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SCIENCE AND LITERATURE

Being the Presidential Address delivered by Viscount
Morley of Blackburn, O.M., at the Annual General
Meeting on January 28, 1911.

I owe you my warm thanks for the honour you have done me in
choosing me to be your President for the year. Along with my grati-
tude goes a very keen sense that I can contribute nothing to the special
educational objects that your Association exists to promote. Per-
sonally I cannot remember that I was ever taught English. At school
I once competed for an English prize poem, without success, but not
without an encouraging compliment from the head master that my
heroic poem contained the promise of a sound prose style. I shall not
attempt to take a part, though as a constant learner I cannot but take
an interest, in the various controversial points connected with English
teaching that figure in your Transactions. They are important, they
are full of life, of experience, and of real enthusiasm. They open new
problems for what is, after all, if we look at it in all its bearings, the
most responsible of professions. It is not for me to instruct teachers
in their own arduous business. Whether the teaching of English is
over-methodized, whether grammatical terminology should be uniform,
whether in English grammar gender should cease to be recognized, or,
at any rate, should not be emphasized ; whether a sentence containing
a subordinate clause is to be called a simple sentence ; whether future
perfect in the past is the right name for a certain tense of all these and
many others I am sure that they touch points of real significance both
for scientific analysis of language, and for teaching habits of accurate
distinction which mark the difference between slovenly and orderly
minds.

I have heard of one singularly attractive writer of my generation now
dead who used to teach his pupils that the true test of good writing lay
in the adverbs. Adjectives, he said, usually took you little further
than the expression of broad characteristics ; it is the adverb that dis-
plays the delicacy of the thing, and a precise use of the adverb is the
sure sign of a truth-loving mind. This, I admit, strikes me as rather
a subtle flavour, but such matters are for experts, and for this afternoon
you will allow me to let them slumber. An observation of your secre-
tary's struck me as hitting the real mark of your proceedings. She
says of a certain author that he takes us into that atmosphere of beauty,
more or less frequent excursions into which are necessary to help us to
endure what she calls the rush of life and the enforced ugliness of much
of our surroundings. Grammar, philology, rules of rhetoric, are indis-
pensable apparatus. They are a worthy exercise for careful, ingenious,
and erudite minds. But all this technique is only a means of ace

555



2 SCIENCE AND LITERATURE

to those treasures of our literature that, in the old famous words, are
with us in the night, and in the hurry of the prime, stir youth and
refresh age, adorn success, and to failure furnish shelter and consolation.

It is no trifling concern that exercises your Association, no art of
abstruse pedagogic, no pedantry, like Carlyle's favourite example of
the fiery grammarian who cried out against his rival, ' May Heaven
eternally confound you for your theory of the irregular Greek verbs \
The case has been explicitly opened, at least in one of its parts, in the
rather startling sentences with which Mr. Hartog, some three or four
years ago, began his excellent little book on The Writing of English.
The sentences were four the English boy cannot write English, the
English boy is not taught to write English, the French boy can write
French, the French boy writes French because he is taught. On
Mr. Hartog's plan for applying French methods to English scholastic
circumstances I can venture no opinion. If there is substance in the
first two of his propositions, the significant thing is not merely that the
boy cannot write and is not taught to write English, but the sort of
indifference implied in such a state of facts in the general atmosphere
to one of the noblest of tongues, and in these days far the most widely
spread and far the most powerful of tongues.

I was asked the other day how many members of Parliament had ever
read a page of Milton's Areopagitica. I wonder. I would not too con-
fidently answer even for another place. Your object is to get both
parents and teachers to shake off this indifference, whatever it amounts
to, for it may be that even teachers are not always animated by delight,
which among the elect falls little short of passion, for the glorious
literature they have to teach. I do not mean that people do not care
for books and libraries. The evidence is all decisively the other way.
But the library without the school is of as little avail as schools would
be without the library. A library is a labyrinthian maze without a
clue to one who has never been trained, I will not say systematically,
but even in the elements of English language and literature.

