On the Art of Reading

Arthur Quiller-Couch

Preview: Issue 1 of 21

Lecture I - Introductory

Wednesday, October 25, 1916


In the third book of the Ethics , and in the second chapter, Aristotle, dealing with certain actions which, though bad in themselves, admit of pity and forgiveness because they were committed involuntarily, through ignorance, instances "the man who did not know a subject was forbidden, like Aeschylus with the Mysteries," and "the man who only meant to show how it worked, like the fellow who let off the catapult".

I feel comfortably sure, Gentlemen, that in a previous course of lectures On the Art of Writing , unlike Aeschylus, I divulged no mysteries: but I am troubled with speculations over that man and the catapult, because I really was trying to tell you how the thing worked; and Aristotle, with a reticence which (as Horace afterwards noted) may lend itself to obscurity, tells us neither what happened to that exponent of ballistics, nor to the engine itself, nor to the other person. My discharge, such as it was, at any rate provoked another professor ( emeritus , learned, sagacious, venerable) to retort that the true business of a Chair such as this is to instruct young men how to read rather than how to write. Well, be it so. I accept the challenge.

I propose in this and some ensuing lectures to talk of the Art and Practice of Reading, particularly as applied to English Literature: to discuss on what ground and through what faculties an Author and his Reader meet: to enquire if, or to what extent, Reading of the best Literature can be taught; and supposing it to be taught, if or to what extent it can be examined upon; with maybe an interlude or two, to beguile the way.


The first thing, then, to be noted about the reading of English (with which alone I am concerned) is that for Englishmen it has been made, by Act of Parliament, compulsory.

The next thing to be noted is that in our schools and colleges and universities it has been made, by Statute or in practice, all but impossible.

The third step is obvious—to reconcile what we cannot do with what we must: and to that aim I shall, under your patience, direct this and the following lecture. I shall be relieved at all events, and from the outset, of the doubt by which many a professor, here and elsewhere, has been haunted: I mean the doubt whether there really is such a subject as that of which he proposes to treat. Anything that requires so much human ingenuity as reading English in an English university must be an art.


But I shall be met, of course, by the question "How is the reading of English made impossible at Cambridge?" and I pause here, on the edge of my subject, to clear away that doubt.

It is no fault of the University.

The late Philip Gilbert Hamerton, whom some remember as an etcher, wrote a book which he entitled (as I think, too magniloquently) The Intellectual Life. He cast it in the form of letters—"To an Author who kept very Irregular Hours," "To a Young Etonian who thought of becoming a Cotton-spinner," "To a Young Gentleman who had firmly resolved never to wear anything but a Grey Coat" (but Mr. Hamerton couldn't quite have meant that). "To a Lady of High Culture who found it difficult to associate with persons of her Own Sex," "To a Young Gentleman of Intellectual Tastes, who, without having as yet any Particular Lady in View, had expressed, in a General Way, his Determination to get Married." The volume is well worth reading. In the first letter of all, addressed "To a Young Man of Letters who worked Excessively," Mr. Hamerton fishes up from his memory, for admonishment, this salutary instance:

A tradesman, whose business affords an excellent outlet for energetic bodily activity, told me that having attempted, in addition to his ordinary work, to acquire a foreign language which seemed likely to be useful to him, he had been obliged to abandon it on account of alarming cerebral symptoms. This man has immense vigour and energy, but the digestive functions, in this instance, are sluggish. However, when he abandoned study, the cerebral inconveniences disappeared, and have never returned since.


Now we all know, and understand, and like that man: for the simple reason that he is every one of us.

You or I (say) have to take the Modern Languages Tripos, Section A (English), in 1917.1 First of all (and rightly) it is demanded of us that we show an acquaintance, and something more than a bowing acquaintance, with Shakespeare. Very well; but next we have to write a paper and answer questions on the outlines of English Literature from 1350 to 1832—almost 500 years—and next to write a paper and show particular knowledge of English Literature between 1700 and 1785—eighty-five years. Next comes a paper on passages from selected English verse and prose writings—the Statute discreetly avoids calling them literature—between 1200 and 1500, exclusive of Chaucer; with questions on language, metre, literary history and literary criticism: then a paper on Chaucer with questions on language, metre, literary history and literary criticism: lastly a paper on writing in the Wessex dialect of Old English, with questions on the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, language, metre and literary history.

