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Application of Literary Principles.
Narrow and exclusive lines of reading to be avoided—Catholicity of
taste-Charles Lamb's idea of books~Ruskin-Habits of reading comprehensive-Ancient Literature-Foreign languages-Different eras of letters-English essay writing—Macaulay-SoutheyScott and Washington Irving—Archdeacon Hare-Lord Bacon's Essays—Poetic taste-Influence of individual pursuits—Friends in Council-Serious and gay books—English humour-Southey's ballad— Necessity of intellectual discipline—Disadvantage of courses of reading-Books not insulated things-Authors who guideSouthey's Doctor-Elia—Coleridge—Divisions of Prose and Poetry -Henry Taylor's Notes from Books—Poetry not a mere luxury of the mind-Arnold's habits of study and taste-The practical and poetical element of Anglo-Saxon character—The Bible—Mosaic Poetry—Inadequacy of language-Lockhart's character of ScottArnold's character of Scipio-Tragic Poetry—Poetry for children, Robinson Crusoe and the Arabian Nights-Wordsworth's Ode to Duty-Character of Washington.
In my last lecture I sought to show how, amid the multitude of books, we must in the first place seek guidance for our choice by laying down in our minds certain general principles respecting the essential properties and uses of literature. I endeavoured to show that nothing but what is addressed to man as man is literature, and that that is more appropriately and eminently literature which gives power rather than knowledge, and that that is worthy literature which gives power for good, healthful strength
* January 10, 1850.
of mind, wisdom, and happiness. Now let us see how we can follow the principles out to practical uses.
It might be thought that such a definition of literature was too narrow a one; that it was too high and serious a view of the subject; and that it would exclude much inoffensive and agreeable reading. When I speak of a book giving · moral
power and health, or even if I should use words of graver import, spiritual strength and health, I employ these expressions in their largest sense, as comprehending the whole range of our inner life, from the lonely and loftiest meditations down to casual, colloquial cheerfulness, so that literature, in its large compass, shall furnish sympathy and an answer to every human emotion, and to all moods of thought and feeling. It is important, in the first place, having settled in one's mind an idea of the general properties of literature, to give to it a large and liberal application : in other words, to avoid narrow and exclusive lines in reading, to cultivate a true catholicity of taste. In so doing, you enlarge your capacities of enjoyment; you expand the discipline as well as the delights of the mind. It is with books as with nature, travel widely, and while at one time, you may behold the glories of the mountains, or the sublimities of the sea, you shall at another take delight as genial in the valley and the brook. We must needs be watchful of our habits of reading in this respect, for favourite lines of reading may come to be too exclusive. A favourite author may have too large an occupation. Women should remember that in all that is essentially literature, they have a right in common with men, because the very essence of it is, that it addresses itself to no distinctive property of sex, but to human nature. They wrong themselves in shrinking from any
portion of the literature of their race, and they wrong man by not fulfilling in this respect the duty of companionship. For man and woman, alike, liberal communion with books is needed. I have known a person acquire late in life a hearty and healthful enjoyment of books, by this simple principle of opening the mind to docile and varied intercourse with them. I have known, on the other hand, that power of enjoyment lost, after years of intelligent and habitual reading, by giving way to a narrow bigotry in the choice of books. Daintiness, let it be always remembered, is disease, and fastidiousness is weakness. The healthy appetite of mind or body is strength for all healthful food. There was wisdom under the humour when Charles Lamb said, “I have no repugnances. Shaftesbury is not too genteel for me, nor Jonathan Wild too low. I can read anything which I call a book.”* And a living writer, who has, with high power and eloquence, treated man's sense of enjoyment of nature and art, remarks: “Our purity of taste is best tested by its universality, for if we can only admire this thing or that, we may be sure that our cause for liking is of a finite and false nature. But if we can perceive beauty in every thing of God's doing, we may agree that we have reached the true perception of its universal laws. Hence false taste may be known by its fastidiousness, by its demands of pomp, splendour, and unusual combination, by its enjoyment only of particular styles and modes of things, and by its pride also, for it is forever meddling, mending, accumulating, and self-exulting; its eye is always upon itself, and it tests all things around it by the way they fit it. But true taste is forever growing, learning, reading, worshipping, laying its hand upon its mouth because it is astonished, casting its shoes from off its feet because it finds all ground holy, lamenting over itself, and testing itself by the way it fits things. This finely-conceived contrast between the catholicity of true taste, and the narrowness of a false taste, is equally true as applied to literature. Indeed, it is matter of the highest moment in the guidance of our habits of reading to make them large and comprehensive; it is essential to a just judgment of books, and also to a full enjoyment of them. We form a truer estimate of things, when we rise to a high point, and get a larger field of vision. A knowledge of ancient literature, gives a deeper insight into the modern; if we see to what point, and in what manner, the pagan mind struggled, we can the better comprehend the higher destiny of the Christian mind. Acquaintance with foreign literature may help to a better estimate of our
" Detached Thoughts on
* Lamb's Prose Works, vol. 3, p. 45. Books and Reading."
I shall have occasion hereafter, more than once, to trace the influences of the continental literature of Europe upon English literature. Let me here remark, that while the study of foreign languages and literature, along with many other advantages, may help us the better to understand and feel our own, it never can be made a substitute without great detriment. I make this remark, because in the education of the day, and especially in the education of women, there is a tendency to give to the mind a direction too much away from the literature of our own speech. This arises partly, perhaps, from one of the misdirected aims of education, looking to the showiness of accomplishments, rather than to more substantial and all-pervading good. If a man or a woman be ambitious of applause, and great or small celebrity, one's native literature is a much less effective weapon than a foreign literature; and the more remote that is, the more effective it is for ostentation. But if there be a better purpose than feeding vanity, then, for all the best and most salutary influences, nothing can take the place of the vernacular—the literature identified with the mother-tongue, with which alone our thoughts and feelings have their life and being.
* Ruskin's Modern Painters, vol. 1, p. 23.
Further, an expanded habit of reading is most important, as giving familiarity with different eras of our own literature. I hope to show in this course that the succession of those eras has a relation to each other much more life-like than a mere sequence of time. There is a continuity in a nation's literary as well as political life ; and no generation can cast off the accumulated influences of previous ages without grievous detriment to itself. There are many readers who dwell altogether in their own times, busy with what one day produces after another. This is a great error; and they are the less able to gain a rational knowledge of that very literature, because exclusive familiarity with it gives no vision beyond, and, consequently, no capacity of comparison.
Now just in proportion as one enlarges his reading into different periods, does his taste grow more enlightened and wiser, and his judgment more assured. Let us take a practical example; and I turn for the purpose to the department of English Essay-Writing, in which the mind of our race has found utterance in several centuries. During the last few years there has