I called English the most widespread of living tongues. Surely not
the least stupendous fact in our British annals is the conquest of a
boundless area of the habitable globe by our English language. There
is no parallel. You have been told here, I see, that Arabic is or has
been our rival. This is a proposition that needs far deeper limitations
and qualifications than I can either set forth or examine. Arabic
scholars assure me that though Arabic in Islamic lands for some three
or four centuries became the medium for an active propagation of ideas,
and though by the Koran it retains its hold in its own area, and keeps
in its literary as distinct from its spoken form the stamp of thirteen
centuries ago, yet there is no real analogy or comparison with the
diffusion of English. Latin is a better analogy. Latin was universally
spoken pretty early in Gaul, Britain, Spain, and somewhat later in the
provinces on the Danube. In the East it spread more slowly, but by
the Antonines and onwards the spread of Latin was pretty complete,
even in Africa. Greek was common throughout the empire as the
language of commerce in the fourth century. St. Augustine tells us
that pains were taken that the Imperial state should impose not only
its political yoke but its own tongue upon the conquered peoples, per
pacem societatis.
This is what, among other things, is slowly coming to pass in India.



SCIENCE AND LITERATURE 3

Though to-day only a handful, a million or so, of the population use
our language, yet English must inevitably spread from being an official
tongue to be a general unifying agent. An Englishman who adds to
the glory of our language and letters will deserve Caesar's grand com-
pliment to Cicero, declaring it a better claim to a laurel crown to have
advanced the boundaries of Roman genius than the boundaries of
Roman rule. Whether Julius was sincere or insincere, it is a noble
truth for us as well as for old Rome.

Looking at contemporary conditions, what is there to strike us ? We
cannot miss the leading fact that two enormous changes have come to
pass within the last two generations. One is the rise of physical science
and invention into reigning power through the whole field of intellectual
activity and interest. The other is the huge augmentation of those
who know how to read and who have come under the influence of
books. Or shall we say of printed matter ? For if we were to judge
from the legions who travel by rail, literature means too often books
that are no books and only a more or less respectable provision for
wasting time. The Head Master of Eton a year ago told you boldly
that we live in an age when there is the greatest abundance of bad
literature that ever was known in any country in the world, the cheapest
and most accessible bad literature. On the other hand, it is quite true,
and much to the point, masterpieces are now, in cheap form, finding
a market in overwhelming numbers. One well-known series, now num-
bering 500 volumes, has in five years had a gross sale of seven million
copies, with no sign of decrease. The World's Classics from Oxford
count for many of their heroes a sale of 100,000 and an average between
50,000 and 60,000. Let us add that even in the cheapest daily journals
no book of serious worth ever goes without a notice, handling it with
a degree of competence that not so many years ago was only to be
found in half a dozen expensive weeklies. Add on the same side the
extension, popularity, and success of public libraries. Encouraging as
these facts are in every way, still let us face the unpleasant reflection
that if one of the main objects of education must always be to strengthen
the faculty of continuous and coherent attention against that tendency
to futile and ignoble dispersion which confuses the brain and enervates
the will, then are we sure that the printing press, mighty blessing as it
is, can be counted a blessing without alloy.

What is to be the effect upon the great, the noble, the difficult art of
writing ? The writer of either prose or verse is not, and cannot be,
independent of surrounding atmosphere and a responsive audience.
Even the sublimest genius, whose dawn upon the world seems like an
accident, out of all range of knowable cause or condition even he is
carried upon the stream of time and circumstance. We all know how
French was shaped into its extraordinary perfection in the social
influences of the greatest of French Courts. How will our own English
fare amid the swelling tides of democracy? So far, if anybody thinks
that some oddities of diction or tricks of affectation in construction, or
invention of ugly words or revival of worn-out and inappropriate old
ones, that these vicious fopperies show signs of creeping in, it is rather
from above than below ; from those who ought to know better than
those who have had little chance of knowing.

This wholesale admission, then, of the principle of universal franchise,
male and female, into the world of letters is one mark of our new time.



