase is one of the most superb in American literature.
It is in itself a trumpet-blast clear and strong. Or take Shakespeare's
epithet when he speaks of "death's dateless night." To the appreciative
reader this is a word to catch the breath, and to touch one with the
horror of that dull darkness where time has ceased; where for the
sleeper there is neither end nor beginning, no point distinguished from
another; night from which all that makes life has been utterly swept
away. "Death's dateless night"!

It is told of Keats that in reading Spenser he shouted aloud in delight
over the phrase "sea-shouldering whales." The imagination is taken
captive by the vigor and vividness of the image of the great monsters
shouldering their mighty way through opposing waves as a giant might
push his path through a press of armed men, forging onward by sheer
force and bulk. The single word says more than pages of ordinary,
matter-of-fact description. The reader who cannot appreciate why Keats
cried out over this can hardly be said to have begun truly to understand
the effect of the epithet in imaginative writing.

Hazlitt cites the lines of Milton:--

    Him followed Rimmon, whose delightful seat
    Was fair Damascus, on the fertile banks
    Of Abbana and Pharphar, lucid streams;

and comments: "The word lucid here gives to the idea all the sparkling
effect of the most perfect landscape," In each of the following passages
from Shakespeare the single italicized word is in itself sufficient to
give distinction:--

    Enjoy the _honey-heavy_ dew of slumber.

                           _Julius Cæsar_, ii. 1.

    When love begins to sicken and decay
    It useth an _enforcèd_ ceremony.

                                    _Ib._, iv. 2.

    After life's _fitful_ fever he sleeps well.

                               _Macbeth_, iii. 2.

It would lead too far to enter upon the suggestiveness which is the
result of skillful use of technical means; but I cannot resist the
temptation to call attention to the great effect which may result from a
wise repetition of a single word, even if that word be in itself
commonplace. I know of nothing else in all literature where so
tremendous an effect is produced by simple means as by the use of this
device is given in the familiar lines:--

    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time.

                                    _Macbeth_, v.

The suggestion of heart-sick realization of the following of one day of
anguish after another seems to sum up in a moment all the woe of years
until it is almost more than can be borne.

In many passages appreciation is all but impossible unless the language
of suggestion is comprehended. To a dullard there is little or nothing
in the line of Chaucer:--

    Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye.

It is constantly as important to read what is not written as what is set
down. Lowell remarks of Chaucer: "Sometimes he describes amply by the
merest hint, as where the Friar, before setting himself softly down,
drives away the cat. We know without need of more words that he has
chosen the snuggest corner." The richest passages in literature are
precisely those which mean so much that to the careless or the obtuse
reader they seem to mean nothing.

The great principle of the need of complete comprehension of which we
have spoken before meets us here and everywhere. It is necessary to read
with a mind so receptive as almost to be creative: creative, that is, in
the sense of being able to evoke before the imagination of the reader
those things which have been present to the inner vision of the writer.
The comprehension of literary language is above all else the power of
translating suggestion into imaginative reality.

When we read, for instance:--

    Like waiting nymphs the trees present their fruit;

the line means nothing to us unless we are able with the eye of the mind
to see the sentient trees holding out their branches like living arms,
tendering their fruits. When Dekker says of patience:--

    'Tis the perpetual prisoner's liberty,
    His walks and orchards;

we do not hold the poet's meaning unless there has come to us a lively
sense of how the wretch condemned to life-long captivity may by patience
find in the midst of his durance the same buoyant joy which swells in
the heart of one who goes with the free step of a master along his own
walks and through his richly fruited orchards.

Almost any page of Shakespeare might be given bodily here in
illustration. Take, for instance, the talk of Lorenzo and Jessica as in
the moonlit garden at Belmont they await the return of Portia.

      _Lor._ The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
    When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
    And they did make no noise,--in such a night
    Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls,
    And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents,
    Where Cressid lay that night.
      _Jes._                In such a night
    Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dew,
    And saw the lion's shadow ere himself,
    And ran dismayed away.
      _Lor._                In such a night
    Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
    Upon the wild sea-banks, and waved her love
    To come again to Carthage.
      _Jes._                In such a night
    Medea gathered the enchanted herbs
    That did renew old Æson.

The question is how this is read. Do we go over the enchanting scene
mechanically and at speed, as if it were the account of a political
disturbance on the borders of Beloochistan? Do we take in the ideas with
crude apprehension, satisfied that we are doing our duty to ourselves
and to literature because the book which we are thus abusing is
Shakespeare? That is one way not to read. Again, we may, with laborious
pedantry, discover that all the stories alluded to in this passage are
from Chaucer's "Legends of Good Women;" that for a single particular
Shakespeare has apparently gone to Gower, but that most of the details
he has invented himself. We may look up the accounts of the legendary
personages mentioned, compare parallel passages in which they are named,
and hunt for the earliest reference to the willow as a sign of woe.
There is nothing necessarily vicious in all this. It is a sort of busy
idleness which is somewhat demoralizing to the mind, but it is not
criminal. It has, it is true, no especial relation to the genuine and
proper enjoyment of the poetry. That is a different affair! The reader
should luxuriate through the exquisite verse, letting the imagination
create fully every image, every emotion. The sense should be steeped in
the beauty of that garden, softly distinct in the golden splendors of
the moon; there should come again the feeling which has stolen over us
on some June night, so lovely that it seemed impossible but that dreams
should come true, and in sheer delight of the time we have involuntarily
sighed, "In such a night as this!"--as if all that is bewitching and
romantic might happen when earth and heaven were attuned to harmony so
complete. We should take in the full mood of the lines:--

    When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
    And they did make no noise.

The image of the amorous wind, subduing its riotous glee lest it be
overheard, and stealing as it were on tiptoe to kiss the trees, warm and
willing in the sweet-scented dusk, makes in the mind the very atmosphere
of the sensuous, luscious, moonlit garden at Belmont. We are ready to
give our fancy over to the mood of the lovers, and with them to call up
the potent images of folk immortal in the old tales:--

                            In such a night
    Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls,
    And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents,
    Where Cressid lay that night.

If we share the imaginings of the poet, we shall seem to see before us
the sheen of the weather-stained Grecian tents, silvered by the
moonlight there below the wall where we stand,--we shall seem to stretch
unavailing arms toward that far corner of the camp where Cressid must be
sleeping,--we shall feel a sigh swell our bosom, and our throat
contract.

                            In such a night
    Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dew,
    And saw the lion's shadow ere himself,
    And ran dismayed away.

The realizing reader moves with timorous eagerness to meet Pyramus,
feeling under foot the dew-wet grass and on the cheek the soft night
wind, and suddenly, with that awful chill of fright which is like an
actual grasp upon the heart, to see the shadow of the lion silhouetted
on the turf. He sees with the double vision of the imagination the
shrinking, terror-smitten Thisbe, arrested by the shadow at her feet,
while also he seems to look through her eyes at the beast which has
called up her gaze from the shade to the reality. He trembles with her
in a brief-long instant, and then flees in dismay.

Now all this is almost sure to seem to you to be rather closely allied
to that pest of teachers of composition which is known as "fine
writing." I realize that my comment obscures the text with what is
likely to seem a mist of sentimentality. There are two reasons why this
should be so,--two, I mean, besides the obvious necessity of failure
when we attempt to translate Shakespeare into our own language. In the
first place, the feelings involved belong to the elevated, poetic mood,
and not at all to dry lecturing. In the second place, and what is of
more importance, these emotions can be fairly and effectively conveyed
only by suggestion. It is not by specifying love, passion, hate, fear,
suspense, and the like, that an author brings them keenly to the mind;
but by arousing the reader's imagination to create them. It follows that
in insisting upon the necessity of understanding what is connoted as
well as what is denoted in what one reads, I am but calling attention to
the fact that this is the only way in which the most significant message
of a writer may be understood at all. The best of literature must be
received by suggestion or missed altogether.

Often ideas which are essential to the appreciation of even the simplest
import of a work are conveyed purely by inference. Doubtless most of you
are familiar with Rossetti's poem, "Sister Helen." A slighted maiden is
by witchcraft doing to death her faithless lover, melting his waxen
image before the fire, while he in agony afar wastes away under the eyes
of his newly wedded bride as the wax wastes by the flame. Her brother
from the gallery outside her tower window calls to her as one after
another the relatives of the dying man come to implore her mercy. The
first is announced in these words:--

    Oh, it's Keith of Eastholm rides so fast, ...
    For I know the white mane on the blast.

There follows the plea of the rider, and again the brother speaks:--

    Here's Keith of Westholm riding fast, ...
    For I know the white plume on the blast.

When the second suppliant has vainly prayed pity, and the third appears,
the boy calls to his sister:--

    Oh, it's Keith of Keith now that rides fast, ...
    For I know the white hair on the blast.

We see first a rider who is not of importance enough to overpower in the
mind of the boy the effect of his horse, and we feel instinctively that
some younger member of the house has been sent on this errand. Then
comes the second brother, and the boy is impressed by the knightly
plume, by the trappings of the rider rather than by his personality. An
older and more important member of the family has been dispatched as the
need has grown greater. It is not, however, until the old man comes,
with white locks floating on the wind, that the person of the messenger
seizes the attention; it is evident that the head of the house of Keith
has come, and that a desperate climax is at hand.

When one considers the care with which writers arrange details like
this, of how much depends upon the reader's comprehending them, one
knows not whether to be the more angry or the more pitiful in thinking
of the careless fashion in which literature is so commonly skimmed over.

It is essential, then, to read carefully and intelligently; and it is no
less essential to read imaginatively and sympathetically. Of course the
intelligent comprehension of which I am speaking cannot be reached
without the use of the imagination. No author can fulfill for you the
office of your own mind. In order to accompany an author who soars it is
necessary to have wings of one's own. Pegasus is a sure guide through
the trackless regions of the sky, but he drags none up after him. The
majority of readers are apt unconsciously to assume that a work of
imaginative literature is a sort of captive balloon in which any
excursionist who is in search of a novel sensation may be wafted
heavenward for the payment of a small fee. They sit down to some famous
book prepared to be raised far above earth, and they are not only
astonished but inclined to be indignant that nothing happens. They feel
that they have been defrauded, and that like the prophet Jonah they do
well to be angry. The reputation of the masterpiece they regard as a
sort of advertisement from which the book cannot fall away without
manifest dishonesty on the part of somebody. They are there; they are
ready to be thrilled; the reputation of the work guarantees the
thrilling; and yet they are unmoved. Straightway they pronounce the
reputation of that book a snare and a delusion. They do not in the least
appreciate the fact that they have not even learned the language in
which the author has written. Literature shows us what we may create for
ourselves; it suggests and inspires; it awakens us to the possibilities
of life; but the actual act of creation must every mind do for itself.
The hearing ear and the responsive imagination are as necessary as the
inspired voice to utter high things. You are able appreciatively to read
imaginative works when you are able, as William Blake has said:--

    To see the world in a grain of sand,
      And a heaven in a wild flower;
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
      And eternity in an hour.

The language of literature is in reality a tongue as foreign to
every-day speech as is the tongue of the folk of another land. It is
necessary to learn it as one learns a foreign idiom; and to appreciate
the fact that even when it is acquired what we read does not accomplish
for us the possibilities of emotion, but only points out the way in
which we may rise to them for ourselves.



IX

THE CLASSICS


The real nature of a classic is perhaps to the general mind even more
vague than that of literature. As long as the term is confined to Greek
and Roman authors, it is of course simple enough; but the moment the
word is given its general and legitimate application the ordinary reader
is apt to become somewhat uncertain of its precise meaning. It is not
strange, human nature being what it is, that the natural instinct of
most men is to take refuge in the idea that a classic is of so little
moment that it really does not matter much what it is.

While I was writing these talks, a friend said to me: "I know what I
would do if I were to speak about literature. I would tell my audience
squarely that all this talk about the superiority of the classics is
either superstition or mere affectation. I would give them the straight
tip that nobody nowadays really enjoys Homer and Chaucer and Spenser and
all those old duffers, and that nobody need expect to." I disregarded
the slang, and endeavored to treat this remark with absolute sincerity.
It brought up vividly the question which has occurred to most of us how
far the often expressed admiration of the classics is genuine. It is
impossible not to see that there is a great deal of talk which is purely
conventional. We know well enough that the ordinary reader does not take
Chaucer or Spenser from the shelf from year's end to year's end. It is
idle to deny that the latest novel has a thousand times better chance of
being read than any classic, and since there is always a latest novel
the classics are under a perpetual disadvantage. How far, then, was my
friend right? We live in an age when we dare to question anything; when
doubt examines everything. We claim to test things on their merits; and
if the reverence with which old authors have been regarded is a mere
tradition and a fetish, it is as well that its falsity be known.

Is it true that the majority of readers find the works of the great
writers of the past dull and unattractive? I must confess that it is
true. It is one of those facts of which we seldom speak in polite
society, as we seldom speak of the fact that so large a portion of
mankind yield to the temptations of life. It is more of an affront,
indeed, to intimate that a man is unfamiliar with Shakespeare than to
accuse him of having foully done to death his grandmother. Whatever be
the facts, we have tacitly agreed to assume that every intelligent man
is of course acquainted with certain books. We all recognize that we
live in a society in which familiarity with these works is put forward
as an essential condition of intellectual, and indeed almost of social
and moral, respectability. One would hesitate to ask to dinner a man
who confessed to a complete ignorance of "The Canterbury Tales;" and if
one's sister married a person so hardened as to own to being
unacquainted with "Hamlet," one would take a good deal of pains to
prevent the disgraceful fact from becoming public. We have come to
accept a knowledge of the classics as a measure of cultivation; and yet
at the same time, by an absurd contradiction, we allow that knowledge to
be assumed, and we accept for the real the sham while we are assured of
its falsity. In other words, we tacitly agree that cultivation shall be
tested by a certain criterion, and then allow men unrebuked to offer in
its stead the flimsiest pretext. We piously pretend that we all read the
masterpieces of literature while as a rule we do not; and the plain fact
is that few of us dare rebuke our neighbors lest we bring to light our
own shortcomings.

Such a state of things is sufficiently curious to be worth examination;
and there would also seem to be some advisability of amendment. If it is
not to be supposed that we can alter public sentiment, we may at least
free ourselves from the thralldom of superstition. If this admiration of
the classics which men profess with their lips, yet so commonly deny by
their acts, is a relic of old-time prejudice, if it be but a mouldy
inheritance from days when learning was invested with a sort of
supernatural dignity, it is surely time that it was cast aside. We
should at least know whether in this matter it is rational to hold by
common theory or by common practice.

In the first place it is necessary to supply that definition of a
classic which is so generally wanting. In their heart of hearts,
concealed like a secret crime, many persons hide an obstinate conviction
that a classic is any book which everybody should have read, yet which
nobody wishes to read. The idea is not unallied to the notion that
goodness is whatever we do not wish to do; and one is as sensible as the
other. It has already been said that the object of the study of
literature is to enjoy and to experience literature; to live in it and
to thrill with its emotions. It follows that the popular idea just
mentioned is neither more nor less sensible than the theory that it is
better to have lived than to live, to have loved than to love. Whatever
else may be said, it is manifest that this popular definition of a
classic as a book not to read but to have read is an absurd
contradiction of terms.

Equally common is the error that a classic is a book which is merely
old. One constantly hears the word applied to any work, copies of which
have come down to us from a former generation, with a tendency to assume
that merit is in direct proportion to antiquity. To disabuse the mind
from this error nothing is needed but to examine intelligently the
catalogue of any great library. Therein are to be found lists of
numerous authors whose productions have accidentally escaped submergence
in the stream of time, and are now preserved as simple and innocuous
diet for book-worms insectivorous or human. These writings are not
classics, although there is a tribe of busy idlers who devote their
best energies to keeping before the public works which have not
sufficient vitality to live of themselves,--editors who perform, in a
word, the functions of hospital nurses to literary senilities which
should be left in decent quiet to die from simple inanition. Mere age no
more makes a classic of a poor book than it makes a saint of a sinner.

A classic is more than a book which has been preserved. It must have
been approved. It is a work which has received the suffrages of
generations. Out of the innumerable books, of the making of which there
was no end even so long ago as the days of Solomon, some few have been
by the general voice of the world chosen as worthy of preservation.
There are certain writings which, amid all the multitudinous
distractions of practical life, amid all the changes of custom, belief,
and taste, have continuously pleased and moved mankind,--and to these we
give the name Classics.

A book has two sorts of interest; that which is temporary, and that
which is permanent. The former depends upon its relation to the time in
which it is produced. In these days of magazines there is a good deal of
talk about articles which are what is called timely. This means that
they fall in with some popular interest of the moment. When a war breaks
out in the Soudan, an account of recent explorations or travels in that
region is timely, because it appeals to readers who just then are eager
to increase their information concerning the scene of the disturbance.
When there is general discussion of any ethical or emotional topic, the
novel or the poem making that topic its theme finds instant response.
Often a book of no literary merit whatever speeds forward to notoriety
because it is attached, like a barnacle on the side of a ship, to some
leading issue of the day. At a time when there is wide discussion of
social reforms, for instance, a man might write a rubbishy romance
picturing an unhuman and impossible socialism, and find the fiction
spring into notoriety from its connection with the theme of popular talk
and thought. Books which are really notable, too, may owe their
immediate celebrity to connection with some vital topic of the day.
Their hold upon later attention will depend upon their lasting merit.

The permanent interest and value of a book are precisely those qualities
which have been specified as making it literature. As time goes on all
temporary importance fails. Nothing becomes more quickly obsolete than
the thing which is merely timely. It may retain interest as a curious
historic document. It will always have some value as showing what was
read by large numbers at a given period; but nobody will cherish the
merely timely book as literature, although in its prime it may have had
the widest vogue, and may have conferred upon its author a delicious
immortality lasting sometimes half his lifetime. Permanent interest
gives a book permanent value, and this depends upon appeal to the
permanent characteristics and emotions of humanity.

While the temporary excitement over a book continues, no matter how
evanescent the qualities upon which this excitement depends, the reader
finds it difficult to realize that the work is not genuine and vital. It
is not easy to distinguish the permanent from the momentary interest.
With the passage of time extraneous attractions fade, and the work is
left to depend upon its essential value. The classics are writings
which, when all factitious interests that might have been lent to them
by circumstances are stripped away, are found still to be of worth and
importance. They are the wheat left in the threshing-floor of time, when
has been blown away the chaff of sensational scribblings, noisily
notorious productions, and temporary works of what sort soever. It is of
course not impossible that a work may have both kinds of merit; and it
is by no means safe to conclude that a book is not of enduring worth
simply because it has appealed to instant interests and won immediate
popularity. "Don Quixote," on the one hand, and "Pilgrim's Progress," on
the other, may serve as examples of works which were timely in the best
sense, and which yet are permanent literature. The important point is
that in the classics we have works which, whether they did or did not
receive instant recognition, have by age been stripped of the
accidental, and are found worthy in virtue of the essential that
remains. They are books which have been proved by time, and have endured
the test.

The decision what is and what is not literature may be said to rest
with the general voice of the intellectual world. Vague as the phrase
may sound, it really represents the shaping power of the thought of the
race. It is true that here as in all other matters of belief the general
voice is likely to be a confirmation and a repetition of the voice of
the few; but whether at the outset indorsed by the few or not, a book
cannot be said to be fairly entitled to the name "classic" until it has
received this general sanction. Although this sanction, moreover, be as
intangible as the wind in a sail, yet like the wind it is decisive and
effective.

The leaders of thought, moreover, have not only praised these books and
had their judgment indorsed by the general voice, but they have by them
formed their own minds. They are unanimous in their testimony to the
value of the classics in the development of the perceptions,
intellectual and emotional. So universally true is this that to repeat
it seems the reiteration of a truism. The fact of which we have already
spoken, the fact that those who in theory profess to respect the
classics, do yet in practice neglect them utterly, makes it necessary to
examine the grounds upon which this truism rests. If the classics are
the books which the general voice of the best intelligence of the race
has declared to be permanently valuable, if the highest minds have
universally claimed to have been nourished and developed by them, why is
it that we so often neglect and practically ignore them?

In the first place there are the obstacles of language. There are the
so to say technical difficulties of literary diction and form which have
been somewhat considered in the preceding talks. There are the greater
difficulties of dealing with conceptions which belong to a different
mental world. To a savage, the intellectual and emotional experiences of
a civilized man would be incomprehensible, no matter in how clear speech
they were expressed. To the unimaginative man the life of the world of
imagination is pretty nearly as unintelligible as to the bushman of
Australian wilds would be the subtly refined distinctions of that now
extinct monster, the London æsthete. The men who wrote the classics
wrote earnestly and with profound conviction that which they profoundly
felt; it is needful to attain to their elevation in point of view before
what they have written can be comprehended. This is a feat by no means
easy for the ordinary reader. To one accustomed only to facile and
commonplace thoughts and emotions it is by no means a light undertaking
to rise to the level of the masters. Readers to whom the rhymes of the
"poet's corner" in the newspapers, for instance, are thrillingly sweet,
are hardly to be expected to be equal to the emotional stress of
Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound;" it is not to be supposed that those who
find "Over the Hills to the Poor-House" soul-satisfying will respond
readily to the poignant pathos of the parting of Hector and Andromache.
The admirers of "Curfew must not ring to-night" and the jig-saw school
of verse in general are mentally incapable of taking the attitude of
genuinely imaginative work. The greatest author can do but so much for
his reader. He may suggest, but each mind must for itself be the
creator. The classics are those works in which the geniuses of the world
have most effectively suggested genuine and vital emotions; but every
reader must feel those emotions for himself. Not even the music of the
spheres could touch the ear of a deaf man, and for the blind the beauty
of Grecian Helen would be no more than ugliness. As Mrs. Browning puts
it:--

    What angel but would seem
    To sensual eyes, ghost-dim?

The sluggish mind is incapable of comprehending, the torpid imagination
incapable of realizing; and the struggle to attain to comprehension and
to feeling is too great an exertion for the mentally indolent.

