Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

-an

a very

a

a

and personal positions. This point has been wisely touched in a passage which I would commend to the reflection of every one, in the recent volume of that thoughtful book, 66 Friends in Councıľadmirable specimen of the essay-writing of our day. 6. There is,” it is remarked,

refined use which reading is put to; namely, to counteract the particular evils and temptations of our callings, the original imperfections of our characters, the tendencies of our age, or of our own time of life. Those, for instance, who are versed in dull, crabbed work all day, of a kind which is always exercising the logical faculty and demanding minute, not to say, vexatious criticism, would, during their leisure do wisely. to expatiate in writings of a large and imaginative nature. These, however, are often the persons who particularly avoid poetry and works of imagination, whereas they ought to cultivate them most. For it should be one of the frequent objects of every man who cares for the culture of his whole being, to give some exercise to those faculties which are not demanded by his daily occupations and not encouraged by his disposition.”

In order to guard our habits of reading from the narrowing influences, which arise either from outward or inward temptations, it is necessary to cultivate in our choice of books a large variety, remembering, however, that the variety must be a healthful variety, and not that mere love of change, which, owning no law, is capricious, restless and morbid—at once a symptom and a cause of weakness, and not of health. To the mind that cultivates a thoughtful and well-regulated variety in its reading, this reward will come, that, where before, things seemed separate and insulated, beautiful affinities will reveal themselves ; you will feel the brotherhood, as it were, that exists among all true books, and a deeper sense of the unity of all real literature, with its infinite variety.

In adjusting a diversified course of reading, we must keep in mind that it is not alone the serious literature which gives us power and wisdom, for Truth is often earnest in its joyousness as in its gravity: and it is a beautiful characteristic of our English literature, that it has never been wanting in the happy compound of pathos and playfulness, which we style by that untranslateable term “ Humour” —that kindly perception of the ridiculous which is full of gentleness and sympathy. It is a healthful element: it chastens the dangerous faculty of Wit, turning its envenomed shafts into instruments of healing, it comes from the full heart, and it dwells with charity and love of the pure and the lofty: it holds no fellowship with sarcasm or scoffing or ribaldry, which are issues from the hollow or the sickly heart, and are fatal to the sense of reverence and of many of the humanizing affections. A sound humourous

a

[ocr errors]

literature may be found throughout English language, in prose and verse, from its earliest periods down to our own times, from Chaucer tr. Southey and Charles Lamb; and it behoves us to blend it with graver reading, to bring it, like the innocent and happy face of childhood, in the presence of hard-thinking, self-occupied, care-worn, sullen men, a pensive cheerfulness to recreate despondency and dejection. It is, therefore, not only variety, but a cheerful variety, that should be cultivated. “No heart," it has been well said, “ would have been strong enough to hold the woe of Lear and Othello, except that which had the unquenchable elasticity of Falstaff and the “Midsummer Night's Dream.” As in the author, so in the reader—it is the large culture which gives the more equal command of our faculties, whereas if we close up any of the natural resources to the mind, there follows feebleness or disproportioned power, or moodiness and fantastic melancholy, and, in extreme cases, the crazed brain. If the statistics be accurate, it is an appalling fact that in that region of the United States in which the intellect has been stimulated to most activity, insanity prevails to an extent double that in sections of the country less favourably situated. It would seem that the activity of the intellect had been too much tended, and its health too little. It is a common peril of humanity, with all its grades of danger, from the fitfulness of an ill-regulated mind up to the frenzy of the maniac.

There is a short poem of Southey's, which, in this connection, has a sad interest. Having written one of those humourous ballads drawn from his acquaintance with Spanish legendary history, he added an epilogue telling of its impressions on his household audience, especially the wondering and delighted faces of his children : he turns to his wife,

But when I looked at my mistress' face

It was all too grave the while ;
And when I ceased, methought there was more

Of reproof than of praise in her smile.
That smile I read aright, for thus

Reprovingly said she,
“Such tales are meet for youthful ears,

But give little content to me.
"From thee far rather would I hear

Some sober, sadder lay
Such as I oft have heard, well pleased,

Before those locks were gray.”
“Nay, mistress mine,” I made reply,

"The autumn hath its flowers,
Nor ever is the sky more gay

Than in its wintry hours."

[ocr errors]

This is the poet's wise pleading, and there is warning in the fact that this wife's shrinking from her husband's healthful, hopeful mirth, was the procursor of insanity: and it is sad to know that the poet's own lofty and richly stored mind sank, not, as has been supposex, from the exhaustion of an over-tasked brain, but under the wasting watchings over the wandering of the crazed mind of the wife. This deepens the pensive humour of the lesson he has left us—to find joyous, or at least cheerful companionship, as well as serious, in books.

Assuming that this catholicity of taste, the value of which I have endeavoured to present, is acquired, it then becomes a matter of much moment to have some principes to guide one through the large spaces of which the mind has vision. The capacity for extended and various reading may lose much of its value, if undisciplined and desuitory Indeed, if a large and varied power of reading be indulged in a desultory and chance way, it is likely to be lost: there is no genuine and permanent catholicity of taste for books but what is guarded by principles, and has a discipline of its own. That discipline is twofold : it is guidance we get from other minds, and that which we get front our own; and as these are well and wisely combined, we may secure ample independence for our own thinking, and ample respect for the wisdom of others.

It is not unfrequently thought that the true guidance for habits of reading is to be looked for in prescribed courses of reading, pointing out the books to be read, and the order of proceeding with them. Now, while this external guidance may to a certain extent be useful, I do believe that an elaborately prescribed course of reading would be found neither desirable nor practicable. It does not leave freedom enough to the movements of the reader's own mind; it does not give free enough scope to choice. Our communion with books, to be intelligent, must be more or less spontaneous. It is not possible to anticipate how or when an interest may be awakened in some particular subject or author, and it would be far better to break away from the prescribed list of books, in order to follow out that interest while it is a thoughtful impulse. It would be a sorry tameness of intellect that would not sooner or later, work its way out of the track of the best of

any

such prescribed courses. This is the reason, no doubt, why they are so seldom attempted, and why, when attempted, they are apt to fail.

It may be asked, however, whether every thing is to be left to chance or caprice, whether one is to read what accident puts in the way-what happens to be reviewed or talked about. No! far from it: there would in this be no more exercise of rational will than in the other process ;.

[ocr errors]

in truth, the slavery to chance is a worse evil than slavery to authority. So far as the origin of a taste for reading can be traced in the growth of the mind, it will be found, I think, mostly in the mind's own prompting; and the power thus engendered is, like all other powers in our being, to be looked to as something to be cultivated and chastened, and then its disciplined freedom will prove more and more its own safest guide. It will provide itself with more of philosophy than it is aware of in its choice of books, and will the better understand their relative virtues. On the other hand, I apprehend that often a taste for reading is quenched by rigid and injudicious prescription of books in which the inind takes no interest, can assimilate nothing to itself, and recognises no progress but what the eye takes count of in the reckoning of pages it has travelled over. It lies on the mind, unpalateable, heavy, undigested food.

But reverse the process : observe or engender the interest as best you may, in the young mind, and then work with that-expanding, cultivating, chastening it.

It matters little from what point, or with what book a young reader begins his career, provided he brings along that thoughtful spirit of inquiry in which activity and docility are justly balanced. No good book is an insulated thing ; you can always, if you will but look for them, discover leadings on to something else—other books on the same or kindred subjects or other books by the same author. You acquire an affection for an author, and that may be made to embrace the books of his affection. I know of no more practical or safer principle in the guidance of one's reading, than thus to follow an author in whom you feel that your confidence is well placed. There are what may, in this respect, be called guiding authors, whose genial love of letters was not only light to their own lives, but still shines, a lamp to show the path to others. You feel that what they loved may fitly be loved by you ; that what stirred their spirits may have a power over yours. shall we find perpetual guidance, following it with freedom and loyalty, and extending our acquaintance with books just in the way in which we do with our acquaintance with living men and women. books for instruction or amusement, but hardly enough for guidance. Let me rapidly exemplify this principle, the value of which is, perhaps, in danger of being overlooked only from its simplicity. Take such a book as Southey's Life of Cowper, and you shall perceive the mind of Cowper and of his biographer so touching in various ways upon er authors, as to attract you to a large and admirable variety of the best literature in the language. Taking that remarkable work “The Doctor," in which Southey poured forth the vast abundance of his fine scholar

And so

We use

ship, or the Elia Essays, you will find guidance into many of the beautiful and secluded spots in English literature. Or again, what countless suggestions for life-long reading, and what wise guidance to profitable studies may not be found in the several works of Coleridge! I mention these as eminently “guiding authors," and it would be easy to add to the list others of the same class in their degree. This is a use of books which combines healthful independence of judgment with healthful reverence for authority, giving safety from the two extremes -carelessness and servility of opinion.

It affords a communion of thought which is, in some respects, better than more formal criticism. It is free from some of the teinptations of such criticism which we must be careful not to use too much of in these times of many reviews and magazines, and when we turn to them for guidance, we must shun as a pestilence, all heartless criticism, all uncongenial criticism, such especially as unimaginative handling of subjects of imagination, and all malignant criticism. The criticism, which may well be followed and commenced with is that of which it has been said, “ It may almost be called a religious criticism, for it holds out its warnings when multitudes are mad; and there is a criticism founded upon patient research and studious deliberation, which, even if it be given somewhat rudely and harshly, cannot but be useful. And there is the loving criticism, which explains, elicits, illumines; showing the force and beauty of some great word or deed, which, but for the kind care of the critic, might remain a dead letter or an inert fact; teaching the people to understand and to admire what is admirable."

In following out the general principle presented in the last lecture, that literature, that which is essentially literature in the highest sense of the term—is meant to give power rather than information, and in cherishing a catholicity of taste for books, it is a good practical rule to keep one's reading well proportioned in the two great divisions, prose and poetry. This is very apt to be neglected, and the consequence is a great loss of power, moral and intellectual, and a loss of some of the highest enjoyments of literature. It sometimes happens that some readers devote themselves too much to poetry: this is a great mistake, and betrays an ignorance of the true uses of poetical studies. When this happens, it is generally with those whose reading lies chiefly in the lower and merely sentimental region of poetry, for it is hardly possible for the imagination to enter truly into the spirit of the great poets, without having the various faculties of the mind so awakened and invigorated, as to make a knowledge of the great prose writers also a necessity of one's nature.

« ÎnapoiContinuați »