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On the Lineage of English Literature: Part I

Wednesday, October 22

You may think it strange, Gentlemen, that of a course of ten lectures which aim to treat English Literature as an affair of practice, I should propose to spend two in discussing our literary lineage: a man's lineage and geniture being reckoned, as a rule, among the things he cannot be reasonably asked to amend. But since of high breeding is begotten (as most of us believe) a disposition to high thoughts, high deeds; since to have it and be modestly conscious of it is to carry within us a faithful monitor persuading us to whatsoever in conduct is gentle, honourable, of good repute, and so silently dissuading us from base thoughts, low ends, ignoble gains; seeing, moreover, that a man will often do more to match his father's virtue than he would to improve himself; I shall endeavour, in this and my next lecture, to scour that spur of ancestry and present it to you as so bright and sharp an incentive that you, who read English Literature and practise writing here in Cambridge, shall not pass out from her insensible of the dignity of your studies, or without pride or remorse according as you have interpreted in practice the motto, Noblesse oblige.

          'Tis wisdom, and that high,
     For men to use their fortune reverently
     Even in youth.

Let me add that, just as a knowledge of his family failings will help one man in economising his estate, or warn another to shun for his health the pleasures of the table, so some knowledge of our lineage in letters may put us, as Englishmen, on the watch for certain national defects (for such we have), on our guard against certain sins which too easily beset us. Nay, this watchfulness may well reach down from matters of great moment to seeming trifles. It is good for us to recognise with Wordsworth that

     We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
     That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
     Which Milton held. In everything we are sprung
     Of Earth's first blood, have titles manifold.

But, though less important, it is good also to recognise that, as sons of Cambridge, we equally offend against her breeding when in our scientific writings we allow ourselves to talk of a microbe as an 'antibody.'

Now, because a great deal of what I have to say this morning, if not heretical, will yet run contrary to the vogue and practice of the Schools for these thirty years, I will take the leap into my subject over a greater man's back and ask you to listen with particular attention to the following long passage from a writer whose opinion you may challenge, but whose authority to speak as a master of English prose no one in this room will deny.

When (says Cardinal Newman) we survey the stream of human affairs for the last three thousand years, we find it to run thus:--At first sight there is so much fluctuation, agitation, ebbing and flowing, that we may despair to discern any law in its movements, taking the earth as its bed and mankind as its contents; but on looking more closely and attentively we shall discern, in spite of the heterogeneous materials and the various histories and fortunes which are found in the race of man during the long period I have mentioned, a certain formation amid the chaos--one and one only,--and extending, though not over the whole earth, yet through a very considerable portion of it. Man is a social being and can hardly exist without society, and in matter of fact societies have ever existed all over the habitable earth. The greater part of these associations have been political or religious, and have been comparatively limited in extent and temporary. They have been formed and dissolved by the force of accidents, or by inevitable circumstances; and when we have enumerated them one by one we have made of them all that can be made. But there is one remarkable association which attracts the attention of the philosopher, not political nor religious--or at least only partially and not essentially such--which began in the earliest times and grew with each succeeding age till it reached its complete development, and then continued on, vigorous and unwearied, and still remains as definite and as firm as ever it was. Its bond is a common civilisation: and though there are other civilisations in the world, as there are other societies, yet this civilisation, together with the society which is its creation and its home, is so distinctive and luminous in its character, so imperial in its extent, so imposing in its duration, and so utterly without rival on the face of the earth, that the association may fitly assume to itself the title of 'Human Society,' and its civilisation the abstract term 'Civilisation.'

There are indeed great outlying portions of mankind which are not, perhaps never have been, included in this Human Society; still they are outlying portions and nothing else, fragmentary, unsociable, solitary and unmeaning, protesting and revolting against the grand central formation of which I am speaking, but not uniting with each other into a second whole. I am not denying, of course, the civilisation of the Chinese, for instance, though it be not our civilisation; but it is a huge, stationary, unattractive, morose civilisation. Nor do I deny a civilisation to the Hindoos, nor to the ancient Mexicans, nor to the Saracens, nor (in a certain sense) to the Turks; but each of these races has its own civilisation, as separate from one another as from ours.

I do not see how they can be all brought under one idea....

