« PreviousContinue »
Cromwell's, “are the wonders of history," he adds, “the genius which conceived the incomprehensible character of Hamlet would alone be able to describe with intuitive truth the character of Scipio, or of Cromwell.” Now observe how two authors, of the finest powers in these two high departments-biography and history-after carrying those
powers to the farthest, profess their sense of how much remains unaccomplished; and, moreover, their conviction that all of higher or deeper achievement which lies beyond is left to poetry, or left to silence; not that it is less true or less real, but because there is truth which prose can never reach to-truth to which a form can be given only by imagination and art, whether using the instrument of words, the pencil, or the chisel—the hand of poet, of painter, or of sculptor. We ought to remember, then, that when we let imaginative studies drop out of our habits of reading, we neglect a whole region of truth and reality which the highest prose authority acknowledges itself unequal to.
The propensity to partial prose reading is attended with further loss, inasmuch as it not only separates us from much of the highest truth human nature can hold communion with, but it makes one lose the finest and deepest-reaching discipline our spiritual being is capable of. Two thousand years ago, the great philosopher of criticism gave his well-known theory of tragic poetry, that it purifies our feelings through terror and pity. But in the large compass of its power, poetry employs also other and kindlier agencies of good. It deals with us in the spirit of the most sagacious morality: it does not single out this or that faculty, and tutor the onestill it grows weary or stubborn, or stupid under the narrow teaching and the dull iteration, but it addresses good sense (which true poetry is never heedless of), the intellect, the affections, and what has been well called “the great central power of imagirsation, which brings all the other faculties into harmonious action." Instead of ministering to the mind diseased or the mind enfeebled one drug, or hard, unvaried food, it carries poor suffering humanity to the seaside, or up to the mountain-tops, for the larger contemplation which leads to infinity, and for the health and strength and life of sublimer and purer thoughts and feelings. Were it possible to fathom the mystery which dwells in the serious eyes of infancy, we should learn, I believe, ihat nature leads the young spirit on to its sense of truth through wonderment and faith; and we do know how the imagination of childhood puts forth it's powers into the region of the marvellous, the distant, the shadowy, and the infinite, -Robinson Crusoe's lonely island, the Arabian wonders, fairy fictions, fables without the “morals,” which are skipped with better wisdom than they were put there, or travels in faroff lands. These things wear away as the work of life comes on, and, unhappily, the loving, faithful, imaginative spirit wears away too. The imagination is suffered to grow torpid, instead of being cultivated into a wiser activity, and our souls become materialized and sophisticated. There is enough in life to make us practical, but what we more need is to study how to be wisely visionary, to carry the freshness and feelings of childhood (and this has been said to be a characteristic of genius) unto the mature reason, for
We live by admiration, hope, and love;
In dignity of being, we ascend. This is the poetic process of our spiritual growth, and when the poet teaches or chastens, he, at the same time, elevates and brings forth into life and light all of great and good that lies hidden in our nature. “Wouldst thou,” says that earnest but rigid writer, Carlyle,“ plant for eternity, then plant into the deep, infinite faculties of man his fantasy and heart; wouldst thou plant for year and day, then plant into his shallow, superficial faculties, his self-love, and arithmetical understanding.” The poet's planting is the deep planting, and his teaching becomes a ministry within our inmost being, so that the oracle without and the response within are in marvellous unity. It is not like the lessons which, remaining outward to us and unrecognised by our deep sympathies, are easily intercepted by chance, or blown away from us, but it is made part of our very life and taste, to give perpetual strength or welcome warning. I would rather a child of mine should know and feel the high, imaginative teachings of Wordsworth’s “ Ode to Duty,” than any piece of uninspired prose morality in the language, because the heart that will truly take that lofty lesson into itself, however it may falter with frailty or fall short in the fulfilment, will fain not cast it out; it is teaching that tempers the pride and usefulness of manhood, showing how much more of moral beauty and strength and happiness there is in the spirit of willing obedience than in that of power or of liberty; nay, that the only genuine liberty is that which is in harmony with law and self-control; it is teaching fitted to give to womanhood a star-like life and motion, obedient to her orbit, and kindling the firmament of humanity with bright and benignant influences, radiant from that orbit alone; for the poet, better than the prose moralist, by throwing the consecration of his art around the sense of duty, discloses its hidden power for suffering or for action, so that, if need be, the woman will bow, like “the gentle
lady married to the Moor,” beneath the doom of some dark tragedy of home, or, if man's wrongs or his omissions should call her to other duties --for what a woman ought to do often depends on what man does or leaves undone—she will go forth, like Imogen, for womanly well-doing in the rude places of the open and unroofed world.
When that accomplished lady, whose genius, with no other instruments than the poet's text and her own voice, so finely illustrated the genius of Shakspeare, read in a neighbouring city, to an audience of teachers, some selections of English literature, she gave that eloquent tribute to the character of Washington, which occurs in the historical lectures of Professor Smyth, of the English University of Cambridge, and also Wordsworth's Ode to Duty, to which I have made allusion. I was struck with I will not say the felicity of the choice, but with the wisdom of it—the one selection portraying the might and glory of duty as actualized in the life of the moral hero of modern times; the other showing them idealized by the imagination of the poet. I refer to this as an admirable combination of the deep teachings of prose
and poetry. In order to receive the true benefit of the discipline of poetry, and also the full enjoyment of it, there must be given to it much more of thought, of strenuous activity of the reader's own imagination, more caution of mind, than most people think it worthy of. It must be studied, and not merely read. There are some books which I wish to commend to you with a view to the proper culture and discipline of the imagination. I will take occasion to give an opportunity to those who desire to do so to take a note of them, on the next evening, before I proceed to the lecture for that evening ;—the subject of which will be “ The study of the English Language, considered as a source of enjoyment from its powers in prose and verse."
The English Language.
MEDIUH OF IDEAS OFTEN FORGOTTEN-WITCHERY OF ENGLISH WORDS-ANALYSIS OF GOOD
STYLE DIFFICULT-THE POWER OF WORDS-OUR DUTY TO THE ENGLISH LANGUAGELORD Bacon's IDEA OF LATIN-MILTON-HUME'S EXPOSTULATION WITH GIBBON DANIEL'S LAMENT-EXTENSION OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE-FRENCH DOMINIOX IX AMERICA - LANDOR'S PExN AND PETERBOROUGH-DUTY OF PROTECTING AND GUARDING LANGUAGE-DEGENERACY OF LANGUAGE AND MORALS AGE OF CHARLES II.-LANGUAGE PART OF CHARACTER-ARNOLD'S LECTURES ON MODERN HISTORY_USE OF DISPROPORTIONATE WORDS-ORIGIN OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN THE NORTH-CLASSICAL AND ROMANTIC LANGUAGES-SAXON ELEMENT OF OUR LANGUAGE-ITS SUPERIORITY—THE BIBLE IDIOM -STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES-PREPOSITIONS AT THE END OF MOST VIGOROUS SENTENCES COMPOSITE SENTENCES, AND THE LATIN ELEMENT - ALLITERATION— GRANDEUR OF SENTENCES IN OLD WRITERS—MODERN SHORT SENTENCES
JUNIOS-MACAULAY-No PECULIAR POETIC DICTION-DOCTOR FRANKLIN'S RULES-SHAKSPEARE'S MATCHLESS WORDS WORDSWORTH'S SONNET-BIRON—LANDOR-COLERIDGE'S CRISTABEL-"THE SONG IN THE MIND"-HOOD—THE BRIDGE OF SIGHs.
The subject which I propose for this evening's lecture is the study of the power of the English language in prose and verse. My desire to say something on this subject has been prompted by the conviction that some attention to it will increase our enjoyment of books, and will in fact give the reader a superadded pleasure. In our reading, we are very apt to content ourselves with the reception of such thoughts and feelings as pass into our minds from the silent page, unheeding the medium through which they reach us ; indeed, often, the purer and more excellent the style, the less conscious are we of its merits, so transparently does it let the writer's thoughts and emotions pass through it. We think of what is said or written, and feel it, but not how it is said or written: while the power which an author's meaning has minds is intimately blended with the power his language exercises over us, of the latter we scarce have a conscious recognition. Does not every one know how differently the same thing said in different ways affects us? We welcome it, perhaps, in one case, and we repel it in the other. There shall be in one man's language an air of truth, of earnestness, and reality, which will gain assent to what he tells us, while the same thing told in other words will sound vain and unreal. There is wondrous agency
power and beauty in language, a winning witchery in words—grandly and beautifully so in our English speech. I desire to consider some of the elements of this, regarded as a source of intel
lectual enjoyment. In all intercourse with the best writers, whether in prose or verse, our minds have, no doubt, an unconscious perception of the goodness of the style, just as we have unconscious freedom of breath in a pure atmosphere; but if the perception of style be made reflective, it may come to have too much of consciousness in it: we may come to think too much of the instrument, and too little of the music; to be too critical of our own emotions of delight. I have, therefore, some apprehensions that in attempting any thing like an analytical exposition of the enjoyment of language, considered simply as an organ of expression, it may prove a little too much like parsing our pleasure. The happy, healthful-breathing asks for no analysis of the air; the mountain-spring is quaffed without thought of what science can tell of its components. In treating the powers of the English language in prose and verse, I should like, without vexing it with comment, or criticism, or analysis, but simply sounding it, to show what an instrument it has been in the hands of its great masters.
I wish, however, to accomplish something more. At the same time, on an occasion like this, and within the limits of our lecture, it would not be practicable to enter into technical details of either the history or the philology of our language. I propose, therefore, to give a didactic character to this lecture, rather by making it suggestive of the interest which is to be found in the study of the language, by noticing some of its characteristics, and the applications of the philosophy of language which it serves to illustrate. Avoiding technical and recondite points of philology, I aim at treating the subject according to the universality of the interest it has, so as to show how the culture of it comes home to everybody, and how it is in the power of each one of us to awaken it into more action.
The history of the language, its origin and progress, the principles of English philology, and the laws of English metre, are subjects of deep interest and demand careful study, and a different kind of attention from what I have any right to ask from you. I propose, therefore, rather to notice and exemplify some of the leading characteristics of the language, so as to awaken into more active and intelligent consciousness our enjoyment of it, so as to form this, among our other habits of reading; to have an eye and a feeling for the fitness of the words, their power, their beauty, their simplicity, and truthfulness; to find ourselves, in reading a wise and good book, often pausing, in silent thankfulness and delight, as we think and feel what glorious apparel the author's wise thought or good feeling hath arrayed itself in—with what majesty or loveliness of speech or song the mind makes music for itself in the