Now of all ways of dealing with literature that happens to be the way we should least admire. By that way we disassociate literature from life; ‘what they said’ from the men who said it and meant it, not seldom at the risk of their lives. My pupils will bear witness in their memories that when we talk together concerning poetry, for example, by ‘poetry’ we mean ’that which the poets wrote,’ or (if you like) ‘the stuff the poets wrote’; and their intelligence tells them, of course, that anyone who in the simple proposition ‘Poets wrote Poetry’ connects an object with a subject by a verb does not, at any rate, intend to sunder what he has just been at pains, however slight, to join together: he may at least have the credit, whether he be right or wrong, of asserting his subject and his object to be interdependent. Take a particular proposition—John Milton wrote a poem called “Paradise Lost.” You will hardly contest the truth of that: but what does it mean? Milton wrote the story of the Fall of Man: he told it in some thousands of lines of decasyllabic verse unrhymed; he measured these lines out with exquisite cadences. The object of our simple sentence includes all these, and this much beside: that he wrote the total poem and made it what it is. Nor can that object be fully understood—literature being, ever and always, so personal a thing—until we understand the subject, John Milton— what manner of man he was, and how on earth, being such a man, he contrived to do it. We shall never quite know that: but it is important we should get as near as we can.
Of the Bible this is yet more evident, it being a translation. Isaiah did not write the cadences of his prophecies, as we ordinary men of this country know them: Christ did not speak the cadences of the Parables or of the Sermon on the Mount, as we know them. These have been supplied by the translators. By all means let us study them and learn to delight in them; but Christ did not suffer for his cadences, still less for the cadences invented by Englishmen almost 1600 years later; and Englishmen who went to the stake did not die for these cadences. They were Lollards and Reformers who lived too soon to have heard them; they were Catholics of the `old profession’ who had either never heard or, having heard, abhorred them. These men were cheerful to die for the meaning of the Word and for its authorship— because it was spoken by Christ.
There is in fact, Gentlemen, no such thing as ‘mere literature.’ Pedants have coined that contemptuous term to express a figmentary concept of their own imagination or—to be more accurate, an hallucination of wrath—having about as much likeness to a vera causa as had the doll which (if you remember) Maggie Tulliver used to beat in the garret whenever, poor child, the world went wrong with her somehow. The thoughts, actions and passions