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been a large multitude of readers for Mr. Macaulay's Essays—brilliant, showy, attractive reading. But what assurance can any one of that multitude, who is unacquainted with other productions in the same class of books, have, in his admiration of these essays ? How can he be assured that they are going to endure in our literature, and that their attractions are rightful attractions? I myself believe that they will prove perishable, because the pungency of a period, and the dazzling effects of declamation are, to Mr. Macaulay, dearer at least than faith and charity.
The admirer of his Essays may think otherwise, but whether he be right or wrong, he is not entitled to form a judgment unless he has disciplined his power of judging by the reading of other works of a kindred nature-kindred, I mean, in form, not in spirit. Let him, therefore, turn to the other Essay-writing of our own times, (and it has been a large outlet for the contemporary mind,) the essays of Southey, of Scott, of Washington Irving, the inimitable “Elia” of Charles Lamb, or that thoughtful and thought-producing miscellany, the “Guesses at Truth.” Then going back into other periods, and making choice of some of Dr. Johnson’s Essays in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and of Addison's or Steele's in the “Spectator” and the "Tatler," in the early part of it, he will find his judgment enlarged by seeing how those generations dealt with this same branch of letters. Travelling back a century earlier, let him take the single volume of Lord Bacon's Essays, in which thoughts and suggestions of thought move in such solid phalanx that every line is a study. This is a simple rule for reading, and it may readily be practised: then bringing his acquaintance with the English essays of the last two hundred years, and the power of judgment he has at the same time been unconsciously gaining, back to the Macaulay Essays, and he will perceive that they are not what they used to be to him—that the brilliant essayist “'gins to pale his ineffectual fire.” A sense of enjoyment will indeed have passed away, but it will be because the reader has discovered elsewhere a deeper wisdom, a more tranquil beauty of thought and feeling, and of expression, a fuller beat of the human heart. The flashing of the will-o'-the-wisp shall no longer mislead him, who turns his looks to the steady cottage candle-light quietly shining out into the darkness, or to the still safer guidance of the slow-moving stars.
The principle which I have thus endeavoured to exemplify, is important in all the divisions of literature. It is needful to lift us out of the influences which environ us, to raise us above prejudices and narrow judgments which are engendered by confinement to contemporaneous habits of opinion. I hope to show at another part of the course how we may enlarge and elevate our Sunday occupations, and fortify our judgment of the sermons we read and hear, by acquaintance with the earlier sacred and devotional literature, especially that of the seventeenth century.
In nothing is familiarity with the literature of various periods more important than in the culture of poetic taste, our judgments and feelings for the poets. One meets perpetually with a confident partiality for some poet of the day, or a confident antipathy to another; and, all the while, such confidence may be entirely unequal to that which is the simplest test—the capacity to comprehend and enjoy the poetry of other ages.
The merits of the living poets must be more or less in dispute; and he alone has any claim to venture on a prediction, as to which shall be immortal and which ephemeral, who has cultivated his imagination by thoughtful communion with the great poets of former centuries. Let him, who is quick to condemn, or slow to admire, ask whether the fault may not be in himself :-it may be the caprice or the apathy of uncultivated taste : he, and he alone, whose capacity of admiration has grown by culture ample enough to know and to feel the power of the poetry of the past, is qualified to speak in judgment of the poetry of the present. That this or that poem pleases him, who knows the present only, proves nothing: but he, whose imagination responds to the Chaucer of the fourteenth century, the Spenser and Shakespeare of the sixteenth, and the Milton of the seventeenth century, can see truly the poets of the nineteenth century, foreknowing which light shall pass away like a conflagration or a meteor, and which is beginning a perpetual planetary motion with the great lights of all ages.
I have spoken of the value of acquaintance with the literature of different eras, and the influence is reciprocal—the earlier upon the later, and the later upon the earlier. But with regard to the elder literature, there is an agency for good in the added sentiment of
The mind bows, or ought to bow to it, as to age with its crown of glory. It is as salutary as for the youthful to withdraw for a season from the companionship of their peers, and to sit at the feet of the old, listening in reverential silence. In the elder literature, the perishable has passed away, and that is left which has put on its immortality.
A true catholicity of taste in our intercourse with books is in danger of being counteracted not only by the incessant and clamorous demand which the current literature makes upon us, but also by the impulses which we may be exposed to in consequence of our individual pursuits 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, “ Friends in Council”—an admirable specimen of the essay-writing of our day. “There is,” it is remarked, “a very 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.
* Henry Taylor: “Friends in Council.”
Part II., p. 15.
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 literature may be found throughout English language, in prose and verse; from its earliest periods down to our own times,-from Chaucer to Southey and Charles Lamb; and it behooves us to blend it with graver