Books and Culture eBook

Hamilton Wright Mabie
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 123 pages of information about Books and Culture.

Chapter VII.

From the Book to the Reader.

The study which has found its material and its reward in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” or in Goethe’s “Faust” is the best possible evidence of the inexhaustible interest in the masterpieces of these two great poets.  Libraries of considerable dimensions have been written in the way of commentaries upon, and expositions of, their notable works.  Many of these books are, it is true, deficient in insight and possessed of very little power of interpretation or illumination; they are the products of a barren, dry-as-dust industry, which has expended itself upon external characteristics and incidental references.  Nevertheless, the very volume and mass of these secondary books witness to the fertility of the first-hand books with which they deal, and show beyond dispute that men have an insatiable desire to get at their interior meanings.  If these great poems had been mere illustrations of individual skill and gift, this interest would have long ago exhausted itself.  That singular and unsurpassed qualities of construction, style, and diction are present in “Faust” and the “Divine Comedy” need not be emphasised, since they both belong to the very highest class of literary production; but there is something deeper and more vital in them:  there is a philosophy or interpretation of life.  Each of these poems is a revelation of what man is and of what his life means; and it is this deep truth, or set of truths, at the heart of these works which we are always striving to reach and make clear to ourselves.

In the case of neither poem did the writer content himself with an exposition of his own experience; in both cases there is an attempt to embody and put in concrete form an immense section of universal experience.  Neither poem could have been written if there had not been a long antecedent history, rich in every kind and quality of human contact with the world, and of the working out of the forces which are in every human soul.  These two forms of activity represent in a general way what men have learned about themselves and their surroundings; and, taken together, they constitute the material out of which interpretations and explanations of human life have been made.  These explanations vary according to the genius, the environment, and the history of races but in every case they represent the very soul of race life, for they are the spiritual forms in which that life has expressed itself.  Other forms of race activity, however valuable or beautiful, are lost in the passage of time, or are taken up and absorbed, and so part with their separate and individual existence; but the quintessence of experience and thought expressed in great works of art is gathered up and preserved, as Milton said, for “a life beyond life.”

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