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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Reading. 1920.

XII. On the Use of Masterpieces

Wednesday, November 6, 1918


I DO not think, Gentlemen, that we need to bother ourselves to-day with any definition of a ‘classic,’ or of the stigmata by which a true classic can be recognised. Sainte-Beuve once indicated these in a famous discourse, Qu’est-ce qu’un classique: and it may suffice us that these include Universality and Permanence. Your true classic is universal, in that it appeals to the catholic mind of man. It is doubly permanent: for it remains significant, or acquires a new significance, after the age for which it was written and the conditions under which it was written, have passed away; and it yet keeps, undefaced by handling, the original noble imprint of the mind that first minted it—or shall we say that, as generation after generation rings the coin, it ever returns the echo of its father-spirit?

But for our purpose it suffices that in our literature we possess a number of works to which the title of classic cannot be refused. So let us confine ourselves to these, and to the question, How to use them?


Well, to begin with, I revert to a point which I tried to establish in my first lecture; and insist with all my strength that the first obligation we owe to any classic, and to those whom we teach, and to ourselves, is to treat it absolutely: not for any secondary or derivative purpose, or purpose recommended as useful by any manual: but at first solely to interpret the meaning which its author intended: that in short we should trust any given masterpiece for its operation, on ourselves and on others. In that first lecture I quoted to you this most wise sentence:
  • That all spirit is mutually attractive, as all matter is ultimately attractive, is an ultimate fact,
  • and consenting to this with all my heart I say that it matters very little for the moment, or even for a considerable while, that a pupil does not perfectly, or even nearly, understand all he reads, provided we can get the attraction to seize upon him. He and the author between them will do the rest: our function is to communicate and trust. In what other way do children take the ineffaceable stamp of a gentle nurture than by daily attraction to whatsoever is beautiful and amiable and dignified in their home? As there, so in their reading, the process must be gradual of acquiring an inbred monitor to reject the evil and choose the good. For it is the property of masterpieces that they not only raise you to
  • despise low Joys, low Gains;
  • Disdain whatever Cornbury disdains:
  • they are not only as Lamb wrote of the Plays of Shakespeare ‘enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach you courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity’; but they raise your gorge to defend you from swallowing the fifth-rate, the sham, the fraudulent. Abeunt studia in mores. I cannot, for my part, conceive a man who has once incorporated the Phaedo or the Paradiso or Lear in himself as lending himself for a moment to one or other of the follies plastered in these late stern times upon the firm and most solid purpose of this nation—the inanities, let us say, of a Baby-Week. Or, for a more damnable instance, I think of you and me with Marvell’s great Horatian Ode sunk in our minds, standing to-day by the statue of Charles I that looks down Whitehall: telling ourselves of ‘that memorable scene’ before the Banqueting House, remembering amid old woes all the glory of our blood and state, recollecting what is due even to ourselves, standing on the greatest site of our capital, and turning to see it degraded as it has been for a week, to a vulgar raree-show. Gentlemen, I could read you many poor ill-written letters from mothers whose sons have died for England, to prove to you we have not deserved that, or the sort of placard with which London has been plastered,
  • Dum domus Æneae Capitoli immobile saxum
  • Accolet.
  • Great enterprises (as we know) and little minds go ill together. Someone veiled the statue. That, at least, was well done.

    I have not the information—nor do I want it—to make even a guess who was responsible for this particular outrage. I know the sort of man well enough to venture that he never had a liberal education, and, further, that he is probably rather proud of it. But he may nevertheless own some instinct of primitive kindliness: and I wish he could know how he afflicts men of sensitiveness who have sons at the War.


