THE statement has been made and reiterated in these pages that our best machinery of culture is antiquated and unpractical, not because it is Latin and Greek, but because it is not English ; and it has been maintained that English studies, if properly organized and intelligently pursued, will yield us, at a far less cost of time and effort, the same culture that we now get from Latin and Greek, and will bring with them the added gain of a juster perception of the proportions of the life that we lead in the world of “ here” and “now.” And an attempt has been made to show in a rough and general way the unusual richness of the English language, and its fitness to be one of the chief means of such culture. In this discussion, English literature in its broader bearings has been given little attention. This was not on account of its lack of importance, nor yet on account of the difficulty of fitting it into a systematic plan of study : it was solely because the study of the English language is fundamental to English culture, and had, therefore, the prior claim to attention.
But if we consider the matter frankly, we shall find that the study of our literature is in a state quite as unsatisfactory as that of our language. For our notions of English literature are conditioned at every turn by that mixture of opinion and prejudice which we call “ taste.” English criticism has continued to reflect it with varying moods of petulance and arrogancy from Shakespeare’s day to ours. The formal teaching of English literature, which is of comparatively recent date, has taken its cue from criticism. When the independent teacher has attempted to escape the critic’s tyranny, it has been by flight into the bypaths of history and philology rather than by open revolt. At its best, therefore, our teaching of literature is imperfect, resting now on the study of biography, now on the study of history, now on the study of sources, now on the study of foreign influences, now on the study of style, now on the study of a metaphysical æsthetic turned word ward, — always on some partial aspect of the subject. At its worst, it is unworthy the name of teaching, being merely a generous dole of opinions gathered from various books of critical essays, and salted with the teacher’s own prejudices, or larded with that transcendental vaporing to which students have not unaptly given the name of " drool.”
Our teaching is thus entirely inadequate. A clear idea of the part literature has been playing in the lives of the English-thinking people is not to be found in it. There is equally little in the way of a concrete statement of what literature is. Some of the most fundamental distinctions, such as that of the difference between poetry and prose, are left unexplained. The student who has enjoyed the benefit of such training is not much better off than he who has had to get his understanding of literature by dint and stress of journalism. Indeed, the self-made scholar in literature is really the better, for he will read more of literature itself, and his thinking upon it will be more original.
The system has already been much criticised on the ground that it is not teaching, but mere talk. It does not make men understand literature, it does not teach them to write literature, it does not train them either to clear thinking or to clear expression. Progress in these directions is made in spite of it through sheer force of native endowment. It holds its own only because it is thought to be a means of culture, culture being here synonymous with literary emotion. But it is no more a means of real culture than running through Europe with a Baedeker is. Guidebooks are necessary, and second-hand opinion accepted at third hand or fourth hand has its uses. But the true end of culture is sound judgment and healthy emotion, and these things are not attained unto in this way. For a number of years attempts have been made to escape from this slough, and they have been partially successful. But such attempts are naturally " poohpoohed ” by those to whom dicta are of more consequence than facts, and far easier to get. The simple declaration that there is nothing in these methods, or the cheaper sneer at their so-called " low ideals,” has thus been sufficient to keep them from getting the serious attention such attempts should have. The problem, therefore, still remains unsolved.
What follows is not set forth as a solution, — that is too large a task to be compassed here ; it is rather an attempt to clear the ground, and to suggest a method which, in connection with a sensible and practical study of English, will bring some order into this chaos.
One of the chief sources of vagueness and confusion confronts us at the start. It is the word “literature.” Any term which men use to describe or explain mental phenomena not capable of definite measurement, but assigned to the operation of vaguely denoted metaphysical forces, is bound to come to cover vastly different areas of thinking, according to the conditions under which it is used, and the peculiar prejudice of the person who uses it. And “ literature ” is just such a term. Associated with all manner of enthusiasms, religious and secular, entering into and shaping the convictions of all sorts of men under all sorts of conditions, satisfying a want so fundamental and general as to come within the range of economic study, it is not strange that the scope of its definition should be at once so vague and so various. Let us take down a dictionary and see how vague and various it is. We read : “ Literature : Learning ; 1 instruction in letters. The use of letters for the promulgation of thought or knowledge; the communication of facts, ideas, or emotions by means of books or other modes of publication ; literary work or production. Recorded thought or knowledge ; the aggregation of books and other publications, in either an unlimited or a limited sense” (the breadth of it!); “the collective body of literary productions in general, or within a particular sphere, period, country, language, etc.” (the eloquence of that “ etc.” !). “In a restricted [!] sense, the class of writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, romance, history, biography, and essays, in contradistinction to scientific works, or those written expressly to impart knowledge.”