It is no less true, that to the mind unused to high emotions the vivid
life of imaginative literature is disconcerting. The ordinary reader is
as abashed in the presence of these deep and vibrant feelings which he
does not understand, and cannot share, as would be an English
washerwoman to whom a duchess paid a ceremonious afternoon call. The
feeling of inadequacy, of being confronted with an occasion to the
requirements of which one is utterly unequal, is baffling and unpleasant
to the last degree. In this difficulty of comprehending, and in this
inability to feel equal to the demands of the best literature, lies the
most obvious explanation of the common neglect of the classics.

It is also true that genuine literature demands for its proper
appreciation a mood which is fundamentally grave. Even beneath the
humorous runs this vein of serious feeling. It is not possible to read
Cervantes or Montaigne or Charles Lamb sympathetically without having
behind laughter or smiles a certain inner solemnity. Hidden under the
coarse and roaring fun of Rabelais lurk profound observations upon life,
which no earnest man can think of lightly. The jests and "excellent
fooling" of Shakespeare's clowns and drolls serve to emphasize the deep
thought or sentiment which is the real import of the poet's work.
Genuine feeling must always be serious, because it takes hold upon the
realities of human existence.

It is not that one reading the classics must be sad. Indeed, there is
nowhere else fun so keen, humor so exquisite, or sprightliness so
enchanting. It is only that human existence is a solemn thing if viewed
with a realization of its actualities and its possibilities; and that
the great aim of real literature is the presentation of life in its
essentials. It is not possible to be vividly conscious of the mystery in
the midst of which we live and not be touched with something of awe.
From this solemnity the feeble soul shrinks as a silly child shrinks
from the dark. The most profound feeling of which many persons are
capable is the instinctive desire not to feel deeply. To such readers
real literature means nothing, or it means too much. It fails to move
them, or it wearies them by forcing them to feel.

Yet another reason for the neglect of the classics is the irresistible
attractiveness which belongs always to novelty, which makes a reader
choose whatever is new rather than anything which has been robbed of
this quality by time. Every mind which is at all responsive is sensitive
to this fascination of that which has just been written. What is new
borrows importance from the infinite possibilities of the unknown. The
secret of life, the great key to all the baffling mysteries of human
existence, is still just beyond the bound of human endeavor, and there
is always a tingling sense that whatever is fresh may have touched the
longed-for solution to the riddle of existence. This zeal for the new
makes the old to be left neglected; and while we are eagerly welcoming
novelties which in the end too often prove to be of little or no value,
the classics, of tried and approved worth, stand in forlorn
dust-gathering on the higher shelves of the library.

A. Conan Doyle is reported as saying in a speech before a literary
society:--

  It might be no bad thing for a man now and again to make a literary
  retreat, as pious men make a spiritual one; to forswear absolutely for
  a month in the year all ephemeral literature, and to bring an
  untarnished mind to the reading of the classics.--_London Academy_,
  December 5, 1896.

The suggestion is so good that if it does not seem practical, it is so
much the worse for the age.



X

THE VALUE OF THE CLASSICS


It is sufficiently evident that the natural inclinations of the ordinary
man are not toward imaginative literature, and that unless there were
strong and tangible reasons why it is worth while to cultivate an
appreciation and a fondness for them, the classics would be so little
read that they might as well be sent to the junk-shop at once, save for
the occasional mortal whom the gods from his birth have endowed with the
precious gift of understanding high speech. These reasons, moreover,
must apply especially to the classics as distinguished from books in
general. Briefly stated, some of them are as follows:--

The need of a knowledge of the classics for the understanding of
literary language has already been spoken of at some length. This is, of
course, a minor and comparatively extraneous consideration, but it is
one not to be left wholly out. It is not difficult, however, to get a
superficial familiarity with famous writings by means of literary
dictionaries and extract books; and with this a good many persons are
apparently abundantly content. The process bears the same relation to
the actual study of the originals that looking at foreign photographic
views does to traveling abroad. It is undoubtedly better than nothing,
although it is by no means the real thing. It gives one an intellectual
understanding of classic and literary allusions, but not an emotional
one. Fully to appreciate and enjoy the allusions with which literature
is filled, it is essential to have gained knowledge directly from the
originals.

One reason why references to the classics are so frequent in literary
language, is that in these writings are found thought and emotional
expression in their youth, so to say. Even more important than learning
the force of these allusions is the coming in contact with this fresh
inspiration and utterance. That into which a man steps full grown can
never be to him the same as that in which he has grown up. We cannot
have with the thing which we have known only in its complete form the
same intimate connection as with that which we have watched from its
very beginnings. To that with which we have grown we are united by a
thousand delicate and intangible fibres, fine as cobweb and strong as
steel. The student who attempts to form himself solely upon the
literature of to-day misses entirely the childhood, the youth, the
growth of literary art. He comes full grown, and generally
sophisticated, to that which is itself full grown and sophisticated. It
is not possible for him to become himself a child, but he may go back
toward the childhood of emotional expression and as it were advance step
by step with the race. He may feel each fresh emotional discovery as if
it were as new to him as it was in truth new for the author who
centuries ago expressed it so well that the record has become immortal.

I do not know whether what I mean is fully clear, and it is of course
difficult to give examples where the matter is so subtle. It is certain,
however, that any reader of early literature must be conscious how in
the simplicity and naïveté of the best old authors we find things which
are now hackneyed and all but commonplace said with a freshness and
conviction which makes them for the first time real to us. Many emotions
have been so long recognized and expressed in literature that there
seems hardly to be a conceivable phase in which they have not been
shown, and hardly a conceivable phrase in which they have not been
embodied. It appears impossible to express them now with the freshness
and sincerity which belonged to them when they were first imprisoned in
words. So true is this that were it not that the personal impress of
genius and the experience of the imaginative writer always give
vitality, literature would cease from the face of the earth, and become
a lost art.

It is the persuasion and vividness of first discovery which impart to
the folk-song its charm and force. The early ballads often put to shame
the poetry of later days. The unsophisticated singers of these lays had
never been told that it was proper for them to have any especial
emotions; they had never heard talk about this feeling or that, and art
did not consciously exist for them as other than the spontaneous and
sincere expression of what really moved them. That which they felt too
strongly to repress, they said without any self-consciousness. Their
artistic forms were so simple as to impose no hindrance to the
instinctive desire for revealing to others what swelled in their very
hearts. The result is that impressiveness and that convincingness which
can come from nothing but perfect sincerity. Innumerable poets have put
into verse the sentiments of the familiar folk-song, "Waly, waly;" yet
it is not easy to find in all the list the same thing said with a
certain childlike directness which goes to the heart that one finds in
passages like this:--

    O waly, waly, but love be bonny
      A little time while it is new;
    But when 'tis auld, it waxeth cauld,
      And fades awa' like morning dew!

What later singer is there who has surpassed in pathos that makes the
heart ache the exquisite beauty of "Fair Helen"?

    I would I were where Helen lies;
    Night and day on me she cries;
    Oh, that I were where Helen lies
      On fair Kirconnell Lea!...

    I would I were where Helen lies;
    Night and day on me she cries;
    And I am weary of the skies,
      Since my love died for me.

The directness and simplicity which are the charm of folk-song and
ballad are far more likely to be found in early literature than in that
which is produced under conditions which foster self-consciousness. They
belong, it is true, to the work of all really great writers. No man can
produce genuinely great art without being completely possessed by the
emotions which he expresses; so that for the time being he is not wholly
removed from the mood of the primitive singers. Singleness of purpose
and simplicity of expression, however, are the birthright of those
writers who have been pioneers in literature. It is chiefly in their
work that we may hope to experience the delight of finding emotions in
the freshness of their first youth, of gaining something of that
realization of perception which is fully only his who first of mortal
men discovers and proclaims some new possibility of human existence.

Another quality of much importance in primitive writings and the early
classics is complete freedom from sentimentality. As certain parasites
do not attack young trees, so sentimentality is a fungus which never
appears upon a literature until it is well grown. It is not until a
people is sufficiently cultivated to appreciate the expression of
emotions in art that it is capable of imitating them or of simulating
that which it has learned to regard as a desirable or noble feeling. As
cultivation advances, there is sure to be at length a time when those
who have more vanity than sentiment begin to affect that which it has
come to be considered a mark of high cultivation to feel. We all know
this vice of affectation too well, and I mention it only to remark that
from this literature in its early stages is far more apt to be free than
it is in its later and more consciously developed phases.

The blight which follows sentimentality is morbidity; and one of the
most important characteristics of the genuine classics is their
wholesome sanity. By sanity I mean freedom from the morbid and the
diseased; and the quality is one especially to be prized in these days
of morbid tendencies and diseased eccentricities. There is much in many
of the classics which is sufficiently coarse when measured by later and
more refined standards; but even this is free from the gangrene which
has developed in over-ripe civilizations. Rabelais chose the dung-hill
as his pulpit; in Shakespeare and Chaucer and Homer and in the Bible
there are many things which no clean-minded man would now think of
saying; but there is in none of these any of that insane pruriency which
is the chief claim to distinction of several notorious contemporary
authors. Neither is there in classic writers the puling, sentimental,
sickly way of looking at life as something all awry. The reader who sits
down to the Greek poets, to Dante, to Chaucer, to Molière, to
Shakespeare, to Cervantes, to Montaigne, to Milton, knows at least that
he is entering an atmosphere wholesome, bracing, and manly, free alike
from sentimentality and from all morbid and insane taint.

Besides a knowledge of literary language, we must from the classics gain
our standards of literary judgment. This follows from what has been said
of temporary and permanent interest in books. Only in the classics do we
find literature reduced to its essentials. The accidental associations
which cluster about any contemporary work, the fleeting value which
this or that may have from accidental conditions, the obscurity into
which prejudice of a particular time may throw real merit, all help to
make it impossible to learn from contemporary work what is really and
essentially bad or good. It is from works which may be looked at
dispassionately, writings from which the accidental has been stripped by
time, that we must inform ourselves what shall be the standard of merit.
It is only from the classics that we may learn to discriminate the
essential from the incidental, the permanent from the temporary; and
thus gain a criterion by which to try the innumerable books poured upon
us by the inexhaustible press of to-day.

Nor do we gain only standards of literature from the classics, but
standards of life as well. In a certain sense standards of literature
and of life may be said to be one, since our estimate of the truth and
the value of a work of art and our judgment of the meaning and value of
existence can hardly be separated. The highest object for which we study
any literature being to develop character and to gain a knowledge of the
conditions of being, it follows that it is for these reasons in especial
that we turn to the classics. These works are the verdicts upon life
which have been most generally approved by the wisest men who have
lived; and they have been tested not by the experiences of one
generation only, but by those of succeeding centuries. For wise,
wholesome, and comprehensive living there is no better aid than a
familiar, intimate, sympathetic knowledge of the classics.



XI

THE GREATER CLASSICS


There are, then, clear and grave reasons why the classics are worthy of
the most intelligent and careful attention. The evidence supports
cultivated theory rather than popular practice. We are surely right in
the most exacting estimate of the place that they should hold in our
lives; and in so far as we neglect them, in so far we are justly
condemned by the general if vague opinion of society at large. They are
the works to which apply with especial force whatever reasons there are
which give value to literature; they are the means most efficient and
most readily at hand for the enriching and the ennobling of life.

It is impossible here to specify to any great extent what individual
books among the classics are of most importance. This has been done over
and over, and it is within the scope of these talks to do little more
than to consider the general relation to life of the study of
literature. Some, however, are of so much prominence that it is
impossible to pass them in silence. There are certain works which
inevitably come to the mind as soon as one speaks of the classics at
all; and of these perhaps the most prominent are the Bible, Homer,
Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. The Greek tragedians, Boccaccio,
Molière, Cervantes, Montaigne, Spenser, Milton, Ariosto, Petrarch,
Tasso, and the glorious company of other writers, such as the
Elizabethan dramatists and the few really great Latin authors, it seems
almost inexcusable not to discuss individually, yet they must be passed
over here. The simple lists of these men and their works give to the
mind of the genuine book-lover a glow as if he had drunk of generous
wine. No man eager to get the most from life will pass them by; but in
these talks there is not space to consider them particularly.

Although it is only with its literary values that we have at present any
concern, it is somewhat difficult to speak of the Bible from a merely
literary point of view. Those who regard the Bible as an inspired oracle
are apt to forget that it has too a literary worth, distinct from its
religious function, and they are inclined to feel somewhat shocked at
any discussion which even for the moment leaves its ethical character
out of account. On the other hand, those who look upon the Scriptures as
the instrument of a theology of which they do not approve are apt in
their hostility to be blind to the literary importance and excellence of
the work. There is, too, a third class, perhaps to-day, and especially
among the rising generation, the most numerous of all, who simply
neglect the Bible as dull and unattractive, and made doubly so by the
iteration of appeals that it be read as a religious guide. Undoubtedly
this feeling has been fostered by the injudicious zeal of many of the
friends of the book, who have forced the Scriptures forward until they
have awakened that impulse of resistance which is the instinctive
self-preservation of individuality. In all these classes for different
reasons praise of the Bible is likely to awaken a feeling of opposition;
yet the fact remains that from a purely literary point of view the Bible
is the most important prose work in the language.

The rational attitude of the student toward the Scriptures is that which
separates entirely the religious from the literary consideration. I wish
to speak on the same footing to those who do and those who do not regard
the Bible as a sacred book, with those who do and those who do not
receive its religious teachings. Let for the moment these points be
waived entirely, and there remains the splendid literary worth of this
great classic; there remains the fact that it has shaped faith and
fortune for the whole of Europe and America for centuries; and
especially that the English version has been the most powerful of all
intellectual and imaginative forces in moulding the thought and the
literature of all English-speaking peoples. One may regard the
theological effects of the Scriptures as altogether admirable, or one
may feel that some of them have been narrowing and unfortunate; one may
reject or accept the book as a religious authority; but at least one
must recognize that it is not possible to enter upon the intellectual
and emotional heritage of the race without being acquainted with the
King James Bible.

"Intense study of the Bible," Coleridge has said most justly, "will keep
any writer from being vulgar in point of style." He might almost have
added that appreciative study of this book will protect any reader from
vulgarity in literature and life alike. The early sacred writings of any
people have in them the dignity of sincere conviction and imaginative
emotion. The races to which these books have been divine have revered
them as the word of the Deity, but it is the supreme emotion which
thrills through them that has touched their readers and made possible
and real the claim of inspiration. Every responsive reader must vibrate
with the human feeling of which they are full. We are little likely to
have anything but curiosity concerning the dogmas of the ancient Hindoo
or Persian religion, yet it is impossible to read the ecstatic hymns of
the Vedas or the exalted pages of the Zend-Avesta without being
profoundly moved by the humanity which cries out in them. Of the Bible
this is especially true for us, because the book is so closely connected
with the life and development of our branch of the human family.

If it were asked which of the classics a man absolutely must know to
attain to a knowledge of literature even respectable, the answer
undoubtedly would be: "The Bible and Shakespeare." He must be
familiar--familiar in the sense in which we use that word in the phrase,
"mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted"--with the greatest plays
of Shakespeare, and with the finer portions of the Scriptures. I do not
of course mean all of the Bible. Nobody, no matter how devout, can be
expected to find imaginative stimulus in strings of genealogies such as
that which begins the Book of Chronicles, or in the minute details of
the Jewish ceremonial law. I mean the simple directness of Genesis and
Exodus; the straightforward sincerity of Judges and Joshua; the
sweetness and beauty of Ruth and Esther; the passionately idealized
sensuousness of Canticles; the shrewdly pathetic wisdom of Ecclesiastes;
the splendidly imaginative ecstasies of Isaiah; the uplift of the
Psalms; the tender virility of the Gospels; the spiritual dithyrambics
of the Apocalypse. No reader less dull than a clod can remain unreverent
and unthrilled in the presence of that magnificent poem which one
hesitates to say is surpassed by either Homer or Dante, the Book of Job.
The student of literature may be of any religion or of no religion, but
he must realize, and realize by intimate acquaintance, that, taken as a
whole, the Bible is the most virile, the most idiomatic, the most
imaginative prose work in the language.

The appearance of literary editions of portions of the Bible for general
reading is an encouraging sign that there is to-day a reaction from the
neglect into which the book has fallen. Unfortunately, these editions
follow for the most part the text of the Revised Version, which may be
excellent from a theological point of view, but which from a literary
one stands in much the same relation to the King James version as the
paraphrases of Dryden stand to the original text of Chaucer. The
literary student is concerned with the book which has been in the hands
and hearts of writers and thinkers of preceding generations; with the
words which have tinctured the prose masterpieces and given color to the
poetry of our tongue. To attempt to alter the text now is for the
genuine literary student not unlike modernizing Shakespeare.

The Bible is a library in itself, so great is its variety; and it is
practically indispensable as a companion in literary study. To neglect
it is one of the most grave errors possible to the student. It has, it
is true, its serious and obvious defects, and from a literary point of
view the New Testament is infinitely less interesting than the Old; but
taken all in all, it is a great and an enchanting book, permanent in its
worth and permanent in its interest.

To go on to talk of Homer is at once to bring up the much-vexed question
of reading translations. It seems to me rather idle in these days to
take time to discuss this. Whatever decision be arrived at, the fact
remains that the general reader will not read the classics in the
original. However great the loss, he must take them in the English
version, or let them alone. Even the most accomplished graduates of the
best colleges are not always capable of appreciating in Greek the
literary flavor of the works which they can translate pretty accurately.
There is no longer time in these busy and over-crowded days for the
student so to saturate himself with a dead language that it shall be as
familiar to him as his own tongue. The multiplicity of present
impressions renders it all but impossible to get completely into the
atmosphere of a civilization bygone. A few of the men trained in foreign
schools in the most scholarly fashion have probably arrived at the power
of feeling sensitively the literary quality of the classics in the
original; but for the ordinary student, this is entirely out of the
question. It is sad, but it is an inevitable human limitation. Emerson,
as is well known, boldly commended the practice of reading translations.
His sterling sense probably desired the consistency of having theory
agree with practice where there is not the slightest hope of making
practice agree with theory. Whether we like it or do not like it, the
truth is that most persons will take the Greek and Latin authors in
translation or not at all.

And certainly they must be read in some tongue. No genuine student of
literature will neglect Homer or the Greek tragedians. The old Greeks
were by no means always estimable creatures. They not infrequently did
those things which they ought not to have done, and left undone those
things which they ought to have done; but the prayer-book did not then
exist, so that in spite of all there was plenty of health in them. They
were not models in morals, while they were entirely unacquainted with
many modern refinements; but they were eminently human. They were sane
and wholesome beings, manly and womanly; so that a reader is in far
better company with the heroes of Homer in their vices than he is with
the morbid creations of much modern fiction in their moments of the most
conscious and painfully elaborated virtue. Herein, it seems to me, lies
the greatest value of Greek literature. Before he can be anything else
thoroughly and soundly, a man must be healthily human. Hot-house virtue
is on the whole about as dangerous a disease as open-air vice; and it is
far more difficult to cure. Unless a man or a woman be genuine, he or
she is nothing, and the mere appearance of good or evil is not of
profound consequence. To be sane and human, to think genuine thoughts,
and to do genuine deeds, is the beginning of all real virtue; and
nothing is more conducive to the development of genuineness than the
company of those who are sound and real. If we are with whole-souled
folk, we cannot pose, even to ourselves; and it seems to me that the
reader who, with full and buoyant imagination, puts himself into the
company of the Greeks of Homer or Æschylus or Euripides or Sophocles
cannot be content, for the time being at least, to be anything but a
simply genuine human creature himself.

Of course I do not mean that the reader reasons this out. Consciously to
think that we will be genuine is dangerously near a pose in itself. It
is that he finds himself in a company so thoroughly manly, so real and
virile, that he instinctively will take long breaths, and without
thinking of it lay aside the conventional pose which self is so apt to
impose upon self. We do not, while reading, lose in the least the power
of judging between right and wrong. We realize that Ulysses, delightful
old rascal though he is, is an unconscionable trickster. We are no more
likely to play fast and loose with domestic ties because the Grecian
heroes, and even the Greek gods, left their morals at home for their
wives to keep bright while they went abroad to take their pleasure.
Manners and standards in those days were not altogether the same that
they are now; but right is right in Homer, and wrong is wrong, as it is
in the work of every really great poet since the world began. The whole
of Greek poetry, like Greek sculpture, has an enchanting and wholesome
open-air quality; and even when it is nude it is not naked. We miss much
of the beauty by losing the wonderful form, and no translation ever
approached the original, but we get always the mood of sanity and
reality.

The mood of Dante seems sometimes more difficult for the modern reader
than that of the Greeks. The high spiritual severity, the passionate
austerity of the Florentine, are certainly far removed from the busy,
practical temper of to-day. Far away as they are in time, the Greeks
were after all men of tangible deeds, of practical affairs; they knew
the taste of ginger hot i' the mouth, and took hold upon life with a
zest thoroughly to be appreciated in this materialistic age. Dante, on
the other hand, has the burning solemnity of the prophets of the Old
Testament, so that the point of view of the "Divine Comedy" is not far
removed from that of Isaiah. Of all the greatest classics the "Divine
Comedy" is probably the least read to-day, at any rate in this country.
The translations of it are for the most part hopelessly unsatisfactory,
the impossibility of setting poetry over from the honeyed Italian into a
language of a genius so different as the English being painfully obvious
even to those little critical. There is a great deal that is obscure,
and yet more which cannot be understood without a good deal of special
historical information; so that it is impossible to read Dante for the
first time without that frequent reference to the notes which is so
unfortunate and undesirable in a first reading. It is practically
necessary to go over the notes with care once or twice before attempting
the poem. Get the information first, and then plunge into the poetry. It
is a plunge into a sea whereof the brine is bitter, the waters
piercingly cold, and where not infrequently the waves roll high; but it
is a plunge invigorating and life-giving. The man who has once read
Dante with sympathy and delight can never again be wholly common and
unclean, no matter into what woful faults and follies he may thereafter
fall.