    Secondly, let us consider what use we can make of even one selected classic. I refer you back to the work of an old schoolmaster, quoted in my first lecture:
  • I believe, if the truth were known, men would be astonished at the small amount of learning with which a high degree of culture is compatible. In a moment of enthusiasm I ventured once to tell my ‘English set’ that if they could really master the ninth book of Paradise Lost, so as to rise to the height of its great argument and incorporate all its beauties in themselves, they would at one blow, by virtue of that alone, become highly cultivated men.… More and more various learning might raise them to the same height by different paths, but could hardly raise them higher.
  • I beg your attention for the exact words: ‘to rise to the height of its great argument and incorporate all its beauties in themselves.’ There you have it—‘to incorporate.’ Do you remember that saying of Wordsworth’s, casually dropped in conversation, but preserved for us by Hazlitt?—‘It is in the highest degree unphilosophic to call language or diction the dress of our thoughts.… It is the incarnation of our thoughts.’ Even so, I maintain to you, the first business of a learner in literature is to get complete hold of some undeniable masterpiece and incorporate it, incarnate it. And, I repeat, there are a few great works for you to choose from: works approved for you by ancient and catholic judgment.


    But let us take something far simpler than the Ninth Book of Paradise Lost and more direct than any translated masterpiece can be in its appeal; something of high genius, written in our mother tongue. Let us take The Tempest.

    Of The Tempest we may say confidently:

    (1) that it is a literary masterpiece: the last most perfect ‘fruit of the noblest tree in our English Forest’;

    (2) that its story is quite simple; intelligible to a child: (its basis in fact is fairy-tale, pure and simple—as I tried to show in a previous lecture);

    (3) that in reading it—or in reading Hamlet, for that matter—the child has no sense at all of being patronised, of being ‘written down to.’ And this has the strongest bearing on my argument. The great authors, as Emerson says, never condescend. Shakespeare himself speaks to a slip of a boy, and that boy feels that he is Ferdinand;

    (4) that, though Shakespeare uses his loftiest, most accomplished and, in a sense, his most difficult language: a way of talking it has cost him a life-time to acquire, in line upon line inviting the scholar’s, prosodist’s, poet’s most careful study; that language is no bar to the child’s enjoyment: but rather casts about the whole play an aura of magnificence which, with the assistant harmonies, doubles and redoubles the spell. A child no more resents this because it is strange than he objects to read in a fairy-tale of robbers concealed in oil-jars or of diamonds big as a roc’s egg. When will our educators see that what a child depends on is imagination, that what he demands of life is the wonderful, the glittering, possibility?

    Now if, putting all this together and taking confidence from it, we boldly launch a child upon The Tempest we shall come sooner or later upon passages that we have arrived at finding difficult. We shall come, for example, to the Masque of Iris, which Iris, invoking Ceres, thus opens:

  • Ceres, most bounteous lady, thy rich leas
  • Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and pease;
  • Thy turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep,
  • And flat meads thatch’d with stover, them to keep;
  • Thy banks with pionéd and twillèd brims,
  • Which spongy April at thy hest betrims
  • To make cold nymphs chaste crowns; and thy broom groves
  • Whose shadow the dismissèd bachelor loves,
  • Being lass-lorn; thy pole-clipt vineyard;
  • And thy sea-marge, sterile and rocky hard
  • Where thou thyself dost air; the Queen o’ the sky
  • Whose watery arch and messenger am I,
  • Bids thee leave these.…
  • The passage is undeniably hard for any child, even when you have paused to explain who Ceres is, who Iris, who the Queen o’ the sky, and what Iris means by calling herself ‘her watery arch and messenger.’ The grammatical structure not only stands on its head but maintains that posture for an extravagant while. Naturally (or rather let us say, ordinarily) it would run, ‘Ceres, the Queen o’ the sky bids thee leave—thy rich leas, etc.’ But, the lines being twelve-and-a-half in number, we get no hint of there being any grammatical subject until it bursts on us in the second half of line eleven, while the two main verbs and the object of one of them yet linger to be exploded in the last half-line, ‘Bids thee leave these.’ And this again is as nothing to the difficulties of interpretation. ‘Dismissèd bachelor’ may be easy; ‘pole-clipt vineyard’ is certainly not, at first sight. ‘To make cold nymphs chaste crowns.’ What cold nymphs? You have to wait for another fifty odd lines before being quite sure that Shakespeare means Naiads (and ‘What are Naiads?’ says the child)—‘temperate nymphs’:

  • You nymphs, called Naiades, of the wandering brooks
  • With your sedg’d crowns
  • —and if the child demand what is meant by ‘pionèd and twillèd brims,’ you have to answer him that nobody knows.