You cannot use a definition like this for the practical purposes of teaching. It includes too much of universality. Even in the restricted sense, it tells us that “ expression and form ” (that is, mode of expression and form) “ are characteristic or essential [which ?] features” of literature. But what mode of expression ? What form? If it is the manner in which the thought is expressed that is the essential element, what manner, pray, is it? Or perhaps “any manner” or “ any form ” ? “ Ideas of permanent and universal interest expressed in some form,” then, is the definition of literature. Are scientific works to be considered as without form and void, and are scientific ideas not of permanent or universal interest, mere vain imaginations ?
Nor have the less formal definitions given by critics helped much to correct this vague idea of what literature is. They are not accurate, and most of them violate the very criteria of good definition ; for they do not define absolutely, but relatively, and they do not delimit accurately any field of tangible phenomena. Ideas of goodness and badness, beauty and ugliness, relative notions as far as literature is concerned, dependent upon individual judgment and differing in different minds according to previous training, are of constant recurrence in them. They assume something metaphysical in the writer of literature, an inspiring “ genius,” something that flows out of the blue sky into the mind of the man and transfuses his thought into pleasing forms. The makers of such definitions start with literature as the product of the single mind endowed with powers different in quality or degree from those of other minds, and carry the man and his genius through all their study of literature.
With such an assumption at the bottom of it, literature at the outset falls under a tyranny of personal opinion varying and fluctuating with mood and caprice. No one hast yet discovered what this “genius ” is. We are agreed that some men who have written what has come to be literature have possessed it in a marvelous degree ; but others who seem to have made literature have possessed it or not according to the opinion of the critic. It is not strange that these definitions leave the subject of literature in as much of a haze as they find it, for they are the result of reasoning in a circle. Genius in respect to literature is defined as that which makes literature, and literature is defined as that which is written by men of genius. We say that literature is the best thought of the best men in the world, assuming that the men whose thought is best are those who have made literature. Suppose we adopted the same sort of definition for economics, and should say that economics was the thought of the wisest men in the world ; and if asked who were the wisest men in the world, should answer, “ Why, those who have thought out the best system of economics.” What sort of economics would it be that was raised on such a foundation ?
Clearly, then, in defining literature we must escape from relative terms. We must get away from genius, that “ idol of the market place ” which works this mischievous confusion in our thinking. We must reach some conclusion which opinion does not affect. We must rise into a clearer air. where things are seen by the dry light of the understanding, not by the refracted beams of personal experience, rainbow-hued though they be.
In formulating a definition of literature, the first thing we have to remember is that, as students of literature, we stand in a dual relation to the phenomena we propose to study : on the one hand, we are part and parcel of our day and generation, and therefore subject to the appeal which literature makes to it ; on the other, we are seekers after truth, who should be unbiased by prejudices of time and place. We must beware of confusing these two positions. In the one capacity we may follow where fancy leads, enjoying or not enjoying as we see fit; but in the other our personal likes and dislikes go for naught. It is hard to take this impersonal view of literature ; our power of understanding it springs from appreciations, is fostered by them, and gains confidence in their exercise, until we are prone to put on prophetic function, and thus pass unaware from study to criticism. We are then no longer students, — we are critics; and our work, though at first partly judicial, is in the end wholly prophetic. We become espousers of causes, and, forming cults of select spirits like ourselves, devote ourselves to propaganda or exclusive worship, as the case may be. Those who are not of us are Philistines. Such study does not affect literature at all; it only affects ourselves. The Philistines care not for us : they go about their business as their fathers did, seeking their literary food where they sought theirs, and literature keeps a-making as if we had never been.
It is easy for the teacher to let his study of literature take the same turn. His ambition is often that of reaching the wider circle that the prophet-critics have made name and fame by appealing to ; and he often consoles himself, in his never very cheerful position, with the thought that he may some day escape from the meaner round of toil into the wider circle of influence. Often he is already a critic, eking out his scanty means by book-reviewing.
