Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch > On the Art of Writing > IX. On the Lineage of English Literature (II)
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944).  On the Art of Writing.  1916.

IX.  On the Lineage of English Literature (II)

Wednesday, November 5


SOME of you whose avocations call them, from time to time, to Newmarket may have noted, at a little distance out from Cambridge, a by-road advertised as leading to Quy and Swaffham. It also leads to the site of an old Roman villa; but you need not interrupt your business to visit this, since the best thing discovered there—a piece of tessellated pavement—has been removed and deposited in the Geological Museum here in Downing Street, where you may study it very conveniently. It is not at all a first-class specimen of its kind: not to be compared, for example, with the wonderful pavement at Dorchester, or with that (measuring 35 feet by 20) of the great villa unearthed, a hundred years ago, at Stonesfield in Oxfordshire: but I take it as the handiest, and am going to build a small conjecture upon it, or rather a small suggestion of a guess. Remember there is no harm in guessing so long as we do not pretend our guess-work to be something else.   1
  I will ask you to consider first that in these pavements, laid bare for us as ‘the whistling rustic tends his plough,’ we have work dating somewhere between the first and fifth centuries, work of unchallengeable beauty, work of a beauty certainly not rivalled until we come to the Norman builders of five or six hundred years later. I want you to let your minds dwell on these long stretches of time—four hundred years or so of Roman occupation (counting, not from Cæsar’s raids, but from the serious invasion of 43 A.D. under Aulus Plautius, say to some while after the famous letter of Honorius, calling home the legions). You may safely put it at four hundred years, and then count six hundred as the space before the Normans arrive—a thousand years altogether, or but a fraction—one short generation—less than the interval of time that separates us from King Alfred. In the great Cathedral of Winchester (where sleep, by the way, two gentle writers specially beloved, Isaak Walton and Jane Austen) above the choir-screen to the south, you may see a line of painted chests, of which the inscription on one tells you that it holds what was mortal of King Canute.
        Here are sands, ignoble things,
Dropp’d from the ruin’d sides of Kings.
But if you walk around to the north of the altar you will find yourself treading on tiles not so very far short of twice that antiquity. Gentlemen, do not think that I would ever speak lightly of our lineage: only let us make as certain as we may what that lineage is.
   2
  I want you to-day to understand just what such a pavement as that preserved for your inspection in Downing Street meant to the man who saw it laid and owned it these fifteen hundred years—more or less—ago. Ubi Romanus vicit, ibi habitat—‘where the Roman has conquered, there he settles’: but whether he conquered or settled he carried these small tiles, these tessellæ, as religiously as ever Rachel stole her teraphin. ‘Wherever his feet went there went the tessellated pavement for them to stand on. Even generals on foreign service carried in panniers on muleback the little coloured cubes or tessellæ for laying down a pavement in each camping-place, to be taken up again when they moved forward. In England the same sweet emblems of the younger gods of poetic legend, of love, youth, plenty, and all their happy naturalism, are found constantly repeated.’ 1  I am quoting these sentences from a local historian, but you see how these relics have a knack of inspiring prose at once scholarly and imaginative, as (for a more famous instance) the urns disinterred at Walsingham once inspired Sir Thomas Browne’s. To continue and adapt the quotation—
          Bacchus with his wild rout, Orpheus playing to a spell-bound audience, Apollo singing to the lyre, Venus in Mars’ embrace, Neptune with a host of seamen, scollops, and trumpets, Narcissus by the fountain, Jove and Ganymede, Leda and the swan, wood-nymphs and naiads, satyrs and fauns, masks, hautboys, cornucopiæ, flowers and baskets of golden fruit—what touches of home they must have seemed to these old dwellers in the Cambridgeshire wilds!
   3
  Yes, touches of home! For the owner of this villa (you may conceive) is the grandson or even great-great-grandson of the colonist who first built it, following in the wake of the legionaries. The family has prospered and our man is now a considerable landowner. He was born in Britain: his children have been born here: and here he lives a comfortable, well-to-do, out-of-door life, in its essentials I daresay not so very unlike the life of an English country squire to-day. Instead of chasing foxes or hares he hunts the wolf and the wild boar; but the sport is good and he returns with an appetite. He has added a summer parlour to the house, with a northern aspect and no heating-flues: for the old parlour he has enlarged the præfurnium, and through the long winter evenings sits far better warmed than many a master of a modern country-house. A belt of trees on the brow of the rise protects him from the worst winds, and to the south his daughters have planted violet-beds which will breathe odorously in the spring. He has rebuilt and enlarged the slave-quarters and outhouses, replaced the stucco pillars around the atrium with a colonnade of polished stone, and, where stucco remains, has repainted it in fresh colours. He knows that there are no gaps or weak spots in his stockade fence—wood is always cheap. In a word he has improved the estate; is modestly proud of it; and will be content, like the old Athenian, to leave his patrimony not worse but something better than he found it.   4
