Copyright
George Birkbeck Norman Hill.

Writers and readers online

. (page 1 of 10)
Online LibraryGeorge Birkbeck Norman HillWriters and readers → online text (page 1 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


I I, ^01

M



WRITERS AND READERS.



WRITERS AND READERS



GEORGE BIRKBECK HILL, D.C.L.

(Pembroke College, Oxford)



Dreams, books, are each a world ; and books we know
Are a substantial world both pure and good."

Words-worth.



G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS

NEW YORK LONDON

87 WEST TWENTY-THIRD STREET 24 BEDFORD STREET, STRAND

Sin f.nuherbot!ur JJress
1892



PREFACE.

''T~ A HE lectures which form this little work were
-* read in the Hall of New College, before the
members of the Teachers' University Association,
who were in residence in Oxford during part of
the Long Vacation of 1891.



2072134



CONTENTS.



LECTURES I.-IV. REVOLUTIONS IN LITERARY TASTE.

LECTURES V.-VI. THE STUDY OF LITERATURE AS A
PART OF EDUCATION.



LECTURE /.



LECTURE I.

T AM often amused by the confident air with
-*- wnich not only chance readers, but even
students of literature appoint, as it were, the
books which are to be the delight of posterity.
Posterity, it has been well said, is the author's
friend. The writer who cannot catch the ear of
his own public pleases himself with the thought
that his voice will be prolonged by the echoes
of time, and will sound the more loudly the
farther it has to travel. Southey, who with all
his great merits as an ardent and thorough student,
is scarcely known to the present generation but
by one or two ballads and one biography, was
supported through the neglect which his works
encountered by the confident belief that posterity
would do him justice. He talks in one place "of
exposing the real character and history of the
Romish Church, systematically and irrefragably,



12 WRITERS AND READERS.

which (he says) I can and will do, in books which
will be read now and hereafter ; which must make
a part hereafter of every historical library, and
which will live and act when I am gone." Speaking
of the need under which he had always lived of
gaining his livelihood by the pen, he says : " Under
more favourable circumstances I might have accom-
plished more and better things. But when the
grave-digger has put me to bed and covered me
up, it will not be long before it will be perceived
and acknowledged that there are few who have
done so much." Of his poem of " Madoc " he writes :
" Unquestionably the poem will stand and flourish.
. . . William Taylor has said it is the best English
poem that has left the press since the ' Paradise
Lost ' ; indeed this is not exaggerated praise, for
unfortunately there is no competition." His
" History of Brazil," he prophecies, " will ages
hence be found among those works which are not
destined to perish ; it will secure for me a remem-
brance in other countries as well as in my own ; it
will be to the Brazilians what the work of Hero-
dotus is to Europe." J

Who can be churlish enough to grudge to an
honest worker, one of the most laborious authors

1 Southey's "Life and Correspondence," ed. 1850, ii. 359;
iv. 354 ; v. 274, 321.



L APPEALS TO POSTERITY. 13

that the world has ever seen, the comfort which he
found for the neglect under which he was suffering?
His books, it is true, were encumbering his pub-
lisher's warehouse. What of that? He appealed
to future generations, to those happy times when
the bubbles shall have burst which are raised in
the vast whirlpools of fashion, and the bark of the
poet and the historian, clear of the froth, shall be
seen floating securely and quietly and triumphantly
down the stream of time. Had he been of a less
hopeful mind he might have got chilled by the
words with which the learned Person ends his
Preface to his famous " Letters to Archdeacon
Travis": " Mr. Travis and I may address our letters
to posterity, but they will never be delivered
according to the direction." Astronomers tell us
that the nearest fixed star is at so vast a distance
from us that, in spite of the incredible rapidity
with which light travels, all we can know for
certain is that it was shining at the time of the
birth of a man of middle age. There are other
stars so remote that we cannot feel sure that they
did not fall with Julius Caesar, when men were
scared by seeing

" The strange impatience of the heavens."
Were a new constellation formed to-day at some



