But what I content myself with asserting here you can scarcely deny. Chaucer's initial and enormous debt to Dante and Boccaccio stands in as little dispute as Dunbar's to Chaucer. On that favourite poet of mine, Sir Thomas Wyat, I descanted in a former lecture. He is one of your glories here, having entered St. John's College at the age of twelve (which must have been precocious even for those days.) Anthony Wood asserts that after finishing his course here, he proceeded to Cardinal Wolsey's new College at Oxford; but, as Christchurch was not founded until 1524, and Wyat, still precocious, had married a wife two years before that, the statement (to quote Dr Courthope) 'seems no better founded than many others advanced by that patriotic but not very scrupulous author.' It is more to the point that he went travelling, and brought home from France, Italy, afterwards Spain—always from Latin altars—the flame of lyrical poetry to England; the flame of the Petrarchists, caught from the Troubadours, clarified (so to speak) by the salt of humane letters. On what our Elizabethan literature owes to the Classical revival hundreds of volumes have been written and hundreds more will be written; I will but remind you of what Spencer talked about with Gabriel Harvey, what Daniel disputed with Campion; that Marlowe tried to re-incarnate Machiavelli, that Jonson was a sworn Latinist and the 'tribe of Ben' a classical tribe; while, as for Shakespeare, go and reckon the proportion of Italian and Roman names in his dramatis personae. Of Donne's debt to France, Italy, Rome, Greece, you may read much in Professor Grierson's great edition, and I daresay Professor Grierson would be the first to allow that all has not yet been computed. You know how Milton prepared himself to be a poet. Have you realised that, in those somewhat strangely constructed sonnets of his, Milton was deliberately modelling upon the "Horatian Ode," as his confrere, Andrew Marvell, was avowedly attempting the like in his famous Horation Ode on Cromwell's Return from Ireland; so that if Cromwell had returned (like Mr Quilp), walked in and caught his pair of Latin Secretaries scribbling verse, one at either end of the office table, both might colourably have pleaded that they were, after all, writing Latin. Waller's task in poetry was to labour true classical polish where Cowley laboured sham-classical form. Put together Dryden's various Prefaces and you will find them one solid monument to his classical faith. Of Pope, Gray, Collins, you will not ask me to speak. What is salt in Cowper you can taste only when you have detected that by a stroke of madness he missed, or barely missed, being our true English Horace, that almost more nearly than the rest he hit what the rest had been seeking. Then, of the 'romantic revival'— enemy of false classicism, not of classicism—bethink you what, in his few great years, Wordsworth owed directly to France of the early Revolution; what Keats drew forth out of Lempriere: and again bethink you how Tennyson wrought upon Theocritus, Virgil, Catullus; upon what Arnold constantly shaped his verse; how Browning returned ever upon Italy to inspire his best and correct his worse.
Of Anglo-Saxon prose I know little indeed, but enough of the world to feel reasonably sure that if it contained any single masterpiece—or anything that could be paraded as a masterpiece—we should have heard enough about it long before now. It was invented by King Alfred for excellent political reasons; but, like other ready-made political inventions in this country, it refused to thrive. I think it can be demonstrated, that the true line of intellectual descent in prose lies through Bede (who wrote in Latin, the 'universal language'), and not through the Blickling Homilies, or, AElfric, or the Saxon Chronicle. And I am sure that Freeman is perversely wrong when he laments as a 'great mistake' that the first Christian missionaries from Rome did not teach their converts to pray and give praise in the vernacular. The vernacular being what it was, these men did better to teach the religion of the civilised world—orbis terrarum—in the language of the civilised world. I am not thinking of its efficiency for spreading the faith; but neither is Freeman; and, for that, we must allow these old missionaries to have known their own business. I am thinking only of how this 'great mistake' affected our literature; and if you will read Professor Saintsbury's "History of English Prose Rhythm" (pioneer work, which yet wonderfully succeeds in illustrating what our prose-writers from time to time were trying to do); if you will study the Psalms in the Authorised Version; if you will consider what Milton, Clarendon, Sir Thomas Browne, were aiming at; what Addison, Gibbon, Johnson; what Landor, Thackeray, Newman, Arnold, Pater; I doubt not your rising from the perusal convinced that our nation, in this storehouse of Latin to refresh and replenish its most sacred thoughts, has enjoyed a continuous blessing: that the Latin of the Vulgate and the Offices has been a background giving depth and, as the painters say, 'value' to nine-tenths of our serious writing.
And now, since this and the previous lecture run something counter to a great deal of that teaching in English Literature which nowadays passes most acceptably, let me avoid offence, so far as may be, by defining one or two things I am not trying to do.
I am not persuading you to despise your linguistic descent. English is English—our language; and all its history to be venerated by us.
I am not persuading you to despise linguistic study. All learning is venerable.
I am not persuading you to behave like Ascham, and turn English prose into pedantic Latin; nor would I have you doubt that in the set quarrel between Campion, who wished to divert English verse into strict classical channels, and Daniel, who vindicated our free English way (derived from Latin through the Provencal), Daniel was on the whole, right, Campion on the whole, wrong: though I believe that both ways yet lie open, and we may learn, if we study them intelligently, a hundred things from the old classical metres.
I do not ask you to forget what there is of the Northmen in your blood. If I desired this, I could not worship William Morris as I do, among the later poets.
I do not ask you to doubt that the barbarian invaders from the north, with their myths and legends, brought new and most necessary blood of imagination into the literary material—for the time almost exhausted—of Greece and Rome.
Nevertheless, I do contend that when Britain (or, if you prefer it, Sleswick)
When Sleswick first at Heaven's command Arose from out the azure main,
she differed from Aphrodite, that other foam-born, in sundry important features of ear, of lip, of eye.
Lastly, if vehement assertions on the one side have driven me into too vehement dissent on the other, I crave pardon; not for the dissent but for the vehemence, as sinning against the very principle I would hold up to your admiration—the old Greek principle of avoiding excess.
But I do commend the patient study of Greek and Latin authors—in the original or in translation—to all of you who would write English; and for three reasons.
(1) In the first place they will correct your insularity of mind; or, rather, will teach you to forget it. The Anglo-Saxon, it has been noted, ever left an empty space around his houses; and that, no doubt, is good for a house. It is not so good for the mind.
(2) Secondly, we have a tribal habit, confirmed by Protestant meditation upon a Hebraic religion, of confining our literary enjoyment to the written word and frowning down the drama, the song, the dance. A fairly attentive study of modern lyrical verse has persuaded me that this exclusiveness may be carried too far, and threatens to be deadening. 'I will sing and give praise,' says the Scripture, 'with the best member that I have'—meaning the tongue. But the old Greek was an 'all-round man' as we say. He sought to praise and give thanks with all his members, and to tune each to perfection. I think his way worth your considering.
(3) Lastly, and chiefly, I commend these classical authors to you because they, in the European civilisation which we all inherit, conserve the norm of literature; the steady grip on the essential; the clean outline at which in verse or in prose—in epic, drama, history, or philosophical treatise—a writer should aim.
So sure am I of this, and of its importance to those who think of writing, that were this University to limit me to three texts on which to preach English Literature to you, I should choose the Bible in our Authorised Version, Shakespeare, and Homer (though it were but in a prose translation). Two of these lie outside my marked province. Only one of them finds a place in your English school. But Homer, who comes neither within my map, nor within the ambit of the Tripos, would—because he most evidently holds the norm, the essence, the secret of all—rank first of the three for my purpose.
[Footnote 1: From "A History of Oxfordshire," by Mr J. Meade Falkner, author of Murray's excellent Handbook of Oxfordshire.]
ENGLISH LITERATURE IN OUR UNIVERSITIES (I)
Wednesday, November 19
All lectures are too long. Towards the close of my last, Gentlemen, I let fall a sentence which, heard by you in a moment of exhausted or languid interest, has since, like enough, escaped your memory even if it earned passing attention. So let me repeat it, for a fresh start.
Having quoted to you the words of our Holy Writ, 'I will sing and give praise with the best member that I have,' I added 'But the old Greek was an "all-round" man; he sought to praise and give thanks with all his members, and to tune each to perfection.' Now a great many instructive lectures might be written on that text: nevertheless you may think it a strange one, and obscure, for the discourse on 'English Literature in our Universities' which, according to promise, I must now attempt.
The term 'an all-round man' may easily mislead you unless you take it with the rest of the sentence and particularly with the words 'praise and give thanks.' Praise whom? Give thanks to whom? To whom did our Greek train all his members to render adoration?