Gentlemen, let me here observe that I am not entering upon the question of races, or upon their history. I have nothing to do with ethnology; I take things as I find them on the surface of history and am but classifying phenomena. Looking, then, at the countries which surround the Mediterranean Sea as a whole, I see them to be from time immemorial, the seat of an association of intellect and mind such as to deserve to be called the Intellect and the Mind of the Human Kind. Starting as it does, and advancing from certain centres, till their respective influences intersect and conflict, and then at length intermingle and combine, a common Thought has been generated, and a common Civilisation defined and established. Egypt is one such starting point, Syria, another, Greece a third, Italy a fourth and North Africa a fifth--afterwards France and Spain. As time goes on, and as colonisation and conquest work their changes, we see a great association of nations formed, of which the Roman Empire is the maturity and the most intelligible expression: an association, however, not political but mental, based on the same intellectual ideas and advancing by common intellectual methods.... In its earliest age it included far more of the Eastern world than it has since; in these later times it has taken into its compass a new hemisphere; in the Middle Ages it lost Africa, Egypt and Syria, and extended itself to Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles. At one time its territory was flooded by strange and barbarous races, but the existing civilisation was vigorous enough to vivify what threatened to stifle it, and to assimilate to the old social forms what came to expel them: and thus the civilisation of modern times remains what it was of old; not Chinese, or Hindoo, or Mexican, or Saracen ... but the lineal descendant, or rather the continuation--mutatis mutandis--of the civilisation which began in Palestine and Greece.

To omit, then, all minor debts such as what of arithmetic, what of astronomy, what of geography, we owe to the Saracen, from Palestine we derive the faith of Europe shared (in the language of the Bidding Prayer) by all Christian people dispersed throughout the world; as to Greece we owe the rudiments of our Western art, philosophy, letters; and not only the rudiments but the continuing inspiration, so that--though entirely superseded in worship, as even in the Athens of Pericles they were worshipped only by an easy, urbane, more than half humorous tolerance--Apollo and the Muses, Zeus and the great ones of Olympus, Hermes and Hephaestus, Athene in her armour, with her vanquisher the foam-born irresistible Aphrodite, these remain the authentic gods of our literature, beside whom the gods of northern Europe--Odin, Thor, Freya--are strangers, unhomely, uncanny as the shadows of unfamiliar furniture on the walls of an inn. Sprung though great numbers of us are from the loins of Northmen, it is in these gracious deities of the South that we find the familiar and the real, as from the heroes of the sister-island, Cucullain and Concobar, we turn to Hercules, to Perseus, to Bellerophon, even to actual men of history, saying 'Give us Leonidas, give us Horatius, give us Regulus. These are the mighty ones we understand, and from whom, in a direct line of tradition, we understand Harry of Agincourt, Philip Sidney and our Nelson.'

Now since, of the Mediterranean peoples, the Hebrews discovered the Unseen God whom the body of Western civilisation has learnt to worship; since the Greeks invented art, philosophy, letters; since Rome found and developed the idea of imperial government, of imperial colonies as superseding merely fissiparous ones, of settling where she conquered (ubi Romanus vicit ibi habitat) and so extending with Government that system of law which Europe still obeys; we cannot be surprised that Israel, Greece, Rome--each in turn--set store on a pure ancestry. Though Christ be the veritable Son of God, his ancestry must be traced back through his supposed father Joseph to the stem of Jesse, and so to Abraham, father of the race. Again, as jealously as the Evangelist claimed Jesus for a Hebrew of the Hebrews, so, if you will turn to the "Menexenus" of Plato in the Oration of Aspasia over the dead who perished in battle, you hear her claim that 'No Pelopes nor Cadmians, nor Egyptians, nor Dauni, nor the rest of the crowd of born foreigners dwell with us; but ours is the land of pure Hellenes, free from admixture.' These proud Athenians, as you know, wore brooches in the shape of golden grasshoppers, to signify that they were [Greek: autochthones], children of Attica, sprung direct from her soil. And so, again, the true Roman, while enlarging Rome's citizenship over Asia, Africa, Gaul, to our remote Britain, insisted, even in days of the later Empire, on his pure descent from Æneas and Romulus--

          Unde Remnes et Quirites proque prole posterum
          Romuli matrem crearet et nepotem Cæsarem.

With the Ramnes, Quirites, together ancestrally proud as they drew From Romulus down to our Cæsar-last, best of that blood, of that threw.

