My love can many a pretty thing,
And of his lovely praises ring
My merry merry merry roundelays
‘Amen’ to Cupid’s curse:
They that do change old love for new
Pray gods they change for worse.
Ambo. Fair and fair and twice so fair,
As fair as any may be:
The fairest shepherd on our green,
A love for any lady....
How can anyone examine on that? How can anyone solemnly explain, in a hurry, answering one of five or six questions selected from a three hours’ paper, just why and how that hits him? And yet, if it hit him not, he is lost. If even so simple a thing as that—a thing of silly sooth—do not hit him, he is all unfit to traffic with literature.
You see how delicate a business it is. Examination in Literature, being by its very nature so closely tied down to be a test of Knowledge, can hardly, save when used by genius, with care, be any final test of that which is better than Knowledge, of that which is the crown of all scholarship, of understanding.
But do not therefore lose heart, even in your reading for strict purposes of examination. Our talk is of reading. Let me fetch you some comfort from the sister and correlative, but harder, art of writing.
I most potently believe that the very best writing, in verse or in prose, can only be produced in moments of high excitement, or rather (as I should put it) in those moments of still and solemn awe into which a noble excitement lifts a man. Let me speak only of prose, of which you may more cautiously allow this than of verse. I think of St Paul’s glorious passage, as rendered in the Authorised Version, concluding the 15th chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians. First, as you know, comes the long, swaying, scholastic, somewhat sophisticated argument about the evidence of resurrection; about the corn, ’that which thou sowest,’ the vivification, the change in vivification, and the rest. All this, almost purely argumentative, should be read quietly, with none of the bravura which your prize reader lavishes on it. The argument works up quietly—at once tensely and sinuously, but very quietly—to conviction. Then comes the hush; and then the authoritative voice speaking out of it, awful and slow, ‘Behold, I shew you a mystery’ ... and then, all the latent emotion of faith taking hold and lifting the man on its surge, ’For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible’ ... and so, incorruption tolling down corruption, the trumpet smashes death underfoot in victory: until out of the midst of tumult, sounds the recall; sober, measured, claiming the purified heart back to discipline. ’Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.’