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HOW TO STUDY ENGLISH LITERATURE.
before spoken of in reading works of general literature. For such persons some guidance is obviously necessary. For any one-but especially for persons so situated as those to whom advice is here offered -it is vain to suppose that a really thorough acquaintance with the literature of even one great living nation is a thing possible of attainment. Some plan of study is therefore obviously required for those who, in the intervals of a busy life, desire to bring themselves into contact with the great and beautiful thoughts of which English literature is the store-house.
But before attempting to sketch out such a plan, there is a preliminary question to which we should like to attempt an answer. In what light should those who employ part of their leisure in reading, regard that reading ? as an amusement and recreation merely, or as a part of the business and duty of life? Many will say at once, that their object is, to “improve their minds;" but this is too vague. Moreover, it is by no means clear that desultory reading does improve their minds.
It seems to us that they should regard it as something between the two; as more than a recreation, because its good effects need not be, like those of recreation, confined to the present hour; but yet as destitute of that character of obligation on the conscience which the business and regular work of our life possesses. It ought not to be regarded as simple recreation-as no more than a game of cricket for instance; because it is capable, which cricket is not, of stamping permanent impressions upon the imagination, intellect, affections, and will; and a pursuit which is capable of this entails upon us a corresponding moral obligation that we shall so follow it that those impressions may be for good, and not for harm. Iu other words, considering that what we read, though it be no present duty to read it, may have a powerful influence upon our performance of future duties, by altering, either for the better or for the worse, our general moral and intellectual frame, it is manifestly incumbent upon those who read to make a complete severance in their minds between reading and ordinary amusement, the effect of which perishes with the using, and to look upon books as a sacred trust, for the right use of which they are strictly accountable to the Author of their being.
We bave now come to the consideration of what is the best mode of studying English literature, for persons situated as before described. Now just as, if we are about to travel in a new country, the best thing we can do is to provide ourselves with a good map of that country, and study well beforehand the route we think of taking, noting the dead, waterless, featureless plains for avoidance, and the mountain-chains, the old famous cities, the winding river valleys, for choice, so it is with the study of literature. We should provide ourselves at the outset with a chart of the ground, in the shape of some“ History of English Literature," not too voluminous, which may furnish us with sound genera notions as to how the land lies. If the author knows what he is about, he will tell us which are the fruitful, and which the sterile, periods; gauge for us the force of different minds, the value of different compositions; paint mediocrity in its intrinsic inutility; and represent for us, with brevity and precision, the final judginent of criticism upon, at least, the writers and works of all centuries preceding our own.
Such a manual, or historic sketch, our supposed student should master first of all. It will be strange if, after having done so, he has not contracted a decided inclination towards the genius of some particular writer or writers, whose works he is thereby led to study in detail. When this stage has been gained, a healthy natural taste for whatever is beautiful and whatever is true will in most cases be a sufficient guide to the student, and qualify him to approach and appreciate, as his leisure scrves,
HOW TO STUDY ENGLISH LITERATURE.
many various forms of literary excellence. But there are certain bad habits in reading, which are very common in this country, and deprive our literature of much of the good fruit which it might otherwise bear: these bad habits we proceed to notice in order. They are-1. Partiality or one-sidedness in reading; 2. Desultoriness.
1. PARTIALITY IN READING. The form which this error usually takes is that of placing under a kind of ban, or taboo, a large number of works of genius, because they contain opinions or views of life which do not square with what respectable middleclass society considers as right and correct. This is one of the many stupid and pernicious ways in which modern Puritanism operates. The original Puritans of the reign of Elizabeth, were even more stupid, but certainly more consistent, than their modern representatives. The most staunch and thorough-going amongst them denounced light literature and poetry altogether; in the godly all such studies were sinful trifling; while to the reprobate they should not be allowed, lest the sinner should enjoy life more than the saint. Thus Stephen Gosson in the School of Abuse, written about 1578, inveighed against the poets and play-writers of his day, drawing forth a noble and beautiful reply, The Defence of Poesie, from Sir Philip Sidney. Puritanism has long seen the impossibility of going to such lengths as this; but as it is still, in spite of many commendable moral traits, one-sided, bigoted, narrow, and stupid, just as it was from the first, it shuts its eyes and ears against all light and fragrance that do not proceed from licensed censers, and tries to make English Literature, as used and studied, a stiff, pragmatical, tedious affair itself. TI is the explanation of so many books of " Selections in Verse and Prose,” which make one ask oneself as one turns over the pages, where the compiler has lived, that he seems to possess another English literature, which truly is not another, from that which we have ourselves received ; “Selections” in which Barbauld and Bowles and Logan and Pollok, and a hundred other such minor writers, count for much, while Pope and Burns and Shelley, count for little or nothing; “ Selections” from which the Essay on Man would be excluded as unsound, and the Rape of the Lock as frivolous, and the Hind and Panther as popish, and Shakespeare's sonnets as wanton; “ Selections” finally, which if too pointless to do any harm, are much too mawkish to do a rational person any good.
