“After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well,”
he touches the feelings of mortals of all times and opens the door for imaginative activity, causing us to wonder why life should be a fitful fever, followed by an incommunicable sleep. Much of what we call literature would not survive the test of Shakespeare’s definition; but true literature must appeal to imagination and feeling as well as to intellect. No mere definition can take the place of what may be called a feeling for literature. Such a feeling will develop as the best English poetry and prose: are sympathetically read. Wordsworth had this feeling when he defined the poets as those:—
“Who gave us nobler loves and nobler cares.”
The Mission of English Literature.—It is a pertinent question to ask, What has English literature to offer?
In the first place, to quote Ben Jonson:—
“The thirst that from the soul cloth
Doth ask a drink divine.”
English literature is of preeminent worth in helping to supply that thirst. It brings us face to face with great ideals, which increase our sense of responsibility for the stewardship of life and tend to raise the level of our individual achievement. We have a heightened sense of the demands which life makes and a better comprehension of the “far-off divine event” toward which we move, after we have heard Swinburne’s ringing call:—
“...this thing is God,
To be man with thy might,
To grow straight in the strength
of thy spirit, and live out thy life
as the light.”
We feel prompted to act on the suggestion of—
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on striping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things."
In the second place, the various spiritual activities demanded for the interpretation of the best things in literature add to enjoyment. This pleasure, unlike that which arises from physical gratification, increases with age, and often becomes the principal source of entertainment as life advances. Shakespeare has Prospero say:—
Was dukedom large enough.”
The suggestions from great minds disclose vistas that we might never otherwise see. Browning truly says:—
made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred tunes nor cared to see.”
Sometimes it is only after reading Shakespeare that we can see—
“...winking Mary buds begin
To ope their golden eyes.
With everything that pretty is.”
and only after spending some time in Wordsworth’s company that the common objects of our daily life become invested with—
“The glory and the freshness of a dream.”
In the third place, we should emphasize the fact that one great function of English literature is to bring deliverance to souls weary with routine, despondent, or suffering the stroke of some affliction. In order to transfigure the everyday duties of life, there is need of imagination, of a vision such as the poets give. Without such a vision the tasks of life are drudgery. The dramas of the poets bring relief and incite to nobler action.