To come nearer home, readers are somewhat foolishly apt to feel that it
is about as difficult to read Chaucer as it is to read Homer or Dante.
As a matter of fact any intelligent and educated person should be able
to master the theories of the pronunciation of Chaucerian English in a
couple of mornings, and to read him with ease and pleasure in a week or
two at most. It is a pity that there is not a good complete edition of
Chaucer pointed and accented, so that the reader might not be troubled
with any consciousness of effort; but after all, the difficulty lies
more in the idea than in the fact. When one has mastered the language of
the thirteenth century, in company how enchanting does he find himself!
The sweetness, the wholesomeness, the kindliness, the sincerity, the
humor, and the humanity of Chaucer can hardly be over-praised.

Of Shakespeare,--"our myriad-minded Shakespeare,"--it seems almost
needless to speak. Concerning his poetry one may be silent because the
theme is so wide, and because writers so many and so able have already
discoursed upon the subject so eloquently. To attempt to-day to explain
why men should read Shakespeare is like entering into an argument to
prove that men should delight in the sunshine or to explain that the sea
is beautiful and wonderful. If readers to-day neglect this supreme
classic it is not from ignorance of its importance. It may be from a
want of realization of the pleasure and inspiration which the poet
affords. Those who have not tested it may doubt as one heart-whole
doubts the joys of love, and in either case only experience can make
wise.

Dryden's words may suffice here and stand for all the quotations which
might be made:--

  To begin with Shakespeare. He was the man who of all modern and
  perhaps ancient poets had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All
  the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not
  laboriously, but luckily: when he describes anything you more than see
  it, you feel it.

  The man who does not read and delight in this poet is scarcely to be
  considered intellectually alive at all, as far as there is any
  connection between the mind and literature; and the highest
  intellectual crime of which an English-speaking man is capable is to
  leave his Shakespeare to gather dust upon his shelves unread.

In all this I do not wish to be understood as holding that we are always
to read the classics, or that we are to read nothing else. To live up to
the requirements of the society of Apollo continuously would be too
fatiguing even for the Muses. We cannot be always in a state of
exaltation; but we cannot in any high sense live at all without becoming
familiar with what exalted living is. The study of the classics calls
for conscious and often for strong endeavor. We do not put ourselves
thoroughly into the mood of other times and of remote conditions without
effort. Indeed, it requires effort to lift our less buoyant imaginations
to the level of any great work. The sympathetic reading of any supremely
imaginative author is like climbing a mountain,--it is not to be
accomplished without strain, but it rewards one with the breath of an
upper air and a breadth of view impossible in the valley. For him who
prefers the outlook of the earth-worm to that of the eagle the classics
have no message and no meaning. For him who is not content with any view
save the widest, these are the mountain peaks which lift to the highest
and noblest sight.



XII

CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE


We speak of the classics, of ancient literature, and of contemporary
literature, but in reality all literature is one. We divide it into
sections for convenience of study, but it is a notable error to forget
that it is consecutive from the dawn of civilization to the present. It
is true that in applying the term to works of our own time it is both
customary and necessary to employ the word with a meaning wider than
that which it has elsewhere. It is often difficult to distinguish in
contemporary productions that which is of genuine and lasting merit from
that which is simply meretricious and momentary, and still harder to
force others to recognize such distinction when made. It is therefore
inevitable that the name literature should have a broader signification
than when applied to work which has been tested and approved by time.

There are few things more perplexing than the attempt to choose from the
all but innumerable books of our own day those which are to be
considered as genuine. If we are able to keep vividly in mind what
qualities make a thing literature, it is possible to have some not
inadequate idea of what contemporary writings most completely fulfill
the given conditions. We are able to speak with assurance of the work
of a Tennyson or a Browning; and to feel that we have witnessed the
birth of classics of the future. Beside these, however, stand the
enormous multitude of books which are widely read, much talked about,
and voluminously advertised; books which we cannot openly dispraise
without the risk of being sneered at as captious or condemned as
conceited. There are the poems which publishers inform the public in
column-long advertisements, bristling with the testimonials of men and
women who make writing their business, are the finest productions since
Shakespeare; there are the novels which prove themselves to be works of
genius by selling by the hundreds of thousands of copies and very likely
being given to the purchasers of six bars of some patent soap; there are
the thin and persecuted looking volumes of "prose poems" or rhyming
prose which are looked upon by small bands of devoted followers as the
morsel of leaven which is to leaven the whole lump; there are, in short,
all those perplexing writings which have merit of some kind and in some
degree, yet to decide the genuine and lasting merit of which might tax
the wisdom and the patience of a Solomon of Solomons.

I have already spoken of the effect which temporary qualities are sure
to have in determining the success of an author. The history of books is
full of instances of works which have in their brief day filled the
reading world with noisy admiration, but which have in the end been
found destitute of enduring merit. While transient fame is at its
height, while enthusiastically injudicious admirers are praising and
judiciously enthusiastic publishers are reëchoing their plaudits, it is
a well-trained mind that is able to form a sound and rational judgment,
and to distinguish between the ephemeral and the abiding. The only hope
lies in a careful and discriminating application of standards deduced
from the classics. He who desires to judge the books of to-day must
depend upon comparison with the books of yesterday. He must be able to
feel toward the literature of the past as if it were of the present, and
toward that of the present as if it were of the past.

It is not to the popular verdict upon a work that one can look for aid
in deciding upon real merit. In time the general public accepts the
verdict of the few, but at first it is the noisy opinion of the many,
voluble and undiscriminating, which is heard. The general public is
always affected more by the accidental than by the permanent qualities
of a work, and it is more often imposed upon by shams than touched by
real feeling. It is easy to recognize conventional signs for sentiment,
and it is not difficult for the ordinary reader to persuade himself that
he experiences emotions which are explicitly set forth for him. Popular
taste and popular power of appreciation are not inaccurately represented
by those eminently successful journals which in one column give the
fashions and receipts for cake and in the next detailed directions for
experiencing all the sensations of culture. Sentimentality is always
more instantly and more widely effective than sentiment. Sentimentality
finds a ready response from the fact that it only calls upon us to seem,
while sentiment demands that for the time being at least we shall be.

It is necessary here to say that I do not wish to be misunderstood. I do
not mean in the least to speak with scorn or contempt of the lack of
power justly to discriminate and to appreciate which comes from either
natural disability or lack of opportunities of cultivation. Narrowness
of comprehension and appreciation is a misfortune, but it is not
necessarily a fault. I mean only to point out that it is a thing to be
outgrown if possible. Of the pathos of lives which are denied their
desire in this I am too keenly aware to speak of such otherwise than
tenderly. For the young women who put their sentiments up in curl-papers
and the young men who wax the mustaches of their minds I have no
patience whatever; but for those who are seeking that which seems to
them the best, even though they blunder and mistakenly fall prostrate
before Dagon, the great god of the Philistines, it is impossible not to
feel sympathy and even admiration. In what I have been saying of the
fallibility of popular opinion I have not meant to cast scorn on any
sincerity, no matter where it is to be found; but merely to point out
that the general voice of the public, even when sincere, is greatly to
be distrusted.

Whatever contemporary literature may be, however mistaken may be the
popular verdict, and however difficult it may be for the most careful
criticism to determine what is of lasting and what of merely ephemeral
merit, the fact remains that it is the voice of our own time, and as
such cannot be disregarded. To devote attention exclusively to the
classics is to get out of sympathy with the thought of our own
generation. It is idle to expend energy in learning how to live if one
does not go on to live. The true use of literature is not to make
dreamers; it is not to make the hold upon actual existence less firm. In
the classics one learns what life is, but one lives in his own time. It
follows that no man can make his intellectual life full and round who
does not keep intelligently in touch with what is thought and what is
written by the men who are alive and working under the same conditions.

Contemporary literature is the expression of the convictions of the time
in which it is written. The race having advanced so far, this is the
conclusion to which thinkers have come in regard to the meaning of life.
Contemporary literature is like news from the front in war-time. It is
sometimes cheering, sometimes depressing, often enough inaccurate, but
continually exciting. It is the word which comes to us of the progress
of the eternal combat against the unknown forces of darkness which
compass humanity around. There are many men who make a good deal of
parade of never reading books of their own time. They are sometimes men
of no inconsiderable powers of intellect and of much cultivation; but it
is hardly possible to regard them as of greater contemporary interest
than are the mummies of the Pharaohs. They may be excellent in their day
and generation, but they have deliberately chosen that their generation
shall be one that is gone and their day a day that is ended. They may be
interesting relics, but relics they are. It is often wise to wait a time
for the subsiding of the frenzy of applause which greets a book that is
clever or merely startling. It is not the lover of literature who reads
all the new books because they are new, any more than it is he who
neglects the old because they are old; but if we are alive and in
sympathy with our kind, we cannot but be eager to know what the
intellectual world is thinking, what are the fresh theories of life,
born of added experience, what are the emotions of our own generation.
We cannot, in a word, be in tune with our time without being interested
in contemporary literature.

It is here that the intellectual character of a man is most severely
tested. Here he is tried as by fire, and if there be in him anything of
sham or any flaw in his cultivation it is inevitably manifest. It is
easy to know what to read in the classics; they are all explicitly
labeled by the critics of succeeding generations. When it comes to
contemporary work a reader is forced largely to depend upon himself.
Here he must judge by his individual standards; and here he both must
and will follow his own inclinations. It is not always possible for a
man accurately to appraise his mental advancement by the classics he
reads, because his choice may there be influenced by conventional
rather than by personal valuation; but if he will compare with the
established classics the books which he genuinely likes and admires
among the writings of his own time, he may come at an estimate of his
mental state as fair as a man is ever likely to form of himself.

It is, then, easy to see that there is a good deal of danger in dealing
with current work. It is necessary to be in sympathy with the thought of
the day, but it is only too common to pay too dear for this. It is
extremely hard, for instance, to distinguish between genuine literary
taste and curiosity when writings are concerned which have the fresh and
lively interest which attaches to those things about which our fellows
are actually talking and thinking. It is of course allowable to gratify
a healthy curiosity, but it is well to recognize that such reading is
hardly likely to promote mental growth. There is no law, civil or moral,
against indulging the desire to know what is in any one of those books
which are written to be talked about at ladies' luncheons; and it is not
impossible that the readers who give their time to this unwholesome
stuff would be doing something worse if they were not reading it. The
only point upon which I wish to insist is that such amusement is neither
literary nor intellectual.

There is, moreover, the danger of allowing the mind to become fixed upon
the accidental instead of the permanent. I have spoken of the fact that
the temporary interest of a book may be so great as to blind the reader
to all else. When "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was new, it was practically
impossible for the readers of that day to see in it anything but a fiery
tract against slavery. To-day who reads "Ground Arms" without being
chiefly impressed with its arguments against war? It is as controversial
documents that these books were written. If they have truth to life, if
they adequately express human emotion, they will be of permanent value
after this temporary interest has passed. The danger is that the passing
interest, which is natural and proper in itself, shall blind us to false
sentiment, to unjust views of life, to sham emotion. We are constantly
led to forget the important principle that books of our own time must be
judged by the standards which are afforded by the books which are of all
time.

There has never been a time when self-possession and sound judgment in
dealing with contemporary literature were more important than they are
to-day. The immeasurably prolific press of the nineteenth century is
like a fish-breeding establishment where minnows are born by the million
a minute. There are so many books that the mind becomes bewildered. The
student who might have the strength of mind to form an intelligent
opinion of five books is utterly incapable of doing the same by five
thousand. We are all constantly led on to read too many things. It has
been again and again remarked that our grandfathers were better educated
than their grandsons because they knew thoroughly the few works which
came in their way. We have become the victims of over-reading until the
modern mind seems in danger of being destroyed by literary gluttony.

It is well in dealing with contemporary work to be especially
self-exacting in insisting that a book is not to be read once which is
not to be read a second time. This may seem to be a rule made merely for
the sake of having a proper theory, yet it is to be taken literally and
observed exactly. It is true that the temptation is so great to read
books which are talked about, that we are all likely to run through a
good many things which we know to be really unworthy of a single
perusal, and of course to go over them again would be a waste of more
time. Where to draw the line between the permanent and the ephemeral is
a point which each must settle for himself. If, on the whole, it seem to
a man well to pay the price in time and in the risk of forming bad
mental habits, it is his right to do this, but pay the price he must and
will.

       *       *       *       *       *

It is hardly possible to discuss contemporary literature without
speaking of that which is not literature,--the periodicals. One of the
conditions of the present time which most strongly affects the relations
of ordinary readers to reading in general is the part which periodicals
of one sort or another play in modern life. The newspaper enters so
intimately into existence to-day that no man can escape it if he would,
and with innumerable readers it is practically the sole mental food. It
is hardly necessary to say that there is no more relation between the
newspaper and literature than there would be between two persons
because they both wear hats. Both books and journals are expressed in
printed words, and that is about all that there is in common. It is
necessary to use the daily paper, but its office is chiefly a mechanical
one. It is connected with the purely material side of life. This is not
a fault, any more than it is the fault of a spade that it is employed to
dig the earth instead of being used to serve food with. It is not the
function of the newspapers to minister to the intellect or the
imagination in any high sense. They fulfill their mission when they are
clean and reliable in material affairs. What is beyond this is a
pretense at literature under impossible conditions, assumed to beguile
the unwary, and harmless or vicious, according to circumstances. It is
seen at its worst in the Sunday editions, with their sheets as many

          --as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
    In Vallombrosa.

It is safe to say that for the faithful reader of the Sunday newspaper
there is no intellectual salvation. Like the Prodigal Son, he is fain to
fill his belly with the husks which the swine do eat, and he has not the
grace even to long for the more dignified diet of fatted calf.

The newspaper habit is pretty generally recognized as demoralizing, and
in so far it may be in a literary point of view less dangerous than the
magazine habit. The latter is often accompanied by a self-righteous
conviction that it is a virtue. There is a class who take on airs of
being of the intellectual elect on the strength of reading all the
leading magazines; who are as proud of having four serials in hand at
once as is a society belle of being able to drive as many horses; who
look with a sort of pitying contempt upon persons so old-fashioned as to
neglect the magazines in favor of books, and who in general are as
proudly patronizing in their attitude toward literature as they are
innocent of any connection with it. This is worse than too great a
fondness for journalism, and of course this is an extreme type; but it
is to be feared that at their best the magazines represent mental
dissipation.

It is true that genuine literature is often published in periodicals;
and there are many editors who deeply regret that the public will not
allow them to print a great deal more. As things are, real literature in
the magazines is the exception rather than the rule. The general
standard of magazine excellence is the taste of the intellectually
_nouveaux riches_--for persons who have entered upon an intellectual
heritage which they are not fitted rightly to understand or employ are
as common as those who come to material wealth under the same
conditions. It is to this class, which is one of the most numerous, and
still more one of the most conspicuous in our present civilization, that
most of the magazines address themselves. The genuinely cultivated
reader finds in the monthlies many papers which he looks through as he
looks through the newspaper, for the sake of information, and less often
he comes upon imaginative work. The serials which are worth reading at
all are worthy of being read as a whole, and not in the distorted and
distorting fashion of so many words a month, according to the size of
the page of a particular periodical. Reading a serial is like plucking a
rose petal by petal; the whole of the flower may be gathered, but its
condition is little likely to be satisfactory. While the magazines,
moreover, are not to be looked to for a great deal of literature of
lasting value, they not only encourage the habit of reading indifferent
imitations, but they foster a dangerous and demoralizing inability to
fix the attention for any length of time. The magazine-mind is a thing
of shreds and patches at best; incapable of grasping as a whole any
extended work. Literature holds the mirror up to nature, but the
magazine is apt to show the world through a toy multiplying-glass, which
gives to the eye a hundred minute and distorted images.

It may seem that I do scant justice to the magazines. It is certainly to
be remembered that in the less thickly settled parts of this great
inchoate country, where libraries are not, the magazine is often a
comfort and even an inspiration. It is to be acknowledged that, with the
enormous mass of half-educated but often earnest and sincere souls, the
periodical has done and may still do a great deal of good. The child
must play with toys before it is fitted to grasp the tools of
handicraft, and enjoyment of the chromo may be a healthy and legitimate
stage on the way to an appreciation of the masters of painting. It is
not a reproach to call a man a toy-vender or a maker of chromos; nor do
I see that what I have been saying is to be interpreted as reflecting on
the makers of periodicals. It must be remembered that the publication of
a magazine is a business enterprise in the same sense that the selling
of carpets or calicoes is a business enterprise. The manufacturer of
magazines must please the general public with what he prints, as the
manufacturer must satisfy the ordinary buyer by the designs of his
fabrics. In either case it is the taste of the intellectual
_bourgeoisie_ which is the standard of success. The maker of periodicals
can no more afford to appeal to the taste of the cultivated few than can
the thrifty maker of stuffs. What is sold in open market must be adapted
to the demands of the open market. It is simply legitimate business
prudence which keeps most magazines from attempting to print literature.
They publish, as a rule, all the literature that the public will
have,--modified, unhappily, by the difficulty of getting it to publish
in a world where literature cannot be made to order. A book, it is to be
remembered, is a venture; a magazine is an enterprise. The periodical
must pay or it must be discontinued.

The moral of the whole matter is that the only thing to do is to accept
magazines for what they are; neither to neglect them completely, nor to
give to them that abundant or exclusive attention which they cannot even
aim under existing conditions at deserving. They may easily be dangerous
intellectual snares; but the wise student will often find them
enjoyable, and sometimes useful.



XIII

NEW BOOKS AND OLD


The quality of "timeliness" is one of the things which makes it
especially difficult to distinguish among new books. There is in this
day an ever increasing tendency to treat all topics of popular
discussion in ways which profess to be imaginative, and especially in
the narrative form. The novel with a theory and the poem with a purpose
are so enveloped with the glamour of immediate interest that they appear
to be of an importance far beyond that which belongs to their real
merit. Curiosity to know what these books have to say upon the questions
which most deeply interest or most vitally affect humanity is as natural
as it is difficult to resist. The desire to see what a book which is
talked about is like is doubly hard to overcome when it is so easily
excused under the pretense of gaining light on important questions. Time
seems to be proving, however, that the amount of noise made over these
theory-mongering romances is pretty nearly in adverse ratio to their
worth. We are told in Scripture that wisdom calleth in the streets, and
no man regardeth, but the opposite seems to be true of the clamors of
error. The very vehemence of these books is the quality which secures
to them attention; and it is impossible wholly to ignore them, and yet
to keep in touch with the time.

It is the more difficult to evade pretentious and noisily worthless
writings because of the great ingenuity of the advertising devices which
force them upon the attention. The student of genuine literature
naturally does not allow himself to be led by these, no matter how
persuasive they may be. The man who bases his choice of books upon the
advertisements is like him who regulates the health of his family by the
advice of a patent-medicine almanac. It is not easy, however, to escape
entirely from the influence of advertising. If we have seen a book
talked about in print, been confronted with its title on a dazzling
poster, if it has been recommended by the chief prize-fighter in the
land, or damned by the admiration of Mr. Gladstone, we are any of us
inclined to read it, just to see what it is like. The ways by which new
publications are insinuated upon the attention are, too, so impalpably
effective, so cunningly unexpected, that we take our opinion from them
without realizing that we have not originated it. The inspiration and
stress of soul which in Greece begot art, bring forth in our day
advertising, and no man can wholly escape its influence.

Innumerable are the methods by which authors, whose sole claim to genius
is this skill in advertising, keep themselves and their books before the
public. Eccentricities of manner and of matter are so varied as to
provoke wonder that mental fertility of resource so remarkable should
not produce results really great and lasting. Some writers claim to be
founders of schools, and talk a good deal about their "modernity," a
word which really means stale sensationalism revamped; others insist in
season and out of season that they have discovered the only true theory
of art, and that literature is only possible upon the lines which they
lay down. It is unfortunately to be observed that the theory invariably
follows the practice; that they first produce queer books, and then
formulate a theory which excuses them. Still others call attention to
themselves by a variety of artifices, from walking down Piccadilly
mooning over a sunflower to driving through the Bois de Boulogne in
brocade coat, rose-pink hat, and cravat of gold-lace, like Barbey
d'Aurevilly. No man ever produced good art who worked to advertise
himself, and fortunately the day of these charlatans is usually short. I
have spoken in another place of the danger of confounding an author and
his work; and of course this peril is especially great in the case of
writers of our own time. I may add that the parading of authors is a
vice especially prevalent in the nineteenth century. Mrs. Leo Hunter
advertises herself, and incidentally the celebrities whom she captures,
and the publishers not infrequently show a disposition to promote the
folly for the sake of their balance-sheet. If Apollo and the Muses
returned to earth they would be bidden instantly to one of Mrs. Hunter's
Saturday five o'clocks, and a list of the distinguished guests would be
in the Sunday papers. That is what many understand by the encouragement
of literature.

Another method of securing notice, which is practiced by not a few
latter-day writers, is that of claiming startling originality. Many of
the authors who are attempting to take the kingdom of literary
distinction by violence lay great stress upon the complete novelty of
their views or their emotions. Of these, it is perhaps sufficient to say
that the men who are genuine insist that what they say is true, not that
they are the first to say it. In all art that is of value the end sought
is the work and not the worker. Perhaps most vicious of all these
self-advertisers are those who force themselves into notice by thrusting
forward whatever the common consent of mankind has hitherto kept
concealed. It is chiefly to France that we owe this development of
recent literature so-called. If a French writer wishes to be effective,
it is apparently his instant instinct to be indecent. The trick is an
easy one. It is as if the belle who finds herself a wall-flower at a
ball should begin loudly to swear. She would be at once the centre of
observation.

Of books of these various classes Max Nordau has made a dismal list in
"Degeneration," a book itself discouragingly bulky, discouragingly
opinionated, discouragingly prejudiced and illogical, and yet not
without much rightness both of perception and intention. He says of the
books most popular with that portion of society which is most in
evidence, that they

  diffuse a curious perfume, yielding distinguishable odors of incense,
  eau de Lubin, and refuse, one or the other preponderating
  alternately.... Books treating of the relations of the sexes, with no
  matter how little reserve, seem too dully moral. Elegant titillation
  only begins where normal sexual relations leave off.... Ghost-stories
  are very popular, but they must come on in scientific disguise, as
  hypnotism, telepathy, or somnambulism. So are marionette plays, in
  which seemingly naïve but knowing rogues make used-up old ballad
  dummies babble like babies or idiots. So are esoteric novels in which
  the author hints that he could say a deal about magic, fakirism,
  kabbala, astrology, and other white and black arts if he chose.
  Readers intoxicate themselves in the hazy word-sequences of symbolic
  poetry. Ibsen dethrones Goethe; Maeterlinck ranks with Shakespeare;
  Nietzsche is pronounced by German and even French critics to be the
  leading German writer of the day; the "Kreutzer Sonata" is the Bible
  of ladies, who are amateurs in love, but bereft of lovers; dainty
  gentlemen find the street ballads and gaol-bird songs of Jules Jouy,
  Bruant, MacNab, and Xanroff very _distingué_ on account of "the warm
  sympathy pulsing in them," as the phrase runs; and society persons,
  whose creed is limited to baccarat and the money market, make
  pilgrimages to the Oberammergau Passion-Play, and wipe away a tear
  over Paul Verlaine's invocations to the Virgin.--_Degeneration_, ii.

This is a picture true of only a limited section of modern society, a
section, moreover, much smaller in America than abroad. Common sense and
a sense of humor save Americans from many of the extravagances to be
observed across the ocean. There are too many fools, however, even in
this country. To secure immediate success with these readers a writer
need do nothing more than to produce erotic eccentricities. There are
many intellectually restless persons who suppose themselves to be
advancing in culture when they are poring over the fantastic
imbecilities of Maeterlinck, or the nerve-rasping unreason of Ibsen;
when they are sailing aloft on the hot-air balloons of Tolstoi's
extravagant theories, or wallowing in the blackest mud of Parisian slums
with Zola. Dull and jaded minds find in these things an excitement, as
the jaded palate finds stimulation in the sting of fiery sauces. There
are others, too, who believe that these books are great because they are
so impressive. The unreflective reader measures the value of a book not
by its permanent qualities but by its instantaneous effect, and an
instantaneous effect is very apt to be simple sensationalism.

It is not difficult to see the fallacy of these amazing books. A
blackguard declaiming profanely and obscenely in a drawing-room can
produce in five minutes more sensation than a sage discoursing
learnedly, delightfully, and profoundly could cause in years. Because a
book makes the reader cringe it by no means follows that the author is a
genius. In literature any writer of ordinary cleverness may gain
notoriety if he is willing to be eccentric enough, extravagant enough,
or indecent enough. An ass braying attracts more attention than an
oriole singing. The street musician, scraping a foundling fiddle, vilely
out of tune, compels notice; but the master, freeing the ecstasy
enchanted in the bosom of a violin of royal lineage, touches and
transports. All standards are confounded if notoriety means excellence.

There is a sentence in one of the enticing and stimulating essays of
James Russell Lowell which is applicable to these writers who gain
reputation by setting on edge the reader's teeth.

  There is no work of genius which has not been the delight of
  mankind.--_Rousseau and the Sentimentalists._

Notice: the delight of mankind; not the sensation, the pastime, the
amazement, the horror, or the scandal of mankind,--but the delight. This
is a wise test by which to try a good deal of the best advertised
literature of the present day. Do not ask whether the talked-of book
startles, amuses, shocks, or even arouses simply; but inquire, if you
care to estimate its literary value, whether it delights.

It is necessary, of course, to understand that Mr. Lowell uses the word
here in its broad signification. He means more than the simple pleasure
of smooth and sugary things. He means the delight of tragedy as well as
of comedy; of "King Lear" and "Othello" as well as of "Midsummer Night's
Dream;" but he does not mean the nerve-torture of "Ghosts" or the mental
nausea of "L'Assommoir." By delight he means that persuasion which is an
essential quality of all genuine art. The writer who makes his readers
shrink and quiver may produce a transient sensation. His notoriety is
noisily proclaimed by the trumpets of to-day; but the brazen voice of
to-morrow will as lustily roar other fleeting successes, and all alike
be forgotten in a night.

I insisted in the first of these talks upon the principle that good art
is "human and wholesome and sane." We need to keep these characteristics
constantly in mind; and to make them practical tests of the literature
upon which we feed our minds and our imaginations. We are greatly in
need of some sort of an artistic quarantine. Literature should not be
the carrier of mental or emotional contagion. A work which swarms with
mental and moral microbes should be as ruthlessly disinfected by fire as
if it were a garment contaminated with the germs of fever or cholera. It
is manifestly impossible that this shall be done, however, in the
present state of society; and it follows that each reader must be his
own health-board in the choice of books.

The practical question which instantly arises is how one is to know good
books from bad until one has read them. How to distinguish between what
is worthy of attention and what is ephemeral trash has perplexed many a
sincere and earnest student. This is a duty which should devolve largely
upon trained critics, but unhappily criticism is not to-day in a
condition which makes it reliable or practically of very great
assistance where recent publications are concerned. The reader is left
to his own judgment in choosing among writings hot from the press.
Fortunately the task of discriminating is not impossible. It is even far
less difficult than it at first appears. The reader is seldom without a
pretty clear idea of the character of notorious books before he touches
them. Where the multitude of publications is so great, the very means of
advertising which are necessary to bring them into notice show what they
are. Even should a man make it a rule to read nothing until he has a
definite estimate of its merit, he will find in the end that he has lost
little. For any purposes of the cultivation of the mind or the
imagination the book which is good to read to-day is good to read
to-morrow, so that there is not the haste about reading a real book that
there is in getting through the morning paper, which becomes obsolete by
noon. When one considers, too, how small a portion of the volumes
published it is possible to have time for, and how important it is to
make the most of life by having these of the best, one realizes that it
is worth while to take a good deal of trouble, and if need be to
sacrifice the superficial enjoyment of keeping in the front rank of the
mad mob of sensation seekers whose only idea of literary merit is noise
and novelty. It is a trivial and silly vanity which is unhappy because
somebody--or because everybody--has read new books first.

There is, moreover, nothing more stupid than the attempt to deceive
ourselves,--especially if the attempt succeeds. Of all forms of lying
this is at once the most demoralizing and the most utterly useless. If
we read poor books from puerile or unworthy motives, let us at least be
frank about it in our own minds. If we have taken up with unwholesome
writers from idle curiosity, or, worse, from prurient hankering after
uncleanness, what do we gain by assuring ourselves that we did not know
what we were doing, or by pretending that we have unwillingly been
following out a line of scientific investigation? Fine theories make but
flimsy coverings for unhealthy desires.

Of course this whole matter lies within the domain of individual liberty
and individual responsibility. The use or the abuse of reading is
determined by each man for himself. To gloat over scorbutic prose and
lubricious poetry, to fritter the attention upon the endless repetition
of numberless insignificant details, to fix the mind upon phonographic
reports of the meaningless conversations of meaningless characters, to
lose rational consciousness in the confusion of verbal eccentricities
which dazzle by the cunning with which words are prevented from
conveying intelligence,--and the writings of to-day afford ample
opportunity for doing all of these things!--is within the choice of
every reader. It is to be remembered, however, that no excuse evades the
consequence. He who wastes life finds himself bankrupt, and there is no
redress.

Always it is to be remembered that the classics afford us the means of
measuring the worth of what we read. He who pauses to consider a little
will see at once something of what is meant by this. He will realize the
wide difference there is between familiarity with the permanent
literature of the world and acquaintance with the most sensational and
widely discussed books of to-day. A man may be a virtuous citizen and a
good husband and father, with intelligence in his business and common
sense in the affairs of life, and yet be utterly ignorant of how
Achilles put the golden tress into the hand of dead Patroclus, or of the
stratagem by which Iphigenia saved the life of Orestes at Tauris, or of
the love of Palamon and Arcite for Emilie the fair, or of whom Gudrun
married and whom she loved, or of how Sancho Panza governed his island,
or of the ill-fated loves of Romeo and Juliet, or of the agony of
Othello, or of Hamlet, or Lear, or Perdita, or Portia. The knowledge of
none of these is necessary to material existence, and it is possible to
make a creditable figure in the world without it. Yet we are all
conscious that the man who is not aware of these creations which are so
much more real than the majority of the personages that stalk
puppet-like across the pages of history, has missed something of which
the loss makes his life definitely poorer. We cannot but feel the
enrichment of mind and feeling which results from our having in classic
pages made the acquaintance with these gracious beings and shared their
adventures and their emotions. Suppose that the books most noisily
lauded to-day were to be tried by the same test. Is a man better for
knowing with Zola all the diseased genealogy of the Rougon-Macquart
family, morbid, criminal, and foul? Is not the mind cleaner and saner if
it has never been opened to the entertainment of Poznyscheff, Hedda
Gabler, Dr. Rank, Mademoiselle de Maupin, Oswald Alving, or any of this
unclean tribe? It is not that a strong or well-developed man will
ignore the crime or the criminals of the world; but it is not necessary
to gloat over either. It is not difficult to learn all that it is
necessary to know about yellow fever, cholera, or leprosy, without
passing days and nights in the pest hospitals.

These unwholesome books, however, are part of the intellectual history
of our time. He who would keep abreast of modern thought and of life as
it is to-day, we are constantly reminded, must take account of the
writers who are most loudly lauded. Goethe has said: "It is in her
monstrosities that nature reveals herself;" and the same is measurably
true in the intellectual world. The madness, the eccentricity, the
indecencies of these books, are so many indications by which certain
tendencies of the period betray themselves. It seems to me, however,
that this is a consideration to which it is extremely easy to give too
much weight. To mistake this noisy and morbid class of books, these
self-parading and sensational authors, for the most significant signs of
the intellectual condition of the time is like mistaking a drum-major
for the general, because the drum-major is most conspicuous and always
to the fore,--except in action. The mind is nourished and broadened,
moreover, by the study of sanity. It is the place of the physician to
concern himself with disease; but as medical treatises are dangerous in
the hands of laymen, so are works of morbid psychology in the hands of
the ordinary reader.

Fortunately contemporary literature is not confined to books of the
unwholesome sort, greatly as these are in evidence. We have a real
literature as well as a false one. Time moves so swiftly that we have
begun to regard the works of Thackeray and Dickens and Hawthorne, and
almost of Browning and Tennyson, as among the classics. They are so,
however, by evident merit rather than by age, and have not been in
existence long enough to receive the suffrages of generations. The names
of these authors remind us how many books have been written in our time
which endure triumphantly all tests that have been proposed; books to
miss the knowledge of which is to lose the opportunity of making life
richer. Certainly we should be emotionally and spiritually poorer
without the story of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, between whom
the Scarlet Letter glowed balefully; without Hilda in her tower and poor
Miriam bereft of her Faun below. To have failed to share the Fezziwigs'
ball, or the trial of Mr. Pickwick for breach of promise; to have lived
without knowing the inimitable Sam Weller and the juicy Micawbers, the
amiable Quilp and the elegant Mrs. Skewton, philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby
and airy Harold Skimpole, is to have failed of acquaintances that would
have brightened existence; to be ignorant of Becky Sharp and Colonel
Newcome, of Arthur Pendennis and George Warrington, of Beatrix and
Colonel Esmond, is to have neglected one of the blessings, and not of
the lesser blessings either. No man is without a permanent and tangible
gain who has comprehendingly read Emerson's "Rhodora," or the
"Threnody," or "Days," or "The Problem." Whoever has been
sympathetically through the "Idylls of the King" not only experienced a
long delight but has gained a fresh ideal; while to have gone to the
heart of "The Ring and the Book,"--that most colossal _tour-de-force_ in
all literature,--to have heard the tender confidences of dying Pompilia,
the anguished confession of Caponsacchi, the noble soliloquy of the
Pope, is to have lived through a spiritual and an emotional experience
of worth incalculable. In the age of Thackeray and Dickens, of Hawthorne
and Emerson and Tennyson and Browning, we cannot complain that there is
any lack of genuine literature.

Nor are we obliged to keep to what seems to some a high and breathless
altitude of reading. There are many readers who are of so little natural
imagination, or who have cultivated it so little, that it is a conscious
and often a fatiguing effort to keep to the mood of these greater
authors. Beside these works to the keen enjoyment of which imagination
is necessary, there are others which are genuine without being of so
high rank. It is certainly on the whole a misfortune that one should be
deprived of a knowledge of Mrs. Proudie and the whole clerical circle in
which she moved, and especially of Mr. Harding, the delightful "Warden;"
he is surely to be pitied who has not read the story of "Silas Marner,"
who does not feel friendly and intimate with shrewd and epigrammatic
Mrs. Poyser, with spiritual Dinah Morris, and with Maggie Tulliver and
her family. No intelligent reader can afford to have passed by in
neglect the pleasant sweetness of Longfellow or the wholesome soundness
of Whittier, the mystic sensuousness of Rossetti or the voluptuous
melodiousness of Swinburne.

It is manifestly impossible to enumerate all the authors who illustrate
the richness of the latter half of the nineteenth century; but there are
those of the living who cannot be passed in silence. To deal with those
who are writing to-day is manifestly difficult, but as I merely claim to
cite illustrations no fault can justly be found with omissions.
Naturally Meredith and Hardy come first to mind. He who has read that
exquisite chapter in "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel" which tells of the
meeting of Richard and Lucy in the meadows by the river has in memory a
gracious possession for the rest of his days. Who can recall from "The
Return of the Native" the noonday visit of Mrs. Yeobright to the house
of her son and her journey to death back over Egdon Heath, without a
heart-deep thrill? What sympathetic reader fails to recognize that he is
mentally and imaginatively richer for the honest little reddle-man,
Diggory Venn, for sturdy Gabriel Oak, for the delightful clowns of
"Under the Greenwood Tree" and "Far from the Madding Crowd," or for
ill-starred Tess when on that dewy morning she had the misfortune to
touch the caddish heart of Angel Clare? To have failed to read and to
reread Stevenson,--for one thinks of Stevenson as still of the
living,--to have passed Kipling by, is to have neglected one of the
blessings of the time.

It may be that I have seemed to imply by the examples I have chosen that
the literature of continental Europe is to be shunned. Naturally in
addressing English-speaking folk one selects examples when possible from
literature in that tongue; and I have alluded to books in other
languages only when they brought out more strikingly than do English
books a particular point. It is needless to say that in these
cosmopolitan days no one can afford to neglect the riches of other
nations in contemporary literature. It is difficult to resist the
temptation to make lists, to speak of the men who in France with Guy de
Maupassant at their head have developed so great a mastery of style; one
would gladly dwell on the genius of Turgenieff, perhaps the one writer
who excuses the modern craze for Russian books; or of Sienkiewicz, who
has only Dumas _père_ to dispute his place as first romancer of the
world; and so on for other writers of other lands and tongues. It is
unnecessary, however, to multiply examples, and here there is no attempt
to speak exhaustively even of English literature.

The thing to be kept in mind is that it is our good fortune to live in
the century which in the whole course of English literature is outranked
by the brilliant Elizabethan period only. It is surely worth while to
attempt to prove ourselves worthy of that which the gods have graciously
given us. Men sigh for the good day that is gone, and imagine that had
they lived then they would have made their lives correspondingly rich to
match the splendors of an age now famous. We live in a time destined to
go down to the centuries not unrenowned for literary achievement; it is
for us to prove ourselves appreciative and worthy of this time.



XIV

FICTION


Probably the oldest passion of the race which can lay any claim to
connection with the intellect is the love of stories. The most ancient
examples of literature which have been preserved are largely in the form
of narratives. As soon as man has so far conquered the art of speech as
to get beyond the simplest statements, he may be supposed to begin
instinctively to relate incidents, to tell rudimentary tales, and to put
into words the story of events which have happened, or which might have
happened.

The interest which every human being takes in the things which may
befall his fellows underlies this universal fondness; and the man who
does not love a story must be devoid of normal human sympathy with his
kind. It is hardly necessary, at this late day, to point out the strong
hold upon the sympathies of his fellows which the story-teller has had
from the dawn of civilization. The mind easily pictures the gaunt
reciters who, in savage tribes, repeat from generation to generation the
stories and myths handed orally from father to son; or the professional
narrators of the Orient who repeat gorgeously colored legends and
fantastic adventures in the gate or the market. Perhaps, too, the
mention of the subject of this talk brings from the past the homely,
kindly figure of the nurse who made our childish eyes grow large, and
our little hearts go trippingly in the days of pinafores and
fairy-lore--the blessed days when "once upon a time" was the open sesame
to all delights. The responsiveness of human beings to story-telling the
world over unites all mankind as in a bond of common sympathy.

What old-fashioned theologians seemed to find an inexhaustible pleasure
in calling "the natural man" has always been strongly inclined to turn
in his reading to narratives in preference to what our grandparents
primly designated as "improving works." In any library the bindings of
the novels are sure to be worn, while the sober backs of treatises upon
manners, or morals, or philosophy, or even science, remain almost as
fresh as when they left the bindery. Each reader in his own grade
selects the sort of tale which most appeals to him; and while the range
is wide, the principle of selection is not so greatly varied. The
shop-girl gloats over "The Earl's Bride; or, The Heiress of Plantagenet
Park." The school-miss in the street-car smiles contemptuously as she
sees this title, and complacently opens the volume of the "Duchess" or
of Rhoda Broughton which is the delight of her own soul. The advanced
young woman of society has only contempt for such trash, and accompanies
her chocolate caramels with the perusal of "The Yellow Aster," or the
"Green Carnation," while her mother, very likely, reads the felicitous
foulness of some Frenchman. Those readers who have a sane and wholesome
taste, properly cultivated, take their pleasure in really good novels or
stories; but the fondness for narrative of some sort is universal.

It would be manifestly unfair to imply that there is never a natural
inclination for what is known as "solid reading," but such a taste is
exceptional rather than general. Certainly a person who cared only for
stories could not be looked upon as having advanced far in intellectual
development; but appreciation for other forms of literature is rather
the effect of cultivation than the result of natural tendencies. Most of
us have had periods in which we have endeavored to persuade ourselves
that we were of the intellectual elect, and that however circumstances
had been against us, we did in our inmost souls pant for philosophy and
yearn for abstract wisdom. We are all apt to assure ourselves that if we
might, we should devote our days to the study of science and our nights
to mastering the deepest secrets of metaphysics. We declare to ourselves
that we have not time; that just now we are wofully overworked, but that
in some golden, although unfortunately indeterminate future, for which
we assure ourselves most solemnly that we long passionately, we shall
pore over tremendous tomes of philosophical thought as the bee grapples
itself to a honey-full clover-blossom. It is all humbug; and, what is
more, we know that it is humbug. We do not, as a rule, relish the
effort of comprehending and assimilating profoundly thoughtful
literature, and it is generally more easy to read fiction in a slipshod
way than it is to glide with any amusement over intellectual work. The
intense strain of the age of course increases this tendency to light
reading; but in any age the only books of which practically everybody
who reads at all is fond are the story-books.

       *       *       *       *       *

It has been from time to time the habit of busy idlers to fall into
excited and often acrimonious discussion in regard to this general love
for stories. Many have held that it is an instinct of a fallen and
unregenerate nature, and that it is to be checked at any cost. It is not
so long since certain most respectable and influential religious sects
set the face steadfastly against novels; and you may remember as an
instance that when George Eliot was a young woman she regarded
novel-reading as a wicked amusement. There is to-day a more rational
state of feeling. It is seen that it is better to accept the instincts
of human nature, and endeavor to work through them than to engage in the
well-nigh hopeless task of attempting to eradicate them. To-day we are
coming to recognize the cunning of the East in inculcating wisdom in
fables and the profound lesson of the statement in the Gospels: "Without
a parable spake He not unto them."

Much of the distrust which has been in the past felt in regard to
fiction has arisen from a narrow and uncomprehending idea of its nature.
Formalists have conceived that the relating of things which never
occurred--which indeed it was often impossible should occur,--is a
violation of truth. The fundamental ground of most of the objections
which moralists have made to fiction has been the assumption that
fiction is false. Of certain kinds of fiction this is of course true
enough, but of fiction which comes within the range of literature it is
conspicuously incorrect.

Fiction is literature which is false to the letter that it may be true
to the spirit. It is unfettered by narrow actualities of form, because
it has to express the higher actualities of emotion. It uses incident
and character as mere language. It is as unfair to object to the
incidents of a great novel that they are untrue, as it would be to say
that the letters of a word are untrue. There is no question of truth or
untruth beyond the question whether the symbols express that which they
are intended to convey. The letters are set down to impart to the
intelligence of the reader the idea of a given word; the incidents of a
novel are used to embody a truth of human nature and life. Truth is here
the verity of the thing conveyed. In a narrow and literal sense Hamlet
and Othello and Colonel Newcome and Becky Sharp are untrue. They never
existed in the flesh. They have lived, however, in the higher and more
vital sense that they have been part of the imagination of a master.
They are true in that they express the truth. It is a dull
misunderstanding of the value of things to call that book untrue which
deals with fictitious characters wisely, yet to hold as verity that
which records actual events stolidly and unappreciatively. The history
may be false from beginning to end and the fiction true. Fiction which
is worthy of consideration under the name of literature is the truest
prose in the world; and I believe that it is not without an instinctive
recognition of this fact that mankind has so generally taken it to its
heart.

The value of at least certain works of fiction has come to be generally
recognized by the intellectual world. There are some novels which it is
taken for granted that every person of education has read. Whoever makes
the smallest pretense of culture must, for instance, be at least
tolerably familiar with Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, and Hawthorne; while
he will find it difficult to hold the respect of cultivated men unless
he is also acquainted with Miss Austen, George Eliot, and Charlotte
Brontë, with Dumas _père_, Balzac, and Victor Hugo, and with the works
of leading living writers of romance. "Don Quixote" is as truly a
necessary part of a liberal education as is the multiplication table;
and it would not be difficult to extend the list of novels which it is
assumed as a matter of course that persons of cultivation know
familiarly.

