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

The Interpretation of Literature

By Edward Dowden (1843–1913)

From ‘Transcripts and Studies’

THE HAPPIEST moment in a critic’s hours of study is when, seemingly by some divination, but really as the result of patient observation and thought, he lights upon the central motive of a great work. Then, of a sudden, order begins to form itself from the crowd and chaos of his impressions and ideas. There is a moving hither and thither, a grouping or co-ordinating of all his recent experiences, which goes on of its own accord; and every instant his vision becomes clearer, and new meanings disclose themselves in what had been lifeless and unilluminated. It seems as if he could even stand by the artist’s side and co-operate with him in the process of creating. With such a sense of joy upon him, the critic will think it no hard task to follow the artist to the sources from whence he drew his material,—it may be some dull chapter in an ancient chronicle, or some gross tale of passion by an Italian novelist,—and he will stand by and watch with exquisite pleasure the artist handling that crude material, and refashioning and refining it, and breathing into it the breath of a higher life. Even the minutest difference of text between an author’s earlier and later draft, or a first and second edition, has now become a point not for dull commentatorship, but a point of life, at which he may touch with his finger the pulse of the creator in his fervor of creation.

From each single work of a great author we advance to his total work, and thence to the man himself,—to the heart and brain from which all this manifold world of wisdom and wit and passion and beauty has proceeded. Here again, before we address ourselves to the interpretation of the author’s mind, we patiently submit ourselves to a vast series of impressions. And in accordance with Bacon’s maxim that a prudent interrogation is the half of knowledge, it is right to provide ourselves with a number of well-considered questions which we may address to our author. Let us cross-examine him as students of mental and moral science, and find replies in his written words. Are his senses vigorous and fine? Does he see color as well as form? Does he delight in all that appeals to the sense of hearing—the voices of nature, and the melody and harmonies of the art of man? Thus Wordsworth, exquisitely organized for enjoying and interpreting all natural, and if we may so say, homeless and primitive sounds, had but little feeling for the delights of music. Can he enrich his poetry by gifts from the sense of smell, as did Keats; or is his nose like Wordsworth’s, an idle promontory projecting into a desert air? Has he like Browning a vigorous pleasure in all strenuous muscular movements; or does he like Shelley live rapturously in the finest nervous thrills? How does he experience and interpret the feeling of sex, and in what parts of his entire nature does that feeling find its elevating connections and associations? What are his special intellectual powers? Is his intellect combative or contemplative? What are the laws which chiefly preside over the associations of his ideas? What are the emotions which he feels most strongly? and how do his emotions coalesce with one another? Wonder, terror, awe, love, grief, hope, despondency, the benevolent affections, admiration, the religious sentiment, the moral sentiment, the emotion of power, irascible emotion, ideal emotion—how do these make themselves felt in and through his writings? What is his feeling for the beautiful, the sublime, the ludicrous? Is he of weak or vigorous will? In the conflict of motives, which class of motives with him is likely to predominate? Is he framed to believe or framed to doubt? Is he prudent, just, temperate, or the reverse of these? These and such-like questions are not to be crudely and formally proposed, but are to be used with tact; nor should the critic press for hard and definite answers, but know how skillfully to glean its meaning from an evasion. He is a dull cross-examiner who will invariably follow the scheme which he has thought out and prepared beforehand, and who cannot vary his questions to surprise or beguile the truth from an unwilling witness. But the tact which comes from natural gift and from experience may be well supported by something of method,—method well hidden away from the surface and from sight.

This may be termed the psychological method of study. But we may also follow a more objective method. Taking the chief themes with which literature and art are conversant—God, external nature, humanity—we may inquire how our author has dealt with each of these. What is his theology, or his philosophy of the universe? By which we mean no abstract creed or doctrine, but the tides and currents of feeling and of faith, as well as the tendencies and conclusions of the intellect. Under what aspect has this goodly frame of things, in whose midst we are, revealed itself to him? How has he regarded and interpreted the life of man? Under each of these great themes a multitude of subordinate topics are included. And alike in this and in what we have termed the psychological method of study, we shall gain double results if we examine a writer’s works in the order of their chronology, and thus become acquainted with the growth and development of his powers, and the widening and deepening of his relations with man, with external nature, and with that Supreme Power, unknown yet well known, of which nature and man are the manifestation. As to the study of an artist’s technical qualities, this, by virtue of the fact that he is an artist, is of capital importance; and it may often be associated with the study of that which his technique is employed to express and render—the characteristics of his mind, and of the vision which he has attained of the external universe, of humanity, and of God. Of all our study, the last end and aim should be to ascertain how a great writer or artist has served the life of man; to ascertain this, to bring home to ourselves as large a portion as may be of the gain wherewith he has enriched human life, and to render access to that store of wisdom, passion, and power, easier and surer for others.