  Sensible men—and the Romans were eminently that—as a rule contrive to live decently, or, at least, tolerably. What struck Arthur Young more than anything else in his travels through France on the very eve of the Revolution seems to have been the general good-tempered happiness of the French gentry on their estates. We may moralise of the Roman colonists as of the French proprietors that ‘unconscious of their doom the little victims played’; but we have no right to throw back on them the shadow of what was to come or to cloud the picture of a useful, peaceable, maybe more than moderately happy life, with our later knowledge of disaster mercifully hidden from it.   5
  Although our colonist and his family have all been born in Britain, are happy enough here on the whole, and talk without more than half meaning it, and to amuse themselves with speculations half-wistful, of daring the tremendous journey and setting eyes on Rome some day, their pride is to belong to her, to Rome, the imperial City, the city afar: their windows open back towards her as Daniel’s did towards Jerusalem—Urbs quam dicunt Roman—the City. Along the great road, hard by, her imperial writ runs. They have never subscribed to the vow of Ruth, ‘Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.’ They dwell under the Pax Romana, not merely protected by it but as citizens. Theirs are the ancestral deities portrayed on that unfading pavement in the very centre of the villa—Apollo and Daphne, Bacchus and Ariadne—
        For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,
For ever panting, and for ever young.
Parcels come to them, forwarded from the near military station; come by those trade-routes, mysterious to us, concerning which a most illuminating book waits to be written by somebody. There are parcels of seeds—useful vegetables and potherbs, helichryse (marigold as we call them now) for the flower garden, for the colonnade even roses with real Italian earth damp about their roots. There are parcels of books, too—rolls rather, or tablets—wherein the family reads about Rome; of its wealth, the uproar of its traffic, the innumerable chimneys smoking, fumum et opes strepitumque. For they are always reading of Rome; feeling themselves, as they read, to belong to it, to be neither savage nor even rustic, but by birthright of the city, urbane; and what these exiles read is of how Horace met a bore on the Sacred Road (which would correspond, more or less, with our Piccadilly)—
        Along the Sacred Road I strolled one day
Deep in some bagatelle (you know my way)
When up comes one whose face I scarcely knew—
‘The dearest of dear fellows! how d’ye do?’
—He grasped my hand. ‘Well, thanks! The same to you?’
—or of how Horace apologises for protracting a summer jaunt to his country seat:—
        Five days I told you at my farm I’d stay,
And lo! the whole of August I’m away.
Well but, Maeceras, you would have me live,
And, were I sick, my absence you’d forgive.
So let me crave indulgence for the fear
Of falling ill at this bad time of year.
When, thanks to early figs and sultry heat,
The undertaker figures with his suite;
When fathers all and fond mammas grow pale
At what may happen to their young heirs male,
And courts and levees, town-bred mortals’ ills,
Bring fevers on, and break the seals of wills. 2
   6
  Consider those lines; then consider how long it took the inhabitants of this island—the cultured ones who count as readers or writers—to recapture just that note of urbanity. Other things our forefathers—Britons, Saxons, Normans, Dutch or French refugees—discovered by the way; worthier things if you will; but not until the eighteenth century do you find just that note recaptured; the note of easy confidence that our London had become what Rome had been, the Capital city. You begin to meet it in Dryden; with Addison it is fairly established. Pass a few years, and with Samuel Johnson it is taken for granted. His London is Juvenal’s Rome, and the same satire applies to one as applied to the other. But against the urbane lines written by one Horace some while before Juvenal let us set a passage from another Horace—Horace Walpole, seventeen hundred years later and some little while ahead of Johnson. He, like our Roman colonist, is a settler in a new country, Twickenham; and like Flaccus he loves to escape from town life.
        
TWICKENHAM, June 8th, 1747.

