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The Study of English Literature. 19 much of our current criticism upon classical authors is of this nature, consisting of mere windy rhetoric, not of the unbiassed and honest expression of the critic's real opinions. The practice is both an unprofitable and a dishonest one. Much more is to be learned from the genuine opinions of an able man, even though these opinions be erroneous, than from the repetition of conventional critical dicta. Johnson's "Lives of the Poets" contain many incorrect critical judgments; but does any one suppose that the work would have been of more value if, instead of relating in manly and straightforward fashion the opinions of his own powerful, if somewhat narrow, understanding, he had merely repeated the “orthodox” criticisms on such writers as Milton and Gray? Even Jeffrey's articles on Wordsworth--those standing examples of blundering criticism-are much more useful and interesting to the intelligent reader than the thrice-repeated laudatory criticisms which are now so often uttered by countless insincere devotees of the poet of the Lakes. Every student of literature should make an honest effort to form opinions for himself, and not take up too much with borrowed criticism. Critical essays, books of literary history, books of select extracts, are all very useful as aids to the study of great writers, but they ought not, as is too often the case, to be made a substitute for the study of the writers themselves. Infinitely more is to be learned from the reading of “Hamlet” than from the reading of a hundred studies on that drama. If, after having made a fair attempt to peruse some author whose works are in high repute, the reader finds that he is engaged in a field of literature which presents no attractions to him; that he is studying a writer with whom he has no sympathy, who strikes no respondent chord in his own nature; the best course for him is to abandon the vain attempt to like what he does not like, to admire what he really does not admire. Shakespeare's famous lines
"}šo profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en,
In brief, sir, study what you most affect,”convey thoroughly sound advice, provided, of course, that
proper pains be taken to extend one's culture as widely as possible, and that opinions regarding the profitableness or unprofitableness of studying certain authors be not formed without due deliberation. In the study of literature, as in other studies, interest advances as knowledge increases; very frequently books which to the tyro seem weary, stale, filat, and unprofitable,” are those which he afterwards comes to regard as among his most cherished intellectual possessions.
A very attractive and instructive way of studying literature is to select some great book or some great author as a nucleus round which to group one's knowledge of the writers of a period. If, for example, one studies that universally delightful book, Boswell's “Life of Johnson," and follows up the clues which its perusal suggests, a very competent knowledge of a large part of the literature of the eighteenth century may de acquired. Boswell's frequent cutting allusions to his rival, Sir John Hawkins, naturally induce us to read that worthy's Life of the “great lexicographer," in which, amid much trash and tedious moralising, many curious and suggestive details are to be found. In a similar way, his obvious dislike of Mrs. Piozzi draws attention to that lively lady's entertaining gossip; while the glimpses he gives of the life and conversation of most of the celebrated writers of the period, such as Burke, Goldsmith, Robertson, Hume, inspire us with a desire to become acquainted with their writings and with the particulars of their lives. Or if Pope be taken as the vantage-ground from which to survey the literary landscape around, how easily and pleasantly are we introduced to the acquaintance, not only of the greater figures of the time,-Addison, Swift, Bolingbroke, Arbuthnot, and others, but of the smaller fry, the ragged denizens of Grub Street, so mercilessly satirised in the “Dunciad." No one can know Dryden thoroughly without picking up, almost imperceptibly it may be, an immense fund of information about the many curious literary products of the Restoration ; and few more interesting literary studies could be suggested than, taking Shakespeare as a centre. to mark wherein he differed from his predecessors and The Study of English Literature. 21 contemporaries, how far he availed himself of what they had done, how far he influenced them, and how far he was influenced by them, and to trace the whole course of the Elizabethan drama from its first dim dawnings to its melancholy but not inglorious close. When one has made oneself at home in the literature of any period, so as to be able to conjure up before the mind's eye its more important writers, even its minutest details, which in themselves seem trifling and tedious, acquire an interest and importance, every fresh particular adding a new shade of colour to the mental picture we form of the epoch.
