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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
On the Art of Reading
> V. On Reading for Examinations
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
On the Art of Reading.
On Reading for Examinations
Wednesday, May 9, 1917
Gentlemen, who so far have followed with patience this course of lectures, advertised, maybe too ambitiously, as On the Art of Reading, will recall to your memory, when I challenge it across the intervals of Vacation, that three propositions have been pretty steadily held before you.
(bear me out) that, mans life being of the length it is, and his activities multifarious as they are, out of the mass of printed matter already loaded and still being shot upon this planet, he
make selection. There is no other way.
thatthe time and opportunity being so brief, the mass so enormous, and the selection therefore so difficulthe should select the books that are best for him, and take them
not frittering his time upon books written about and around the best: thatin their order, of coursethe primary masterpieces shall come first, and the secondary second, and so on; and mere chat about any of them last of all.
proposition (perhaps more discutable) has been that, the human souls activities being separated, so far as we can separate them, into
What Does, What Knows, What Is
such-and-such a man ranks higher than either
this, that, or the other: that it transcends all mans activity upon phenomena, even a Napoleons: all his housed store of knowledge, though it be a Casaubons or a Mark Pattisons: that only by learning to
can we understand or reach, as we have an instinct to reach, to our right place in the scheme of things: and that, any way, all the greatest literature commands this instinct. To be Hamletto feel yourself Hamletis more important than killing a king or even knowing all there is to be known about a text. Now most of us have been Hamlet, more or less: while few of us, I trust have ever murdered a monarch: and still fewer, perhaps, can hope to know all that is to be known of the text of the play. But for value, Gentlemen, let us not rank these three achievements by order of their rarity. Shakespeare means us to feelto
Hamlet. That is all: and from the play it is the best we can get.
Now in talking to you, last term, about children I had perforce to lay stress on the point that, with all this glut of literature, the mass of children in our commonwealth, who leave school at fourteen go forth starving.
But you are happier. You are happier, not in having your selection of reading in English done for you at school (for you have in the Public Schools scarce any such help): but happier (1) because the time of learning is so largely prolonged, and (2) because this most difficult office of sorting out from the mass what you should read as most profitable has been tentatively performed for you by us older men for your relief. For example, those of youif any, as the Regulations saywho will, a week or two hence, be sitting for Section A of the Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos, have been spared, all along, the laborious business of choosing what you should read or read with particular attention for the good of your souls. Is Chaucer your author? Then you will have read (or ought to have read)
The Parlement of Fowles,
to The Canterbury Tales,
The Knights Tale, The Man of Laws Tale, The Nun Priests Tale, The Doctors Tale, The Pardoners Tale
with its Prologue,
The Friars Tale.
You were not dissuaded from reading
you were not forbidden to read all the Canterbury Tales, even the naughtiest; but the works that I have mentioned have been prescribed for you. So, of Shakespeare, we do not discourage you (at all events, intentionally) from reading
Macbeth, Othello, As You Like It, The Tempest,
any play you wish. In other years we set each of these in its turn. But for this Year of Grace we insist upon
King John, The Merchant of Venice, King Henry IV, Part I, Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet, King Lear,
certain specified worksand so on, with other courses of study. Why is this done? Be fair to us, Gentlemen. We do it not only to accommodate the burden to your backs, to avoid overtaxing one-and-a-half or two years of study; not merely to guide you that you do not dissipate your reading, that you shallwith us, at any rateknow where you are. We do it chiefly, and honestlyyou likewise being honestto give you each year, in each prescribed course, a sound nucleus of knowledge, out of which, later, your minds can reach to more. We are not, in the last instance, praiseworthy or blameworthy for your range. I think, perhaps, too little of a mans
in his short while here between (say) nineteen and twenty-two. For anything I care, the kernel may be as small as you please. To plant it wholesome, for a while tend to it wholesome, then to show it the sky and that it is widenot a hot-house, nor a brassy cupola over a man, but an atmosphere shining up league on league; to reach the moment of saying All this now is yours, if you have the perseverance as I have taught you the power,
coelum nactus es, hoc exorna: this, even in our present Tripos, we endeavour to do.
