Men, when their affairs
Must themselves at whiles retire;
Sometimes hunt, and sometimes hawk,
And not ever sit and talk—
to be dropped at will and left without any answering growl of moroseness; to be consulted again at will and found friendly.
For this is the trouble of professionising Literature. We exile it from the business of life, in which it would ever be at our shoulder, to befriend us. Listen, for example, to an extract from a letter written, a couple of weeks ago, by somebody in the Charity Commission:
Sir, With reference to previous correspondence in this matter, I am to say that in all the circumstances of this case the Commissioners are of the opinion that it would be desirable that a public enquiry in connection with the Charity should be held in the locality.
And the man—very likely an educated man—having written that, very likely went home and read Chaucer, Dante, or Shakespeare, or Burke for pleasure! That is what happens when you treat literature as a ‘subject,’ separable from life and daily practice.
I declare to you that Literature was not written for schoolmasters, nor for schoolmistresses. I would not exchange it for a wilderness of schoolmasters. It should be delivered from them, who, with their silly Ablauts and ‘tendencies,’ can themselves neither read nor write. For the proof? Having the world’s quintessential store of mirth and sharp sorrow, wit, humour, comfort, farce, comedy, tragedy, satire; the glories of our birth and state, piled all at their elbows, only one man of the crowd—and he M. Jusserand, a Frenchman—has contrived to draw out of the mass one interesting well-written history of the ‘subject.’
Is there, then, no better way? Yes there is a better way: for the French have it, with their language and literature. In France, as Matthew Arnold noted, a generation ago, the ordinary journey-man work of literature is done far better and more conscientiously than with us. In France a man feels it almost a personal stain, an unpatriotic lache, to write even on a police-order anything so derogatory to the tradition of his language as our Cabinet Ministers read out as answers to our House of Commons. I am told that many a Maire in a small provincial town in N.E. France, even when overwhelmed—accable—with the sufferings of his town-folk, has truly felt the iron enter into his soul on being forced to sign a document written out for him in the invaders’ French.
Cannot we treat our noble inheritance of literature and language as scrupulously, and with as high a sense of their appertaining to our national honour, as a Frenchman cherishes his language, his literature? Cannot we study to leave our inheritance—–as the old Athenian put it temperately, ’not worse but a little better than we found it’?