But schoolmasters and schoolmistresses, like chickens and curses, come home to roost. Once set up your plea for a Tripos of English Language and Literature on the lower plea that it will provide for what they call a ‘felt want,’ and sooner or later you give English Language and Literature into their hands, and then you get the fallacy full-flowered into a convention. English Literature henceforth is a ‘subject,’ divorced from life: and what they have made of it, let a thousand handbooks and so-called histories attest. But this world is not a wilderness of class-rooms. English Language? They cannot write it, at all events. They do not (so far as I can discover) try to write it. They talk and write about it; how the poor deceased thing outgrew infantile ailments, how it was operated on for umlaut, how it parted with its vermiform appendix and its inflexions one by one, and lost its vowel endings in muted e’s.
And they went and told
And the sexton toll’d the bell.
But when it comes to writing; to keeping bright the noble weapon of English, testing its poise and edge, feeling the grip, handing it to their pupils with the word, ’Here is the sword of your fathers, that has cloven dragons. So use it, that we who have kept it bright may be proud of you, and of our pains, and of its continuing valiance’:—why, as I say, they do not even try. Our unprofessional forefathers, when they put pen to paper, did attempt English prose, and not seldom achieved it. But take up any elaborate History of English Literature and read, and, as you read, ask yourselves, ’How can one of the rarest delights of life be converted into this? What has happened to merry Chaucer, rare Ben Jonson, gay Steele and Prior, to Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Charles Lamb?’
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces!
gone into the professional stock-pot! And the next news is that these cooks, of whom Chaucer wrote prophetically
Thise cookes, how they
stampe, and streyne, and grynde,
And turnen substaunce into accident!
have formed themselves into professional Associations to protect ‘the study of the subject of English Literature’ and bark off any intruder who would teach in another way than theirs.
But I say to you that Literature is not, and should not be, the preserve of any priesthood. To write English, so as to make Literature, may be hard. But English Literature is not a mystery, not a Professors’ Kitchen.
And the trouble lies, not in the harm professionising does to schoolmasters and schoolmistresses, but in the harm it does ’in widest commonalty spread’ among men and women who, as Literature was written for them, addressed to them, ought to find in it, all their lives through, a retirement from mean occupations, a well of refreshment, sustainment in the daily drudgery of life, solace in calamity, an inmate by the hearth, ever sociable, never intrusive—to be sought and found, to be found and dropped at will: