A Plea for the Shiftless Reader

A CERTAIN “ stark and sufficient man ” called Michel de Montaigne, an old Gascon whom Emerson tells us he found “still new and immortal,” once wrote: “ There is more ado to interpret interpretations than to interpret the things, and more books upon books than upon all other subjects; we do nothing but comment upon one another.”

Not long ago I stood in one of the windowed alcoves of a college library, looking with wearied gaze at shelves containing row after row of these same “ books upon books,” set there for the assistance of the student in interpreting interpretations. With the contents of many of them I was familiar ; I knew the helpful criticism which they sometimes offered to the perplexed seeker ; I knew, too, the cheerful readiness with which they stood prepared to snuff the immortal spark out of genius, grind the inspiration out of inspiration, and distill a fog of commonplaceness over the consecration and the poet’s dream ; and I asked myself whether, if it were proposed to pass a law making the profession of criticism punishable with death, I should use my influence in favor of beheading the critic, or be content to let him escape with imprisonment for life.

It is true, one may say of critics, as of intoxicants, that both the use and the abuse of them is a matter of personal choice ; but this, like most general statements, cannot be altogether proved. The critic is always stealing insidiously upon us in the magazines, creeping into the columns of the newspapers, foisting his opinions upon us before we realize it, finding weak places in our favorite sonnets, pointing out to us that the poems we love best are not “ high poetry,” suggesting that the authors we delight in are ephemeral creatures destined to live but a day ; and such is the web he weaves around us that, unconsciously, we accept him at his own valuation, and forget that he too is mortal.

It may be that I love the sonnet, as I love my friend, all the more because it is faulty ; it may be that the minor poet appeals to me more than the high poet, — that I find in the author who is not a god something that rouses my aspiration and satisfies my need. My friend the critic, who, as Montaigne has it, “ will chew my meat for me,” tells me that my judgment is wrong and my taste perverted, because neither coincides with his own. In spite of the bonds thus imposed on me I have a right to arraign the decisions of the critic himself, since nothing is truer than that it is difficult for the wisest man to judge his contemporaries justly, and that every man’s taste is more or less influenced by individual temperament and training.

“ What is history,” said Napoleon, “ but a fable agreed upon? ” No man could justly ask that question in regard to criticism, because every critic brings to his task the coloring of his own mind and temperament, and does not necessarily agree with any other.

Even after he has dissected his literary prey, and laid bare its anatomy, flesh and blood, sinews and bones, there yet remains in his mind an involuntary bias, because he really likes the thing or really dislikes it.

It is precisely for this right of individual judgment and individual taste that I plead. In this age, when so many people are painfully, laboriously, and conscientiously making a study of literature, agonizing themselves in interpreting interpretations, it gives one a thrill of joy to remember that one has an undoubted right to read the author and omit the interpretation, and to say boldly, “I like this,” or “I do not like that,” without being obliged by any law of the land to give a reason for the faith that is in him. It is perfectly legitimate for the humblest reader on earth to dissent from the judgments of authors, critics, and all other geniuses, however godlike, and recklessly, shamelessly, to form his own uninspired opinions, and stick to them, — all the more that the godlike ones themselves have been known to differ widely in their decisions.

Emerson, for instance, tells us in his English Traits that Scott’s poems are a mere traveler’s itinerary. Ruskin, on the contrary, finds in Scott the typical literary mind of his age, and his artist eye unfailingly discerns the color chord in the poet’s descriptions of nature; but if neither Emerson, Ruskin, nor any other mighty one of the earth had found anything to praise in Scott’s poetry, I am not therefore compelled to forget the sense of bounding life and joy with which, in my girlhood, I first read The Lady of the Lake, Marmion, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

For me Scott’s poems were alive. His armies marched, his watch fires burned, his alarums sounded. The printed page was full of the inexhaustible energy of the man who wrote it; with him I climbed the hill and trod the heather, and the full tide of his love for everything romantic and chivalrous and Scotch swept me along in its current. When I became a woman, with children of my own, I read these poems to them with the same sense of having discovered a new country, a land full of color and romance, and I read to listeners who were never tired of hearing.

I remember that those young auditors asked a hundred eager questions, and that in the questionings and the replies we all found fresh inspiration ; but the questions were never those of analysis. The children gave themselves up to the joy of the narrative, and the message that it brought stole upon them as unconsciously as the sound of the rushing mountain breeze steals on the accustomed ear. It was, perhaps, my duty, as a wise parent, to have taught them to pull everything they read to pieces, and put it together again, as one does a dissected map; but if I had done so, the poem or the story, like the map, would henceforth have seemed to their imagination a thing ready to crumble to pieces at a touch.