Here is a boast that we English must be content to forgo. We may wear a rose on St George's day, if we are clever enough to grow one. The Welsh, I dare say, have less difficulty with the leek. But April the 23rd is not a time of roses that we can pluck them as we pass, nor can we claim St George as a compatriot--Cappadocius nostras. We have, to be sure, a few legendary heroes, of whom King Arthur and Robin Hood are (I suppose) the greatest; but, save in some Celtic corners of the land, we have few fairies, and these no great matter; while, as for tutelary gods, our springs, our wells, our groves, cliffs, mountain-sides, either never possessed them or possess them no longer. Not of our landscape did it happen that

     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.

--for the sufficient reason that no tutelary gods of importance were ever here to be dispersed.

Let me press this home upon you by an illustration which I choose with the double purpose of enforcing my argument and sending you to make acquaintance (if you have not already made it) with one of the loveliest poems written in our time.

In one of Pliny's letters you will find a very pleasant description of the source of the Clitumnus, a small Umbrian river which, springing from a rock in a grove of cypresses, descends into the Tinia, a tributary of the Tiber. 'Have you ever,' writes Pliny to his friend Romanus--

Have you ever seen the source of the Clitumnus? I suppose not, as I never heard you mention it. Let me advise you to go there at once. I have just visited it and am sorry that I put off my visit so long. At the foot of a little hill, covered with old and shady cypress trees, a spring gushes and bursts into a number of streamlets of various size. Breaking, so to speak, forth from its imprisonment, it expands into a broad basin, so clear and transparent that you may count the pebbles and little pieces of money which are thrown into it. From this point the force and weight of the water, rather than the slope of the ground, hurry it onward. What was a mere spring becomes a noble river, broad enough to allow vessels to pass each other as they sail with or against the stream. The current is so strong, though the ground is level, that barges of beam, as they go down, require no assistance of oars; while to go up is as much as can be done with oars and long poles.... The banks are clothed with abundant ash and poplar, so distinctly reflected in the transparent waters that they seem to be growing at the bottom of the river and can be counted with ease. The water is as cold as snow and as pure in colour. Hard by the spring stands an ancient and venerable temple with a statue of the river-god Clitumnus, clothed in the customary robe of state. The Oracles here delivered attest the presence of the deity. Close in the precinct stand several little chapels dedicated to particular gods, each of whom owns his distinctive name and special worship, and is the tutelary deity of a runlet. For beside the principal spring, which is, as it were, the parent of all the rest, there are several smaller ones which have their distinct sources but unite their waters with the Clitumnus, over which a bridge is thrown, separating the sacred part of the river from that which is open to general use. Above the bridge you may only go in a boat; below it, you may swim. The people of the town of Hispallum, to whom Augustus gave this place, furnish baths and lodgings at the public expense. There are several small dwelling-houses on the banks, in specially picturesque situations, and they stand quite close to the waterside. In short, everything in the neighbourhood will give you pleasure. You may also amuse yourself with numberless inscriptions on the pillars and walls, celebrating the praises of the stream and of its tutelary god. Many of these you will admire, and some will make you laugh. But no! You are too well cultivated to laugh at such things. Farewell.

Clitumnus still gushes from its rocks among the cypresses, as in Pliny's day. The god has gone from his temple, on the frieze of which you may read this later inscription--'Deus Angelorum, qui fecit Resurrectionem.' After many centuries and almost in our day, by the brain of Cavour and the sword of Garibaldi, he has made a resurrection for Italy. As part of that resurrection (for no nation can live and be great without its poet) was born a true poet, Carducci. He visited the bountiful, everlasting source, and of what did he sing? Possess yourselves, as for a shilling you may, of his Ode "Alle fonte del Clitumno," and read: for few nobler poems have adorned our time. He sang of the weeping willow, the ilex, ivy, cypress and the presence of the god still immanent among them. He sang of Umbria, of the ensigns of Rome, of Hannibal swooping down over the Alps; he sang of the nuptials of Janus and Comesena, progenitors of the Italian people; of nymphs, naiads, and the moonlight dances of Oreads; of flocks descending to the river at dusk, of the homestead, the bare-footed mother, the clinging child, the father, clad in goat-skins, guiding the ox-wagon; and he ends on the very note of Virgil's famous apostrophe

     Sed neque Medorum silvae, ditissima terra...

with an invocation of Italy--Italy, mother of bullocks for agriculture, of wild colts for battle, mother of corn and of the vine, Roman mother of enduring laws and mediaeval mother of illustrious arts. The mountains, woods and waters of green Umbria applaud the song, and across their applause is heard the whistle of the railway train bearing promise of new industries and a new national life.