To the Hon. H. S. CONWAY.
  You perceive by my date that I am got into a new camp, and have left my tub at Windsor. It is a little plaything-house that I got out of Mrs Chevenix’s shop, and the prettiest bauble you ever saw. It is set in enamelled meadows with filagree hedges:
        A small Euphrates through the place is roll’d,
And little finches wave their wings of gold.
Two delightful roads; that you would call dusty, supply me continually with coaches and chaises: barges as solemn as Barons of the Exchequer move under my window; Richmond Hill and Ham Walks bound my prospect; but, thank God! the Thames is between me and the Duchess of Queensberry. Dowagers as plenty as flounders inhabit all around, and Pope’s ghost is just now skimming under my window by the most poetical moonlight.… The Chevenixes had tricked it out for themselves; up two pairs of stairs is what they call Mr Chevenix’s library, furnished with three maps, one shelf, a bust of Sir Isaac Newton and a lame telescope without any glasses. Lord John Sackville predeceased me here and instituted certain games called cricketalia, which has been celebrated this very evening in honour of him in a neighbouring meadow.
  You will think I have removed my philosophy from Windsor with my tea-things hither; for I am writing to you in all tranquility while a Parliament is bursting about my ears. You know it is going to be dissolved.… They say the Prince has taken up two hundred thousand pounds, to carry elections which he won’t carry—he had much better have saved it to buy the Parliament after it is chosen.
There you have Horatio Walpole, the man-about-town, almost precisely echoing Horatius Flaccus, the man-about-town; and this (if you will bring your minds to it) is just the sort of passage a Roman colonist in Britain would open upon, out of his parcel of new books, and read, and understand, some eighteen hundred years ago.
   7
  
