(3) Lastly, and chiefly, I commend these classical authors to you because they, in the European civilisation which we all inherit, conserve the norm of literature; the steady grip on the essential; the clean outline at which in verse or in prose—in epic, drama, history, or philosophical treatise—a writer should aim.
So sure am I of this, and of its importance to those who think of writing, that were this University to limit me to three texts on which to preach English Literature to you, I should choose the Bible in our Authorised Version, Shakespeare, and Homer (though it were but in a prose translation). Two of these lie outside my marked province. Only one of them finds a place in your English school. But Homer, who comes neither within my map, nor within the ambit of the Tripos, would—because he most evidently holds the norm, the essence, the secret of all—rank first of the three for my purpose.
[Footnote 1: From “A History of Oxfordshire,” by Mr J. Meade Falkner, author of Murray’s excellent Handbook of Oxfordshire.]
ENGLISH LITERATURE IN OUR UNIVERSITIES (I)
Wednesday, November 19
All lectures are too long. Towards the close of my last, Gentlemen, I let fall a sentence which, heard by you in a moment of exhausted or languid interest, has since, like enough, escaped your memory even if it earned passing attention. So let me repeat it, for a fresh start.
Having quoted to you the words of our Holy Writ, ’I will sing and give praise with the best member that I have,’ I added ’But the old Greek was an “all-round” man; he sought to praise and give thanks with all his members, and to tune each to perfection.’ Now a great many instructive lectures might be written on that text: nevertheless you may think it a strange one, and obscure, for the discourse on ’English Literature in our Universities’ which, according to promise, I must now attempt.
The term ‘an all-round man’ may easily mislead you unless you take it with the rest of the sentence and particularly with the words ’praise and give thanks.’ Praise whom? Give thanks to whom? To whom did our Greek train all his members to render adoration?
Why, to the gods—his gods: to Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite; and from them down to the lesser guardian deities of the hearth, the field, the farmstead. We modern men suffer a double temptation to misunderstand, by belittling, the reverence in which Hellas and Rome held their gods. To start with, our religion has superseded theirs. We approach the Olympians with no bent towards venerating them; with minds easy, detached, to which a great deal of their theology—the amativeness of Zeus for example—must needs seem broadly comic, and a great deal of it not only comic but childish. We are encouraged in this, moreover, when we read such writers as Aristophanes and Lucian, and observe how they poked fun at the gods.