Some Ways of Studying Literature

I. The Nature and Elements of Literature. What is Literature ? — Literature and Life — The Impulses behind Literature—The Themes of Literature — The Classification of Literature — The Elements of Literature. II. Literature as an Expression of Perso­nality. The Principle of Sincerity — The Man in the Book. III. The Study of an Author. Reading and Study — The Reading of Books and the Study of Authors — The Chronological Method of Study­ing an Author — The Comparative Method. IV. Biography. Its Abuse — And Use — The Need of Sympathy. V. The Study of Style as an Index of Personality. The Personal Interest of Style.

However loosely employed, the word literature commonly carries with it, alike in the language of criticism and in that of everyday intercourse, a clear suggestion of delimitation ; in the one case as in the other a distinction is implied between books which in the literary sense are books, and those which in the same sense are not. But where is the boundary-line to be drawn? The moment that question is raised our difficulties begin. In many instances there is, of course, no room for discussion. We should all agree about the place to which, for example, a railway guide or a manual of cookery, Paradise Lost or Sartor Resartus should respectively be assigned. But as we approach the border-country from either side we pass into the region of uncertainty ; and with this uncertainty the controversy as to the exact definition of literature commences. Shall we follow Charles Lamb, who (half humorously, it is true) narrowed the conception of literature to such an extent that he excluded the works of Hume, Gibbon, and Flavius Josephus, together with directories, almanacks, and “draught-boards bound and lettered on the back” ? Shall we adopt the view of Hallam, who, under the general head of literature, comprised jurisprudence, theology, and medicine ? Or, if Lamb seems to err on the one side and Hallam on the other, where between these two extremes is any just mean to be found ? These are questions to which no final answer has yet been given, and it is fortunate therefore that they need not detain us here. We shall get what for our purposes should be an idea of literature at once sufficiently broad and sufficiently accurate if we lay stress upon two considerations. Literature is composed of those books, and of those books only, which, in the first place, by reason of their subject-matter and their mode of treating it, are of general human interest ; and in which, in the second place, the element of form and the pleasure which form gives are to be regarded as essential. A piece of literature differs from a specialised treatise on astronomy, political economy, philosophy, or even history, in part because it appeals, not to a particular class of readers only, but to men and women as men and women; and in part because, while the object of the treatise is simply to impart knowledge, one ideal end of the piece of literature, whether it also imparts knowledge or not, is to yield aesthetic satisfaction by the manner in which it handles its theme.
The study of literature, as thus conceived, is as far as possi­ble removed both from the academic formalism and from the dilettante trifling, with one or other of which it has, in popular thought, been too often associated. Why do we care for literature ? We care for literature primarily on account of its deep and lasting human significance. A great book grows directly out of life ; in reading it, we are brought into large, close, and fresh relations with life ; and in that fact lies the final explanation of its power. Literature is a vital record of what men have seen in life, what they have experienced of it, what they have thought and felt about those aspects of it which have the most immediate and enduring interest for all of us. It is thus fundamentally an expression of life through the medium of language. Such expression is fashioned into the various forms of literary art, and these in themselves will, in their proper place and time, enlist the attention of the student. But it is important to understand, to begin with, that literature lives by virtue of the life which it embodies. By remembering this, we shall be saved from the besetting danger of confounding the study of literature with the study of philology, rhetoric, and even literary technique.
To say that literature grows directly out of life is of course to say that it is in life itself that we have to seek the sources of literature, or, in other words, the impulses which have given birth to the various forms of literary expression. The classification of literature, therefore, is not conventional nor arbitrary. What we call the formal divisions of literature must be translated into terms of life, if we would understand how they originated, and what meaning they still have for us.
The great impulses behind literature may, I think, be grouped with accuracy enough for practical purposes under four heads : (1) our desire for self-expression ; (2) our interest in people and their doings ; (3) our interest in the world of reality in which we live, and in the world of imagination which we conjure into existence ; and (4) our love of form as form. We are strongly impelled to confide to others what we think and feel ; hence the literature which directly expresses the thoughts and feelings of the writer. We are intensely interested in men and women, their lives, motives, passions, relationships ; hence the literature which deals with the great drama of human life and action. We are fond of telling others about the things we have seen or imagined; hence the literature of description. And, where the aesthetic impulse is present at all, we take a special satisfaction in the mere shaping of expression into forms of beauty ; hence the very existence of literature as art. Man, as we are often reminded, is a social animal; and as he is thus by the actual constitution of his nature unable to keep his experiences, observations, ideas, emotions, fancies, to himself, but is on the contrary under stress of a constant desire to impart them to those about him, the various forms of literature are to be regarded as only so many channels which he has opened up for himself for the discharge of his sociality through media which in themselves testify to his paramount desire to blend expression with artistic creation. Moreover, these impulses behind literature explain not only the evolution of the various forms of literature, but also our interest (for this is merely the reverse side of the same matter) in such forms. If we are constrained to make others the confidants of our thoughts and feelings, experiences, observations, imaginings, we are glad to listen while others tell us of theirs, especially when we are aware that the range of their commerce with life, the depth of their insight or passion, their power of expression, or all these things combined, will render their utterances of unusual interest and value ; while our own delight in artistic beauty will make us readily responsive to the beauty in which a master-artist embodies what he has to say.
Of these four impulses, the last named, being a factor common to all kinds of literature, may for the moment be disregarded ; for purposes of classification the other three alone count. Now, it is evident that these three impulses continually merge together in life. In describing what we have seen or imagined, for example, we are almost certain to express a great deal of our own thought and feeling ; and again, any kind of narrative will be found almost necessarily to involve more or less description. As these impulses merge together in life, so they will merge together in literature, with the result that the different divisions of literature which spring from them will inevitably overlap. We simply distinguish them one from another, therefore—the lyric poem from the epic the drama from the descriptive essay, and so on—as one or another of the generative impulses seems to predominate. It is in this way that we obtain a basis of classification.
It is, however, a basis only. To make our survey even approximately complete, we must go farther, and consider not only the impulses which produce literature, but also the subjects with which it deals. These, being almost as varied as life itself (for there is little in life which may not be made a theme for literature), may at first sight appear to defy any attempt to reduce them to systematic statement. But—still having regard only to practical purposes—we may perhaps venture to arrange them into five large groups : (1) the personal experiences of the individual as individual—the things which make up the sum-total of his private life, outer and inner ; (2) the experiences of man as man— those great common questions of life and death, sin and destiny, God, man’s relation with God, the hope of the race here and hereafter, and the like—which transcend the  limits  of the   personal lot, and belong to the race as a whole ; (3) the relations of the individual with his fellows, or the entire social world, with all its activities and problems ; (4) the external world of nature, and our relations with this ; and (5) man’s own efforts to create and express under the various forms of literature and art. Looking at literature in the light of this analysis, and considering only the character of its subjects, we may thus distinguish five classes of production : the literature of purely personal experience ; of the common life of man as man ; of the social world under all its different aspects ; the literature which treats of nature ; and the literature which treats of literature and art.
By combining the results of these two lines of analysis, we get a fairly comprehensive scheme of classification, and one which, as will be seen, has the advantage of resting upon natural foundations. We have, first, the literature of self-expression, which includes the different kinds of lyric poetry, the poetry of meditation and argument, and the elegy ; the essay and treatise where these are written from the personal point of view ; and the literature of artistic and literary criticism. We have, secondly, the literature in which the writer, instead of going down into himself, goes out of himself into the world of external human life and activity ; and this includes history and biography, the ballad and the epic, the romance in verse and prose, the story in verse and prose, the novel and the drama. And, thirdly, we have the literature of description, not in itself a large or important division, since description in literature is ordinarily associated with, and for the most part subordinated to, the interests of self-expression or narrative, but comprising in the book of travel, and the descriptive essay and poem, some fairly distinct minor forms of literary art.
Thus the various forms of literary expression fall into their places as natural results of common human impulses working themselves out under the conditions of art ; and when we remember the great principle that a piece of literature appeals to us only when it calls into activity in us the same powers of sympathy and imagination as went to its making, the interest which such forms have for us is also explained.