  What became of it all?—of that easy colonial life, of the men and women who trod those tessellated pavements? ‘Wiped out,’ say the historians, knowing nothing, merely guessing: for you may with small trouble assure yourselves that the fifth and sixth centuries in the story of this island are a blind spot, concerning which one man’s guess may be as good as another’s. ‘Wiped out,’ they will commonly agree; for while, as I warned you in another lecture, the pedantic mind, faced with a difficulty, tends to remove it conveniently into a category to which it does not belong, still more prone is the pedantic mind to remove it out of existence altogether. So ‘wiped out’ is the theory; and upon it a sympathetic imagination can invent what sorrowful pictures it will of departing legions, the last little cloud of dust down the highway, the lovers by the gate watching it, not comprehending; the peaceful homestead in the background, ripe for doom—and what-not.   8
  Or, stay! There is another theory to which the late Professor Freeman inclined (if so sturdy a figure could be said to incline), laying stress on a passage in Gildas, that the Romans in Britain, faced by the Saxon invader, got together their money, and bolted away into Gaul. ‘The Romans that were in Britain gathered together their gold-hoard, hid part in the ground and carried the rest over to Gaul,’ writes Gildas. ‘The hiding in the ground,’ says Freeman, ‘is of course a guess to explain the frequent finding of Roman coins’—which indeed it does explain better than the guess that they were carried away, and perhaps better than the schoolboy’s suggestion that during their occupation of Britain the Romans spent most of their time in dropping money about. Likely enough, large numbers of the colonists did gather up what they could and flee before the approaching storm; but by no means all, I think. For (since, where all is uncertain, we must reason from what is probable of human nature) in the first place men with large estates do not behave in that way before a danger which creeps upon them little by little, as this Saxon danger did. These colonists could not dig up their fields and carry them over to Gaul. They did not keep banking accounts; and in the course of four hundred years their main wealth had certainly been sunk in the land. They could not carry away their villas. We know that many of them did not carry away the tessellæ for which (as we have seen) they had so peculiar a veneration; for these remain. Secondly, if the colonists left Britain in a mass, when in the middle of the sixth century we find Belisarius offering the Goths to trade Britain for Sicily, as being ‘much larger and this long time subservient to Roman rule,’ 3  we must suppose either (as Freeman appears to suppose) that Belisarius did not know what he was offering, or that he was attempting a gigantic ‘bluff,’ or lastly that he really was offering an exchange not flatly derisory; of which three possible suppositions I prefer the last as the likeliest. Nor am I the less inclined to choose it, because these very English historians go on to clear the ground in a like convenient way of the Celtic inhabitants, exterminating them as they exterminated the Romans, with a wave of the hand, quite in the fashion of Mr Podsnap. ‘This is un-English: therefore for me it merely ceases to exist.’   9
  ‘Probable extirpation of the Celtic inhabitants’ jots down Freeman in his margin, and proceeds to write:
          In short, though the literal extirpation of a nation is an impossibility, there is every reason to believe that the Celtic inhabitants of those parts of Britain which had become English at the end of the sixth century had been as nearly extinguished as a nation could be. The women doubtless would be largely spared, but as far as the male sex is concerned we may feel sure that death, emigration, or personal slavery were the only alternatives which the vanquished found at the hands of our fathers.
Upon this passage, if brought to me in an undergraduate essay, I should have much to say. The style, with its abstract nouns (‘the literal extirpation of a nation is an impossibility’), its padding and periphrasis (‘there is every reason to believe’ … ‘as far as the male sex is concerned we may feel sure’) betrays the loose thought. It begins with ‘in short’ and proceeds to be long-winded. It commits what even schoolboys know to be a solecism by inviting us to consider three ‘alternatives’; and what can I say of ‘the women doubtless would be largely spared,’ save that besides scanning in iambics it says what Freeman never meant and what no-one outside of an Aristophanic comedy could ever suggest? ‘The women doubtless would be largely spared’! It reminds me of the young lady in Cornwall who, asked by her vicar if she had been confirmed, admitted blushingly that ‘she had reason to believe, partially so.’
  10
  ‘The women doubtless would be largely spared’!—But I thank the Professor for teaching me that phrase, because it tries to convey just what I am driving at. The Jutes, Angles, Saxons, did not extirpate the Britons, whatever you may hold concerning the Romans. For, once again, men do not behave in that way, and certainly will not when a live slave is worth money. Secondly, the very horror with which men spoke, centuries after, of Anderida quite plainly indicates that such a wholesale massacre was exceptional, monstrous. If not exceptional, monstrous, why should this particular slaughter have lingered so ineffaceably in their memories? Finally,—and to be as curt as the question deserves—the Celtic Briton in the island was not exterminated and never came near to being exterminated: but on the contrary, remains equipollent with the Saxon in our blood, and perhaps equipollent with that mysterious race we call Iberian, which came before either and endures in this island to-day, as anyone travelling it with eyes in his head can see. Pict, Dane, Norman, Frisian, Huguenot French—these and others come in. If mixture of blood be a shame, we have purchased at the price of that shame the glory of catholicism; and I know of nothing more false in science or more actively poisonous in politics or in the arts than the assumption that we belong as a race to the Teutonic family.  11