l'he truth is that Puritanism is just as much in the wrong in its present sidelong attempts to silence the genuine, if sometimes erratic, utterances of genius, as it was in its earlier attempt to suppress literature altogether. The well-meaning persons who make and patronize such selections, may be surprised at the charge, but their procedure in fact arises from a want of faith. Whoever has faith in God as the Author of nature, will not fear, but welcome, the most critical researches which science can insti. tute into every joint and corner of nature's various frame; similarly, whoever has faith in God as the author of the human mind, will feel certain that the final result of the widest review of the works of that mind will be a commanding testimony to the goodness, power, and truth of the God that formed it. Let the young reader take this caution only along with him; not to read any book or work which he is told on good authority is directly opposed to good morals. Let him not read such a poem as Don Juan, for instance; it is the pestilent and noxious fruit of glorious powers mis-used; the mocking, often impure, breath of a soured, corrupted, fallen spirit. But in our literature instances of such extreme abuse of great powers are happily very rare. Whoever has read the masterpieces of the six or seven greatest English poets, is likely, if he has understood them, to be both more thoughtful, and also more religious
HOW TO STUDY ENGLISH LITERATURE.
than before he began them. And this because that earnestness and in. tensity which most often accompany genius are in themselves no mean instalment of the religious temper; so that while the contemplation of such wide divergencies of position and creed in several persons nearly equally gifted cannot but make us tolerant, the perception of that common allegiance which they all bear to God and virtue ought to strengthen our faith. Let it not be forgotten that if lines of Shelley can be shown in which he teaches atheism, and sneers of Dryden at the priests of all nations, which look as if he believed in nothing, the general run of the facts is the other way. Chaucer, bold satirist as he is, overflows in many of his poems with a tender and beautiful devotion to the Saviour, the Virgin, and the saints; in Spenser's Faery Queene the very soul of the chief characters is virtue, and the life of their actions is faith; the world which was in the mind of Shakspeare, and which his plays partly exhibit, is the world which Christ redeemed ;(1) the Paradise Lost soars upon the wings of noble and lofty sentiment; Dryden changed the loose principles and practice of his early manhood for faith and sincerity in his later years ; Pope is said to have died,“ resigned and wrapt up in the love of God and man." This is the general bearing of the facts; and it is no more to be invalidated by what is to be found running counter to it than our trust in Divine goodness need be shaken by the existence of apparent evil in the world. The general order, tending to good and upwards, which, according to Pope, is kept in nature and man, is kept also in literature :
“The general order, since the whole began,
Is kept in Nature and is kept in Man." (2) Observing therefore the caution before given, the young student should, in our opinion, read without partiality ;-sure that any book which has held its ground against the death-dealing hand of Time, must have in it some real substantial excellence which, if he misses at first reading, it is the fault of his discernment,-a fault which patience and a second read. ing will probably cure.
2. DESULTORINESS IN READING. This is the fault of dipping into a book for the sake of some passage which looks amusing, and leaving off as soon as it becomes dry; or of reading anything and everything which takes our fancy, without any fixed plan or order. Concerning this we have only to repeat, as we said at the opening of our remarks, that literature is too potent a draught to be safely taken in this way. The French have a saying, " Il faut savoir se borner, one should know how to limit oneself, and it is a wholesome maxim. Each, after having gained a general knowledge of the whole field, should set himsel some definite task; whether to gain an acquaintance with the entire literature of some particular period, or to master the writings of some one author, or trace the gradual development of some style or department of writing, or take some literary problem, such as the meaning of Shakspeare's sonnets, or the authorship of the letters of Jupius, and try to solve it, He would find, if he did this, that whatever he read would in a most agreeable, and often quite unexpected way, seem to dovetail into, and throw light upon, the subject with which he was engaged.
(1) Among many illustrations, take this from Measure for Measure:
“Why all the souls of men were forfeit once ;
Found out the remedy.' (2) Essay on Man.
A MOTHER'S PRAYER. " For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy
ways.”—Psalm xci. 11.
WILLIAM COX BENNETT.
[For Biographical Notice, see pago 194.) pa-tience (L. patior, to suffer], endurance of evil without murmur. ing. du-ty (L. debeo, to owe), obedience, that which one is bound to do by any obligation. hope (A.-S. hopa], expectation, desire with belief in the prospect of obtaining. er-ring [L. erro, to wander], those who stray from the right way, sinners, wrong-doers.
ANGELS of God, O ye blessed ones sent to us,
Life to make holy, and happy, and dear,
Home with our darling one while she is here.
O thou fair Angel of Health, ever dwell with her,
Through all her hours, making life a delight;
Gladness shall never be all from her sight.
While with our darling, thou, fair one, shalt dwell,
God's living wonders to her thou shalt tell. Angel of Joy, with all happiness gladden her,
Home-love all tender, and friendship all true, And in the years to come, love that shall sadden her
With that too-fulness of bliss known to few.
Angel of Wisdom, be thou from her nevermore;
Rule thou her mortal steps, be still her stay ; Sister of holy Faith, walk with her evermore ;
Safe through the dark paths of time, guide her way. Angel of Patience, should He who but wills for her
Right, will that hers shall be sorrow and care, Let her drink humbly the cup that He fills for her;
Guard her, with trust in His love, from despair. Angel of Duty, thy holy strength lend to her,
Wisdom's commandments, Faith’s will to obey ; Then His own peace, above all, God shall send to her,
Even if thorny and rough be her way. Angel of Love, O let God's pity dwell
her, Christ's tender heart for all sorrow and sin; Let but compassion for those who err swell in her,
Love that to heaven the erring shall win. Angel of Hope, O may God bid thee be with her
All the days here she shall know earthly breath , Sunshine through cloud and gloom, so shall we see with her,
Heaven's own gleams through the darkness of death. Angel of Faith, through thy voice, may God talk with her,
Be thy words to her but wisdom and love;