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Application of Literary Principles.




In my last lecture I sought to show how, amid the multitude of books, we must in the first place seek guidance for our choice by laying down in our minds certain general principles respecting the essential properties and uses of literature. I endeavoured to show that nothing but what is addressed to man as man is literature, and that that is more appropriately and eminently literature which gives power rather than knowledge, and that that is worthy literature which gives power for good, healthful strength of mind, wisdom, and happiness. Now let us see how we can follow the principles out to practical uses. It might be thought that such a definition of literature was too narrow a one; that it was too high and serious a view of the subject; and that it would exclude much inoffensive and agreeable reading. When I speak of a book giving moral power and health, or even if I should use words of graver import, spiritual strength and health, I employ these expressions in their largest sense, as comprehending the whole range of our inner life, from the lonely and loftiest meditations down to casual, colloquial cheerfulness, so that literature, in its large compass, shall furnish sympathy and an answer to every human emotion, and to all moods of thought and feeling. It is important, in the first place, having settled in one's mind an idea of the general properties of literature, to give to it a large and liberal application : in other words, to avoid narrow and

exclusive lines in reading, to cultivate a true catholicity of taste. In so doing, you enlarge your capacities of enjoyment; you expand the discipline as well as the delights of the mind. It is with books as with nature, travel widely, and while at one time, you may behold the glories of the mountains, or the sublimities of the sea, you shall at another take delight as genial in the valley and the brook. We must needs be watchful of our habits of reading in this respect, for favourite lines of reading may come to be too exclusive. A favourite author may have too large an occupation. Women should remember that in all that is essentially literature, they have a right in common with men, because the very essence of it is, that it addresses itself to no distinctive property of sex, but to human nature. They wrong themselves in shrinking from any portion of the literature of their race, and they wrong man by not fulfilling in this respect the duty of companionship. For man and woman, alike, liberal communion with books is needed. I have known a person acquire late in life a hearty and healthful enjoyment of books, by this simple principle of opening the mind to docile and varied intercourse with them. I have known, on the other hand, that power of enjoyment lost, after years of intelligent and habitual reading, by giving way to a narrow bigotry in the choice of books. Daintiness, let it be always remembered, is disease, and fastidiousness is weakness. The healthy appetite of mind or body is strength for all healthful food. There was wisdom under the humour when Charles Lamb said “I have no repugnances. Shaftesbury is not too genteel for me, nor Jonathan Wild too low. I can read anything which I call a book.And a living writer, Mr. Ruskin, who has, with high power and eloquence treated man's sense of enjoyment of nature and art, remarks : “ Our purity of taste is best tested by its universality, for if we can only admire this thing or that, we may be sure that our cause for liking is of a finite and false nature. But if we can perceive beauty in every thing of God's doing, we may agree that we have reached the true perception of its universal laws. Hence false taste may be known by its fastidiousness, by its demands of pomp, splendour, and unusual combination, by its enjoyment only of particular styles and modes of things, and by its pride also, for it is for ever meddling, mending, accumulating, and self-exulting ; its eye is always upon itself, and it tests all things around it by the way they fit it. But true taste is for ever growing, learning, reading, worshipping, laying its hand upon its mouth because it is astonished, casting its shoes from off its feet because it finds all ground holy, lamenting over itself, and testing itself by the way it fits things.” This finely-conceived contrast between the catholicity of true taste, and the narrowness of a false taste, is equally true as applied to literature. Indeed, it is matter of the highest moment in the guidance of our habits of reading to make them large and comprehensive ; it is essential to a just judgment of books, and also to a full enjoyment of them. We form a truer estimate of things, when we rise to a high point, and get a larger field of vision. A knowledge of ancient literature, gives a deeper insight into the modern; if we see to what point, and in what manner, the pagan mind struggled, we can the better comprehend the higher destiny of the Christian mind. Acquaintance with foreign literature may help to a better estimate of our own. I shall have occasion hereafter, more than once, to trace the influences of the continental literature of Europe upon English literature. Let me here remark, that while the study of foreign languages and literature, along with many other advantages, may help us the better to understand and feel our own, it never can be made a substitute without great detriment. I make this remark, because in the education of the day, and especially in the education of women, there is a tendency to give to the mind a direction too much away from the literature of our own speech. This arises partly, perhaps, from one of the misdirected aims of education, looking to the showiness of accomplishments, rather than to more substantial and all-pervading good. If a man or a woman be ambitious of applause, and great or small celebrity, one's native literature is a much less effective weapon than a foreign literature; and the more remote that is, the more effective it is for ostentation. But if there be a better purpose than feeding vanity, then, for all the best and most salutary influences, nothing can take the place of the vernacular—the literature identified with the ngother-tongue, with which alone our thoughts and feelings have their life and being.