     E tu, pia madre di giovenchi invitti
     a franger glebe e rintegrar maggesi
     e d' annitrenti in guerra aspri polledri,
     Italia madre,

madre di biade e viti e leggi eterne ed incliti arti a raddolcir la vita salve! a te i canti de l' antica lode io rinovello.

Plaudono i monti al carme e i boschi e l' acque de l' Umbria verde: in faccia a noi fumando ed anelando nuove industrie in corsa fischia il vapore.

And thou, O pious mother of unvanquished Bullocks to break glebe, to restore the fallow, And of fierce colts for neighing in the battle: Italy, mother,

Mother of corn and vines and of eternal Laws and illustrious arts the life to sweeten, Hail, hail, all hail! The song of ancient praises Renew I to thee!

The mountains, woods and waters of green Umbria Applaud the song: and here before us fuming And longing for new industries, a-racing Whistles the white steam.

(I quote from a translation by Mr E.J. Watson, recently published by Messrs J.W. Arrowsmith, of Bristol.)

I put it to you, Gentlemen, that, worthy as are the glories of England to be sung, this note of Carducci's we cannot decently or honestly strike. Great lives have been bled away into Tweed and Avon: great spirits have been oared down the Thames to Traitor's Gate and the Tower. Deeds done on the Cam have found their way into history. But I once traced the Avon to its source under Naseby battlefield, and found it issuing from the fragments of a stucco swan. No god mounts guard over the head-water of the Thames; and the only Englishman who boldly claims a divine descent is (I understand) an impostor who runs an Agapemone. In short we are a mixed race, and our literature is derivative. Let us confine our pride to those virtues, not few, which are honestly ours. A Roman noble, even to-day, has some excuse for reckoning a god in his ancestry, or at least a wolf among its wet-nurses: but of us English even those who came over with William the Norman have the son of a tanner's daughter for escort. I very well remember that, the other day, writers who vindicated our hereditary House of Lords against a certain Parliament Act commonly did so on the ground that since the Reform Bill of 1832, by inclusion of all that was eminent in politics, war and commerce, the Peerage had been so changed as to know itself no longer for the same thing. That is our practical way.

At all events, the men who made our literature had never a doubt, as they were careless to dissimulate, that they were conquering our tongue to bring it into the great European comity, the civilisation of Greece and Rome. An Elizabethan writer, for example, would begin almost as with a formula by begging to be forgiven that he has sought to render the divine accent of Plato, the sugared music of Ovid, into our uncouth and barbarous tongue. There may have been some mock-modesty in this, but it rested on a base of belief. Much of the glory of English Literature was achieved by men who, with the splendour of the Renaissance in their eyes, supposed themselves to be working all the while upon pale and borrowed shadows.

Let us pass the enthusiasms of days when 'bliss was it in that dawn to be alive' and come down to Alexander Pope and the Age of Reason. Pope at one time proposed to write a History of English Poetry, and the draft scheme of that History has been preserved. How does it begin? Why thus:--

                         ERA I.

1. School of Provence Chaucer's Visions. Romaunt of the Rose. Piers Plowman. Tales from Boccace. Gower.

2. School of Chaucer Lydgate. T. Occleve. Walt. de Mapes (a bad error, that!). Skelton.

3. School of Petrarch E. of Surrey. Sir Thomas Wyatt. Sir Philip Sidney. G. Gascoyn.

4. School of Dante Lord Buckhurst's Induction. Gorboduc. Original of Good Tragedy. Seneca his model.

--and so on. The scheme after Pope's death came into the hands of Gray, who for a time was fired with the notion of writing the History in collaboration with his friend Mason. Knowing Gray's congenital self-distrust, you will not be surprised that in the end he declined the task and handed it over to Warton. But, says Mant in his Life of Warton, 'their design'--that is, Gray's design with Mason--'was to introduce specimens of the Proveçal poetry, and of the Scaldic, British and Saxon, as preliminary to what first deserved to be called English poetry, about the time of Chaucer, from whence their history properly so called was to commence.' A letter of Gray's on the whole subject, addressed to Warton, is extant, and you may read it in Dr Courthope's "History of English Poetry."

