the unwieldy elephant,
To make them mirth, used all his might, and wreathed
His lithe proboscis.
Milton, like the elephant, jokes with difficulty, but he, too, is using all his might.
I have illustrated, crudely enough, how a sense of things in their right values will help us on one side of our dealings with life. But truly it helps us on every side. This was what Plato meant when he said that a philosopher must see things as they relatively are within his horizon—[Greek: o synoptikos dialektikos]. And for this it was that an English poet praised Sophocles as one
Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.
And this of course is what Dean Inge meant when, the other day, in a volume of “Cambridge Essays on Education,” he reminded us, for a sensible commonplace, that ’The wise man is he who knows the relative values of things.’
Applying this to literature, I note, but shall not insist here on the fact—though fact it is—that the Greek and Roman ‘classical’ writers (as we call them) laid more stress than has ever been laid among the subsequent tribes of men upon the desirability of getting all things into proportion, of seeing all life on a scale of relative values. And the reason I shall not insist on this is simply that better men have saved me the trouble.
I propose this morning to discuss the value of the classics to students of English literature from, as the modern phrase goes, a slightly different angle.
Reclining and looking up into that sky which is not too grandiose an image for our own English Literature, you would certainly not wish, Gentlemen, to see it as what it is not—as a cloth painted on the flat. No more than you would choose the sky overarching your life to be a close, hard, copper vault, would you choose this literature of ours to resemble such a prison. I say nothing, for the moment, of the thrill of comparing ours with other constellations—of such a thrill as Blanco White’s famous sonnet imagines in Adam’s soul when the first night descended on Eden and
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widen’d in man’s view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay conceal’d
Within thy beams, O sun!...
No: I simply picture you as desiring to realise our own literature, its depths and values, mile above mile deeper and deeper shining, with perchance a glimpse of a city celestial beyond, or at whiles, on a ladder of values, of the angels—the messengers—climbing and returning.