“Music bright as the soul
of light, for wings an eagle,
for notes a dove,
Leaps and shines from the lustrous lines wherethrough
thy soul from afar above
Shone and sang till the darkness rang with light whose
fire is the fount of love.”
These lines are written of Sir Philip Sidney. Could another man have written them they had stood even better for Mr. Swinburne. But we are considering the metre, not the meaning. Now the metre may have great merits. I am disposed to say that, having fascinated Mr. Swinburne, it must have great merits. That I dislike it is, no doubt, my fault, or rather my misfortune. But undoubtedly it is a metre that no man but Mr. Swinburne could handle without producing a monotony varied only by discords.
April 29, 1893. Hazlitt’s Stipulation.
“Food, warmth, sleep, and
a book; these are all I at present
ask—the Ultima Thule of my wandering desires. Do you not then
a friend in your retreat
Whom you may whisper, ’Solitude is sweet’?
Expected, well enough: gone,
still better. Such attractions are
strengthened by distance.”
So Hazlitt wrote in his Farewell to Essay Writing. There never was such an epicure of his moods as Hazlitt. Others might add Omar’s stipulation—
Beside me singing in the wilderness.”
But this addition would have spoiled Hazlitt’s enjoyment. Let us remember that his love affairs had been unprosperous. “Such attractions,” he would object, “are strengthened by distance.” In any case, the book and singer go ill together, and most of us will declare for a spell of each in turn.
What are “The Best Books”?
Suppose we choose the book. What kind of book shall it be? Shall it be an old book which we have forgotten just sufficiently to taste surprise as its felicities come back to us, and remember just sufficiently to escape the attentive strain of a first reading? Or shall it be a new book by an author we love, to be glanced through with no critical purpose (this may be deferred to the second reading), but merely for the lazy pleasure of recognizing the familiar brain at work, and feeling happy, perhaps, at the success of a friend? There is no doubt which Hazlitt would have chosen; he has told us in his essay On Reading Old Books. But after a recent experience I am not sure that I agree with him.
That your taste should approve only the best thoughts of the best minds is a pretty counsel, but one of perfection, and is found in practice to breed prigs. It sets a man sailing round in a vicious circle. What is the best thought of the best minds? That approved by the man of highest culture. Who is the man of highest culture? He whose taste approves the best thoughts of the best minds. To escape from this foolish whirlpool, some of our stoutest bottoms run for that discredited harbor of refuge—Popular Acceptance: a harbor full of shoals, of which nobody has provided even the sketch of a chart.