All very well. But, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning asked
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers?
Yes, I hear you ingeminate; but what about Examinations? We thank you, sirs, for thus relieving and guiding us: we acknowledge your excellent intentions. But in practice you hang up a bachelors gown and hood on a pole, and right under and just in front of it you set the examination-barrier. For this in practice we run during three years or so, and to this all the time you are exhorting, directing uswhether you mean it or not, though we suspect that you cannot help yourselves. Yes; and, as labouring swimmers will turn their eyes even to a little boat in the offing, I hear you pant This man at all eventsalways so insistent that good literature teaches
will bring word that we may float on our backs, bathe, enjoy these waters and be refreshed, instead of striving through them competitive for a goal. He
condemn literary examinations, nine-tenths of which treat Literature as matter of Knowledge merely.
I am sorry, Gentlemen: I cannot bring you so much of comfort as all that. I have a love of the past which, because it goes down to the roots, has sometimes been called Radicalism: I could never consent with Bacons gibe at antiquity as
and Examinations have a very respectable antiquity. Indeed no University to my knowledge has ever been able in the long run to do without them: and although certain CollegesKings College and New College at Oxfordfor long persevered in the attempt, the result was not altogether happy, and in the end they have consigned with custom.
Of course Universities have experimented with the
Let me give you two or three ancient examples, which may help you to see (to vary Wordsworth) that though the Form decays, the function never dies.
(1) I begin with most ancient Bologna, famous for Civil Law. At Bologna the process of graduationof admission to the
right to teachconsisted of two parts, the Private Examination and the Public (
The private Examination was the real test of competence, the so-called public Examination being in practice a mere ceremony. Before admission to each of these tests the candidate was presented by the Consiliarius of his Nation to the Rector for permission to enter it, and swore that he had complied with all the statutable conditions, that he would give no more than the statutable fees or entertainments to the Rector himself, the Doctor, or his fellow-students, and that he would obey the Rector. Within a period of eight days before the Examination the candidate was presented by his own Doctor or by some other Doctor or by two Doctors to the Archdeacon, the presenting Doctor being required to have satisfied himself by private examination of his presentees fitness. Early on the morning of the Examination, after attending a Mass of the Holy Ghost, the candidate appeared before the assembled College and was assigned by one of the Doctors present two passages (
) in the Civil or Canon Law as the case might be. He then retired to his house to study the passages,
in doing which it would appear that he had the assistance of the presenting Doctor.
Later in the day the Doctors were summoned to the Cathedral, or some other public building, by the Archdeacon, who presided over but took no active part in the ensuing examination. The candidate was then introduced to the Archdeacon and Doctors by the presenting Doctor or Promotor as he was styled. The Prior of the College then administered a number of oaths in which the candidate promised respect to that body and solemnly renounced all the rights of which the College had succeeded in robbing all Doctors of other Colleges not included in its ranks. The candidate then gave a lecture or exposition of the two prepared passages: after which he was examined upon them by two of the Doctors appointed by the College. Other Doctors might ask supplementary questions of Law (which they were required to swear that they had not previously communicated to the candidate) arising more indirectly out of the passages selected, or might suggest objections to the answers. With a tender regard for the feelings of their comrades at this rigorous and tremendous Examination (as they style it) the Statutes required the Examiner to treat the examinee as
his own son.
But, knowing what we do of parental discipline in the Middle Ages, we need not take this to enjoin a weak excess of leniency.
The Examination concluded, the votes of the Doctors present were taken by ballot and the candidates fate determined by the majority, the decision being announced by the Archdeacon.
(2) Let us pass to the great and famous University of Paris. At Paris
In 1275, if not earlier, a preliminary test (or Responsions) was instituted to ascertain the fitness of those who wanted to take part in the public performance. At these Responsions which took place in the December before the Lent in which the candidate was to determine, he had to dispute in Grammar and Logic with a Master. If this test was passed in a satisfactory manner, the candidate was admitted to the
Examination for the Baccalaureate, which was conducted by a board of Examiners appointed by each Nation for its own candidates. The duty of the Examiners was twofold, firstly to ascertain by inspecting the
given by his Masters that the candidate had completed the necessary residence and attended Lectures in the prescribed subjects, and secondly to examine him in the contents of his books. If he passed this Examination, he was admitted to determine.