Further, an expanded habit of reading is most important, as giving familiarity with different eras of our own literature. I hope to show in this course that the succession of those eras has a relation to each other much more life-like than a mere sequence of time. There is a continuity in a nation's literary as well as political life; and no generation can cast off the accumulated influences of previous ages without grievous detriment to itself. There are many readers who dwell altogether in their own times, busy with what one day produces after another. This is a great error; and they are the less able to gain a rational knowledge of that very literature, because exclusive familiarity with it gives no vision beyond, and, consequently, no capacity of comparison.

Now just in proportion as one enlarges his reading into different periods, does his taste grow more enlightened and wiser, and his judgment more assured. Let us take a practical example; and I turn for the purpose to the department of English Essay-Writing, in which the mind of our race has found utterance in several centuries. During the last few years there has been a large multitude of readers for Mr. Macaulay's Essays — brilliant, showy, attractive reading. But what assurance can any one of that multitude, who is unacquainted with other productions in the same class of books, have, in his admiration of these essays ? How can he be assured that they are going to endure in our literature, and that their attractions are rightful attractions ? I myself believe that they will prove perishable, because the pungency of a period, and the dazzling effects of declamation are, to Mr. Macaulay, dearer at least than faith and charity. The admirer of his Essays may think otherwise, but whether he be right or wrong, he is not entitled to form a judgment unless he has disciplined his power of judging by the reading of other works of a kindred nature-kindred, I mean, in form, not in spirit. Let him, therefore, turn to the other Essay-writing of our own times (and it has been a large outlet for the contemporary mind), the essays of Southey, of Scott, of Washington Irving, the inimitable “ Elia” of Charles Lamb, or that thoughtful and thoughtproducing miscellany, the “ Guesses at Truth.” Then going back into other periods, and making choice of some of Dr. Johnson's Essays in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and of Addison's or Steele's in the “ Spectator" and the “ Tatler,” in the early part of it, he will find his judgment enlarged by seeing how those generations dealt with this same branch of letters. Travelling back a century earlier, let him take the single volume of Lord Bacon's Essays, in which thoughts and suggestions of thought move in such solid phalanx that every line is a study. This is a simple rule for reading, and it may readily be practised: then bringing his acquaintance with the English essays of the last two hundred years, and the power of judgment he has at the same time been unconsciously gaining, back to the Macaulay Essays, and he will perceive that they are not what they used to be to him -- that the brilliant essayist “ 'gins to pale his ineffectual fire." A sense of enjoyment will indeed have passed away, but it will be because the reader has discovered elsewhere a deeper wisdom, a more tranquil beauty of thought and feeling and of expression, a fuller beat of the human heart. The flashing of the will-o'-the-wisp shall no longer mislead him, who turns his looks to the steady cottage candle-light quietly shining out into the darkness. or to the still safer guidance of the slow-moving stars.

The principle which I have thus endeavoured to exemplify, is important in all the divisions of literature. It is needful to lift us out of the influences which environ us, to raise us above prejudices and narrow

judgments which are engendered by confinement to contemporaneous habits of opinion. I hope to show at another part of the course how we may enlarge, and elevate our Sunday occupations, and fortify our judgment of the sermons we read and hear, by acquaintance with the earlier sacred and devotional literature, especially that of the seventeenth century.

In nothing is familiarity with the literature of various periods more important than in the culture of poetic taste, our judgments and feelings for the poets. One meets perpetually with a confident partiality for some poet of the day, or a confident antipathy to another; and, all the while, such confidence may be entirely unequal to that which is the simplest test—the capacity to comprehend and enjoy the poetry of other ages. The merits of the living poets must be more or less in dispute ; and he alone has any claim to venture on a prediction, as to which shall be immortal and which ephemeral, who has cultivated his imagination by thoughtful communion with the great poets of former centuries. Let him, who is quick to condemn. or slow to admire, ask whether the fault may not be in himself:-it may be the caprice or the apathy of uncultivated taste: he, and he alone, whose capacity of admiration has grown by culture ample enough to know and to feel the power of the poetry of the past, is qualified to speak in judgment of the poetry of the present. That this or that poem pleases him, who knows the present only, proves nothing: but he, whose imagination responds to the Chaucer of the fourteenth century, the Spenser and Shakspeare of the sixteenth, and the Milton of the seventeenth century, can see truly the poets of the nineteenth century, foreknowing which light shall pass away like a conflagration or a meteor, and which is beginning a perpetual planetary motion with the great lights of all ages.

I have spoken of the value of acquaintance with the literature of different eras, and the influence is reciprocal—the earlier upon the later and the later upon the earlier. But with regard to the elder literature, there is an agency for good in the added sentiment of reverence. The mind bows, or ought to bow to it, as to age with its crown of glory. It is as salutary as for the youthful to withdraw for a season from the companionship of their peers, and to sit at the feet of the old, listening in reverential silence. In the elder literature, the perishable has passed away, and that is left which has put on its immortality.

A true catholicity of taste in our intercourse with books is in danger of being counteracted not only by the incessant and clamorous demand which the current literature makes upon us, but also by the impulses which we may be exposed to in consequence of our individual pursuits

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