The Deserted Temple
HAS not the rush of the young through succeeding generations in this country toward the mechanical, the dexterous, already begun to tell in a constantly increasing narrowness, a shrinkage of intellectual and spiritual stature? Has not that preoccupation with the immediate which once served a great idealistic purpose, become in time its own end, the only end at last? Comfort, safety, in the minds of our pioneer ancestors, ministered to the service of God; now, when we are too comfortable to be even happy, too pampered to be blest, we go on trying to be more and more comfortable.
Is our boasted mechanical progress entirely a triumphant exhibition of the growth of humankind, or is it partly a case of arrested mental development? In many ways, perhaps, it is pleasing and convenient not to have time to think; but is it wise? The typical American has come to seem to many people of other nationalities a ‘handy man,’ quick with muscle, nimble in the execution of practical projects, but lacking in depth of personality. A swift intelligence, with all the latest modern adjustments, is there; but I have heard it hinted that there is more vibration of machinery than of ideas in our minds; that a distant echo of piston and of whistle, insistent and shrill in our voices, symbolizes a certain mechanical quality in our innermost selves. Our critics are constant in generous praise of our great quality, generosity, nor shall any gainsay it; it is our one priceless spiritual possession. But it may be that they are right when they fail to agree with us in our childish self-congratulation that we are the best of all possible types of people in the best of all possible worlds. When they speak of our lack of inner resources and of deep reserve of thought and of feeling; of a certain thinness of quality in the American temperament; of lack of personality, of permanence of quality, of enduring conviction — can we wholly deny the charges? Much of the fiction written by us and about us confirms them with scientific accuracy, and becomes a true mirror in which we see ourselves.
Our interest in the world of things rather than in the world of ideas is already resulting in too many naive and shallow types of character, uncurious save in regard to the material secrets of the world. We are suffering not only from waning faith in invisible realities, but from the externality of our training; from the preponderance, in our schools and colleges, of scientific and mathematical discipline; from the steadily decreasing devotion to the humanities.
Is it the multiplication of ‘observation ’ studies that makes the young continually less interested in the profounder phases of existence, more and more unaware of the problems of the inner life? To court too rigidly training concerned chiefly with the world of matter is to court a lasting childishness of mind; greatly useful in its place, this discipline should keep its place, and not encroach, as it does in our country, upon provinces not its own. Lessened maturity of mind and of spirit must of necessity result from lessened contact with the minds of men in their maturity, and from the failure to study men in their mental, spiritual, national development. Why require in college of all students work in science, unless history, literature, and philosophy are also required? Is knowledge of chemical actions and reactions supremely necessary, while spiritual reactions, study of complex human relationships, of profound philosophic thought, piercing the veil of matter at least toward, if not to, reality, are left to chance, to students’ whims in the lottery of elective work?
I would make a plea against the onesidedness of our present endeavor, leaning over to the external world; I would make a plea for a deeper culture; for more widespread study of the humanities; for more determined use, in our colleges and our schools, of the idealist’s opportunity in a world drunk with a sense of physical fact. A plea for the study of history; for the pure intellectual discipline of philosophy; and, because of our special need, for literature as a necessary discipline in all school work and college work wheresoever. The work with the classics is steadily decreasing; alas for the dimming of the torch that has guided our way! Since ancient literature, with its superb power of shaping young civilization, has been largely driven out, — with what incalculable loss! — let us study and teach our own, still permitted and, in places, even encouraged; let us have our English literature taught in the wisest and profoundest way ascertainable, wherever anything is taught. It is greatly needed for knowledge of human nature, insight into its complexities, for practical purposes as well as for intellectual enlightenment; there is, after all, nothing so unpractical as the purely practical man. It is needed to make good the lack in modern training with its emphasis on externals, and the loss that comes from lessened intimacy on the part of people in general with the best in literature; it is needed that the young may win acquaintance with human insight at its best; needed to strengthen the hold on the ideal, on that beauty, visible and invisible, that rouses the creative will to new ardor of effort.