The very first step, then, in the study of literature as distinct from reading it, is the one that separates the appreciative function from the critical and leaves appreciation behind. After we gain a standpoint unclouded by prejudice, opinion, or so-called “ taste, " the next step is to get a clear idea of the phenomena to be dealt with. This brings us to the question of definition.
Considering literature as a great fact in the life of man, how shall we define it? If we attempt to take in at one sweeping view the whole history of our own literature, beginning with the earliest traces of it that show a tendency among English - thinking people to generalize the thought of a single English-thinking mind, and ending with the last work offered to us as literature from the bookstall, we shall note one characteristic, namely, this : it is intended to be read. This seems very obvious, but it is a fact frequently lost sight of by those who assume that literature is written only to be “ appreciated ” by the discriminating critic. And it involves, too, the cardinal distinction of literature. For under modern conditions literature is an appeal to the public to justify the expense of recording and reproducing thought by paying something to the author and publisher for recording and reproducing it; and under all conditions these elements appear in some form. The author expects to gain something by his appeal, either satisfaction, or influence, or fame, or some personal advantage; and to gain enough of these things to pay him for the trouble or expense of reproducing his thought. Men may respond to the appeal or not, but the offer implies a hope that they will ; and if they do not respond, the thought does not become literature. If they do, the meed of the author of the thought may be utterly incommensurate with the real worth of the thought; it maybe meat and drink, or it may be mere attention, but it is nevertheless a reward, and the appeal is made in the hope of it. The point to be kept clear is that the offer of literature implies a general want, — else literature would not exist ; and thought is not literature until it has satisfied, partially at least, some aspect of this general want. It exists, not for the man whose brain thought it out, but for those who make it their thought; and it is literature because they make it their thought. It does not become literature until it has been thus generalized, however high its Literary potential, so to speak, may be.
Literature is thus due to a desire inherent in the minds of men, impelling them to select from the mass of expressed thought made accessible to them through writing or tradition some portion to make more or less abiding. This portion selected possesses common interest for them because they are men ; that is, because all minds think more or less in the same way, are interested more or less in the same things, record in successive generations more or less the same experiences. We might therefore call this interest “generic ” or “ human ” interest. It is characteristic of the earliest as well as of the latest literature. A few words scratched in runes on a piece of wood and handed about among our Germanic ancestors possess it in kind as much as the latest popular novel in the pages of this magazine. In the days of primitive culture before thought has had time to specialize, what we should think of as special religious or special scientific interests are general interests, and almost all things written are literature. To-day, when thought is specialized until the writing of literature is itself a profession, a very small part of things written possess this generic human interest. But all the way through there is this one quality separating literature from what is not literature, using the word “ literature " according to the common consent of men. If, then, we are to understand the real nature of literature, we must consider this vital fact, and not try to formulate principles of literary art without having first established a science of literature itself.
We have, therefore, right at our hand a means of definition. If we use it, we shall easily escape from vagueness and intangibility; we shall be able to delimit a certain field of human mental activity that presents a general characteristic ; and furthermore, we shall bring before our minds a group of concrete facts which are the interconnected evidences of the operation of a general law.
Our definition will run something like this: Literature is that part of recorded human thought which possesses, or has possessed, a more or less general and abiding human interest.
By “ recorded thought ” is meant thought that is repeated or preserved in any way, through tradition as well as writing. “ Recorded ” is to be understood, therefore, in this wider sense, though usually it amounts to preservation by writing.2 By " human interest” is meant interest for men as men, and not as historians, lawyers, scientists, and the like. “ General ” and " abiding ” are terms which explain themselves, and are absolutely and quantitatively determinable : we can limit them as suits the convenience of the special purposes we may have in our study.
Let us examine this definition for a moment. In the first place, it is inclusive. We have marked off by it a definite range of interrelated phenomena. Whatever of recorded thought possesses, or has possessed, this abiding and general human interest, no matter what our opinion of its quality may be, must be considered as literature and be studied as literature. Whatever part of it has not, or has not had, this abiding and general human interest, no matter how “ good ” it may have been according to any standard of judgment, lias no place in literature.
