Project Canterbury

Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905


HAVING had the other evening to attend, from a sense of duty, a meeting which was held in the Old Lecture Theatre in Cannon Street, and the meeting being of the usual heavy and oppressive nature, and moreover being addressed by sundry "intelligent mechanics"--thereby impressing you with a healthy horror of democratic parliaments--I occupied myself during most of the time in following the train of thought suggested by the room itself. There is perhaps no place in Birmingham which should inspire such feelings of respect. I am not aware of the exact date of its erection, or whether the earliest followers of Science and Literature met within its walls--the Priestleys, the Daltons, the Huttons, the Schimmelpennincks, and the Galtons; but whether this was the case or not, it was the society founded and encouraged by them who did so, and who kept alive for many years in Birmingham whatever was calculated to wean the mind from vulgarity and sordid pursuits. But to my own mind this room has an interest still more particular and attractive. I will not say that it was here that I first contracted a fondness for reading, but it certainly was here--and I can recall the very evening--that I first saw something of the delightful possibilities of "Literature" properly so-called. Very few in this room perhaps will remember the course of lectures on History, or the Philosophy of History, delivered some twelve or fourteen years ago by a gentleman of the name of Lord, but if there are any, they will thank me for recalling to their minds a very pleasant remembrance. I have no recollection who he was, nor where he came from, but his lectures impressed those who heard him, many of whom were then very young, in a remarkable way. Following the pleasing thoughts which the remembrance of these bygone years suggested, I naturally connected them with the past of our Essay Meeting, associated with such thoughts in the minds of all of us; and the urgent necessity of producing a paper at this meeting, combined with a sincere wish to contribute, in however slight a degree, to the prosperity of its future, is the occasion of the present essay.

Literary societies like ours, which combine the social with the intellectual element, are exposed to peculiar dangers and causes of decay. The intellectual element in them is narrowed to one phase, and that a somewhat peculiar one--pure literature. Societies formed for some express study or the attainment of some particular art, as geology, natural history, bibliography, music, painting, etc., being simple in their object, live or die with that object alone. So long as any meet for the pursuit of that object, their end is obtained; if none meet, the society is at an end, and no more is to be said about it. Besides, their object is a tangible one, and no one who is not interested in that object is attracted to the society. With us it is very different. The social pleasures of our society afford attractions when the intellectual have been forgotten or overlooked; technical (or, as I have ventured to call them, tangible) subjects are unsuited to our meetings; and that which is suited--pure literature, which is what all our essays aim at--is of all kinds of writing the most rare in any degree above mediocrity. I have always asserted that to compose an essay at once first-class and still exactly suited to the idea of the Essay Meeting is the most difficult of attainments. In the abstract, like most abstractions, Literature is not easy of definition--of one, at any rate, which will distinguish it from mere style; for every conceivable subject of literature may be classed under some science or other, and if you exclude all these, you leave her nothing but a mere arrangement of words. I was inclined to define it as all writing which appeals to the heart and not to the head, but such a definition would be onesided and derogatory to literature; and though I might call it Science displayed attractively, which I believe to be very nearly an exact definition, the word "attractively" is liable to be misunderstood. Perhaps the exactest definition of all would be, that science which treats of the effect of the contact of human nature with matter, for all literature is instinctively human, and every one will agree that no writing was ever called, or thought of, as literature, which has not individual human feelings as its centre. But, on the whole, I prefer, as most simple, the former definition, viz. Science, by which I mean every conceivable subject of interest to mankind, written attractively. And here we see at once why excellence in literature is so rare, and why, to speak colloquially, our Essay Meetings "come to grief," for to write or speak attractively is the rarest and most precious gift of a beneficent God.

Whether this is true of literature or not, it is certain that it is true as a definition of what is required of our essays; for it is laid upon us, as a necessity of our existence, that we must be attractive, and woe be to us if we fail! What a terrible burden, then, is this, especially if we consider the variety of taste! What are we to do to become attractive to a room full of people, many of whom avowedly attend the Essay Meeting chiefly for its social element? I can think of but one way of getting anything like an answer to this question. I will state my view of what is attractive in literature, and the Essay Meeting will be good enough to declare whether it is of the same opinion or not; we shall then at least have some standard to set before us, some mark to aim at, and some example to follow. But at the outset it is necessary to discriminate. Mankind is divided into two distinct classes, Personalists and Impersonalists (something in the way of abstract and concrete). The Personalists take little interest in anything which does not relate in some plain way to individual human life, and to the senses and emotions which make up that life. The Impersonalists, on the other hand, delight in nothing but the consideration of abstract phenomena (if the phrase may be allowed), which have no connection, or at least a very remote one, with human life. I give these people up: nothing that I can say can ever possibly be attractive to them; and if there are any such in the room they are requested not to vote.

