Why Not a Masterpiece?
My friend is a teacher of English. For many years, more, perhaps, than she would care to mention, she has initiated young minds into the mysteries of Rhetoric and Composition, has patiently read and corrected the numberless themes which her method exacts as necessary in the acquirement of the difficult art of speaking and writing pure English, and, laboriously and critically, she has studied with her pupils selected works from our greatest writers. The latest History of English Literature is sure to be found on her desk; text-books on Rhetoric, classifications, appreciations, reviews, abound there, and her book-shelves are lined with “ complete sets ” of standard authors.
Periods, movements, reforms, developments, “ drifts,” are to her as familiar as the A, B, C’s to her pupils. (Perhaps more so. The alphabet is, I believe, no longer taught among us.) Her own speech is pure, her pen clever, her judgment keen. Long continuance in the attitude of teacher and critic has made her manner positive, so that it is sometimes difficult for one less certain of exactness to question her statements. However, a question did arise in my mind as the result of a recent conversation with her, and, failing to put it to her at the time, I should like to ask it now in the Contributors’ Club, and not of her alone, perhaps, but of others who, like her, read its pages.
“ I have found a treasure,” she announced, as I entered her study, and took my place in the sunny window opposite her at the desk. “ A friend read it to me lately, and it impressed me so profoundly that I copied it out for myself.” She took up a closely written paper. “ If you do not mind, I should like to read it to you. It is by Edward Rowland Sill. Perhaps you know something of him.”
I modestly acknowledged having read some things he had written.
“ Then you may be familiar with this, but it was new to me and I thought it very fine.” She began to read: —
There spread a cloud of dust along a plain.
“ Ah, yes, I see you know it.”
“ It is his ‘ Opportunity,’ I think,” I said, “ one of the most inspiring.”
“ Yes, sometimes called ‘The Coward,’ too, I believe. I get so little time for the minor poetry,” she continued, half apologetically; “ I am kept so busy with the masterpieces that I am not familiar with much of the lesser English poetry. However, this little thing did impress me.”
The luncheon bell rang, and there was no time for further speech; but afterwards, considering the time the busy woman had spent copying the verses, remembering the enthusiasm with which another friend had spoken of them to me, and thinking of my own worn volume of Sill, and of the ease with which it opened at that one page, I wondered, Why not a masterpiece ? It masters. The words are fitly chosen; the picture they make is a vivid one that commands attention, awakens enthusiasm, inspires to effort. What more is required ? May not even the minor poets, when they do such work, be said to have produced a masterpiece ?