Nor is it only the works of the greater writers of imaginative narration
which have secured a general recognition. If it is not held that it is
essential for an educated man to have read Trollope, Charles Reade,
Kingsley, or Miss Mulock, for example, it is at least recognized that
one had better have gained an acquaintance with these and similar
writers. Traill, the English critic, speaks warmly of the books which
while falling below the first rank are yet richly worth attention. He
says with justice:--

  The world can never estimate the debt that it owes to second-class
  literature. Yet it is basely afraid to acknowledge the debt,
  hypocritically desiring to convey the impression that such literature
  comes to it in spite of protest, calling off its attention from the
  great productions.

It is true enough that there is a good deal of foolish pretense in
regard to our genuine taste in reading, but in actual practice most
persons do in the long run read chiefly what they really enjoy. It is
also true that there are more readers who are capable of appreciating
the novels of the second grade than there are those who are in sympathy
with fiction of the first. The thing for each individual reader is to
see to it that he is honest in this matter with himself, and that he
gives attention to the best that he can like rather than to the poorest.

Even those who accept the fact that cultivated persons will read novels,
and those who go so far as to appreciate that it is a distinct gain to
the intellectual life, are, however, very apt to be troubled by the
dangers of over-indulgence in this sort of literature. It has been said
and repeated innumerable times that the excessive reading of novels is
mentally debilitating and even debauching. This is certainly true. So is
it true that there is great mental danger in the excessive reading of
philosophy or theology, or the excessive eating of bread, or the
excessive doing of any other thing. The favorite figure in connection
with fiction has been to compare it to opium-eating or to dram-drinking;
and the moral usually drawn is that the novel-reader is in imminent
danger of intellectual dissoluteness or even of what might be called the
delirium tremens of the imagination. I should not be honest if I
pretended to have a great deal of patience with most that is said in
this line. The exclusive use of fiction as mental food is of course
unwise, and the fact is so patent that it is hardly worth while to waste
words in repeating it. When I said a moment ago that there is danger in
the eating of bread if it is carried to excess I indicated what seems to
me to be the truth in this matter. If one reads good and wholesome
fiction, I believe that the natural instincts of the healthy mind may be
trusted to settle the question of how much shall be read. If the fiction
is unhealthy, morbid, or false, any of it is bad. If it is good, if it
calls into play a healthy imagination, there is very little danger that
too much of it will be taken. When there is complaint that a girl or a
boy is injuring the mind by too exclusive a devotion to novels, I
believe that it generally means, if the facts of the case were
understood, that the mind of the reader is in an unwholesome condition,
and that this excessive devotion to fiction is a symptom rather than a
disease. When the girl coughs, it is not the cough that is the trouble;
this is only a symptom of the irritation of membranes; and I believe
that much the same is the case with extravagant novel-readers.

Of course this view of the matter will not commend itself to everybody.
It is hard for us to shake off the impression of all the countless
homilies which have been composed against novel-reading; and we are by
no means free from the poison of the ascetic idea that anything to which
mankind takes naturally and with pleasure cannot really be good in
itself. I hope, however, that it will not appear to you unreasonable
when I say that it seems to me far better to insist upon proper methods
of reading and upon the selection of books which are genuine literature
than to wage unavailing war against the natural love of stories which is
to be found in every normal and wholesome human being. If I could be
assured that a boy or a girl read only good novels and read them
appreciatively and sympathetically, I should never trouble myself to
inquire how many he or she read. I should be hopefully patient even if
there was apparently a neglect of history and philosophy. I should be
confident that it is impossible that the proper reading of good fiction
should not in the end both prove beneficial in itself and lead the mind
to whatever is good in other departments of literature. I am not
pleading for the indiscriminating indulgence in doubtful stories. I do
not believe that girls are brought to fine and well-developed womanhood
by an exclusive devotion to the chocolate-caramel-and-pickled-lime sort
of novels. I do not hold that boys come to nobility and manliness
through the influence of sensational tales wherein blood-boultered
bandits reduce to infinitesimal powder every commandment of the
decalogue. I do, however, thoroughly believe that sound and imaginative
fiction is as natural and as wholesome for growing minds as is the air
of the seashore or the mountains for growing bodies.

The fact is of especial importance as applied to the education of
children. A healthy child is instinctively in the position of a learner.
He is unconsciously full of deep wonderment concerning this world in
which he finds himself, and concerning this mysterious thing called life
in which he has a share. His mind is eager to receive, but it is
entirely free from any affectation. A child accepts what appeals to him
directly, and he is without scruple in neglecting what does not interest
him. He learns only by slow degrees that knowledge may have value and
interest from its remote bearings; and in dealing with him in the
earlier stages of mental development there is no other means so sure and
effective as story-telling. It is here that a child finds the specific
and the concrete while he is still too immature to be moved by the
general and the abstract.

It is "to cater to this universal taste," the circulars of the
publishers assure us, that so-called "juvenile literature" was invented.
I do not wish to be extravagant, but it does seem to me that modern
juvenile literature has blighted the rising generation as rust blights a
field of wheat. The holiday counters are piled high with hastily
written, superficial, often inaccurate, and, what is most important of
all, unimaginative books. The nursery of to-day is littered with
worthless volumes, and the child halfway through school has already
outlived a dozen varieties of books for the young.

A good many of these works are as full of information as a sugar-coated
pill is of drugs. Thirst for practical information is one of the
extravagances of the age. Parents to-day make their children to pass
through tortures in the service of what they call "practical knowledge"
as the unnatural parents of old made their offspring to pass through the
fires of Moloch. We are all apt to lose sight of the fact that wisdom is
not what a man knows but what he is. The important thing is not what we
drill into our children, but what we drill them into. There are times
when it is the most profound moral duty of a parent to substitute
Grimm's fairy stories for text-books, and to devote the whole stress of
educational effort to the developing of the child's imagination. I am
not at all sure that it is not of more importance to see to it that a
child--and especially a boy--is familiar with "the land east of the sun
and west of the moon" than to stuff his brain with the geographical
details of the wilds of Asia, Africa, or the isles of the far seas. I am
sure that he is better off from knowing about Sindbad and Ali Baba than
for being able to extract a cube root. I do not wish to be understood as
speaking against the imparting of practical information, although I must
say that I think that the distinction between what is really practical
and what is not seems to me to be somewhat confused in these days. I
simply mean that just now there is need of enforcing the value of the
imaginative side of education. No accumulation of facts can compensate
for the narrowing of the growing mind; and indeed facts are not to be
really grasped and assimilated without the development of the
realizing--the imaginative--faculty.

It is even more important for children than for adults that their
reading shall be imaginative. The only way to protect them against
worthless books is to give them a decided taste for what is good. It is
only after children have been debauched by vapid or sensational books
that they come to delight in rubbish. It is easier in the first place to
interest them in real literature than in shams. The thing is to take the
trouble to see to it that what they read is fine. The most common error
in this connection is to suppose that children need an especial sort of
literature different from that suited to adults. As far, certainly, as
serious education is concerned, there is neither adult literature nor
juvenile literature; there is simply literature. Speaking broadly, the
literature best for grown persons is the literature best for children.
The limitations of youth have, and should have, the same effects in
literature as in life. They restrict the comprehension and appreciation
of the facts of life; and equally they set a bound to the comprehension
and appreciation of what is read. The impressions which a child gets
from either are not those of his elders. The important thing is that
what the growing mind receives shall be vital and wholesome. It is less
unfortunate for the child to mistake what is genuine than to receive as
true what is really false. We all commit errors in the conclusions which
we draw from life; and so will it be with children and books. Books
which are wise and sane, however, will in time correct the
misconceptions they beget, as life in time makes clear the mistakes
which life has produced.

The whole philosophy of reading for children is pretty well summed up by
implication in the often quoted passage in which Charles Lamb describes
under the disguise of Bridget Elia, the youthful experience of his
sister Mary:--

  She was tumbled early, by accident or design, into a spacious closet
  of good old English reading, without much selection or prohibition,
  and browsed at will upon that fair and wholesome pasturage. Had I
  twenty girls, they should be brought up exactly in this
  fashion.--_Mackery End._

Fiction--to return to the immediate subject of this talk--is only a part
of a child's education, but it is a most essential part; and it is of
the greatest importance that the fiction given to a young reader be
noble; that it be true to the essentials of life, as it can be true only
if it is informed by a keen and sane imagination. Children should be fed
on the genuine and sound folk-tales like those collected by the brothers
Grimm; the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, of Asbjörnsen, of
Laboulaye, and of that delightful old lady, the Countess d'Aulnoy; the
fine and robust "Morte d'Arthur" of Malory; the more modern classics,
"Robinson Crusoe" and "Gulliver." Then there are Hawthorne's "Tanglewood
Tales" and the "Wonder-Book," "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped," "Uncle
Remus," and the "Jungle Books." It may be claimed that these are
"juvenile" literature; but I have named nothing of which I, at least, am
not as fond now as in my youth, and I have yet to discover that adults
find lack of interest in good books even of fairy stories. What has been
said against juvenile literature has been intended against the
innumerable works mustered under that name which are not literature at
all. Wonder lore is as normal food for old as for young, and there is no
more propriety in confining it to children than there is in limiting the
use of bread and butter to the inhabitants of the nursery.

It is neither possible nor wise to attempt here a catalogue of books
especially adapted to children. I should myself put Spenser high in the
list, and very likely include others which common custom does not regard
as well adapted to the young. These, of course, are books to be read to
the child, not that he at first can be expected to go pleasurably
through alone. Prominent among them I would insist first, last, and
always upon Shakespeare. If it were practically possible to confine the
reading of a child to Shakespeare and the Bible, the whole question
would be well and wisely settled. Since this cannot be, it is at least
essential that a child be given both as soon as he can be interested in
them,--and it is equally important that he be given neither until they
do attract him. He is to be guided and aided, but there cannot be a more
rich and noble introduction to fiction than through the inspired pages
of Shakespeare, and the child who has been well grounded in the greatest
of poets is not likely ever to go very widely astray in his reading.



XV

FICTION AND LIFE


The reading of fiction has come to have an important and well recognized
place in modern life. However strong may be the expression of
disapprobation against certain individual books, no one in these days
attempts to deny the value of imaginative literature in the development
of mind and the formation of character; yet so strong is the Puritan
strain in the blood of the English race that there is still a good deal
of lingering ascetic disapproval of novels.

It must be remembered in this connection that there are novels and
novels. The objections which have from time to time been heaped upon
fiction in general are more than deserved by fiction in particular; and
that, too, by the fiction most in evidence. The books least worthy are
for the most part precisely those which in their brief day are most
likely to excite comment. That the flaming scarlet toadstools which
irresistibly attract the eye in the forest are viciously poisonous does
not, however, alter the fact that mushrooms are at once delicious and
nutritious. It is no more logical to condemn all fiction on account of
the worthlessness or hurtfulness of bad books than it would be to
denounce all food because things have often been eaten which are
dangerously unwholesome.

The great value of fiction as a means of intellectual and of moral
training lies in the fact that man is actually and vitally taught
nothing of importance save by that which really touches his feelings.
Advice appeals to the intellect, and experience to the emotions. What
has been didactically told to us is at best a surface treatment, while
what we have felt is an inward modification of what we are. We approve
of advice, and we act according to experience. Often when we have
decided upon one course of life or action, the inner self which is the
concrete result of our temperament and our experiences goes quietly
forward in a path entirely different. What we have resolved seldom comes
to pass unless it is sustained by what we have felt. For centuries has
man been defining himself as a being that reasons while he has been
living as a being that feels.

The sure hold of fiction upon mankind depends upon the fact that it
enables the reader to gain experience vicariously. Seriously and
sympathetically to read a story which is true to life is to live through
an emotional experience. How vivid this emotion is will manifestly
depend upon the imaginative sympathy with which one reads. The young man
who has appreciatively entered into the life of Arthur Pendennis will
hardly find that he is able to go through the world in a spirit of
dandified self-complaisance without a restraining consciousness that
such an attitude toward life is most absurd folly. A man of confirmed
worldliness is perhaps not to be turned from his selfish and ignoble
living by studying the history of Major Pendennis, to read about whom is
not unlike drinking dry and rare old Madeira; yet it is scarcely to be
doubted that an appreciation of the figure cut by the old beau,
fluttering over the flowers of youth like a preserved butterfly poised
on a wire, must tend to lead a man to a different career. No reader can
have felt imaginatively the passionate spiritual struggles of Arthur
Dimmesdale without being thereafter more sensitive to good influences
and less tolerant of self-deception and concealed sin. These are the
more obvious examples. The experiences which one gains from good fiction
go much farther and deeper. They extend into those most intangible yet
most real regions where even the metaphysician, the psychologist, and
the maker of definitions have not yet been able to penetrate; those dim,
mysterious tracts of the mind which are still to us hardly better known
than the unexplored mid-countries of Asia or Africa.

As a means of accomplishing a desired end didactic literature is
probably the most futile of all the unavailing attempts of mankind. In
the days when ringlets and pantalets were in fashion, when small boys
wore frilled collars and asked only improving questions, when the most
delirious literary dissipation of which the youthful fancy could
conceive was a Rollo book or a prim tale by Maria Edgeworth, it was
generally believed that moral precepts and wise maxims had a prodigious
influence upon the young. It was held possible to mould the rising
generation by putting one of the sentences of Solomon at the head of a
copy-book page, and to make a permanent impression upon the spirit by
saws and sermons. If this were ever true, it is certainly not true now.
If sermon or saw has touched the imagination of the hearer, it has had
some effect which will be lasting; and this the saw does oftener than
the sermon, the proverb than the precept. If it has won only an
intellectual assent, there is small ground for supposing that it will
bring about any alteration which will be permanent and effective.

Taking into account these considerations, one might sum up the whole
matter somewhat in this way: To read fiction is certainly a pleasure; it
is to be looked upon as no less important a means of intellectual
development; while in the cultivation of the moral and spiritual sense
the proper use of fiction is one of the most effectual and essential
agencies to-day within the reach of men. In other words the proper
reading of fiction is, from the standpoint of pleasure, of intellectual
development, or of moral growth, neither more nor less than a distinct
and imperative duty.

I have been careful to say, "the proper reading of fiction." Whatever
strictures may be laid upon careless readers in general may perhaps be
quadrupled when applied to bad reading of novels. It is the duty of
nobody to read worthless fiction; and it is a species of moral iniquity
to read good novels carelessly, flippantly, or superficially. There is
small literary or intellectual hope for those whom Henry James describes
as "people who read novels as an exercise in skipping." There are two
tests by which the novel-reader is to be tried: What sort of fiction
does he read, and how does he read it? If the answers to these questions
are satisfactory, the whole matter is settled.

Of course it is of the first importance that the reader think for
himself; that he form his own opinions, and have his own appreciations.
Small minds are like weak galvanic cells; one alone is not strong enough
to generate a sensible current; they must be grouped to produce an
appreciable result. One has no opinion; while to accomplish anything
approaching a sensation a whole circle is required. It takes an entire
community of such intellects to get up a feeling, and of course the
feeling when aroused is shared in common. There are plenty of
pretentious readers of all the latest notorious novels who have as small
an individual share in whatever emotion the book excites as a Turkish
wife has in the multifariously directed affections of her husband. It is
impossible not to see the shallowness, the pretense, and the
intellectual demoralization of these readers; and it is equally idle to
deny the worthlessness of the books in which they delight.

What, then, is to be learned from fiction, that so much stress is to be
laid upon the necessity of making it a part of our intellectual and
moral education? The answer has in part at least been so often given
that it seems almost superfluous to repeat it. The more direct lessons
of the novel are so evident as scarcely to call for enumeration. Nobody
needs at this late day to be told how much may be learned from fiction
of the customs of different grades of society, of the ways and habits of
all sorts and conditions of men, and of the even more fascinating if not
actually more vitally important manners and morals of all sorts and
conditions of women. Every reader knows how much may be learned from
stories of the facts of human relations and of social existence,--facts
which one accumulates but slowly by actual experience, while yet a
knowledge of them is of so great importance for the full appreciation
and the proper employment and enjoyment of life.

Civilization is essentially an agreement upon conventions. It is the
tacit acceptance of conditions and concessions. It is conceded that if
human beings are to live together it is necessary that there must be
mutual agreement, and as civilization progresses this is extended to all
departments and details of life. What is called etiquette, for instance,
is one variety of social agreement into which men have entered for
convenience and comfort in living together. What is called good breeding
is but the manifestation of a generous desire to observe all those human
regulations by which the lives of others may be rendered more happy.
These concessions and conventions are not natural. A man may be born
with the spirit of good breeding, but he must learn its methods. Nature
may bestow the inclination to do what is wisest and best in human
relations, but the forms and processes of social life and of all human
intercourse must be acquired. It is one of the functions of fiction to
instruct in all this knowledge; and only he who is unacquainted with
life will account such an office trivial.

Intimate familiarity with the inner characteristics of humanity, and
knowledge of the experiences and the nature of mankind, are a still more
important gain from fiction. Almost unconsciously the intelligent
novel-reader grows in the comprehension of what men are and of what they
may be. This art makes the reader a sharer in those moments when
sensation is at its highest, emotion at its keenest. It brings into the
life which is outwardly quiet and uneventful, into the mind which has
few actual experiences to stir it to its deeps, the splendid
exhilaration of existence at its best. The pulse left dull by a
colorless life throbs and tingles over the pages of a vivid romance; the
heart denied contact with actualities which would awaken it beats hotly
with the fictitious passion made real by the imagination; so that life
becomes forever richer and more full of meaning.

In one way it is possible to gain from these imaginative experiences a
knowledge of life more accurate than that which comes from life itself.
It is possible to judge, to examine, to weigh, to estimate the emotions
which are enjoyed æsthetically; whereas emotions arising from real
events benumb all critical faculties by their stinging personal quality.
He who has never shared actual emotional experiences has never lived,
it is true; but he who has not shared æsthetic emotions has never
understood.

What should be the character of fiction is pretty accurately indicated
by what has been said of the part which fiction should play in human
development. Here, as in all literature, men are less influenced by the
appeal to the reason than by the appeal to the feelings. The novelist
who has a strong and lasting influence is not he who instructs men
directly, but he who moves men. This is instruction in its higher sense.
The guidance of life must come from the reason; equally, however, must
the impulse of life come from the emotions. The man who is ruled by
reason alone is but a curious mechanical toy which mimics the movements
of life without being really alive.

This prime necessity of touching and moving the reader determines one of
the most important points of difference between literature and science.
It forces the story-teller to modify, to select, and to change if need
be the facts of life, in order to produce an impression of truth. Out of
the multifarious details of existence the author must select the
significant; out of the real deduce the possibility which shall commend
itself to the reader as verity.

Above everything else is an artist who is worthy of the name truthful in
his art. He never permits himself to set down anything which is not a
verity to his imagination, or which fails to be consistent with the
conditions of human existence. He realizes that fiction in which a
knowledge of the outward shell and the accidents of life is made the
chief object cannot be permanent and cannot be vitally effective. The
novelist is not called upon to paint life, but to interpret life. It is
his privilege to be an artist; and an artist is one who sees through
apparent truth to actual verity. It is his first and most essential duty
to arouse the inner being, and to this necessity he must be ready to
sacrifice literal fact. Until the imagination is awake, art cannot even
begin to do its work. It is true that there may be a good deal of
pleasant story-telling which but lightly touches the fancy and does not
reach deeper. It is often harmless enough; but it is as idle to expect
from this any keen or lasting pleasure, and still more any mental
experience of enduring significance, as it would be to expect to warm
Nova Zembla with a bonfire. What for the moment tickles the fancy goes
with the moment, and leaves little trace; what touches the imagination
becomes a fact of life.

Macaulay, in his extraordinarily wrong-headed essay on Milton, has
explicitly stated a very wide-spread heresy when he says:--

  We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception,
  the clear discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction.

This is the ground generally held by unimaginative men. Macaulay had
many good gifts and graces, but his warmest admirers would hardly
include among them a greatly endowed or vigorously developed
imagination. If one cannot unite the advantages of reality and
deception, if he cannot join clear discernment of truth to the
exquisite enjoyment of fiction, it is because he fails of all just and
adequate comprehension of literature. To call fiction deception is
simply to fail to understand that real truth may be independent of
apparent truth. It would from the point of view of this sentence of
Macaulay's be competent to open the Gospels and call the parable of the
sower a falsehood because there is no probability that it referred to
any particular incident. The stupidity of criticism of fiction which
begins with the assumption that it is not true is not unlike that of an
endeavor to swallow a chestnut burr and the consequent declaration that
the nut is uneatable. If one is not clever enough to get beneath the
husk, his opinion is surely not of great value.

In order to enjoy a novel, it is certainly not necessary to believe it
in a literal sense. No sane man supposes that Don Quixote ever did or
ever could exist. To the intellect the book is little more than a
farrago of impossible absurdities. The imagination perceives that it is
true to the fundamental essentials of human nature, and understands that
the book is true in a sense higher than that of mere literal verity. It
is the cultivated man who has the keenest sense of reality, and yet only
to the cultivated man is possible the exquisite enjoyment of "Esmond,"
of "Les Misérables," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Return of the Native,"
or "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel." So far from being incompatible, the
clear discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction are
inseparable.

An artist who is worthy of the name is above all else truthful in his
art. He never permits himself to set down anything which he does not
feel to be true. It is with a truth higher than a literal accuracy,
however, that he is concerned. His perception is the servant of his
imagination. He observes and he uses the outward facts of life as a
means of conveying its inner meanings. It is this that makes him an
artist. The excuse for his claiming the attention of the world is that
in virtue of his imagination he is gifted with an insight keener and
more penetrating than that of his fellows; and his enduring influence
depends upon the extent to which he justifies this claim.

With the novel of trifles it is difficult to have any patience whatever.
The so-called Realistic story collects insignificant nothings about a
slender thread of plot as a filament of cobweb gathers dust in a barn.
The cobweb seems to me on the whole the more valuable, since at least it
has the benefit of the old wives' theory that it is good to check
bleeding. It is a more noble office to be wrapped about a cut finger
than to muffle a benumbed mind.

