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Principles of Literature.
Object, to assist and guide students-Necessity of systematic study
Judicious criticism, True aims and principles of literature-Choice of books--Its difficulties—Aim of this course of lectures to remove them-All books not literature-Accurate definition of literatureIts universality-Izaak Walton-Addison-Charles Lamb-Lord Bacon-Clarendon-Arnold-Spenser and Shakspeare-Southey and Wordsworth—Belles-lettres not literature-Literature not an easy, patrician pleasure-Its danger as to practical life-Its influence on character-De Quincey's definition-Knowledge and Power -Influence on female character—True position of woman-Tennyson's Princess—Novel-reading-Taste, an incorrect term-Henry Taylor-Cowper-Miss Wordsworth-Coleridge's philosophy.
This course of lectures is prepared in the hope of doing some service in connection with the abundant and precious literature which lies about us in our English speech. The plan has been, in some measure, prompted to my thoughts by applications not unfrequently made to me for advice and guidance in English reading. There is a stage
* * Delivered in the Chapel Hall of the University, January 3, 1850.
in mental culture when counsel seems to be intended to take the place of exact tuition, and when, looking altogether beyond the period and the province of what is usually called “education,” hints and suggestions, criticism, literary sympathies, and even literary antagonism, become the more expanded and freer discipline, which lasts through life. We cannot tell how much of good we may thus do to one another. We cannot measure the value of unstudied and almost casual influences. A random word of genuine admiration may prove a guide into some region of literature where the mind shall dwell with satisfaction and delight for years to come. But there is a demand for something more systematic than such chance culture as I have alluded to; and the mind that craves such knowledge of the literature of his own language as will make it part of his thoughts and feelings, has a claim for guidance and counsel upon those whose duty it is to fit themselves to bestow it. It is a claim that well may win a quick and kindly response, for the sense of delight is deepened the wider it is spread, or when it opens the souls of others to share in its own enjoyment.
There is perhaps no one, to whom the intercourse with books has grown to be happy and habitual, who cannot recall the time when, needing other counsel than his own mind could give, he felt some guidance that was strength to him. One can recall, in after years, how it was, that an interest was first awakened in some book-how sympathy with an author's mind was earliest stirred-how sentiments of admiration and of love had their first motion in our souls toward the souls of the great poets. We may perhaps remember, too, how the chastening influence of wise and genial criticism may have won our spirits away from some malignant fascination that fastened on the unripe intellect only to abuse it. But these kindly and healthful agencies exist not alone in the memory-gratefully retained as benefits received in the period of intellectual immaturity and inexperience. Even the student of literature whose range of reading is most comprehensive—whose habit of reading is most confirmed —whose culture is most complete—will tell you that it is still in his daily experience to find his choice of books not an arbitrary and lawless choosing, but a process open to the influences of sound and congenial criticism; he will tell how, by such influences, the activity of his thoughts is quickened—how his judgment of books is often the joint product of his own reflections, and the contact of the wisdom and experience of others. To him who wanders at will through the vast spaces of literature, with the sorry guidance of good intentions and inexperience, most needful are the helping hand and the pointing finger; to him who has travelled long in that same domain, pursuing his way with purposes better defined, and who has gained a wider prospect and farther-reaching views—even by him, guidance, if not so needful, still may be welcomed from some fellow-traveller. We marvel often at finding how, under the light of wise criticism, new powers and new beauties are made visible to our minds in books the most familiar.
I have thus alluded, at the outset, to the importance of the guidance which we may receive in our intercourse with the world of books, assuming at the same time that there is no call upon me to dwell upon the value of that intercourse itself. I take for granted that there is no one, even among those least conversant with books, who could deny the value of an intelligent habit of reading.“ I need not occupy a moment of either your time or mine: in discussing any such question as that. It is, however, proper to consider, by way of introduction, some of those aims and principles of literature which, though least :generally appreciated, give it its highest value--noticing,. in the first place, some of the difficulties which present : themselves to a mind willing, at least, if not zealous, for.. such culture.
The first inquiry that presents itself is, “ What books does it behoove me to know?” The docile question is, " What am I to read?” A world of volumes is before us. Poetry, science, history, biography, fiction, the multiform divisions of miscellaneous literature, each and all rise up in their vast proportions to assert their claims.. Secular literature, in its various departments, and sacred literature, casting its lights into the life beyond, both are at hand with the boundless exuberance of their stores. There is the great multitude of books in our own English words; there is the host as large, which, in the kindred dialects of the North, the mind of Germany has given to mankind. The literature of France and of Italy, of Spain, the South of Europe, have their respective claims and attractions. Besides the modern mind, there is all that, venerable with the age of thousands of centuries, has come down to us from Greece, and Rome, and Palestine. Then, too, in the whole extent of modern literature, there is the daily addition of the illimitable issues from the press in our day: so that when the student's thoughts turn to the accumulation of the printed thoughts of past ages, and to the neverending and superadded accumulation which is poured
forth from day to day, and from year to year; and when these vast stores are seen to have been made part of the scholarship of men and become a portion of their intellectual and moral nature, one is appalled at the first approach, and may shrink from all effort, in despondency or hopelessness. It is a bewildering thing to stand in the presence of a vast concourse of books—in the midst of them, but feeble, or uncertain, or helpless in the using of them. It is sad to know that in each one of these volumes there is a spiritual power which might stir some kindred power in our own souls, which might guide, and inform, and elevate ; and yet that it should be a power all hidden from us. It is oppressive to conceive what a world of human thought and human passion is dwelling on the silent and senseless paper, how much of wisdom is ready to make its entrance into the mind that is prepared to give it welcome. It is mournful to think that the multitudinous oracles should be dumb to us. .
Furthermore, there is this difficulty, that, in the multitude, mingled in the indiscriminate throng, are evil books; or, if not evil, negative and worthless books. Thus the companionship is not only difficult, but it may be dangerous; the difficulty of making wise and happy choice, and the perilous presence of what is vicious in the guise of books.
Such are some of the difficulties which beset us, when we would bring the influence of books into the culture of our spiritual nature. These lectures are intended to present some thoughts and suggestions with a view to the surmounting of these difficulties, and to guidance into the department of English literature. I propose now to consider the general principles of literature, and