    These difficulties—perhaps for you, certainly for the young reader or listener—are reserved delights. My old schoolmaster even indulges this suspicion—‘I never can persuade myself that Shakespeare would have passed high in a Civil Service Examination on one of his own plays.’ At any rate you don’t begin with these difficulties: you don’t (or I hope you don’t) read the notes first: since, as Bacon puts it, ‘Studies teach not their own use.’

    As for the child, he is not ‘grubbing for beauties’; he magnificently ignores what he cannot for the moment understand, being intent on What Is, the heart and secret of the adventure. He is Ferdinand (I repeat) and the isle is ‘full of voices.’ If these voices were all intelligible, why then, as Browning would say, ‘the less Island it.’


    I have purposely exhibited The Tempest at its least tractable. Who will deny that as a whole it can be made intelligible even to very young children by the simple process of reading it with them intelligently? or that the mysteries such a reading leaves unexplained are of the sort to fascinate a child’s mind and allure it? But if this be granted, I have established my contention that the Humanities should not be treated as a mere crown and ornament of education; that they should inform every part of it, from the beginning, in every school of the realm: that whether a child have more education or less education, what he has can be, and should be a ‘liberal education’ throughout.

    Matthew Arnold, as every one knows, used to preach the use of these masterpieces as prophylactics of taste. I would I could make you feel that they are even more necessary to us.

    The reason why?—The reason is that every child born in these Islands is born into a democracy which, apart from home affairs, stands committed to a high responsibility for the future welfare and good governance of Europe. For three centuries or so it has held rule over vast stretches of the earth’s surface and many millions of strange peoples: while its obligations towards the general civilisation of Europe, if not intermittent, have been tightened or relaxed, now here, now there, by policy, by commerce, by dynastic alliances, by sudden revulsions or sympathies. But this War will leave us bound to Europe as we never have been: and, whether we like it or not, no less inextricably bound to foe than to friend. Therefore, I say, it has become important, and in a far higher degree than it ever was before the War, that our countrymen grow up with a sense of what I may call the soul of Europe. And nowhere but in literature (which is ‘memorable speech’)—or at any rate, nowhere so well as in literature—can they find this sense.


    There was, as we have seen, a time in Europe, extending over many centuries, when mankind dwelt under the preoccupation of making literature, and still making more of it. The 4th century B.C. in Athens was such a time; and if you will you may envy, as we all admire, the men of an age when to write at all was tantamount to asserting genius; the men who, in Newman’s words, ‘deserve to be Classics, both because of what they do and because they can do it.’ If you envy—while you envy—at least remember that these things often paid their price; that the Phaedo, for example, was bought for us by the death of Socrates. Pass Athens and come to Alexandria: still men are accumulating books and the material for books; threshing out the classics into commentaries and grammars, garnering books in great libraries.

    There follows an age which interrupts this hive-like labour with sudden and insensate destruction. German tribes from the north, Turkish from the east, break in upon the granaries and send up literature in flames; the Christian Fathers from Tertullian to Gregory the Great (I regret to say) either heartily assisting or at least warming their benedictory hands at the blaze: and so thoroughly they do their work that even the writings of Aristotle, the Philosopher, must wait for centuries as ‘things silently gone out of mind or things violently destroyed’ (to borrow Wordsworth’s fine phrase) and creep back into Europe bit by bit, under cover of Arabic translations.