One question which the great mass of novel-readers who are also students
of literature are interested to have answered is, How far is it well to
read fiction for simple amusement? With this inquiry, too, goes the
kindred one whether it is well or ill to relax the mind over light tales
of the sort sometimes spoken of as "summer reading." To this it is
impossible to give a categorical reply. It is like the question how
often and for how long it is wise to sit down to rest while climbing a
hill. It depends upon the traveler, and no one else can determine a
point which is to be decided by feelings and conditions known alone to
him. It is hardly possible and it is not wise to read always with
exalted aims. Whatever you might be advised by me or by any other, you
would be foolish not to make of fiction a means of grateful relaxation
as well as a help in mental growth. Always it is important to remember,
however, that there is a wide difference in the ultimate result,
according as a person reads for diversion the best that will entertain
him or the worst. It is a matter of the greatest moment that our
amusements shall not be allowed to debauch our taste. It is necessary to
have some standard even in the choice of the most foamy fiction, served
like a sherbet on a hot summer afternoon. One does not read vulgar and
empty books, even for simple amusement, without an effect upon his own
mind. The Chinese are said to have matches in which cockroaches are
pitted against each other to fight for the amusement of the oblique-eyed
heathen. To be thus ignoble in their very sports indicates a peculiar
degradation and poverty of spirit; and there are certain novels so much
in the same line that it is difficult to think of their being read
without seeing in fancy a group of pig-tailed Celestials hanging
breathlessly over a bowl in which struggle the disgusting little insect
combatants. To give the mind up to this sort of reading is not to be
commended in anybody.

Fortunately we are in this day provided with a great deal of light
fiction which is sound and wholesome and genuine as far as it goes. Some
of it even goes far in the way of being imaginative and good. As
examples--not at all as a list--may be named Blackmore, Crawford,
Stanley Weyman, Anthony Hope, or the numerous writers of admirable short
stories, Cable, Miss Jewett, Miss Wilkins, J. M. Barrie, Ian Maclaren,
or Thomas Nelson Page. All these and others may be read for simple
entertainment, and all are worth reading for some more or less strongly
marked quality of permanent worth. There are plenty of writers, too,
like William Black and Clark Russell and Conan Doyle, concerning the
lasting value of whose stories there might easily be a question, yet who
do often contrive to be healthily amusing, and who furnish the means of
creating a pleasant and restful vacuity in lives otherwise too full.
Every reader must make his own choice, and determine for himself how
much picnicking he will do on his way up the hill of life. If he is wise
he will contrive to find his entertainment chiefly in books which
besides being amusing have genuine value; and he will at least see to it
that his intellectual dissipations shall be with the better of such
books as will amuse him and not with the poorer.

The mention of the short story brings to mind the great part which this
form of fiction plays to-day. The restlessness of the age and the
fostering influence of the magazines have united to develop the short
story, and it has become one of the most marked of the literary
features of the time. It has the advantage of being easily handled and
comprehended as a whole, but it lessens the power of seizing in their
entirety works which are greater. It tends rather to increase than to
diminish mental restlessness, and the lover of short stories will do
well not to let any considerable length of time go by without reading
some long and far-reaching novel by way of corrective. Another
consequence of the wide popularity of the short story is that we have
nowadays so few additions to that delightful company of fictitious yet
most admirably real personages whose acquaintance the reader makes in
longer tales. The delight of knowing these characters is not only one of
the most attractive joys of novel-reading, but it is one which helps
greatly to brighten life and enhance friendship. Few things add more to
the sympathy of comradeship than a community of friends in the enchanted
realms of the imagination. Strangers in the flesh become instantly
conscious of an intimacy in spirit when they discover a common love for
some character in fiction. Two men may be strangers, with no common
acquaintances in the flesh, but if they discover that both admire
Elizabeth Bennet, or Lizzie Hexam, or Laura Bell, or Ethel Newcome; that
both are familiar friends with Pendennis, or Warrington, or Harry
Richmond, or Mulvaney, or Alan Breck, or Mowgli, or Zagloba; or belong
to the brave brotherhood of D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, they
have a community of sympathy which brings them very close together.

It is seldom and indeed almost never that the short story gives to the
reader this sense of knowing familiarly its characters. If there be a
series, as in Kipling's "Jungle Book" or Maclaren's tales, where the
same actors appear again and again, of course the effect may be in this
respect the same as that of a novel; but cases of this sort are not
common. All the aged women of Miss Wilkins' stories, for instance, are
apt in the memory either to blend into one composite photograph of the
New England old woman, or to stand remotely, not as persons that we
know, but rather as types about which we know. The genuine novel-reader
will realize that this consideration is really one of no inconsiderable
weight; and it is one which becomes more and more pressing with the
increase of the influence of the short story.

This consideration is the more important from the fact that novels in
which the reader is able to identify himself with the characters are by
far the most effective, because thus is he removed from the realities
which surround him, and for the time being freed from whatever would
hamper his imagination. That which in real life he would be, but may
not, he may in fiction blissfully and expandingly realize. The innate
sense of justice--not, perhaps, unseconded by the innate vanity; we are
all of us human!--demands that human possibilities shall be realized,
and in the story in which the reader merges his personality in that of
some actor, all this is accomplished. In actual outward experience life
justifies itself but rarely; to most men its justification is reached
only by the aid of the imagination, and it is largely by the aid of
literature that the imagination works. Even more true is this of the
other sex. Much that men learn from life women must learn from books; so
that to women fiction is the primer of life as well as the text-book of
the imagination. By the novels he reads the man gives evidence of his
imaginative development; the woman of her intellectual existence.

Fiction should be delightful, absorbing, and above all inspiring.
Genuine art may sadden, but it cannot depress; it may bring a fresh
sense of the anguish of humanity, but it must from its very nature join
with this the consolation of an ideal. The tragedy of human life is in
art held to be the source of new courage, of nobler aspiration, because
it gives grander opportunities for human emotion to vindicate its
superiority to all disasters, all terrors, all woe. The reader does not
leave the great tragedies with a soured mind or a pessimistic disbelief
in life. "Lear," "Othello," "Romeo and Juliet," tragic as they are,
leave him quivering with sympathy but not with bitterness. The
inspiration of the thought of love triumphant over death, of moral
grandeur unsubdued by the worst that fate can do, lifts the mind above
the disaster. One puts down "The Kreutzer Sonata" with the very flesh
creeping with disgust at human existence; the same sin is treated no
less tragically in "The Scarlet Letter," yet the reader is left with an
inspiration and a nobler feeling toward life. The attitude of art is in
its essence hopeful, and the work of the pessimist must therefore fail,
even though it be informed with all the cleverness and the witchery of
genius.

It is, I believe, from something akin to a remote and perhaps
half-conscious perception of this principle that readers in general
desire that a novel shall end pleasantly. The popular sentiment in favor
of a "happy ending" is by no means so entirely wrong or so utterly
Philistine as it is the fashion in these super-æsthetical days to
assume. The trick of a doleful conclusion has masqued and paraded as a
sure proof of artistic inspiration when it is nothing of the kind.
Unhappy endings may be more common than happy ones in life, although
even that proposition is by no means proved; they seem so from the human
habit of marking the disagreeables and letting pleasant things go
unnoted. Writers of a certain school have assumed from this that they
were keeping more close to life if they left the reader at the close of
a story in a state of darkest melancholy; and they have made much parade
of the claim that this is not only more true to fact, but more artistic.
There is no reason for such an assumption. The artistic climax of a tale
is that which grows out of the story by compelling necessity. There are
many narrations, of course, which would become essentially false if made
to end gladly. When the ingenious Frenchman rewrote the last act of
"Hamlet," marrying off the Prince and dismissing him with Ophelia to
live happily ever after, the thing was monstrously absurd. The general
public is not wholly blind to these things. No audience educated up to
the point of enjoying "Hamlet" or "Othello" at all would be satisfied
with a sugar-candy conclusion to these. The public does ask, however,
and asks justly, that there shall be no meaningless agony; and if it
prefers tales which inevitably come to a cheerful last chapter, this
taste is in the line with the great principle that it is the function of
art to uplift and inspire.

It has already been said over and over that it is the office of
literature to show the meaning of life, and the meaning of life is not
only what it is but what it may be. To paint the actualities of life is
only to state a problem, and it is the mission of art to offer a
solution. The novel which can go no further than the presentation of the
apparent fact is from the higher standpoint futile because it fails to
indicate the meaning of that fact; it falls short as art in so far as it
fails to justify existence.

Lowell complains:--

  Modern imaginative literature has become so self-conscious, and
  therefore so melancholy, that Art, which should be "the world's sweet
  inn," whither we repair for refreshment and repose, has become rather
  a watering-place, where one's private touch of liver-complaint is
  exasperated by the affluence of other sufferers whose talk is a
  narrative of morbid symptoms.--_Chaucer._

We have introduced into fiction that popular and delusive fallacy of
emotional socialism which insists not so much that all shall share the
best of life, as that none shall escape its worst. The claim that all
shall be acquainted with every phase of life is enforced not by an
endeavor to make each reader a sharer in the joys and blessings of
existence, but by a determined thrusting forward of the pains and shames
of humanity. Modern literature has too generally made the profession of
treating all facts of life impartially a mere excuse for dealing
exclusively with whatever is ugly and degraded, and for dragging to
light whatever has been concealed. This is at best as if one used rare
cups of Venetian glass for the measuring out of commercial kerosene and
vinegar, or precious Grecian urns for the gathering up of the refuse of
the streets.

The wise student of literature will never lose sight of the fact that
fiction which has not in it an inspiration is to be looked upon as
ineffectual, if it is not to be avoided as morbid and unwholesome.
Fiction may be sad, it may deal with the darker side of existence; but
it should leave the reader with the uplift which comes from the
perception that there is in humanity the power to rise by elevation of
spirit above the bitterest blight, to triumph over the most cruel
circumstances which can befall.

One word must be added in conclusion, and that is the warning that
fiction can never take the place of actual life. There is danger in all
art that it may win men from interest in real existence. Literature is
after all but the interpreter of life, and living is more than all
imaginative experience. We need both the book and the deed to round out
a full and rich being. It is possible to abuse literature as it is
possible to abuse any other gift of the gods. It is not impossible to
stultify and benumb the mind by too much novel-reading; but of this
there is no need. Fiction properly used and enjoyed is one of the
greatest blessings of civilization; and how poor and thin and meagre
would life be without it!



XVI

POETRY


The lover of literature must approach any discussion of poetry with
feelings of mingled delight and dread. The subject is one which can
hardly fail to excite him to enthusiasm, but it is one with which it is
difficult to deal without a declaration of sentiments so strong that
they are not likely to be spoken; and it is one, too, upon which so much
has been said crudely and carelessly, or wisely and warmly, that any
writer must hesitate to add anything to the abundance of words already
spoken.

For there have been few things so voluminously discussed as poetry. It
is a theme so high that sages could not leave it unpraised; while there
is never a penny-a-liner so poor or so mean that he hesitates to write
his essay upon the sublime and beautiful art. It is one of the
consequences of human vanity that the more subtile and difficult a
matter, the more feeble minds feel called upon to cover it with the dust
of their empty phrases. The most crowded places are those where angels
fear to tread; and it is with reverence not unmixed with fear that any
true admirer ventures to speak even his love for the noble art of
poetry. No discussion of the study of literature, however, can leave
out of the account that which is literature's crown and glory; and of
the much that might be said and must be felt, an effort must be made
here to set something down.

       *       *       *       *       *

There are few characteristics more general in the race of man than that
responsiveness to rhythm which is the foundation of the love of verse.
The sense of symmetry exists in the rudest savage that tattoos the two
sides of his face in the same pattern, or strings his necklace of shells
in alternating colors. The same feeling is shown by the unæsthetic
country matron, the mantel of whose sacredly dark and cold best room is
not to her eye properly adorned unless the ugly vase at one end is
balanced by another exactly similar ugly vase upon the other. In sound
the instinct is yet more strongly marked. The barbaric drum-beat which
tells in the quivering sunlight of an African noon that the
cannibalistic feast is preparing appeals crudely to the same quality of
the human mind which in its refinement responds to the swelling cadences
of Mendelssohn's Wedding March or the majestic measures of the Ninth
Symphony. The rhythm of the voice in symmetrically arranged words is
equally potent in its ability to give pleasure. Savage tribes make the
beginnings of literature in inchoate verse. Indeed, so strongly does
poetry appeal to men even in the earlier states of civilization that
Macaulay seems to have conceived the idea that poetry belongs to an
immature stage of growth,--a deduction not unlike supposing the sun to
be of no consequence to civilization because it has been worshiped by
savages. In the earlier phases of human development, whether of the
individual or of the race, the universal instincts are more apparent;
and the hold which song takes upon half-barbaric man is simply a proof
of how primal and universal is the taste to which it appeals. The sense
and enjoyment of rhythm show themselves in a hundred ways in the life
and pleasures of primitive races, the vigorous shoots from which is to
spring a splendid growth.

Not to go so far back as the dawn of civilization, however, it is
sufficient here to recall our own days in the nursery, when Mother
Goose, the only universal Alma Mater, with rhymes foolish but
rhythmical, meaningless but musical, delighted ears yet too untrained to
distinguish sense from folly, but not too young to enjoy the delight of
the beating of the voice in metrically arranged accents.

This pleasure in rhythm is persistent, and it is strongly marked even in
untrained minds. In natures unspoiled and healthy, natures not
bewildered and sophisticated by a false idea of cultivation, or deceived
into unsound notions of the real value of poetry, the taste remains
sound and good. In the youth of a race this natural enjoyment of verse
is gratified by folk-songs. These early forms are naturally undeveloped
and simple, but the lays are genuine and wholesome; they possess lasting
quality. Different peoples have in differing degrees the power of
appreciating verse, but I do not know that any race has been found to
lack it entirely. There is abundant evidence that the Anglo-Saxon and
Norman ancestors from whom sprang the English-speaking peoples were in
this respect richly endowed, and that they early went far in the
development of this power. The old ballads of our language are so rich
and so enduringly beautiful that we are proved to come from a stock
endowed with a rich susceptibility to poetry. If this taste has not been
generally developed it is from some reason other than racial incapacity.
Nothing need be looked for in early literatures sweeter and sounder than
the fine old ballads of "Chevy Chace," "Tamlane," "Sir Patrick Spens,"
or "Clerk Saunders." Many a later poet of no mean reputation has failed
to strike so deep and true a note as rings through these songs made by
forgotten minstrels for a ballad-loving people. There are not too many
English-speaking poets to-day who could match the cry of the wraith of
Clerk Saunders at the window of his love:--

    Oh, cocks are crowing a merry midnight,
      The wild fowls are boding day;
    Give me my faith and troth again,
      Let me fare on my way....

    Cauld mould it is my covering now,
      But and my winding sheet;
    The dew it falls nae sooner down
      Than my resting-place is weet!

How far popular taste has departed from an appreciation of verse that is
simple and genuine is shown by those favorite rhymes which are
unwearyingly yearned for in the columns of Notes and Queries, and which
reappear with periodic persistence in Answers to Correspondents. In
educated persons, it is true, there is still a love of what is really
good in verse, but it is far too rare. The general ear and the general
taste have become vitiated. There is a melancholy and an amazing number
of readers who are pleased only with rhymes of the sort of Will
Carleton's "Farm Ballads," the sentimentally inane jingles published in
the feminine domestic periodicals, and the rest of what might be called,
were not the phrase perilously near to the vulgar, the chewing-gum
school of verse.

One of the most serious defects in modern systems of education seems to
me to be, as has been said in an earlier talk, an insufficient provision
for the development of the imagination. This is nowhere more marked than
in the failure to recognize the place and importance of poetry in the
training of the mind of youth. It might be supposed that an age which
prides itself upon being scientific in its methods would be clever
enough to perceive that from the early stages of civilization may well
be taken hints for the development of the intellect of the young.
Primitive peoples have invariably nourished their growing intelligence
and enlarged their imagination by fairy-lore and poetry. The childhood
of the individual is in its essentials not widely dissimilar from the
childhood of the race; and what was the instinctive and wholesome food
for one is good for the other. If our common schools could but omit a
good deal of the instruction which is falsely called "practical,"
because it deals with material issues, and devote the time thus gained
to training children to enjoy poetry and to use their imagination, the
results would be incalculably better.[2]

[Footnote 2: I say to enjoy poetry. There is much well-meant instruction
which is unconsciously conducive to nothing but its detestation.
Students who by nature have a fondness for verse are laboriously trained
by conscientiously mistaken instructors to regard anything in poetical
form as a bore and a torment. The business of a teacher in a preparatory
school should be to incite the pupil to love poetry. It is better to
make a boy thrill and kindle over a single line than it is to get into
his head all the comments made on literature from the beginning of
time.]

The strain and stress of modern life are opposed to the appreciation of
any art; and in the case of poetry this difficulty has been increased by
a wide-spread feeling that poetry is after all of little real
consequence. It has been held to be an excrescence upon life rather than
an essential part of it. It is the tendency of the time to seek for
tangible and present results; and men have too generally ceased to
appreciate the fact that much which is best is to be reached more surely
indirectly than directly. Since of the effects which spring from poetry
those most of worth are its remote and intangible results, careless and
superficial thinkers have come to look upon song as an unmanly
affectation, a thing artificial if not effeminate. This is one of the
most absolute and vicious of all intellectual errors. In high and noble
truth, poetry is as natural as air; poetry is as virile as war!

It is not easy to discover whence arose the popular feeling of the
insignificance of poetry. It is allied to the materialistic undervaluing
of all art, and it is probably not unconnected with the ascetic idea
that whatever ministers to earthly delight is a hindrance to progress
toward the unseen life of another world. Something is to be attributed,
no doubt, to the contempt bred by worthless imitations with which facile
poetasters have afflicted a long-suffering world; but most of all is the
want of an appreciation of the value of poetry to be attributed to the
fact that men engrossed in literal and material concerns have not been
able to appreciate remote consequences, or to comprehend the utterances
of the masters who speak the language of the imagination.

While the world in general, however, has been increasingly unsympathetic
toward poetry, the sages have universally concurred in giving to it the
highest place in the list of literary achievements. "Poetry," Emerson
said, "is the only verity." The same thought is expanded in a passage
from Mrs. Browning, in which she speaks of poets as

      --the only truth-tellers now left to God,--
    The only speakers of essential truth,
    Opposed to relative, comparative,
    And temporal truths; the only holders by
    His sun-skirts, through conventual gray glooms;
    The only teachers who instruct mankind
    From just a shadow on a charnel wall
    To find man's veritable stature out,
    Erect, sublime,--the measure of a man.

                                    --_Aurora Leigh_

So Wordsworth:--

  Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge, it is the
  impassioned expression which is on the face of all science.

It is needless, however, to multiply quotations. The world has never
doubted the high respect which those who appreciate poetry have for the
art.

It is true also that however general at any time may have been the
seeming or real neglect of poetry, the race has not failed to preserve
its great poems. The prose of the past, no matter how great its wisdom,
has never been able to take with succeeding generations the rank held by
the masterpieces of the poets. Mankind has seemed not unlike one who
affects to hold his jewels in little esteem, it may be, yet like the
jewel owner it has guarded them with constant jealousy. The honor-roll
of literature is the world's list of great poets. The student of
literature is not long in discovering that his concern is far more
largely with verse than with anything else that the wit of mankind has
devised to write. However present neglect may at any time appear to show
the contrary, the long-abiding regard of the race declares beyond
peradventure that it counts poetry as most precious among all its
intellectual treasures.



XVII

THE TEXTURE OF POETRY


In discussing poetry it is once more necessary to begin with something
which will serve us as a definition. No man can imprison the essence of
an art in words; and it is not to be understood that a formal definition
can be framed which shall express all that poetry is and means. Its more
obvious characteristics, however, may be phrased, and even an incomplete
formula is often useful. There have been almost as many definitions of
poetry made already as there have been writers on literature, some
of them intelligible and some of them open to the charge of
incomprehensibility. Schopenhauer, for instance, defined poetry as the
art of exciting by words the power of the imagination; a phrase so broad
that it is easily made to cover all genuine literature. It will perhaps
be sufficient for our purpose here if we say that poetry is the
embodiment in metrical, imaginative language of passionate emotion.

By metrical language is meant that which is systematically rhythmical.
Much prose is rhythmical. Indeed it is difficult to conceive of fine or
delicate prose which has not rhythm to some degree, and oratorical prose
is usually distinguished by this. The Bible abounds in excellent
examples; as, for instance, this passage from Job:--

  Hell is naked before Him, and destruction hath no covering; He
  stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth
  upon nothing. He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the
  cloud is not rent under them. He holdeth back the face of His throne,
  and spreadeth His cloud upon it. He hath compassed the waters with
  bounds until the day and night come to an end. The pillars of heaven
  tremble, and are astonished at His reproof. He divideth the sea with
  His power, and by His understanding He smiteth through the
  proud.--_Job_, xxvi. 6-12.

Here, as in all fine prose, there is a rhythm which is marked, and at
times almost regular; but it is not ordered by a system, as it must be
in the simplest verse of poetry. Take, by way of contrast, a stanza from
the superb chorus to Artemis in "Atalanta in Calydon:"--

    Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
      Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
    With a noise of winds and many rivers,
      With a clamor of waters and with might;
    Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
    Over the splendor and speed of thy feet;
    For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
      Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night.

Here the rhythm is systematized according to regular laws, and so
becomes metrical. The effect upon the ear in prose is largely due to
rhythm, but metrical effects are entirely within the province of poetry.