4 SCIENCE AND LITERATURE

Now let me offer a few words on the effects of the relations of letters
and science. We may obviously date a new time from 1859, when
Darwin's Origin of Species appeared, and, along with two or three other
imposing works of that date, launched into common currency a new
vocabulary. We now apply in every sphere, high and low, trivial or
momentous, talk about evolution, natural selection, environment,
heredity, survival of the fittest, and all the rest. The most resolute
and trenchant of Darwinians has warned us that new truths begin as
rank heresies and end as superstitions ; and if he were alive to see
to-day all the effects of his victory on daily speech, perhaps he would
not withdraw his words. That great controversy has died down, or
at least takes new shape, leaving, after all is said, one of the master
contributions to knowledge of nature and its laws, and to man's view
of life and the working of his destinies.

Scientific interest has now shifted into new areas of discovery,
invention, and speculation. Still the spirit of the time remains the
spirit of science, and fact, and ordered knowledge. What has been the
effect of knowledge upon form, on language, on literary art ? It adds
boundless gifts to human conveniences. Does it make an inspiring
public for the master of either prose or verse? Darwin himself made
no pretensions in authorship. He once said to Sir Charles Lyell that
a naturalist's life would be a happy one if he had only to observe and
never to write. Yet he is a writer of excellent form for simple and
direct description, patient accumulation of persuasive arguments,
and a noble and transparent candour in stating what makes against
him, which, if not what is called style, is better for the reader than the
finest style can be. One eminent literary critic of my acquaintance
finds his little volume on earth-worms a most fascinating book, even
as literature. Then, although the controversial exigencies of his day
affected him with a relish for laying too lustily about him with his
powerful flail, I know no more lucid, effective, and manful English
than you will find in Huxley. What more delightful book of travel
than the Himalaya Journals of the great naturalist Hooker, who
carried on his botanical explorations some sixty years ago, and happily
is still among us?

Buffon, as man of science, is now, I assume, little more than a shadow
of a name, and probably even the most highly educated of us know little
more about him than his famous pregnant saying that the style is the
man a saying, by the way, which really meant no more than that,
while Nature gave the material for narrative, it is man who gives the
style. Yet the French to this day count him among the greatest of
their writers for order, unity, precision, method, clearness in scientific
exposition of animated nature, along with majestic gifts of natural
eloquence. And anybody who as orator, preacher, professor, seeks
guide and stimulus for trying the grander effects upon an audience
might do much worse than read Buffon's long renowned and influential
Discourse on Style. Even less ambitious people will find in it much
that is useful and admirable, provided only that we are not drawn to
imitate. May I note that Buffon keeps clear of the mortal sin of
trying to produce with the instrument of prose effects that are by all
the natural laws of language reserved for the domain of poetry, or, in
other words, of asking from any art, whether words, colour, or form,
effects that are beyond its resources. Then comes the greatest of all.



SCIENCE AND LITERATURE 5

Whatever the decision may be as to the value of Goethe's scientific
contribution, this, at least, is certain, that his is the most wondrous ;
the unique case of a man who united high original scientific power of
mind with transcendent gifts in flight, force, and beauty of poetic
imagination.

As for science and the poets, only the other day an attractive little
book published by Sir Norman Lockyer shows how Tennyson, the
composer of verse unsurpassed for exquisite music in our English
tongue, yet followed with unflagging interest the problems of evolution
and all that hangs upon them. Whether astronomy or geology
' terrible muses ', as he well might call them inspired the better
elements of his beautiful work, we may doubt. An English critic has
had the courage to say that there is an insoluble element of prose in
Dante, and Tennyson has hardly shown that the scientific ideas of an
age are soluble in musical words. Browning, his companion poet
nearly universal in his range, was too essentially dramatic, too inde-
pendent of the scientific influences of his day, too careless of expression,
to be a case much in point. Tennyson said of him, he had power of
intellect enough for all of them, but he has not the glory of words '.
Whether he had or not, science was not responsible.