Few in this room are old enough to remember the shock of awed surmise which fell upon young minds presented, in the late 'seventies or early 'eighties of the last century, with Freeman's "Norman Conquest" or Green's "Short History of the English People"; in which as through paring clouds of darkness, we beheld our ancestry, literary as well as political, radiantly legitimised; though not, to be sure, in the England that we knew--but far away in Sleswick, happy Sleswick! 'Its pleasant pastures, its black-timbered homesteads, its prim little townships looking down on inlets of purple water, were then but a wild waste of heather and sand, girt along the coast with sunless woodland, broken here and there with meadows which crept down to the marshes and to the sea.' But what of that? There--surely there, in Sleswick--had been discovered for us our august mother's marriage lines; and if the most of that bright assurance came out of an old political skit, the "Germania" of Tacitus, who recked at the time? For along followed Mr Stopford Brooke with an admirable little Primer published at one shilling, to instruct the meanest of us in our common father's actual name--Beowulf.

Beowulf is an old English Epic.... There is not one word about our England in the poem.... The whole poem, pagan as it is, is English to its very root. It is sacred to us; our Genesis, the book of our origins.

Now I am not only incompetent to discuss with you the more recondite beauties of "Beowulf" but providentially forbidden the attempt by the conditions laid down for this Chair. I gather--and my own perusal of the poem and of much writing about it confirms the belief--that it has been largely over-praised by some critics, who have thus naturally provoked others to underrate it. Such things happen. I note, but without subscribing to it, the opinion of Vigfússon and York Powell, the learned editors of the "Corpus Poeticum Boreale," that in the "Beowulf" we have 'an epic completely metamorphosed in form, blown out with long-winded empty repetitions and comments by a book poet, so that one must be careful not to take it as a type of the old poetry,' and I seem to hear as from the grave the very voice of my old friend the younger editor in that unfaltering pronouncement. But on the whole I rather incline to accept the cautious surmise of Professor W. P. Ker that 'a reasonable view of the merit of Beowulf is not impossible, though rash enthusiasm may have made too much of it; while a correct and sober taste may have too contemptuously refused to attend to Grendel and the Firedrake,' and to leave it at that. I speak very cautiously because the manner of the late Professor Freeman, in especial, had a knack of provoking in gentle breasts a resentment which the mind in its frailty too easily converted to a prejudice against his matter: while to men trained to admire Thucydides and Tacitus and acquainted with Lucian's 'Way to Write History' ([Greek: Pos dei istorian suggraphein]) his loud insistence that the art was not an art but a science, and moreover recently invented by Bishop Stubbs, was a perpetual irritant.

But to return to "Beowulf"--You have just heard the opinions of scholars whose names you must respect. I, who construe Anglo-Saxon with difficulty, must admit the poem to contain many fine, even noble, passages. Take for example Hrothgar's lament for Æschere:--

     Hróthgar mathelode, helm Scyldinga:
     'Ne frin thú æfter sælum; sorh is geniwod
     Denigea leódum; deád is Æschere,
     Yrmenláfes yldra bróthor,
     Mín rún-wita, ond min ræd-bora;
     Eaxl-gestealla, thonne we on orlege
     Hafelan wéredon, thonne hniton fethan,
     Eoferas cnysedan: swylc scolde eorl wesan
     Ætheling ær-gód, swylc Æschere wæs.'

(Hrothgar spake, helm of the Scyldings: 'Ask not after good tidings. Sorrow is renewed among the Dane-folk. Dead is Æschere, Yrmenlaf's elder brother, who read me rune and bore me rede; comrade at shoulder when we fended our heads in war and the boar-helms rang. Even so should we each be an atheling passing good, as Æschere was.')

This is simple, manly, dignified. It avoids the besetting sin of the Anglo-Saxon gleeman--the pretentious trick of calling things 'out of their right names' for the sake of literary effect (as if e.g. the sea could be improved by being phrased into 'the seals' domain'). Its Anglo-Saxon staccato, so tiresome in sustained narrative, here happens to suit the broken utterance of mourning. In short, it exhibits the Anglo-Saxon Muse at her best, not at her customary. But set beside it a passage in which Homer tells of a fallen warrior--at haphazard, as it were, a single corpse chosen from the press of battle--

     [Greek: polla de chermadia megal aspidas estuphelixam
             marnamenon amph auton o d en strophaliggi konies
             keito megas megalosti, lelasmenos ipposunaom.]