  Dane, Norman, Frisian, French Huguenot—they all come in. And will you refuse a hearing when I claim that the Roman came in too? Bethink you how deeply Rome engraved itself on this island and its features. Bethink you that, as human nature is, no conquering race ever lived or could live—even in garrison—among a tributary one without begetting children on it. Bethink you yet further of Freeman’s admission that in the wholesale (and quite hypothetical) general massacre ‘the women doubtless would be largely spared’; and you advance nearer to my point. I see a people which for four hundred years was permeated by Rome. If you insist on its being a Teutonic people (which I flatly deny) then you have one which alone of Teutonic peoples has inherited the Roman gift of consolidating conquest, of colonising in the wake of its armies; of driving the road, bridging the ford, bringing the lawless under its sense of law. I see that this nation of ours concurrently, when it seeks back to what alone can inspire and glorify these activities, seeks back, not to any supposed native North, but south to the Middle Sea of our civilisation and steadily to Italy, which we understand far more easily than France—though France has helped us times and again. Putting these things together, I retort upon the ethnologists—for I come from the West of England, where we suffer incredible things from them—‘Semper ego auditor tantum?’ I hazard that the most important thing in our blood is that purple drop of the imperial murex we derive from Rome.  12
  You must, of course, take this for nothing more than it pretends to be—a conjecture, a suggestion. I will follow it up with two statements of fact, neither doubtful nor disputable.  13
  The first is, that when English poetry awoke, long after the Conquest (or, as I should prefer to put it, after the Crusades) it awoke a new thing; in its vocabulary as much like Anglo-Saxon poetry as ever you will, but in metre, rhythm, lilt—and more, in style, feeling, imaginative play—and yet more again, in knowledge of what it aimed to be, in the essentials, in the qualities that make Poetry Poetry—as different from Anglo-Saxon poetry as cheese is from chalk, and as much more nutritious. Listen to this—
        Bytuene Mershe ant Averil
  When spray biginnith to spring,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
  On hire lud to synge:
Ich libbe in love-longinge
For semlokest of alle thynge,
He may me blisse bringe,
Icham in hire bandoun.
  An hendy hap ichabbe y-hent,
  Ichot from hevene it is me sent,
  From alle wymmen my love is lent,
    And lyht on Alisoun.
  14
  Here you have alliteration in plenty; you even have what some hold to be the pattern of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse (though in practice disregarded, may be, as often as not), the chosen initial used twice in the first line and once at least in the second:
        From alle wymmen my love is lent,
  And lyht on Alisoun.
  15
  But if a man cannot see a difference infinitely deeper than any similarity between this song of Alison and the old Anglo-Saxon verse—a difference of nature—I must despair of his literary sense.  16
  What has happened? Well, in Normandy, too, and in another tongue, men are singing much the same thing in the same way:
        A la fontenelle
Qui sort seur l’araine,
Trouvai pastorella
Qui n’iert pas vilaine…
  Merci, merci, douce Marote,
  N’oçiez pas vostre ami doux,
and this Norman and the Englishman were singing to a new tune, which was yet an old tune re-set to Europe by the Provence, the Roman Province; by the troubadours—Pons de Capdeuil, Bernard de Ventadour, Bertrand de Born, Pierre Vidal, and the rest, with William of Poitou, William of Poitiers. Read and compare; you will perceive that the note then set persists and has never perished. Take Giraud de Borneil—
        Bel companhos, si dormetz o velhatz
Non dortmatz plus, qu’el jorn es apropchatz—
and set it beside a lyric of our day, written without a thought of Giraud de Borneil—
        Heigh! brother mine, art a-waking or a-sleeping:
Mind’st thou the merry moon a many summers fled?
Mind’st thou the green and the dancing and the leaping?
Mind’st thou the haycocks and the moon above them creeping?…
Or take Bernard de Ventadour’s—
        Quand erba vertz, e fuelha par
E’l flor brotonon per verjan,
E’l rossinhols autet e clar
Leva sa votz e mov son chan,
Joy ai de luy, e joy ai de la flor,
Joy ai de me, e de me dons maior.
Why, it runs straight off into English verse—
        When grass is green and leaves appear
  With flowers in bud the meads among,
And nightingale aloft and clear
  Lifts up his voice and pricks his song,
Joy, joy have I in song and flower,
Joy in myself, and in my lady more.
And that may be doggerel; yet what is it but
        It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey and a ho and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass
  In the spring-time, the only pretty ring-time—
or
        When daffodils begin to peer,
  With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
  For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
Nay, flatter the Anglo-Saxon tradition by picking its very best—and I suppose it hard to find better than the much-admired opening of Piers Plowman, in which that tradition shot up like the flame of a dying candle:
        Bote in a Mayes Morwnynge—on Malverne hulles
Me bi-fel a ferly—a Feyrie me thouhte;
I was weori of wandringe—and wente me to reste
Under a brod banke—bi a Bourne syde,
And as I lay and leonede—and lokede on the watres,
I slumberde in a slepynge—hit sownede so murie.
This is good, solid stuff, no doubt: but tame, inert, if not actually lifeless. As M. Jusserand says of Anglo-Saxon poetry in general, it is like the river Saône—one doubts which way it flows. How tame in comparison with this, for example!—
        In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
  And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
  To here the foulys song:
  