    The scholars set to work and begin rebuilding: patient, indefatigable, anonymous as the coral insects at work on a Pacific atoll—building, building, until on the near side of the gulf we call the Dark Age, islets of scholarship lift themselves above the waters: mere specks at first, but ridges appear and connect them: and, to first seeming, sterile enough:

  • Nec Cereri opportuna seges, nec commoda Baccho—
  • but as they join and become a terra firma, a thin soil gathers on them God knows whence: and, God knows whence, the seed is brought, ‘it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain.’ There is a price, again, for this resurrection: but how nobly, how blithely paid you may learn, without seeking recondite examples, from Cuthbert’s famous letter describing the death of Bede. Compare that story with that of the last conversation of Socrates; and you will surely recognise that the two men are brothers born out of time; that Bede’s work has been a legacy; that his life has been given to re-creating—not scholarship merely nor literature merely—but, through them both, something above them both—the soul of Europe. And this may or may not lead you on to reflect that beyond our present passions, and beyond this War, in a common sanity Europe (and America with her) will have to discover that common soul again.

    But eminent spirits such as Bede’s are, by their very eminence, less representative of the process—essentially fugitive and self-abnegatory—than the thousands of copyists who have left no name behind them. Let me read you a short paragraph from The Cambridge History of English Literature, Chapter II, written, the other day, by one of our own teachers:

  • The cloister was the centre of life in the monastery, and in the cloister was the workshop of the patient scribe. It is hard to realise that the fair and seemly handwriting of these manuscripts was executed by fingers which, on winter days, when the wind howled through the cloisters, must have been numbed by icy cold. It is true that, occasionally, little carrels or studies in the recesses of the windows were screened off from the main walk of the cloister, and, sometimes, a small room or cell would be partitioned off for the use of a single scribe. The room would then be called the Scriptorium, but it is unlikely that any save the oldest and most learned of the community were afforded this luxury. In these scriptoria of various kinds the earliest annals and chronicles in the English language were penned, in the beautiful and painstaking forms in which we know them.
  • If you seek testimony, here are the ipsissima verba of a poor monk of Wessobrunn endorsed upon his MS:

  • The book which you now see was written in the outer seats of the cloister. While I wrote I froze: and what I could not write by the beams of day I finished by candlelight.
  • We might profitably spend—but to-day cannot spare—a while upon the pains these men of the Middle Ages took to accumulate books and to keep them. The chained volumes in old libraries, for example, might give us a text for this as well as start us speculating why it is that, to this day, the human conscience incurably declines to include books with other portable property covered by the Eighth Commandment. Or we might follow several of the early scholars and humanists in their passionate chasings across Europe, in and out of obscure monasteries, to recover the lost MSS of the classics: might tell, for instance, of Pope Nicholas V, whose birth-name was Tommaso Parentucelli, and how he rescued the MSS from Constantinople and founded the Vatican Library: or of Aurispa of Sicily who collected two hundred and thirty-eight for Florence: or the story of the editio princeps of the Greek text of Homer. Or we might dwell on the awaking of our literature, and the trend given to it, by men of the Italian and French renaissance; or on the residence of Erasmus here, in this University, with its results.


    But I have said enough to make it clear that, as we owe so much of our best to understanding Europe, so the need to understand Europe lies urgently to-day upon large classes in this country; and that yet, in the nature of things, these classes can never enjoy such leisure as our forefathers enjoyed to understand what I call the soul of Europe, or at least to misunderstand it upon acquaintance.

    Let me point out further that within the last few months we have doubled the difficulty at a stroke by sharing the government of our country with women and admitting them to Parliament. It beseems a great nation to take great risks: to dare them is at once a sign and a property of greatness: and for good or ill—but for limitless good as we trust—our country has quietly made this enterprise amid the preoccupations of the greatest War in its annals. Look at it as you will—let other generations judge it as they will—it stands a monument of our faith in free self-government that in these most perilous days we gave and took so high a guerdon of trust in one another.

    But clearly it implies that all the women of this country, down to the small girls entering our elementary schools, must be taught a great many things their mothers and grandmothers—happy in their generation—were content not to know.