I remember, too, the message these poems brought to another life, — that of a man who lived in a remote mountain village, knew little of Emerson or Ruskin, and cared not a jot for critics or criticism. I fell in with him one day when I was taking a long walk along the beautiful country road on which his farm lands bordered, — a taciturn-looking, shaggy-browed old farmer, yet with a twinkle in his eye that contradicted the sternness of his face when in repose. He invited me to ride with him, and our conversation started from the book I held in my hand.

“ I guess you 're a reader,” he said, “or you would n’t be carrying a book with you on such a long walk.”

“ Yes,” I answered, “ I am something of a reader. I do not read much on a walk like this, but I have a fancy that a book is a good companion.”

“ My father used to run of a notion,” he told me presently, “ that reading was a clear waste of time, but mother liked to read. I guess she went hungry for books the most of her life. I took after her in liking books, though I ain’t never read any too many ; but when she went to Bangor one time, when I was ’bout seventeen year old, she brought me a copy of Walter Scott’s poetry, an’ I’ve thought a good many times’t that book made a difference in my whole life. I think likely you 've read it ? ”

“Yes, and enjoyed it.”

“Well, I set by it in the first place because I knew what it meant to mother to buy it. Her money come hard, an’ books cost more then than what they do now. I s’pose I had naturally more of a romantic streak in me than most farmers’ boys, an’ it jest needed such a book as that to wake it up. I 'd always noticed the sky and the mountains and the like a good deal, an’ after that mother 'n’ I begun to pick out places round here an’ name ’em for places in the book. You’d laugh now if I told you the names I’ve give ’em in my mind ever since; but I don’t laugh, because I remember what comfort mother got out of it. She located Edinburgh over there behind that farthest hill you see ; an’ I declare, she talked about it so much I ain’t never ben sure to this day that it ain’t there. I think likely all this seems foolish to you ? ”

“ On the contrary,” I said, “ I think there’s an admirable sort of common sense about it.”

“ I ’m pretty sure I picked me out a different kind of a wife from what I should if I had n’t fallen in love with Ellen Douglas for my first sweetheart. I didn’t choose her jest because she was pretty or smart, or could make good butter an’ cheese. An’ when I’d got her mother liked her, an’ they lived happy together. Then, pretty soon, the war broke out. We lived ’way off here where we did n’t hear much, an’ we did n’t get newspapers very often, an’ father thought the main thing was to stay here on the farm an’ raise a good crop o’ potatoes an’ apples; but I was uneasy. I did n’t think war was goin’ to be all romance an’ troubadours, but I kept sayin’ to myself that here was my chance to show what kind of a man I was.

“ One day I had to go part way up Cedar Mountain, there, to hunt after a steer ’t had strayed off ; an’ when I looked away off an’ saw the mountains all around the sky, an’ the sun shinin’ on the fields an’ ponds, an’ the trees wavin’ their tops as if they was banners, I broke right out an’ hollered : —

Where’s the coward that would not dare
To fight for such a land ? ’

“ That settled it. I enlisted, an’ stayed in the army till the war was over. ’T wa’n’t all poetry, but there ain’t any part o’ my life ’t I feel any better satisfied with. I was lucky. I did n’t get hurt to speak of till the Rebs put a bullet into my shoulder at Gettysburg, — an’ that reminds me o’ somethin’. The third day o’ the fight, when our boys was waitin’ for orders, an’ we could see the regiments all round us goin’ into action, there was somethin’ goin’ through my mind over ’n’ over as if it was wound up an’ went by machinery ; an’ that night, when I was layin’ there wounded an’ mighty uncomfortable, it come to me like a flash what it was. You know how a thing ’ll get into your head an’ keep buzzin’ there. I was sayin’ to myself :

‘ The stubborn spearmen still made good
Their dark, impenetrable wood,
Each stepping where his comrade stood
The instant that he fell.’ ”

This man, who knew nothing about critics and criticism, had involuntarily chosen, in his moment of high impulse and emotion, the very passage which the authorities have pronounced as Homeric as anything in Homer. I doubt if it would have meant half as much to him if he had ever pulled it to pieces, to ask himself why it moved him, or if he had any rhetorical right to be moved by it at all.

It has been my good fortune, on one or two occasions, to wait for a car in a little station which is evidently a rendezvous for two plain-looking men, farmers from their appearance, who seem to meet in this place now and then for the purpose of talking over their favorite literature. I have heard them discuss Thomson’s Seasons, Young’s Night Thoughts, and poems of Goldsmith, Crabbe, Collins, and others. One of them finds his greatest enjoyment in reading Rogers’s Pleasures of Memory ; the other, on a bright winter day, discoursed so lovingly of Cowper’s Task that I came home and read it with a new comprehension. They search out the beauties, and not the flaws, of their favorite authors ; they never — apparently — stop to ask themselves whether these are the writers that persons of trained literary taste ought to enjoy ; and they will probably go down to their graves in happy oblivion of the fact that they have never chosen the “highest” poetry.