Why, to the gods—his gods: to Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite; and from them down to the lesser guardian deities of the hearth, the field, the farmstead. We modern men suffer a double temptation to misunderstand, by belittling, the reverence in which Hellas and Rome held their gods. To start with, our religion has superseded theirs. We approach the Olympians with no bent towards venerating them; with minds easy, detached, to which a great deal of their theology—the amativeness of Zeus for example—must needs seem broadly comic, and a great deal of it not only comic but childish. We are encouraged in this, moreover, when we read such writers as Aristophanes and Lucian, and observe how they poked fun at the gods. We assume—so modern he seems—Aristophanes' attitude towards his immortals to be ours; that when, for example, Prometheus walks on to the stage under an umbrella, to hide himself from the gaze of all-seeing Zeus, the Athenian audience laughed just as we laugh who have read Voltaire. Believe me, they laughed quite differently; believe me, Aristophanes and Voltaire had remarkably different minds and worked on utterly different backgrounds. Believe me, you will understand Aristophanes only less than you will understand AEschylus himself if you confuse Aristophanes' mockery of Olympus with modern mockery. But, if you will not take my word for it, let me quote what Professor Gilbert Murray said, the other day, speaking before the English Association on Greek poetry, how constantly connected it is with religion:
'All thoughts, all passions, all desires' ... In our Art it is true, no doubt, that they are 'the ministers of love'; in Greek they are as a whole the ministers of religion, and this is what in a curious degree makes Greek poetry matter, makes it relevant. There is a sense in each song of a relation to the whole of things, and it was apt to be expressed with the whole body, or, one may say, the whole being.
To a Greek, in short, his gods mattered enormously; and to a Roman. To a Roman they continued to matter enormously, down to the end. Do you remember that tessellated pavement with its emblems and images of the younger gods? and how I told you that a Roman general on foreign service would carry the little cubes in panniers on mule-back, to be laid down for his feet at the next camping place? Will you suggest that he did this because they were pretty? You know that practical men—conquering generals—don't behave in that way. He did it because they were sacred; because, like most practical men, he was religious, and his gods must go with him. They filled his literature: for why? He believed himself to be sprung from their loins. Where would Latin literature be, for example, if you could cut Venus out of it? Consider Lucretius' grand invocation:
AEneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas, Alma Venus!
Consider the part Virgil makes her play as moving spirit of his whole great poem. So follow her down to the days of the later Empire and open the "Pervigilium Veneris" and discover her, under the name of Dione, still the eternal Aphrodite sprung from the foam amid the churning hooves of the sea-horses—inter et bipedes equos:—
Time was that a rain-cloud begat her, impregning the heave of the deep, 'Twixt hooves of sea-horses a-scatter, stampeding the dolphins as sheep. Lo! arose of that bridal Dione, rainbow'd and besprent of its dew! Now learn ye to love who loved never—now ye who have loved, love anew! Her favour it was fill'd the sails of the Trojan for Latium bound, Her favour that won her AEneas a bride on Laurentian ground, And anon from the cloister inveigled the Virgin, the Vestal, to Mars; As her wit by the wild Sabine rape recreated her Rome for its wars With the Ramnes, Quirites, together ancestrally proud as they drew From Romulus down to our Caesar—last, best of that blood, of that thew. Now learn ye to love who loved never—now ye who have loved, love anew!
'Last, best of that blood'—her blood, fusa Paphies de cruore, and the blood of Teucer, revocato a sanguine Teucri, 'of that thew'—the thew of Tros and of Mars. Of these and no less than these our Roman believed himself the son and inheritor.
If we grasp this, that the old literature was packed with the old religion, and not only packed with it but permeated by it, we have within our ten fingers the secret of the 'Dark Ages,' the real reason why the Christian Fathers fought down literature and almost prevailed to the point of stamping it out. They hated it, not as literature; or at any rate, not to begin with; nor, to begin with, because it happened to be voluptuous and they austere: but they hated it because it held in its very texture, not to be separated, a religion over which they had hardly triumphed, a religion actively inimical to that of Christ, inimical to truth; so that for the sake of truth and in the name of Christ they had to fight it, accepting no compromise, yielding no quarter, foreseeing no issue save that one of the twain—Jupiter or Christ, Deus Optimus Maximus or the carpenter's son of Nazareth—must go under.
It all ended in compromise, to be sure; as all struggles must between adversaries so tremendous. To-day, in Dr Smith's "Classical Dictionary," Origen rubs shoulders with Orpheus and Orcus; Tertullian reposes cheek by jowl with Terpsichore. But we are not concerned, here, with what happened in the end. We are concerned with what these forthright Christian fighters had in their minds—to trample out the old literature because of the false religion. Milton understood this, and was thinking of it when he wrote of the effect of Christ's Nativity—
The Oracles are dumb; No voice or hideous hum Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving. Apollo from his shrine Can no more divine, With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving. No mighty trance, or breathed spell Inspires the pale-eyed Priest from the prophetic cell.
The lonely mountains o'er, And the resounding shore, A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament; From haunted spring, and dale Edg'd with poplar pale, The parting Genius is with sighing sent; With flower-inwoven tresses torn The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
as Swinburne understands and expresses it in his "Hymn to Proserpine," supposed to be chanted by a Roman of the 'old profession' on the morrow of Constantine's proclaiming the Christian faith—
O Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day! From your wrath is the world released, redeem'd from your chains, men say. New Gods are crown'd in the city; their flowers have broken your rods; They are merciful, clothed with pity, the young compassionate Gods. But for me their new device is barren, the days are bare; Things long past over suffice, and men forgotten that were... Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take, The laurel, the palms and the paean, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake; Thou hast conquer'd, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
'Thou hast conquer'd, O pale Galilean!' However the struggle might sway in this or that other part of the field, Literature had to be beaten to her knees, and still beaten flat until the breath left her body. You will not be surprised that the heavy hand of these Christian fathers fell first upon the Theatre: for the actor in Rome was by legal definition an 'infamous' man, even as in England until the other day he was by legal definition a vagabond and liable to whipping. The policy of religious reformers has ever been to close the theatres, as our Puritans did in 1642; and a recent pronouncement by the Bishop of Kensington would seem to show that the instinct survives to this day. Queen Elizabeth—like her brother, King Edward VI—signalized the opening of a new reign by inhibiting stage-plays; and I invite you to share with me the pensive speculation, 'How much of English Literature, had she not relented, would exist to-day for a King Edward VII Professor to talk about?' Certainly the works of Shakespeare would not; and that seems to me a thought so impressive as to deserve the attention of Bishops as well as of Kings.
Apart from this instinct the Christian Fathers, it would appear, had plenty of provocation. For the actors, who had jested with the Old Religion on a ground of accepted understanding—much as a good husband (if you will permit the simile) may gently tease his wife, not loving her one whit the less, taught by affection to play without offending—had mocked at the New Religion in a very different way: savagely, as enemies, holding up to ridicule the Church's most sacred mysteries. Tertullian, in an uncompromising treatise "De Spectaculis," denounces stage-plays root and branch; tells of a demon who entered into a woman in a theatre and on being exorcised pleaded that the mistake might well be excused, since he had found her in his own demesne. Christians should avoid these shows and await the greatest spectaculum of all—the Last Judgment. 'Then,' he promises genially, 'will be the time to listen to the tragedians, whose lamentations will be more poignant, for their proper pain. Then will the comedians turn and twist in capers rendered nimbler than ever by the sting of the fire that is not quenched.' By 400 A.D. Augustine cries triumphantly that the theatres are falling—the very walls of them tumbling—throughout the Empire. 'Per omnes paene civitates cadunt theatra ... cadunt et fora vel moenia in quibus demonia colebantur'; the very walls within which these devilments were practised. But the fury is unabated and goes on stamping down the embers. In the eighth century our own Alcuin (as the school of Freeman would affectionately call him) is no less fierce. All plays are anathema to him, and he even disapproves of dancing bears—though not, it would appear, of bad puns: 'nec tibi sit ursorum saltantium cura, sed clericorum psallentium.'
The banning of all literature you will find harder to understand; nay impossible, I believe, unless you accept the explanation I gave you. Yet there it is, an historical fact. 'What hath it profited posterity—quid posteritas emolumenti tulit,' wrote Sulpicius Severus, about 400 A.D., 'to read of Hector's fighting or Socrates' philosophising?' Pope Gregory the Great—St Gregory, who sent us the Roman missionaries—made no bones about it at all. 'Quoniam non cognovi literaturam,' he quoted approvingly from the 70th Psalm, 'introibo in potentias Domini': 'Because I know nothing of literature I shall enter into the strength of the Lord.' 'The praises of Christ cannot be uttered in the same tongue as those of Jove,' writes this same Gregory to Desiderius, Archbishop of Vienne, who had been rash enough to introduce some of his young men to the ancient authors, with no worse purpose than to teach them a little grammar. Yet no one was prouder than this Pope of the historical Rome which he had inherited. Alcuin, again, forbade the reading of Virgil in the monastery over which he presided: it would sully his disciples' imagination. 'How is this, Virgilian!' he cried out upon one taken in the damnable act,—'that without my knowledge and against my order thou hast taken to studying Virgil?' To put a stop to this unhallowed indulgence the clergy solemnly taught that Virgil was a wizard.
To us, long used as we are to the innocent gaieties of the Classical Tripos, these measures to discourage the study of Virgil may appear drastic, as the mental attitude of Gregory and Alcuin towards the Latin hexameter (so closely resembling that of Byron towards the waltz) not far removed from foolishness. But there you have in its quiddity the mediaeval mind: and the point I now put to you is, that out of this soil our Universities grew.