For many years, as I have felt increasingly a sense of this need, I have, from time to time, heard the statement made that literature is a subject that cannot be taught; that, while it may hold its own as a source of individual pleasure, it has no real place in an educational system; and that, when it attempts to hold such a place, it serves only to divert the minds of the young from legitimate subjects of study. These protests have been made by very different people for widely differing reasons. A mathematician informs me that the study of literature can give no proper mental discipline, as it is not an intellectual exercise, and fails in inculcating exactness in use of facts. A humanist, specialist in history, once thoughtfully remarked that it was impossible to see where genuine work could come in in connection with this subject, as it was just a case of recording impressions, telling whether you liked a thing or not; the implication being that the mental challenge is little deeper than that involved in doing one’s Christmas shopping.
This conceiving of literature as one of the mere decorations of life is shared by other critics: scientists have told me that it offers no opportunity for obtaining real knowledge, as it is not based upon observation, through the senses, of the world of fact. A wholly different kind of objection comes now and then from poet or essayist, who maintains that insight into literature is a case of the divine fire; either you have it or you have n’t it in you; it cannot be communicated.
For many years I have heard it said that literature cannot be taught, and for many years I have known that the young of the college world, in some of the places where this study is still permitted, troop into English literature classes, overrunning the elective courses, clamoring for work in literature, for more and more. If literature cannot be taught, the young have not found it out. The frequent gibe that this is because literature work is a ‘ snap ’ is, year after year, disproved; first, by the fact that the best students, the most indefatigable workers, flock to it; and second, by the fact that, in classes where the standard is held high, students work with a passionate enthusiasm, an intensity, an ungrudging devotion, which certainly is not surpassed in any other subject, and is perhaps rarely equaled. Mathematician, scientist, historian may shake their heads, regarding this as evidence of mental aberration on the part of the young; but the young do not heed the shaking. Some inner intellectual and spiritual necessity impels them; they feel, if they cannot formulate, that which is necessary for their growth; they are full of a hunger and thirst which nothing else, it would seem, will satisfy.
There is practical evidence enough to show that literature can be taught with resulting gain. So vigorous and so prolonged a demand on the part of the young must represent a vital necessity; and their testimony is better than any other as to the possibility of teaching literature. Many in later years say that their study of literature helped them more than any other part of their educational preparation, in the wear and tear of life, stayed by them best and longest. Sham attainment does not endure in this way. He is indeed a bold person who would assert a priori what are the limits of that which can be taught; supply should bear some relation to demand in the immaterial as in the material world, and the demand, where good work gains a foothold, is great.
The reason why this should exist is self-evident, as is the reason why we should meet it with utmost effort. If literature be that writing to which depth and sincerity of thought and feeling and beauty of form have given permanence, securing for us an inner revelation of human experience at different moments of race-experience, it seems natural that the young should delve with passionate eagerness into the profoundest records of the life of the race; that they should welcome any guidance which makes them more sure of its great meanings, brings larger knowledge and experience to bear upon its problems. The shock of surprise wherewith they face the new worlds opened to them by study of literature, the joy of intellectual discovery, bear witness to the potency of the work. Traditionless, some of them, having sufsuffered from lack of books at home, and from the crowding out in the schools of that humanistic training which has been so large a factor in whatever civilization we possess, they find in the study of literature something fresh, full of challenge, making them aware of wider horizons than they had dreamed of before.
I am convinced, from long study of the problem, long observation, that literature, as an academic discipline, supplies elements which can be found in nothing else; that it not only can be taught, but, under the conditions obtaining in our modern world, must be taught, in the interests of our higher civilization; taught with profound purpose, for its incomparable service in the matter of method, and in the matter of substance.
To the mathematician’s criticism that the study of literature lacks method, and fails in the matter of mental discipline, we answer that precisely this kind of study is needed to supplement the training given by mathematics. We recognize mathematics as a necessity; for certain uses its training is invaluable; yet its narrow track is inadequate for the larger uses of life. Exact and indispensable in helping make the world of matter serve our need, it is useless in that greater world of the inner life not dominated by laws of matter. Working along the lines of logic to determined ends, it takes no count of the shifting stuff of life with its uncertainties; and its training rather unfits than fits the mind for the relative judgments, the delicate adjustments that it must make to the human dilemma. There are no axioms or formulæ that can help in a great spiritual crisis, nor can mathematical methods of thought then guide mind and soul. The abstract certainties of mathematics betray us in lives which have a way of not following strict laws of algebraic or geometrical demonstration; we need a mental training that will enable us to weigh, compare, sift; to make wise judgments even where some factors are uncertain; to estimate probabilities. To face any difficult human situation, expecting life to run in the smooth grooves which one’s training in mathematical thought would lead one to believe, is to invite madness. In life, if not in mathematics, two plus two may make anything from twenty-five to chaos; one plus one may make infinity in a reckoning truer than mathematics knows.