Now if you were to qualify yourself for all this as a scholar should, and in two years, you would certainly deserve to be addressed by Mr. Hamerton as "A Young Man of Letters who worked Excessively"; and to work excessively is not good for anyone. Yet, on the other hand, you are precluded from using, for your "cerebral inconveniences," the heroic remedy exhibited by Mr. Hamerton's enterprising tradesman, since on that method you would not attain to the main object of your laudable ambition, a Cambridge degree.

But the matter is very much worse than your Statute makes it out. Take one of the papers in which some actual acquaintance with Literature is required—fthe Special Period from 1700 to 1785; then turn to your Cambridge History of English Literature , and you will find that the mere bibliography of those eighty-five years occupies something like five or six hundred pages—five or six hundred pages of titles and authors in simple enumeration! The brain reels; it already suffers "cerebral inconveniences." But stretch the list back to Chaucer, back through Chaucer to those alleged prose writings in the Wessex dialect, then forward from 1785 to Wordsworth, to Byron, to Dickens, Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Meredith, even to this year in which literature still lives and engenders; and the brain, if not too giddy indeed, stands as Satan stood on the brink of Chaos—

Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith He had to cross—

and sees itself, with him, now plumbing a vast vacuity, and anon nigh-foundered, "treading the crude consistence."

The whole business of reading English Literature in two years, to know it in any reputable sense of the word—let alone your learning to write English—is, in short, impossible. And the framers of the Statute, recognising this, have very sensibly compromised by setting you to work on such things as "the Outlines of English Literature"; which are not Literature at all but are only what some fellow has to say about it, hastily summarising his estimates of many works, of which on a generous computation he has probably read one-fifth; and by examining you on (what was it all?) "language, metre, literary history and literary criticism," which again are not Literature, or at least (as a Greek would say in his idiom) escape their own notice being Literature. For English Literature, as I take it, is that which sundry men and women have written memorably in English about Life. And so I come to my subject—the art of reading that , which is Literature.


I shall take leave to leap into it over another man's back, or, rather over two men's backs. No doubt it has happened to many of you to pick up in a happy moment some book or pamphlet or copy of verse which just says the word you have unconsciously been listening for, almost craving to speak for yourself, and so sends you off hotfoot on the trail. And if you have had that experience, it may also have happened to you that, after ranging, you returned on the track "like faithful hound returning," in gratitude, or to refresh the scent; and that, picking up the book again, you found it no such wonderful book after all, or that some of the magic had faded by process of the change in yourself which itself had originated. But the word was spoken.

Such a book—pamphlet I may call it, so small it was—fell into my hands some ten years ago; The Aims of Literary Study —no very attractive title—by Dr. Corson, a distinguished American professor (and let me say that, for something more than ten—say for twenty—years much of the most thoughtful as well as the most thorough work upon English comes to us from America). I find, as I handle again the small duodecimo volume, that my own thoughts have taken me a little wide, perhaps a little astray, from its suggestions. But for loyalty's sake I shall start just where Dr. Corson started, with a passage from Browning's, "A Death in the Desert," supposed (you will remember)—

Supposed of Pamphylax the Antiochene

narrating the death of St. John the Evangelist, John of Patmos; the narrative interrupted by this gloss:

[This is the doctrine he was wont to teach, How divers persons witness in each man, Three souls which make up one soul: first, to wit, A soul of each and all the bodily parts, Seated therein, which works, and is What Does , And has the use of earth, and ends the man Downward: but, tending upward for advice, Grows into, and again is grown into By the next soul, which, seated in the brain, Useth the first with its collected use, And feeleth, thinketh, willeth—is What Knows : Which, duly tending upward in its turn, Grows into, and again is grown into By the last soul, that uses both the first, Subsisting whether they assist or no, And, constituting man's self, is What Is — And leans upon the former

(Mark the word, Gentlemen; " leans upon the former"—leaning back, as it were felt by him, on this very man who had leaned on Christ's bosom, being loved)

And leans upon the former, makes it play, As that played off the first: and, tending up, Holds, is upheld by, God, and ends the man Upward in that dread point of intercourse, Nor needs a place, for it returns to Him. What Does, What Knows, What Is; three souls, one man. I give the glossa of Theotypas.]