I do not wish to be understood as condemning the training that helps the student to distinguish between good and bad literature, but I do mean to say that if the reader has not that within his own soul which interprets to him the indefinable something which we call genius, it will never be revealed to him by catechisms and anatomical processes. “ I hate to be tied down,” Tennyson once said, “ to say that ‘ this means that,' because the thought within the image is much more than any one interpretation.”

There are, at present, a multitude of woman’s clubs in America, most of which are studying the works of some author or authors. For their use and profit and that of similar seekers after truth, Outline Studies have been provided. I have before me, as I write, such a handbook on Lowell, of which Mr. Lowell himself wrote (we are told), “The little book both interested and astonished me.” I choose some questions from it at random, asking the reader to supply the answers which naturally occur to the mind as he reads : —

“ To whom was the Invitation addressed ? The objects and requirements of travel ? Could the small portmanteau hold Lowell’s outfit ? ” (And if not, why did he not take a bigger one ?) “ Have

Americans, especially Western Americans, any genuine love of trees ? How is it with Lowell ? Have you seen his Genealogical Tree ? In what month is Lowell happiest ? And you ? In what seasons and moods can Lowell ‘ bear nothin’ closer than the sky ’ ? What hint does he give of a home not far from Boston ? ” and so on, indefinitely.

It hardly seems that Lowell’s poetry could have the juice taken out of it more thoroughly if one went on to inquire : “ Does Lowell say anywhere that he had been vaccinated ? Which are New Englanders generally said to prefer, pies or puddings ? Compare Barlow’s Hasty Pudding and Whittier’s The Pumpkin with Lowell’s reference in The Courtin’ to Huldy parin’ apples. Would you gather from the text that Lowell had an especial preference for apple pies ? And you ?”

I was once present at the session of a Bible class in a country church, where the topic under discussion was the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. The teacher asked each member of the class, one after the other, “ What do you suppose Daniel’s thoughts were, when he found himself in this dangerous position ? ” The answers given varied more or less according to the gifts of imagination possessed by different individuals, but the last person to whom the question was addressed, a heavy-looking man, who seemed to have been painfully anticipating the moment when this demand should be made on his intellect, replied slowly, as if struggling with the depth of his thought, “ Why — I s’pose — he thought — he was in — a den o’ lions ! ”

It seems to me that the attempt to interpret genius by the Socratic method must frequently bring forth replies as concise and practical as that of the man in the Bible class. The most perfect piece of literature may be rendered absurd by such a catechism.

We go to a physician for advice about diet, but when he has given it we do not expect him to digest our food for us. So, when the student has been taught in a general way what is admirable in literature, it is not necessary for the teacher to go on labeling every page with, “ This is a fine passage.” “ Do not admire this line ; the metaphor is faulty,” and so on. If the reader is ever to develop into a thinker, he must learn to dispense with such literary guideposts.

When I was a pupil in the high school, translating Virgil, I remember how my spirit rose in rebellion when the footnotes gushed like this : —

Suffusa oculos: wet as to her shining eyes with tears. Female beauty never appears so engaging, and makes so deep an impression on the reader, as when suffused with tears and manifesting a degree of anxious solicitude. The poet therefore introduces Venus in that situation, making suit to her father. The speech is of the chastest kind, and cannot fail to charm the reader.”

I had it in me to have had some dim appreciation of the Æneid, if I had been let alone. Indeed, there comes clearly to my mind at this moment the memory of a sunny morning, when, in a daydream, I beheld a certain Sicilian youth, clad in an embroidered cloak of Iberian purple, stand forth to be shot down by a Tuscan arrow. He lived somewhere in the ninth book of the Æneid; and when I found that the emotional commentator was not suffused as to his shining eyes with tears, I felt at liberty to mourn for the fair youth whose violet mantle faded so long ago. I am still distinctly grateful to the compiler of footnotes for omitting to deliver a funeral oration. There are no beauties like those one discovers for one’s self, and no emotions as sweet as those which are never put into words.

Every real work of genius holds in it much more than the author himself knew, and each reader interprets it, as he interprets God, according to the poverty or riches of his own nature; yet, even so, that interpretation, meagre though it may be, which comes to him out of the struggle of his spirit is worth more to him than all the rest.

