Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch.

On the Art of Writing Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914 online

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Online LibraryArthur Thomas Quiller-CouchOn the Art of Writing Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914 → online text (page 1 of 16)
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First Edition 1916
Reprinted 1916,1917



By recasting these lectures I might with pains have turned them into a
smooth treatise. But I prefer to leave them (bating a very few
corrections and additions) as they were delivered. If, as the reader will
all too easily detect, they abound no less in repetitions than in
arguments dropped and left at loose ends - the whole bewraying a man
called unexpectedly to a post where in the act of adapting himself, of
learning that he might teach, he had often to adjourn his main purpose
and skirmish with difficulties - they will be the truer to life; and so
may experimentally enforce their preaching, that the Art of Writing is a
living business.

Bearing this in mind, the reader will perhaps excuse certain small
vivacities, sallies that meet fools with their folly, masking the main
attack. _That_, we will see, is serious enough; and others will carry it
on, though my effort come to naught.

It amounts to this - Literature is not a mere Science, to be studied; but
an Art, to be practised. Great as is our own literature, we must consider
it as a legacy to be improved. Any nation that potters with any glory of
its past, as a thing dead and done for, is to that extent renegade. If
that be granted, not all our pride in a Shakespeare can excuse the
relaxation of an effort - however vain and hopeless - to better him, or
some part of him. If, with all our native exemplars to give us courage,
we persist in striving to write well, we can easily resign to other
nations all the secondary fame to be picked up by commentators.

Recent history has strengthened, with passion and scorn, the faith in
which I wrote the following pages.

November 1915


















Wednesday, January 29, 1913

In all the long quarrel set between philosophy and poetry I know of
nothing finer, as of nothing more pathetically hopeless, than Plato's
return upon himself in his last dialogue 'The Laws.' There are who find
that dialogue (left unrevised) insufferably dull, as no doubt it is
without form and garrulous. But I think they will read it with a new
tolerance, may-be even with a touch of feeling, if upon second thoughts
they recognise in its twisting and turnings, its prolixities and
repetitions, the scruples of an old man who, knowing that his time in
this world is short, would not go out of it pretending to know more than
he does, and even in matters concerning which he was once very sure has
come to divine that, after all, as Renan says, 'La Verité consiste dans
les nuances.' Certainly 'the mind's dark cottage battered and decayed'
does in that last dialogue admit some wonderful flashes,

From Heaven descended to the low-roofed house
Of Socrates,

or rather to that noble 'banquet-hall deserted' which aforetime had
entertained Socrates.

Suffer me, Mr Vice-Chancellor and Gentlemen, before reaching my text, to
remind you of the characteristically beautiful setting. The place is
Crete, and the three interlocutors - Cleinias a Cretan, Megillus a
Lacedaemonian, and an Athenian stranger - have joined company on a
pilgrimage to the cave and shrine of Zeus, from whom Minos, first
lawgiver of the island, had reputedly derived not only his parentage but
much parental instruction. Now the day being hot, even scorching, and the
road from Cnossus to the Sacred Cave a long one, our three pilgrims, who
have foregathered as elderly men, take it at their leisure, and propose
to beguile it with talk upon Minos and his laws. 'Yes, and on the way,'
promises the Cretan, 'we shall come to cypress-groves exceedingly tall
and fair, and to green meadows, where we may repose ourselves and
converse.' 'Good,' assents the Athenian. 'Ay, very good indeed, and
better still when we arrive at them. Let us push on.'

So they proceed. I have said that all three are elderly men; that is, men
who have had their opportunities, earned their wages, and so nearly
earned their discharge that now, looking back on life, they can afford to
see Man for what he really is - at his best a noble plaything for the
gods. Yet they look forward, too, a little wistfully. They are of the
world, after all, and nowise so tired of it, albeit disillusioned, as to
have lost interest in the game or in the young who will carry it on. So
Minos and his laws soon get left behind, and the talk (as so often
befalls with Plato) is of the perfect citizen and how to train him - of
education, in short; and so, as ever with Plato, we are back at length
upon the old question which he could never get out of his way - What to do
with the poets?