Can you--can anyone--compare the two passages and miss to see that they belong to two different kingdoms of poetry? I lay no stress here on 'architectonics.' I waive that the "Iliad" is a well-knit epic and the story of "Beowulf" a shapeless monstrosity. I ask you but to note the difference of note, of accent, of mere music. And I have quoted you but a passage of the habitual Homer. To assure yourselves that he can rise even from this habitual height to express the extreme of majesty and of human anguish in poetry which betrays no false note, no strain upon the store of emotion man may own with self-respect and exhibit without derogation of dignity, turn to the last book of the "Iliad" and read of Priam raising to his lips the hand that has murdered his son. I say confidently that no one unable to distinguish this, as poetry, from the very best of "Beowulf" is fit to engage upon business as a literary critic.

In "Beowulf" then, as an imported poem, let us allow much barbarian merit. It came of dubious ancestry, and it had no progeny. The pretence that our glorious literature derives its lineage from "Beowulf" is in vulgar phrase 'a put up job'; a falsehood grafted upon our text-books by Teutonic and Teutonising professors who can bring less evidence for it than will cover a threepenny-piece. Its run for something like that money, in small educational manuals, has been in its way a triumph of pedagogic réclame.

Our rude forefathers--the author of "The Rape of the Lock" and of the "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard"--knew nothing of the Exeter and Vercelli Books, nothing of the Ruthwell Cross. But they were poets, practitioners of our literature in the true line of descent, and they knew certain things which all such artists know by instinct. So, before our historians of thirty-odd years ago started to make Chaucer and Beowulf one, these rude forefathers made them two. 'Nor am I confident they erred.' Rather I am confident, and hope in succeeding lectures to convince you, that, venerable as Anglo-Saxon is, and worthy to be studied as the mother of our vernacular speech (as for a dozen other reasons which my friend Professor Chadwick will give you), its value is historical rather than literary, since from it our Literature is not descended. Let me repeat it in words that admit of no misunderstanding--From Anglo-Saxon Prose, from Anglo-Saxon Poetry our living Prose and Poetry have, save linguistically, no derivation. I shall attempt to demonstrate that, whether or not Anglo-Saxon literature, such as it was, died of inherent weakness, die it did, and of its collapse the "Vision of Piers Plowman" may be regarded as the last dying spasm. I shall attempt to convince you that Chaucer did not inherit any secret from Caedmon or Cynewulf, but deserves his old title, 'Father of English Poetry,' because through Dante, through Boccaccio, through the lays and songs of Provence, he explored back to the Mediterranean, and opened for Englishmen a commerce in the true intellectual mart of Europe. I shall attempt to heap proof on you that whatever the agency--whether through Wyat or Spenser, Marlowe or Shakespeare, or Donne, or Milton, or Dryden, or Pope, or Johnson, or even Wordsworth--always our literature has obeyed, however unconsciously, the precept Antiquam exquirite matrem, 'Seek back to the ancient mother'; always it has recreated itself, has kept itself pure and strong, by harking back to bathe in those native--yes, native--Mediterranean springs.

Do not presume me to be right in this. Rather, if you will, presume me to be wrong until the evidence is laid out for your judgment. But at least understand to-day how profoundly a man, holding that view, must deplore the whole course of academical literary study during these thirty years or so, and how distrust what he holds to be its basal fallacies.

For, literature being written in language, yet being something quite distinct, and the development of our language having been fairly continuous, while the literature of our nation exhibits a false start--a break, silence, repentance, then a renewal on right glorious lines--our students of literature have been drilled to follow the specious continuance while ignoring the actual break, and so to commit the one most fatal error in any study; that of mistaking the inessential for the essential.

As I tried to persuade you in my Inaugural Lecture, our first duty to Literature is to study it absolutely, to understand, in Aristotelian phrase, its [Greek: to ti en einae]; what it is and what it means. If that be our quest, and the height of it be realised, it is nothing to us--or almost nothing--to know of a certain alleged poet of the fifteenth century, that he helped us over a local or temporary disturbance in our vowel-endings. It is everything to have acquired and to possess such a norm of Poetry within us that we know whether or not what he wrote was POETRY.

Do not think this easy. The study of right literary criticism is much more difficult than the false path usually trodden; so difficult, indeed, that you may easily count the men who have attempted to grasp the great rules and apply them to writing as an art to be practised. But the names include some very great ones--Aristotle, Horace, Quintilian, Corneille, Boileau, Dryden, Johnson, Lessing, Coleridge, Goethe, Sainte-Beuve, Arnold: and the study, though it may not find its pattern in our time, is not unworthy to be proposed for another attempt before a great University.


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Arthur Quiller-Couch