I should like to name, in passing, the English poet who, in Lowell's
words, has written less and pleased more than any other. Gray was
an incessant and a serious student in learned tongues ; and his annota-
tions on the System of Nature, by Linnaeus, his contemporary, bear
witness to his industry and minute observation as naturalist. On
a page of the first volume he has transcribed some Greek words about
our dumb friends. 'We ought to feel', says Aristotle, 'no childish
dislike at inspecting even the humblest living creatures, for in them,
too, dwells something marvellous ; I bid you enter with confidence, for
even here is the divine'. It is pleasant to associate these humanities
with the author of the poem, of which I am still bold enough, with your
leave, to say that it has for a century and a half given to greater
multitudes of men more of the exquisite pleasure of poetry than any
other single piece in all the glorious treasury of English verse.

Now let me take a contemporary the other way. Gabriel Rossetti,
a true poet, if not a great one, very firmly declared himself not at all
sure that the earth really revolved round the sun. He even aggravated
this scandalous position by asking, what, after all, did it matter whether
it moved or not. But then Rossetti was not like other poets, painters,
or plain men. I once happened to meet him on the evening of a General
Election, and was thunderstruck to find that he was not aware of the
immense event shaking the world around us. He added by and by that
he did not suppose it made much difference whether Whig or Tory won.
A greater poet than himself was with us, and shared the Laodicean
humour : I forget who won the election, nor do I recollect exactly what
difference it did make, if any.

In prose fiction was one writer of commanding mind, saturated with
the spirit of science. Who does not feel how George Eliot's creative and
literary art was impaired, and at last worse than impaired, by her
daily associations with science ? Or would it be truer to say I often
thought it would that the decline was due to her own ever-deepening
sense of the pain of the world and the tragedy of sentient being ?
She never looked upon it all as ludibria rerum humanarum, the cruel



6 SCIENCE AND LITERATURE

sport of human things. Nor could she dismiss it in the spirit of Queen
Victoria's saying to Dr. Benson, about the follies and frivolities of
Vanity Fair : ' Archbishop, I sometimes think they must all be mad \
The theatre was too oppressive for George Eliot. The double stress of
emotion and thought, of sympathy and reason, wrought upon her too
intensely for art. She could not, as virile spirits should, reconcile
herself to nature. It needed all her native and well-trained strength of
soul to prevent her, science or no science, from being crushed by the
thought in Keats's lines how ' men sit and hear each other groan ', how
earth is ' full of sorrow and leaden-eyed despairs ' .

Let us look at the invasion of another province by the spirit of the
time. The eager curiosity of all these years about the facts of biology,
chemistry, physics, and their laws, has inevitably quickened the spread
both of the same curiosity and the same respect, quickened by German
example, for ascertained facts into the province of history. We live in
the documentary age. New sources emerge and new papers are daily
dragged to light. In the history of Great Britain alone documents are
every year brought almost in barrow-loads to the grateful student's
door. Sacred archives everywhere are being unsealed. Whether
all this be new truth or old falsehood not every explorer can be
quite sure. But the dilemma is now fixed by fate and literary
fashion, which is itself a kind of fate. A fabric of inspiring narrative
built on foundations of quicksand, on the one side ; on the other
a fearsome jungle of minute detail, every regiment in every battle
numbered, every hour accounted for, every turn of diplomatic craft
tracked. Is this over-burden of recorded fact a misfortune for modern
history ? How hard to move with freedom under it ! Is the pure
scientific impulse to tell the exact truth with all the necessary reserva-
tions easy to combine with regard for artistic pleasure ?

I have been reminded that Renan, who possessed both scientific and
artistic instinct, somewhere wishes that he could use polychromatic ink,
so that he might indicate the subtle shades of doubt that belong to each
adjective and adverb. How distracting to the ordinary reader, who
loves firm line and bold colour ! What would have become of the
splendours of Carlyle's French Revolution if he had followed the scale
and method of his Frederick the Great ? It is an interesting guess that
a good scholar, familiar with the two ancient languages and with French,
could read Gibbon's authorities in five years. The actual mass of print
and manuscript through which Ranke, or Gardiner, must have fought
his way can hardly have been less than five or six times as bulky. This
is the labour of a lifetime. Form as form is buried alive.