In the pages which follow, considerable space has been devoted to the literature of the last hundred years, while our earlier writers have been dealt with briefly, many of considerable importance having been altogether omitted. To this arrangement not a few may possibly be inclined to object; nevertheless, I believe that, for a work like the present, intended mainly for young readers and others whose time is limited, it is the best arrangement. Literary history becomes much more interesting to most people the nearer it approaches to our own time; and very few are likely to acquire a taste for reading by having their attention directed mainly to our older authors. Now, what every writer of a book like the present and every teacher of English literature ought to aim at is, to give his readers or his pupils a taste for literature. If the teacher of English literature fails in this, his labours are almost in vain. The amount of knowledge which he is able to communicate is comparatively small; but if he manages to impress on his pupils a sense of the greatness and importance of literature, and of the countless benefits and pleasures which may be derived from its study, he has sown the seeds of what will yet produce a very abundant harvest. The remark is very often made that young people are of their own accord likely to peruse writers of the day, while leaving the classical writers of former generations neglected. No doubt there is a good deal of truth in this; but I am disposed to question very much whether the practice of using mainly our older writers for educational purposes has any appreciable effect whatever in extending their general perusal; and when one considers how literature-even literature of the day-is neglected by numbers of educated people, one is inclined to have some doubt as to the wisdom of leaving recent writers out of the educational curriculum. Few will be disposed to deny that the most important section of political history is that which relates to recent times. To a large extent, the same is true of literature. Nothing is more likely to quicken one's interest in books, and to serve as an incentive to further research, than an acquaintance with the various literary modes that have been prevalent in recent times or which are still in vogue. Moreover, if the study of English literature is pursued partly as a means of acquiring a correct style, there can be no doubt whatever that the prose writers of the last two centuries will prove much more useful guides than their predecessors. The following interesting remarks on this subject, quoted from a lecture “On Teaching English,” recently delivered by Dr. Alexander Bain before the Birmingham Teachers' Association, appear to me to have much force, though the views expressed are perhaps rather extreme. “Irrespective of any question as to the superiority of Shakespeare and Milton, it must from necessity be the case that the recent classics possess the greatest amount of unexhausted interest. Their authors have studied and been guided by the greatest works of the past, have reproduced many of their effects, as well as added new strokes of genius; and thus our reading is naturally directed to them by preference. A canto of Childe Harold' has not the genius of 'Macbeth' or of the second book of Paradise Lost,' but it has more freshness of interest. This is as regards the reader of mature years, but it must be taken into account in the case of the youthful reader also.
“So with regard to the older prose. The ‘Essays’of Bacon cannot interest this generation in any proportion to the author's transcendent genius. They have passed into subsequent literature until their interest is exhausted, except from the occasional quaint felicity of the phrases. Bacon's maxims The Study of English Literature. 23 on the conduct of business are completely superseded by Sir Arthur Helps's essay on that subject, simply because Sir Arthur absorbed all that was in Bacon, and augmented it by subsequent wisdom and experience. To make Bacon's original a text-book of the present day, whether for thought or for style, is to abolish the three intervening centuries.
“Of Richard Hooker's 'Ecclesiastical Polity,' another literary monument of the Elizabethan age, while I give it every credit as a work suited to its own time, I am obliged to concur in the judgment of an authority great both in jurisprudence and in English style—the late John Austin-who denounced its language as 'fustian.'
“So much as regards the decay of interest in the old classics. Next as to their use in teaching style or in exercising pupils in the practice of good composition. Here, too, I think, they labour under incurable defects. Their language is not our language; their best expressions are valuable as having the stamp of genius, and are quotable to all time, but we cannot work them into the tissue of our own familiar discourse."
The concluding chapter of this book, dealing with Periodicals, Reviews, and Encyclopædias, gives a brief account of the more remarkable papers of the Spectator class, which form a noticeable feature of the literature of the eighteenth century; of the origin of the two great Quarterlies, which exercised an almost fabulous influence over criticism in the beginning of their career; of some of the more prominent new departures in periodical literature made during the present century; and of the various great English Encyclopædias. A good deal of our best literature, especially of a critical kind, has appeared in serial publications; and Encyclopædias, besides having been in recent times adorned by contributions from the ablest pens of the day, have, as digests of knowledge, afforded immense aid to all sorts of literary workers. No apology accordingly is required for devoting a chapter to the origin and history of publications belonging to the classes mentioned.
Much difference of opinion will naturally prevail as to the