On The Art of Reading eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 241 pages of information about On The Art of Reading.
of the means to the end; the strategy which brings its full force into action at the calculated moment and drives the conclusion home upon an accumulated sense of justice. I do not see how any student of 18th century literature can deny its writers—­Berkeley or Hume or Gibbon—­Congreve or Sheridan—­Pope or Cowper—­Addison or Steele or Johnson—­Burke or Chatham or Thomas Paine—­their meed for this, or, if he be an artist, even his homage.

But it remains true, as your instinct tells you, and as I have admitted, that they achieved all this by help of narrow and artificial boundaries.  Of several fatal exclusions let me name but two.

In the first place, they excluded the Poor; imitating in a late age the Athenian tradition of a small polite society resting on a large and degraded one.  Throughout the 18th century—­and the great Whig families were at least as much to blame for this as the Tories—­by enclosure of commons, by grants, by handling of the franchise, by taxation, by poor laws in result punitive though intended to be palliative, the English peasantry underwent a steady process of degradation into serfdom:  into a serfdom which, during the first twenty years of the next century, hung constantly and precariously on the edge of actual starvation.  The whole theory of culture worked upon a principle of double restriction; of restricting on the one hand the realm of polite knowledge to propositions suitable for a scholar and a gentleman, and, on the other, the numbers of the human family permitted to be either.  The theory deprecated enthusiasm, as it discountenanced all ambition in a poor child to rise above what Sir Spencer Walpole called ’his inevitable and hereditary lot’—­to soften which and make him acquiescent in it was, with a Wilberforce or a Hannah More, the last dream of restless benevolence.


Also these 18th century men fenced off the whole of our own Middle English and medieval literature—­fenced off Chaucer and Dunbar, Malory and Berners—­as barbarous and ‘Gothic.’  They treated these writers with little more consideration than Boileau had thought it worth while to bestow on Villon or on Ronsard—­ enfin Malherbe!  As for Anglo-Saxon literature, one may, safely say that, save by Gray and a very few others, its existence was barely surmised.

You may or may not find it harder to forgive them that they ruled out moreover a great part of the literature of the preceding century as offensive to urbane taste, or as they would say, ‘disgusting.’  They disliked it mainly, one suspects, as one age revolts from the fashion of another—­as some of you, for example, revolt from the broad plenty of Dickens (Heaven forgive you) or the ornament of Tennyson.  Some of the great writers of that age definitely excluded God from their scheme of things:  others included God fiercely, but with circumscription and limitation.  I think it fair to say of them

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On The Art of Reading from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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