Some critics insist that the rarest beauty a style can have is to resemble
speech. Others put it in another way, that if you are content to give
exactitude to the spontaneous thought, then power and grace enough
will follow. Taine says the disappearance of style is the perfection of
style. If these schools are right, Gibbon's writing will hardly please,
and there have been many whom as style it does not please. Be that
as it may, Gibbon's unsurpassed greatness as historian lies not at all in
his selection of words or the fall of his sentence, but in majesty of
historic conception, in superb force of imagination, in the sustained and
symmetric grandeur of his design. And here is the peril of the docu-
mentary age.

The English writer of our own immediate time, with the fullest



SCIENCE AND LITERATURE 7

knowledge and deepest understanding of the fact and spirit of history,
would, I think, be pronounced by most critics with a right to judge
to be the late Lord Acton. His learning has been called by learned
men a marvel. Nor did it ever loosen his hold on practical life, for he
was one of the fortunate beings who are all of one piece. His mind,
notwithstanding a rather puzzling union within the reserved precincts
of theology of submission to authority with his vehement passion for
individual freedom, was still a complete whole. May I read to you
how Mr. Bryce in 1883 once heard him late at night in his library
at Cannes explain in what wise a history of liberty might be made the
central thread of all history ? * He spoke for six or seven minutes only ;
but he spoke like a man inspired, seeming as if from some mountain-
summit high in air he saw beneath him the far-winding path of human
progress from dim Cimmerian shores of prehistoric shadow into the
fuller yet broken and fitful light of the modern time. The eloquence
was splendid, but greater than the eloquence was the penetrating vision
that discerned through all events and in all ages the play of those moral
forces, now exciting, now destroying, always transmuting, which had
moulded and remoulded institutions, and had given to the human spirit
its ceaselessly changing forms of energy. It was as if the whole land-
scape of history had been suddenly lit up by a burst of sunlight '.

Acton's was a leading case where knowledge and profundity was not
matched by form. His page is overloaded, he is often over-subtle, he
has the fault, or shall I call it the literary crime, of allusiveness and
indirect reference he is apt to put to his reader a riddle or a poser,
and then to leave him in the lurch. When all this is said, even in his
severest chapter you will find some of the pregnant, luminous, and
stimulating things that are the very heart and soul of good literature.
It sometimes occurs to me that if those faithful disciples of his were
to make a selection of these deep sayings of their master, they would
produce an anthology of historic wisdom that might well deserve
a favourite place even with the reader whose whole library does not go
beyond a couple of shelves. Meanwhile, here is Acton's own account
of the historian's direct debt to the methods of science : ' If men of
science owe anything to us ', he says, * we may learn much from them
that is essential. For they can show how to test proof, how to secure
fullness and soundness in induction, how to restrain and employ with
safety hypothesis and analogy. It is they who hold the secret of the
mysterious property of the mind by which error ministers to truth,
and truth irrecoverably prevails '.

I find in Sir James Murray's Dictionary a splendid triumph for any
age that I am responsible for having once called literature the most
seductive, deceiving, and dangerous of professions. That text demands
a longer sermon than your time allows. If any of you reject my warn-
ing, impatient as I confess myself of overdoing precepts about style,
let me urge you, besides the fundamental commonplaces about being
above all things simple and direct, lucid and terse, not using two words
where one will do about keeping the standard of proof high, and so
forth let me commend two qualities for one of which I must, against
my will, use a French wordSanity and Justesse. Sanity you know
well, at least by name. Justesse is no synonym for justice ; it is more
like equity, balance, a fair mind, measure, reserve. Voltaire, who,
whatever else we may think of him, knew how to write, said of some



8 SCIENCE AND LITERATURE

great lady : - I am charmed with her just and delicate mind ; without


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Online LibraryJohn MorleyScience and literature → online text (page 1 of 2)