We, who claim Oxford and Cambridge for our nursing mothers, have of all men least excuse to forget it. A man of Leyden, of Louvain, of Liepzig, of Berlin, may be pardoned that he passes it by. More than a hundred years ago Salamanca had the most of her stones torn down to make defences against Wellington's cannon. Paris, greatest of all, has kept her renown; but you shall search the slums of the Latin Quarter in vain for the sixty or seventy Colleges that, before the close of the fifteenth century, had arisen to adorn her, the intellectual Queen of Europe. In Bologna, the ancient and stately, almost alone among the continental Universities, survive a few relics of the old collegiate system—the College of Spain, harbouring some five or six students, and a little house founded for Flemings in 1650: and in Bologna the system never attained to real importance.
But in England where, great as London is, the national mind has always harked to the country for the graces of life, so that we seem by instinct to see it as only desirable in a green setting, our Universities, planted by the same instinct on lawns watered by pastoral streams, have suffered so little and received as much from the years that now we can hardly conceive of Oxford or Cambridge as ruined save by 'the unimaginable touch of Time.' Of all the secular Colleges bequeathed to Oxford, she has lost not one; while Cambridge (I believe) has parted only with Cavendish. Some have been subsumed into newer foundations; but always the process has been one of merging, of blending, of justifying the new bottle by the old wine. The vengeance of civil war—always very much of a family affair in England—has dealt tenderly with Oxford and Cambridge; the more calculating malignity of Royal Commissions not harshly on the whole. University reformers may accuse both Oxford and Cambridge of
Annihilating all that's made To a green thought in a green shade:
but with those sour men we have nothing here to do: like Isaak Walton's milkmaid we will not 'load our minds with any fears of many things that will never be.'
But, as they stand, Oxford and Cambridge—so amazingly alike while they play at differences, and both so amazingly unlike anything else in the wide world—do by a hundred daily reminders connect us with the Middle Age, or, if you prefer Arnold's phrase, whisper its lost enchantments. The cloister, the grave grace in hall, the chapel bell, the men hurrying into their surplices or to lectures 'with the wind in their gowns,' the staircase, the nest of chambers within the oak—all these softly reverberate over our life here, as from belfries, the mediaeval mind.
And that mediaeval mind actively hated (of partial acquaintance or by anticipation) almost everything we now study! Between it and us, except these memorials, nothing survives to-day but the dreadful temptation to learn, the dreadful instinct in men, as they grow older and wiser, to trust learning after all and endow it—that, and the confidence of a steady stream of youth.
The Universities, then, sprang out of mediaeval life, out of the mediaeval mind; and the mediaeval mind had for centuries been taught to abominate literature. I would not exaggerate or darken the 'Dark Ages' for you by throwing too much bitumen into the picture. I know that at the beginning there had been a school of Origen which advocated the study of Greek poetry and philosophy, as well as the school of Tertullian which condemned it. There is evidence that the 'humanities' were cultivated here and there and after a fashion behind Gregory's august back. I grant that, while in Alcuin's cloister (and Alcuin, remember, became a sort of Imperial Director of Studies in Charlemagne's court) the wretched monk who loved Virgil had to study him with an illicit candle, to copy him with numbed fingers in a corner of the bitter-cold cloister, on the other hand many beautiful manuscripts preserved to us bear witness of cloisters where literature was tolerated if not officially honoured. I would not have you so uncritical as to blame the Church or its clergy for what happened; as I would have you remember that if the Church killed literature, she—and, one may say, she alone—kept it alive.
Yet, and after all these reservations, it remains true that Literature had gone down disastrously. Even philosophy, unless you count the pale work of Boethius—real philosophy had so nearly perished that men possessed no more of Aristotle than a fragment of his Logic, and 'the Philosopher' had to creep back into Western Europe through translations from the Arabic! But this is the point I wish to make clear.—Philosophy came back in the great intellectual revival of the twelfth century; Literature did not. Literature's hour had not come. Men had to catch up on a dreadful leeway of ignorance. The form did not matter as yet: they wanted science—to know. I should say, rather, that as yet form seemed not to matter: for in fact form always matters: the personal always matters: and you cannot explain the vast crowds Abelard drew to Paris save by the fascination in the man, the fire communicated by the living voice. Moreover (as in a previous lecture I tried to prove) you cannot divorce accurate thought from accurate speech; but for accuracy, even for hair-splitting accuracy, of speech the Universities had the definitions of the Schoolmen. In literature they had yet to discover a concern. Literature was a thing of the past, inanimate. Nowhere in Europe could it be felt even to breathe. To borrow a beautiful phrase of Wordsworth's, men numbered it among 'things silently gone out of mind or things violently destroyed.'
Nobody quite knows how these Universities began. Least of all can anybody tell how Oxford and Cambridge began. In Bede, for instance—that is, in England as the eighth century opens—we see scholarship already moving towards the thing, treading with sure instinct towards the light. Though a hundred historians have quoted it, I doubt if a feeling man who loves scholarship can read the famous letter of Cuthbert describing Bede's end and not come nigh to tears.
And Bede's story contains no less wonder than beauty, when you consider how the fame of this holy and humble man of heart, who never left his cloisters at Jarrow, spread over Europe, so that, though it sound incredible, our Northumbria narrowly missed in its day to become the pole-star of Western culture. But he was a disinterested genius, and his pupil, Alcuin, a pushing dull man and a born reactionary; so that, while Alcuin scored the personal success and went off to teach in the court of Charlemagne, the great chance was lost.
No one knows when the great Universities were founded, or precisely out of what schools they grew; and you may derive amusement from the historians when they start to explain how Oxford and Cambridge in particular came to be chosen for sites. My own conjecture, that they were chosen for the extraordinary salubrity of their climates, has met (I regret to say) with derision, and may be set down to the caprice of one who ever inclines to think the weather good where he is happy. Our own learned historian, indeed—Mr J. Bass Mullinger—devotes some closely reasoned pages to proving that Cambridge was chosen as the unlikeliest spot in the world, and is driven to quote the learned Poggio's opinion that the unhealthiness of a locality recommended it as a place of education for youth; as Plato, knowing naught of Christianity, but gifted with a soul naturally Christian, 'had selected a noisome spot for his Academe, in order that the mind might be strengthened by the weakness of the body.' So difficult still it is for the modern mind to interpret the mediaeval!
Most likely these Universities grew as a tree grows from a seed blown by chance of the wind. It seems easy enough to understand why Paris, that great city, should have possessed a great University; yet I surmise the processes at Oxford and Cambridge to have been only a little less fortuitous. The schools of Remigius and of William of Champeaux (we will say) have given Paris a certain prestige, when Abelard, a pupil of William's, springs into fame and draws a horde of students from all over Europe to sit at his feet. These 'nations' of young men have to be organised, brought under some sort of discipline, if only to make the citizens' lives endurable: and lo! the thing is done. In like manner Irnerius at Bologna, Vacarius at Oxford, and at Cambridge some innominate teacher, 'of importance,' as Browning would put it, 'in his day,' possibly set the ball rolling; or again it is suggested that a body of scholars dissatisfied with Oxford (such dissatisfaction has been known even in historical times) migrated hither—a laborious journey, even nowadays—and that so
A brighter Hellas rears its mountains From waves serener far!
These young or nascent bodies had a trick of breaking away after this fashion. For reasons no longer obvious they hankered specially towards Stamford or Northampton. Until quite recently, within living memory, all candidates for a Mastership of Arts at Oxford had to promise never to lecture at Stamford. A flood here in 1520, which swept away Garret Hostel Bridge, put Cambridge in like mind and started a prophecy (to which you may find allusion in the fourth book of "The Faerie Queene") that both Universities would meet in the end, and kiss, at Stamford. Each in turn broke away for Northampton, and the worthy Fuller (a Northamptonshire man) has recorded his wonder that so eligible a spot was not finally chosen.
I have mentioned a flood: but the immediate causes of the migrations or attempted migrations were not usually respectable enough to rank with any such act of God. They started as a rule with some Town and Gown row, or some bloody affray between scholars of the North and of the South. Without diminishing your sense of the real fervour for learning which drew young men from the remotest parts of Europe to these centres, but having for my immediate object to make clear to you that, whatever these young men sought, it was not literature, I wish you first to have in your minds a vivid picture of what a University town was like, and what its students were like during the greater part of the 12th and 13th centuries; that is to say, after the first enthusiasm had died down, when Oxford or Cambridge had organised itself into a Studium Generale, or Universitas (which, of course, has nothing to do with Universality, whether of teaching or of frequenting, but simply means a Society. Universitas = all of us).
To begin with, the town was of wood, often on fire in places; with the alleviation of frequent winter floods, which in return, in the words of a modern poet, would 'leave a lot of little things behind them.' It requires but a small effort of the imagination in Cambridge to picture the streets as narrow, dark, almost meeting overhead in gables out of which the house slops would be discharged after casual warning down into a central gutter. That these narrow streets were populous with students remains certain, however much discount we allow on contemporary bills of reckoning. And the crowd was noisy. Men have always been ingenious in their ways of celebrating academical success. Pythagoras, for example, sacrificed an ox on solving the theorem numbered 47 in the first book of Euclid; and even to-day a Professor in his solitary lodge may be encouraged to believe now and then, from certain evidences in the sky, that the spirit of Pythagoras is not dead but translated.