It scarcely needs to be said that the Athenian has taken hold of the
conversation, and that the others are as wax in his hands. 'O Athenian
stranger,' Cleinias addresses him - 'inhabitant of Attica I will not call
you, for you seem to deserve rather the name of Athene herself, because
you go back to first principles.' Thus complimented, the stranger lets
himself go. Yet somehow he would seem to have lost speculative nerve.

It was all very well in the 'Republic,' the ideal State, to be bold and
declare for banishing poetry altogether. But elderly men have given up
pursuing ideals; they have 'seen too many leaders of revolt.' Our
Athenian is driving now at practice (as we say), at a well-governed State
realisable on earth; and after all it is hard to chase out the poets,
especially if you yourself happen to be something of a poet at heart.
Hear, then, the terms on which, after allowing that comedies may be
performed, but only by slaves and hirelings, he proceeds to allow serious

And if any of the serious poets, as they are termed, who write tragedy,
come to us and say - 'O strangers, may we go to your city and country,
or may we not, and shall we bring with us our poetry? What is your will
about these matters?' - how shall we answer the divine men? I think that
our answer should be as follows: -

'Best of strangers,' we will say to them, 'we also, according to our
ability, are tragic poets, and our tragedy is the best and noblest: for
our whole state is an imitation of the best and noblest life.... You are
poets and we are poets, both makers of the same strains, rivals and
antagonists in the noblest of dramas, which true law alone can perfect,
as our hope is. Do not then suppose that we shall all in a moment allow
you to erect your stage in the Agora, and introduce the fair voices of
your actors, speaking above our own, and permit you to harangue our
women and children and the common people in language other than our
own, and very often the opposite of our own. For a State would be mad
which gave you this license, until the magistrates had determined
whether your poetry might be recited and was fit for publication or
not. Wherefore, O ye sons and scions of the softer Muses! first of all
show your songs to the Magistrates and let them compare them with our
own, and if they are the same or better, we will give you a chorus; but
if not, then, my friends, we cannot.'

Lame conclusion! Impotent compromise! How little applicable, at all
events, to our Commonwealth! though, to be sure (you may say) we possess
a relic of it in His Majesty's Licenser of Plays. As you know, there has
been so much heated talk of late over the composition of the County
Magistracy; yet I give you a countryman's word, Sir, that I have heard
many names proposed for the Commission of the Peace, and on many grounds,
but never one on the ground that its owner had a conservative taste in

Nevertheless, as Plato saw, we must deal with these poets somehow. It is
possible (though not, I think, likely) that in the ideal State there
would be no Literature, as it is certain there would be no Professors of
it; but since its invention men have never been able to rid themselves of
it for any length of time. _Tamen usque recurrit._ They may forbid
Apollo, but still he comes leading his choir, the Nine: -

[Greek: Akletos men egoge menoimi ken es de kaleunton
Tharsesas Moisaisi snu amepeaisin ikoiman.]

And he may challenge us English boldly! For since Chaucer, at any rate,
he and his train have never been [Greek: akletoi] to us - least of all
here in Cambridge.

Nay, we know that he should be welcome. Cardinal Newman, proposing the
idea of a University to the Roman Catholics of Dublin, lamented that the
English language had not, like the Greek, 'some definite words to
express, simply and generally, intellectual proficiency or perfection,
such as "health," as used with reference to the animal frame, and
"virtue," with reference to our moral nature.' Well, it is a reproach to
us that we do not possess the term: and perhaps again a reproach to us
that our attempts at it - the word 'culture' for instance - have been apt
to take on some soil of controversy, some connotative damage from
over-preaching on the one hand and impatience on the other. But we do
earnestly desire the thing. We do prize that grace of intellect which
sets So-and-so in our view as 'a scholar and a gentleman.' We do wish as
many sons of this University as may be to carry forth that lifelong stamp
from her precincts; and - this is my point - from our notion of such a man
the touch of literary grace cannot be excluded. I put to you for a test
Lucian's description of his friend Demonax -