This difference between rhythmical and metrical language would seem to
be sufficiently obvious, but the difficulty which many students have in
appreciating it may make it worth while to give another illustration.
The following passage from Edmund Burke, that great master of sonorous
English, is strongly and finely rhythmical:--

  Because we are so made as to be affected at such spectacles with
  melancholy sentiments upon the unstable condition of mortal
  prosperity, and the tremendous uncertainty of human greatness; because
  in those natural feelings we learn great lessons; because in events
  like these our passions instruct our reason; because when kings are
  hurled from their thrones by the Supreme Director of this great drama,
  and become objects of insult to the base, and of pity to the good, we
  behold such disasters in the moral, as we should behold a miracle in
  the physical order of things.--_Reflections on the Revolution in
  France._

So markedly rhythmical is this, indeed, that it would take but little to
change it into metre:--

  Because we are so made as to be moved by spectacles like these with
  melancholy sentiments of the unstable case of mortal things, and the
  uncertainty of human greatness here; because in those our natural
  feelings we may learn great lessons too; because in such events our
  passions teach our reason well; because when kings are hurled down
  from their thrones, etc.

There is no longer any dignity in this. It has become a sort of
sing-song, neither prose nor yet poetry. The sentiments are not unlike
those of a familiar passage in Shakespeare:--

    This is the state of man; to-day he puts forth
    The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,
    And bears his blushing honors thick upon him:
    The third day comes a frost, a killing frost;
    And,--when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
    His greatness is a ripening,--nips his root,
    And then he falls, as I do.

                                _Henry VIII._, iii. 2.

In the extract from Burke a sense of weakness and even of flatness is
produced by the rearrangement of the accents so that they are made
regular; while in the verse of Shakespeare the sensitive ear is very
likely troubled by the single misplaced accent in the first line. In any
mood save the poetic metre seems an artificiality and an affectation,
but in that mood it is as natural and as necessary as air to the lungs.

Besides being metrical the language of poetry must be imaginative. By
imaginative language is meant that which not only conveys imaginative
conceptions, but which is itself full of force and suggestion; language
which not only expresses ideas and emotions, but which by its own power
evokes them. Imaginative language is marked by the most vivid perception
on the part of the writer of the connotive effect of words; it conveys
even more by implication than by direct denotation. It may of course be
used in poetry or prose. In the passage from Job just quoted, the use of
such phrases as "empty place," "hangeth the earth upon nothing," convey
more by what they suggest to the mind than by their literal assertion.
The writer has evidently used them with a vital and vivid understanding
of their suggestiveness. He realizes to the full their office to convey
impressions so subtle that they cannot be given by direct and literal
diction.

Poetry is made up of words and phrases which glow with this richness of
intention. When Shakespeare speaks of skin "smooth as monumental
alabaster," how much is added to the idea by the epithet "monumental,"
the suggestion of the polished and protected stone, enshrined on a tomb;
how much is due to association and implication in such phrases as the
"reverberate hills," "parting is such sweet sorrow," "the white wonder
of dear Juliet's hand," "and sleep in dull, cold marble,"--phrases all
of which have a literal significance plain enough, yet of which this
literal meaning is of small account beside that which they evoke. Poetic
diction naturally and inevitably melts into figures, as when we read of
"the shade of melancholy boughs," "the spendthrift sun," "the bubble
reputation," "the inaudible and noiseless foot of time;" but the point
here is that even in its literal words there is constantly the sense and
the employment of implied meanings. It is by no means necessarily
figures to which language owes the quality of being imaginative. Broadly
speaking, a style may be said to be imaginative in proportion as the
writer has realized and intended its suggestions.

The language of prose is often imaginative to a high degree, but seldom
if ever to that extent or with that deliberate purpose which in verse is
nothing less than essential. Genuine poetry differs from prose in the
entire texture of its web. From the same threads the loom may weave
plain stuff or richest brocade; and thus of much the same words are made
prose and poetry. The difference lies chiefly in the fashion of working.

The essentials of the manner of poetry being language metrical and
imaginative, the essential of the matter is that it be the expression of
passionate emotion. By passionate emotion is meant any feeling, powerful
or delicate, which is capable of filling the whole soul; of taking
possession for the time being of the entire man. It may be fierce hate,
enthralling love, ambition, lust, rage, jealousy, joy, sorrow, any
over-mastering mood, or it may be one of those intangible inclinations,
those moods of mist, ethereal as hazes in October, those caprices of
pleasure or sadness which Tennyson had the art so marvelously to
reproduce. Passionate emotion is by no means necessarily intense, but it
is engrossing. For the time being, at least, it seems to absorb the
whole inner consciousness.

It is the completeness with which such a mood takes possession of the
mind, so that for the moment it is to all intents and purposes the man
himself, that gives it so great an importance in human life and makes it
the fitting and the sole essential theme of the highest art. Behind all
serious human effort lies the instinctive sense of the fitness of
things. The artist must always convince that his end is worthy of the
means which he employs to reach it; and it follows naturally that the
writer who uses imaginative diction and the elaborateness of metre must
justify this by what he embodies in them. Metrical forms are as much
out of place in treating of the material concerns of life as would be
court robes or religious rites in the reaping of a field or the selling
of a cargo of wool. The poet is justified in his use of all the
resources of form and of poetic diction by the fact that the message
which he is endeavoring to convey is high and noble; that the meaning
which he attempts to impart is so profoundly subtle as to be
inexpressible unless the words which he employs are assisted by the
language of rhythm and metre.

That the reader unconsciously recognizes the fact that the essential
difference in the office of prose and poetry makes inevitable a
difference also of method, is shown by his dissatisfaction when the
writer of prose invades the province of poetry. The arrangement of the
words of prose into systematic rhythm produces at once an effect of
weakness and of insincerity. Dickens in some of his attempts to reach
deep pathos has made his prose metrical with results most disastrous.
The mood of poetry is so elevated that metrical conventions seem
appropriate and natural; whereas in the mood of even the most emotional
prose they appear fantastical and affected. The difference is not unlike
that between the speaking and the singing voice. A man who sang in
conversation, or even in a highly excited oration, would simply make
himself ridiculous. In song this manner of using the voice is not only
natural but inevitable and delightful. What would be uncalled for in the
most exalted moods of the prose writer is natural and fitting in the
case of the poet, because the poet is endeavoring to embody, in language
the most deep, the most high, the most delicate experiences of which
humanity is capable. The form is with him a part of his normal language.
To say in prose: "My love is like a red rose newly sprung in June, or
like a melody beautifully played," means not much. Yet the words
themselves are not widely varied from those in which Burns conveys the
same ideas with so great an added beauty, and so much more emotional
force:--

    Oh, my luve's like a red, red rose
      That's newly sprung in June;
    Oh, my luve's like a melodie
      That's sweetly played in tune.

The metrical cadences woo the ear like those of a melody sweetly played,
and to that which the words may say or suggest they add an effect yet
more potent and delightful.

A moment's consideration of these facts enables one to estimate rightly
the stricture made by Plato:--

  You have often seen what a poor appearance the tales of poets make
  when stripped of the colors which music puts upon them, and recited in
  prose. They are like faces which were never really beautiful, but only
  blooming, and now the bloom of youth has passed away from them.

It would be more just and more exact to say that they are like the
framework of a palace from which have been stripped the slabs of
precious marble which covered it. It is neither more nor less
reasonable to object to poetry that its theme told in prose is slight or
dull than it would be to scorn St. Peter's because its rafters and
ridgepole might not be attractive if they stood out bare against the
sky. The form is in poetry as much an integral part as walls and roof
and dome, statues and jewel-like marbles, are part of the temple.

Leaving out of consideration those peculiarities such as rhyme and
special diction, which although often of much effect are not essential
since poetry may be great without them, it is sufficiently exact for a
general examination to say that the effects of poetry are produced by
the threefold union of ideas, suggestion, and melody. In the use of
ideas poetry is on much the same footing as prose, except in so far as
it deals with exalted moods which have no connection with thoughts which
are mean or commonplace. In the use of suggestion poetry but carries
farther the means employed in imaginative prose. Melody may be said
practically to be its own prerogative. The smoothest flow of rhythmical
prose falls far below the melodious cadences of metrical language; and
in this manner of appeal to the senses and the soul of man verse has no
rival save music itself.

These three qualities may be examined separately. Verse may be found in
which there is almost nothing but melody, divorced from suggestion or
ideas. There are good examples in Edward Lear's "Nonsense Songs," in
which there is an intentional lack of sense; or in the "Alice" books,
as, for instance:--

    And as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
    Came whiffling through the tulgy wood,
      And burbled as it came!...

    "And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
    O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
      He chortled in his joy.

Or one may take something which will convey no idea and no suggestion
beyond that which comes with sound and rhythm. Here is a verse once made
in sport to pass as a folk-song in an unknown tongue:--

    Apaulthee kong lay laylarthay;
      Ameeta tinta prown,
    Lay lista, lay larba, lay moona long,
    Toolay échola doundoolay koko elph zong,
      Im lay melplartha bountaina brown.

This is a collection of unmeaning syllables, and yet to the ear it is a
pleasure. The examples may seem trivial, but they serve to illustrate
the fact that there is magic in the mere sound of words, meaning though
they have none.

The possibility of pleasing solely by the arrangement and choice of
words in verse has been a snare to more than one poet; as a neglect of
melody has been the fault of others. In much of the later work of
Swinburne it is evident that the poet became intoxicated with the mere
beauty of sound, and forgot that poetry demands thought as well as
melody; while the reader is reluctantly forced to acknowledge that in
some of the verse of Browning there is a failure to recognize that
melody is an element as essential as thought.

As verse may be found which has little but melody, so is it possible to
find verse in which there is practically nothing save melody and
suggestion. In "Ulalume" Poe has given an instance of the effect
possible from the combining of these with but the thinnest thread of
idea:--

    The skies they were ashen and sober;
      The leaves they were crispèd and sere,--
      The leaves they were withering and sere;
    It was night in the lonesome October,
      Of my most immemorial year;
    It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
      In the misty mid-region of Weir--
    It was down by the dark tarn of Auber,
      In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

There is here no definite train of thought. It is an attempt to convey a
certain mood by combining mysterious and weird suggestion with melody
enticing and sweet.

A finer example is the closing passage in "Kubla Khan." The suggestions
are more vivid, and the imagination far more powerful.

    A damsel with a dulcimer
    In a vision once I saw;
    It was an Abyssinian maid,
    And on her dulcimer she played,
    Singing of Mount Abora.
    Could I revive within me
    Her symphony and song,
    To such deep delight 'twould win me,
    That with music loud and long,
    I would build that dome in air,
    That sunny dome; those caves of ice;
    And all who heard should see them there,
    And all should cry: "Beware! Beware!
    His flashing eyes, his floating hair;
    Weave a circle round him thrice,
    And close your eyes with holy dread,
    For he on honey-dew hath fed,
    And drunk the milk of Paradise."

Here there is a more evident succession of ideas than in "Ulalume;" but
in both the effect is almost entirely produced by the music and the
suggestion, with very little aid from ideas.

How essential to poetry are melody and suggestion is at once evident
when one examines verse which contains ideas without these fundamental
qualities. Wordsworth, great as he is at his best, affords ready
examples here. The following is by no means the least poetical passage
in "The Prelude," but it is sufficiently far from being poetry in any
high sense to serve as an illustration:--

    I was a better judge of thoughts than words,
    Misled in estimating words, not only
    By common inexperience of youth,
    But by the trade of classic niceties,
    The dangerous craft of culling term and phrase
    From languages that want the living voice
    To carry meaning to the natural heart.

Here are ideas, but there is no emotion, and the thing could be said
better in prose. It is as fatal to try to express in poetry what is not
elevated enough for poetic treatment as it is to endeavor to say in
prose those high things which can be embodied by poetry only. Melody
alone, or suggestiveness alone, is better than ideas alone if there is
to be an attempt to produce the effect of poetry.

Poetry which is complete and adequate adds melody and suggestion to
that framework of ideas which is to them as the skeleton to flesh and
blood. Any of the great lyrics of the language might be given as
examples. The reader has but to open his Shakespeare's "Sonnets" at
random, as for instance, at this:--

    From you have I been absent in the spring,
    When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
    Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
    That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
    Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
    Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
    Could make me any summer's story tell,
    Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
    Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
    Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
    They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
    Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
    Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away,
    As with your shadow I with these did play.

It is not necessary to carry this analysis farther. The object of
undertaking it is to impress upon the reader the fact that in poetry
form is an essential element in the language of the art. The student
must realize that the poet means his rhythm as truly as and in the same
measure that he means the thought; and that to attempt to appreciate
poetry without sensitiveness to melody is as hopeless as would be a
similar attempt to try to appreciate music. When Wordsworth said that
poetry is inevitable, he meant the metre no less than the thought; he
wished to convey the fact that the impassioned mood breaks into melody
of word as the full heart breaks into song. The true poem is the
embodiment of what can be expressed in no other way than by that
especial combination of idea, suggestion, and sound. The thought, the
hint, and the music are united in one unique and individual whole.



XVIII

POETRY AND LIFE


Vitally to appreciate what poetry is, it is necessary to realize what
are its relations to life. Looked at in itself its essentials are
emotion which is capable of taking entire possession of the
consciousness, and the embodiment of this emotion by the combined
effects of imaginative language and melodious form. It is still needful,
however, to consider how this art acts upon human beings, and why there
has been claimed for it so proud a pre-eminence among the arts.

Why, for instance, should Emerson speak of the embodiment of mere
emotion as "the only verity," Wordsworth as "the breath and finer spirit
of all knowledge," and why does Mrs. Browning call poets "the only
truth-tellers"? The answer briefly is: Because consciousness is
identical with emotion, and consciousness is life. For all practical
purposes man exists but in that he feels. The universe concerns him in
so far as it touches his feelings, and it concerns him no farther. That
is for man most essential which comes most near to the conditions of his
existence. Pure and ideal emotion is essential truth in the sense that
it approaches most nearly to the consciousness,--that is, to the actual
being of the race.

I am aware that this sounds dangerously like an attempt to be darkly
metaphysical; but it is impossible to talk on high themes without to
some extent using high terms. It is useless to hope to put into words
all the mysteries of the relations of art to life, yet it is not
impossible to approximate somewhat to what must be the truth of the
matter, although in doing it one inevitably runs the risk of seeming to
attempt to say what cannot be said. What I have been endeavoring to
convey will perhaps be plainer if I say that for purposes of our
discussion man is practically alive only in so far as he realizes life.
This realization of life, this supreme triumph of inner consciousness,
comes to him through his feelings,--indeed, is perhaps to be considered
as identical with his feelings. His sensations affect him only by the
emotions which they excite. His emotion, in a word, is the measure of
his existence. Now the emotion of man always responds, in a degree
marked by appreciation, to certain presentations of the relation of
things, to certain considerations of the nature of human life, and above
all to certain demonstrations of the possibilities of human existence.
If these are made actual and clear to the mind, they cannot fail to
arouse that engrossing realization which is the height of consciousness.
To enable a man to seize with his imagination the ideal of love or hate,
of fear or courage, of shame or honor, is to make him kindle and thrill.
It is to make him for the time being thoroughly and richly alive, and it
is to increase greatly his power of essential life. These are the
things which most deeply touch human creatures; they are the universal
in that they appeal to all sane hearts and minds; they are the eternal
as measured by mortal existence because they have power to touch the men
of all time; hence they are the real truths; they are, for beings under
the conditions of earthly existence, the only verities.

The ordinary life of man is not unlike the feeble flame of a miner's
lamp, half smothered in some underground gallery until a draught of
vital air kindles it into sudden glow and sparkle. Most human beings
have but a dull flicker of half-alive consciousness until some outward
breath causes it to flash into quick and quivering splendor. Poetry is
that divine air, that breeze from unscaled heights of being, the
kindling breath by which the spark becomes a flame.

It is but as a means of conveying the essential truth which is the
message of poetry, that the poet employs obvious truth. The facts which
impress themselves upon the outer senses are to him merely a language by
means of which he seeks to impart the higher facts that are apprehended
only by the inner self; those facts of emotion which it is his office as
a seer to divine and to interpret. The swineherd and the wandering
minstrel saw the same wood and sky and lake; but to one they were earth
and air and water; while to the other they were the outward and visible
embodiment of the spirit of beauty which is eternal though earth and sea
and sky vanish. To Peter Bell the primrose by the river's brim was but
a primrose and nothing more; to the poet it was the symbol and the
embodiment of loveliness, the sign of an eternal truth. To the laborer
going afield in the early light the dewdrops are but so much water,
wetting unpleasantly his shoes; to Browning it was a symbol of the
embodiment in woman of all that is pure and holy when he sang:--

  There's a woman like a dew-drop, she's so purer than the purest.

It is evident from what has been said that in reading poetry it is
necessary to penetrate through the letter to the spirit. I have already
spoken at length in a former lecture upon the need of knowing the
language of literature, and of being in sympathy with the mood of the
writer. This is especially true in regard to poetry, since poetry
becomes great in proportion as it deals with the spirit rather than with
the letter. "We are all poets when we read a poem well," Carlyle has
said. It is only by entering into the mood and by sharing the exaltation
of the poet that we are able to appreciate his message. A poem is like a
window of stained glass. From without one may be able to gain some
general idea of its design and to guess crudely at its hues; but really
to perceive its beauty, its richness of design, its sumptuousness of
color, one must stand within the very sanctuary itself.

It is partly from the lack of sensitiveness of the imagination of the
reading public, I believe, that in the latter half of this century the
novel has grown into a prominence so marked. The great mass of readers
no longer respond readily to poetry, and fiction is in a sense a
simplification of the language of imagination so that it may be
comprehended by those who cannot rise to the heights of verse. In this
sense novels might almost be called the kindergarten of the imagination.
In fiction, emotional experiences are translated into the language of
ordinary intellectual life; whereas in poetry they are phrased in terms
of the imagination, pure and simple. There can be no question of the
superiority of the means employed by the poet. Much which is embodied in
verse cannot be expressed by prose of any sort, no matter how exalted
that prose may be; but for the ordinary intelligence the language of
prose is far more easily comprehensible.

       *       *       *       *       *

What I have been saying, however, may seem to be so general and
theoretical that I may be held not yet fairly to have faced that issue
at which I hinted in the beginning, the issue which Philistine minds
raise bluntly: What is the use of poetry? Philistines are willing to
concede that there is a sensuous pleasure to be gained from verse. They
are able to perceive how those who care for such things may find an
enervating enjoyment in the linked sweetness of cadence melting into
cadence, in musical line and honeyed phrase. What they are utterly
unable to understand is how thoughtful men, men alive to the practical
needs and the real interests of the race, can speak of poetry as if it
were a thing of genuine importance in the history and development of
mankind. It would not be worth while to attempt an answer to this for
the benefit of the Philistines. They are a folk who are so completely
ignorant of the higher good of life that it is impossible to make them
understand. Their conception of value does not reach beyond pecuniary
and physical standards; they comprehend nothing which is not expressed
in material terms. One who attempted to describe a symphony to a deaf
man would not be more at a loss for terms than must be he who attempts
to set forth the worth of art to those ignorant of real values. The
question may be answered, but to those who most need to be instructed in
regard to æsthetic values any answer must forever remain unintelligible.

There are, however, many sincere and earnest seekers after truth who are
unable to clear up their ideas when they come in contact, as they must
every day, with the assumption that poetry is but the plaything of idle
men and women, a thing not only unessential but even frivolous. For them
it is worth while to formulate some sort of a statement; although to do
this is like making the attempt to declare why the fragrance of the rose
is sweet or why the hue of its petals gives delight.

In the first place, then, the use of poetry is to nourish the
imagination. I have spoken earlier of the impossibility of fulfilling
the higher functions of life without this faculty. A common error
regards imagination as a quality which has to do with rare and
exceptional experiences; as a power of inventing whimsical and
impossible thoughts; as a sort of jester to beguile idle moments of the
mind. In reality imagination is to the mental being what blood is to the
physical man. Upon it the intellect and the emotional consciousness
alike depend for nourishment. Without it the mind is powerless to seize
or to make really its own anything which lies outside of actual
experience. Without it the broker could not so fully realize his cunning
schemes as to manipulate the market and control the price of stocks;
without it the inventor could devise no new machine, the scientist grasp
no fresh secret of laws which govern the universe. It is the divine
power in virtue of which man subdues the world to his uses. In a word,
imagination is that faculty which distinguishes man from brute.

It is the beginning of wisdom to know; it is the culmination of wisdom
to feel. The intellect accumulates; the emotion assimilates. What we
learn, we possess; but what we feel, we are. The perception acquires,
and the imagination realizes; and thus it is that only through the
imagination can man build up and nourish that inner being which is the
true and vital self. To cultivate the imagination, therefore, is an
essential--nay, more; it is the one essential means of insuring the
progression of the race. This is the great office of all art, but
perhaps most obviously is it the noble prerogative and province of
poetry. "In the imagination," wrote Coleridge, "is the distinguishing
characteristic of man as a progressive being." To kindle into flame the
dull embers of this god-like attribute is the first office of poetry;
and were this all, it would lift the art forever above every cumbering
material care and engrossing intellectual interest.

In the second place, the use of poetry is to give man knowledge of his
unrecognized experiences or his unrealized capacities of feeling. The
poet speaks what many have felt, but what none save he can say. He
accomplishes the hitherto impossible. He makes tangible and subject the
vague emotions which disquiet us as if they were elusive ghosts haunting
the dwelling of the soul, unsubdued and oppressive in their mystery. The
joy of a moment he has fixed for all time; the throb gone almost before
it is felt he has made captive; to the evasive emotion he has given
immortality. In a word, it is his office to confer upon men dominion
over themselves.