In the second place, it is exclusive. It does not trespass on the field of history, history being recorded thought which has interest for the person who desires to know about particular facts or events that have “ made history ; ” nor on the field of social science, which has to do with the social activities of men which have an abiding human interest ; nor on the field of ethics, which has to do with the moral activities of men which have an abiding human interest. It is possible, however, for thought to possess, besides a special, a general human interest, so that a work primarily of ethical, economic, historic, or indeed any special interest may come into the category of literature through its having the wider human interest that makes literature.
In the third place, it is absolute and positive. It imputes no relative metaphysical qualities to literature, such as goodness or badness (except in so far as violations of natural tendencies are good or bad). It has nothing to do with genius or the lack of it. Its prime concern is literature, and not the literary man. What A or B, or this journal or that journal, may approve of or may disapprove of, is as immaterial to literature itself as A’s or B’s, or this journal’s or that journal’s, disapproval or approval of the eohippus is to biology.
With such a definition, we at once escape from the domain of personal opinion and caprice. Our facts are before us, clear, tangible, and presenting the evidence of law. All we have to do is to study them frankly and honestly, and discover their causes and relations. The only special means required to understand the facts is a perfect understanding of all English speech. Those powers of observation and judgment that develop other fields of study will do the rest. Nor need the student of literature be able to write literature in order to understand it. That is not required of him any more than it is required of the chemist that he shall be able to make all the elements he discovers ; or of the economist that he shall be able to earn money because he understands the use of it; or of the physician that he shall keep himself in sound health because he claims to be able to cure disease. Indeed, when such men base their claim to attention on such grounds, we know that they are quacks. The teacher of literature need not worry, therefore, about his unfitness for his work because he does not make literature. If his conclusions are valid as thought and clear as English, his duty is done.
The student’s field, then, is the recorded thought of men that has, or has had, human interest. How shall he proceed ? Evidently, by studying the causes and nature of human interest.
Considering human interest as an appeal to the mind and to the experience stored there, and fixing his attention upon that which has most generally and most continuously been held by men to be literature, he will find that the most obvious appeals have been directed to the imagination and to the reason.
The interest which makes its appeal to the imagination he may right fitly call representative interest. Any thought which takes the thinker of it outside his temporal and local limitations possesses representative interest. It may be a representation of something unfamiliar, or it may be the representation of a new aspect or relation of something familiar ; it may have character, or action, or nature as its subject. It may be involved in the turn of a phrase, or elaborated in the plot of a story, or unfolded in the description of a landscape.
The interest which makes its appeal to the reason he may call interpretative interest. Any thought which offers the solution of a problem of man’s relation to himself, to his fellows, or to the world he lives in possesses an interpretative interest ; nay, more, the very statement of the problem or suggestion of a relation can have interpretative interest. It too may lie in the turn of a phrase, or in the course of a tragedy, or in an elaborated system of philosophy.
So far, however, the student will have discovered nothing new ; he will be merely stating to himself, in somewhat sharper terms, perhaps, two fundamental points of criticism that are to be found in every theory of literature that is worthy the name, from Aristotle with his mimesis to De Quincey with his distinction between the " literature of knowledge ” and the “ literature of power.” The first of them widens the range of our experience, the second widens the scope of our knowledge. Their relation to literature is clear and fundamental.
A third interest, equally obvious, is the one which is concerned with what is called beauty. Here, however, the history of criticism will not help much, for this interest is almost always confused with representative or interpretative interest, according to the point of view of the critic. Aristotle, with his assumed “ instinct for rhythm,” made one aspect of it fundamental, but Plato regarded it merely as a means of securing interpretative interest. We know now that this interest is directed neither to the reason nor to the imagination, but to that faculty of the mind which is known as the æsthetic sentiment. It may therefore be called the æsthetic interest. Nor have we now to narrow ourselves to Aristotle’s “ genius for rhythm ; ” we can widen out this appeal to take in every interest of literature that is based upon formal arrangement, either of thought, like that of plot, parallelism, contrast, and harmony, or of sound, like that of syllable groups, or line groups, or stanza groups, in some definite or fixed order.