But of the mediaeval University the lawlessness, though well attested, can scarcely be conceived. When in the streets 'nation' drew the knife upon 'nation,' 'town' upon 'gown'; when the city bell started to answer the clang of St. Mary's; horrible deeds were done. I pass over massacres, tumults such as the famous one of St Scholastica's Day at Oxford, and choose one at a decent distance (yet entirely typical) exhumed from the annals of the University of Toulouse, in the year 1332. In that year
Five brothers of the noble family de la Penne lived together in a Hospicium at Toulouse as students of the Civil and Canon Law. One of them was Provost of a Monastery, another Archdeacon of Albi, another an Archpriest, another Canon of Toledo. A bastard son of their father, named Peter, lived with them as squire to the Canon. On Easter Day, Peter, with another squire of the household named Aimery Beranger and other students, having dined at a tavern, were dancing with women, singing, shouting, and beating 'metallic vessels and iron culinary instruments' in the street before their masters' house. The Provost and the Archpriest were sympathetically watching the jovial scene from a window, until it was disturbed by the appearance of a Capitoul and his officers, who summoned some of the party to surrender the prohibited arms which they were wearing. 'Ben Senhor, non fassat' was the impudent reply. The Capitoul attempted to arrest one of the offenders; whereupon the ecclesiastical party made a combined attack upon the official. Aimery Beranger struck him in the face with a poignard, cutting off his nose and part of his chin and lips, and knocking out or breaking no less than eleven teeth. The surgeons deposed that if he recovered (he eventually did recover) he would never be able to speak intelligibly. One of the watch was killed outright by Peter de la Penne. That night the murderer slept, just as if nothing had happened, in the house of his ecclesiastical masters. The whole household, masters and servants alike, were, however, surprised by the other Capitouls and a crowd of 200 citizens, and led off to prison, and the house is alleged to have been pillaged. The Archbishop's Official demanded their surrender. In the case of the superior ecclesiastics this, after a short delay, was granted. But Aimery, who dressed like a layman in 'divided and striped clothes' and wore a long beard, they refused to treat as a clerk, though it was afterwards alleged that the tonsure was plainly discernible upon his head until it was shaved by order of the Capitouls. Aimery was put to the torture, admitted his crime, and was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out by hanging, after he had had his hand cut off on the scene of the crime, and been dragged by horses to the place of execution. The Capitouls were then excommunicated by the Official, and the ecclesiastical side of the quarrel was eventually transferred to the Roman Court. Before the Parlement of Paris the University complained of the violation of the Royal privilege exempting scholars' servants from the ordinary tribunals. The Capitouls were imprisoned, and after long litigation sentenced to pay enormous damages to the ruffian's family and erect a chapel for the good of his soul. The city was condemned for a time to the forfeiture of all its privileges. The body was cut down from the gibbet on which it had been hanging for three years, and accorded a solemn funeral. Four Capitouls bore the pall, and all fathers of families were required to walk in the procession. When they came to the Schools, the citizens solemnly begged pardon of the University, and the cortege was joined by 3000 scholars. Finally, it cost the city 15,000 livres tournois or more to regain their civic privileges.
The late Mr Cecil Rhodes once summarized all Fellows of Colleges as children in matters of finance. Be that as it may, you will find nothing more constant in history than the talent of the Universities for extracting money or money's worth out of a riot. Time (I speak as a parent) has scarcely blunted that faculty; and still—since where young men congregate, noise there must be—our Universities like Wordsworth's Happy Warrior
turn their necessity to glorious gain.
These were the excesses of young 'bloods,' and their servants: but with them mingled scholars not less ferocious in their habits because almost desperately poor. You all know, I dare say, that very poor scholars would be granted licences to beg by the Chancellor. The sleeve of this gown in which I address you represents the purse or pocket of a Master of Arts, and may hint to you by its amplitude how many crusts he was prepared to receive from the charitable.
Now, choosing to ignore (because it has been challenged as overpainted) a picture of penury endured by the scholars of St John's College in this University, let me tell you two stories, one well attested, the other fiction if you will, but both agreeable as testifying to the spirit of youth which, ever blowing upon their sacred embers, has kept Oxford and Cambridge perennially alive.
My first is of three scholars so poor that they possessed but one 'cappa' and gown between them. They took it in turns therefore, and when one went to lecture the other two kept to their lodgings. I invite you even to reflect on the joy of the lucky one, in a winter lecture room, dark, with unglazed windows, as he listened and shuffled his feet for warmth in the straw of the floor. [No one, by the way, can understand the incessant harping of our early poets upon May-time and the return of summer until he has pictured to himself the dark and cold discomfort of a Middle-English winter.] These three poor scholars fed habitually on bread, with soup and a little wine, tasting meat only on Sundays and feasts of the Church. Yet one of them, Richard of Chichester, who lived to become a saint, saepe retulit quod nunquam in vita sua tam jucundam, tam delectabilem duxerat vitam—that never had he lived so jollily, so delectably.
That is youth, youth blessed by friendship. Now for my second story, which is also of youth and friendship.—
Two poor scholars, who had with pains become Masters of Arts and saved their pence to purchase the coveted garb, on the afternoon of their admission took a country walk in it, together flaunting their new finery. But, the day being gusty, on their return across the bridge, a puff of wind caught the biretta of one and blew it into the river. The loss was irrecoverable, since neither could swim. The poor fellow looked at his friend. His friend looked at him. 'Between us two,' he said, 'it is all or naught,' and cast his own cap to float and sink with the other down stream.
You will never begin to understand literature until you understand something of life. These young men, your forerunners, understood something of life while as yet completely careless of literature. After the impulse of Abelard and others had died down, the mass of students betook themselves to the Universities, no doubt, for quite ordinary, mercenary reasons. The University led to the Church, and the Church, in England at any rate, was the door to professional life.
Nearly all the civil servants of the Crown—I am here quoting freely—the diplomatists, the secretaries or advisers of great nobles, the physicians, the architects, at one time the secular law-givers, all through the Middle Ages the then large tribe of ecclesiastical lawyers, were ecclesiastics.... Clerkship did not necessarily involve even minor orders. But as it was cheaper to a King or a Bishop or a temporal magnate to reward his physician, his legal adviser, his secretary, or his agent by a Canonry or a Rectory than by large salaries, the average student of Paris or Oxford or Cambridge looked toward the Church as the 'main chance' as we say, and small blame to him! He never at any rate looked towards Literature: nor did the Universities, wise in their generation, encourage him to do anything of the sort.
You may realise, Gentlemen, how tardily, even in later and more enlightened times, the study of Literature has crept its way into official Cambridge, if you will take down your "University Calendar" and study the list of Professorships there set forth in order of foundation. It begins in 1502 with the Lady Margaret's Chair of Divinity, founded by the mother of Henry VII. Five Regius Professorships follow: of Divinity, Civil Law, Physic, Hebrew, Greek, all of 1540. So Greek comes in upon the flush of the Renaissance; and the Calendar bravely, yet not committing itself to a date, heads with Erasmus the noble roll which concludes (as may it long conclude) with Henry Jackson. But Greek comes in last of the five. Close on a hundred years elapse before the foundation of the next chair—it is of Arabic; and more than a hundred before we arrive at Mathematics. So Sir William Hamilton was not without historical excuse when he declared the study of Mathematics to be no part of the business of this University! Then follow Moral Philosophy (1683), Music (1684), Chemistry (1702), Astronomy (1704), Anatomy (1707), Modern History and more Arabic, with Botany (1724), Geology (1727), closely followed by Mr Hulse's Christian Advocate, more Astronomy (1749), more Divinity (1777), Experimental Philosophy (1783): then in the nineteenth century more Law, more Medicine, Mineralogy, Archaeology, Political Economy, Pure Mathematics, Comparative Anatomy, Sanskrit and yet again more Law, before we arrive in 1869 at a Chair of Latin. Faint yet pursuing, we have yet to pass chairs of Fine Art (belated), Experimental Physics, Applied Mechanics, Anglo-Saxon, Animal Morphology, Surgery, Physiology, Pathology, Ecclesiastical History, Chinese, more Divinity, Mental Philosophy, Ancient History, Agriculture, Biology, Agricultural Botany, more Biology, Astrophysics, and German, before arriving in 1910 at a Chair of English Literature which by this time I have not breath to defend.
The enumeration has, I hope, been instructive. If it has also plunged you in gloom, to that atmosphere (as the clock warns me) for a fortnight I must leave you: with a promise, however, in another lecture to cheer you, if it may be, with some broken gleams of hope.
[Footnote 1: "What English Poetry may still learn from Greek": a paper read before the English Association on Nov. 17, 1911.]
[Footnote 2: See Mr E. K. Chambers' "Mediaeval Stage", Dr Courthope's "History of English Poetry," and Professor W. P. Ker's "The Dark Ages".]