Third, it is poetry which nourishes and preserves the optimism of the
race. Poetry is essentially optimistic. It raises and encourages by
fixing the mind upon the possibilities of life. Even when it bewails
what is gone, when it weeps lost perfection, vanished joy, and crushed
love, the reader receives from the poetic form, from the uplift of
metrical inspiration, a sense that the possibilities of existence
overwhelm individual pain. The fact that such blessings could and may
exist is not only consolation when fate has wrenched them away, but the
vividness with which they are recalled may almost make them seem to be
relived. That

    A sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things,

is not the whole story. In times of deepest woe it is this very
remembrance which makes it possible to live on at all. The unconscious
and the inevitable lesson of all true art, moreover, is that the
possibility of beauty in life is compensation for the anguish which its
existence entails. The poet who weeps for the lost may have no word of
comfort to offer, but the fact that life itself is of supreme
possibilities is shown inevitably and persuasively by the fact that he
is so deeply moved. He could not be thus stricken had he not known very
ecstasies of joy; and his message to the race is that such bliss has
been and thus may be again. More than this, the fact that he in his
anguish instinctively turns to art is the most eloquent proof that
however great may be the sorrows of life there is for them an
alleviating balm in æsthetic enjoyment. He may speak of

                Beauty that must die,
    And Joy whose hand is ever at his lips,
    Bidding adieu;

but with the very thought of the brevity is coupled an exquisite sense
of both beauty and joy in ever fresh renewal, so that the reader knows a
subtle thrill of pleasure even at the mention of pain. Poe's proposition
that poetry should be restricted to sorrowful themes probably arose from
a more or less conscious feeling that the expression of despair is the
surest means of conveying vividly a sense of the value of what is gone;
and whether Poe went so far as to realize it or not the fact is that
the passion of loss most surely expresses the possible bliss of
possession. Even when it would, art cannot deny the worth and the glory
of existence. The word of denial is chanted to a strain which inspires
and affirms. Even when he would be most pessimistic the genuine poet
must perforce preach in deathless tones the gospel of optimism.

Fourth, poetry is the original utterance of the ideas of the world. It
is easy and not uncommon to regard the art of the poet as having little
to do with the practical conduct of life; yet there is no man in
civilization who does not hold opinions and theories, thoughts and
beliefs, which he owes to the poets. Thought is not devised in the
marketplace. What thinkers have divined in secret is there shown openly
by its results. Every poet of genius remakes the world. He leaves the
stamp of his imagination upon the whole race, and philosophers reason,
scientists explore, money-changers scheme, tradesmen haggle, and farmers
plough or sow, all under conditions modified by what has been divulged
in song. The poet is the great thinker, whose thought, translated,
scattered, diluted, spilled upon the ground and gathered up again, is
the inspiration and the guide of mankind.

If this seem extravagant, think for a little. Reflect in what
civilization differs from savagery; consider not the accidental and
outward circumstance, but the fundamental causes upon which these
depend. If you endeavor to find adequately expressed the ideals of
honor, of truth, of love, and of aspiration which are behind all the
development of mankind, it is to the poets that you turn instinctively.
It is possible to go farther than this. Knowledge is but a perception of
relations. The conception of the universe is too vast to be assimilated
all at once, but every perception of the way in which one part is
related to another, one fact to another, one thing to the rest, helps
toward a realization of the ultimate truth. It is the poet who first
discerns and proclaims the relations of those facts which the experience
of the race accumulates. From the particular he deduces the general,
from the facts he perceives the principles which underlie them. The
general, that is, in its relation to that emotional consciousness which
is the real life of man; the principles which take hold not upon
material things only, but upon the very conditions of human existence.
All abstract truth has sprung from poetry as rain comes from the sea.
Changed, diffused, carried afar and often altered almost beyond
recognition, the thought of the world is but the manifestation of the
imagination of the world; and it has found its first tangible expression
in poetry.

Fifth, poetry is the instructor in beauty. No small thing is human
happiness, and human happiness is nourished on beauty. Poetry opens the
eyes of men to loveliness in earth and sky and sea, in flower and weed,
in tree and rock and stream, in things common and things afar alike. It
is by the interpretation of the poet that mankind in general is aware of
natural beauty; and it is hardly less true that the beauty of moral and
emotional worlds would be practically unknown were it not for these
high interpreters. The race has first become aware of all ethereal and
elusive loveliness through the song of the poet, sensitive to see and
skillful to tell. For its beauty in and of itself, and for its
revelation of the beauty of the universe, both material and intangible,
poetry is to the world a boon priceless and peerless.

Sixth, poetry is the creator and preserver of ideals. The ideal is the
conception of the existence beyond what is of that which may and should
be. It is the measure of the capability of desire. "Man's desires are
limited by his perceptions," says William Blake; "none can desire what
he has not perceived." What man can receive, what it is possible for him
to enjoy, is limited to what he is able to wish for. The ideal is the
highest point to which his wish has been able to attain, and upon the
advancement of this point must depend the increasing of the
possibilities of individual experience. With the growth of ideals,
moreover, comes the constant, however slow, realization of them. So true
is this that it almost affords a justification of the belief that
whatever mankind really desires must in the end be realized from the
very fact that it is desired. Be that as it may, an ideal is the
perception of a higher reality. It is the recognition of essential as
distinguished from accidental truth; the comprehension of the eternal
principle which must underlie every fact. It is a realization of the
meaning of existence; a piercing through the transient appearance to the
fundamental and the enduring. The reader who finds himself caught away
like St. Paul to the third heaven--"whether in the body I cannot tell;
or whether out of the body I cannot tell"--has no need to ask whether
life is merely eating and drinking, getting and spending, marrying and
giving in marriage. He has for that transcendent moment lived the real
life; he has tasted the possibilities of existence; he has for one
glorious instant realized the ideal. When a poem has carried him out of
himself and the material present which we call the real, then the verse
has been for him as a chariot of fire in which he has been swirled
upward to the very heart of the divine.

When not actually under the influence of this high exalting power of
poetry most men have a strange reluctance to admit that it is possible
for them to be so moved; and thus it may easily happen that what has
just been said may seem to the reader extravagant and florid. There are
happily few, however, to whom there have not come moments of inner
illumination, few who cannot if they will call up times when the
imagination has carried them away, and the delight of being so borne
above the actual was a revelation and a joy not easily to be put into
word. Recalling such an experience, you will not find it difficult to
understand what is meant by the claim that poetry creates in the mind of
man an ideal which in turn it justifies also.

Lastly and above all, the use of poetry is--poetry.

    'Tis the deep music of the rolling world
    Kindling within the strings of the waved air
    Æolian modulations.

It is vain to endeavor to put into word the worth and office of poetry.
At the last we are brought face to face with the fact that anything
short of itself is inadequate to do it justice. To read a single page of
a great singer is more potent than to pore over volumes in his praise. A
single lyric puts to shame the most elaborate analysis or the most
glowing eulogy; in the end there is no resource but to appeal to the
inner self which is the true man; since in virtue of what is most deep
and noble in the soul, each may perceive for himself that poetry is its
own supreme justification; that there is no need to discuss the relation
of poetry to life, since poetry is the expression of life in its best
and highest possibilities.



INDEX


  Abbot, J. S. C., "Rollo," 201.

  Addison, 66.

  Advertising, 168-170.

  Æschylus, 149.

  Aldrich, T. B., "Story of a Bad Boy," 11, 15.

  Allusions, Biblical, 98-101;
    to folk-lore, 106;
    historical, 103-106;
    literary, 107-108;
    mythological, 101-103.

  Amiel, "Journal Intime," 7.

  Amiot, 90.

  Andersen, Hans Christian, 196.

  Apprehension, 74.

  Ariosto, 143.

  Art, conventions in, 89;
    deals with the typical, 6;
    end of, 87;
    good, 22;
    origin of, 3-5;
    sanity of, 174;
    truth in, 206;
    truth of, 209;
    _vs._ science, 32.

  Artist, office of, 207.

  Asbjörnsen, 196.

  Augustine, St., "Confessions," 7.

  Austen, Jane, 189.


  Ballads, 222.

  Balzac, 189.

  Barrie, J. M., 211.

  Bible, 101, 140, 142, 145, 197;
    allusions to, 98-101;
    as a classic, 143-147;
    books of, characterized, 146;
    quoted, 100, 228;
    Revised Version _vs._ King James, 146.

  Black, William, 13, 211.

  Blackmore, R. D., 211.

  Blake, William, 54, 66;
    quoted, 58, 121, 252.

  Boccaccio, 143.

  Breeding, good, 204.

  Brontë, Charlotte, 189.

  Broughton, Rhoda, 185.

  Browning, Mrs. E. B., quoted, 8, 132, 225, 241;
    "Sonnets from the Portuguese," 7-9.

  Browning Robert, 92, 155, 179, 180;
    "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," 48;
    lack of melody, 236;
    obscure in allusions, 106;
    "Prospice," 13;
    quoted, 244;
    "The Ring and the Book," 180.

  Bunyan, John, "Pilgrim's Progress," 129.

  Burke, Edmund, quoted, 229.

  Burns, quoted, 234.

  Byron, Lord, 11, 12;
    quoted, 104.


  Cable, G. W., 211.

  Carleton, Will, "Farm Ballads," 223.

  Carlyle, Thomas, 42;
    quoted, 244.

  Carroll, Lewis, quoted, 236.

  Cervantes, 133, 140, 143;
    "Don Quixote," 129, 189.

  Character, 56.

  Chaucer, Geoffrey, 78, 116, 123, 124, 140, 142, 146;
    as a classic, 151-152;
    Lowell on, 114;
    quoted, 114.

  Children, education of, 193-196, 223;
    reading of, 195-198.

  Civilization, 204.

  Classic, defined, 127.

  Classics, 176, 177;
    cause of the neglect of, 132-134;
    test of, 130.

  "Clerk Saunders," 222.

  Coleridge, S. T., 54, 66;
    "Hymn Before Sunrise," etc., 75;
    quoted, 145, 237, 247.

  Collins, William, 66.

  Comprehension, 74.

  Conventions, 88-92.

  Cowper, William, quoted, 79.

  Crawford, F. M., 211.

  Critics, use of, 70.


  Dante, 58, 78, 140, 142, 146;
    as a classic, 150-151.

  Darwin, Charles, 55.

  D'Aulnoy, Countess, 196.

  D'Aurevilly, Barbey, 169.

  Defoe, 66;
    "Robinson Crusoe," 197.

  De Gasparin, Madame, "The Near and the Heavenly Horizons," 48.

  De Maupassant, Guy, 182.

  Dekker, Thomas, quoted, 115.

  Dickens, Charles, 179, 180, 189;
    his metrical prose, 233.

  Doyle, A. Conan, 211;
    quoted, 134.

  Dryden, John, 66, 146;
    quoted, 152.

  "Duchess," The, 13, 185.

  Dumas, A., _père_, 182, 189;
    "D'Artagnan Romances," 27, 92.


  Edgeworth, Maria, 201.

  Education, use of poetry in, 223.

  Eliot, George, 180, 187, 189.

  Emerson, R. W., 179, 180;
    on translations, 148;
    quoted, 43, 47, 103, 225, 241.

  Emotion, 241-245;
    fashion in, 15;
    genuine, 68;
    tests of genuineness of, 10-20.

  Etiquette, 204.

  Euripides, 149.

  Experience the test of art, 10.


  Fairy stories, 196-197.

  Fiction, truth in, 188.

  Fielding, Henry, 66.

  Folk-lore, 223.

  Folk-songs, 137-139, 221-222.

  French authors, 170.

  Fuller, Margaret, 86.


  Genius, 20, 250.

  Gibbon, Edward, quoted, 74.

  Gladstone, W. E., 168.

  Goethe, quoted, 36, 178.

  Goldsmith, Oliver, 66.

  Gower, John, 116.

  Gray, Thomas, quoted, 103.

  Greek literature, 149, 150.

  Greek sculpture, 150.

  Greek tragedians, 143, 148.

  Greeks, sanity of the, 148.

  Grimm, The Brothers, 194, 196.


  Haggard, Rider, "She," 26.

  Hannay, James, quoted, 57.

  Hardy, Thomas, "Far from the Madding Crowd," 181;
    "The Return of the Native," 181, 208;
    "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," 181;
    "Under the Greenwood Tree," 181.

  Harris, J. C., "Uncle Remus," 197.

  Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 179, 180, 189;
    Arthur Dimmesdale, 201;
    "The Marble Faun," 92;
    quoted, 83;
    "The Scarlet Letter," 2, 13, 201, 208, 214;
    "Tanglewood Tales," 197;
    "The Wonder-Book," 197.

  Hazlitt, William, quoted, 113.

  "Helen of Kirconnell," 13, 138.

  Homer, 58, 78, 123, 131, 140, 142, 146, 151;
    as a classic, 147-150.

  Hope, Anthony, 211.

  Hugo, Victor, 189;
    "Les Misérables," 92, 208.

  Hunt, Leigh, quoted, 84.

  Hunt, W. M., quoted, 62.


  Ibsen, 172, 173, 177;
    "The Doll's House," 18;
    "Ghosts," 173.

  Imagination, 93, 246-248, 253;
    and thought, 251;
    creative, 111;
    the realizing faculty, 19;
    reality of, 54.

  Imaginative language, defined, 230-231.

  Imaginative quality, test of, 93.

  Impressionism, 69.

  Interest, temporary and permanent, 127-129.

  Irreverence, 87.

  Isaiah, 146, 150.


  James, Henry, quoted, 203.

  Jewett, Sarah O., Miss, 211.

  Job, 146, 230.

  Johnson, Samuel, quoted, 84.

  Jonson, Ben, quoted, 83.

  Judd, Sylvester, "Margaret," 30.


  Keats, John, 54, 92, 112;
    letters to Miss Brawne, 62;
    "Ode on a Grecian Urn," 17;
    quoted, 94, 102, 249.

  Kingsley, Charles, 189.

  Kipling, Rudyard, 182;
    "Jungle Books," 197, 213.


  Laboulaye, Édouard, 196.

  Lamb, Charles, 133;
    quoted, 196.

  Language, imaginative, defined, 230-231.

  Lear, Edward, 235.

  Lessing, "Nathan the Wise," 48.

  Lincoln, Abraham, "Gettysburg Address," 112.

  Literature, books about, 65-68;
    convincing, 14;
    defined, 1-32;
    didactic, 201;
    early, 136;
    eighteenth century, 65, 66;
    gossip about, 62-65;
    history of, 65;
    juvenile, 193-195;
    morbid, 20, 177, 178;
    office of, 46-59;
    relative rank, 31;
    study of, defined, 33-44, 60-68;
    study of, difficult, 72;
    talk about, 40-43;
    a unit, 154;
    _vs._ science, 55.

  "Littell's Living Age," 39.

  Longfellow, H. W., 181.

  Lowell, J. R., 67;
    quoted, 78, 102, 114, 173, 216.


  Macaulay, T. B., 220;
    quoted, 207.

  Maclaren, Ian, 211, 213.

  Maeterlinck, 172.

  Magazines, 163-166.

  Malory, Thomas, "Morte d'Arthur," 196.

  Marcus Aurelius, "Reflections," 7.

  Marlowe, Christopher, "The Jew of Malta," 76.

  Melody, 235-240.

  Meredith, George, "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel," 92, 181, 208.

  Metre, 227-230.

  Milton, John, 108, 140, 143;
    "L'Allegro," 106;
    "Il Penseroso," 107;
    "Lycidas," 77;
    "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," 100;
    quoted, 63, 113, 163.

  Modernity, 169.

  Molière, 140, 143.

  Montaigne, 133, 140, 143.

  Morbidity, 140.

  Morley, John, 67.

  "Mother Goose," 96, 221.

  Mulock, D. M., 189.

  Music, barbaric, 90;
    Chinese, 90.

  Musset, A. de, "Mlle. de Maupin," 177.


  Newspapers, 162, 163.

  Nordau, Max, "Degeneration," 170;
    quoted, 171.

  Notes, use of, 84, 109.

  Notoriety, 128, 172.

  Novels, realistic, 209;
    _vs._ poetry, 245;
    with a theory, 167.

  Novelty, 134.


  "Old Oaken Bucket," The, 17.

  Originality, 170.

  Ouida, 17, 41.


  Page, T. N., 211.

  Pater, Walter, "Marius the Epicurean," 25.

  Periodicals, 162-166.

  Petrarch, 143.

  Philology not the study of literature, 79.

  Plato, quoted, 234.

  Plutarch, letter to his wife, 50.

  Poe, E. A., "Lygeia," 22;
    quoted, 104, 105, 237, 249;
    Tales, 21.

  Poetry, defined, 227;
    form is essential, 236, 239;
    how different from prose, 231, 232;
    office in education, 223;
    office of, 245-252;
    optimism of, 248-250;
    origin, 5;
    reading of, 244;
    _vs._ novels, 245.

  Pope, Alexander, 66.

  Prose, how different from poetry, 231-232;
    language of, 231.

  Public guided by the few, 10.


  Quincy, Josiah, 50.


  Rabelais, 133, 140.

  Reade, Charles, 189.

  Reading, first, 85;
    for amusement, 210;
    measure of character, 159;
    serious matter, 87;
    should be a pleasure, 71-73;
    test of, 86;
    works as units, 81.

  Realism, 69, 209.

  Reverence, 87.

  Rhythm, 220, 221, 227-229.

  Richardson, Samuel, 66.

  Rossetti, D. G., 181;
    "Sister Helen," 119, 120.

  Rousseau, "Confessions," 7.

  Ruskin, John, quoted, 95.

  Russell, W. Clark, 13, 211.


  Sanity, 140, 174.

  Schopenhauer, quoted, 63, 227.

  Science _vs._ art, 32.

  Science _vs._ literature, case of Darwin, 55.

  Scott, Sir Walter, 189.

  Sculpture, Aztec, 89;
    Greek, 89.

  Sensationalism, 26.

  Sentiment, 16, 157;
    defined, 15.

  Sentimentality, 16, 139, 157;
    defined, 15.

  Shakespeare, William, 3, 35, 41, 53, 58, 65, 77, 86,
    92, 93, 107, 118, 124, 133, 140, 143, 145, 147,
    173, 214, 216;
    as a classic, 152-153;
    condensation of, 93;
    "Cymbeline," 75;
    epithets of, 112, 231;
    for children, 197;
    "Hamlet," 81, 215;
    "King Lear," 81;
    "The Merchant of Venice," 115-118;
    "Othello," 81;
    quoted, 102, 104, 113, 114, 115, 229, 231, 239;
    "Sonnets," 8, 239.

  Shelley, P. B., 92, 131;
    quoted, 254;
    "Stanzas Written in Dejection," etc., 17.

  Shorthouse, J. H., "John Inglesant," 29.

  Sienkiewicz, 182;
    "The Deluge," 92.

  Sincerity, 12-15.

  Smile, sardonic, 95.

  Sophocles, 149.

  Spenser, Edmund, 123, 124, 143, 197.

  Standards, 141;
    of criticism, 161.

  Steele, Sir Richard, 66.

  Stephen, Leslie, 67.

  Stevenson, R. L., 181;
    "Kidnapped," 197;
    quoted, 57;
    "Treasure Island," 27, 197.

  Stockton, Frank, "The Adventures of Captain Horn," 27.

  Story, happy ending of a, 215;
    the short, 211-214.

  Stowe, Mrs. H. B., on Byron, 62.

  Suckling, Sir John, quoted, 106.

  Suggestion, 111-114, 118-120, 230, 235.

  Suttner, Baroness von, 161.

  Swift, Jonathan, 66;
    "Gulliver's Travels," 197.

  Swinburne, A. C., 181;
    "Atalanta in Calydon," 228;
    excess of melody, 236.

  Symbolism, 69.

  Sympathy between reader and author, 82.


  Talleyrand, quoted, 38.

  Tasso, 143.

  Taste a measure of character, 3.

  Technical excellence, 25.

  Tennyson, Alfred, 92, 155, 179, 180, 232;
    "Idylls of the King," 180;
    "In Memoriam," 7, 50;
    quoted, 101, 249.

  Thackeray, W. M., 42, 179, 180, 189;
    Beatrix Esmond, 92;
    Colonel Newcome, 13;
    "Henry Esmond," 208;
    Major Pendennis, 201;
    "Pendennis," 200.

  Titian, 42-43.

  Tolstoi, 172, 177;
    "The Kreutzer Sonata," 20, 214;
    "War and Peace," 29.

  Traill, H. D., quoted, 190.

  Translations, use of, 147, 148.

  Trollope, Anthony, 180, 189.

  Tupper, M. F., 3.

  Turgenieff, 182.


  "Uncle Tom's Cabin," 160.


  Vedas, The, 145.

  Verlaine, 22.


  "Waly, waly," 138.

  Wendell, Barrett, quoted, 42.

  Weyman, S. J., 211.

  Whittier, J. G., 181.

  Wilkins, Miss M. E., 211, 213.

  Wordsworth, William, 54, 66;
    "The Daffodils," 17;
    quoted, 108, 225, 238, 239, 241, 243;
    "To Lucy," 13.


  Zend-Avesta, The, 145.

  Zola, 172, 173, 177;
    "L'Assommoir," 173.



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  THE PAGANS. A Novel. 16mo, $1.00.
  PATTY'S PERVERSITIES. A Novel. 16mo, $1.00.
  PRINCE VANCE. The Story of a Prince with a Court in his Box. By
    Arlo Bates and Eleanor Putnam. Crown 8vo, $1.50.
  A LAD'S LOVE. 16mo, $1.00.
  UNDER THE BEECH-TREE. Poems. Crown 8vo, $1.50.
  TALKS ON WRITING ENGLISH. First Series. Crown 8vo, $1.50.
  TALKS ON WRITING ENGLISH. Second Series. Crown 8vo, $1.30, _net_.
    Postpaid, $1.42.
  TALKS ON TEACHING LITERATURE. Crown 8vo, $1.30, _net_. Postpaid,
    $1.42.
  TALKS ON THE STUDY OF LITERATURE. Crown 8vo, $1.50.

  HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
  Boston and New York



Transcriber's Notes.


The advertisement "Books by Arlo Bates" which was originally before
the title page, has been moved to the back, after the index.

Phrases in italics are indicated by _italics_.

Words in the text which were in small-caps were converted to normal
case.

The "OE" ligature is indicated by "OE" (e.g. OEdipus, pg. 107).

A missing closing quote was inserted after the phrase
'worthy of his attention?' (pg. 70)

Typos corrected:

  "to" changed to "on" (pg. 17 and 260 (index entry))
    (Ode _to_ a Grecian Urn)

  "Neitzsche" changed to "Nietzsche" (pg. 171)





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