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that thoughtful spirit of inquiry in which activity and docility are justly balanced. No good book is an insulated thing; you can always, if you will but look for them, discover leadings on to something else—other books on the same or kindred subjects—or other books by the same author. You acquire an affection for an author, and that may be made to embrace the books of his affection. I know of no more practical or safer principle in the guidance of one's reading, than thus to follow an author in whom
your confidence is well placed. There are what may, in this respect, be called guiding authors, whose genial love of letters was not only a light to their own lives, but still shines, a lamp to show the path to others. You feel that what they loved may fitly be loved by you; that what stirred their spirits may have a power over yours. And so shall we find perpetual guidance, following it with freedom and loyalty, and extending our acquaintance with books just in the way in which we do with our acquaintance with living men and women. We use books for instruction or amusement, but hardly enough for guidance. Let me rapidly exemplify this principle, the value of which is, perhaps, in danger of being overlooked only from its simplicity. Take such a book as Southey's Life of Cowper, and you shall perceive the mind of Cowper and of his biographer so touching in various ways upon other authors, as to attract you to a large and admirable variety of the best literature in the language. Taking that remarkable work “ The Doctor," in which Southey poured forth the vast abundance of his fine scholarship, or the Elia Essays, you will find guidance into many
of the beautiful and secluded spots in English literature. Or again, what countless suggestions for lifelong reading, and what wise guidance to profitable studies may not be found in the several works of Coleridge! I mention these as eminently“guiding authors,” and it would be easy to add to the list others of the same class in their degree. This is a use of books which combines healthful independence of judgment with healthful reverence for authority, giving safety from the two extremes—carelessness and servility of opinion.
It affords a communion of thought which is, in some respects, better than mere formal criticism. It is free from some of the temptations of such criticism, which we must be careful not to use too much of, in these times of many reviews and magazines, and when we turn to them for guidance, we must shun as a pestilence, all heartless criticism, all uncongenial criticism, such especially as unimaginative handling of subjects of imagination, and all malignant criticism. The criticism, which may well be followed and commenced with is that of which it has been said, "It may almost be called a religious criticism, for it holds out its warnings when multitudes are mad; and there is a criticism founded upon patient research and studious deliberation, which, even if it be given somewhat rudely and harshly, cannot but be useful. And there is the loving criticism, which explains, elicits, illumines; showing the force and beauty of some great word or deed, which, but for the kind care of the critic, might remain a dead letter or an inert fact; teaching the people to understand and to admire what is admirable."
In following out the general principle presented in the last lecture, that literature—that which is essentially literature in the highest sense of the term—is meant to give
power rather than information, and in cherishing a catholicity of taste for books, it is a good practical rule to keep one's reading well proportioned in the two great divisions, prose and poetry. This is very apt to be neglected, and the consequence is a great loss of power, moral and intellectual, and a loss of some of the highest enjoyments of literature. It sometimes happens that some readers devote themselves too much to poetry: this is a great mistake, and betrays an ignorance of the true uses of poetical studies. When this happens, it is generally with those whose reading lies chiefly in the lower and merely sentimental region of poetry, for it is hardly possible for the imagination to enter truly into the spirit of the great poets, without having the various faculties of the mind so awakened and invigorated, as to make a knowledge of the great prose writers also a necessity of one's nature.
The disproportion usually lies in the other directionprose reading to the exclusion of poetry. This is owing chiefly to the want of proper culture, for although there is certainly a great disparity of imaginative endowment, still the imagination is part of the universal mind of man, and it is a work of education to bring it into action in minds even the least imaginative. It is chiefly to the wilfully unimaginative mind that poetry, with all its wisdom and all its glory, is a sealed book. It sometimes happens, however, that a mind, well gifted with imaginative power, loses the capacity to relish poetry simply by the neglect of reading metrical literature. This is a sad mistake, inasmuch as the mere reader of prose cuts himself off from the very highest literary enjoyments; for if the giving of power to the mind be a characteristic, the most essential literature is to be found in poetry, especially if it be such as English poetry is, the embodiment of the very highest wisdom and the deepest feeling of our English race. I hope to show in my next lecture, in treating the subject of our language, how rich a source of enjoyment the study of English verse, considered simply as an organ of expression and harmony, may be made; but to readers who confine themselves to prose, the metrical form becomes repulsive instead of attractive. It has been well observed by a living writer, who has exercised his powers alike in prose and verse, that there are readers “to whom the poetical form merely and of itself acts as a sort of veil to every meaning, which is not habitually met with under that form, and who are puzzled by a passage occurring in a poem, which would be at once plain to them if divested of its cadence and rhythm; not because it is thereby put into language in any degree more perspicuous, but because prose is the vehicle they are accustomed to for this particular kind of matter, and they will apply their minds to it in prose, and they will refuse their minds to it in verse."*
The neglect of poetical reading is increased by the very mistaken notion that poetry is a mere luxury of the mind, alien from the demands of practical life-a light and effortless amusement. This is the prejudice and error of ignorance. For look at many of the strong and largely cultivated minds which we know by biography and their own works, and note how large and precious an element of strength is their studious love of poetry. Where could
Taylor's Notes from Books, p. 215.
we find a man of more earnest, energetic, practical cast of character than Arnold ?-eminent as an historian, and in other the gravest departments of thought and learning, active in the cause of education, zealous in matters of ecclesiastical, political, or social reform; right or wrong, always intensely practical and single-hearted in his honest zeal; a champion for truth, whether in the history of ancient politics or present questions of modern society; and, with all, never suffering the love of poetry to be extinguished in his heart, or to be crowded out of it, but turning it perpetually to wise uses, bringing the poetic truths of Shakspeare and of Wordsworth to the help of the cause of truth; his enthusiasm for the poets breaking forth, when he exclaims, “ What a treat it would be to teach Shakspeare to a good class of young Greeks in regenerate Athens; to dwell upon him line by line and word by word, and so to get all his pictures and thoughts leisurely into one's mind, till I verily think one would, after a time, almost give out light in the dark, after having been steeped, as it were, in such an atmosphere of brilliance !!*
This was the constitution not of one man alone, but of the greatest minds of the race; for if our Anglo-Saxon character could be analyzed, a leading characteristic would be found to be the admirable combination of the practical and the poetical in it. This is reflected in all the best English literature, blending the ideal and the actual, never severing its highest spirituality from a steady basis of sober, good sense—philosophy and poetry
* Arnold's Life, p. 284, (American Edition,) in a letter to Mr. Justice Coleridge.