    It cannot be denied, I think, that in the long course of this War, now happily on the point of a victorious conclusion, we have suffered heavily through past neglect and present nescience of our literature, which is so much more European, so much more catholic, a thing than either our politics or our national religion: that largely by reason of this neglect and this nescience our statesmen have again and again failed to foresee how continental nations would act through failing to understand their minds; and have almost invariably, through this lack of sympathetic understanding, failed to interpret us to foreign friend or foe, even when (and it was not often) they interpreted us to ourselves. I note that America—a country with no comparable separate tradition of literature—has customarily chosen men distinguished by the grace of letters for ambassadors to the Court of St James—Motley, Lowell, Hay, Page, in our time: and has for her President a man of letters—and a Professor at that!—whereas, even in these critical days, Great Britain, having a most noble cause and at least half-a-hundred writers and speakers capable of presenting it with dignity and so clearly that no neutral nation could mistake its logic, has by preference entrusted it to stunt journalists and film-artistes. If in these later days you have lacked a voice to interpret you in the great accent of a Chatham, the cause lies in past indifference to that literary tradition which is by no means the least among the glories of our birth and state.


    Masterpieces, then, will serve us as prophylactics of taste, even from childhood; and will help us, further, to interpret the common mind of civilisation. But they have a third and yet nobler use. They teach us to lift our own souls.

    For witness to this and to the way of it I am going to call an old writer for whom, be it whim or not, I have an almost 18th century reverence—Longinus. No one exactly knows who he was; although it is usual to identify him with that Longinus who philosophised in the court of the Queen Zenobia and was by her, in her downfall, handed over with her other counsellors to be executed by Aurelian: though again, as is usual, certain bold bad men affirm that, whether he was this Longinus or not, the treatise of which I speak was not written by any Longinus at all but by someone with a different name, with which they are unacquainted. Be this as it may, somebody wrote the treatise and its first editor, Francis Robertello of Basle, in 1554 called him Dionysius Longinus; and so shall I, and have done with it, careless that other MSS than that used by Robertello, speak of Dionysius or Longinus. Dionysius Longinus, then, in the 3rd century B.C.—some say in the 1st: it is no great matter—wrote a little book [Greek14] commonly cited as Longinus on the Sublime. The title is handy, but quite misleading, unless you remember that by ‘Sublimity’ Longinus meant, as he expressly defines it, ‘a certain distinction and excellence in speech.’ The book, thus recovered, had great authority with critics of the 17th and 18th centuries. For the last hundred years it has quite undeservedly gone out of vogue.

    It is (I admit) a puzzling book, though quite clear in argument and language: pellucidly clear, but here and there strangely modern, even hauntingly modern, if the phrase may be allowed. You find yourself rubbing your eyes over a passage more like Matthew Arnold than something of the 3rd century: or you come without warning on a few lines of ‘comparative criticism,’ as we call it—an illustration from Genesis—‘God said, Let there be Light, and there was Light’ used for a specimen of the exalted way of saying things. Generally, you have a sense that this author’s lineage is mysterious after the fashion of Melchisedek’s.

    Well, to our point—Longinus finds that the conditions of lofty utterance are five: of which the first is by far the most important. And this foremost condition is innate: you either have it or you have not. Here it is:

