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 fairytale 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?