Determination was a great day in the students University life. It retained much of its primitive character of a students festivity. It was not, it would seem, till the middle of the fifteenth century that the students Master was required to be officially present at it. The Speech-day of a Public School if combined with considerably more than the license of the Oxford Encaenia or degree day here in May week would perhaps be the nearest modern equivalent of these medieval exhibitions of rising talent. Every effort was made to attract to the Schools as large an audience as possible, not merely of Masters or fellow-students, but if possible of ecclesiastical dignitaries and other distinguished persons. The friends of a Determiner who was not successful in drawing a more distinguished audience, would run out into the streets and forcibly drag chance passers-by into the School. Wine was provided at the Determiners expense in the Schools: and the day ended in a feast [given in imitation of the Masters Inception-banquets], even if dancing or torch-light processions were forborne in deference to authority.
I may add here in parenthesis that the thirstiness, always so remarkable in the medieval man whether it make him strange to you or help to ingratiate him as a human brother, seems to have followed him even into the Tripos. It was not only after a University exercise, says the historian (Rashdall, Vol.
p. 687) but during its progress that the need of refreshment was apt to be felt . Many Statutes alludesome by way of prohibition, but not alwaysto the custom of providing wine for the Examiners or Temptator [good word] before, during, or after the Examination. At Heidelberg the Dean of the Faculty might order in drinks, the candidate not. At Leipsic the candidate is forbidden to treat [
] the Examiners
the Examination: which seems sound. At Vienna (medical school) he is required to spend a florin
Now when we come to Englandthat is, to Oxford and Cambridge, which ever had queer ways of their ownwe find, strange to say, for centuries no evidence at all of any kind of examination. As for
examinations like the defunct Mathematical and Classical Triposes herewith Senior Wranglers, Wooden Spoons and what lay betweenof all European Universities, Louvain alone used the system and may have invented it. At Louvain the candidates for the Mastership were placed in three classes, in each of which the names were arranged in order of merit. The first class were styled
(Honour-men), the second
(Pass-men), the third
(Charity-passes); while a fourth class, not publicly announced, contained the names of those who could not be passed on any terms.
), says the Statute,
aliqui inveniantur refutabiles, erunt de quarto ordine.
These competitive examinationsI proceed in the historians wordscontributed largely to raise Louvain to the high position as a place of learning and education which it retained before the Universities were roused from their 15th century torpor by the revival of Learning. Pope Adrian VI was one of its famous
and Jansen another. The College which produced a
enjoyed three days holiday, during which its bell was rung continuously day and night.
At Oxford and Cambridge (I repeat) we find in their early days no trace of any examination at all. To be sureand as perhaps you knowthe first archives of this University were burned in the Town and Gown riots of 1381 by the Townsmen, whose descendants Erasmus describes genially as combining the utmost rusticity with the utmost malevolence. But no student will doubt that Cambridge used pretty much the same system as Oxford, and the system was this:When a candidate presented himself before the Chancellor for a License in Arts, he had to swear that he had heard certain books,
and nine Regent Masters (besides his own Master, who presented him) were required to depose to their knowledge (
) of his sufficiency: and five others to their credence (
), says the Statute. Only in the School of Theology was no room allowed to credulity: there all the Masters had to depose of their knowledge, and one black ball excluded.
Well, you may urge that this method has a good deal to be said for it. I will go some way to meet you too: but first you must pay me the compliment of supposing me a just man. Being a just man, and there also being presumed in me some acquaintance with English Literaturenot indeed muchnot necessarily muchbut enough to distinguish good writing from bad or, at any rate, real writing from sham, and at least to have an inkling of what these poets and prose-writers were trying to dowhy then I declare to you that, after two years reading with a man and talk with him about literature, I should have a far better sense of his industry, of his capacity, of his performance and (better) of his promise, than any examination is likely to yield me. In short I could sign him up for a first, second or third class, or as
with more accuracy and confidence than I could derive from taking him as a stranger and pondering his three or four days performance in a Tripos. For some of the best men mature slowly: and some, if not most, of the best writers write slowly because they have a conscience; and the most original minds are just those for whom, in a
examination, it is hardest to set a paper.
But the process (you will admit) might be invidious, might lend itself to misunderstanding, might conceivably even lead to re-imposition of an oath forbidding the use of a knife or other sharp implement. And among Colleges rivalry is not altogether unknown; and dons, if unlike other men in outward aspect, sometimes resemble them in frailty; and in short I am afraid we shall have to stick to the old system for a while longer. I am sorry, Gentlemen: but you see how it works.
Yetand I admit itthe main objection abides: that, while Literature deals with
rather than with
Examinations by their very nature test mere Knowledge rather than anything else: that in the hands of a second-rate examiner they tend to test knowledge alone, or what passes for knowledge: and that in the very run of this world most examiners will be second-rate men: which, if we remind ourselves that they receive the pay of fifth-rate ones is, after all, considerably better than we have a right to expect.
We are dealing, mind you, with
Literatureour own literature. In examining upon a foreign literature we can artfully lay our stress upon Knowledge and yet neither raise nor risk raising the fatal questions What is it all
What is it, and why is it
since merely to translate literally a chorus of the Agamemnon, or an ode of Pindars, or a passage from Dante or Molière is a creditable performance; to translate either well is a considerable feat; and to translate either perfectly is what you cant do, and the examiner knows you cant do, and you know the examiner cant do, and the examiner knows you know he cant do. But when we come to a fine thing in our own languageto a stanza from Shelleys
He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the worlds slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
Nor, when the spirits self has ceased to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.
what can you do with
How can you examine on
Well, yes, you can request the candidate, to Write a short note on the word
above, or ask From what is it derived? What does he know of
Can he quote any parallel allusion in Byron? You can ask all that: but you are not getting within measurable distance of
Your mind is not even moving on the right plane. Or let me turn back to some light and artless Elizabethan thingsay to the Oenone duet in Peeles
Arraignment of Paris:
Fair and fair and twice so fair,
As fair as any may be:
The fairest shepherd on our green,
A love for any lady.
Fair and fair and twice so fair,
As fair as any may be:
Thy love is fair for thee alone,
And for no other lady.
My love is fair, my love is gay,
As fresh as bin the flowers in May,
And of my love my roundelay,
My merry merry merry roundelay
Concludes with Cupids curse:
They that do change old love for new,
Pray gods they change for worse .
My love can pipe, my love can sing,
My love can many a pretty thing,
And of his lovely praises ring
My merry merry merry roundelays:
to Cupids curse:
They that do change old love for new,
Pray gods they change for worse.
Fair and fair and twice so fair,
As fair as any may be:
The fairest shepherd on our green,
A love for any lady .
How can anyone examine on
How can anyone solemnly explain, in a hurry, answering one of five or six questions selected from a three hours paper, just why and how that hits him? And yet, if it hit him not, he is lost. If even so simple a thing as thata thing of silly soothdo not hit him, he is all unfit to traffic with literature.
You see how delicate a business it is. Examination in Literature, being by its very nature so closely tied down to be a test of
can hardly, save when used by genius, with care, be any final test of that which is better than Knowledge, of that which is the crown of all scholarship, of
But do not therefore lose heart, even in your reading for strict purposes of examination. Our talk is of reading. Let me fetch you some comfort from the sister and correlative, but harder, art of writing.
I most potently believe that the very best writing, in verse or in prose, can only be produced in moments of high excitement, or rather (as I should put it) in those moments of still and solemn awe into which a noble excitement lifts a man. Let me speak only of prose, of which you may more cautiously allow this than of verse. I think of St Pauls glorious passage, as rendered in the Authorised version, concluding the 15th chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians. First, as you know, comes the long, swaying, scholastic, somewhat sophisticated argument about the evidence of resurrection; about the corn, that which thou sowest, the vivification, the change in vivification, and the rest. All this, almost purely argumentative, should be read quietly, with none of the
which your prize reader lavishes on it. The argument works up quietlyat once tensely and sinuously, but very quietlyto conviction. Then comes the hush; and then the authoritative voice speaking out of it, awful and slow, Behold, I shew you a mystery and then, all the latent emotion of faith taking hold and lifting the man on its surge, For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and so, incorruption tolling down corruption, the trumpet smashes death underfoot in victory: until out of the midst of tumult, sounds the recall; sober, measured, claiming the purified heart back to discipline. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
I think of that triumphant passage. I think of the sentences with which Isaak Walton ends his life of Donne. I think of the last pages of Motleys
with its eulogy on William the Silent so exquisitely closing:
As long as he lived, he was the guiding-star of a whole brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the streets.
I think of two great prose passages in Thackerays
Dream of Boccaccio
and so on: and I am sure that, in prose or in verse, the best that man can utter flows from him either in moments of high mental excitement or in the hush of that
to which high excitement lifts him.
But, first now, observe how all these passagesand they are the first I call to mindrise like crests on a large bulk of a waveSt Pauls on a labouring argument about immortality; Motleys at the conclusion of a heavy task. Long campaigning brings the reward of Harry Esmonds return to Castlewood, long intrigue of the authors mind with his characters closes that febrile chapter in which Harry walks home to break the news of the death of the Duke of Hamiltonin the early morning through Kensington, where the newsboys are already shouting it:
The world was going to its business again, although dukes lay dead and ladies mourned for them So day and night pass away, and to-morrow comes, and our place knows us not. Esmond thought of the courier now galloping on the north road to inform him, who was Earl of Arran yesterday, that he was Duke of Hamilton to-day, and of a thousand great schemes, hopes, ambitions, that were alive in the gallant heart, beating but a few hours since, and now in a little dust quiescent.
And on top of this let me assure you that in writing, or learning to write, solid daily practice is the prescription and waiting upon inspiration a lure. These crests only rise on the back of constant labour. Nine days, according to Homer, Leto travailed with Apollo: but he was Apollo, lord of Song. I
this to be true of ordinary talent: but, supposing you all to be geniuses, I am almost as sure that it holds of genius. Listen to this:
Napoleon I used to say that battles were won by the sudden flashing of an idea through the brain of a commander at a certain critical instant. The capacity for generating this sudden electric spark was military genius . Napoleon seems always to have counted upon it, always to have believed that when the critical moment arrived the wild confusion of the battlefield would be illuminated for him by that burst of sudden flame. But if Napoleon had been ignorant of the prosaic business of his profession,
to which he attended more closely than any other commander,
would these moments of supreme clearness have availed him, or would they have come to him at all?
My author thinks not: and I am sure he is right. So, in writing, only out of long preparation can come the truly triumphant flash: and I ask you to push this analogy further, into the business of reading, even of reading for examination. You learn to discipline yourselves, you acquire the art of marshalling, of concentrating, driving your knowledge upon a point: andfor you are youngthat point is by no means the final point. Say that it is only an examination, and silly at that. Still you have been learning the art, you have been training yourself to be, for a better purpose, effective.
Yet, and when this has been granted, the crucial question abides and I must not shirk ityou say that the highest literature deals with
rather than with
It is all very fine to assure us that testing our knowledge
Literature, and on this side or that side of Literature, is healthy for us in some oblique way: but can you examiners examine, or can you not, on Literature in what you call its own and proper category of
So I hear the questionthe question which beats and has beaten, over and over again, good men trying to construct Schools of English in our Universities.
With all sense of a responsibility, of a difficulty, that has lain on my mind for these five years, I answer, Gentlemen, Yes, we ought: yes, we can: and yes, we will.
But, for the achievement, we teachers must first know how to teach. When that is learned, Examination will come as a consequent, easy, almost trivial matter. I will, for examplehaving already allowed how
it is to examine on literaturetake the difficulty at its very extreme. I will select a piece of poetry, and the poet shall be Keatson whom, if on any one, is felt the temptation to write gush and loose aesthetic chatter. A pupil comes to read with me, and I open at the famous
Ode to a Grecian Urn.
