Yet—and I admit it—the main objection abides: that, while Literature deals with What Is rather than with What Knows, Examinations by their very nature test mere Knowledge rather than anything else: that in the hands of a second-rate examiner they tend to test knowledge alone, or what passes for knowledge: and that in the very run of this world most examiners will be second-rate men: which, if we remind ourselves that they receive the pay of fifth-rate ones is, after all, considerably better than we have a right to expect.
We are dealing, mind you, with English Literature—our own literature. In examining upon a foreign literature we can artfully lay our stress upon Knowledge and yet neither raise nor risk raising the fatal questions ‘What is it all about?’ ’What is it, and why is it it?’-since merely to translate literally a chorus of the “Agamemnon,” or an ode of Pindar’s, or a passage from Dante or Moliere is a creditable performance; to translate either well is a considerable feat; and to translate either perfectly is what you can’t do, and the examiner knows you can’t do, and you know the examiner can’t do, and the examiner knows you know he can’t do. But when we come to a fine thing in our own language—to a stanza from Shelley’s “Adonais” for instance:
He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceased to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.
what can you do with that? How can you examine on that? Well, yes, you can request the candidate, to ’Write a short note on the word calumny above,’ or ask ‘From what is it derived?’ ’What does he know of “Blackwood’s Magazine?"’ ’Can he quote any parallel allusion in Byron?’ You can ask all that: but you are not getting within measurable distance of it. Your mind is not even moving on the right plane. Or let me turn back to some light and artless Elizabethan thing—say to the Oenone duet in Peele’s “Arraignment of Paris”:
Oenone. Fair and fair
and twice so fair,
As fair as any may be:
The fairest shepherd on our green,
A love for any lady.
Paris Fair and fair and twice so fair,
As fair as any may be:
Thy love is fair for thee alone,
And for no other lady.
Oenone. My love is fair, my love is gay,
As fresh as bin the flowers in May,
And of my love my roundelay,
My merry merry merry roundelay
Concludes with Cupid’s curse:
They that do change old love for new,
Pray gods they change for worse....