What Does, What Knows, What Is —there is no mistaking what Browning means, nor in what degrees of hierarchy he places this, that, and the other. ... Does it not strike you how curiously men today, with their minds perverted by hate, are inverting that order?—all the highest value set on What Does—What Knows suddenly seen to be of importance, but only as important in feeding the guns, perfecting explosives, collaring trade—all in the service of What Does , of "Get on or Get Out," of "Efficiency"; no one stopping to think that "Efficiency" is—must be—a relative term! Efficient for what?—for What Does, What Knows or perchance, after all, for What Is? No! banish the humanities and throw everybody into practical science: not into that study of natural science, which can never conflict with the "humanities" since it seeks discovery for the pure sake of truth, or charitably to alleviate man's lot—

Sweetly, rather, to ease, loose and bind As need requires, this frail fallen humankind ...

—but to invent what will be commercially serviceable in besting your neighbour, or in gassing him, or in slaughtering him neatly and wholesale. But still the whisper (not ridiculous in its day) will assert itself, that What Is comes first, holding and upheld by God; still through the market clamour for a "Business Government" will persist the voice of Plato murmuring that, after all, the best form of government is government by good men: and the voice of some small man faintly protesting "But I don't want to be governed by business men; because I know them and, without asking much of life, I have a hankering to die with a shirt on my back."


But let us postpone What Is for a moment, and deal with What Does and What Knows. They too, of course, have had their oppositions, and the very meaning of a university such as Cambridge—its fons , its origo , its τό τί ἡν εἰναι —was to assert What Knows against What Does in a medieval world pranced over by men-at-arms, Normans, English, Burgundians, Scots. Ancillary to Theology, which then had a meaning vastly different from its meaning today, the university tended as portress of the gate of knowledge—of such knowledge as the Church required, encouraged, or permitted—and kept the flag of intellectual life, as I may put it, flying above that gate and over the passing throngs of "doers" and mailed-fisters. The university was a Seat of Learning: the colleges, as they sprang up, were Houses of Learning.

But note this, which in their origin and still in the frame of their constitution differentiates Oxford and Cambridge from all their ancient sisters and rivals. These two (and no third, I believe, in Europe) were corporations of Teachers, existing for Teachers, governed by Teachers. In a Scottish university the students by vote choose their Rector: but here or at Oxford no undergraduate, no Bachelor, counts at all in the government, both remaining alike in statu pupillari until qualified as Masters— Magistri. Mark the word, and mark also the title of one who obtained what in those days would be the highest of degrees (but yet gave him no voting strength above a Master). He was a professor—"Sanctae Theologiae Professor." To this day every country clergyman who comes up to Cambridge to record his non-placet , does so by virtue of his capacity to teach what he learned here—in theory, that is. Scholars were included in college foundations on a sort of pupil-teacher-supply system: living in rooms with the lordly masters, and valeting them for the privilege of "reading with" them. We keep to this day the pleasant old form of words. Now for various reasons—one of which, because it is closely germane to my subject, I shall particularly examine—Oxford and Cambridge, while conserving almost intact their medieval frame of government, with a hundred other survivals which Time but makes, through endurance, more endearing, have, insensibly as it were, and across (it must be confessed) intervals of sloth and gross dereliction of duty, added a new function to the cultivation of learning—that of furnishing out of youth a succession of men capable of fulfilling high offices in Church and State.

Some may regret this. I think many of us must regret that a deeper tincture of learning is not required of the average pass-man, or injected into him perforce. But speaking roughly about fact, I should say that while we elders up here are required—nay, presumed to know certain things, we aim that our young men shall be of a certain kind; and I see no cause to disown a sentence in the very first lecture I had the honour of reading before you—"The man we are proud to send forth from our schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that something recognisable for a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse."

The reasons which have led our older universities to deflect their functions (whether for good or ill) so far from their first purpose are complicated if not many. Once admit young men in large numbers, and youth (I call any Dean or Tutor to witness) must be compromised with; will construe the laws of its seniors in its own way, now and then breaking them; and will inevitably end, by getting something of its own way. The growth of gymnastic, the insensible gravitation of the elderly towards Fenner's—there to snatch a fearful joy and explain that the walk was good for them; the Union and other debating societies; college rivalries; the festivities of May Week; the invasion of women students: all these may have helped. But I must dwell discreetly on one compelling and obvious cause—the increased and increasing unwieldiness of Knowledge. And that is the main trouble, as I guess.

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