Many-sided, and demanding varied equipment is our dilemma; rigidly mathematical training is wholly inadequate to prepare the young human being for the issues of life. Mathematics may teach us how to build bridges, but not to build lives; to compute the stars, but not to compute the action of the human soul in a world of shifting circumstance. Versus the unfailingly accurate results of true mathematical thinking are complicating elements that require our entire intellectual and spiritual self-possession: in the former, an error invalidates the whole; in life, an error may mean finding the trail that leads furthest and highest.
For coping with uncertainty, our intellectual training should prepare us by constant work involving judgment. In work in literature, as in work in history, a mass of material confronts us — it may be confused and confusing records. It is necessary to sift and choose, and, by means of finer logic, work out an interpretative idea, representing one’s best decision in regard to the puzzling matter. Not here is the easier task of putting down in figures the indisputable result of uncontested fact; here is the necessity of discriminating, of finding relative values, as constantly in the recurring dilemmas of life. This selection matures the judgment and strengthens the intellectual fibre, as by an act of creation. Such training is indispensable for method, because it deals with the complexity of life in its welter of warring motives and conflicting claims; because it requires constructive thinking, based upon all the data attainable; and the student is compelled to summon all his faculties and think, to give full account of the intellectual power that is in him.
A work of great literature, shaped in the light of an informing conception, comes, in a sense, nearer than can anything else to the quick of human need in the kind of thought necessary for its interpretation. It is Coleridge who speaks of poetry as having ‘a logic of its own, as severe as that of science, and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex and dependent on more fugitive causes.’ It is this logic, the logic of art, rather than the barren logic of the formula, that will help in facing perplexities; the logic that, dealing with the complex, searches out the ways of law, of harmony in the tangle of things, that selective power in which the will is ever involved. Perpetual choice is demanded by the artist in creating, a sense of fitness in view of the whole design; for student and critic, what better intellectual discipline can be devised than that involved in tracing the delicate mental adjustments, whereby each word and phrase is made to render its share in working out the central meaning? We cannot escape the fine interrelations of existence, and this subtler logic of art is supremely needed in human life to create perfectness and integrity from the multiform, varying elements.
To the charge that the study of literature is not an intellectual discipline we can answer further that the great masterpieces of literature bring us face to face, no less than do the greatest philosophical theories, with the profoundest questions of human destiny. The problems presented alike by philosophy and by tragedy, concerning human fate, human responsibility, challenge the intellect as far as it can go, and further. They reckon ill who leave these out of any system of training of the young. If the charge be that study of literature is not a purely intellectual discipline, herein lies its peculiar glory, and the peculiar opportunity that comes through it. It is the attempt to make the word educational synonymous with intellectual, and the word intellect synonymous with reason, that has been the crowning academic curse of our country and of our time. Conscious of a larger need, we must protest against the over-mastery of intellectual disciplines, which, busy primarily with the problems of the external world, do not even challenge the deepest in mere intellect. The peculiar service of great literature lies in the fact that it is greatly intellectual, and that it is something more, bringing home to the individual the profoundest problems of human destiny with that mastery of resources known only to great art.