  • ‘Elsewhere,’ says Longinus, ‘I have written as follows: “Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.” Hence even a bare idea sometimes, by itself and without a spoken word will excite admiration, just because of the greatness of soul implied. Thus the silence of Ajax in the underworld is great and more sublime than words.’
  • You remember the passage, how Odysseus meets that great spirit among the shades and would placate it, would ‘make up’ their quarrel on earth now, with carneying words:
  • ‘Ajax, son of noble Telamon, wilt thou not then, even in death forget thine anger against me over that cursed armour.… Nay, there is none other to blame but Zeus: he laid thy doom on thee. Nay, come hither, O my lord, and hear me and master thine indignation.’
  • So I spake, but he answered me not a word, but strode from me into the Darkness, following the others of the dead that be departed.
  • Longinus goes on:
  • It is by all means necessary to point this out—that the truly eloquent must be free from base and ignoble (or ill-bred) thoughts. For it is not possible that men who live their lives with mean and servile aims and ideas should produce what is admirable and worthy of immortality. Great accents we expect to fall from the lips of those whose thoughts are dignified.
  • Believe this and it surely follows, as concave implies convex, that by daily converse and association with these great ones we take their breeding, their manners, earn their magnanimity, make ours their gifts of courtesy, unselfishness, mansuetude, high seated pride, scorn of pettiness, wholesome plentiful jovial laughter.
  • He that of such a height hath built his mind,
  • And rear’d the dwelling of his soul so strong
  • As neither fear nor hope can shake the frame
  • Of his resolvèd powers, nor all the wind
  • Of vanity or malice pierce to wrong
  • His settled peace, or to disturb the same;
  • What a fair seat hath he, from whence he may
  • The boundless wastes and wilds of man survey!
  • And with how free an eye doth he look down
  • Upon these lower regions of turmoil!
  • Where all the storms of passions mainly beat
  • On flesh and blood; where honour, power, renown,
  • Are only gay afflictions, golden toil;
  • Where greatness stands upon as feeble feet
  • As frailty doth; and only great doth seem
  • To little minds, who do it so esteem.…
  • Knowing the heart of man is set to be
  • The centre of this world, about the which
  • These revolutions of disturbances
  • Still roll; where all th’ aspects of misery
  • Predominate; whose strong effects are such
  • As he must bear, being powerless to redress;
  • And that, unless above himself he can
  • Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!
  • IX

    If the exhortation of these verses be somewhat too high and stoical for you, let me return to Longinus and read you, from his concluding chapter, a passage you may find not inapposite to these times, nor without a moral:
  • ‘It remains’ [he says] ‘to clear up, my dear Terentianus, a question which a certain philosopher has recently mooted. I wonder,’ he says, ‘as no doubt do many others, how it happens that in our time there are men who have the gift of persuasion to the utmost extent, and are well fitted for public life, and are keen and ready, and particularly rich in all the charms of language, yet there no longer arise really lofty and transcendent natures unless it be quite peradventure. So great and world-wide a dearth of high utterance attends our age. Can it be,’ he continued, ‘we are to accept the common cant that democracy is the nursing mother of genius, and that great men of letters flourish and die with it? For freedom, they say, has the power to cherish and encourage magnanimous minds, and with it is disseminated eager mutual rivalry and the emulous thirst to excel. Moreover, by the prizes open under a popular government, the mental faculties of orators are perpetually practised and whetted, and as it were, rubbed bright, so that they shine free as the state itself. Whereas to-day,’ he went on, ‘we seem to have learnt as an infant-lesson that servitude is the law of life; being all wrapped, while our thoughts are yet young and tender, in observances and customs as in swaddling clothes, bound without access to that fairest and most fertile source of man’s speech (I mean Freedom) so that we are turned out in no other guise than that of servile flatterers. And servitude (it has been well said) though it be even righteous, is the cage of the soul and a public prison-house.’
  • But I answered him thus.—‘It is easy, my good sir, and characteristic of human nature, to gird at the age in which one lives. Yet consider whether it may not be true that it is less the world’s peace that ruins noble nature than this war illimitable which holds our aspirations in its fist, and occupies our age with passions as with troops that utterly plunder and harry it. The love of money and the love of pleasure enslave us, or rather, as one may say, drown us body and soul in their depths. For vast and unchecked wealth marches with lust of pleasure for comrade, and when one opens the gate of house or city, the other at once enters and abides. And in time these two build nests in the hearts of men, and quickly rear a progeny only too legitimate: and the ruin within the man is gradually consummated as the sublimities of his soul wither away and fade, and in ecstatic contemplation of our mortal parts we omit to exalt, and come to neglect in nonchalence, that within us which is immortal.’
  • I had a friend once who, being in doubt with what picture to decorate the chimney-piece in his library, cast away choice and wrote up two Greek words—[Greek15]; that is, the hospital—the healing-place—of the soul.