His way was like other people's; he mounted no high horse; he was just
a man and a citizen. He indulged in no Socratic irony. But his
discourse was full of Attic grace; those who heard it went away neither
disgusted by servility, nor repelled by ill-tempered censure, but on
the contrary lifted out of themselves by charity, and encouraged to
more orderly, contented, hopeful lives.

I put it to you, Sir, that Lucian needs not to say another word, but we
know that Demonax had loved letters, and partly by aid of them had
arrived at being such a man. No; by consent of all, Literature is a nurse
of noble natures, and right reading makes a full man in a sense even
better than Bacon's; not replete, but complete rather, to the pattern for
which Heaven designed him. In this conviction, in this hope, public
spirited men endow Chairs in our Universities, sure that Literature is a
good thing if only we can bring it to operate on young minds.

That he has in him some power to guide such operation a man must believe
before accepting such a Chair as this. And now, Sir, the terrible moment
is come when your [Greek: xenos] must render some account - I will not say
of himself, for that cannot be attempted - but of his business here. Well,
first let me plead that while you have been infinitely kind to the
stranger, feasting him and casting a gown over him, one thing not all
your kindness has been able to do. With precedents, with traditions such
as other Professors enjoy, you could not furnish him. The Chair is a new
one, or almost new, and for the present would seem to float in the void,
like Mahomet's coffin. Wherefore, being one who (in my Lord Chief Justice
Crewe's phrase) would 'take hold of a twig or twine-thread to uphold it';
being also prone (with Bacon) to believe that 'the counsels to which Time
hath not been called, Time will not ratify'; I do assure you that, had
any legacy of guidance been discovered among the papers left by my
predecessor, it would have been eagerly welcomed and as piously honoured.
O, trust me, Sir! - if any design for this Chair of English Literature had
been left by Dr Verrall, it is not I who would be setting up any new
stage in your agora! But in his papers - most kindly searched for me by
Mrs Verrall - no such design can be found. He was, in truth, a stricken
man when he came to the Chair, and of what he would have built we can
only be sure that, had it been this or had it been that, it would
infallibly have borne the impress of one of the most beautiful minds of
our generation. The gods saw otherwise; and for me, following him, I came
to a trench and stretched my hands to a shade.

For me, then, if you put questions concerning the work of this Chair, I
must take example from the artist in Don Quixote, who being asked what he
was painting, answered modestly, 'That is as it may turn out.' The course
is uncharted, and for sailing directions I have but these words of your

It shall be the duty of the Professor to deliver courses of lectures
on English Literature from the age of Chaucer onwards, and otherwise
to promote, so far as may be in his power, the study in the
University of the subject of English Literature.

And I never even knew that English Literature had a 'subject'; or,
rather, supposed it to have several! To resume:

The Professor shall treat this subject on literary and critical
rather than on philological and linguistic lines:

- a proviso which at any rate cuts off a cantle, large in itself, if not
comparatively, of the new Professor's ignorance. But I ask you to note
the phrase 'to promote, so far as may be in his power, the study' - not,
you will observe, 'to teach'; for this absolves me from raising at the
start a question of some delicacy for me, as Green launched his
"Prolegomena to Ethics" upon the remark that 'an author who seeks to gain
general confidence scarcely goes the right way to work when he begins
with asking whether there really is such a subject as that of which he
proposes to treat.' In spite of - mark, pray, that I say _in spite
of_ - the activity of many learned Professors, some doubt does lurk in
the public mind if, after all, English Literature can, in any ordinary
sense, be taught, and if the attempts to teach it do not, after all,
justify (as Wisdom is so often justified of her grandparents) the
silence sapience of those old benefactors who abstained from endowing
any such Chairs.

But that the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds
by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes
directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged - this, I take it, no
man of experience will deny. Nay, since our two oldest Universities have
a habit of marking one another with interest - an interest, indeed,
sometimes heightened by nervousness - I may point out that all this has
been done of late years, and eminently done, by a Cambridge man you gave
to Oxford. This, then, Mr Vice-Chancellor - this or something like this,
Gentlemen - is to be my task if I have the good fortune to win your

Let me, then, lay down two or three principles by which I propose to be
guided. (1) For the first principle of all I put to you that in studying
any work of genius we should begin by taking it _absolutely_; that is to
say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author's mind
intended; this being at once the obvious approach to its meaning (its
[Greek: to ti en einai], the 'thing it was to be'), and the merest duty
of politeness we owe to the great man addressing us. We should lay our
minds open to what he wishes to tell, and if what he has to tell be noble
and high and beautiful, we should surrender and let soak our minds in it.

Pray understand that in claiming, even insisting upon, the first place
for this _absolute_ study of a great work I use no disrespect towards
those learned scholars whose labours will help you, Gentlemen, to enjoy
it afterwards in other ways and from other aspects; since I hold there is
no surer sign of intellectual ill-breeding than to speak, even to feel,
slightingly of any knowledge oneself does not happen to possess. Still
less do I aim to persuade you that anyone should be able to earn a
Cambridge degree by the process (to borrow Macaulay's phrase) of reading
our great authors 'with his feet on the hob,' a posture I have not even
tried, to recommend it for a contemplative man's recreation. These
editors not only set us the priceless example of learning for learning's
sake: but even in practice they clear our texts for us, and
afterwards - when we go more minutely into our author's acquaintance,
wishing to learn all we can about him - by increasing our knowledge of
detail they enchance our delight. Nay, with certain early writers - say
Chaucer or Dunbar, as with certain highly allusive ones - Bacon, or
Milton, or Sir Thomas Browne - some apparatus must be supplied from the
start. But on the whole I think it a fair contention that such helps to
studying an author are secondary and subsidiary; that, for example, with
any author who by consent is less of his age than for all time, to study
the relation he bore to his age may be important indeed, and even highly
important, yet must in the nature of things be of secondary importance,
not of the first.

But let us examine this principle a little more attentively - for it is
the palmary one. As I conceive it, that understanding of literature which
we desire in our Euphues, our gracefully-minded youth, will include
knowledge in varying degree, yet is itself something distinct from
knowledge. Let us illustrate this upon Poetry, which the most of us will
allow to be the highest form of literary expression, if not of all
artistic expression. Of all the testimony paid to Poetry, none commands
better witness than this - that, as Johnson said of Gray's Elegy 'it
abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with
sentiments to which every heart returns an echo.' When George Eliot said,
'I never before met with so many of my own feelings expressed just as I
should like them,' she but repeated of Wordsworth (in homelier, more
familiar fashion) what Johnson said of Gray; and the same testimony lies
implicit in Emerson's fine remark that 'Universal history, the poets, the
romancers' - all good writers, in short - 'do not anywhere make us feel
that we intrude, that this is for our betters. Rather it is true that, in
their greatest strokes, there we feel most at home.' The mass of
evidence, of which these are samples, may be summarised thus: - As we
dwell here between two mysteries, of a soul within and an ordered
Universe without, so among us are granted to dwell certain men of more
delicate intellectual fibre than their fellows - men whose minds have, as
it were, filaments to intercept, apprehend, conduct, translate home to us
stray messages between these two mysteries, as modern telegraphy has
learnt to search out, snatch, gather home human messages astray over
waste waters of the Ocean.

