Now in talking to you, last term, about children I had perforce to lay stress on the point that, with all this glut of literature, the mass of children in our commonwealth who leave school at fourteen go forth starving.
But you are happier. You are happier, not in having your selection of reading in English done for you at school (for you have in the Public Schools scarce any such help): but happier (1) because the time of learning is so largely prolonged, and (2) because this most difficult office of sorting out from the mass what you should read as most profitable has been tentatively performed for you by us older men for your relief. For example, those of you-’if any,’ as the Regulations say—who will, a week or two hence, be sitting for Section A of the Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos, have been spared, all along, the laborious business of choosing what you should read or read with particular attention for the good of your souls. Is Chaucer your author? Then you will have read (or ought to have read) “The Parlement of Fowls,” the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Man of Law’s Tale,” “The Nun Priest’s Tale,” “The Doctor’s Tale,” “The Pardoner’s Tale” with its Prologue, “The Friar’s Tale.” You were not dissuaded from reading “Troilus;” you were not forbidden to read all the Canterbury Tales, even the naughtiest; but the works that I have mentioned have been ‘prescribed’ for you. So, of Shakespeare, we do not discourage you (at all events, intentionally) from reading “Macbeth,” “Othello,” “As You Like It,” “The Tempest,” any play you wish. In other years we ‘set’ each of these in its turn. But for this Year of Grace we insist upon “King John,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “King Henry IV, Part I,” “Much Ado about Nothing,” “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” ’certain specified works’—and so on, with other courses of study. Why is this done? Be fair to us, Gentlemen. We do it not only to accommodate the burden to your backs, to avoid overtaxing one-and-a-half or two years of study; not merely to guide you that you do not dissipate your reading, that you shall —with us, at any rate—know where you are. We do it chiefly, and honestly—you likewise being honest—to give you each year, in each prescribed course, a sound nucleus of knowledge, out of which, later, your minds can reach to more. We are not, in the last instance, praiseworthy or blameworthy for your range. I think, perhaps, too little of a man’s range in his short while here between (say) nineteen and twenty-two. For anything I care, the kernel may be as small as you please. To plant it wholesome, for a while to tend it wholesome, then to show it the sky and that it is wide—not a hot-house, nor a brassy cupola over a man, but an atmosphere shining up league on league; to reach the moment of saying ’All this now is yours, if you have the perseverance as I have taught you the power, coelum nactus es, hoc exorna’: this, even in our present Tripos, we endeavour to do.