(1) We read it through together, perhaps twice; at the second attempt getting the emphasis right, and some, at any rate, of the modulations of voice. So we reach a working idea of the Ode and what Keats meant it to be.
(2) We then compare it with his other Odes, and observe that it is (
) regular in stanza form, (
) in spite of its outburst in the 3rd stanzaMore happy love! more happy, happy love etc.much severer in tone than, e.g., the
Ode to a Nightingale
Ode to Psyche,
) that the emotion is not luscious, but simple, (
) that this simplicity is Hellenic, so far as Keats can compass it, and (
) eminently well-suited to its subject, which is a carven urn, gracious but severe of outline; a moment of joy caught by the sculptor and arrested, for time to perpetuate; yetand this is the point of the Odeconveying a sense that innocent gaiety is not only its own excuse, but of human things one of the few eternaland eternal just because it is joyous and fleeting.
(3) Then we go back and compare this kind of quiet immortal beauty with the passionate immortality hymned in the
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down
with all the rest of that supreme stanza: from which (with some passages my reading supplies to illustrate the difference) we fall to contrasting the vibrating thrill of the
with the happy grace of the
and, allowing each to be appropriate, dispute for a while, perhaps, over the merits of classical calm and romantic thrill.
(4) From this we proceed to examine the Ode in detail line by line: which examination brings up a whole crowd of questions, such as
([Greek5 alpha]) We have a thought enounced in the first stanza. Does the Ode go on to develop and amplify it, as an Ode should? Or does Pegasus come down again and again on the prints from which he took off? If he do this, and the action of the Ode be dead and unprogressive, is the defect covered by beauty of language? Can such defect ever be so covered?
([Greek6 beta]) Lines 15 and 16 anticipate lines 2124, which are saying the same thing and getting no forwarder.
([Greek7 gamma]) We come to the lines
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
with the answering lines
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can eer return.
and we note Sir Sidney Colvins suggestion that this breaks in upon an arrest of art as though it were an arrest on reality: and remember that he raised a somewhat similar question over
and comparing them, discuss truth of emotion against truth of reality.
We come to the last stanza and lament O Attic shape! Fair attitude for its jingle: but note how the poet recovers himself and brings the whole to a grand close.
I have, even yet, mentioned but a few of the points. For one, I have omitted its most beautiful vowel-play, on which teacher and pupil can dwell and learn together. And heaven forbid that as a teacher I should
even on half of those I have indicated. A teacher, as I hold, should watch for what his pupil divines of his own accord; but if, trafficking with works of inspiration, he have no gift to catch that inspiration nor power to pass it on, then I say Heaven help him! but he has no valid right on earth to be in the business.
And if a teacher have all these chances of teachingmind you, of
teachingsupplied him by a single Ode of Keats, do you suppose we cannot set in an Examination paper one intelligent question upon it, in its own lawful category?
Gentlemen, with the most scrupulous tenderness for aged and even decrepit interests, we have been trying to liberate you from certain old bad superstitions and silently laying the stones of a new School of English, which we believe to be worthy even of Cambridge.
Our proposals are before the University. Should they be passed, still everything will depend on the loyalty of its teachers to the idea; and on that enthusiasm which I suppose to be the nurse of all studies and know to be the authentic cherishing nurse of ours. We may even have conceded too much to the letter, but we have built and built our trust on the spirit which maketh alive.
Why had he to swear this under pain of excommunication, when the lecturer could so easily keep a roll-call? But the amount of oathtaking in a medieval University was prodigious. Even College servants were put on oath for their duties: Gyps invited their own damnation, bed-makers kissed the book. Abroad, where examinations were held, the Examiner swore not to take a bribe, the Candidate neither to give one, nor, if unsuccessful, to take his vengeance on the Examiner with a knife or other sharp instrument. At New College, Oxford, the matriculating undergraduate was required to swear in particular not to dance in the College Chapel. [
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