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The Study of English Literature. 9 books which we could very ill afford to dispense with, being destitute of attractiveness and distinction of style, have no value viewed merely as literature. The true literary man is an artist, using his words and phrases with the same felicity and care as a painter uses his colours; and whoever aspires to win literary fame must pay the closest attention not only to what he says, but to how he says it.
De Quincey, whose speculations on such subjects are always ingenious and worth attending to, if sometimes overrefined and far-fetched, in one of his essays lays down a distinction, first suggested by Wordsworth, which bears upon what we have been saying. As De Quincey's critical writings are not so generally read as they should be, we may quote part of his remarks. “In that great social organ, which collectively we call literature, there may be distinguished two separate offices, that may blend, and often do so, but capable severally of a severe insulation, and naturally fitted for reciprocal repulsion. There is first the literature of knowledge, and secondly the literature of power. The function of the first is to teach; the function of the second is to move. The first is a rudder, the second an oar or a sail. The first speaks to the mere discursive understanding; the second speaks ultimately, it may happen, to the higher understanding or reason, but always through affections of pleasure or sympathy. What do you learn from Paradise Lost?' Nothing at all. What do you learn from a cookery-book? Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph. But would you therefore put the wretched cookery-book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem? What you owe to Milton is not any knowledge, of which a million separate items are still but a million of advancing steps on the same earthly level ; what you owe is power, that is, exercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite, when every pulse and each separate influx is a step upwards-a step ascending as from a Jacob's ladder from
i Originally published in North British Review for August 1848, article on Pope.
earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth. . . . All the literature of knowledge builds only ground nests, that are swept away by floods, or confounded by the plough; but the literature of power builds nests in aërial altitudes of temples sacred from violation, or of forests inaccessible to fraud.
This is a great prerogative of the power literature; and it is a greater which lies in the mode of its influence. The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An Encyclopædia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol, that, before one generation has passed, an Encyclopædia is superannuated, for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the rest of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries."
In the preceding extracts, as will be seen, De Quincey uses the phrase "literature of knowledge” to express that class of writings to which the term literature cannot, as he himself afterwards says, be with propriety applied—writings the sole aim of which is to convey information without any effort after beauty of style; and the phrase "literature of power” to express that class of writings-fiction and poetry-of which the object is, not to instruct, but to move the feelings and to give pleasure, and of which, therefore, attractiveness of style is an essential characteristic. But, as he himself says in a note, a great proportion of books-history, biography, travels, miscellaneous essays, &c.—belong strictly to neither of these two classes. Macaulay's "History of England” contains a vast amount of information, but it is not its stores of information which have attracted to it millions of readers; it is the fascinating style in which the information is conveyed, making the narrative as pleasing as a novel, and giving some passages a power of exciting the emotions which not many poems possess. And though to instruct be not the prime function of the novel or the poem, a great fund of instruction as to morals and manners is embodied in almost all good poems and novels. Shakespeare abounds in pithy aphorisms as to the conduct of life, which have become part of the moralist's stock-in-trade ;
The Study of English Literature.
II Scott, in the “Heart of Midlothian" (to give only one example out of many), preaches a very effective homily on the evil consequences of giving up inward peace of mind for the sake of outward grandeur; and such writers as Thackeray and Miss Austen have done much to make people ashamed of angularities and affectations of manner. So that De Quincey's distinction, though true in a wide sense, and very suggestive in many ways, is not to be accepted as absolutely correct. All literature worthy of the name is "literature of power,” but it may be, and very often is, "literature of knowledge” also.
Having defined what literature is, we now proceed to consider the way in which its study may be most profitably pursued. In order fully to comprehend any author's work, and to place him in his true position among his fellows, not only must his writings be studied with due care, but we must pay regard to his outward “environment” and to the circumstances of the times in which he lived. Sainte Beuve, the prince of French critics, in all his inquiries made it a rule before studying the author to study the man, thinking that “as the tree is so will be the fruit." He was of opinion “that so long as you have not asked yourself a certain number of questions and answered them satisfactorily—if only for your own private benefit and sotto voce--you cannot be sure of thoroughly understanding your model, and that even though these questions may seem to be quite foreign to the nature of his writings. For instance, what were his religious views ? how did the sight of nature affect him ? what was he in his dealings with women and in his feelings respecting money? was he rich, was he poor? what was his regimen ? what his daily manner of life? &c. Finally, to what vice was he addicted or to what weakness subject? for no man is entirely free from such. There is not one of the answers to these questions that is without its value in judging the author of a book, or even the book itself, if it be not a treatise on pure mathematics, but a literary work into the composition of which some of the writer's whole nature has perforce entered.” The practice which now prevails of publishing full and authen.
tic memoirs of celebrities, if perhaps not unobjectionable in some respects, is certainly an incalculable gain to the fruitful and intelligent study of literature. If we were so fortunate as to find a Life of Shakespeare similar to that which Boswell wrote of Dr. Jolinson, can any one doubt that it would throw an immense light upon the many literary puzzles which are to be found in his writings, and which have perplexed generations of commentators and evoked hundreds of volumes ? How many ingenious and elaborate studies on “Hamlet” would be shown to be as the baseless fabric of a vision ? how many passages which verbal critics have (as they thought) proved to demonstration not to have come from Shakespeare's pen would be claimed as his ? how, perchance, every one of the theories about the Sonnets would crumble into dust, never again to be mentioned but with laughter after their mystery had been unveiled by unimpeachable evidence? Again, to take a case from our own time, how would we explain the gloomy pessimism of the latter writings of Carlyle as contrasted with the sanguine optimism of Macaulay if no records of his life were to be found, and we were compelled to judge of him by his works alone? Carlyle's temperament, no doubt, was naturally gloomy, but that fact alone would not be a sufficient solution of the enigma. But when we study the story of his life, and learn how he was constantly tormented by ill-health; how, eagerly ambitious of literary fame, he had to toil on for inany a long year unnoticed and unknown, with bitter experience of that deferred hope which makes the heart sick; how, when the day of triumph came, it came so late that the flower of success had well-nigh lost its fragrance—then we have no difficulty in understanding the cause of his frequently dark and harsh views of human character and destiny. We need hardly dwell on the additional interest given to a book by a knowledge of the circumstances under which it was composed. Byron's poetry owes half its attractiveness to the fascination exercised by his singular and strongly marked personality. Johnson's works, excellent though some of them are, would now, we imagine, be very little read if Boswell's Life of
The Study of English Literature. 13 him had not made him one of the best known, and (with all his eccentricities) one of the best-loved characters in our literary history. One's interest even in such a book as Gibbon's “Decline and Fall” is perceptibly quickened by the full and curious portrait of himself which he has drawn in his Autobiography.
But for the thorough and profitable study of an author, it is not enough that we know the circunstances of his private history : we must also make ourselves acquainted with the period in which his lot was cast. No writer, however great and original his genius, can escape the influence of the spirit of the age in which he lives; whether with or without his consent, his way of looking at things will be modified by the intellectual atmosphere by which he is surrounded. Literary men alike influence and are influenced by their time; and as no history of a country can be considered complete which ignores the influence exerted by its literature, so any literary history which ignores the currents of thought and opinion set afloat by political movements must necessarily be partial and inadequate. There is no greater desideratum in our literature at present than a complete and able account of the history of English literature, in which the connection between the literary and political history of our country shall be fully dealt with ; and it is very much to be desired that some one of sufficient talents and acquirements may be induced to undertake the task. He will have comparatively unbeaten ground to deal with. M. Taine, indeed, in his “History of English Literature," has done something in this direction; but his erratic brilliancy is not to be implicitly relied upon. In periods of great national emotion, the influence exerted on literature by the powerful currents of thought and action
1 It is not to the credit of England that the only full survey of its literature possessing any high merit from a purely literary point of view should be the work of a Frenchman. We have among us not a few writers, any one of whom, is they would abandon for a few years the practice, now unhappily too prevalent, of writing merely Review articles and brief mono. graphs, could produce a work on the subject worthy of so great a theme.