If, then, the ordinary man be done this service by the poet, that (as Dr
Johnson defines it) 'he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but
he feels it _with a great increase of sensibility_'; or even if, though
the message be unfamiliar, it suggests to us, in Wordsworth's phrase, to
'feel that we are greater than we know,' I submit that we respond to it
less by anything that usually passes for knowledge, than by an
improvement of sensibility, a tuning up of the mind to the poet's pitch;
so that the man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be
remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit
for knowledge, than for _being_ something, and that 'something,' a man of
unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust
to choose the better and reject the worse.

But since this refining of the critical judgment happens to be less easy
of practice than the memorising of much that passes for knowledge - of
what happened to Harriet or what Blake said to the soldier - and far less
easy to examine on, the pedagogic mind (which I implore you not to
suppose me confusing with the scholarly) for avoidance of trouble tends
all the while to dodge or obfuscate what is essential, piling up
accidents and irrelevancies before it until its very face is hidden. And
we should be the more watchful not to confuse the pedagogic mind with the
scholarly since it is from the scholar that the pedagogue pretends to
derive his sanction; ransacking the great genuine commentators - be it a
Skeat or a Masson or (may I add for old reverence' sake?) an Aldis
Wright - fetching home bits of erudition, _non sua poma_, and announcing
'This _must_ be the true Sion, for we found it in a wood.'

Hence a swarm of little school books pullulates annually, all upside down
and wrong from beginning to end; and hence a worse evil afflicts us, that
the English schoolboy starts with a false perspective of any given
masterpiece, his pedagogue urging, obtruding lesser things upon his
vision until what is really important, the poem or the play itself, is
seen in distorted glimpses, if not quite blocked out of view.

This same temptation - to remove a work of art from the category for which
the author designed it into another where it can be more conveniently
studied - reaches even above the schoolmaster to assail some very eminent
critics. I cite an example from a book of which I shall hereafter have to
speak with gratitude as I shall always name it with respect - "The History
of English Poetry," by Dr Courthope, sometime Professor of Poetry at
Oxford. In his fourth volume, and in his estimate of Fletcher as a
dramatist, I find this passage: -

But the crucial test of a play's quality is only applied when it is
read. So long as the illusion of the stage gives credit to the
action, and the words and gestures of the actor impose themselves on
the imagination of the spectator, the latter will pass over a
thousand imperfections, which reveal themselves to the reader, who,
as he has to satisfy himself with the drama of silent images, will
nor be content if this or that in any way fall short of his
conception of truth and nature,

- which seems equivalent to saying that the crucial test of the frieze of
the Parthenon is its adaptability to an apartment in Bloomsbury. So long
as the illusion of the Acropolis gave credit to Pheidias' design, and the
sunlight of Attica imposed its delicate intended shadows edging the
reliefs, the countrymen of Pericles might be tricked; but the visitor to
the British Museum, as he has to satisfy himself with what happens
indoors in the atmosphere of the West Central Postal Division of London,
will not be content if Pheidias in any way fall short of _his_ conception
of truth and nature. Yet Fletcher (I take it) constructed his plays as
plays; the illusion of the stage, the persuasiveness of the actor's
voice, were conditions for which he wrought, and on which he had a right
to rely; and, in short, any critic behaves uncritically who, distrusting
his imagination to recreate the play as a play, elects to consider it in
the category of something else.

In sum, if the great authors never oppress us with airs of condescension,
but, like the great lords they are, put the meanest of us at our ease in
their presence, I see no reason why we should pay to any commentator a
servility not demanded by his master.

My next two principles may be more briefly stated.

(2) I propose next, then, that since our investigations will deal largely
with style, that curiously personal thing; and since (as I have said)
they cannot in their nature be readily brought to rule-of-thumb tests,
and may therefore so easily be suspected of evading all tests, of being
mere dilettantism; I propose (I say) that my pupils and I rebuke this
suspicion by constantly aiming at the concrete, at the study of such
definite beauties as we can see presented in print under our eyes; always

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Online LibraryArthur Thomas Quiller-CouchOn the Art of Writing Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914 → online text (page 1 of 16)