If we agree in the attraction to a personal interest, our idea of attractiveness in a writer will probably be something like this, that it is his duty, in what he writes, to aim at setting his subject vividly before the reader, in such a way as to awaken his interest in it as a thinking human being in whose common nature author, subject, and reader are united, the first and last absolutely, and the second either absolutely or relatively, as the case may be. To do this the writer must know an immense deal more than he absolutely writes: he must not only have mastered the subject on which he writes, but he must have mastered every other subject which in the remotest way relates to or has any influence upon it--mastered it, that is, as far as it is necessary to understand its influence on his own more particular subject. By all this knowledge he forms in his own mind a perfect image of the subject he wishes to describe; so that, out of the fulness and completeness of his conception of it, he conveys to the reader, if not as complete a conception as he has himself, still as complete a one as the nature of the case renders possible or necessary. If, for instance, he is writing history, every other science--philosophy, topography, biography, natural history--all throw their particular light, all bring their especial assistance to the subject, and it is only rearranging the order of the sciences, and you may go through the whole list, with as many different changes as there are worlds. Unless the historian does this, he produces indeed a number of phantoms gliding dimly about, but he inspires no interest in the breast of his reader in the story he relates; unless a writer on natural history does this, he becomes a mere compiler of catalogues, and by his intolerable weariness disgusts his reader with the science he wishes him to study; unless a writer on philosophy does this, he becomes a mere theorist, and the influence his book would otherwise exert is lost as soon as it is read; unless a preacher does this, as he very seldom does, the Divine Story which he tries to tell is listened to but as an idle tale worthily forgotten as soon as heard. This is why novels and tales are so attractive and so much read, because, whatever else they may do, they fulfil from their very nature this requirement, which, in every other branch of bookcraft, the deepest study can scarcely accomplish. They go straight to the heart of the reader; they appeal to that common instinct which he possesses as one of a united family, in which " one touch of Nature has made the whole world kin." If they do not do this, they are worthless and are never read; but being by their very nature simply relations of the experiences and sorrows of our fellow human beings, they can scarcely, except from the grossest stupidity, fail of touching some recollection, or some affection, or some sorrow, which the influence of Time and of the nobler feelings has made dearer to the heart than life itself. But you will ask, How is this art to be obtained? First, I suppose, by the possession of some native aptitude; but chiefly, I am certain, by the hardest and most patient labour--a labour which despises nothing, which is daunted by nothing, which a love of the pursuit it is engaged in carries over every obstacle and through every discouragement; a patience which is untired by the drudgery of working through uncongenial and seemingly irrelevant sciences for the sake of the light which here and there they shed on the subject on which you are engaged; a patience which carries you through that laborious formation of style, that profuse blotting, that writing and rewriting, without which no author can expect to obtain that mastery over his language which alone will render his style attractive. How is it possible, then, that a society like ours, composed of members whose lives are given to pursuits the reverse of all this, can ever accomplish such labours--ever accomplish, that is, what it was avowedly established to perform? And does it not seem more than probable that a society formed for such lofty aims must be content to go on in future, as it has gone on for a considerable part of its existence, drinking tea, and eating " trifle" and bread and butter? Or shall we at last be constrained to think as the Roman satirist thought--

Ludisti satis, edisti satis, atque bibisti;
Tempus abire tibi est!

Of course, it will be said that much can be done without attaining to such altitudes as these, but without some such standard as this before us nothing will be done. There was a sentence we learnt at school, of which (as an erudite schoolfellow used to say) "I forget the Latin," but which was to the effect that there is no fruit without labour; and how can there be labour without some stimulus, and how can there be a stimulus without some noble and attractive goal--very far off, alas, but to some natures not the less of a stimulus for that? And, moreover, let us never forget that not one particle of all this effort is thrown away. We have said that all the sciences blend with and assist each other, and it is the greatest proof of the truth of our theory that all these sciences and all these pursuits blend into one common sense, one master principle, which at once assists and is assisted by them. It is the great fault of pure reason, and of its modern followers, that they pursue but one object, blinding themselves to every other (so that in these enlightened days it is no absurdity to describe a man whose sole objects of belief are two or three flint axes dug up some dozen feet below the drift); whereas all that makes a man combine in his mind more ideas than one, more sciences than one, more conceptions of the appearances of things than one, elevates him in the scale of existence, carries him nearer to his Creator, and disposes him to listen to that system, catholic over nature as over the human race, which has for its centre the All-creating Word; for the more we realise, by every branch of learning, and by every effort of our intellect, the external appearance of the Life of Christ, the more we picture to ourselves, by the aid of natural history, of topography, or of archaeology, the progress of that life, so much the more we shall discover the master principle, the summum bonum, of the ancients, in which all wisdom is contained. Across the long and dreary ages of strife and sin and doubt, the echoes of this life come to us with the sweetness of some half-caught melody from another world; "a dew, like that of Hermon, preventing drought and barrenness from entirely invading the field of God"; from the lake shores of Galilee, with the waves rippling on their flower-enamelled banks; from that pastoral life of peace and of a purity which we can never understand, in one unbroken path of beneficence (thanks to which the dullest existence has ever after had its glimpse of heaven); through the crowds of city and religious life; in contact with every grade of human society, from the centurion in his gorgeous Roman uniform to the outcast publican; through the judgment hall of Pilate to the felon's cross and the heretic's grave. And the more our learning enables us to see all the various points of view, and all the lights and shadows of this picture of Our Lord, and to appreciate its relative position in the history of our race, the more we shall feel that we have not lost our labour, if it has enabled us to realise, more fully perhaps than we otherwise should, the highest possibilities of that human nature which it is our overwhelming responsibility to share with Him.

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