[Footnote 3: Rashdall, "The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages", vol. ii, p. 684, from documents printed in Fournier's collection.]
ENGLISH LITERATURE IN OUR UNIVERSITIES nglish Literature in Our Universities (II)
Wednesday, December 3
We broke off, Gentlemen, upon the somewhat painful conclusion that our Universities were not founded for the study of literature, and tardily admitted it. The dates of our three literary chairs in Cambridge—I speak of our Western literature only, and omit Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese—clenched that conclusion for us. Greek in 1540, Latin not until 1869, English but three years ago—from the lesson of these intervals there is no getting away.
Now I do not propose to dwell on the Renaissance and how Greek came in: for a number of writers in our time have been busy with the Renaissance, and have—I was going to say 'over-written the subject,' but no—it is better to say that they have focussed the period so as to distort the general perspective at the cost of other periods which have earned less attention; the twelfth century, for example. At any rate their efforts, with the amount they claim of your reading, absolve me from doing more than remind you that the Renaissance brought in the study of Greek, and Greek necessarily brought in the study of literature: since no man can read what the Greeks wrote and not have his eyes unsealed to what I have called a norm of human expression; a guide to conduct, a standard to correct our efforts, whether in poetry, or in philosophy, or in art. For the rest, I need only quote to you Gibbon's magnificent saying, that the Greek language gave a soul to the objects of sense and a body to the abstractions of metaphysics. [May I add, in parenthesis, that, while no believer in compulsory Greek, holding, indeed, that you can hardly reconcile learning with compulsion, and still more hardly force them to be compatibles, I subscribe with all my heart to Bagehot's shrewd saying, 'while a knowledge of Greek and Latin is not necessary to a writer of English, he should at least have a firm conviction that those two languages existed.']
But, assuming you to know something of the Renaissance, and how it brought Greek into Oxford and Cambridge, I find that in the course of the argument two things fall to be said, and both to be said with some emphasis.
In the first place, without officially acknowledging their native tongue or its literature, our two Universities had no sooner acquired Greek than their members became immensely interested in English. Take, for one witness out of many, Gabriel Harvey, Fellow of Pembroke Hall. His letters to Edmund Spenser have been preserved, as you know. Now Gabriel Harvey was a man whom few will praise, and very few could have loved. Few will quarrel with Dr Courthope's description of him as 'a person of considerable intellectual force, but intolerably arrogant and conceited, and with a taste vitiated by all the affectations of Italian humanism,' or deny that 'his tone in his published correspondence with Spenser is that of an intellectual bully.' None will refuse him the title of fool for attempting to mislead Spenser into writing hexameters. But all you can urge against Gabriel Harvey, on this count or that or the other, but accumulates proof that this donnish man was all the while giving thought—giving even ferocious thought—to the business of making an English Literature.
Let me adduce more pleasing evidence. At or about Christmas, in the year 1597, there was enacted here in Cambridge, in the hall of St John's College, a play called "The Pilgrimage to Parnassus," a skittish work, having for subject the 'discontent of scholars'; the misery attending those who, unsupported by a private purse, would follow after Apollo and the Nine. No one knows the author's name: but he had a wit which has kept something of its salt to this day, and in Christmas, 1597, it took Cambridge by storm. The public demanded a sequel, and "The Return from Parnassus" made its appearance on the following Christmas (again in St John's College hall); to be followed by a "Second Part of the Return from Parnassus," the author's overflow of wit, three years later. Of the popularity of the first and second plays—"The Pilgrimage" and "The Return, Part I"—we have good evidence in the prologue to "The Return, Part II," where the author makes Momus say, before an audience which knew the truth:
"The Pilgrimage to Parnassus" and "The Returne from Parnassus" have stood the honest Stagekeepers in many a crowne's expense for linckes and vizards: purchased many a Sophister a knocke with a clubbe: hindred the butler's box, and emptied the Colledge barrells; and now, unlesse you have heard the former, you may returne home as wise as you came: for this last is the last part of The Returne from Parnassus; that is, the last time that the Author's wit will turne upon the toe in this vaine.
In other words, these plays had set everybody in Cambridge agog, had been acted by link-light, had led to brawls—either between literary factions or through offensive personal allusions to which we have lost all clue—had swept into the box-office much money usually spent on Christmas gambling, and had set up an inappeasable thirst for College ale. The point for us is that (in 1597-1601) they abound in topical allusions to the London theatres: that Shakespeare is obviously just as much a concern to these young men of Cambridge as Mr Shaw (say) is to our young men to-day, and an allusion to him is dropped in confidence that it will be aptly taken. For instance, one of the characters, Gullio, will have some love-verses recited to him 'in two or three diverse veins, in Chaucer's, Gower's and Spenser's and Mr Shakespeare's.' Having listened to Chaucer, he cries, 'Tush! Chaucer is a foole'; but coming to some lines of Mr Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis," he cries, 'Ey, marry, Sir! these have some life in them! Let this duncified world esteeme of Spenser and Chaucer, I'le worship sweet Mr Shakespeare, and to honoure him I will lay his "Venus and Adonis" under my pillowe.' For another allusion—'Few of the University pen plaies well,' says the actor Kempe in Part II of the "Returne"; 'they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis, and talke too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why here's our fellow Shakespeare puts them all downe, ay and Ben Jonson, too.' Here you have Cambridge assembling at Christmas-tide to laugh at well-understood hits upon the theatrical taste of London. Here you have, to make Cambridge laugh, three farcical quasi-Aristophanic plays all hinging on the tribulations of scholars who depart to pursue literature for a livelihood. For a piece of definite corroborative evidence you have a statute of Queens' College (quoted by Mr Bass Mullinger) which directs that 'any student refusing to take part in the acting of a comedy or tragedy in the College and absenting himself from the performance, contrary to the injunctions of the President, shall be expelled from the Society'—which seems drastic. And on top of all this, you have evidence enough and to spare of the part played in Elizabethan drama by the 'University Wits.' Why, Marlowe (of Corpus Christi) may be held to have invented its form—blank verse; Ben Jonson (of St John's) to have carried it on past its meridian and through its decline, into the masque. Both Universities claim Lyly and Chapman. Marston, Peel, Massinger, hailed from Oxford. But Greene and Nashe were of Cambridge—of St John's both, and Day of Caius. They sought to London, and there (for tragic truth underlay that Christmas comedy of "The Pilgrimage of Parnassus") many of them came to bitter ends: but before reaching their sordid personal ruin—and let the deaths of Marlowe and Greene be remembered—they built the Elizabethan drama, as some of them lived to add its last ornaments. We know what, meanwhile, Spenser had done. I think it scarcely needs further proof that Cambridge, towards the end of the sixteenth century, was fermenting with a desire to read, criticise, yes and write, English literature, albeit officially the University recognised no such thing.
There remains a second question—How happened it that Cambridge, after admitting Greek, took more than three hundred years to establish a Chair of Latin, and that a Chair of English is, so to speak, a mushroom (call it not toadstool!) of yesterday? Why simply enough. Latin continued to be the working language of Science. In Latin Bacon naturally composed his "Novum Organum" and indeed almost all his scientific and philosophical work, although a central figure of his age among English prose-writers. In Latin, in the eighteenth century, Newton wrote his "Principia": and I suppose that of no two books written by Englishmen before the close of that century, or indeed before Darwin's "Origin of Species," can it be less extravagantly said than of the "Novum Organum" and the "Principia" that they shook the world. Now, without forgetting our Classical Tripos (founded in 1822), as without forgetting the great names of Bentley and Porson, we may observe it as generally true, that whenever and wherever large numbers of scientific men use a particular language as their working instrument, they have a disposition to look askance on its refinements; to be jealous of its literary professors; to accuse these of treating as an end in itself what is properly a means. Like the Denver editor I quoted to you in a previous lecture, these scientific workers want to 'get there' in a hurry, forgetting that (to use another Americanism) the sharper the chisel the more ice it is likely to cut. You may observe this disposition—this suspicion of 'literature,' this thinly veiled contempt—in many a scientific man to-day; though because his language has changed from Latin to English, it is English he now chooses to cheapen. Well, we cannot help it, perhaps. Perhaps he cannot help it. It is human nature. We must go on persuading him, not losing our tempers.
None the less we should not shut our eyes to the fact that while a language is the working instrument of scientific men there will always be a number of them to decry any study of it for its beauty, and even any study of it for the sake of accuracy—its beauty and its accuracy being indeed scarcely distinguishable.
I fear, Gentlemen, you may go on from this to the dreadful conclusion that the date 1869, when Cambridge at length came to possess a Chair of Latin, marks definitely the hour at which Latin closed its eyes and became a dead language; that you may proceed to a yet more dreadful application of this to the Chair of English founded in 1910: and that henceforward (to misquote what Mr Max Beerbohm once wickedly said of Walter Pater) you will be apt to regard Professor Housman and me as two widowers engaged, while the undertaker waits, in composing the features of our beloveds.
But (to speak seriously) that is what I stand here to controvert: and I derive no small encouragement when—as has more than once happened—A, a scientific man, comes to me and complains that he for his part cannot understand B, another scientific man, 'because the fellow can't express himself.' And the need to study precision in writing has grown far more instant since men of science have abandoned the 'universal language' and taken to writing in their own tongues. Let us, while not on the whole regretting the change, at least recognise some dangers, some possible disadvantages. I will confine myself to English, considered as a substitute for Latin. In Latin you have a language which may be thin in its vocabulary and inelastic for modern use; but a language which at all events compels a man to clear his thought and communicate it to other men precisely.
Thoughts hardly to be packed Into the narrow act
—may be all impossible of compression into the Latin speech. In English, on the other hand, you have a language which by its very copiousness and elasticity tempts you to believe that you can do without packing, without compression, arrangement, order; that, with the Denver editor, all you need is to 'get there'—though it be with all your intellectual belongings in a jumble, overflowing the portmanteau. Rather I preach to you that having proudly inherited English with its copia fandi, you should keep your estate in order by constantly applying to it that jus et norma loquendi of which, if you seek to the great models, you will likewise find yourselves inheritors.
'But,' it is sometimes urged, 'why not leave this new study of English to the younger Universities now being set up all over the country?' 'Ours is an age of specialising. Let these newcomers have something—what better than English?—to specialise upon.'
I might respond by asking if the fame of Cambridge would stand where it stands to-day had she followed a like counsel concerning other studies and, resting upon Mathematics, given over this or that branch of Natural Science to be grasped by new hands. What of Electricity, for example? Or what of Physiology? Yes, and among the unnatural sciences, what of Political Economy? But I will use a more philosophical argument.
Some years ago I happened on a collection of Bulgarian proverbs of which my memory retains but two, yet each an abiding joy. In a lecture on English Literature in our Universities you will certainly not miss to apply the first, which runs, 'Many an ass has entered Jerusalem.'
The application of the second may elude you for a moment. It voices the impatience of an honest Bulgar who has been worried overmuch to subscribe to what, in this England of ours, we call Church Purposes; and it runs, 'All these two-penny saints will be the ruin of the Church.'
Now far be it from me to apply the term 'two-penny saint' to any existing University. To avoid the accusation I hereby solemnly declare my deep conviction that every single University at this moment in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland has reasons—strong in all, in some overwhelmingly strong—for its existence. That is plainly said, I hope? Yet I do maintain that if we go on multiplying Universities we shall not increase the joy; that the reign of two-penny saints lies not far off and will soon lie within measurable distance; and that it will be a pestilent reign. As we saw in out last lecture the word 'University'—Universitas—had, in its origin, nothing to do with Universality: it meant no more than a Society, organised (as it happened) to promote learning. But words, like institutions, often rise above their beginnings, and in time acquire a proud secondary connotation. For an instance let me give you the beautiful Wykehamist motto Manners Makyeth Man, wherein 'manners' originally meant no more than 'morals.' So there has grown around our two great Universities of Oxford and Cambridge a connotation (secondary, if you will, but valuable above price) of universality; of standing like great beacons of light, to attract the young wings of all who would seek learning for their sustenance. Thousands have singed, thousands have burned themselves, no doubt: but what thousands of thousands have caught the sacred fire into their souls as they passed through and passed out, to carry it, to drop it, still as from wings, upon waste places of the world! Think of country vicarages, of Australian or Himalayan outposts, where men have nourished out lives of duty upon the fire of three transient, priceless years. Think of the generations of children to whom their fathers' lives, prosaic enough, could always be re-illumined if someone let fall the word 'Oxford' or 'Cambridge,' so that they themselves came to surmise an aura about the name as of a land very far off; and then say if the ineffable spell of those two words do not lie somewhere in the conflux of generous youth with its rivalries and clash of minds, ere it disperses, generation after generation, to the duller business of life. Would you have your mother University, Gentlemen, undecorated by some true study of your mother-English?
I think not, having been there, and known such thoughts as you will carry away, and having been against expectation called back to report them.
And sometimes I remember days of old When fellowship seem'd not so far to seek, And all the world and I seem'd far less cold, And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold, And hope was strong, and life itself not weak.
My purpose here (and I cannot too often recur to it) is to wean your minds from hankering after false Germanic standards and persuade you, or at least point out to you, in what direction that true study lies if you are men enough to take up your inheritance and believe in it as a glory to be improved.
Neither Oxford nor Cambridge nor any University on earth can study English Literature truthfully or worthily, or even at all profitably, unless by studying it in the category for which Heaven, or Nature (call the ultimate cause what you will), intended it; or, to put the assertion more concretely, in any other category than that for which the particular author—be his name Chaucer or Chesterton, Shakespeare or Shaw—designed it; as neither can Oxford nor Cambridge nor any University study English Literature, to understand it, unless by bracing itself to consider a living art. Origins, roots, all the gropings towards light—let these be granted as accessories; let those who search in them be granted all honour, all respect. It is only when they preach or teach these preliminaries, these accessories, to be more important than Literature itself—it is only when they, owing all their excuse in life to the established daylight, din upon us that the precedent darkness claims precedence in honour, that one is driven to utter upon them this dialogue, in monosyllables:
And God said, 'Let there be light': and there was light. 'Oh, thank you, Sir,' said the Bat and the Owl; 'then we are off!'
I grant you, Gentlemen, that there must always inhere a difficulty in correlating for the purposes of a Tripos a study of Literature itself with a study of these accessories; the thing itself being naturally so much more difficult: being so difficult indeed that (to take literary criticism alone and leave for a moment the actual practice of writing out of the question) though some of the first intellects in the world—Aristotle, Longinus, Quintilian, Boileau, Dryden, Lessing, Goethe, Coleridge, Sainte-Beuve—have broken into parcels of that territory, the mass of it remains unexplored, and nobody as yet has found courage to reduce the reports of these great explorers to any system; so that a very eminent person indeed found it easy to write to me the other day, 'The principles of Criticism? What are they? Who made them?' To this I could only answer that I did not know Who made them; but that Aristotle, Dryden, Lessing, had, as it was credibly reported, discovered five or, it might be, six. And this difficulty of appraising literature absolutely inheres in your study of it from the beginning. No one can have set a General Paper on Literature and examined on it, setting it and marking the written answers, alongside of papers about language, inflexions and the rest, without having borne in upon him that here the student finds his difficulty. While in a paper set about inflexions, etc., a pupil with a moderately retentive memory will easily obtain sixty or seventy per cent. of the total marks, in a paper on the book or play considered critically an examiner, even after setting his paper with a view to some certain inferiority of average, has to be lenient before he can award fifty, forty, or even thirty per cent. of the total.
You will find a somewhat illuminating passage—illuminating, that is, if you choose to interpret and apply it to our subject—in Lucian's "True History," where the veracious traveller, who tells the tale, affirms that he visited Hades among other places, and had some conversation with Homer, among its many inhabitants—
Before many days had passed, I accosted the poet Homer, when we were both disengaged, and asked him, among other things, where he came from; it was still a burning question with us, I explained. He said he was aware that some derived him from Chios, others from Smyrna, and others again from Colophon; but in fact he was a Babylonian, generally known not as Homer but as Tigranes; but when later in life he was given as a homer or hostage to the Greeks, that name clung to him. Another of my questions was about the so-called spurious books; had he written them or not? He said that they were all genuine: so I now knew what to think of the critics Zenodotus and Aristarchus and all their lucubrations. Having got a categorical answer on that point, I tried him next on his reason for starting the "Iliad" with the wrath of Achilles. He said he had no exquisite reason; it just came into his head that way.
Even so diverse are the questions that may be asked concerning any great work of art. But to discover its full intent is always the most difficult task of all. That task, however, and nothing less difficult, will always be the one worthiest of a great University.
On that, and on that alone, Gentlemen, do I base all claims for our School of English Literature. And yet in conclusion I will ask you, reminding yourselves how fortunate is your lot in Cambridge, to think of fellow-Englishmen far less fortunate.
Years ago I took some pains to examine the examination papers set by a renowned Examining Body and I found this—'I humbly solicit' (to use a phrase of Lucian's) 'my hearers' incredulity'—that in a paper set upon three Acts of "Hamlet"—three Acts of "Hamlet"!—the first question started with 'G.tt. p..cha' 'Al..g.tor' and invited the candidate to fill in the missing letters correctly. Now I was morally certain that the words 'gutta-percha' and 'alligator' did not occur in the first three Acts of "Hamlet"; but having carefully re-read them I invited this examining body to explain itself. The answer I got was that, to understand Shakespeare, a student must first understand the English Language! Some of you on leaving Cambridge will go out—a company of Christian folk dispersed throughout the world—to tell English children of English Literature. Such are the pedagogic fetters you will have to knock off their young minds before they can stand and walk.
Gentlemen, on a day early in this term I sought the mound which is the old Castle of Cambridge. Access to it, as perhaps you know, lies through the precincts of the County Prison. An iron railing encloses the mound, having a small gate, for the key of which a notice-board advised me to ring the prison bell. I rang. A very courteous gaoler answered the bell and opened the gate, which stands just against his wicket. I thanked him, but could not forbear asking 'Why do they keep this gate closed?' 'I don't know, sir,' he answered, 'but I suppose if they didn't the children might get in and play.'