Those who, busy with the positive sciences, charge that study of literature brings you into a world of imaginings, and does not stand for truth of observed fact; those who, like my friend the historian, regard the teaching of literature as mere idle utterance of preferences, a substanceless and bodiless something that has little to do with recorded fact, should really inform themselves of the many-sided study of fact necessary for the interpretation of a piece of literature in any period. Presented with the problem of interpreting master and masterpiece against the background of the age which produced them, you must delve deep into the time if you are to understand the product of the time. A wide and accurate knowledge of the historical setting is necessary; of great political events; of great events in the world of thought, the expression of philosophy at the moment. A great poem or prose masterpiece becomes a focus, a centre, where many lines converge; patient investigation, following the many lines, is the insistent duty of the student. The self-expression of a human soul is to be read and understood in the light of all obtainable information regarding the author’s life, the influences that formed mind and character; and regarding the history of the literature of the country, that his place in it may be found. What knowledge of classic literature is necessary, in order to follow the development of great types! How much must be done with masterpieces of other countries of all times, that one may reach an understanding of literary forms and one man’s use of them! How much with questions of linguistic growth and change — that knowledge of words and of inflections, of the changing significance of words, that must accompany study of literature in each period! Modern linguistic work gives an opportunity for close discipline as exigent in its demand for accuracy of fact as the mathematical training of the present day, or that of Greek and Latin in earlier days; moreover, it depends less than did the latter on mere memory, and more upon observation of the laws of development, more on the ways of reasoning from phenomenon to phenomenon, combining the exactness in detail of older-fashioned study of the classics—that drill that has played a major part in fashioning mind and character of many generations— with evolutionary method, knowledge of the laws of growth, that power to trace continuity in fact which is the crowning achievement of the scholarship of our time.
Fact — and herein lies the worth of this as of other humanistic studies, that through it all, beyond it all comes the deeper challenge, the need to employ fact for further ends, for intellectual or spiritual interpretation. The task of delving into fact to find its deepest significance challenges the deepest that is in you, tests reason and insight to the uttermost. In this day of impassioned clinging to external things, of love of fact for fact’s sake; of observation and experiment studies where, often, not enough data can be gathered for any real intellectual conclusion, there is need of such study of fact, not as a resting-place for the mind, but as an aid to larger understanding.
Training in history in order to understand the web of circumstance that forms a background for a great work of literature; training in language in order to get the full import of word and phrase; training in philosophy in order to accustom the mind to the gravest problems of thought; then, the attempt to interpret the master’s embodiment in art of his reading of the riddle of existence — who can deny the profundity of the challenge of this discipline? Who can deny its validity as intellectual training in its study of mere fact, or its supreme importance as the only lasting record of the greater facts of the inner life? Who can say, remembering that the rightful meaning of the word teach is but to guide, — from the Anglo-Saxon tœcean, to show, — that the maturer mind may not help the younger to understand the deep records of human experience, suggesting wise ways of bringing philosophy, bringing history to bear upon it, illuminating by literary comparisons and contrasts, bringing, it may be, a wealth of information and a gift of interpretative power that will intensify ten-fold its meaning for the struggling student? For the true teacher of literature the task is to serve as stimulus, to quicken, to make the student aware of great things to be done, to point out the veins where he may dig; to help a bit with the hard things, constantly spurring him on, but to let him do his own digging so far as may be.
If the objectors betray ignorance of the importance of the subject-matter involved, they betray ignorance also of the methods and the ideals manifest in this work at its best. The world in general, even the world of scholars working along other lines, has no idea of the greatness of the task; the glory of it; the difficulty of its discipline as carried on even in properly conducted classrooms in American colleges; the possible profundity of its presentation, and the indispensable nature of such work, from the point of view of method, from the point of view of substance, if the young are to reach their full stature. The exact knowledge demanded as an aid to understanding; the energy of intellectual endeavor that must go into the interpretation of the underlying idea of any great work of literature, make it a searching test, not only of a man’s knowledge, and of his power of ever gaining fresh knowledge, but of his power in pure thought, his imaginative insight, of all that he is capable of doing with utmost effort of mind and of soul. That which is the ideal of the instructor must necessarily be impressed upon the student; what he has done and done wisely he must make his pupils do. Slighter, simpler though the student’s task must be, it must make him aware of the height and the depth of his subject, of the manifold effort required to meet its demands. Many an American youth, who considers the pursuit of letters unmanly, effeminate, would prove, grown soft and pampered in his machine-eased life, utterly incapable of straining to the great endeavor of the work done with the strenuousness of intellectual purpose that should go into it. What can be done to make him aware of the profound challenge of the work, and his great need of it?