14 WRITERS AND READERS.

comparatively moderate distance, its light would
perhaps first strike upon the world when the
grandchild of the youngest person here present
was falling into his dotage. Not a few of our
literary luminaries, if we are to trust what they
say of themselves and what is said of them, are in
somewhat the same case. Their light has not yet
reached us, the denseness through which it has to
travel having much the same effect as space ; but
it will strike upon our descendants. No heart
surely can be so hard as to refuse to a disappointed
author his islands of the blest, on the other side,
not of the western waves, but of the centuries.
But the case is altogether different when pity no
longer operates, when every reader presumes to
settle who they are who are to be welcomed on
those happy shores " with the sound of bells and
acclamations of the people." What is freely allowed
to compassion must not be conceded to ignorance
and conceit. The taste of one generation is not
to be fixed by the taste of another. We may give
our favourite authors all the immortality we please.
We may refuse to believe that an age can ever
come so lost to good taste as to decline to admire
those who are our delight. In matters of taste
each age will judge for itself, and our descendants,
if they examine into our judgments and our pro-



/. DIRECTIONS TO POSTERITY. 15

phecies, will certainly obtain from them some
amusement, but perhaps very little profit, unless
they take the trouble to investigate the causes that
rendered them so faulty.

Nevertheless, with how -confident an air do we
hear maintained what shall be the reading, not only
of the next, but even of succeeding centuries. The
guardian angels seem almost to be heard chanting,
not only that Britons never shall be slaves, but
that they never shall cease to be readers of Macau-
lay or Carlyle, of Herbert Spencer or Ruskin, of
Browning or of George Eliot. Nay, there are
minor stars, whose names I but imperfectly retain
in my memory, who are to shine with increasing
splendour for many a long day yet. No great
while ago I heard in this University of Oxford a
learned man maintain that a certain novelist,
whose works I had never even glanced at, and
whose name I have now forgotten, will be read
five hundred years hence. When, as sometimes
happens, my opinion is demanded, when I am
asked whether this favourite author and that
favourite author will not be the delight of our
grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, I never
venture to go beyond a negative kind of prophecy.
I have little difficulty in coming to a decision as to
those who will not be read ; but no prudent man,



16 WRITERS AND READERS.

who sees names which once filled everybody's
mouth now scarce known to the student, who sees
books which were once the pride of every library
now on some huckster's stall, labelled " All in this
lot at a penny a volume," will venture to foretell
immortality, or even a long duration of popularity,
to any work whatsoever of his own day. In mat-
ters of taste there is only one sure judge, and that
is time. "About things," says Johnson, "on which
the public thinks long it commonly attains to
think right." It is not one or two, perhaps not
even three generations which can arrive at a final
judgment of a work. The vast majority even of
those books which make a great noise are for-
gotten long before the third generation is reached ;
but the works of men of real genius require at least
the greater part of a century before their value can
be accurately ascertained. At first by their very
originality they often excite anger and even
contempt, running as they do against the fashion
of the day. Before they can get justice done them
they must establish a school of their own; but
their scholars are apt to pass into worshippers.
The neglect which they at first encountered gives
way to extravagant admiration ; they are rendered
ridiculous by their servile imitators ; a reaction
sets in, and once more they are placed below their



I.NE W SCHOOLS OF POE TRY. 17

just level. Then there begins a fresh reaction in
their favour, till the balance which has swung now
too much up, and now too much down, settles at
last, and marks their real weight. There is a
passage in Johnson's " Life of Gray " which, I have
always thought, illustrates the career of the poet
who strikes into fresh paths. " In 1757," he writes,
"Gray published 'The Progress of Poetry' and
' The Bard,' two compositions at which the readers
of poetry were at first content to gaze in mute
amazement. Some that tried them confessed their
inability to understand them, though Warburton
said that they were understood as well as the
works of Milton and Shakespeare, which it is the
fashion to admire. Garrick wrote a few lines in
their praise. Some hardy champions undertook
to rescue them from neglect, and in a short time
many were content to be shown beauties which
they could not see."

Of how many poets whom we of this age admire
might the same be said ! At the compositions
of Wordsworth, of Tennyson, of Browning, " the
readers of poetry were at first content to gaze
in mute amazement." Many who tried them either
could not understand them, or thought that there
was nothing in them to understand. Champions
soon arose ; the difficulty experienced in discover-

2



1 8 WRITERS AND READERS.

ing their merits, when overcome, became a source
of pride ; and of those who remained blind, " many
were content to be shown beauties which they
could not see."

