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T is a wise thing, before we plunge into any new study,
to try and give ourselves some account of what it is that we mean by it, and what it is that we expect from it. And therefore an historical sketch of English literature opens rightly with a consideration of the nature and the value of literature in general. What can books do for us? and in what spirit ought we to read them?—those are the preliminary questions which we must ask. And the answers which we shall find to them may perhaps help to assure us that we are not following a vain quest, on a track that leads no whither, and may furnish some ideas that, if kept steadily in mind, will serve as guides and sign-posts throughout the journey.
In these days of scientific and technical education, it is perhaps necessary to make an apology for proposing literature as a desirable subject for study at all. There is a very common feeling abroad that books, and especially poetry-books, are not practical. You hear it said, “Science deals with things: literature deals only with words; surely it is better to study things rather than words, which are but the images and pale copies of things”. Now if this were a true account of literature, if it really dealt only with words and in no sense with things, the study of it would certainly be a very empty and unprofitable exercise. It would then be indeed better to straightway shut up our Shakespeares and our Miltons, and to devote all our laborious nights and days to the
museum or the workshop. And unfortunately literature is too often taught so as to give a real handle to this charge that is brought against it. It is made, and unwisely made, a mere matter of “words, words, words”. We read the very greatest books in our schools, but we read them in the wrong spirit, not for the wisdom and the beauty that they contain, but only as so much raw material for lessons in philology and grammar. So that you may have a student of Virgil who is quite familiar with all the Greek constructions in the Æneid, and entirely ignorant as to why the writer persistently calls Æneas “pious ”, or how that epithet is to be reconciled with the hero's conduct towards Dido; and a student of Hamlet, who would be quite prepared to write a page on the possible meanings of a “dram of eale”, but would be sorely gravelled if you thought of asking him hy Hamlet was so exceedingly disrespectful to the venerable Polonius. It cannot be too often repeated that to approach literature in this spirit is to approach it in the wrong spirit. It is like studying the picture of some great master simply as an illustration of anatomy, without paying any regard to the beauty of colour and design, or to the beauty of expression. A knowledge of bodily structure is essential to the artist, and useful even to the student of pictures, but it is not the only thing nor the important thing to attend to. And similarly in literature, a knowledge of the history and structure of language is essential to the writer, and useful even to the student of books, but to treat it as the main object of study is only to mistake the proportion and the relative value of things.
But when this preference of the letter to the soul is put aside, and literature is studied with a right perception of its meaning and of the true significance of the various elements contained in it, then it declares itself as concerned by no means with words alone, but with things, in as real a sense as any science under the sun. For there are things in the world of a higher order than plants and stones and beetles, or anything that the microscope and the test-tube reveal to us; things spiritual, as well as things material and palpable; and with such things it is that literature has to do. Knowledge, like life itself, has its twofold aspect. There are the facts of organic and inorganic nature, upon which all the sciences are built; and beyond and above these there are the facts of consciousness, of man and of man's quick sight and subtle brain and aspiring soul. These, no less than the others, are worthy of study in their turn; and of these in all their intricate working, since the world grew articulate, literature is the witness and the imperishable record. there are, as Charles Lamb said, that are no books, biblia a-biblia; not alone "Court Calendars, Directories, Pocket-books”, and the like, but whatsoever at any time has been written merely as a task for gain, with nothing in it of heart and nothing of soul. These are not literature; they vanish from memory, and only cumber our libraries. But the real books, the books that count and always will count, what are they but the spiritual history of humanity? For whenever, throughout the ages, a man has seen clearly, or has had a great thought, or has been thrilled with a splendid emotion, then he has straightway gone and put it in a book, that we who come after may see and think and feel with him. “ Literature is a criticism of life”, said Matthew Arnold, “because it preserves the best that has been known and thought in the world.” "The best things, said in the best way", let that stand for our definition. And of literature, thus interpreted, the borders are wide. There is room in it for all that is written honestly and well, from the vast
epic to the blind crowder's ballad. Men of all characters and all tempers, the grave historian and the light-hearted lyrist, the dreamer of high dreams, and the patient observer of some minute corner of real life; each, by simply giving the best that was in him, has helped to pile up the vast treasure which is the most precious inheritance of humanity. Therefore to read great books is to have the companionship of the aristocracy among the dead. We
may be poor and of no account; lives may be passed in sordid and vulgar surroundings; yet, if we will, we are welcome to the very best of society; we may escape from the prison of the self to breathe the diviner air, and in the heaven of "those who know" may share the meditations of Plato and of Dante. And in this fellowship with the great minds of the past, this intimacy with things lovely and of good report, there lies the true education. Plato himself saw this, when he would have none but noble poets and noble artists in his ideal city, “that so our young citizens, dwelling as it were in a boon clime, may drink in both by eye and ear the spirit of noble works, the very breeze itself blowing, you might say, from regions of health, and insensibly from their earliest years moulding them into harmony and conformity with beauty and with reason”.
But this educative power of literature, which Plato here speaks of, is something of which at the time we are hardly
Its influence upon us is an unconscious one, akin to that of the atmosphere, or of the common everyday sights of childhood. And there can be no doubt that an early familiarity, however uncritical and unsystematic, with great books is one of the forces which make most strongly for education. Insensibly, by ways silent and undreamt of, it informs the character and moulds the
1 Republic, book iii. chap. 12.