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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Causes of the Sterility of Literature

By Walter Bagehot (1826–1877)

From ‘Shakespeare, the Man,’ etc.

THE REASON why so few good books are written is, that so few people that can write know anything. In general, an author has always lived in a room, has read books, has cultivated science, is acquainted with the style and sentiments of the best authors, but he is out of the way of employing his own eyes and ears. He has nothing to hear and nothing to see. His life is a vacuum. The mental habits of Robert Southey, which about a year ago were so extensively praised in the public journals, are the type of literary existence, just as the praise bestowed on them shows the admiration excited by them among literary people. He wrote poetry (as if anybody could) before breakfast; he read during breakfast. He wrote history until dinner; he corrected proof-sheets between dinner and tea; he wrote an essay for the Quarterly afterwards; and after supper, by way of relaxation, composed ‘The Doctor’—a lengthy and elaborate jest. Now, what can any one think of such a life?—except how clearly it shows that the habits best fitted for communicating information, formed with the best care, and daily regulated by the best motives, are exactly the habits which are likely to afford a man the least information to communicate. Southey had no events, no experiences. His wife kept house and allowed him pocket-money, just as if he had been a German professor devoted to accents, tobacco, and the dates of Horace’s amours….

The critic in the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ lays down that you should always say that the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains; but in the case of the practiced literary man, you should often enough say that the writings would have been much better if the writer had taken less pains. He says he has devoted his life to the subject; the reply is, “Then you have taken the best way to prevent your making anything of it. Instead of reading studiously what Burgersdicius and Ænesidemus said men were, you should have gone out yourself and seen (if you can see) what they are.” But there is a whole class of minds which prefer the literary delineation of objects to the actual eyesight of them. Such a man would naturally think literature more instructive than life. Hazlitt said of Mackintosh, “He might like to read an account of India; but India itself, with its burning, shining face, would be a mere blank, an endless waste to him. Persons of this class have no more to say to a matter of fact staring them in the face, without a label in its mouth, than they would to a hippopotamus.”…

After all, the original way of writing books may turn out to be the best. The first author, it is plain, could not have taken anything from books, since there were no books for him to copy from; he looked at things for himself. Anyhow the modern system fails, for where are the amusing books from voracious students and habitual writers?

Moreover, in general, it will perhaps be found that persons devoted to mere literature commonly become devoted to mere idleness. They wish to produce a great work, but they find they cannot. Having relinquished everything to devote themselves to this, they conclude on trial that this is impossible; they wish to write, but nothing occurs to them: therefore they write nothing and they do nothing. As has been said, they have nothing to do; their life has no events, unless they are very poor; with any decent means of subsistence, they have nothing to rouse them from an indolent and musing dream. A merchant must meet his bills, or he is civilly dead and uncivilly remembered; but a student may know nothing of time, and be too lazy to wind up his watch.