Jeffrey, the great Edinburgh reviewer, had treated
Wordsworth with a contempt that was almost
gross in its violence. His " Lyrical Ballads " he
" looked upon in a good degree as poetical
paradoxes maintained experimentally^ in order
to display talent and court notoriety ; and so
maintained with no more serious belief in their
truth than is usually generated by an ingenious
and animated defence of other paradoxes." x
Jeffrey was no common man ; in him there was
no natural dulness of fancy and imagination.
Carlyle has described his " bright-beaming, swift
and piercing hazel eyes, with their accompaniment
of rapid keen expression in the other lineaments
of face. He was," he adds, "by no means the
supreme in criticism or anything else; but it is
certain there has no critic appeared among us
since who was worth naming beside him." 2
Nevertheless, with all his fine endowments, he
could discover in the great poet of Nature little
beyond talent displayed and notoriety courted.

1 Edinburgh Review, November, 1814, p. 4.
* Carlyle's "Reminiscences," ed. 1881, ii. 65.



I JEFFREY AND WORDSWORTH. 19

I would be content as a warning to all critics to
reprint this review of his with one single note. It
should consist of the quotation, without a single
word of comment, of the following lines, almost
unrivalled, in my belief, in the beauty of the
thought and the perfection of the language and the
rhythm by any poem of any poet in this century :

" Three years she grew in sun and shower,
Then Nature said, ' A lovelier flower

On earth was never sown ;
This Child I to myself will take ;
She shall be mine, and I will make
A Lady of my own.

' Myself will to my darling be

Both law and impulse : and with me

The Girl in rock and plain,
In earth and heaven, in glade and bower,
Shall feel an overseeing power

To kindle or restrain.

' She shall be sportive as the Fawn
That wild with glee across the lawn

Or up the mountain springs ;
And hers shall be the breathing balm,
And hers the silence and the calm

Of mute insensate things.

' The floating Clouds their state shall lend
To her ; for her the willow bend ;
Nor shall she fail to see



20 WRITERS AND READERS.

Even in the motions of the Storm
Grace that shall mould the Maiden's form
Ey silent sympathy.

' The Stars of midnight shall be dear
To her ; and she shall lean her ear

In many a secret place
Where Rivulets dance their wayward round|
And beauty born of murmuring sound

Shall pass into her face.

' And vital feelings of delight

Shall rear her form to stately height,

Her virgin bosom swell ;
Such thoughts to Lucy I will give
While she and I together live

Here in this happy Dell.'

Thus Nature spake The work was done
How soon my Lucy's race was run !

She died, and left to me
This heath, this calm and quiet scene ;
The memory of what has been,

And never more will be."

The critic who could charge Wordsworth with
courting notoriety when he wrote these lines,
might in an earlier age have charged Gray with
courting undertakers when he wrote his " Elegy."
Jeffrey lived long enough to see his judgment-seat
scorned and deserted by a younger generation.
Fourteen years after he declared that Wordsworth
with all his great natural gifts was " finally lost



I.MILL AND WORDSWORTH. 21

to the good cause of poetry," a young thinker,
who had been trained in the straightest school of
the Utilitarians, found in the despised poet that
mental relief which in his misery he had elsewhere
sought in vain. " I had learnt by experience,"
writes John Stuart Mill, " that the passive sus-
ceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the
active capacities, and required to be nourished and
enriched as well as guided. . . . The cultivation
of the feelings became one of the cardinal points
in my ethical and philosophical creed. ... I now
began to find meaning in the things which I had
read or heard about the importance of poetry and
art as instruments of human culture." He goes on
to describe the curious dejection into which he had
fallen, and the vain attempts which he had made
to find relief in books. Byron he had tried, but
from him he got no good. He took up Words-
worth, and found in his poems a medicine for his
mind in that " they expressed not mere outward
beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought
coloured by feeling, under the excitement of
beauty. "They seemed," he continues, "to be the
very culture of the feelings which I was in quest of.
... I found that he, too, had had similar experience
to mine ; that he also had felt that the first fresh-
ness of youthful enjoyment of life was not lasting ;



22 WRITERS AND READERS.

but that he had sought for compensation, and
found it in the way in which he was now teaching
me to find it. The result was that I gradually, but
completely, emerged from my habitual depression,
and was never again subject to it." He met John
Sterling, whose life Carlyle has so admirably
written. " He told me," says Mill, " how he and
others had looked upon me (from hearsay infor-
mation) as a ' made' or manufactured man, having
had a certain impress of opinion stamped on me
which I could only reproduce ; and what a change
took place in his feelings when he found that
Wordsworth, and all which that name implies,
' belonged ' to me as much as to him and his
friends." '

However strongly the current of opinion set in
a new direction, it swept past the old reviewer,
and left him unmoved and unchanged. Jeffrey, in
his old age, finding how highly Wordsworth was
thought of, " resolved to re-peruse his poems, and
see if he had anything to retract." He was com-
forted by discovering that " except perhaps a con-
temptuous and flippant phrase or two " there was
nothing to withdraw. 2

There is a fine passage in Thackeray's " New-

1 "Autobiography of J. S. Mill," pp. 143, 148, 155.
* " Diary of H. C. Robinson," iii. 140.