So with his answer I went up the hill and from the top saw Cambridge spread at my feet; Magdalene below me, and the bridge which—poor product as it is of the municipal taste—has given its name to so many bridges all over the world; the river on its long ambit to Chesterton; the tower of St John's, and beyond it the unpretentious but more beautiful tower of Jesus College. To my right the magnificent chine of King's College Chapel made its own horizon above the yellowing elms. I looked down on the streets—the narrow streets—the very streets which, a fortnight ago, I tried to people for you with that mediaeval throng which has passed as we shall pass. Still in my ear the gaoler's answer repeated itself—'I suppose, if they didn't keep it locked, the children might get in and play': and a broken echo seemed to take it up, in words that for a while had no more coherence than the scattered jangle of bells in the town below. But as I turned to leave, they chimed into an articulate sentence and the voice was the voice of Francis Bacon—Regnum Scientiae ut regnum Coeli non nisi sub persona infantis intratur.—Into the Kingdom of Knowledge, as into the Kingdom of Heaven, whoso would enter must become as a little child.
[Footnote 1: "Cambridge History of English Literature", vol. iii, p. 213.]
Wednesday, January 28, 1914
Should Providence, Gentlemen, destine any one of you to write books for his living, he will find experimentally true what I here promise him, that few pleasures sooner cloy than reading what the reviewers say. This promise I hand on with the better confidence since it was endorsed for me once in conversation by that eminently good man the late Henry Sidgwick; who added, however, 'Perhaps I ought to make a single exception. There was a critic who called one of my books "epoch-making." Being anonymous, he would have been hard to find and thank, perhaps; but I ought to have made the effort.'
May I follow up this experience of his with one of my own, as a preface or brief apology for this lecture? Short-lived as is the author's joy in his critics, far-spent as may be his hope of fame, mournful his consent with Sir Thomas Browne that 'there is nothing immortal but immortality,' he cannot hide from certain sanguine men of business, who in England call themselves 'Press-Cutting Agencies,' in America 'Press-Clipping Bureaux,' and, as each successive child of his invention comes to birth, unbecomingly presume in him an almost virginal trepidation. 'Your book,' they write falsely, 'is exciting much comment. May we collect and send you notices of it appearing in the World's Press? We submit a specimen cutting with our terms; and are, dear Sir,' etc.
Now, although steadily unresponsive to this wile, I am sometimes guilty of taking the enclosed specimen review and thrusting it for preservation among the scarcely less deciduous leaves of the book it was written to appraise. So it happened that having this vacation, to dust—not to read—a line of obsolete or obsolescent works on a shelf, I happened on a review signed by no smaller a man than Mr Gilbert Chesterton and informing the world that the author of my obsolete book was full of good stories as a kindly uncle, but had a careless or impatient way of stopping short and leaving his readers to guess what they most wanted to know: that, reaching the last chapter, or what he chose to make the last chapter, instead of winding up and telling 'how everybody lived ever after,' he (so to speak) slid you off his avuncular knee with a blessing and the remark that nine o'clock was striking and all good children should be in their beds.
That criticism has haunted me during the vacation. Looking back on a course of lectures which I deemed to be accomplished; correcting them in print; revising them with all the nervousness of a beginner; I have seemed to hear you complain—'He has exhorted us to write accurately, appropriately; to eschew Jargon; to be bold and essay Verse. He has insisted that Literature is a living art, to be practised. But just what we most needed he has not told. At the final doorway to the secret he turned his back and left us. Accuracy, propriety, perspicuity—these we may achieve. But where has he helped us to write with beauty, with charm, with distinction? Where has he given us rules for what is called Style in short?—having attained which an author may count himself set up in business.'
Thus, Gentlemen, with my mind's ear I heard you reproaching me. I beg you to accept what follows for my apology.
To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: 'Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it —whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.'
But let me plead further that you have not been left altogether without clue to the secret of what Style is. That you must master the secret for yourselves lay implicit in our bargain, and you were never promised that a writer's training would be easy. Yet a clue was certainly put in your hands when, having insisted that Literature is a living art, I added that therefore it must be personal and of its essence personal.
This goes very deep: it conditions all our criticism of art. Yet it conceals no mystery. You may see its meaning most easily and clearly, perhaps, by contrasting Science and Art at their two extremes—say Pure Mathematics with Acting. Science as a rule deals with things, Art with man's thought and emotion about things. In Pure Mathematics things are rarefied into ideas, numbers, concepts, but still farther and farther away from the individual man. Two and two make four, and fourpence is not ninepence (or at any rate four is not nine) whether Alcibiades or Cleon keep the tally. In Acting on the other hand almost everything depends on personal interpretation—on the gesture, the walk, the gaze, the tone of a Siddons, the ruse smile of a Coquelin, the exquisite, vibrant intonation of a Bernhardt. 'English Art?' exclaimed Whistler, 'there is no such thing! Art is art and mathematics is mathematics.' Whistler erred. Precisely because Art is Art, and Mathematics is Mathematics and a Science, Art being Art can be English or French; and, more than this, must be the personal expression of an Englishman or a Frenchman, as a 'Constable' differs from a 'Corot' and a 'Whistler' from both. Surely I need not labour this. But what is true of the extremes of Art and Science is true also, though sometimes less recognisably true, of the mean: and where they meet and seem to conflict (as in History) the impact is that of the personal or individual mind upon universal truth, and the question becomes whether what happened in the Sicilian Expedition, or at the trial of Charles I, can be set forth naked as an alegebraical sum, serene in its certainty, indifferent to opinion, uncoloured in the telling as in the hearing by sympathy or dislike, by passion or by character. I doubt, while we should strive in history as in all things to be fair, if history can be written in that colourless way, to interest men in human doings. I am sure that nothing which lies further towards imaginative, creative, Art can be written in that way.
It follows then that Literature, being by its nature personal, must be by its nature almost infinitely various. 'Two persons cannot be the authors of the sounds which strike our ear; and as they cannot be speaking one and the same speech, neither can they be writing one and the same lecture or discourse.' Quot homines tot sententiae. You may translate that, if you will, 'Every man of us constructs his sentence differently'; and if there be indeed any quarrel between Literature and Science (as I never can see why there should be), I for one will readily grant Science all her cold superiority, her ease in Sion with universal facts, so it be mine to serve among the multifarious race who have to adjust, as best they may, Science's cold conclusions (and much else) to the brotherly give-and-take of human life.
Quicquid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira, voluptas... Is it possible, Gentlemen, that you can have read one, two, three or more of the acknowledged masterpieces of literature without having it borne in on you that they are great because they are alive, and traffic not with cold celestial certainties, but with men's hopes, aspirations, doubts, loves, hates, breakings of the heart; the glory and vanity of human endeavour, the transience of beauty, the capricious uncertain lease on which you and I hold life, the dark coast to which we inevitably steer; all that amuses or vexes, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women on this brief and mutable traject which yet must be home for a while, the anchorage of our hearts? For an instance:—
Here lies a most beautiful lady, Light of step and heart was she: I think she was the most beautiful lady That ever was in the West Country. But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, However rare, rare it be; And when I crumble who shall remember That lady of the West Country?
(Walter de la Mare.)
Or take a critic—a literary critic—such as Samuel Johnson, of whom we are used to think as of a man artificial in phrase and pedantic in judgment. He lives, and why? Because, if you test his criticism, he never saw literature but as a part of life, nor would allow in literature what was false to life, as he saw it. He could be wrong-headed, perverse; could damn Milton because he hated Milton's politics; on any question of passion or prejudice could make injustice his daily food. But he could not, even in a friend's epitaph, let pass a phrase (however well turned) which struck him as empty of life or false to it. All Boswell testifies to this: and this is why Samuel Johnson survives.
Now let me carry this contention—that all Literature is personal and therefore various—into a field much exploited by the pedant, and fenced about with many notice-boards and public warnings. 'Neologisms not allowed here,' 'All persons using slang, or trespassing in pursuit of originality....'
Well, I answer these notice-boards by saying that, literature being personal, and men various—and even the "Oxford English Dictionary" being no Canonical book—man's use or defiance of the dictionary depends for its justification on nothing but his success: adding that, since it takes all kinds to make a world, or a literature, his success will probably depend on the occasion. A few months ago I found myself seated at a bump-supper next to a cheerful youth who, towards the close, suggested thoughtfully, as I arose to make a speech, that, the bonfire (which of course he called the 'bonner') being due at nine-thirty o'clock, there was little more than bare time left for 'langers and godders.' It cost me, who think slowly, some seconds to interpret that by 'langers' he meant 'Auld Lang Syne' and by 'godders' 'God Save the King.' I thought at the time, and still think, and will maintain against any schoolmaster, that the neologisms of my young neighbour, though not to be recommended for essays or sermons, did admirably suit the time, place, and occasion.