It is a great step gained when one has shaken off the bondage of feeling obliged to comprehend at once everything that one admires. It is perfectly possible to enjoy a thing, even to get some degree of good out of it, before one has arrived at any accurate understanding of its meaning. “ No complex or very important truth,” De Quincey tells us, “ was ever yet transferred in full development from one mind to another. Truth of that character is not a piece of furniture to be shifted ; it is a seed which must be sown and pass through the several stages of growth. No doctrine of importance can be transferred in a matured state into any man’s understanding from without; it must arise by an act of genesis within the understanding itself.”

There is nothing strange in the fact that an ordinary mind cannot at once and entirely comprehend the message of an extraordinary one; but one may be caught at first by mere beauty of language, by rhythm and swing, by some faint glimmer of significance, elusive but divine ; and by and by, when experience and love and joy and sorrow and pain have gone on day by day offering their commentaries on all the meanings of life, one may wake suddenly to know that the interpretation he vainly sought has come while he was unconscious of it. Your message may not be mine, mine may not be as richly full as that of another, but sooner or later each one comes to his own.

“ It is all nonsense to talk about enjoying what you don’t understand,” a gruff old professor of rhetoric said to me once. After the finality of this dictum, it was a pleasure to find, soon after, a book written by another distinguished authority on rhetoric, in which he quotes the following lines from A Grammarian’s Funeral, with the confession that, although he likes them very much, he does not know what they mean :

“ Sleep, crop and herd ! sleep, darkling thorpe and croft,
Safe from the weather !
He, whom we convoy to his grave aloft, Singing together,
He was a man born with thy face and throat, Lyric Apollo!
Long he lived nameless : how should Spring take note
Winter would follow ? ”

Such an admission on the part of an accomplished scholar encourages one to hope that, after all, even rhetoricians — some of them — are but men, and that they too may acquire a reprehensible appetite for odds and ends of prose and poetry which — to speak accurately — choose themselves, by one knows not what principle of selection, and persist in clinging in the mind and attaching themselves to it like burs.

What real lover of reading has not such a collection of tramp quotations, which haunt him, apropos, frequently, of nothing at all ? Right gypsies they are ; but all the joy of their vagabondage would be lost, if one felt obliged to sort them, analyze their charm, and store them away, each in its own pigeonhole, labeled “ Hope,” “ Memory,” and so on.

It is often claimed that the spirit of our age is a reaction from Puritanism, but it seems to me that there are still a good many people who feel that there must be something sinful in reading anything that one really enjoys. They grind away at the chosen volume, whatever it may be, trembling as they ask themselves : “ Ought I to like this ? Is it the sort of thing a truly intellectual person would approve ? ” Their eyes are blinded, so that they never realize how, all the while, other happy souls are led on little by little, from flowery peak to peak, until they find themselves unconsciously treading with serene footsteps the heights where the masters dwell, the paths where duty is transfigured into delight.

The reader who begins by enjoying Longfellow may end with a genuine appreciation of Milton and Browning ; in the meantime, if he never attains to that proud preëminence, there is no law making the offense punishable with death. In literature, as in life, one has a right to choose one’s own friends. The man who has poetry enough in his soul to thrill when King Olaf’s war horns ring

“ Over the level floor of the flood ”

is not wholly without knowledge of the mystic voices that call. Charles Lamb tells us that the names of Marlowe, Drayton, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Cowley — minor poets all — carry a sweeter perfume to him than those of Milton and Shakespeare. A man whom I once knew, a German scholar of some repute, entitled also to add D. D. and Ph. D. to his name, sent me Rider Haggard’s Dawn as his notion of a really good story. His taste and mine differed widely, yet I was willing that he should live. I was even able to understand how a man of naturally active and adventurous spirit, compelled by force of circum-. stances to content himself with a confined and quiet life, might find some sort of outlet in this rampant sensationalism.

There are good authors and eloquent authors and “high” authors enough to go around amongst us all, and allow us one or two decently creditable favorites apiece ; and occasionally, in this bleak world of duty, it ought to be permitted us to go browsing over the whole field of literature just for the very deliciousness of it, searching out the forgotten nooks, cropping the tender herbage, and drinking the golden filter where the sunlight drips through the thick branches of hidden trees. Let us cast aside our literary consciences, and taking our authors to our hearts, laugh with them, cry with them, struggle and strive and aspire and triumph with them, and refrain from picking their bones.

This is a stern and exacting and workaday world; it demands analysis and accuracy and purpose ; it expects every one of us to be able to reduce life to a mathematical quantity and extract the square root therefrom. The man who works and exacts and analyzes and purposes is the man who succeeds, — as the world counts success, —yet it is none the less true that

“ A dreamer lives forever,
And a toiler dies in a day.”

Martha Baker Dunn.