The student of literature has, then, his representative, interpretative, and formal interests, three aspects of his subject that appeal respectively to the imagination, the reason, and the æsthetic sentiment. As has been said before, these interests have been repeatedly recognized in the history of criticism, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, yet almost always severally, according to the point of view of the critic. But it is always the man of " genius ” who engages attention ; it is he who paints the pictures, interprets the life, and arranges the thought in pleasing forms. Rarely has it occurred in the history of criticism that the relation these interests stand in to literature have been set forth and made clear. Aristotle came as near doing so as any, but Aristotle’s criticism, instead of being seized on and elaborated in the spirit in which Aristotle conceived it, was narrowed and twisted, until it assumed the very shape that its author was most anxious it should not assume. For the Poetics, fragmentary though it is, if we remember Aristotle’s limitations as a Greek in matters of art, presents the clearest, most sensible, and most scientific theory of literature that has ever been devised. It is the only one that fits Shakespeare, though Shakespeare was once excluded from literature by Aristotelian canons partially understood and wrongly applied. Indeed, it only remains for modern thought to pass beyond Aristotle’s limitations and supplement his theory in the light of modern knowledge, that we may have not only a philosophy of literature, but a working basis for a science of literature.
The thing that the student must keep ever before him, then, is literature, and not the literary man, even though the literary man be Shakespeare. Of course, when he comes to study everything connected with literature, the question of the author’s relationship to the work he produced becomes an important one : where he went to school, how he came to write, how much he knew, where he got his material, who published his first book and how much the publisher paid for it, what effect the accidents of his life had upon his thinking. But such things lie on the skirts of literature proper, and are connected rather with the history of its environment than with the study of literature itself. So with the so-called history of literature, bibliographies and the like, and all those things that the Germans call Realien.
But even with this proper point of view and his three interests, the student has not yet got into the vital part of his subject. The great question — how do these interests lay hold on the attention of men ? — is still untouched. There is a deal of interpretative interest in writing that has never become literature ; much representative interest has made its appeal to deaf ears ; much æsthetic interest lies embalmed in still-born poems and " rejected addresses.” These interests, too, are found outside of literature : in painting, for instance, and in sculpture. What is the special relation they have to literature ? How do they touch the experience to which literature makes its appeal ? Here criticism does not help the student, for it has not answered this question. Aristotle assumed an instinct to which these three interests appealed, but his “ instinct ” was associated with his philosophy and took shape from his notion of forms ; it was a special philosophic instinct, not a natural one. Since Aristotle’s time the student has been referred to an “ instinct for the beautiful.”
But it is not necessary to assume any special instinct to account for the influence of literature. If we examine the matter carefully, we shall find that there is an important aspect of literature which we have overlooked.
It is an obvious fact, and one implied in our definition of literature, that most men who can read and think are capable of literary appreciation. In other words, literature is not the production of any particular class of men, but is a concomitant fact of human life. How does this come about ? It has been pointed out elsewhere 3 that any word is potentially the component part of a thought; that in each mind it is connected with a bundle of associations gathered up from personal experience, and corresponding to similar though not identical bundles of associations in other minds. The using of the word thus entails the associations corresponding to it, and these associations involve past experiences of the individual. Now if the word has been connected with experiences which the individual recognizes as critical, the thought expressed by it will involve his personality, though the thought itself may not be logically connected with his experience at all. We have here an explanation of one of the chief causes of human interest in literature, and of the means by which the other interests we have been speaking of are kindled with emotion and lay hold on personality.
Let us cite as an illustration Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy (Macbeth, I. v. 35ff.): —
That croaks the fatal entrance 4 of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits 5
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe6 top-full
Of direst cruelty ! make thick my blood ;
Stop up the access 7 and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect8 and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering9 ministers,
Wherever in your sightless10 substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘ Hold, hold ! ' ”
Look at the words : raven, hoarse, croak, unsex, from crown to toe, top-full, dire, thick blood, remorse, visitings of nature, shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace (that is, make war), woman’s breasts, milk, gall, murder, mischief, thick night, pall, dun, smoke, hell, keen knife, wound.
These words, apart from the representative and aesthetic interest they have when wrought into this passage of poetry, are of themselves pregnant with experience to any English mind. L5y themselves they are loaded with associations, and just such associations as those Shakespeare wants to appeal to in order to represent the warring elements of Lady Macbeth’s heart in such a way that the representation will affect us with a sense of personal dread. In the climax, when heaven is represented as peeping through the blanket of the dark to see the awful deed, and crying, “ Hold, hold,” there is an association, not directly presented, but indirectly suggested, in the words “peep,” “blanket,” “dark,” which calls to mind a child’s terror of the night, and drives the thought home to the very soul of the awestruck reader. Shakespeare uses the same means of making the interest personal when he comes to Macbeth’s soliloquy, a little later in the play (I. vii. 21 ff) : —
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.”