To se the dere draw to the dale
  And leve the hilles hee,
And shadow hem in the leves grene
  Under the grene-wode tre.
  
Hit befel on Whitsontide,
  Erly in a May mornyng,
The Son up feyre can shyne,
  And the briddis mery can syng.
  
‘This is a mery mornyng,’ said litell John,
  ‘Be Hym that dyed on tre;
A more mery man than I am one
  Lyves not in Cristianté.
  
‘Pluk up thi hert, my dere mayster,’
  Litull John can sey,
‘And thynk hit is a full fayre tyme
  In a mornyng of May.’
There is no doubting which way that flows! And this vivacity, this new beat of the heart of poetry, is common to Chaucer and the humblest ballad-maker; it pulses through any book of lyrics printed yesterday, and it came straight to us out of Provence, the Roman Province. It was the Provençal Troubadour who, like the Prince in the fairy tale, broke through the hedge of briers and kissed Beauty awake again.
  17
  
  You will urge that he wakened Poetry not in England alone but all over Europe, in Dante before our Chaucer, in the trouvères and minnesingers as well as in our ballad-writers. To that I might easily retort, ‘So much the better for Europe, and the more of it the merrier, to win their way into the great comity.’ But here I put in my second assertion, that we English have had above all nations lying wide of the Mediterranean, the instinct to refresh and renew ourselves at Mediterranean wells; that again and again our writers—our poets especially—have sought them as the hart panteth after the water-brooks. If you accept this assertion, and if you believe as well that our literature, surpassing Rome’s, may vie with that of Athens—if you believe that a literature which includes Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Shelley—the Authorised Version of Holy Writ, with Browne, Bunyan, Swift, Addison, Johnson, Arnold, Newman—has entered the circle to take its seat with the first—why then, heartily believing this with you, I leave you to find some better explanation than mine if you can.  18
  But what I content myself with asserting here you can scarcely deny. Chaucer’s initial and enormous debt to Dante and Boccaccio stands in as little dispute as Dunbar’s to Chaucer. On that favourite poet of mine, Sir Thomas Wyat, I descanted in a former lecture. He is one of your glories here, having entered St. John’s College at the age of twelve (which must have been precocious even for those days.) Anthony Wood asserts that after finishing his course here, he proceeded to Cardinal Wolsey’s new College at Oxford; but, as Christchurch was not founded until 1524, and Wyat, still precocious, had married a wife two years before that, the statement (to quote Dr Courthope) ‘seems no better founded than many others advanced by that patriotic but not very scrupulous author.’ It is more to the point that he went travelling, and brought home from France, Italy, afterwards Spain—always from Latin altars—the flame of lyrical poetry to England; the flame of the Petrarchists, caught from the Troubadours, clarified (so to speak) by the salt of humane letters. On what our Elizabethan literature owes to the Classical revival hundreds of volumes have been written and hundreds more will be written; I will but remind you of what Spencer talked about with Gabriel Harvey, what Daniel disputed with Campion; that Marlowe tried to re-incarnate Machiavelli, that Jonson was a sworn Latinist and the ‘tribe of Ben’ a classical tribe; while, as for Shakespeare, go and reckon the proportion of Italian and Roman names in his dramatis personæ. Of Donne’s debt to France, Italy, Rome, Greece, you may read much in Professor Grierson’s great edition, and I daresay Professor Grierson would be the first to allow that all has not yet been computed. You know how Milton prepared himself to be a poet. Have you realised that, in those somewhat strangely constructed sonnets of his, Milton was deliberately modelling upon the Horatian Ode, as his confrère, Andrew Marvell, was avowedly attempting the like in his famous Horation Ode on Cromwell’s Return from Ireland; so that if Cromwell had returned (like Mr Quilp), walked in and caught his pair of Latin Secretaries scribbling verse, one at either end of the office table, both might colourably have pleaded that they were, after all, writing Latin. Waller’s task in poetry was to labour true classical polish where Cowley laboured sham-classical form. Put together Dryden’s various Prefaces and you will find them one solid monument to his classical faith. Of Pope, Gray, Collins, you will not ask me to speak. What is salt in Cowper you can taste only when you have detected that by a stroke of madness he missed, or barely missed, being our true English Horace, that almost more nearly than the rest he hit what the rest had been seeking. Then, of the ‘romantic revival’—enemy of false classicism, not of classicism—bethink you what, in his few great years, Wordsworth owed directly to France of the early Revolution; what Keats drew forth out of Lemprière: and again bethink you how Tennyson wrought upon Theocritus, Virgil, Catullus; upon what Arnold constantly shaped his verse; how Browning returned ever upon Italy to inspire his best and correct his worse.  19
  Of Anglo-Saxon prose I know little indeed, but enough of the world to feel reasonably sure that if it contained any single masterpiece—or anything that could be paraded as a masterpiece—we should have heard enough about it long before now. It was invented by King Alfred for excellent political reasons; but, like other ready-made political inventions in this country, it refused to thrive. I think it can be demonstrated, that the true line of intellectual descent in prose lies through Bede (who wrote in Latin, the ‘universal language’), and not through the Blickling Homilies, or, Ælfric, or the Saxon Chronicle. And I am sure that Freeman is perversely wrong when he laments as a ‘great mistake’ that the first Christian missionaries from Rome did not teach their converts to pray and give praise in the vernacular. The vernacular being what it was, these men did better to teach the religion of the civilised world—orbis terrarum—in the language of the civilised world. I am not thinking of its efficiency for spreading the faith; but neither is Freeman; and, for that, we must allow these old missionaries to have known their own business. I am thinking only of how this ‘great mistake’ affected our literature; and if you will read Professor Saintsbury’s History of English Prose Rhythm (pioneer work, which yet wonderfully succeeds in illustrating what our prose-writers from time to time were trying to do); if you will study the Psalms in the Authorised Version; if you will consider what Milton, Clarendon, Sir Thomas Browne, were aiming at; what Addison, Gibbon, Johnson; what Landor, Thackeray, Newman, Arnold, Pater; I doubt not your rising from the perusal convinced that our nation, in this storehouse of Latin to refresh and replenish its most sacred thoughts, has enjoyed a continuous blessing: that the Latin of the Vulgate and the Offices has been a background giving depth and, as the painters say, ‘value’ to nine-tenths of our serious writing.  20
  And now, since this and the previous lecture run something counter to a great deal of that teaching in English Literature which nowadays passes most acceptably, let me avoid offence, so far as may be, by defining one or two things I am not trying to do.  21
  I am not persuading you to despise your linguistic descent. English is English—our language; and all its history to be venerated by us.  22
  I am not persuading you to despise linguistic study. All learning is venerable.  23
  I am not persuading you to behave like Ascham, and turn English prose into pedantic Latin; nor would I have you doubt that in the set quarrel between Campion, who wished to divert English verse into strict classical channels, and Daniel, who vindicated our free English way (derived from Latin through the Provençal), Daniel was on the whole, right, Campion on the whole, wrong: though I believe that both ways yet lie open, and we may learn, if we study them intelligently, a hundred things from the old classical metres.  24
  I do not ask you to forget what there is of the Northmen in your blood. If I desired this, I could not worship William Morris as I do, among the later poets.  25
  I do not ask you to doubt that the barbarian invaders from the north, with their myths and legends, brought new and most necessary blood of imagination into the literary material—for the time almost exhausted—of Greece and Rome.  26
  Nevertheless, I do contend that when Britain (or, if you prefer it, Sleswick)
        When Sleswick first at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main,
she differed from Aphrodite, that other foam-born, in sundry important features of ear, of lip, of eye.
  27
  Lastly, if vehement assertions on the one side have driven me into too vehement dissent on the other, I crave pardon; not for the dissent but for the vehemence, as sinning against the very principle I would hold up to your admiration—the old Greek principle of avoiding excess.  28
  
  But I do commend the patient study of Greek and Latin authors—in the original or in translation—to all of you who would write English; and for three reasons.  29
  (1) In the first place they will correct your insularity of mind; or, rather, will teach you to forget it. The Anglo-Saxon, it has been noted, ever left an empty space around his houses; and that, no doubt, is good for a house. It is not so good for the mind.  30
  (2) Secondly, we have a tribal habit, confirmed by Protestant meditation upon a Hebraic religion, of confining our literary enjoyment to the written word and frowning down the drama, the song, the dance. A fairly attentive study of modern lyrical verse has persuaded me that this exclusiveness may be carried too far, and threatens to be deadening. ‘I will sing and give praise,’ says the Scripture, ‘with the best member that I have’—meaning the tongue. But the old Greek was an ‘all-round man’ as we say. He sought to praise and give thanks with all his members, and to tune each to perfection. I think his way worth your considering.  31
  (3) Lastly, and chiefly, I commend these classical authors to you because they, in the European civilisation which we all inherit, conserve the norm of literature; the steady grip on the essential; the clean outline at which in verse or in prose—in epic, drama, history, or philosophical treatise—a writer should aim.  32
  So sure am I of this, and of its importance to those who think of writing, that were this University to limit me to three texts on which to preach English Literature to you, I should choose the Bible in our Authorised Version, Shakespeare, and Homer (though it were but in a prose translation). Two of these lie outside my marked province. Only one of them finds a place in your English school. But Homer, who comes neither within my map, nor within the ambit of the Tripos, would—because he most evidently holds the norm, the essence, the secret of all—rank first of the three for my purpose.  33


Note 1.  From A History of Oxfordshire, by Mr J. Meade Falkner, author of Murray’s excellent Handbook of Oxfordshire. [back]
Note 2.  Conington’s translation. [back]
Note 3.  Bell. Goth. ii, 6. [back]

CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
 
Loading
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors