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TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION 
OF LITERATURE 


By 

FRANK O’CONNOR 


1945 

METROPOLITAN PUBLISHING CO. LTD. 
32 BACHELOR’S WALK 
DUBLIN 



Note 

As this book is one of a series I have not dealt with Poetry 
and Drama except where it was necessary to clarify the argu- 
ment. These subjects are being dealt with by others. 

F. O’C. 


PRINTED IN IRSLAND 

BY CAHILL & CO. LTD.. PARKGATE PRINTING WORKS, DUBLIN 
FOR METROPOLITAN PUBLISHING CO. LTD.. DUBLIN 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION 
OF LITERATURE 


I 

As THIS LITTLE BOOK IS INTENDED AS AN INTRODUCTION TO 
literature, I may, perhaps, begin by describing my own intro- 
duction to it. 

My parents were poor and I was an only child. That 
meant diat from the beginning I was thrown very much upon 
myself, so I learned to read when I was still very young. The 
oiily papers I could afford or come by were English school 
stories. Those papers have been brilliantly and devastatingly 
analysed by George Orwell, and I feel sure they were just 
as snobbish and silly as he suggests. They dealt with young 
fellows whose fathers had titles and cars and who had lots 
of money to spend in the tuck shop. They were, I am certain, 
just as bad for me as love stories for a servant girl, except 
that I am not at all certain that love stories are bad for ser- 
vant girls, nor have I ever been able to bring myself to believe 
that Mme. Bovary really did go to pieces as a result of read- 
ing the novels of Scott. 

Undoubtedly, like love stories with servant girls, they 
created standards of behaviour in my mind which could not 
be fitted in to the life about me. I don’t honestly think that 
those standards were ever standards of money or rank. I 
liked the public school code so far as it was reflected in them, 
and I still like it. I liked boys who didn’t tell lies, and who 
didn’t split on one another when they were caught out. 
In the same way, I believe that love stories give ser- 
vant girls (and other girls) ideals of manners and be- 
haviour which they do not find among their boy friends, but 
I am not at all sure that the fault is not with the boy friends 
rather than with the story books. Anyway, outside the work 
of some French naturalists, I cannot thihk of any form of 
literature in which the reader is safe from ideab of char- 



6 TOWARDS AN APPRECUTION OF LITERATURE 

The rest of my education was acquired haphazard in a 
public library. It was a very good library, run by an English- 
man who took his work seriously; yet, in spite of that, 
and in spite of the fact that I became a public Ubrarian my- 
self, public libraries seem to me terrible places with a de- 
grading air of institutionalism and of pseudo-professionalism. 
They still function as a branch of local government without 
reference to any system of education. I know that your true 
auto-didact is a tough Alpine plant, and though not very 
beautiful in himself, is guaranteed to grow almost anywhere 
with the minimum of attention, but it seems to me that the 
m ini mum requires that the public library should be utilised 
as part of an adult educational system; should be a centre for 
lectures, recitals and eshibitions of art sufBcient to ensure 
that the borrowers know at least how to use it. 

Thanks to public libraries my own education was as slow 
and painful as it could well be, given my temperament Those 
were the days before borrowers were allowed even to see the 
shelves and one had to choose one’s books from a card cata- 
logue. School stories apart, the only things I knew anything 
about were the two things which every Irish child knows far 
too much about: politics and religion. Having almnsr 
poisoned my mind by reading every standard Irish patriotic 
book, I got on to the works of Canon Sheehan, a clerical 
novelist a delightful habit of quoting Goethe’s poems 
m the origu^ With the simple optimism of the auto- 
didact, I decided that it would be a good idea to learn Ger- 
man and meanwhile to read all Goethe in English. Some- 
how or other I managed to do both in a sort of way; heaven 
knows how, for I had left school before we got so far as long 
division, and I was twenty before I found out what the 
simplest grammatical terms meant. I tried my hand at writ- 
ing, in Irish, another language which I was under the impres- 
sion I knew, and finally something I published in a weekly 
paper attracted the attention of an old teacher of mine, a fine 
novelist, who, before I could waste any more of my life, intro- 
duced me to English literature. He also introduced me to 
Sedn O Faolain, a few years older than myself. When I was 
twenty-tiiree or four I got a job in a public library with a 
poet who made me read Yeats, Pound, Eliot and the rKt of 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 7 


the modems, criticised my early efforts at writing and intro- 
duced me to A.E. who publish^ my first articles and poems; 
and to him I owe the most pleasant period of my education. 

I came to literature as I fancy a great many people come to 
it, because they need companionship, and a wider and more 
civilised form of life than they can find in the world about 
them, all the more since that world is being more and more 
steadily drained of whatever beauty it had; but the city of 
literature is just as big and complicated as any other capital, 
and a man can be just as lonely there. It has its sharks and 
bores, its snobbidi quarters and stevre, and a great many quiet 
suburbs where aU sorts of obscure and attractive people live. 
As I grow older, the books I put most value on are the good 
books of CTiticism like those of David Cecil on the Victorian 
novelists and Bonamy Dobree on the Restoration dramatists,- 
but that sort of book is either very rare or else lives in the 
suburbs where I do not visit. 

What leads me to think my own experience is not so 
eccentric as it may seem to some people, is that I was ex- 
ceedingly lucky in having met so many men of talent by the 
time I was twenty odd. There must be many a great deal 
less lucky than that. You will see exacdy how hard the 
stn^gle can be if you read the three volumes of Maxim 
Gorky’s fine autobiography. What strikes me most looking 
back on it is the waste, the disproportion between the modest 
aim and the effort involved. I know the argument that 
obstacles develop the character, but it seems to me that char- 
acter developed in that way is liable to develop all awry, and 
I shall continue to think so until I find some educationist 
who deliberately and successfully puts obstacles in the way 
of his students. Meanwhile the faults I contracted in those 
years will be with me till the day I die : the lack of method, 
the opinionatedness, and the inability to do the simplest thing 
without first pulling down the house to get at it. 

II 

The first thing that seems to emerge from this is 
that the primary business of literature is entertainment. 
ChildreE, who are frequently bored, and servant girls who 
are permanently bored, usually ask nothirg else of it. If I 



8 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

am tired, nothing refreshes me so much as a good detective 
story, for it is the form of literature which happens to make 
the least demand on my emotions and intelligence, though 
as Yeats once wisely remarked: “You can have too much 
detection in a detective story ”, or in the words of the. captain 
of a Kerry football team : “ Never mind the bloody ball! Let’s 
get on with the game ! ” 

But after reading three or four detective stories in quick 
succession I feel as if I had been on a very bad drunk. The 
entertainment has been merely diversion, not recreation. It 
is as if by some ingenious bit of mechanism one’s heart has 
been stopped and re-started, so many hours during which 
one might as well have been dead. It would be better from 
my point of view if I had forced myself to read some Restor- 
ation comedy which has defeated me, and at least kept myself 
awake. We shall be dead long enough. 

The point at which diversion begins to be reaeation is 
the one which interests me now, because it is precisely at this 
point that I think imaginative literature begins. Let me take 
as example an old favourite of mine, Somerville and Ross’s 
An Irish R.M. and His Experiences, the whole saga in the 
omnibus edition. On the surface this is diversion pure and 
simple, a series of misadventure, misunderstandings a n d 
practical jokes, invented by two women, and tur ning in their 
hmds into a sort of game carried on with horrid schoolgirl 
vivacity. The humour, if you can call it humour, is of the 
same extravert, slapstick kind I remember from the public 
school stories of my boyhood. The supreme moment of fun 
is when the hero breaks his eyeglass or puts his foot throt^h 
the aneroid barometer. The number of mishaps that occur 
at the local agricultural show passes all reckoning. The water 
jump dries up, the distracted stewards fill it with lime, die 
horses refuse to jump. 

Why Aen do I not treat it as I should treat a detective 
story which had diverted me for a few hours, and get rid of 
it as speedily as possible? Why do I keep on reading the 
book year after year and grudgingly refuse to lend it to any- 
body except intimate friends? Read this, and decide for your- 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 


9 


Ifj as I suppose, the object was to delude the horses ipto 
the ^ef that it was a water jump, it was a total failure; they 
immediately decided it was a practical joke, dangerous and in 
indifferent taste. If, on the other side, a variety entertainment 
for the public was aimed at, nothing could have been more 
successful. Every known class of refusal was successfully ex- 
hibited. One horse endeavoured to climb the rails into the 
Grand Stand; another, having stopped dead at the critical 
point, swung round and returned in consternation to the 
starting point, with his rider hanging like a locket round his 
neck. Another, dowered with a sense of humour imusual 
among horses, stepped delicately over the furze-bushes, and 
amidst rounds of applause, walked through the lime with a 
stoic calm. Yet another, a ponderous warhorse of seventeen 
hands, hung, trembling like an aspen, on the brink, till a sym- 
pathiser, possibly his owner, sprang irrepressibly from his seat 
on the stand, climbed through the rails, and attacked him from 
behind with a large umbrella. It was during this three- 
cornered conflict that the green-eyed filly forced herself into 
the front rank of events. A chorus of “ Bfi, hi, hi!” fired at 
the rate of about fifty per second, volleyed in warning from 
the crowd round the starting point, and a white-legged chest- 
nut with an unearthly white face and flying flounces of tawny 
mane and tail came Sundering down upon the jump. Neither 
umbrella nor warhorse turned her by a hairsbreadth from her 
course, still less did her rider, a lean and long-legged cotmtry 
boy, whose single object was to keep upon her back. 

To me the attractiveness of this is altogether in the writ- 
ing. It is as though the authors, or rather the author, for 
two of them can hardly have written one paragraph, becomes 
amused herself at the absurdities she recounts, and suddenly 
it ceases to be merely entertainment, and becomes entertain- 
ment that is being commented on; I find myself listening to 
the voice of the commentator till she becomes a real person 
for me, somebody I know and like and enjoy, and though a 
part of my attention goes to what she is desaibing, it is not 
any longer for its ovra sake, but as an excuse for keeping her 
talking a little longer. And that “ comment ” seems to me to 
be what I mean when I talk of literature; a way of describing 



10 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

and judging so vivid and personal that if I saw a pastage in 
the same maimer even in the wilds of Timbuctoo, I should 
say “ That’s Somerville and Ross I ” It means that that par- 
ticular voice is as clear in my mind as the voice of somebody 
I have known; that, in fact, I have made a new friend far 
more gifted than I am. A book like this is a real event because 
it is a form of experience. 

Somerville and Ross are the sort of friends you make cm 
sight. Jane Austen is the sort you may take ten years to know, 
and even then never acquire a taste for at aH unless at the 
same time you are prepared to take lessons from her in good 
breeding and literary taste. If you open a book like Emma 
for the first time you are quite liable to find it very smalt 
beer. There is very little comedy visible to the naked eye. 
The hero doesn’t break his monocle, put his foot through an 
aneroid barometer or arrive with a pair of grass-green 
dancing breeches instead of a present of salmon. There are 
misadventures of a sort; there are misunderstandings of a 
sort, but both are of a very quiet and apparently unimpor- 
tant kind. The heroine does not use goat’s milk at the tea 
party, but she does imagine that the hero, Mr. Knightly, 
disapproves of her when he is really in love with her. Even 
that misunderstanding is kept so quiet that you may quite 
easily read on without noticing that it has taken place. That 
is one of the little lessons in taste which Jane Austen teaches 
in passing, and once it is mastered, it becomes a subtle form 
of flattery. It persuades you that you are really divinely in- 
telligent — quite divinely intelligent! — ^not one of these stupid 
people who need to have everything explained to them. Of 
course, a passage like this will cause you no difficulty what- 
ever! 

“ I have heard it asserted,” said John Knightly (John is the 
brother of Mr. Knightly who, Emma thinks, disapproves of 
her, and is married to Emma’s sister, Isabella) “that the 
same sort of handwriting often prevails in a family; and where 
the same master teaches, it is natural enough. But, for that 
reason, I should imagine that the likeness must be chiefly 
confined to the females, for boys have very little teaching after 
an early age, and saamble into any hand they can get. 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE II 


Isabella and Emma, I tMnk, do write very mudi aUl®. I iave 
not always known their writing apart.” 

“ Yes,” said his brother hesitatingly, “ there is a likeness. 

I know what you mean — ^but Emma’s hand is the strongest.” 

That is all ! If you have spotted that Mr. Knightly instead 
of disapproving of Emma, is head over ears in love with her, 
you are naturally so pleased by the flattery ±at like Slipper 
you murmur: “Oh, divil so pleasant a day I ever spent!” 
and, if you haven’t, after all, Miss Austen is a lady to her 
fingertips and never cries “ Booby!” in a vulgar way; Emma 
herself hadn’t spotted it either, for here she is, thirty pages 
later, talking to Harriet, the girl she had deluded into the 
belief that Mr. Elton loved her — ^and how well she has 
managed it! 

“ I do remember it,” cried Emma. “ I perfectly remember 
it. Talking about spruce beer. Oh! yes. Mr. lightly and 
I both saying we liked it, and Mr. Elton’s seeming resolved 
to learn to like it too. I perfectly remember it. Stop — ^Mr. 
Knightly was standing just here, was not he? I have an idea, 
he was standing just here.” 

“ Ah, I do not know. I cannot recollect. It is very odd, 
but I caimot recollect. Mr. Elton was sitting here, I 
remember, much about where I am now.” 

Once more, have you noticed that Emma is in love vrith 
Mr. Knightly and doesn’t realise it herself? The flattery is 
so outrageous; the temptation to cry out that there is no other 
novelist but Jane Austen — ^meaning no other novelist who 
smooths our fur so delicately — should almost make us suspect 
some brand of snobbery in ourselves. 

Again, so cleverly has it been done, so little does Jane 
Austen seem to expound her characters, that at a first reading 
it might almost seem that there was no commentator there 
at all Oh, but isn’t there? Read again that innocent speech 
of Mr. John Knightly’s on the subject of handwriting, and 
ask yourself if it is really and truly the voice of Mr. John 
Knightly, a rising professional man, or the demure and almost 
deferential voice of Miss Austen, taking him off with just 
the faintest hint of malice. There the little claws are barely 



12 TOWABDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURl 


perceptible, but watch how they come out in the following 
passage; the noble pathos of “ probably with rather thinner 
clothing than usual the dramatic emphasis of the arithmetic : 
‘five hours! four horses! four servants; five people!’ 
Notice, too, how the passage goes on a shade too long, a 
sentence or two down the other side of the hill between 
delight and boredom. 

“ A man,” said he, “ must have a very good opinion of 
himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and 
encounter such a day as diis, for the sake of coming to see 
him. He must think himself a most agreeable fellow; I 
could not do such a thing. It is the greatest absurdity — 
actually snowing at this moment! The folly of not allowing 
people to be comfortable at home, and the folly of people’s 
not staying comfortably at home when they can! If we were 
obliged to go out such an evening as this by any call of duty 
or business, what a hardship we should deem it — and here are 
we, probably with rather thinner clothing than usual, setting 
forward voluntarily, without excuse, in defiance of the voice 
of nature, which tells man, in everything given to his view or 
his feelings, to stay at home himself, and keep all tmder 
shelter that he can; here are we setting forward to spend five 
dull hours in another man’s house, with nothing to say or 
hear that was not said and heard' yesterday and may not be 
said and heard again to-morrow. Going in dismal weather, 
to return probably in worse; four horses and four servants 
taken out for nothing but to convey five idle shivering 
creatures into colder rooms and worse company rihan they 
might have found at home!” 

The art of living is the art of collecting and generalising 
from experiences, and literature with its events which are 
almost real events, like Emma’s misunderstanding of Mr. 
Knightly’s intentions, and its commentators who are almost 
real friends like Jane Austen, ekes out the little quantity of 
actual experience and fidendship which is granted to us, and 
enables us to form a completer picture of life than we could 
ever hc^ m do without it. In writh^ this two passages came 
my way which seemed to me to define the purpose of 
literature as neatly as any d^nitions. One is that |n which 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATIJRE I3 


Saint Simon, who had seen more of life than most of ns can 
ever hope to do, criticises his old friend, LauEun, who had 
commanded King James’ army in Ireland, rarried the Royal 
family to safety in France, been the lover of Mademoiselle 
and her all-but husband, been a prisoner in one of the Bang’s 
dungeons, because — “never having read anything but fairy 
tales, he knew nothing but what he had seen himself.” The 
second is David Cecil’s conclusion to his essay on Jane 
Austen. “ If I were in doubt as to the wisdom of one of my 
actions, I should not consult Flaubert or Dostoevsky. The 
opinion of Balzac or Dickens would carry little weight with 
me; were Stendhal to rebuke me it would only convince me 
that I had done right: even in the judgment of Tolstoy 1 
should not put complete confidence. But I should be 
seriously upset, I should worry for weeks and weeks, if I 
incurred the disapproval of Jane Austen.” 

That, then, is literature, not a substitute for life but a 
completion and an explanation, which, if it always lacks the 
intensity of real experience, frequently makes up for it in 
profundity. 


Ill 

For me, and i think for most of my generation, the 
experience of literature came through the study of the 
19th-century novel, and our views of literature are 
largely colomed and limited by that particular approach. I 
do not know whether another generation can approach 
literature in the same way, whether in some manner which I 
haven’t yet detected, the 19th-century novel has not 
begun to date. For us it was stiU contemporary, and we could 
consider the fate of Mme. Bovary as if she were a next door 
neighbomr, without referring to any historical notes to 
explain her to ourselves. 

We were lucky in that, for the 19th-century novel 
still seems to me incomparably the greatest of the modern 
arts, the art in which the modem world has expressed itself 
most completely. You have merely to think of the name*-— 
Jane Austen, Stendhal, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, 
Tolstoy, Balzac, and these do not even skim the cream. It 



14 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

is what the drama was to the Elizabethans and the 
Athenians, a popular art which was shared by the whole 
community, as the 18th-century novel wasn’t, and the 
modern novel most certainly is not. I remember a most 
moving story of Kuprin’s which describes how an old deacon 
of the Orthodox Church is called on to take part in the 
excommunication service against Tolstoy. At first the name 
of the person to be excommunicated doesn’t convey anything 
to him, and he practises his chant with all the gusto of a 
popular singer. But gradually things begin to come back into 
his mindj scenes from Tolstoy’s novel, The Cossacks; the 
unforgettable descriptions of the wild scenery and the court- 
ship of Mariana and when the moment comes for him to 
intone the horrible curses of the excommunication service he 
bursts out into an exultant Ad Multos Amos. Tolstoy in 
Russia was worshipped as much as Dickens in England and 
for the same reasons. Can one imagine a parish priest in the 
world who would hesitate over the excommunication of a 
Proust or a Joyce?* 

Our peculiar method of writing literary history by countries 
instead of by periods makes it diffictdt to realise what a 
literary phenomenon the 19th-century novel was or what 
it achieved. Dickens and Thackeray and Trollope tend 
to get dwarfed in the history of English literature, and I have 
just been glancing at a history of French literature from 
which, if I hadn’t knovra better, I might have concluded that 
Stendhal and Flaubert were minor figures not worthy of 
being ranked with great poetic geniuses like Leconte dc Lisle. 
You will not get that impression about the novd from Mrs. 
Woolfs vrise and charming essays in The Common Reader, 
but you may, unless you happen to be of Russian parentage, 
come away from it with the feeling of that character in one 
of Dostoevsky’s novels who, having gone into the matter 
carefully and decided that the Russian was an inferior 
race, came to the conclusion that the only honourable 
course open to him vras suicide. The Russian novel, 
one gathers from Mrs. Woolf, is a quite different article 

I corrected these proofs I found in an article by T. C, Murray 
a refereiice to an old woman he knew who always added to her prayers 
a special one for Dickens} 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 1 5 

to the English novel, and so far superior that suicide 
may appear the only possible course. “Doubtful as 
we frequently are,” she says, “whether either the Freru:h 
or the Americans, who have so much in common with us, 
can yet tmderstand English literature, we must admit graver 
doubts still whether for all their enthusiasm, the English can 
understand Russian literature.” And as if to prove that the 
French cannot possibly understand English literature, there 
chimes in the voice of a French critic, M. Maurois, whom I 
happen to be reading. “ Let us note in passing that this 
philosophy (of Dickens) is admirably suited to the English 
temperament. This remark is important because it helps us 
to tmderstand the immense popularity of Dickens. The 
English are at the same time sentimental, timid and obedient. 
Because they know they are too sentimental, they feel the 
need to keep a watch on themselves and dislike having thek 
emotions roused without at the same time being offered a 
remedy. Because they are timid, they have little taste for 
direct attack upon an individual or an institution. They like 
the humorous form of attack because in appearance it dlows 
the objea attacked to remain.” 

Let me say at once that I do not believe that M. Maurois’ 
misunderstandings of Dickens are proof of a peculiarly 
French inability to understand English literature or Mrs. 
Woolf’s of Dostoevsky of an English inability to understand 
Russian literature. The misunderstanding, the falsification, is 
in the application to literature of standards which are only 
to a very minor degree relevant to the arts. It is an example 
of what I feel inclined to call the modem heresy, the betrayal 
of the classical heritage. You can scarcely open a book or 
paper without reading what “ we Irish ” or “ we English ” 
like, or what " the French ” or “ the Germans ” approve. I 
have before me a witty and learned review of a book by 
Sacheverell Sitwell on British Architects and Craftsmen, 
which says : “ Palladianism and the Picturesque represent two 
sides of the English character which belong together, as the 
exterior and interior of Moor Park belong together, or as tails 
and tweeds in our way of dressing.” 

P^haps, having had an overdose of it in youth, I am more 
conscious of the absurdity of it in middle age. I have cycled 



l6 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

through Ireland collecting the views of the peasantry on the 
difference between themselves and the inhabitants of 
neighbouring counties, and have it on the unimpeachable 
authority of a Kilkenny woman that a Leix man would not go 
to the workhouse without a collar and tie. 

The idea that there is such a thing as English literature is a 
convenient fiction which provides a suitable field for study for 
people who know only one language well. Of course, writers 
who live in the same country and are subjected to the same 
geographical conditions will tend to have certain 
characteristics in common. Swift, Wilde, Yeats and Joyce 
have certain characteristics like insolence, introspection and 
a tendency to wear a mask which are not uncommon among 
writers brought up in Ireland; Macph^rson, who faked the 
Ossian translations, Boswell, Scott and Burns, as I shall 
probably have occasion to point out, have certain things in 
common which associate them in the Romantic revival; but 
similar common characteristics occur in people of one 
religion, whatever their nationality, in people of one pro- 
fession, of one political party and even of one income group, 
and any form of literary criticism, like that of the Marxists, 
which concentrates on such incidental characteristics sooner 
or later goes off like M. Maurois into plain moonshine. 
Dickfens could never have been a representative English 
writer for the simple reason that Dickens never was a 
representative Englishman. 

It will, I think, be a real help to you in appreciating 
literature to remember that the only natural classification of 
European literature is by periods; that any English writer of 
the 1 8th century is likely to have more in common with 
a French writer of the i8th century than with any 
English writer of our time, and that, the further a period is 
removed from us in time, the more its literature becomes 
portion of history and has to be eked out by a knowledge of 
history. 

It is much easier to understand the realistic novel if we 
remember that.it is a 19th-century art, and a European 
art and that its variations are merely local. Here is a time- 
table jotted down iiom the handful of books on my own 
shelves ■within a few minutes: — 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE I7 

1850. David Copperfield. The Scarlet Letter. 

1851. House of the Seven Gables. 

1852 Tolstoy’s Childhood. Esmond. 

1853. Bleak House. 

1854. Hard Times. 

1855 The Warden. Tolstoy’s Sevastopol. 

1856 Turgenev’s Rudin. 

1857 Mme. Bovary. Barehester Towers. Tolstoy’s 

Youth. 

1858 Turgenev’s Liza. Gpncharov’s Oblomov. Clerical 

Life. 

1859 Tolstoy’s Family Happiness. Richard Feverel. 

On the Eve. 

1860 Tolstoy’s Cossacks. The MUl on the Floss. 

It is fairly clear even from such a limited chronology that 
the European novel is not three arts but one art, and that its 
origin, its development and decline must be traced to a 
common source. It seems to me to be the characteristic art 
of the middle classes, released by the French Revolution 
from their intellectual dependence on the aristocracy. 
Though it spread to other countries, it is mainly a product 
of England, France and Russia; Germany, for some reason, 
never seems to have produced a novelist. As an art form it 
is really the abortive comedy of humours and trades of 
Shakespeare’s day raised to the maximum power. “ I will have 
a citizen and he shall be of my own trade as the character in 
The Knight of the Burning Pestle says: “ I will have a grocer 
and he shall do admirable things.” It satisfies a deep longing 
of the middle classes in every century for the study of society, 
classes, professions and trades instead of the study of 
classical antiquity, but whereas these had always been treated 
as something which had to be apologised for, they are now 
treated with the greatest seriousness, and as the form develops 
you find novelists specialising in the description of certain 
professions, naval, military and clerical, for instance. 

The morality which motivates it is largely that of the 
merchant classes who produced Protestantism, and it has 
suffered by it in more ways than the obvious one of being 
subjected to the intensest form of literary censorship. It 



1 8 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 


moves within the narrowest range; a scruple about a public 
position or a misuncierstanding about a cheque is all the 
motivation Trollope needs for a story, and Anna Karenina 
and Tess of the D’Urbervilles show us just how far it could 
afford to go in sympathy for sexual offences. Yet at the same 
time, this simple clear workmanlike ethic gives it a 
characteristic note of deep human feeling which may perhaps 
preserve it from the fate of Elizabethan tragedy, forever sui^ 
because of its moral anarchy. It is a profoundly serious art — 
someti m es as in Tolstoy’s Sevastopol we get the impression 
that never before has so grave a subject been adequately 
treated; — ^is respectful of human life and dignity, and from the 
very beginning has been the normal medium for the expres- 
sion of humanitarian sentiment. 