It is here again childhood’s simple innocency that is suggested to the reader’s mind to make a foil for Macbeth’s intended villainy, and the suggestion is by “ pity,” “ naked babe,” “ blast,” “ horrid deed,” “ tears,” “ drown,” “ wind.” Such things are on every page of Shakespeare , nay, in almost every line. They give his writing universal validity.
Any change in Shakespeare’s words which impairs this associative interest will weaken its literary quality. Take the first few words of Hamlet’s soliloquy, " To be or not to be: that is the question,” and alter them to
The fundamental interpretative interest of the line is still there. Its æaesthetic interest is unchanged, for its rhythm is the same, and the formal interest arising from its place in the action is even sharper. But the phrase is spoiled completely. Others in the context might lay hold on our experience, but this one has surely lost its grip. Why ? Is it not solely because its associative interest has been weakened ? The experience behind the words “ I am ” is not appealed to : Hamlet’s question has lost its personality and become academic. Or take the opening of Hamlet, Barnardo’s “ Who’s there ? ” The thought just in that form is the one that always comes to an English-thinking mind when startled out of sleep at night. I need not elaborate the association and its connection with the tragedy which is to follow. Suppose Shakespeare had written, “ I hear some sound! ” or worse, “ Me thinks another’s here besides myself ! ” or had made Francisco say, “Halt! and give the password of the night! ”
Other literature that is like Shakespeare in the universality and permanence of its interest will be found to be equally full of this associative interest, as we may call it. The Bible is the instance that comes to every mind: its universal interpretative interest has become so personal through the richness of the English words into which it has been translated that the translation itself is part of our literature, and very few of us realize that the Bible was not written expressly for us. It seems so much a part of our experience that it is hard for us to think of a German Bible or of a French Bible without unconsciously assuming it to be a translation of an original English one, and therefore without that authority that the English Bible has. It is our Book, and we practically think ourselves, English Gentiles, the Chosen People, and the Jews are to us the Having-Been-Chosen People, whom we, by our superior merits, have displaced.
The absence of this kind of associative interest is too well illustrated in current scientific writing to make it necessary to cite concrete instances of it here. Words which have conventional meanings can never make literature, no matter how well they be put together; and though much of the truth of modern science, with its enormous imaginative and interpretative interests, ought to be of human interest, it quite fails of it. And it will continue to be more or less devoid of literary interest on account of its vocabulary, until some one with the power that Browning and Tennyson at times display puts it into language that has experience behind it. When that is done, and done adequately, we shall have a new era in poetry.
But not only words, syntax too has an associative interest, and any violation of it robs literature of power. It is one of the chief reasons why English classical poetry takes so little hold on the popular mind, that its syntax is so artificial. Word order, which English habit has made serve the purpose of inflection, is constantly violated to secure a monotonous and regularly recurring word-stress. The interpretative and representative interests of this literature may be strong, but they make little appeal to personal experience. It is possible to appreciate such poetry by that process through which we appreciate all art, and to make the æsthetic interest which comes from the arrangement of the thought atone in a measure for the lack of the others, but the appreciation is still an artificial product. It was literature in its time, for people had developed an artificial æsthetic sentiment which demanded that sort of stimulus, but it is the literature of an artificial stage of society. It is not in the same class with the Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare, or the Pilgrim’s Progress.
There is an associative interest, too, that goes with rhythm, for rhythm is conditioned by heredity; and it is an interest that is capable of arousing deep emotion. In the case of the Bible, the associative interest developed by habitual repetition makes it difficult for us to reconcile ourselves to a revision which entails the disturbing of the rhythm we have been used to. We find ourselves substituting the old familiar accents when we go to quote the new words, because they have become fixed in our minds in childhood. It is quite impossible to appreciate to the full in English literature this form of associative interest without an historical knowledge of English poetry based upon the nature of English accent, and unconditioned by foreign notions of “longs” and “shorts.” And this is obtainable only in a few university lecture rooms, not having yet made its way to popular hearing. Generally speaking, the subject of English versification is in much the same confusion that it was in the days of Gabriel Harvey and the seventeenth-century verse reformers. Treatises on Shakespeare’s verse are mere dry catalogues of so-called “ irregularities,” though Shakespeare’s verse is the very norm of English poetic expression, and the laws of it can be made evident to any one who can think in English. Indeed, if you take the trouble to make the test, you will find the ordinary reader of Shakespeare’s blank verse cannot tell it from prose, if it is printed as prose. Through the same ignorance of the laws of English verse, Whitman’s poetry, with the aid of the typographer, becomes a puzzle that criticism cannot unravel.
But besides the associative interest that the component parts of a thought may have, the thought itself may possess associative interest. A representation can therefore possess an additional interest through its association. A character we have come in contact with in actual life has thus stronger interest for us when we meet it in literature. So with interpretative interest: a problem that we ourselves have attempted to solve is always more interesting when we meet it in a new aspect in literature.
Hamlet’s “ to be or not to be ” is a fundamental one that we have all tried our hands at solving some time or other, in this course our experience runs which we call life. It has therefore an additional interest for us ; and when we come to —
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit, of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin ? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover 'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of ? ”
it is our own troubles that we feel the weight of, not Hamlet’s. Indeed, they are not Hamlet’s in the first instance, but William Shakespeare’s.11 For Ophelia had neither “ despised ” nor “disprised ” Hamlet’s love, nor had Hamlet brought the question of his uncle’s guilt to an issue in the courts, nor had Polonius been insolent to him,—the shallow courtier had good reason to complain of Hamlet on that score, — nor had his patient (!) merit been spurned of unworthy men. The “ calamities ” of Hamlet’s life were of other making. But we do not think of that. Life, any life, is at some time calamitous, and that we know, and that is enough for us. So the verses, though open to criticism on the ground of formal interest, have such an enormous associative interest that they dwarf all criticism.
Wordsworth’s inability to see the importance of this kind of associative interest, and the necessity of choosing subject material which will awaken it, is the one conspicuous error of his theory of poetry, and is the source of his one conspicuous failure when he tries to live up to the Preface of the Lyrical Ballads.
So long as he limited himself to the lives of rustics, it was impossible for him, if he represented their character faithfully, to touch a wide range of human experience. As Wordsworth the poet, with his
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul,”
he is incomparable. But the creator of Peter Bell, Michael, The Waggoner, is another Wordsworth, who works in clay, and what he fashions has little use save as a pathetic memorial of the poet’s fealty to his literary theory.
Even that formal interest which comes from the arrangement of parts of thought in certain groups or sequences, whether in prose or in poetry, may get this associative interest from continuous repetition of certain types of it. Periodic sentences, absolute participle constructions, epigram, antithesis, may thus get to be chronic in literature. Can we not now recognize such symptoms in the writing of our own day ? They come to arouse, or “ superinduce ” as the physicians say, an artificial interest. We must thus be careful, when we study the sort of literature whose abiding qualities endure but for a generation, that we make ourselves part of the period we are studying, and look not only for general human interest, but for the special associative interest which conditioned the thinking of the time.
It is associative interest, therefore, that the student of English literature must get hold of. But it will not always be easy for him to find it He must first of all be a thorough student of English, and English in all its forms. He must escape from the idea that there is no English but that which is written in books. He must understand English as thought, not as grammar. He must hear it in all its sinuous rhythm, not trace the cold words of the printed page through a tangle of meaningless signs. He should be able to read with understanding anything ever written in English. If then he separates himself from prejudice and opinion, and bases his thinking on evident fact ; if he ceases to concern himself with mysterious “ influences,”and begins to observe, classify, correlate, and generalize, we shall have a study of literature that will be better than soothing opinion, and a teaching of literature will follow that will be more than talk.
With such an equipment, and with the catholic conception of his task we have here suggested, whole fields of work lie open to him. He can follow the various interests through a single piece of literature like Hamlet, where all their forms are to be found on every page, or particular interests like the rhythm in Paradise Lost, or the representative interest of Shelley’s Prometheus, or the interpretative interest of Wordsworth’s Sonnets. Studying literature in this way, as a fact of human experience, something thrown off by the race, he has a subject as wide in its bearings as economics or ethics, and one of as much importance.
Nor is this method of study unpractical. It starts where such study should begin, with the English language, and it leads straight to English culture. What better culture can there be than one that is based on right understanding of one’s own language and literature ? At any rate, the teaching and study of literature should be more catholic, more systematic, more scientific, than it is now, if the subject is not to be pushed aside by newer and more vigorous claimants for the student’s time and energy. That it is a science, resting on a solid foundation and bearing a definite relation to human activity, is as little to be doubted as that ethics or economics is a science. While the presentation of the subject in its scientific aspect demands a fuller, more consecutive, and withal a more discursive and technical treatment than can be attempted here, these suggestions, derived chiefly from experience with university classes, and so far practical, may be of some help to those who are seeking for a more solid ground than that furnished by the current books of criticism and history of literature.
The tendency of a system of teaching based upon arbitrary opinion is not only unscientific, it is vicious. For what but evil can result from the cultivation of morbid or sensuous imaginations under the guise of developing so-called appreciation ? And what but moral weakness will follow from the debauching of sound and healthy judgment by the pampering of these artificial appreciations ? Have n’t we, alas, seen it already ? Did not the English law courts show it with relentless clearness a few years ago ? What else can the cult of the monstrosities of this so-called decadence we hear so much of bring in its train but weak intellects and perverted morals ? How many heartstrings have been wrung in the last few years by the spread of this intellectual sensuousness in our colleges ! How many patient fathers have been amazed at degenerate sons coming back to them, with weak intellects and mawkish sensibilities, the result of training in “ appreciation ” ! Let us be devoutly thankful for the physical training that has so far checked it, and kept the manly English virtues to the front in spite of insidious influences at work to sap them. And let us get more of the soundness of our literature into our study of it.
We need not fear that if we devote less time to what is now called criticism, literature will fall from its high plane and grovel in vulgarity. It can take care of itself, as it has always done. It owes no great debt to the critics. There will always be plenty of it and good enough for the best of us without help from them. If only it is sound and healthy and ringing with honest and earnest life, we shall not take harm of it. Though its vocabulary reek with lard oil, and savor of sweat, and grit with grime, if it’s the English of sweaty, grimy, gritty men, they get it from life, and they and it are part of the life we have to live and know. It is living English we want, an infusion of Shakespeare. And Falstaff will be in it, you may be sure, — you cannot keep him out because his words are not heard in ladies’ boudoirs. We need not fear him : there is more real vulgarity in some of our modern sonnets than there is in both parts of Henry IV. put together. Our danger is not in this quarter. It is from not knowing we are thinkers of English, and not knowing the life of English letters. It is drawing-room criticism and lectureroom twaddle combined with ignorance of our mother tongue that we have most to fear from. It is in the divorce of the study of English literature from our English - thinking life that the danger lies. And our English-thinking life will never be clear to us until we understand our English speech. There is where we must start, and down in our common schools. So that every American, whether he can think the thought of Plato or not, will know that his own speech is the speech of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton still living and vital, perfected in efficiency and fineness by centuries of daily use.
And when there comes to us that rich development of literature that usually follows a period of intense political, social, and intellectual activity by a third of a century or so, we shall be ready to recognize it and welcome it. And our recognition will be a help and a stimulus to make it richer and stronger than it would otherwise have been. Nay, may we not hope for another such burst of thought as the one that gave us Shakespeare, and look for another Shakespeare to crown it all, —another Shakespeare to whom some patient teacher in a public school may even now be giving his first instruction in English ?
Mark H. Liddell.
- Not obsolete in this sense, though the dictionary says it is. We still use it when we speak of the Department of Literature and the Arts in a university, or confer the degree of Litt. D. for distinguished services in the field of letters.↩
- The word had in Middle and Early New English just the connotation which is here arbitrarily given to it for purposes of definition.↩
- See Atlantic Monthly for April, 1898, pp. 407, 408; October, 1898, pp. 463, 404.↩
- enterance is also Elizabethan English.↩
- sprights is also Elizabethan English.↩
- Read to th’ toe.↩
- Read th’ access, as in Folio.↩
- Read Th’ effect, as in Folio.↩
- Read murth’ring, as in Folio.↩
- “ invisible.”↩
- See Shakespeare’s Sonnets, LXVI.↩