It is precisely in one aspect of the scientist’s formulation of the case against literature in our educational system that the deepest validity of its claim lies; that the great need is suggested of a large and larger part for literature in our lives; a large and larger part in our academic work. It does not, we are told, deal with observed fact; it has elements upon which you cannot put thumb and finger; its significance cannot be detected by eye or ear, and it therefore has no solid foundation in reality. Herein lies the arraignment, and herein lies the overwhelming reason for encouraging the young in the pursuit of this study, which recognizes the inner values of life, as well as the outer; which resists that ‘shrinkage to the world of the five senses’ demanded by modern intellectual process; which is aware of a larger world, with wider horizons, than contemporary knowledge will admit; a deeper life than mere intellectualism can fathom. If there be any witness to the fact that we are greater than the sight of our eyes and the hearing of our ears, and speculation based upon the material they offer us; that there is something within us which cannot be satisfied with training limited to this observation, literature is surely the lasting record of that larger self. That deeper something demands recognition; it meets expression in literature; why should not literature be made to serve in a practical way the greater ends of life?
Has not Puck been much abroad in our world of late, some cosmic Puck, turning our universe upside down, reversing values, bewildering and deluding mankind? It comes to seem, to many of the gravest educators, that that discipline is hardest, severest, and best for mind-forming, which is busy only with things in space; and that that which presents the profoundest achievement of the race, the inner life, recorded in spiritual and intellectual conceptions subtly blended in forms of beauty, is supposed to be an easy something whose study is undertaken only by the smatterer and the dilettante. The records of the life of the soul count for so little among us; the records of all physical and material matters count for so much! Surely anything that will keep the young from conceiving that the boundaries of sense are final boundaries, that the world of matter is the world of reality, should ever be kept before them; should be devoutly and reverently studied.
Education should deepen, not lessen, the sense of the encompassing mystery of life; the teachers who can explain too much explain nothing. We know little of the ‘why’ of our predicament; let those studies that deepen the sense of the encompassing mystery of life hold their due place. We protest against the misleading certainties of mathematics and the illusory boundary line of organic science as circumscribing the intellectual life, not pleading to have these studies neglected, but pleading against the supremacy they have gained, and the spiritual loss resulting from this supremacy. Whatever may be the ultimate truth, we are greater than our modern training would have us know; yet we must not lose the deeper curiosity, or forego the higher questioning.
Save crucial experience, there is nothing that keeps before us this sense of vastness as does great literature, with its recognition of the unfathomable depths of the inner life. Supreme moments in the production of literature are always full of a sense of unexplained mystery; infinity with wide wings broods over it. In Greek drama, in Shakespeare and in the literature of the Renaissance, in our own early nineteenth-century poetry, there is a profound sense of wonder at the illimitable greatness of life, known and not known, dimly divined. To deepen the sense of mystery; to quicken constantly the sense of challenge; to waken in the young a need of spiritual quest—what can help more than close contact with records of spiritual achievement, the insight of great souls? Life, to be great, must be forever quick with a sense of infinite opportunity.
In the name of our birthright to wider and profounder life, we protest against the narrowness, externality, lack of vision, lack of freedom of much of our educational life of to-day. The very nature of the objections brought against the study of literature is a reason why it should be taught — constantly, assiduously taught. Each objection shows the narrowing or hardening of the mind to a single track, that tendency of education that has been all but fatal to so many of the educators and the educated. Whatever education does, it should leave open all avenues out into intellectual light and space, and should discover new ones. And this study — appealing to the intellect, both reason and imagination; appealing to that which is deepest in the human soul, emotion, passion — is precisely the means to keep the human mind aquiver and astir, sensitive to new meanings, quick to grasp, strong to retain, large and larger significances of this our problem of existence.
It is perhaps the only study which, presenting human experience in its wholeness, calls upon the human being in his entirety, the many-sided creature of many instincts and many impulses who nevertheless draws himself together and says ‘I.’ To the solving of his problems in literature, as in the large complexity of life, he must bring his every power; as it gives scope, freedom, to feeling, imaginative instinct, intellectual aspiration, so it demands their service in the matter of interpretation. We live in our emotions, as well as in intellect; in imagination, in soul, as well as in mind; feeling, the motive power, and perhaps the greater part of life, may be the impelling force to new spiritual and intellectual attainment. Study of literature keeps us aware of the larger resources of our own natures, and trains those larger powers.
Now, when it becomes overwhelmingly evident that the paramount factors in civilization are those which develop human feeling and guide it aright; now, when force cruelly triumphs, it behooves us to make use of all resources that wall keep feeling quick and sensitive. Losing its guidance in human affairs we lose our way; has recent history justified the sneer wherewith ‘efficiency’ has banished sentiment? Inasmuch as in all life there is nothing so misleading as mere intellect, unchecked by feeling, by sense of necessary adjustments, by old instincts, growing fine and sensitively aware of larger need— the deeper powers should be allowed their rightful share in education and in shaping existence. There are innumerable ways in which study of literature can minister to the greater self, of passionate aspiration, divine imaginings, and hopes that will not tarry at the sense-boundaries of things. The young must be made to feel its answer to the greater needs of life, its ministry to the inner self, to the finer hopes, the profounder faiths. They must be guided to it early, that it may answer these diviner instincts when they first waken; that they may know from what great source to draw in their spiritual hunger.
Human emotion is forever pressing on to larger life, to greater destiny; and the guide in all this further quest is that divinest faculty of the human mind, imagination, which, in its penetrative power, is in the forefront of all efforts to solve the mystery of existence. Confessedly or not, it works in science, in philosophy, in the great conjectures that may or may not later find reasoned proof; it is in all arts the guiding factor, piercing to inner meanings, and shaping in accordance with the divination. This gift, supremely necessary in apprehending the beauty of the universe, in searching out the finer law, and supremely necessary in fashioning forms of loveliness, finds, perhaps, its profoundest expression in great literature. Here we find the fullest records of the deepest insight of most gifted human souls, and the fullest record of that which in human nature comes nearest the divine, creative activity working out the great meaning. Because the study of literature fosters, as perhaps no other study can, this faculty, discovers, develops, guides it, it is a supremely important part of education. The young should be taught the mastery, among the human faculties, of this power which marshals the great insights; taught, through Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, that it is the profoundest attribute of the human mind — not fancy, sporting with unrealities, but divining imagination, piercing to the very heart of things; taught not to confuse imaginative, as is often done in common parlance, with imaginary, in slighting, contemptuous reference to it as a more or less misleading mental faculty, as if it were a power leading away from reality, instead of to the soul of it. Why should this faculty, working behind all great discoveries in the outer world, be discredited to-day only in searching out the meanings of the inner life, the profoundest working of all? We have need of contact with this power which refreshes us at the very sources of being, after our forty years and more than forty years of wandering in that arid wilderness — the contemplation of facts of the external world.
You cannot teach the divining power: that is admitted; but you can teach the young that this divining power of great genius is superior to reason; that, in all departments of intellectual endeavor, reason is its helpmate, its tool, which may serve, but may not master, this creative gift. You can bring the young into contact with greatly imaginative work; in this age of alleged enlightenment, many have never heard of it! Often you can make them see deeper meanings which would otherwise have escaped them. You can help them recognize the fact that genius may and does perceive great meanings in life that lessor folk could not find without them; that it is good, at times, to forget our entire preoccupation with the minor, and seek the company of the great thinkers, the diviners of the best, whose vision sometimes contradicts the evidence of the passing show of life as absolutely as our knowledge of cosmic law contradicts the apparent rising and setting of the sun. Let us teach the young to trust the great insights, the great dreamers who have dreamed the great dream.
It is by this power of divining inner significances through the penetrative imagination, of being able to clothe these in terms of concrete beauty, that the poet becomes the great interpreter, as Sidney, Shelley, Arnold claim — stimulating feeling to great ends, expressing his insight into the divine in a way that mere human beings can understand more potently than they can understand the purely intellectual appeal. Eyes have we, and ears; ‘sense ’ may help ‘soul,’ and beauty comes home to the whole human being in a way that no abstract plea can command, as profound thought and passion, guided by imaginative vision, become visible and tangible in creative work. The poet is the great teacher, making the senses serve him, letting eye and ear become avenues through which great interpretations may reach the mind, so presenting his conjectures of immortal meanings in life that they may reach in many ways the mere mortal, caged in sense.
You may analyze virtue to the last subtle shade: you will bring something to the intellectual perception of your reader, but you will not quicken his pulse, or waken his ardor, or rouse in him that creative will which is the very secret of life itself, as you will if you show him supremely well one human being in heroic moments of victory or defeat. Let him see and hear and share, and he will know as he could never know from mere telling. Herein lies the danger of the present predominance of the analytical over the synthetic in contemporary education. What further loss, what slipping backward will ensue, if this creative faculty of the imagination is further obscured by our contemporary habit of pulling apart! In that creative art, human life, mere analytic processes of intellect will not suffice; life is constant synthesis, whether we will or no, and constant combining, acting, creating are necessary for us all. When a race loses its imaginative grasp of deeper values, all crumbles; great epochs are always a time of seeing large relations, of synthesis, of faith, and action in the light of that faith. We must have constructive idealism; we must conceive life as a whole and work at it as a whole; and for this must have ever before us that which guides in creating fineness of thought and feeling, and incites thereto. Surely the best literature, soul-experience in terms of beauty, stirring emotion, guiding feeling to lovely issues — no care can be too great to keep and cultivate and greatly share its high import.
Our great literature is, at least, a partial answer to that cry for beauty and for harmony, which sounds, however feebly, in every human soul — that assurance of law toward which all human lives grope, however blindly. More than any other art, it reveals the ways of beauty in connection with those questions that are the profoundest and the most searching, the impulses that arise from the uttermost depths of our lives. Can anything set forth as profoundly, or in such awful beauty, as does great tragedy, the clash between will and circumstance, the central fact of human existence, that we are partly bound, partly free, and that herein lies the point of our being here? No mere exposition can ever present this as can this supreme art, or so bring it home to the quivering heart and soul of youth. Tracing cause and effect, following the inevitable consequences of act and choice, you watch the working of the laws of life as presented in a great artist’s conception. In Macbeth, in King Lear one can trace, as one can trace in a Gothic cathedral, the power and the delicacy, the unity of design in boundless variety. Demonstration could never achieve for us this awful nearness to human fate gained through thus partaking, step by step, of another’s experience.
Again, close contact with varied expressions of emotion that have found permanent place in literature because of depth of feeling and beauty of form, — human experience at its most vivid moments crystallized, — can hardly help effecting a civilizing power, a training power, a delicately suggestive potency in the matter of finer self-possession. Perfect integrity of form is in itself a matter of control; and ethical as well as æsthetic gain comes from sharing human impetuosity, patiently seeking out the ways of loveliness, searching and finding law, so that it seems not spasmodic, tangential, but gladly obedient to great laws ordering and controlling the universe. Great lyric poetry, in its passionate restraint, is a measure of growth both in depth of feeling and in its mastery, marking the upward progress from unrestrained savage wail toward the mighty rhythm of all things obedient to eternal law. Association with this controlled beauty achieves something of the result of association with people of exquisite personality — that creative contact with higher things that can in no way come from mere intellectual perception.
This discipline of letters, now more and more discredited as a part of education; the impress, the touch, the shaping power of that which is fine and high, wrought out by our predecessors: it would seem that no tongue would need to plead for this, our self-evident necessity — the profound need of all that has been wrought in beauty and in fineness to be brought to bear, in as many ways as possible, as cogently as possible, upon the young at the most susceptible age, the age when gracious ideals will most readily impress themselves. We need constantly before us, not only for our delight but for our inspiration, touchstones of thought and of feeling. The training-power in the matter of taste found in literature of achieved beauty is a necessary discipline. We need beauty, in the great sense of the word; divining loveliness of thought, shaping loveliness of form. The discipline of beauty — there is none more severe, none more high, for the ways of beauty lead from visible to invisible beauty — from Spenser’s Earthly Beauty, joyously hymned, to Heavenly Beauty, hymned with finer joy, where the clashing of harsh notes ceases in harmony. We need beauty, which draws all souls after, with quickened, passionate perception of values; beauty that makes available the depths of human nature, turns to fine uses feeling, emotion, powers wherein may lurk danger.
No fineness of judgment, no phases of control once won must be allowed to escape us; we must keep the ground gained, and build upon the foundation of our forbears. Herein lies an answer to those who decry the folly of searching the literature of older days; who say that an age is sufficient unto itself; that consideration of the past insults the present. To those who look upon the old as something outworn and put away, we can but say that, in the world of spirit, the relation to us of the past is not that of discarded garments, but of feeding roots.
Those who cry without ceasing for the modern should remember that the very discovery of the evolutionary method of study involves us in greater, not less, responsibility in regard to the past than has ever rested upon the shoulders of men before, because we know, better than men have ever done, how past and present are linked in an unbroken chain. Surely they are wisest who break faith neither with past nor with future; no generation really wants to be the weak place in the chain.