I. GODS, OLD AND NEW. 23

comes " where we read how the old Colonel was
puzzled when he gathered round him at dinner
his son's literary friends, " and the merits of their
poets and writers were discussed with the claret.
. . . He heard opinions that amazed and bewildered
him. He heard that Byron was no great poet,
though a very clever man. He heard that there
had been a wicked persecution against Mr. Pope's
memory and fame, and that it was time to reinstate
him ; that his favourite, Dr. Johnson, talked ad-
mirably, but did not write English ; that young
Keats was a genius to be estimated in future days
with young Raphael ; and that a young gentle-
man of Cambridge, who had lately published two
volumes of verses, might take rank with the
greatest poets of all. Dr. Johnson not write
English ! Lord Byron not one of the greatest
poets of the world ! Sir Walter a poet of the
second order! Mr. Pope attacked for inferiority
and want of imagination ! Mr. Keats and this
young Mr. Tennyson of Cambridge the chief of
modern poetic literature ! What were these new
dicta, which Mr. Warrington delivered with a puff
of tobacco smoke ; to which Mr. Honeyman
blandly assented, and Clive listened with pleasure?
Such opinions were not of the Colonel's time. He
tried in vain to construe ' QEnone,' and to make



24 WRITERS AND READERS.

sense of ' Lamia.' ' Ulysses ' he could understand ;
but what were these prodigious laudations bestowed
on it ? And that reverence for Mr. Wordsworth,
what did it mean ? Had he not written ' Peter
Bell,' and been turned into deserved ridicule by all
the reviews ? Was that dreary ' Excursion ' to be
compared to Goldsmith's 'Traveller,' or Dr. John-
son's ' Imitation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal ' ?
If the young men told the truth, where had been
the truth in his own young days ; and in what
ignorance had our forefathers been brought up ?
Mr. Addison was only an elegant essayist and
shallow trifler! All these opinions were openly
uttered over the Colonel's claret, as he and Mr.
Binnie sat wondering at the speakers who were
knocking the gods of their youth about their
ears." *

Our gods, let us raise them on as lofty pedestals
as we please, and fall down before them as low as
we can, let us crown them with wreaths and chap-
lets, and send up the incense before them in clouds,
will, if only we live long enough, in all likelihood
be knocked about our ears too. The more ex-
travagant has been our adoration, the worse will
be the belabouring which they will receive. " Be it
known unto you, oh past generation," our children
1 " The Newcomes," chap. xxi.



I. MR. RUSKIN. 25

will say, " that we will not serve your gods, nor
worship the golden images which you have set
up." In their rebellion they may even go a step
further, and maintain that the images were not
golden, but only gilt.

Mr. Ruskin, writing in the year 1857, when he
had all the ripeness of a man not far off his fortieth
year, said : " Mrs. Browning's ' Aurora Leigh ' is, so
far as I know, the greatest poem which the century
has produced in any language." Why in the cen-
tury, among foreigners, Goethe and Victor Hugo,
among Englishmen, Wordsworth, Scott, Keats,
Shelley, Byron, Landor, Tennyson, and Browning
had written either all or at least many of their
greatest poems. Before the best that the greatest
of these men wrote is to be placed "Aurora Leigh"!
Our amazement at such an assertion may be
tempered by respect, but, nevertheless, amazement
it remains. " Of reflective prose," says the same
writer, " read chiefly Bacon, Johnson, and Helps."
It is not easy to preserve one's gravity at this
strange fellowship. I can picture to myself the
feelings, first of bewilderment, and then almost of
despair, of some ardent disciple of the great master,
as he passed from Bacon's " Essays " through the
" Rambler " and " Rasselas " to Sir Arthur Helps's
" Friends in Council." I once tried a few pages of



26 WRITERS AND READERS.

it, but gave it up as hopelessly commonplace. He
has one chance for immortality ; he may be re-
membered as the otherwise unknown author who
was classed by Mr. Ruskin with Bacon and John-
son. 1

