A Logician's Poetics

Dr. Alexander Bain, the distinguished professor of logic and rhetoric in the University of Aberdeen, has not been used to soften the severity of his intellectual productions by any concessions to the taste for amusement in his readers, and possibly some of them may find something like sweet revenge in his last little treatise upon teaching English. One naturally expects to find in it a scheme, a kind of map of pedagogy applied to literature ; but the professor gives us nothing less than a somewhat extended essay in minute poetical criticism, and it would be a pity if the catalogue raisonée character of Dr. Bain’s mind or the prima facie educational look of this volume should cause its true nature to be misapprehended. It is as a lover of poetry, not as a pedagogue, that one must approach the work to get the most good out of it. It is just such reading as the lightly humorous members of this Club delight in, if it were not for the tedium of reading it themselves, — for even when Dr. Bain is unconsciously funny, he is yet undeniably dry ; and so I mean to give one or two examples of his poetical sensibility and penetration. But first, Dr. Bain has a choice as to whose English shall be taught; not Bacon’s, if he can help it, nor Shakespeare’s, if his advice has weight. This is discouraging for those of us who have been happy in the revival of English studies, and have made each new issue of the classics of our own tongue from the Clarendon Press a matter of congratulation ; but if Dr. Bain is right in commiserating the teacher of Bacon because he has to deal with “ Bacon’s thoughts exactly as put by himself, with all their crudity and incoherence,” it would be well for us to know the evil before Bacon’s immortality enters upon its fourth century. What Dr. Bain thinks of the master of sententious English may be inferred from his quoting, “ Certainly it is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth,” and adding his own summary comment that this “ is little better than high-sounding nonsense.” This judgment would be more startling, if one had not been prepared in some degree for unusually bold assertions by a few words upon Shakespeare, several pages earlier, as follows : “ The great passages of Macbeth and Richard III. come across us all so often that the interest of the original is reduced to the general plot and less hackneyed passages. The original is, to a great degree, though not entirely, superseded by the reproduction of the best passages in our most familiar reading. I do not say it is superfluous to go back to a complete text.” These italics represent faintly the impression of the words as they stared out upon the page to at least one pair of eyes. But it was not Dr. Bain’s objections to the study of the English classics, and the curious remarks he makes with regard to them, that prompted us to make his virtues known to the Club.

It is as a poetical critic that he shines, or rather smiles, so unexpectedly. He shall have the benefit of three examples. Shelley’s Skylark is exactly the sort of poem that a man with Dr. Bain’s mental characteristics selects for anatomy. He takes it stanza by stanza ; thus, of that perfect Italian sunset,

“ In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,”

he remarks, “ ‘ The golden lightning ’ seems a doubtful conjunction. The epithet is not applicable to lightning. The meaning is made more consistent if we read ‘ lightening,’ an emendation actually adopted by Chambers. ‘ The sunken sun ’ scarcely contributes to a picture of glorification ; the word ‘ sink 5 is associated with depression and pathos. No doubt the poet sought to vary the common designation of the setting sun.” So on he goes with delicious painfulness, getting snarled up with the “ thou dost float and run ” (as if there were no running but with legs), and the “ like an embodied joy whose race is just begun,” after a manner to make the poet “ shriek with laughter,” could he have read it. This, however, is offered merely as an example of the critic’s method. As to his substance, it gives but a faint notion of his toilsome incapacity. But a logician may be excused for failure with the Skylark. Let him try his hand at Milton. The passage he selects is the description of Satan’s shield : —

“ The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon: ”

on which he annotates, “ Anything comparable to the moon could not be supposed to lie on the back of any imaginable figure.” Is this only an exceptional vagary, a wholesome excess of the scientific spirit which has so much more accurate an idea of the moon than was possible to Milton ? Hear him once more, this time on Dryden’s great St. Cecilia Ode : —

“ From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began. ”

“ Dryden,” he says, “ has probably been caught by the double meaning of ‘ harmony,’ namely, as a musical quality and as orderly arrangement, being opposed to confusion or chaos. At all events, as regards the two first lines, he has made the mistake of referring, without any authority, the origin of the world to music.” There are two hundred and fifty pages of this wonderful stuff, concluding in an attempt at a definition of poetry, in which it is held that novels should be included under the term. All this is put forward, by a man of the most distinguished professional reputation, as a book of precept and example for “ teaching English ; ” but, alas, how few are likely to dismiss it as the amusing exhibition of pretense it really is ! If English is to be taught after such an example, its professors should by all means let Bacon and Shakespeare alone, and Shelley, Milton, and Dryden, and all their peers, likewise.