This is not a plea that we linger helplessly in the old, but a plea to make it serve our need more fully than we are doing, yield up its potency, its beauty, that nothing be lost. We do not undervalue the creative work of the present; the worth of any expressed spiritual insight or inner experience cannot be gainsaid. That which comes directly, in word or written phrase, from those who walk the earth with us is a stimulus and a source of refreshment; but we must not think that, for the young, all too prone to turn only to the new, chance contact with this or that bit of contemporary literature will suffice. They must not miss the training of that earlier literature whose entirety and beauty of conception and form have given it enduring worth. There is a sanity of thought, as well as beauty of form, in that literature which survives the ages; and because of this wise balance, it has incomparable value in training young minds. Here we do not find a yearning to startle and be startled; we find instead that great note of common understanding which distinguishes all supreme art.
The simplicity, the fundamental humanness of all things great we need to keep ever before us; among the quips and cranks, the literary and critical antics of our time, we need to turn to the great literature of old, to keep fresh the sense of achieved beauty, reminding ourselves of, and teaching the young, the great things that have been said, and the great way in which they have been said. Study of the older literature will quicken the imaginative instinct, will quicken and train feeling, and suggest high standards of beauty. Because, in earlier literature, life is conceived as essentially spiritual, not physical alone; because there the imagination works with a wholeness of conception which is lacking to-day, the young need this as they need nothing else, if the future is to fulfill the promise of the past.
The great poets have not become part of the race-experience as they should. Ignored, forgotten, save by the chosen few, they do not, to our immeasurable loss, enter into the daily life of common folk. We are so proud of our wheels that go fast; of our unparalleled housekeeping arrangements; so unabashed, amid the splendors of asphalt, electricity, and aluminum, by our intellectual and spiritual poverty; would it not be well for us to pause, if pause is possible for us, to consider our inner lack? Can we not spare some minutes from our adoration of our national materialistic god, to teach the young that it is good to be in the company of those who interpret life in terms of spirit, not in terms of material prosperity; in terms of spirit, not of flesh; in terms of beauty, whose potent appeal may quicken the will to rise and create in the image of the higher dream?
It is not only for intellectual and æsthetic gain that we need the discipline of letters, but also for spiritual training. We have need of vision that pierces further than our own, and the young should be given the chance to know, at the outset of life, that which may prove the path to higher existence. The work of the great poets represents glimpses of heights unseen by others, of wider horizons than their contemporaries knew, or we know. Literature records the high points that have been reached in the development of the human soul; spiritual attainment; moments of finer knowledge, subtler assurance, in the inner life of the race; insight into the depth of our dilemma, and into the forces that make for solution of our problem. These high-water marks of experience must not be forgotten or neglected as they are, for the most part now, by the majority of people. We must cherish the record of every deeper wakening of love, of pity; we must let the young know the promise of the diviner impulses in this cruel struggle of brute things, where the soul seems to have but an endangered chance. Our older literature must be taught, lest we lose our sense of spiritual values; ‘lest we forget’ the best that our forefathers have worked out in the hard struggle of the inner life.
The great poets are the guardians of our race-ideals; how can we cherish them too reverently? Enduring literature gives us a record of achieved standards, spiritual and ethical, upon which we may not go back; we have need of the greatest and best that our finest souls have achieved, nor may the furthest reach of the human soul be ignored — save to our undoing.
Other arts can give us beauty; what other can preserve for us the hard-won achievement of the soul of man? All that there has been of higher vision, of poet, prophet, seer, has come down to us, if it has come at all, in the form of literature. Mere literature! What else has afforded one tenth, one hundredth part the help that this has done in lifting mankind out of the bog? It has kept alive, through dark ages, the divine spark, and has rekindled life again to vital flame. From immemorial time it has been the live coal upon the human hearth, whose going out would mean extinction for the finest and divinest instincts of the soul. Can we afford to neglect that which has, in the household fashion of old time, been carried from hearth to hearth, enkindling new flame? Our dark riddle grows more light as we more and more associate with those who have light upon their foreheads. We should make known and honor, in the service of the young, the moments of profoundest insight of the greatest souls; nor dare we let slip intellectual and spiritual experience once gained. If literature be indeed the divine fire, can any one suggest a greater service that can be done the young than helping them find the divine fire?