Two hundred years ago there was a City poet,
Elkanah Settle by name, of whom John Wilkes
said : " Elkanah Settle sounds so queer, who can
expect much from that name ? " At one time,
nevertheless, he was the rival of the great Dryden.
" Such," says Johnson, " are the revolutions of
fame, or such is the prevalence of fashion, that
the man whose works have not yet been thought
to deserve the care of collecting them, who died
forgotten in an hospital, and whose latter years
were spent in contriving shows for fairs, and carry-
ing an elegy or epithalamium, of which the begin-
ning and end were occasionally varied, but the in-
termediate parts were always the same, to every
house where there was a funeral or a wedding,
might with truth have had inscribed upon his
stone :

" ' Here lies the rival and antagonist of Dryden.' " a
Violent indeed are the revolutions in taste which

1 "Elements of Drawing," ist ed., p. 348.
Johnson's "Works," ed. 1825, vii. 277.



I. BLAIR AND POMFRET. 27

the world has seen. Southey, writing fifty years
ago about those books of which the copyright was
of the greatest value, says that within his recol-
lection among the five most valuable of all would
have been Blair's " Lectures on Rhetoric " and
Blair's " Sermons." * In Mr. Alfred Morrison's
great collection of autographs is a letter from
Blair's publisher, William Strahan, announcing a
draft of ^500 as the last payment for the " Lectures
on Rhetoric." What the previous payments had
been I do not know. How popular his sermons
once were the bookstalls still testify ; into what
neglect they have fallen is shown by the price at
which they are offered for sale. Three-quarters of
a century after the death of the poet John Pomfret
it was said, that "perhaps no composition in our
language had been oftener perused than his
" Choice." 2 Another quarter of a century passed,
and the hundred years were complete ; yet we
find Southey asking : " Why is Pomfret the most
popular of the English poets ? The fact is certain,
and the solution would be useful." 3 It is not un-
likely that there is no one in this room but myself
who has read this poem. Let me read therefore

1 Southey's "Life and Letters," vi. 355.
a Johnson's " Works," vii. 222.
3 Southey's "Specimens," i. 91.



28 WRITERS AND READERS.

to you a few lines, that you may judge of the value
of popularity as a test :

" If Heaven the grateful liberty would give,
That I might choose my method how to live,
And all those hours, propitious Fate should lend
In blissful ease and satisfaction spend ;
Near some fair town I'd have a private seat,
Built uniform ; not little, not too great ;
Better, if on a rising ground it stood,
On this side fields, on that a neighb'ring wood ;
It should within no other things contain
But what are useful, necessary, p'ain :
Methinks 'tis nauseous, and I'd ne'er endure
The needless pomp of gaudy furniture.
A little garden, grateful to the eye,
And a cool rivulet run murm'ring by,
On whose delicious banks a stately row
Of shady limes or sycamores should grow ;
At th' end of which a silent study plac'd
Should be with all the noblest authors grac'd."

Our grandfathers or our great-grandfathers
might with some fair show of reason have
maintained that it was impossible to believe that
a poem which had so well stood the test of time
would ever sink into forgetfulness. Let me
suggest to you that if any one in your hearing
foretells immortality for some writer for whom
you have no relish, you should ask him at once
whether he has read Pomfret's " Choice."

I will contrast with these lines that fine



ITHE CHOICE OF LIFE. 29

passage in which Johnson also describes a choice
of life. He tells the story of his own early years ;
he recounts the eager hopes with which he had
entered this great university, and the ills which
had assailed him in the outside world. In his
old age, when he was prosperous and famous, he
one day read the lines aloud. As all the troubles
he had undergone trooped back to his memory
he burst into a passion of tears. So in the court
of Alcinous Ulysses wept when he heard the
sweet singer tell of the sufferings of the Achaeans
beneath the walls of Troy.

"When first the college rolls receive his name,
The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame ;
Through all his veins the fever of renown
Spreads from the strong contagion of the gown ;
O'er Bodley's dome his future labours spread,
And Bacon's mansion trembles o'er his head.
Are these thy views ? Proceed, illustrious youth,
And virtue guard thee to the throne of truth !
Yet, should thy soul indulge the gen'rous heat
Till captive science yields her last retreat ;
Should reason guide thee with her brightest ray,


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Online LibraryGeorge Birkbeck Norman HillWriters and readers → online text (page 1 of 10)