Seeing that in human discourse, infinitely varied as it is, so much must ever depend on who speaks, and to whom, in what mood and upon what occasion; and seeing that Literature must needs take account of all manner of writers, audiences, moods, occasions; I hold it a sin against the light to put up a warning against any word that comes to us in the fair way of use and wont (as 'wire,' for instance, for a telegram), even as surely as we should warn off hybrids or deliberately pedantic impostors, such as 'antibody' and 'picture-drome'; and that, generally, it is better to err on the side of liberty than on the side of the censor: since by the manumitting of new words we infuse new blood into a tongue of which (or we have learnt nothing from Shakespeare's audacity) our first pride should be that it is flexible, alive, capable of responding to new demands of man's untiring quest after knowledge and experience. Not because it was an ugly thing did I denounce Jargon to you, the other day: but because it was a dead thing, leading no-whither, meaning naught. There is wickedness in human speech, sometimes. You will detect it all the better for having ruled out what is naughty.
Let us err, then, if we err, on the side of liberty. I came, the other day, upon this passage in Mr Frank Harris's study of 'The Man Shakespeare':—
In the last hundred years the language of Moliere has grown fourfold; the slang of the studios and the gutter and the laboratory, of the engineering school and the dissecting table, has been ransacked for special terms to enrich and strengthen the language in order that it may deal easily with the new thoughts. French is now a superb instrument, while English is positively poorer than it was in the time of Shakespeare, thanks to the prudery of our illiterate middle class.
Well, let us not lose our heads over this, any more than over other prophecies of our national decadence. The "Oxford English Dictionary" has not yet unfolded the last of its coils, which yet are ample enough to enfold us in seven words for every three an active man can grapple with. Yet the warning has point, and a particular point, for those who aspire to write poetry: as Francis Thompson has noted in his Essay on Shelley:—
Theoretically, of course, one ought always to try for the best word. But practically, the habit of excessive care in word-selection frequently results in loss of spontaneity; and, still worse, the habit of always taking the best word too easily becomes the habit of always taking the most ornate word, the word most removed from ordinary speech. In consequence of this, poetic diction has become latterly a kaleidoscope, and one's chief curiosity is as to the precise combinations into which the pieces will be shifted. There is, in fact, a certain band of words, the Praetorian cohorts of Poetry, whose prescriptive aid is invoked by every aspirant to the poetic purple.... Against these it is time some banner should be raised.... It is at any rate curious to note that the literary revolution against the despotic diction of Pope seems issuing, like political revolutions, in a despotism of his own making;
and he adds a note that this is the more surprising to him because so many Victorian poets were prose-writers as well.
Now, according to our theory, the practice of prose should maintain fresh and comprehensive a poet's diction, should save him from falling into the hands of an exclusive coterie of poetic words. It should react upon his metrical vocabulary to its beneficial expansion, by taking him outside his aristocratic circle of language, and keeping him in touch with the great commonalty, the proletariat of speech. For it is with words as with men: constant intermarriage within the limits of a patrician clan begets effete refinement; and to reinvigorate the stock, its veins must be replenished from hardy plebeian blood.
In diction, then, let us acquire all the store we can, rejecting no coin for its minting but only if its metal be base. So shall we bring out of our treasuries new things and old.
Diction, however, is but a part of Style, and perhaps not the most important part. So I revert to the larger question, 'What is Style? What its [Greek: to ti en einai], its essence, the law of its being?'
Now, as I sat down to write this lecture, memory evoked a scene and with the scene a chance word of boyish slang, both of which may seem to you irrelevant until, or unless, I can make you feel how they hold for me the heart of the matter.
I once happened to be standing in a corner of a ball-room when there entered the most beautiful girl these eyes have ever seen or now—since they grow dull—ever will see. It was, I believe, her first ball, and by some freak or in some premonition she wore black: and not pearls—which, I am told, maidens are wont to wear on these occasions—but one crescent of diamonds in her black hair. Et vera incessu patuit dea. Here, I say, was absolute beauty. It startled.
I think she was the most beautiful lady That ever was in the West Country. But beauty vanishes, beauty passes....
She died a year or two later. She may have been too beautiful to live long. I have a thought that she may also have been too good.
For I saw her with the crowd about her: I saw led up and presented among others the man who was to be, for a few months, her husband: and then, as the men bowed, pencilling on their programmes, over their shoulders I saw her eyes travel to an awkward young naval cadet (Do you remember Crossjay in Meredith's "The Egoist"? It was just such a boy) who sat abashed and glowering sulkily beside me on the far bench. Promptly with a laugh, she advanced, claimed him, and swept him off into the first waltz.
When it was over he came back, a trifle flushed, and I felicitated him; my remark (which I forget) being no doubt 'just the sort of banality, you know, one does come out with'—as maybe that the British Navy kept its old knack of cutting out. But he looked at me almost in tears and blurted, 'It isn't her beauty, sir. You saw? It's—it's—my God, it's the style!'
Now you may think that a somewhat cheap, or at any rate inadequate, cry of the heart in my young seaman; as you may think it inadequate in me, and moreover a trifle capricious, to assure you (as I do) that the first and last secret of a good Style consists in thinking with the heart as well as with the head.
But let us philosophise a little. You have been told, I daresay often enough, that the business of writing demands two—the author and the reader. Add to this what is equally obvious, that the obligation of courtesy rests first with the author, who invites the seance, and commonly charges for it. What follows, but that in speaking or writing we have an obligation to put ourselves into the hearer's or reader's place? It is his comfort, his convenience, we have to consult. To express ourselves is a very small part of the business: very small and almost unimportant as compared with impressing ourselves: the aim of the whole process being to persuade.
All reading demands an effort. The energy, the good-will which a reader brings to the book is, and must be, partly expended in the labour of reading, marking, learning, inwardly digesting what the author means. The more difficulties, then, we authors obtrude on him by obscure or careless writing, the more we blunt the edge of his attention: so that if only in our own interest—though I had rather keep it on the ground of courtesy—we should study to anticipate his comfort.
But let me go a little deeper. You all know that a great part of Lessing's argument in his "Laokoeon", on the essentials of Literature as opposed to Pictorial Art or Sculpture, depends on this—that in Pictorial Art or in Sculpture the eye sees, the mind apprehends, the whole in a moment of time, with the correspondent disadvantage that this moment of time is fixed and stationary; whereas in writing, whether in prose or in verse, we can only produce our effect by a series of successive small impressions, dripping our meaning (so to speak) into the reader's mind—with the correspondent advantage, in point of vivacity, that our picture keeps moving all the while. Now obviously this throws a greater strain on his patience whom we address. Man at the best is a narrow-mouthed bottle. Through the conduit of speech he can utter—as you, my hearers, can receive—only one word at a time. In writing (as my old friend Professor Minto used to say) you are as a commander filing out his battalion through a narrow gate that allows only one man at a time to pass; and your reader, as he receives the troops, has to re-form and reconstruct them. No matter how large or how involved the subject, it can be communicated only in that way. You see, then, what an obligation we owe to him of order and arrangement; and why, apart from felicities and curiosities of diction, the old rhetoricians laid such stress upon order and arrangement as duties we owe to those who honour us with their attention. 'La clarte,' says a French writer, 'est la politesse.' [Greek: Charisi kai sapheneia thue], recommends Lucian. Pay your sacrifice to the Graces, and to [Greek: sapheneia]—Clarity—first among the Graces.
What am I urging? 'That Style in writing is much the same thing as good manners in other human intercourse?' Well, and why not? At all events we have reached a point where Buffon's often-quoted saying that 'Style is the man himself' touches and coincides with William of Wykeham's old motto that 'Manners makyth Man': and before you condemn my doctrine as inadequate listen to this from Coventry Patmore, still bearing in mind that a writer's main object is to impress his thought or vision upon his hearer.
'There is nothing comparable for moral force to the charm of truly noble manners....'
I grant you, to be sure, that the claim to possess a Style must be conceded to many writers—Carlyle is one—who take no care to put listeners at their ease, but rely rather on native force of genius to shock and astound. Nor will I grudge them your admiration. But I do say that, as more and more you grow to value truth and the modest grace of truth, it is less and less to such writers that you will turn: and I say even more confidently that the qualities of Style we allow them are not the qualities we should seek as a norm, for they one and all offend against Art's true maxim of avoiding excess.
And this brings me to the two great paradoxes of Style. For the first (1),—although Style is so curiously personal and individual, and although men are so variously built that no two in the world carry away the same impressions from a show, there is always a norm somewhere; in literature and art, as in morality. Yes, even in man's most terrific, most potent inventions—when, for example, in "Hamlet" or in "Lear" Shakespeare seems to be breaking up the solid earth under our feet—there is always some point and standard of sanity—a Kent or an Horatio—to which all enormities and passionate errors may be referred; to which the agitated mind of the spectator settles back as upon its centre of gravity, its pivot of repose.
(2) The second paradox, though it is equally true, you may find a little subtler. Yet it but applies to Art the simple truth of the Gospel, that he who would save his soul must first lose it. Though personality pervades Style and cannot be escaped, the first sin against Style as against good Manners is to obtrude or exploit personality. The very greatest work in Literature—the "Iliad," the "Odyssey," the "Purgatorio," "The Tempest," "Paradise Lost," the "Republic," "Don Quixote"—is all