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 the 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 hot-foot 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.