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. 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.