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SYSTEM IN READING






From: Literary Taste How to Form It

You have now definitely set sail on the sea of literature.
You are afloat, and your anchor is up. I think I have given
adequate warning of the dangers and disappointments which await
the unwary and the sanguine. The enterprise in which you are engaged
is not facile, nor is it short. I think I have sufficiently predicted
that you will have your hours of woe, during which you may be
inclined to send to perdition all writers, together with
the inventor of printing. But if you have become really friendly
with Lamb; if you know Lamb, or even half of him; if you have formed
an image of him in your mind, and can, as it were, hear him brilliantly
stuttering while you read his essays or letters, then certainly
you are in a fit condition to proceed and you want to know
in which direction you are to proceed. Yes, I have caught
your terrified and protesting whisper: "I hope to heaven
he isn't going to prescribe a Course of English Literature,
because I feel I shall never be able to do it!" I am not.
If your object in life was to be a University Extension Lecturer
in English literature, then I should prescribe something
drastic and desolating. But as your object, so far as
I am concerned, is simply to obtain the highest and most tonic form
of artistic pleasure of which you are capable, I shall not prescribe
any regular course. Nay, I shall venture to dissuade you
from any regular course. No man, and assuredly no beginner,
can possibly pursue a historical course of literature
without wasting a lot of weary time in acquiring mere knowledge
which will yield neither pleasure nor advantage. In the choice of reading
the individual must count; caprice must count, for caprice is often
the truest index to the individuality. Stand defiantly on your own feet,
and do not excuse yourself to yourself. You do not exist in order
to honour literature by becoming an encyclopędia of literature.
Literature exists for your service. Wherever you happen to be,
that, for you, is the centre of literature.


Still, for your own sake you must confine yourself for a long time
to recognised classics, for reasons already explained. And though
you should not follow a course, you must have a system or principle.
Your native sagacity will tell you that caprice, left quite unfettered,
will end by being quite ridiculous. The system which I recommend
is embodied in this counsel: Let one thing lead to another.
In the sea of literature every part communicates with every other part;
there are no land-locked lakes. It was with an eye to this system
that I originally recommended you to start with Lamb.
Lamb, if you are his intimate, has already brought you into relations
with a number of other prominent writers with whom you can
in turn be intimate, and who will be particularly useful to you.
Among these are Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt.
You cannot know Lamb without knowing these men, and some of them
are of the highest importance. From the circle of Lamb's own work
you may go off at a tangent at various points, according to
your inclination. If, for instance, you are drawn towards poetry,
you cannot, in all English literature, make a better start than
with Wordsworth. And Wordsworth will send you backwards to
a comprehension of the poets against whose influence Wordsworth fought.
When you have understood Wordsworth's and Coleridge's *Lyrical Ballads*,
and Wordsworth's defence of them, you will be in a position to judge
poetry in general. If, again, your mind hankers after an earlier
and more romantic literature, Lamb's *Specimens of English Dramatic Poets
Contemporary with Shakspere* has already, in an enchanting fashion,
piloted you into a vast gulf of "the sea which is Shakspere."


Again, in Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt you will discover essayists
inferior only to Lamb himself, and critics perhaps not inferior.
Hazlitt is unsurpassed as a critic. His judgments are convincing
and his enthusiasm of the most catching nature. Having arrived
at Hazlitt or Leigh Hunt, you can branch off once more
at any one of ten thousand points into still wider circles.
And thus you may continue up and down the centuries as far
as you like, yea, even to Chaucer. If you chance to read Hazlitt
on *Chaucer and Spenser*, you will probably put your hat on instantly
and go out and buy these authors; such is his communicating fire!
I need not particularise further. Commencing with Lamb,
and allowing one thing to lead to another, you cannot fail
to be more and more impressed by the peculiar suitability
to your needs of the Lamb entourage and the Lamb period.
For Lamb lived in a time of universal rebirth in English literature.
Wordsworth and Coleridge were re-creating poetry; Scott was re-creating
the novel; Lamb was re-creating the human document; and Hazlitt,
Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, and others were re-creating criticism.
Sparks are flying all about the place, and it will be not less than
a miracle if something combustible and indestructible in you
does not take fire.


I have only one cautionary word to utter. You may be saying
to yourself: "So long as I stick to classics I cannot go wrong."
You can go wrong. You can, while reading naught but very fine stuff,
commit the grave error of reading too much of one kind of stuff.
Now there are two kinds, and only two kinds. These two kinds are not
prose and poetry, nor are they divided the one from the other
by any differences of form or of subject. They are the inspiring kind
and the informing kind. No other genuine division exists in literature.
Emerson, I think, first clearly stated it. His terms were
the literature of "power" and the literature of "knowledge."
In nearly all great literature the two qualities are to be found
in company, but one usually predominates over the other.
An example of the exclusively inspiring kind is Coleridge's *Kubla Khan*.
I cannot recall any first-class example of the purely informing kind.
The nearest approach to it that I can name is Spencer's
*First Principles*, which, however, is at least once highly inspiring.
An example in which the inspiring quality predominates is *Ivanhoe*;
and an example in which the informing quality predominates is
Hazlitt's essays on Shakespeare's characters. You must avoid giving undue
preference to the kind in which the inspiring quality predominates
or to the kind in which the informing quality predominates.
Too much of the one is enervating; too much of the other is desiccating.
If you stick exclusively to the one you may become a mere debauchee
of the emotions; if you stick exclusively to the other you may cease
to live in any full sense. I do not say that you should hold the balance
exactly even between the two kinds. Your taste will come into the scale.
What I say is that neither kind must be neglected.


Lamb is an instance of a great writer whom anybody can understand
and whom a majority of those who interest themselves in literature
can more or less appreciate. He makes no excessive demand
either on the intellect or on the faculty of sympathetic emotion.
On both sides of Lamb, however, there lie literatures more difficult,
more recondite. The "knowledge" side need not detain us here;
it can be mastered by concentration and perseverance.
But the "power" side, which comprises the supreme productions of genius,
demands special consideration. You may have arrived at the point of
keenly enjoying Lamb and yet be entirely unable to "see anything in"
such writings as *Kubla Khan* or Milton's *Comus*; and as for *Hamlet*
you may see nothing in it but a sanguinary tale "full of quotations."
Nevertheless it is the supreme productions which are capable
of yielding the supreme pleasures, and which *will* yield
the supreme pleasures when the pass-key to them has been acquired.
This pass-key is a comprehension of the nature of poetry.





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