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SO THEY READ IN THE BOOK IN THE LAW OF GOD
DISTINCTLY, AND GAVE THE SENSE, AND CAUSED THEM
TO UNDERSTAND THE READING.
NEHEMIAH, Chap. VIII., v. 8.
ON THE STUDY OF LITERATURE.
ITERARY study, in its higher form, aims to treat
a literature as a whole, and endeavours to trace the several and successive stages of its development, to discover the various causes, political, social, edu. cational, religious, to which the productions of any period owe their peculiarities. Such an aim also embraces a comparison of the genius and productions of authors of the same period and of different periods. It is also within its scope to trace the development of ideas relative to literary art, and the different views held at different periods as to the legitimate functions of the several departments of Literature. There is no study more interesting than this, treating, as it does, of the infinite phases and attitudes which the human mind presents under different circumstances, and yet remaining in all places and in all times, essentially the
But it is a difficult and ambitious task, even when undertaken by men of the widest and ripest knowledge, the deepest imaginative insight, and the subtlest analytical power. The present century has produced perhaps not more than two men capable of writing a history of the development of English Literature; I allude to Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That they possessed the requisite qualifications no one who is intimately acquainted with their writings can deny; and from their writings it is also evident that their powers pointed in this direction as the one most favourable to their fullest and most genial exercise.
A less ambitious aim in literary study, is the study of individual productions as distinct works of art, without any special regard to their relative value and historical significance. To take a poem, for instance, and discover the secret of its æsthetic power, and the various elements of this power, is something within the reach of any one of ordinary emotional appreciation and analytical skill. Such a study requires for its successful prosecution no very extensive knowledge of general literature, and no great powers of analysis and synthesis, and is, of course, the indispensable preparation for the higher study I have mentioned. But true to a principle which seems to underlie our present systems of rapid education,-namely, to rush, at once,“ in medias res,”—the History of English Literature is often studied in our Institutions of learning, before there is any, not even the most super. ficial, acquaintance with individual productions. If
they are studied at all, they are usually studied in fragments, in the shape of “Beautiful Extracts,” or “Moral Passages,” and the advantage derived from the study of organisms is thus entirely forfeited. The one mode is as inferior to the other, as the study of bits of china would be, to contemplating the beautiful and graceful vase of which they once formed parts. In the study of the mere material, we lose sight of the - beautiful form into which the artist has moulded it. It is by the form which he has given to his manifold material, and which is the basis of all high ästhetic impression, that he is to be estimated. What has he made or moulded out of his material? is the question to be asked. How has he organized it, and with what results? With what success has he brought all details under the pervading, vitalizing influence of a dominant idea, causing them to impart to his work a richness and an intense vitality? Has he wisely rejected everything superfluous, or are there excrescences which contribute nothing to the general moral impression ? Is his rhetoric in the web of his thought, or is it only sewed on, like gold lace on a coat? Are his thoughts evolved with a skilful and graceful transition from one to the other ? or are they abrupt, insulated, capricious, with little or no law of succession? No number of brilliant passages will compensate for a deficiency in the organic unity and vitality of a work. The elements are nothing without “the atmosphere that moulds, and the dynamic forces that combine."
There is no objection, however, to storing tho memory with the beautiful passages of concentrated energy with which the higher poetry in the contriving spirit of its eloquence, abounds. The more of such passages every one has at his command, the better. No means, however superficial, for increasing our familiarity with the ideal world of Poetry, should be discouraged. Converse with Poetry should not be regarded merely as an elegant and refined pastime, but as an essential to our spiritual life, as bread is to our physical life. Without its kindly influence, life becomes sordid, selfish, and commonplace. Daily intercourse with the great Masters of Song is also the best safeguard against the temptations which beset us in the world of current literature. The most popular works the press sends forth are those which gratify an appetite for the surprising and the thrilling. “It is of the greatest importance,” says John Ruskin, “not only for Art's sake, but for all kinds of sake, in these days of book-deluge, to keep out of the salt-swamps of literature, and live on a little rocky island of your own, with a spring and a lake in it pure and good.”
Let Poetry, then, be studied and communed with in very possible way. It will do nobody any harm. But in a system of mental and ästhetic culture, the leading design should be, the study of poems and other literary art:products, as organisms, which are to be comprehended, not in their parts only, but in their totality. The more intense a man's intellectual and