Though Jane Austen was the first great novelist of the 
century, the novel as such owes nothing to her. Before it 
could ever become the great popular art of the middle classes 
the instniment had to be enlarged and given tones which were 
never within her range. It had to be made capable of 
expressing passionate emotion, and as much sensibility as the 
1 8th century had expended on the novel, it had never 
succeeded in making it fit for much more than light comedy. 
It had now to find an equivalent for the poetry of Elizabethan 
tragedy, and that equivalent may almost be said to be the 
invention of Scott. If you take any typical passage of Steme, 
Fielding or even Jane Austen and put it side by side with an 
equally typical passage of Scott, regardless of whether it is 
description or dialogue, it is exactly like playing a tune first on 
a harpsichord and then on a grand piano. TTbie difference is 
accotmted for by Scott’s superb use of local colour, a thing 
which seems quite normal to us but was a marvel to his own 
generation. “ As a house,” Jane says uirtly, “ Barton Cottage 
though small was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it 
was defective, for the building was r^ular, the roof was tiled, 
the window-shutters were not painted green, nor were the 
walls covered with honeysuckle.” And that is all^ we ever 
hear about the home of Elinor and Marianne Dadiwood, nor, 
indeed, is the description of the two heroines much more 
informative. When Jane Austen wants to describe a character, 
she does not begin by a study of his behaviour and language. 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE I9 


She assumes that as the character is a member of a certain 
class, these will be just like anybody else’s. She watches the 
working of his mind, and it is the uncanny knowledge she 
shows of Mr. John Knightly’s mental processes which gives us 
the impression that the man has been described. But Scott 
would describe the cottage, every crack in it, the landscape, 
the lightingj he would draw men and women, naisshapen 
and powerful, and give us the very ring of character in a 
speech. Rob Roy knows that Bailie Jarvie will not arrest him 
“ first for auld langsyne; — second, for the sake of the auld 
wife ayont the fire at Stuckavrillachan, that made some 
mixture of our bluids, to my own proper shame be it spoken ! 
that has a cousin wi’ accotmts, and yarn winnles, and looms 
and shuttles like a mechanical person; — and, lastly, Bailie, 
because if I saw a sign of your betraying me, I would plaster 
that wa’ with your hams ere the hand of man could rescue 
you.” The tune may only be something out of Trovatore; 
but the sheer volume of sound, the intoxicating effect of the 
magnificent instrument can still excite us across the years. 

It excited his contemporaries so effectively that men as great 
as Balzac and Gogol assumed that to emulate Scott, they, too, 
had to write historical romances, and it was only gradually 
that it dawned on them that the appropriate use of local colour 
was in realistic ‘stories. The greatest of Scott’s immediate 
successors, Stendhal, was the only one who wasn’t swept 
away by &e flood of local colour. In Balzac, Dickens and 
Gogol story-telling for a time loses all cohesion. What the 
middle classes had always desired, they pour out brimful and 
overflowing : sentiment and character exaggerated into 
emotionalism and caricature; the romance of trade, wealth and 
luxury; the humours of law and government, all in the 
marvellous medium which Scott had created. “ Fog every- 
where,” writes Dickens. “ Fog up the river, where it flows 
among green aits and meadows; fog down the river where it 
rolls defiled among the tiers of shippmg, and the waterside 
pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex 
marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.” Their intoxication 
with it leads them into ab3^ses of absurdity, for not only will 
Balzac paint you an unforgettable desaiption of the old miser 
Grandet’s house, he will tell you exactly what rises in funded 



20 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

securities enabled him to increase his wealth, or mafee use of 
an impassioned declaration of love to introduce a fresh dab 
of it. “ Eve, dearest,” says David in Lost Illusions, “ this is 
the first moment of pure and unmixed joy that fate has given 
to me! .... Since the downfall of the Empire, calico has 
come more and more into use because it is so much cheaper 
than linen. At the present moment paper is made of a 
mixture of hemp and linen rags, but the raw material is dear, 
and the expense naturally retards the great advance which the 
French press is bound to make. Now you cannot increase 
die output of linen rags, a given population gives a pretty 
constant result, and it only increases with the birth-rate. To 
make any perceptible difference in the population for this 
purpose, it would take a quarter of a century and a great- 
revolution in habits of life, trade and agriculture. And if the 
supply of linen rags is not enough to meet one-half nor one- 
third of the demand, some cheaper material than linen rags' 
must be found for cheap paper. . . . The Angouleme papers 
makers, the last to use pure linen rags, say that the proportion 
of cotton in the pulp has increased to a frightful extent of 
late years.” 

By 1850, if you look at the little time-table I have drawn 
up, you will see that that sort of story-telling was already old- 
fashioned, and Trollope in England, Flaubert in France and 
Turgenev in Russia could afford to turn up their noses at it, 
as two at least of them did. But the Russians were the 
luckiest, for in their country there was a hereditary, 
aristocracy which took to the new middle-class art, and 
accordingly we get novels and stories which can use the whole 
of society for a keyboard, while in other countries, par- 
ticularly in England where social stratification is well-defined, 
characters tend to be falsified whenever they move outside 
the author’s own class. 

In Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, which were being 
published through the forties, we find this new, artistic sort 
of story-telling, and with it a new technical device which 
was to be very important in Russian literature, above all in 
the short story. If you take one of the stories, Byezhin 
Meadow, written in 1851, you find it contains nothing but 
a description of the author alone with a lot of little boys who 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 21 


are minding the family horses in the meadow one summer 
night and who pass the hours telling ghost stories. It is 
many years since I read it first, but I can still remember the 
thrilling effect of those children’s voices whispering under the 
great arch of the night sky. Few stories convey such an 
overwhelming sense of the mystery of life. Now, if you 
compare a thriller with a novel by Trollope, say, you will see 
that one of the great problems of the story-teller is to carry 
the reader’s attention on by spinning a yam, yet at the same 
time to spin it in such a way that when the reader’s curiosity 
is satisfied he doesn’t throw the book away as most people 
do with even the best detective stories; to stop that leakage 
at the end and force the reader to look at it complete as if 
it were a picture. Even a very great novel like Stendhal’s 
Charterhouse of Parma leaks at the end like that; each time 
you read it, your growing familiarity with the story makes it 
lose something, whereas the story-teller’s ideal is to write in 
such a way that the more your interest in the story slackens, 
the more you should be interested in the detail. 

In the use of local colour Scott had shown one method for 
holding up the episodic quality of a story, but what Turgenev 
did in A Sportsman’s Sketches was to graft on to the story, the 
formal, static quality of an essay or a poem, so that when the 
interest of one was exhausted, the other came into play. The 
practice of that sort of writing which magazine editors still 
dismiss as “ the sketch ” enabled the Russian writers, par- 
ticularly Chekhov, who seems to me to have steeped himself 
in the study of Turgenevj to do something which other 
writers rarely achieved, and compose novels with the bare 
minimum of episodic interest. “ To do something with the 
least possible number of movements is the definition of 
grace,” said Chekhov. It isn’t, but it is the definition of the 
peculiar sort of grace which we find in Turgenev’s stories and 
his own. 

Turgenev’s passionate lyricism — ^hc was really a spoiled 
poet, and even in this story, the English translation I have 
read seems to me to miss something of the hush and mystery 
he evokes — ^makes him an uncertain story-teller. Like 
Thackeray, he has a fondness for writing his stories in the 
guise of an old man, looking back upon his youth, which 



22 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

gives them a certain unity of tone, and a delightful nostalgic 
colouring, but it is always a dangerous device for the writer, 
for the sentimentality of retrospection tends to rob character 
of its preciseness and incidents of their importance. “ It’ll all 
be the same in a hundred years “ vanity of vanities ” or as 
a little girl in an Irish village once expressed it to me, 
“ The flowers is fading and we’ll soon be fading ourselves ”, 
sentiments proper to poets, are most dangerous to writers 
who must show us in the light of eternity the importance of a 
missing cheque for twenty-five pounds. Yet at his best, in 
novels like Fathers and Children and Torrents of Spring and 
in his own characteristic form, the short novel or long short 
story like The Watch, Punin and Baburin and Old Portraits, 
he seems to me greater than any Russian writer with the ex- 
ception of Chekhov. The death of the old nobleman in Old 
Portraits is a perfect example of the blending of retrospective 
sentiment with precise and restrained observation. 

“No, no pain ... but it’s difficult . . . difficult to 
breathe.” Then after a brief silence: “Malania,” he said, 
“ so life has slipped by — ^and do you remember when we were 
married . . . what a couple we were?” “ Yes, we were, my 
handsome, charming Alexis ! ” The old man was silent again. 
“ Malania, my dear, shall we meet again in the next world?” 
“ I will pray God for it, Alexis,” and the dd woman burst into 
tears. “ Come, don’t cry, siUy; maybe the Lord God will 
make us young again then — ^and again we shall be a fine 
pair!” “He will make us young, Alexis!” “With the Lord 
all things are possible,” observed Alexis So^dteh. “He 
worketh great marvels! — ^maybe he wiH make you 
sensible. . . . There, my love, I was joking; come, let me 
kiss your hand.” “ And I yours.” And the two old people 
kissed each other’s hands simultaneously. 

Let me confess that as often as I have read that stmry, I 
cannot even transcribe this passage without emotion. It is 
as close as makes no difference to being fine poetry, but in all 
my reading of Tolstoy I have never come across a single 
lassage wlflch moved me in the slightest. Tolstoy’s supreme 
quaKty as a story-teller is a wonderful narrative gift which 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 23 


enables him to see and describe with absolute verisimilitude 
whatever the characters are doing and thinking. In every- 
thing he is the very opposite of Turgenev. Where Turgenev 
is always too relaxed, too inclined for an emotional sprawl, 
Tolstoy seems to have electricity in his veins instead of blood, 
and as I read I cannot help murmuring to myself: “ That’s 
all right, old man, relax now! The story’s going splendidly; 
just forget about it for a few moments.” But Tolstoy never 
seems to forget about it. These tiny, harsh, disjointed 
sentences are always rippling on with the purr of a well-oiled 
mowing machine, and wherever they pass they seem to 
sweep up everything in their path. Tolstoy is the perfect 
model for anybody who wants to learn the art of telling a 
story. The dreariest scene comes out as fresh as paint 
because of the minute observations and contradictions of 
which it is composed. There is an extraordinarily taut, 
braced, tonic quality about it. 

“ WTiat is it?” asked Stepan Arkadyevitch, coming in and 
addressing his wife. 

By the tone of his voice, both Kitty and Anna knew that 
the reconciliation had taken place. 

“ I wanted to instal Anna here, but we should have had to 
put up some curtains. No one knows how to do it, and so 1 
must,” said Dolly in reply to her husband’s question. 

“ God knows if they have made it up,” thought Anna as she 
noticed Dolly’s cold and even tone. 

“ Don’t, Dolly, don’t make mountains out of molehills. If 
you like I will arrange everything.” — 

“ Yes,” thought Anna, “ it must have been setded.” 

“ I know how you arrange things,” said Dolly with a mock- 
ing smile: “you give Matve an order which he doesn’t 
understand, and then you go off, and he gets everything into 
a muddle.” 

“Complete, complete reconciliation, complete,” thought 
Anna. “ Thank God.” 

As story-telling pure and simple that passage couldn’t be 
bettered. There is literally hardly a word in it which doesn't 
carry the reader’s attention forward, and yet as with Turgenev 



24 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

I wish for some more tonic quality, I cannoi help uishing 
that Tolstoy would occasionally slow up, and let the emotion 
emerge. Compare with that passage I have quoted from Old 
Portraits this from Tolstoy’s Two Hussars. It describes the 
feelings of a young officer who has lost the Government 
money with v/hich he was entrusted at cards. One can 
imagine quite well how Turgenev would have done it; how 
the young officer, retiring to his bedroom, would lie upon the 
bed, thinking of his boyhood and of his mother. Tolstoy is 
much too vigorous for that sort of treatment, but it seems to 
me that he falls into the opposite fault, and by the time 
he has finished with the situation leaves us not caring what 
happens his hero. 

“ I have ruined my young life,” he said to himself; not 
because he really thought he had ruined his young life — he 
was not indeed thinking about it at all — but the phrase hap- 
pened to occur to his mind. 

“ What am I to do now?” he meditated. “ Borrow from 
come one and go away.” A lady walked along the pavement. 
“What a foolish looking lady!” he thought inconsequently. 
“ There’s no one to borrow from. I’ve ruined my young life.” 
He reached the shops. A merchant in a fox-lined cloak was 
standing at the door of his shop touting for customers. “ If I 
hadn’t taken up the eight I should have made up what I’d 
lost.” An old beggar-woman followed him whimpering, 
“ There’s no one to borrow from.” A gentleman in a bear- 
skinned cloak drove by; a watchman stood still. “ What could 
one do out of the ordinary? Take a shot at these people. No, 
it’s a bore! I’ve ruined my young life. Ah, these are nice 
bridles hanging there with ornaments on them. I should like 
a drive in a sledge now with three horses — ^ah, the darlings 1 ” 

In 1857, the same year as Trollope’s Barchester Towers, 
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary appeared. Historically, it is 
probably the most important novel of the century. I do not 
mean it is the best, or even among the best; for myself I should 
not rank it with Pride and Prejudice, The Red and Black or 
Vanity Fair. It is easily the most beautifully written; per- 



TOWAK 0 S AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 35 


fectly proportioned, every paragraph containing some tiny 
picture beautifully drawn and coloured. 

“ Once, during a thaw, when the snow was melting off the 
roofs and the moisture oozing out of the trees in the court- 
yard, on reaching the door, she returned to fetch her parasol 
and opened it. 

The silken parasol, coloured like a pigeon’s breast, as it was 
pierced by the sunbeams, revealed vidth its shifting reflections 
the skin of her beautiful face. She smiled under the genial 
warmth while drops of water could be heard, one by one, fall 
on the stretched silk. 

But no English translation can give you the poetic beauty 
of Flaubert’s French, and really to know what sort of writer 
he was you need either to read him in French or study the 
effect of his style in the work o^ Joyce, who copied 
him very closely, as in this sentence from The Portrait of the 
Artist. “ In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of 
the balls : and from here and from there through the quiet 
air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: 
like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming 
bowl.” Madame Bovary has the beauty of a mediaeval picture 
book; it is something to linger over and reread. 

I am not so certain of the characterisation. It is the story 
of a middle-class woman who is so saturated with romantic 
fiction that she involves herself in discreditable love affairs, 
gets into debt, and finally commits suicide. Being a little that 
way inclined myself, I doubt whether romantic extravagance 
ever induced anybody to commit any crime more serious than 
the excesses of Mariaime Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility; 
at least, without much graver faults of character to account 
for it; and these are net suggested by Flaubert. I have sat in 
court watching processions of poor girls who had gone to 
what the law believed to be the dogs, but never yet saw one 
of whom I could honestly say that she looked as though she 
had been influenced by D. H. Lawrence or Aldous Httdey. 
Nor do I think Flaubert believed it himself. He was 
essentially a satirist; he detested the French middle class in 
a way which was hardly known in England before the 



26 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 


nineties; and they returned the compliment by prosecuting 
Madame Bovary for indecency. It was largely this prosecu- 
tion which made it the standard for what we now call 
Naturalism in fiction. The Naturalists — ^though their work 
does not become really important until much later in the 
century — ^shared Flaubert’s views about the middle classes, 
and deplored the excesses into which writers like Balzac were 
drawn by their whole-hearted acceptance of middle-class 
standards. They prided themselves on not selecting and on 
not commenting. They simply picked on any particular 
aspect of life which came their way, and painted it as well 
as they could. 

You vidll find a typical example of Naturalism in the second 
story of Joyce’s Dubliners. Here two young fellows mitching 
from school meet a queer man who talks to them about 
little girls; goes away, comes back, and talks to them about 
little girls again, but in a quite different tone. What he is, 
and what be has been up to in the meantime are merely 
hinted at with a shrug of the shoulders. It is no business of 
Joyce’s. “ Here is an episode. This is where it begins; this is 
where it ends: now, watch me do it!” I have always 
suspected that that theory of writing must have originated in 
a painter’s studio, for it is by its very nature unliterary. 
Literature, as I shall have occasion to remind you, is a fright- 
fully impure art. A painter can paint a good-looking poisoner 
without bothering his head about whether or not he approves 
of poisoning on principle, but there is always somethii^ 
firei^sh about a writer who refrains from moral judgment and 
feeling. When Flaubert ends the story of Herodks with the 
lines, “ And all three having taken the head of laokanann went 
off in the direction of Galilee. As it was very heavy, they 
carried it turn and turn about ”, he is writing artificially, to 
a theory, and puts me in mind of Miss Liza Doolittle’s 
drawing-room manner as she inquires: “ What call would a 
woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? 
What become of her new straw hat that should have come to 
me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as 
pinched it done her in.” 

The fifties, sixties and seventies are the greatest period of 
the novel, and it would probably be true to say that in that 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 27 


period not a year passed without the appearance of a work of 
major importance. English people put on a curiously coy air 
when they speak of Trollope, as though they had to apologise 
for liking him, but there is no need for apology, because 
Trollope was a novelist of the same rank as Jane Austen, 
though with a coarse streak which comes out all too plainly 
in his Autobiography. It was that coarse streak which made 
him spoil Barchester Towers by the introduction of the Stan- 
hopes, and his masterpiece. The Last Chronicle of Barset, by 
paddhig it out to such a degree that in order to appreciate 
its true artistic quality, you have to skip almost every second 
chapter. But to find any thing to equal the splendid serious- 
ness and tenderness of the portrait of Mr. Crawley in that 
novel' you have to turn to the stories like Bunin and Baburin 
which Tiurgenev was writing about the same time. 

Hardy’s work comes later, and though he is far inferior to 
Trollope and George Eliot as a novelist, he is equally superior 
to both as a writer. Hardy is an extraordinary example of the 
importance of local colour in the novel, and in bis work more 
than in' that of any other novelist we can see that its real 
purpose is that of poetry in an Elizabethan play, a powerful 
cement which binds together a rubble of invention which, 
without it, would collapse in bathos. Whether he knew it or 
not, Hardy was affected by the Naturalists, and in him we 
can trace the development of a purely pictorial kind of writing 
derived from. Flaubert. Unlike Flaubert, he never allows it 
to settle into neat little miniatures, and long before the 
cinema, had invented a technique wliich anticipates it, as in 
the wonderful opening of The Mayor of Casterbridge where 
he begins in the air high above the town as it lies in evening 
light; fades to a horizon view of it, far away and flat upon 
the plain, and then tracks slowly towards the tree-lined 
rampart which surrounds it, and down the main street, 
pa using to give us a close-up of shuttered window or inn-sign. 
No other writer has the same feeling for material as Hardy 
has; it is always of some artist that he reminds us, and as he 
describes the surface of something it is like examining a 
Cotman drawing in which we can identify the very quality of 
wood, tile and stone. With every rerea^g we suffer more 
from his scra^ plots and tongue-tied characters but put up 



28 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 


with them for those unforgettable |»ragraphs when some- 
body walks down a street and we can feel the heat reflected 
from the old, sun-warmed brick, or a wain of hay passes by 
the window and the faces of those inside are painted gold in 
the reflected light. “ On the grey moisture of the grass were 
marks where the cows had lain through the night — dark-green 
islands of dry herbage the size of their carcases in the general 
sea of dew. From each island proceeded a serpentine trail, 
by which the cow had rambled away to feed after getting up, 
at the end of which trail they found her; the snoring piSf 
from her nostrils, when she recognised them, making an 
intenser little fog of her own amid the prevailing one.” 
Poetry has no lovelier image of morning, nor an evening scene 
drawn with more tenderness and sureness than that first 
glimpse of Casterbridge. 

The lamplights now glimmered through the engirdling 
trees, conveying a sense of great snugness and comfort inside, 
and rendering at the same time die unlighted country •without 
strangely solitary and vacant in aspect, considering its nearness 
to life. The difference between bmrgh and champaign was in- 
creased too by sounds which now reached them above others 
— ^the notes of a brass band. The travellers returned into the 
High Street, where there were timber houses with overhang- 
ing stories, whose small-paned lattices were screened by 
dimity curtains on a drawing string, and under whose barge- 
boards old cobwebs waved in the breeze. There were houses 
of brick-nogging, which derived their chief support from those 
adjoining. There were slate roofs patched with tiles, and tile 
roofs patched with slate, with occasionally a roof of thatch. 

The year 1880 roughly represents the end of the realistic 
novel as such with the rise of Moore in England, Maupassant 
in France, Chekhov in Russia, all of them declared 
Naturalists, two of them best known as short story writers. 
Chekhov took naturally to the theory, because as a doctor he 
found the detached description of natural phenomena 
sufficiently like the work of contemporary scientists. 
“Anatomy and the arts,” he said, “are of equally noble 
descent They have the same purpose and the same enemy 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 29 


— devil — and there is absolutely nothing for them to fight 
about.” There is a whole group of his stories, clinically 
correct descriptions of madness, degeneracy, marital unhappi- 
ness and what not, which seem to me typical museum pieces 
of the naturalistic school. But by nature, he was a humor- 
ous, poetic sort of man (“ My ideal is to be idle and love a 
plump girl ”, which may be set with Dr. Johnson’s of driving 
in a post-chaise with a pretty woman) and in the stories which 
are characteristically Chekhovian we are conscious that the 
man is better than the theory; he comments wisely and end- 
lessly. 

He is not by any means an easy writer, though like Jane 
Austen he is one who steadily grows on you, and for the 
same reason, that a quiet realism which ^ds its poetry in 
everyday things and is based upon an adequate ethical code 
seems to be that which retains its freshness longest. All the 
exciting episodes and profound moral problems which interest 
us so much at first, tend each time to lose something in re- 
reading, while Emma’s misunderstandings of Mr. Knightley’s 
intentions and Elizabeth Bonnet’s prejudice against Mr. 
Darcy improve with the years. The impression you get on 
reading Chekhov for the first time is rather like that of walk- 
ing out of a very bright light into a dim, cool, shadowy 
interior, mistaking the butler for your host and the locd 
school-mistress for your hostess, and of conversing with 
somebody who appears to be a Polar explorer and turns out 
to be the village doctor. The voice of the commentator if 
you can discern it at all seems to be equally confusing, for 
it is intermittent, irritable and apologetic. 

The heroine of one of his most famous stories is a doctor’s 
wife who becomes the mistress of an artist (you will notice 
as you go on an under-currcnt of dislike for artists in 
Chekhov’s stories) and neglects her apparently stupid and 
good-natured husband, but when he dies, sucking the poison 
from a child’s throat, it is slowly borne in on her that every- 
body but herself had recognised him as a great and famous 
scientist. You might think she was being punished for her 
unfaithfubess to him until you read another story (The Lady 
with the Toy Dog, which, incidentally, is one of the great 
short stories of the world). This is about a young woman. 



30 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

married to a dull official, who meets a married man at the 
seaside and becomes his mistress. She is punished too, but 
rhiR timft it seems to be because she does not leave her hus- 
band altogether. It is all very difficult. A woman is 
punished for going away with a lover, or for not going away 
with a lover, but the lover seems to have nothing to do with 
her real sin which you may find it hard to identify. But 
after your eyes have grown used to the shadowy interior, and 
your ears to the diffident voice of the commentator, you 
begin to discover that the stories all add up to something, 
and that if Chekhov’s people are not being punished for 
adultery, they are being punished and punished very severely 
for quarreling at meals, leaving syringes in the bathroom, 
criticising the local teacher or doctor, or for being late at 
the office- Implicit in all of them is a very personal and 
very noble ideal of the lady and gentlanan, derived from, 
but transcending, the rough and ready ethical code of the 
novelist. 

“ This soup tastes like liquorice,” he said, smiling; he made 
an effort to control himself and seem amiable, but could not 
refrain from saying, “ Nobody looks after the house-keeping. 
... If you are too ill or busy with reading, let me look after 
the cooking.” 

In earlia: days she would have said to him : “ Do, by ail 
means,” or, “ I see you want to turn me into a cook,” but now 
she only looked at him timidly and flushed crimson. 

That is not just mere naturalistic detail as it would be in 
the work of a French writer; like the coarseness of Lydia 
Bennet and her mother it is intended to express by impli- 
cation an ideal of conduct which Lacvsky and his mistress 
fall short of and gives us the clue to understanding their 
misfortunes. Nadyezhda is deceiving him with another man, 
and has got' herself into the other man’s power; Laevsky is 
planning to l^ve her in the lurch. Unfortunately for him,’ 
though the loral doctor would lend him the money, he in 
turn has to borrow it from a lodger, a scientist called Von 
Korea who loathes both Laevsky and Nadyezhda because of 
some stupid criticisms they have made on science. Von 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 3 1 


Koren will not part with the money unless Laevsky guaran- 
tees to take Nadyezhda with him, and maddens Laevsky to 
the point of challenging him. The prospect of imminent 
death brings out a real element of seriousness in Laevsky’s 
character. The duel takes place; the scientist is just on 
point of killing him in cold blood when they are interrupted 
and the shot grazes Laevsky’s neck. But he has had a shock, 
becomes reconciled to Von Koren, marries Nadyezhda and 
settles down to a dull and useful life with her. 

Perhaps this isn’t Chekhov’s greatest story (it is superbly 
written) but in it the diffident voice is just a shade louder and 
more explicit, and the story throws light on aU the other 
mysterious and beautiful stories which haunt our memory for 
years li^ce passages of poetry. As in Shaw’s Candida and 
Joyce’s Ulysses 1 get the impression that the two contrasted 
characters, are not two characters but two different aspects 
of the same character, which may or may not be the author’s, 
and that some sort of internal conffict is being externalised 
through them. At any rate I do not think it is fanciful to 
suggest that Chekhov, the doctor, the naturalist and Utopian, 
had a rather shady artistic dter ego which he found it neces- 
sary to struggle with and overthrow. 

It is not enough to think of Chekhov merely as a Russian 
and a fellow-countryman of Dostoevsky. He is also a strict 
contemporary of Shaw and H. G. Wells, and has consider- 
ably more in common with them than vrith Dostoevsky. Like 
them he is fundamentally optimistic (it is only a very super- 
ficial criticism which sees Chekhov as a gloomy writer), and 
like them, he is optimistic because he believes in science. 
Wh»e he does differ from them is that he recognises that 
his scientific Utopia will be unlivable in unless human beings 
change their behaviour. “If we respect science and cul- 
ture,” the commentator seems to say, “we shall in the end 
conquer disease and poverty and ignorance. Life in a 
thousand years will be unimaginably beautiful, because there 
is such a thing as progress. As a child I used to be beaten, 
so, you see, I know. But what use will progress be if it 
doesn’t mean spiritual progress; if we are still rude to the 
men and women we live with, and have no useful work to 
keep us occupied and to help on the business of progress. 



32 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

So we must all be more polite aud tender and truthful, and 
work very much harder than we do, and then, in a thousand 
years’ time life on this planet will be really worth while. 
But, of course, we mustn’t take it too seriously, for we shall 
die all the same. But still, you know Afanascy Andreitch, 
my guinea-pig, my little sucking dove (or whatever bit of 
translator’s Anglo-Russian you like to put in) we ought to 
work harder.” 

It is the final unanswerable doubting re-statement of the 
middle-class creed of the 19th-century novel. Since then 
there have been some great wTiters, but none of them has 
written under its inspiration. Those like John Galsworthy 
who have gone on writing novels in the convention may 
have been admirable writers but they are not artists. When 
you read a Galsworthy novel it is rather like reading one of 
those political manifestos which advise us to get back to the 
England of Palmerston or Gladstone. It isn’t that one 
doesn’t admire the period that the pamphleteer admires; it 
is that the pamphlet is unreal. It is impossible to write a 
novel in the manner of Dickens or Thackeray, because it is 
impossible to get back to the convictions which they shared 
with their audience. The middle classes, it seems, have, for 
the moment at least, lost faith in their own mission. 

IV 

I don’t PRETEND THAT THE BOOKS I HAVE MENTIONED IN THE 
last chapter (and the scores of other novelists I haven’t men- 
tioned at all) are all easy reading, or that many of them may 
not at first pass over your head as they did over mine when 
I first read them. But they are a popular art; and they do, 
I think, contain a sufficiently substantial amount of neces- 
sary entertainment to yield up their beauty to you without 
too much knowledge or effort. 

But when once you get back beyond the 19th century the 
difficulties begin. It is of no use to you to invent a sort of 
pedigree, and call it English literature, and treat it as an 
int^ral thing from Chaucer’s day to ours. My ovra experi- 
ence has been that while there are few famous books of the 
I9fh century which I cannot read with pleasure, there are 
quite a number of 18th-century books which I cannot read 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE S3 

at all; and that when I go back further, the- great writers I 
can read are outnumbered by those I can’t It is sad but 
true that I who can read Mr. Evelyn' Waugh with the greatest 
pleasure have to force myself to read Ben Jonson, Montaigne 
and Rabelais. Mr. Dobree on the Restoration dramatists 
I can read with delight, but the Restoration dramatists them- 
selves, apart from Congreve, I find very difficult to get 
through. 

I think the fact is — and it may spare you many dreary 
hours of discouragement to reflect on it — ^that, as I have said 
before, literature, apart from lyric poetry, is a very imperfect 
art. It is composed of words, images, ideas and conventions, 
all of which change, many of which disappear entirely. I 
have argued in another place that drama is the most 
ephemeral of the literary arts, being based upon a collabor- 
ation between author, audience and performers. This is not 
true to anything like the same degree of literature 
which is intended to be read, but it is far truer 
than professors of literature ever care to admit, for within 
five or six hundred years it cannot be read at all, except by 
those who. have devoted considerable time to a study of the 
language, or else in some sort of translation; while even the 
very b^ translation will be largely unintelligible unless the 
reader pays attention to the footnotes. 

That evanescence of literature is reflected for us in 
criticism. Mr. Dobree seems to me to teU me aU I want to 
know about the Restoration dramatists, but I cannot think 
of one single critical work on Shakespeare which I could 
recommend. The reason for that is simple. To write 
criticism you must have certain simple facts established. You 
must know what the author wrote and when he wrote it. You 
must have some rough and ready idea of his intentions when 
he wrote it. With Shakespeare most of these things are 
either very hard or impossible to establish. 

Falstaff is perhaps Shakespeare’s single greatest char- 
acter. He was enormously popular on the stage. At 
the end of Henry IV, Part II, the author promises to 
bring him on the stage again in Henry V, but 
instead of that fobs us off vwth an account of his death 
(off-stage). Why? * Professor Wilson in one book suggests 



34 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

that Falstaff had become so popular that in order to escape 
a life-time of Falstaff, Shakespeare had to kill him off sum- 
marily. In a later book he accepts the theory that the actor 
who played Falstaff had left the company, and identifies him 
with William Kempe. Dr. Harrison seems to think he had 
lost the knack of writing about Falstaff. None of these ex- 
planations seems to me likely, and my own guess, for what it 
is worth, is that Lord Cobham, who had already compelled 
the company to alter the name of Oldcastle to Falstaff, brought 
influence to bear to prevent his appearance on the stage in 
any relation to Henry V. 

That, you may think, has no importance one way or 
another, but, in fact, it is crucial. Whole books have been 
written condemning or explaining the conduct of Prince Hal 
in casting off old Falstaff at die end of Henry IV, but quite 
obviously, if Shakespeare intended to write a third part in 
which Falstaff accompanied the King to France, he must 
have intended some sort of reconciliation scene between 
them which would have altered the whole emphasis of the 
trilogy. 

Let me take one last example from Hamlet. After the 
ghost has passed another ghost enters who to me is every 
bit as mysterious as the first. Marcellus asks what is going 
on in Denmark, and Horatio in a long speech explains that 
a Norwegian prince called Fortinbras is raising an army to 
invade Denmark. This young man is my ghost. He 
appears again a few scenes later when two ambassadors (two 
perfectly good actors from the theatre manager’s point of 
view) are sent to Norway to protest against his warlike pre- 
parations. They return later with the news that Fortinbras 
had been intending to invade Denmark, but that the King 
of Norway has now persuaded him to have a go at Poland 
instead. Will the Danes object to his aossing Danish terri- 
tory? No, the Danes do not objea, so the ghost makes 
another appearance, thb time on Ids way to Poland with an 
army. Nor is this all. He returns at the precise moment 
when Hamlet has been stabbed with the poisoned foil, and 
hearing him approach, Hamlet who has been dying in a 
doud of the most exquisite poetry, sits up to give him a vote 
for the succession of Denmark. There are no historical notes 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 35 


on t^iat in any of my editions of Hamlet! It is one of the 
most absurd and inexplicable episodes in literature, but not 
much more absurd than what follows, because Fortinbras, 
without asking anybody’s leave, announces that he intends to 
take the throne of Denmark an3nvay, and Horatio, forgettii^ 
all about his dead friend, hurriedly begs him to do it quick 
before anybody can anticipate him — 

Even while men’s minds are wild, lest some mischance 

On plots, and errors happen. 

Now, if you ask me what business Fortinbras has in the 
play, I can only reply that I haven’t the foggiest notion, and 
that I doubt very much whether anybody else has either. As 
Nature abhors a vacuum, I explain it tentatively to myself by 
fancying that perhaps after all the date of the final draft of 
Hamlet is not 1601 but the spring months of 1603 when the’ 
old Queen was dying and Cecil tr3dng to prepare public 
opinion for the accession of a most unpopular and unpleasant 
foreign prince; perhaps even that Hamlet was the very 
service for which James on his accession appointed Shake- 
speare’s company as the King’s Players. You may notice for 
instance how Rosencrantz and Gildenstem expatiate on the 
dangers attending “ the cease of majesty ” and how Laertes 
arrives on the scene accompanied by a mob howling to have 
him made king instead of Qaudius; the prosaic solder with 
which the Fortinbras scenes are joined on like “ I think it be 
no other but e’en so ” or “ this business is very well ended ”, 
and the maturity of the style — ^but I have said enough to sug- 
gest the diB&culties that confront you in a really topical writer 
like Ben Jonson. 

Sometimes, in reading Dante, Chaucer, Villon and even 
Shakespeare I am reminded of a visit to a ruined castle or 
abbey. Qearly, people in most ways like myself have lived 
and died here, and as 1 wander through room after room, I 
cannot help wondering what they were really Hke, and fancy- 
ing that round the next comer I shall come upon some monk 
or ghl, strayed out of history, who will tell me. I should 
confine myself to the architecture? I know that, and I try 
to do it, but human nature is very feeble, and besides I am 



36 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

an ignorant man. I don’t know what this wail is doing r%ht 
across the nave or what room this is with a spy-hole over- 
looking the high altar. A genuine archaeologist can help me 
enormously by telling me what all these things are about, 
which is why I would have you above everything else learn 
to appreciate the work of scholars, but in the end there is 
something which escapes me, something which I know is 
buried in the churchyard nearby, and that leaves me with an 
ache for buildings in the idiom of my own time, all with 
neat inscriptions on the doors: “Town Clerk,” “City 
Engineer,” “ Rates Department on the Next Floor.” 


I HAVE NO DESIRE TO EXAGGERATE THE DIFFICULTIES, AND 
you may have gathered that I have myself succeeded 
in getting a considerable amount of pleasure out of 
GotWc abbeys and Elizabethan plays, but I am always 
slightly suspicious of those simple-minded villagers who are 
alleged to have enjoyed a performance of Oedipus Rex, and 
it is just as well to make clear that I think there are difficul- 
ties, and that all literature before the 19th century is a por- 
tion of history which has to be read in its historic context. 

I should make one exception to this. If the unsophisti- 
cated villager is capable of enjoying any classic work, he would 
probably fed less to puzzle him in a Greek play than in most 
of more modern date, and granted a reasonably good prose 
translation, I find that Aristophanes is considerably fresher 
than Swift and Xenophon than Gibbon. 

That may be merely a fancy of mine, but it is what one 
would expect, because the historical context which embt&ccs 
Swift and Gibbon is part of an historical process which began 
with the Greeks. I cannot read a single word of either Greek 
or I-atm, and most of the arguments which defend the teach- 
ing of them as “ a mental discipline ” and what not seem to 
me grotesque. The real significance of the classical 
lai^ua^ is that our whole civilisation is based on them; 
that the way we think, the way we feel, Mr. Eliot’s latest 
poem airi the atomic bomb, all derive ultimately from certain 
principles laid down by Greek thinkers and writers five 
huiuired years before Christ, and esablished throughout 



TOWAimS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 37 

Europe by Roman armies and administrators, and that if t{ie 
study of Greek and Latin ceased throughout Europe, our 
civilisation would collapse in ruin within fifty years. 

You will understand that better if you consider what 
happens to Christianity whenever knowledge of the Bible 
declines, and how every movement leading to reform in the 
Church begins with a return to Biblical simplicity. The 
classics are to civilisation as a whole what the Bible is to 
religion. They are our charter, our terms of reference, and 
whenever we depart from them it is in the direction of bar- 
barism. What we call realism in art is the artistic equivalent 
of logical thought, and the intricate Celtic pattern on a coin 
or shield and the wild fantasy of the Irish saga Tain Bo 
Cwigne are both barbarian attempts to imitate a realistic 
Roman figure or a Latin epic poem. Even in England you 
can’t go very far without coming upon a church or house 
which reminds you of Pope’s, “ We still defied the Romans 
as of old.” 

When we cross the border from the 19th to the i8th 
centxiry we find ourselves in an alien world, a country infin- 
itely more foreign to us than Russia or China of our own 
time. And that feeling of sttangeness isn’t a new thing. 
Matthew Arnold, who. Heaven knows, was no jingo, had to 
invent a theory that the English had a better sense of what 
was fitting to the stage than the French in order to explain 
to himself why he liked Shakespeare’s blank verse, and did 
not like French rhymed couplets. Hardy, who delights to 
describe every detail of a 16th-century house, dismisses an 
iSih century one in a few curt lines as “ a compilation I 
believe I could even put my hand on the guide-book to Bath 
which apologises fear the fact that, apart from the Abbey, the 
town has no architectural interest ! 

When we open the work of an 18th-century writer, as 
likely as not, we shall light upon some passage which does 
not seem to be addressed to us at all; which is like one of 
those conversations we overhear on the telephone, and which 
always sound so absurd when we recount them afterwards. 
Take this for instance : “ In my humble opinion, the clergy’s 
business lies entirely among the laity; neither is there, per- 
haps, a more effectual way to forward the salvation of men’s 



38 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

souls, than for spiritual persons to make themselves as agree- 
able as they can in the conversations of the world; for which 
a learned education gives them a great advantage, if they 
would please to improve and apply it.” Now, that is not 
from the pen of any obscure country parson; it is the work 
of Dean Swift who is rightly one of the most famous figures 
of the century, but to me it is exactly like a stranger’s voice 
gabbling wildly on the telephone, and having given it a few 
doubtful “ Hello’s ” without attracting its attention, I make 
another determmed effort to get on to the exchai^e. 

Close by these Meads for ever crown’d with Flow’rs, 
Where Thames with Pride surveys his rising Tow’rs 
There stands a Structure of Majestic Fame, 

Which from the neighb’ring Hampton takes its Name. 

What was it our grandfathers disliked so much about all 
this? What was it that made them uncomfortable in long, 
broad, beautifully proportioned streets of red-brick Georgian 
houses? Principally it was the social approach. Our grand- 
fathers were more individualistic than we; they came home 
from business through Romanesque railway stations to some 
neat little Gothic or Tudor viUa, packed with the spoils of 
half a dozen civilisations, and when they felt religious read 
a chapter of the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita. 

Yes, in the sea of life enisl’d, 

Widi echoing straits between us thrown, 

Dotting the shoreless watery wild, 

We mortal millions live done — 

sang Matthew Arnold, underlining the last word lest there 
might be any possible misunderstanding about it, and, con- 
sidadng the best advice he might offer to a resdess gener- 
ation, set up as ideals of conduct the stars and the tides. 

And with joy the stars perform their shining. 

And the sea its long moon-silvered roll. 

For alone they live, nor pine with noting 
All the fever of some differing soul. 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 39 


If he and his contemporaries did not fully appreciate the 
1 8 th century it was not that they did not know Greek and 
Latin. It was principally that they knew other things also, and 
that they were quite ready to compound a Whole Duty of Man 
&om the classics, the Bible, Sh^espeare and the Bhagavad 
Gita. That was what really upset them — what still upsets 
us though to a lesser degree because we have seen the effects 
of cultural eclecticism — the amazing way iStfa-century 
culture is integrated into the social system. Other periods 
have national differentiations of a sort, and the i6th century 
in England is not quite the same as the l6th century any- 
where else, but the culture of the i8th century stretches from 
Limaick to Leningrad, and one of its most characteristic 
poems, Bryan Merryman’s Midnight Court, comes from a 
wild Irish-speaking district in the hills over the Shannon 
which is still at the back of beyond. Other periods talk 
a lot to themselves about such things for instance as the 
dangers incident to “ the cease of majesty ” or the growing 
arrogance of play actors, but rarely without letting us hear 
pretty soon the lonely human lyric voice. “ I will live in 
thy heart, die in thy lap and be buried in thy eyes : and more- 
over, I will go with thee to thy uncle’s.” No period talks to 
itself so consistently as the i8th century, none throws off 
less of those l37ric passages which fit so neatly into a Whole 
Duty of iMan or would be so astonished at beii^ advised to 
imitate the stars. 

The 1 8 th century in literature then is a number of people 
who for the most part talk to themselves rather than to us; 
“ spiritual persons ” and “ men of quality ” with “ a learned 
education ” (meaning a classical education), which they are 
pleased to “ improve and apply ” for the benefit of “ polite 
society ”. They live in very large and very formal houses 
which to our eyes, accustomed to the joyous eclecticism of 
railway Romanesque and university Gothic, all seem to be as 
like as council houses, and if we succeed in getting past the 
formal fronts we are astonished by the gaiety and colouiful- 
ness of the decoration (though whether this is because the 
English nature inclines to outward reserve and intimate 
abandon or not, I leave you to decide). The men and women 



40 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

shave their heads and wear wigs; Homer is not allowed to 
nod and talks in heroic couplets, 

But why should’st thou suspect the war’s success? 

None fears it more as none promotes it less. 

Religion has lost much of its terrors, for spiritual persons 
make themselves as agreeable as they can, and the writers, 
instead of living alone in Gothic villas, meditating upon 
human destiny, tty to make themselves useful and popular 
— ^for what is the good of a great poet if he is not agreeable? 

This utilitarian view of religion and culture is one of the 
characteristic and disturbing things about the period. Our 
grandfathers wisely or unwisely elaborated aisthetics to the 
point at which they could satisfy themselves that a thing was 
beautiful in itself, regardless of purpose, and we in our turn 
are prepared to concede that an abstract pattern be a 
work of art or that Joyce’s description of a sexual pervert in 
Dubliners is justified by the beauty of the writing. It is 
always rather surprising to find the i8th century looking for 
a deJ^te purpose. What lesson does Othello teach? it asks 
itself. Should one describe a great man’s vices when writing 
his bit^raphy, and is the description calculated to make others 
imitate him or to avoid the dangers? 

Again it is the social, utilitarian approach which we are 
most aware of when we try to discover the characteristic liter- 
ature of the period. That the superior of the local seminary 
should be regularly entrusted with the task of lacing Mme. 
de Waren’s stays was nothing unusual — was it not the duty 
of spiritual persons to make themselves agreeable? Church- 
going was a social function, so that sermons became a very 
important and popular form of literature, shading off into 
mutations and essas^ aimed at the correction of soda! 
abuses. Essays themselves shade off into pamphlets, and 
these were innumerable and written by the best intellects of 
the time. When we open Swift’s works we cannot but be 
slighdy shocked at their apparent triviality and inconsequence. 
That so very great a writer should have turned out so many 
ephemeral trifles on Education, Style, Astrologers and other 
Quacks, Money, Beggars and BoUtics, not to mention that 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 4 1 


Project for the Advancement of Religion from which I have 
already quoted, is something that to our minds is bound to 
appear extravagant. 

Conversation which in a period so social must have been 
ma gnific ent we can only guess at from books like Fanny 
Burney’s Diary and Boswell. It was the art to which all the 
other arts led up. The men of talent by their labours had 
produced the most cultivated society seen in Western Europe 
since classical times and enjoyed the benefit of it. Not only 
do we fed in reading the letters of Oxford to Swift that no 
man of -intellect of our own time has the cultural richness of 
one who was, after all, a very indifferent politician, but we 
fed in reading Swift and Johnson that no politician of our 
time has any thing like the profound knowledge of life pos- 
sessed by these men, both poets, both religious men with a 
wealth of piety and charity in their make-up. Swift at least 
a raging idealist. 

Nothing perhaps expresses this period so well as its letters 
for they are the literary equivalent of conversation. Cowper’s 
descriptions of the little events of village life, Walpole’s ot 
society. Swift and Pope on literature are admirable, though 
none of them so perfect as those of the earlier Mme. de 
S6vigne: some piece of gossip from the court, a domestic 
misunderstanding, a question about her attitude to 
approaching death serves as theme for some little exquisite 
bubble of prose intended for the amusement of a few 
friends. And this is the real difficulty we shall probably find, 
the inability to detach the literature from the gossip, to dis- 
integrate something so highly articulated as this classical civil- 
isation. 

It is a mistake to try to do so; to come to the i8th century 
looking for a Shakespeare or a ViUon, for a Divine Comedy or 
a Canterbury Tales. The greatness of Swift is a part of the 
greamess of the i8th century, and whereas we get an over- 
whelming picture of the greatness of Shakespeare while 
knowing practically nothing about him. Swift’s works are 
little more than a sketch of the man whom his contem- 
poraries admired. And I think it is perhaps truer of this 
than of any other period that the more you know about it, 
the more you realise the greatness of its great men. It is like 



42 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

a jig-saw puzzle in the way in which things which regarded 
by themselves seem unimportant, become important when 
they are regarded together. This is Swift, ridiculing Par- 
tridge, the fashionable astrologer, by posing as Isaac Bicker- 
staff, a rival with a serious grasp of the profession — a mild 
enough squib which must, of course, have delighted the 
London society which knew all about Partridge but tends to 
hang a bit heavy on the mind of a modem reader. 

“ My first prediction is but a trifle, yet I vsdll mention it to 
show how ignorant these sottish pretenders to Astrolt^ are 
in their own concerns : it relates to Partridge the Almanack- 
maker; I have consulted the star of his nativity by my own 
rules, and find he will infallibly die upon the 29th of March 
next, about eleven at night, of a raging fever; therefore I 
advise him to consider of it, and settle his affairs in time.” 

Shortly after he publishes an account of the supp<»ed death 
of Partridge described by an intimate. 

“ After half an hour’s conversation I took my leave, being 
half stifled by the closeness of the room. I i magin ed he 
could not hold out long, and therefore withdrew to a little 
coffee house hard by, leaving a servant at the house with 
orders to come immeiately, and tell me as near as he could 
the minute when Partridge should expire, which was not 
above two hours after; when looking upon my watch, I found 
it to be above five minutes after seven; by which it is clear 
that Mr. Bickerstaff was mistaken almost two hours in his 
calculation.” 

That, as I say, now seems rather a damp squib, but turn 
to Pope’s description of Swift in London, and notice how 
Swift’s solemn raillery gives you the very accent which 
people heard when they first read the Bickerstaff papere; 
how in an art so very social as ir«my it helps you to dis- 
tinguish the brisk, businesslike tone of Swift, driving the jc^e 
right through to the last limit of absurdity frcan, for instance, 
the languid, malicious feminine irony of Gibbon which 
barely troubles to take the edge off the sneer. 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 43 


‘ “ Heyday, geatlemen (says the Doctor), what’s the mean- 
ing of this visit? How came you to leave all the great lords 
you are so fond of, to come hither to see a poor Dean?” — 
“ Because we would rather see you than any of them.” — 
“ Anyone that did not know so well as I do, might believe 
you. But since you are come, I must get some supper for 
you, I suppose.” — “ No, Doctor, we have supped already.” — 
“Supped already, that’s impossible! Why, it is not eight 
o’clock yet. That’s very strange! But if you had not ■ 
supped, I must have got something for you. Let me see, 
what should I have had? a couple of lobsters; ay, that would 
have done very well; two shillings — starts a shilling: ' but 
you •will drink a glass of wine with me, though you supped so 
much before your usual time only to spare my pocket.” — 
“ No, we had rather talk with you than drink vpith you.” — 
“ But if you had supped with me, as in all reason you ought 
to have done, you must then have drunk with me. A bottle 
of wine, two shillings — ^two and two is four and one is five; 
just two and sixpence apiece. There, Pope, there’s ha lf a 
crown for you, and there’s another for you, sir; for I won’t 
save anything by you, I am determined.” This was all said 
and done with his usual seriousness on such occasions; and 
in spite of everything we could say to the contrary, he 
actually obliged us to take the money.” ’ 

But why should I stress the point when it is made already 
in Boswell’s Life of Johnson? Johnson was of the stuff of 
Swift and Pope, a man whom his contemporaries recognised 
as a great man, yet whose published works would make even 
a lesser show than Swift’s or Pope’s. Without Boswell we 
should know him as the compiler of a Dictionary and the 
author of some very shrewd criticisms; a respectable talent 
certainly, but it was Boswell’s genius which realised that by 
gathaing together all his friend dissipated in conversation, 
letter writing and occasional journalism, he could create tte 
masterpiece which Johnson himself would never create. 

That great book which synthesises the whole i8th century 
for us is at the same time not of the i8th century at all, any 
more than Boswell himself was. It is part of a movement 
which was rising up to destroy the classical view of life. Undo- 



44 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

all the superficial contentment with their lot it is hard not 
to feel that men of letters were profoundly unhappy. How 
can one ignore the faa that Cowper, Swift and Johnson, all 
three religious men, were either deranged or overthrown by 
insanity? The attempt at self-discipline, the approximation to 
classical standards had been going on for such a very long time, 
and become so much more exacting that it actually seems 
to have distorted the intellect of men who could not hold 
themselves on so tight a rein. At any rate I cannot overlook 
the fact that if I were asked to choose the three great books 
of the 1 8th century, all three would be autobiographies of 
one sort or another; Boswell’s L*/e, Saint Simon’s Memoirs 
and Rousseau’s Confessions. Autobiography is the art of 
the misfit, and though two of these books appear to be 
straightforward descriptions of individuals or groups, I think 
you will find that the other people are described in immedi- 
ate relation to the writer, and that in describing them he is 
working off some unhappiness of his own; is as it were on 
tiptoe, talking to us beyond his century and his circum- 
stances as the great writers of all ages try to do. 

The Life of Johnson has been a booby trap for people of 
every period. Boswell was a great but unhappy man who 
because of his race and upbringing was incapable of living 
up to the 18th-century conception of a gentleman. Even his 
own man-servant reproved him for being so badly educated. 
“ Monsieur has not the manners of a gentleman. His heart 
is too open.” He suffered atrociously from the emotional 
instability of a primitive race brought into contact with a 
civilisation which was perhaps the most stable the world had 
known; his extreme sensibility made him subject to violent 
emotional upheavals which plunged him from one excess into 
another. In him we are always conscious of the screaming 
of the bagpipes, the childlike goodness and the vicious pro- 
pensities, the rapturous affection and unreasonable msiice. 
“ This evening, while some of the tunes of ordinary compos- 
ition were played with no great skill, my frame was agitated, 
and I was conscious of a generous attachment to Dr. John- 
son, as my preceptor and friend, mixed with an affectionate 
r^et that he was an old man, whom I should probably lose 
in a short time. I thor^ht I could defend him at the point 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 45 


of my sword. My reverence and affection for him were in 
full glow,” After reporting fully the remark of Johnson’s 
that a madman loves to be in the company of those he stands 
in awe of, he quite innocently remarks that he himself “ com- 
plained of a wretched changefulness, so that I could not pre- 
serve, for any long continuance, the same views of anything. 
It was most comfortable to me to experience in Dr. John- 
son’s company, a relief from this uneasiness. His steady 
vigorous mind held firm before me those objects which my 
own feeble and tremulous imagination frequently presented 
in such a wavering state that my reason could not judge well 
of them.” His dependence upon Johnson’s balance some- 
times makes us shout with laughter as when he says : “ Even 
the powerful mind of Johnson seemed foiled by futurity.” 

But it is a very shallow amusement to laugh at Boswell 
without realising first that his hysterical emotionalism, of a 
piece with MaePherson’s Ossim, Scott’s wild romanticism 
and the terrifying sentiment of Bums, was part of a wave of 
rebellion which was tossing beneath the whole smooth sur- 
face of 18th-century life and breaking into foam only on 
those wild fringes where the Romans had not left their 
tracks; and secondly, without appreciating the supreme 
artistry with which he uses it. Sometimes he exaggerates it 
deliberately and dramatises himself as freely as he drama- 
tises ‘Johnson, but one should never forget that it is this clash 
of opposites, the reaction upon a quivering sensibility of a 
superbly integrated character which throws that character 
into such startling relief. Johnson, written about in the same 
style by a man of his own type, would never have produced 
a masterpiece. So read it not as the impression left by a 
great man on a little one, but as a portrait of a Roman by a 
Celt, of the i8th century by the century which followed; or 
call it Sense and Sensibility and read it as the masterpiece 
which Jane Austen, because of her partisanship of sense, did 
not succeed in writing. 

Boswell’s Life of Johnson is a strai^e book, but probably 
the strangest book of the period is Saint Simon’s Memoirs of 
the Court of Louis XIV, and I regret that more than a hun- 
dred years after its publication, there is not even a reasonably 
good translation or selection to be had in English — ^not at any 



46 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

rate, within my means. Like Boswell it is one of these 
great capacious comforting books one can fall back on in 
hours of depression. Like Boswell, too, it is sufficiently 
wrong-headed to reassure us about the humanity of the 
writer. Saint Simon drivelling away about the hereditary 
rights of the peerage or the shocking, unheard-of, anarchic 
precedence which the doting King is granting to the royal 
bastards might be Boswell fulminating about the wickedness 
of those who opposed the ancient, honourable, humanitarian 
business of the slave trader. There is even something 
simil ar about the inspiration of the two men. “ I felt a 
pleasure in walking about Derby,” says Boswell, “ such as I 
always have in walking about any town to which I am not 
accustomed. There is an immediate sensation of novelty; 
and one speculates on the way in which life is passed in it, 
which although there is a sameness everywhere upon the 
whole, is yet minutely diversified. The minute diversities in 
every thing are wonderful.” That is Boswell, but it might 
as well be Saint Simon. 

“ I find myself,” he writes, ” between the fear of repeti- 
tiousness and that of not sufficiently explaining in detail 
curious things which we miss in all the histories and almost 
all the memoirs of dffierent periods. One would like to see 
in them princes with their mistresses and their ministers, in 
their everyday life.” There was one very good reason for this 
which Saint Simon knew as well as anyone, and he realised 
that his own memoirs could not appear, if they appeared at 
aU, until after his death. (They were not published until 
after the Revolution.) He was literally writing as a 
dead man, for somebody not yet bom, some serious- 
minded lad like himself who, closmg the history 
book, would cover bis eyes and think (as we have 
most of us thought at one time or another). “But 
I wonder what it was really like?” “ And did yen once see 
Shelley plain?” He dips his pen s^ain and vraites away 
furiously in a string of loosely connected ungrammatietd 
clauses, covering two more sheets vrith a description of the 
agonies suffered by the ladies who travelled with Louis XIV 
because he liked fresh air and objected to women’s causing 
the carriage to halt while they relieved themselves. And at 



TOWARDS AN APPEEaATION OF LITERATURE 47 


once we are in the carriage with these great ladies, rich and 
cultured beyond anything we could imagine, with the great- 
est men in the world for lovers, yet in misery like servant 
girls from the country travelling for the first time by train. 
And Saint Simon, inspired by the thought of those who will 
read the lines after he himself is rotten, adds complacently: 

“ These things which seem to be nothing, and which in fact 
are nothing, are too characteristic to be omitted.” 

“ These things which seem to be nothing and are noth- 
ing” — ^that contains the very essence of Saint Simon; the 
man on tiptoe, the awareness of time to come, the voice we 
hear rather than the voice we overhear. Even French critics, 
usually so discerning, have done small justice to Saint Simon, 
and assume that his fondness for discovering these great 
ladies in distress or chattering oh their close-stools, is some 
sort of schoolboy obsession or inspired by some hatred of 
life like Swift’s; but they forget that the adorable Dauphine 
who skips through his pages like an April day, and whom 
he like all the other courtiers worshipped, is described in 
precisely the same way; and when he has done dissecting her 
features, almost aU but the eyes hideous to our judgment, 
he Will cry out: “ The graces grew of their own accord front 
her every step, her every gesture and her most commonplace 
utterance.” 

He is, of course, one of the best of all gossip writers. Think 
of the glorious fable about the girl queen of Spain who got 
homesick after her marriage and wanted to go home to her 
mother, and Saint Simon’s sardonic amusement at the pro- 
ceedings of the Council of State which was called to consider 
tMs national crisis. But a good story is never enough for 
1^. The root of the matter is in men and women, par- 
ticularly in men with women; and so we get that astounding 
description of the etiquette of the Spanish court, anH begin 
to siKpert with Saint Simon that the whole trend of Spanish 
politics is affected by the fact that the King and Queen, 
apart from the short period allotted each morning to private 
audiences, are always together; even their close-stools are set 
ade by side; or we follow him through the grounds of Marly 
in the train of the King of France and Mme. de Maintenom, 



48 TOWARDS AN APPREQATION OF LITERATURE 

“ The Being often walked in front beside the chair. At every 
moment he took off his hat and stooped to speak to Mme. de 
Maintenon, or reply to her if she spoke to him, which hap- 
pened less frequently, for he always had something to say 
or point out to her. As she feared the air even in the finest, 
calmest weather, she pushed the window sideways each timf? 
' with three fingers and shut it again immediately. Put down 
to look at the new fountain, the same thing took place. 
Sometimes the Dauphine came and perched on one of the 
front poles, but the front window remained always shut. At 
the end of the walk the Bang escorted Mme. de Maintenon 
to a point near the chateau, where he took his leave and 
resumed his walk.” And once more we catch Saint Simon 
on tiptoe, speaking to us across the centuries. “It was a 
sight one could not get used to. These trifles almost always 
escape the memoir writers. Nevertheless, more than any- 
thing else, they give us a precise idea of all that we look for 
in (books), which is the character of what has once existed, 
which is thus shown naturally by the circumstances.” 

For that, after all, is how history is made, ancf not by grave 
decisions taken in- council Spanish etiquette put the com- 
modes of the Bong and Queen side by side, and Louis XIV 
conducted the business of .State in Mme. de Maintenon’s 
apartments of a winter’s evening while she read oc em- 
broidered. 

“ She heard all that passed between the King and the min- 
ister who both spoke in fairly loud voices. She rarely inter- 
rupted, even more rarely did she interrupt with any remark 
of consequence. The King often asked her advice. Then 
she replied with great circumspection. Never, or hardly ever, 
did she appear to set her heart on anything, stiU less, to 
favour anyone; but she was in an understanding with the 
minister who in private dared not refuse anything she asked, 
and even less to fail her in her presence. ... 

That done (an understanding come to between them) the 
minister made a proposal and produced a list of candidates. 
If by chance the King paused at the man whom Mme. de 
Maintenon favoured, the minister left it at that, and acted 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 49 

as thoug^bi they need proceed no further. If the King 
lingered over somebody else, the minister suggested that they 
should first glance over the other names, and then let the 
King give his views, taking advantage of this tb exclude. He 
rarely expressly proposed the man he favoured, but always 
a number, whom he played off one against the other so as 
to confuse the King. Then the King asked his advice, and 
he went through the qualifications of a few, coming to rest 
finally on the man he favoured. The King nearly always 
weighed the matter, and asked Mme. de Maintenon’s opinion. 
She smiled, played the incompetent, sometimes said a word 
for somebody else, and then came back, if she had not already 
done so, to the man whom the minister had recommended, 
and clinched it at that; so much so that three-quarters of the 
favours and appomtments and three-quarters more of the 
remaining quarter, which passed through the hands of min- 
isters workmg in her apartments, were disposed of by her.”^ 

Literattue then has two dimensions, a dimension in time 
which is history, and a dimension in space which is contem- 
porary literature. From the first we derive our standards, 
our sense of what is important and what is of merely tem- 
porary significance, from the other the living impact of con- 
temporary thought which is too confused to allow us to do 
much more than guess at what is important in it and what 
is not, whose writers are people relatively as well as absolutely 
like ourselves, and in whom we do not have to separate 
the incidentals of period, race and profession. Without 
that, I doubt if one can appreciate literature at all. 
One would like to meet Meres, who by 1598 had 
realised that Shakespeare was a writer comparable vrfth the 
greatest of classical times, or even Webster, who in 
1610 was still under the impression that he was a mere 
theatrical hack like Heywood, but spare us from the man 
who knows the wioner after the race is won! Whenever 
you hear somebody say “I really can’t be bothered with 
modem poetry ” or “ 'i^en somebody advises me to read a 
new book I read an old one instead ” it is a safe guess, m 
the absence of further evidence, that this is somebody who is 
incapable of appreciating any literature, new or old; an 



50 TOWARDS AN APPRECMlTION OF LITERATOSE 

antiquarian who likes the element of history in literature for 
its own sake. 

I was still quite a young man when in a Paris bookshop I 
saw a book called In the Shadcio of Young Girls in Flower by 
a writer called Marcel Proust whom I had never heard of. 
I took the book for the sake of the title, but it was months 
before I settled down to read it. My first impression was 
one of intense disappointment. It seemed to have very little 
to do with girls and nothing at all to do with flowers. Then 
suddenly one day I began to be excited by it. I can still 
go through the book and notice the things tMt interested me 
l^en. 

“ StiU Gilbertc did not always return to the Champs Ely- 
sees. Nevertheless, I needed to see her, bcause I could not 
remember even her face. The searching, anxious, exacting 
way in which we look at the woman we love, our cxpectafion 
, of the words which will give or withdraw the hope of a 
meeting next day, and (till the words are uttered) the alterna- 
tive if not actually simultaneous vision of ddi^t or despair 
—all this makes our attention before the beloved too unstable 
to allow it receive a precise image. Perhaps also this 
activity of all the senses together which tries to identify 
something external to themselves by means of the sight alone, 
makes than more indulgent to the thousand forms, the 
savours, the movements of the living woman; when we do 
not love a thing we immobilise it The beloved model, on 
the other hand, moves; we never have anything but |!poiled 
photographs.” 

What was it, this queer sinuous quality, which took some- 
thing a 19th centuiy novelist would have dismissed in 
a line, and dissected and then expanded it into an almost 
indep^ent existence. You couldn’t call it a novel: it ran 
to sixteen volumes, and aU the incident it contained could 
have been adequately dealt with in one. It was nrore like a 
commentary on a novel For instance, a sentence like this 
occrq>ied my mind fmr days. “It is our attention whida 
puts objects into a room, and habit which takes them out 
and leaves space for ourselves there.” Or this: “It 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 5 1 

is always in a temporary state of mind that we take definitive 
resolutions.” Or this: “ One builds one’s life for a woman’s 
sake, and when at last one can receive her there, she does not 
come, and dies so far as oneself is concerned, and then one 
lives on, a prisoner in a house which was intended only for 
her.” 

Even stranger than the form of the book were the 
theories it suggested, and which become clarified in the later 
volumes: that the essential realities of literature are not 
contained in the conscious mind at all, but in the memory 
and the subconscious mind from which the writer dredges 
them. “The artist’s labour, of trying to perceive under 
matter, under experience, under words, something which 
differs from them, is exacdy the inverse labour to that which, 
at every moment when we live diverted from ourselves, self- 
love, passion, intelligence and habit also accomplish in us, 
by heaping above our real impressions to hide them from us 
the names and practical aim s of what we falsely call life.” 

That great book which still delights me as much as it did 
when I first read it was my inseparable companion for 
months. It seemed to summarise and explain many things 
which troubled me in contemporary literature. It com- 
plemented the very different work of James Joyce which in 
those days I read nearly as much. 

Joyce’s^ earlier stories were straightforward imitations of 
naturalistic stories in the manner of Flaubert. Joyce was a 
man with a curiously sensitive ear, and had a terrific tendency 
to parody. For instance, this is how he ends one of his 
stories: “ ‘ What do you think of that, Crofton?’ aied Mr. 
Hency. “ Isn’t that fine? What?” Mx. Crofton said it was 
a very fine piece of writing ” — ^which may or may not remind 
you of Flaubert’s ending to the talc of Herodias “ As it (the 
head) was very heavy, thty carried it turn and turn about.” 

But naturalism has one fatal weakness which shows how 
much it has derived from a painter’s studio. After you have 
described a scene as if it were a leg of mutton, there is 
quite a lot of loose creative stuff hanging about in you, and it 
has a tendency to make the pendulum swing in an alarming 
way. For instance, Ibsen beg^s with a sort of symbolism, 
swings violently in the direction of naturalism and swings 



52 TOWABDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

bade evea more violently into symbolism again. In Flaubert 
it had the effect of driving him to romantic excesses of the 
wildest kind. The form it took in Joyce was autobiography. 
The Portrdt of tke ArUst as a Young Mm is Joyce looking 
back on his chffdhood and boyhood in Dublin. TTie remark- 
able thing about it is that it is not aE written in one style. In 
Joyce’s early work he had shown a reiioarkable aptitude for 
copying the style of another writerj and between the fimt 
drafi^ portion of which has been published under the title of 
Stephen Hero, and the completed version, he had taken the 
fancy to write in a succession of styles which would convey a 
sense of the change from chil&ood into boyhood and 
adolescence. It begins in baby talk, and when Joyce is 
describing himself at the age of ten or twelve he writes in 
the style of a schoolboy’s cs»y. 

“ It was queer they hadn’t given him any medicine. Perhaj® 
Brother Michael would bring it back when he came. They 
said you got stinking stuff to drink when you were in the 
infirmary. But he felt better now than before. It would be 
nice getting better slowly. You could get a book then. 
There was a book in die library about Holland.” 

When he is a few years older and discovers religion for 
the first time, the style is modified again and becomes sickly- 
sweet in the manner of a devotional book for young people. 

“ It was easy to be good. God’s yoke was sweet and light. 
It was better never to have sinned, to have remained always 
a child, for God loved Httle children and suffered them to 
come to Him. It was a terrible and a sad thing to sin. But 
God was merciful to poor sinners who were truly sorry. 
How true that was! That was indeed goodness.” 

After that young Daedalus goes to the university, and the 
style changes to a nauseating mutation of the Pateresque 
prose of the nineties. Notice how the principal words are 
repeated mechanically: touch, touch, touch, touch; woman, 
woman, woman; figure, figure, boy, boy, in a maddenuglly 



TOWARDS AN APPREQATION OF LITERATURE 53 


wearisome way; yet in its place in the book this passage does 
give us a sense of the sick sentimentality of adolescence. 

“The soft beauty of the Latin word touched with an 
enchanting touch the dark of the evening, with a touch fainter 
and more persuading than the touch of music or of a 
woman’s hand. The strife of their minds was quelled. The 
figure of a woman as she appears in the liturgy of the church 
passed silently through the darkness: a white-robed figure, 
small and slender as a boy, and with a falling girdle. Her 
voice, frail and high as a boy’s, was heard intoning from a 
distant choir the &st words of a woman which pierce the 
gloom and clamour of the first chanting of the Passion: 
Et iu cum Jesu Galilaao eras. 

And aU hearts were touched and turned to her voice, 
shining like a young star, shining clearer as the voice intoned 
the proparoxyton and more faintly as the cadence died.” 

But it was not so much that book, thot^h I must have 
read it scores of times, which really excited my 
generation. Ulysses opened up a new world to us. 
It is the story of one day in the life of two Dubliners: 
Daedalus, the hero of Portrait of the Artist, and a Jew called 
Bloom, Both are lonely; Stephen Daedalus has lost his 
region and left his famfiy; Bloom has lost his son and his 
wife is unfaithful to him. They are followed all day in their 
wanderings; at times they almost meet. They meet at night 
in a brothel, and when Daedalus gets involved in a brawl 
with two drunken English soldiers, the Jew forgets himself 
and calls “ Stephen! ” The whole vast book is centred about 
that one word which passes unnoticed both by Bloom and 
Stephen; and when it has been spoken the two men b egin to 
drift apart again; the world turns towards morning, and their 
essential solitude is resumed. 

Because Bloom made Joyce think of Ulysses in the Greek 
epic, the whole story is made to fit iuto the framework of 
the Odyssey, and the various episodes of the poem have th ei r 
counterparts in the book. The Lotus Eaters has its counter- 
part in the Turkish Baih; Hades in Glasnevin Cemetery. 
The style of each episode is varied to correspond with the 



54 TOWARDS AN APPKECIATION OF LmSRATDRE 

subject. In the episode in the lying-in hospital the birth of a 
child is represented by a series of parodies of English prose 
from its earliest example to the present day — an elaboration 
of the trick he had used in Portrait of the Artist, Proteus takes 
place on Sandymount Strand, and as sand is itself an image 
of char^, the style drifts along, mirroring change in every 
form. 

“ In long lassoes from the Cockle Lake the water flowed 
full, covering green-goldenly lagoons of sand, rising, flowing. 
My ashplant will float away. I shall wait. .No, they will pass 
on, passing chafing against the low rocks, swirling, passing. 
Better get this job over quick. Listen: a four-worded wave- 
speech: seesoo, hrss, rseiss, oos. Vehement breath of 
waters and seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks 
it slops, slop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. ,And spent, 
its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating 
foampool, flower unfiirling.” . 

Even more fantastic in conception and style was Joyce’s 
last work, Finnegan*s Wake, which I cannot read now, but 
which delated me when it fimt began to appear. The 
hero of this (at least, so we are told) is a Dublin publican 
with his wife, two sons and a daughter (though these, too, 
we must tsd:e on trust &om those who have had it from the 
stables because we never meet them). The hero has fallen 
asleep before the book opens, and in his dreams imagines 
himself to be Dublin, his wife the River Liffey, his sons the 
North Side and South Side, the respectable and Bohmian 
extremes of the city. He has, it seems, bem flitting with a 
nursemaid, and is actually tried by a court consisting of the 
Four Evangelists and the Twelve Apmdes. There arc no 
characters, merely principles; men are earth and women 
water, and they change Aeir shapes and relive mythology 
and Wstory. Ulysses was based on the Odyssey. This is 
based on the philosophy of Vico, a form of the cyclic theory 
of civilisation. The Ihunder b^ins it; civilisation begins 
mth religion, and works through various phases till it has 
completed its drcle and then reverts. It is the same theory 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 55 

which inspires Yeats’ later poetry. “ All things fall and 
are built again;” 

Man’s life is thought. 

And he, despite his terror, cannot cease. 

Ravening through century after century. 

Ravening, raging and uprooting tiiat he may come 
Into the desolation of reality. 

The style is as abnormal as the edneeption, because 
almost every word and sentence is distorted as it is in dreams 
in which we can dream the word “ umbrella ” ■ and know 
perfeedy well that it really means “ whiskey ”, some censor 
of the soul having endeavoured to conceal from us the fact 
that we like whiskey. In Joyce the inflecdon of a word may 
mean that, or it may mean that the dreamer is thinking of a 
previous existence in which he was St. Michael the Archangel 
or Dean Swift. 

There was a third writer who had the same sort of 
influence on my generation as Proust and Joyce. That was 
D. H. Lawrence. Like Joyce, he began as a story-teller in 
the old. sense of the word, and from the purely literary 
point of view, never again wrote anythii^ so good as his first 
important novel. Sons and ^Lovers. His later works are 
prophetic and religious. Lawrence has some quality which 
is very difficult to define, some extreme sensitiveness to 
nature and the forces of nature. He could describe people 
in a field, and the people would be shadows, but the field 
would be a personality. As primitive people have faculties 
sharper than ours, Lawrence seems to have had an extra- 
ordinary sense of the natural powers flowii^ through life, 
obstructed by man-made notions and creeds. Ultimately, his 
was the revolt of the senses against the mind , against 
knowledge in any rational form, and a reversion to sheer 
animal instinct. It is probably useless to try to formulate 
such a creed in words because there are no words to 
adumbrate it. Nor was Lawrence the patient sort of writer 
who sits for days in agony waiting for an equivalent image to 
form in his mind. The creative impulse flowed throu g h him 



56 TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 

continuously, and poured out of him in ^avel sketches, 
stories and poems in which places, people, and incidents are 
caricatured in impatient, sometimes hysterical lat^age, yet 
even at his most outrageous, we never feel he is talking 
nonsense. We feel, as we often feel with dreams, that the 
creative impulse has been trying to say something to us, and 
that nothing is wrong but tie words. 

But the fact that these three writers were the most 
representative and influential of their time shows just how far 
the world of the 19th-century novel had been shaken. 
Each of them instead of dealing with the social reality was 
digging away at its roots; each of them instead of writing 
novels was writing autobiography of one sort or another. 
There were other important writers like Virginia Woolf in 
England and Kafka in Germany who were doing the same 
sort of thing in slightly different ways, and wherever a 
novelist tried to write the 19th century type of novel, 
as Gakworthy did in The Forsythe Saga, it seemed incredibly 
meaningless and old-fashioned. It bore the same relation to 
living literature as Drinkwater’s “ Fve never been to Mamble 
that lies upon the Teme” bore to Eliot’s ugly powerful 
poetry. 

What had happened to make Galsworthy seem old- 
fashioned? I think much the same sort of thing that 
happened to make i8th century poetry seem old- 
fashioned to our grandfathers, but on a far greater scale. The 
rule of the middle classes liberated certain forces which 
hadn’t been calculated on. Countrysides were drained of 
life and cities expanded with a vast army of people who had 
lost their traditional life and had not found a civilised one to 
replace it. Scientific discovery went on, and faced with dis- 
tances and periods of time which staggered the human 
inuigination, traditional belief declined. Even in Madame 
Bomry we can see the writer’s sensitive nature withdrawing 
from contact with this ubiquitous crude humanity without 
any rich interior life, wi&out even the instinct which 
enables the bird to build its nest. It is at this point that we 
begin to perceive the rent in our civilisation; ei&er the mind 
turns inwards looking for the richness it has lost, which pro- 
duces autobiographical writing, or it looks at the bank 



TOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF LITERATURE 57 


holiday crowd with distasteful objectivity. Ulysses rombines 
the two, the iatrospection of Stephen Daedalus and the 
spiritual emptiness of Mr. Bloom. 

“ Never know any thing about it Waste of time. Gasballs 
spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old ding- 
dong always. Gas, then solid, then world, then cold, then 
dead shell drifting roimd, frozen rock like diat pineapple 
rock.” 

That, of course, is not only the Little Man, but Joyce him- 
self and all of us. 

“ He must be fed up with that job, shaking that 
thing over aU the corpses they trot up. What harm 
if he could see what he was shaking it over. Every 
mortal day a fresh batch: middle-aged men, old women, 
children, women dead in childbirth, men with beards, bald- 
headed business men, consumptive girls with little sparrows' 
breasts. All the year round he prayed the same thing over 
them all and shook water on top of them : sleep. On Dignam 
now . — In paradisum. Said he was going to paradise or is in 
paradise. Says that over everybody. Tiresome kind of job. 
But he^ias to say something.” 

What can one do with the Little Man? We see some 
novelists in a fury of rage turning to Catholicism, and 
Graham Greene makes his hero of a murderer who is also 
a pious Catholic. Far better to be a murderer, and damn your 
soul consistently and burn forever in Hell than believe that 
“it’s only gasballs spinning about. Same old ding-dong.” 
Others turn Communist — ^the Little Man is very susceptible 
to organisation; all he wants is to be told what to do. Not 
having any soul to damn he can be killed off in very large 
numbers as required — ^Kulaks, Communists, Japanese — ^the 
atomic bomb is a notable addition to the list of valuable 
scientific discoveries and will shortly make it impossible for 
the Litde Man to live in cities at all. 

Ravening, raging and uprooting that he may come 
Into the desolation of reality. 



58 TOWARDS AN APPRECUTION OF LITERATURE 

But this, after all, is a book about literature, not about 
philosophy, and you do not want to know whether I think 
the solution is in authoritarianism or in Communism, or 
whether I believe v?ith Yeats that a qrde of life is over and 
a new Dark Age beginning. If I have introduced all these 
disturbing ideas, it is only because literature is communication, 
and while it lifts the burden of solitude and puts us in contaa 
with other minds, it puts us in contact with their doubts and 
fears as well as veith their pleasures and hopes.