It should further be   noted,   among   the   preliminaries of our study, that in all these divisions certain elements of composition are always present. There is in the first place, of course, the elements furnished by life itself, which constitute the raw material of any piece of literature—poem, essay, drama, novel. Then there are the elements contributed by the author in his fashioning of such raw material into this or that form of literary art. These may be roughly tabulated under four heads. First, there is the intellectual element—the thought which the writer brings to bear upon his subject, and which he expresses in his work. Secondly, there is the emotional element—the feeling (of whatever kind) which his subject arouses in him and which in turn he desires to stimulate in us. Thirdly, there is the element of imagination (including its lighter form which we call fancy), which is really the faculty of strong and intense vision, and by the exercise of which he quickens a similar power of vision in ourselves. These elements combine to furnish the substance and the life of literature. But however rich may be the materials yielded by experience, however fresh and strong may be the writer’s thought, feeling, and imagination, in dealing with them, another factor is wanting before his work can be completed. The given matter has to be moulded and fashioned in accordance with the principles of order, symmetry, beauty, effectiveness ; and thus we have a fourth element in literature—the technical element, or the element of composition and style.
It has been necessary to touch upon these somewhat abstract considerations in order to clear the way for what is to follow. We may now pass directly to matters of more immediate importance to the student, whose business is not with the theory of literature, but with literature itself.
If literature be at bottom an expression of life, and if it be by virtue of the life which it expresses that it makes its special appeal, then the ultimate secret of its interest must be sought in its essentially personal character. Literature, according to Matthew Arnold’s much-discussed definition, is a criticism of life ; but   this   can   mean   only   that   it   is an interpretation of life as life shapes itself in the mind of the interpreter. It is with the critic or interpreter, therefore, that we have first to do. The French epigram hits the mark—”Art is life seen through a tem­perament,” for the mirror which the artist holds up to the world about him is of necessity the mirror of his own personality. The practical bearings of this fundamental truth must be carefully noted.
A great book is born of the brain and heart of its author ; he has put himself into its pages ; they partake of his life, and are instinct with his individuality. It is to the man in the book, therefore, that to begin with we have to find our way. We have to get to know him as an individual. To establish personal inter­course with our books in a simple, direct, human way, should thus be our primary and constant purpose. We want first of all to become, not scholars, but good readers ; and we can become good readers only when we make our reading a matter of close and sympathetic companionship. “Personal experience,” it has been rightly said, “is the basis of all real literature” ; and to enter into such personal experience, and to share it, is similarly the basis of all real literary culture. A great book owes its greatness in the first instance to the greatness of the personality which gave it life ; for what we call genius is only another name for freshness and originality of nature, with its resulting freshness and originality of outlook upon the world, of insight, and of thought. The mark of a really great book is that it has something fresh and original to say, and that it says this in a fresh and independent way. It is the utterance of one who has himself been close to those aspects of life of which he speaks, who has looked at them with his own eyes, who by the keenness of his vision has seen more deeply into things, and by the strength of his genius has apprehended their meaning more powerfully than the common race of men; and who in addition has the artist’s wonderful faculty of making us see and feel with him. “A good book,” as Milton finely says in words which, however hackneyed, can hardly be too often repeated, “is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” To throw open our whole nature to the quickening influence of such a master-spirit, to let his life-blood flow freely into our veins, is the preliminary step in literary culture—the final secret of all profitable reading.
It is important, then, that in all our dealings with books we should distinguish between what Carlyle calls the “genuine voices” and the mere “echoes”—between the men who speak for themselves and those who speak only on the report of others. “I have read,” wrote Charlotte Bronte of Lewes’s Ranthorpe, “a new book ; not a reprint, not a reflection of any other book, but a new book.” Charlotte Bronte clearly recognised the distinction upon which we are now insisting. We are not in the least obliged to despise the echoes and the reprints, or to say hard and contemptuous things of them, as is sometimes done; for provided they be good of their kind, they have their place and usefulness. But to safeguard ourselves against erroneous estimates, it is necessary to keep well in mind the essential difference between the literature which draws its life directly from personality and experience, and that which draws its life mainly at second hand from contact with the personality and experience of others. The literature which, in Turgenev’s phrase, “smells of literature,” is always to be classed below that which carries with it the native savour of life itself ; and it is not with the bookish books of the world, no matter how great their technical excellence, but with those which are fullest of original vitality, that we are chiefly concerned.
Involved in this, yet calling for separate emphasis, is the great principle, first enunciated by Plato, that the foundation of all good and lasting work in literature is entire sincerity to oneself, to one’s own experience of life, and to the truth of things as one is privileged to see it—that very quality of sincerity which was, it will be remembered, for Carlyle the essence of all heroic greatness. “C’est moi qui ai vécu,” wrote Alfred de Musset. The words may seem commonplace enough, but how many of us could honestly say as much ? “The value of the tidings brought by literature,” as George Henry Lewes rightly insists, “is determined by their authenticity…..We cannot demand from every man that he have unusual depth of insight or exceptional experience ; but we demand of him that he give us of his best, and his best cannot be another’s.” We can thus see why men who speak frankly for themselves in literature have always a chance of being listened to, while others of perhaps greater natural power wider culture, and far more accomplished art, but of less candour and directness of utterance, are passed over or quickly forgotten. It is always a sure sign of literary decadence in individual or age when this preference is not shown. Without sincerity, no vital work in literature is possible ; and “that virtue of originality that men so
strive after,” as Ruskin says, “is not newness……it is only genuineness.” Readers of Kingsley will remember how Alton Locke’s first attempt at poetry took the shape of a South Sea Romance compounded of
Childe Harold and the old missionary records, and how Sandye Mackaye, with a contemptuous “What do ye ken about Pacifies ? Are ye a cockney or a Cannibal Islander ?” took the would-be poet on a tour of inspection through Clare Market and St Giles’s, on a foul, chilly Saturday night, showed him something of the actual tragedy of London’s misery and sin, and at each new revelation of its horrors advised him curtly to “write anent that.” The principle that, whether his range of experience and personal power be great or small, a man should write of that which lies at his own doors, should make it his chief business to report faithfully of what he has lived, seen, thought, felt, known, for himself, is one which the student of literature can never afford to lose sight of. The cleverness and brilliancy of many books which have not this essential quality of genuineness will often tempt him to neglect it. But the truth remains that the value of literature is in the measure of its authenticity.
Our study of literature thus begins in a very simple and humble way. We take a great book, and we try to penetrate as deeply as we can into its personal life. We make our reading of it, to the fullest extent possible to us, a matter of actual intercourse between its author and ourselves. We listen attentively to what he has to tell us, and we do our best to enter sympathetically into his thought and feeling. We note carefully how he looked at life, what he found in it, what he brought away from it. We observe how the world of experience impressed him, and how it is interpreted through his personality.
We become  familiar with  his character and outlook,  his  strength and weakness, his very accent, as we become familiar with the character, outlook, strength, weakness, accent, of those with whom we talk in the flesh. We get to know the man as the man reveals himself in what he has written. The book lives for us in all the potency of his individuality.
This, then, is our starting-point—the first step, as I have said, in the cultivation of the habit of good and profitable reading. And if it is objected that this is, indeed, an obvious view of literary culture, and one so generally recognized that there is no need to labour it, my reply is, that this is precisely one of those commonplaces of theory which we are only too apt to leave unutilized in practice. The moment we begin to talk about the systematic study of literature the tendency sets in to think of something formal and pedantic, and to substitute for the true ideal of intimate and sympathetic intercourse the academic ideal of mere scholarship ; it comes to be regarded as our main business, not to know our books in the sense in which we here speak of knowing them, but rather to know, down to the minutest particulars, everything that patient erudition and elaborate criticism have accumulated or found to say about them—a very different thing. Hence the necessity of dwelling even at some length upon this primary conception of good reading as fundamentally a direct contact between mind and mind, and of insisting that all other aspects of literary study are supplemental to, and not substitutes for, it.
With this conception before us, we can realize from yet another point of view, the vital relations of literature and life. What George Eliot said of art in general is specially true of the art of literature : it “is the nearest thing to life ; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” Thus literature makes us partakers in a life larger, richer, and more varied than we ourselves can ever know of our own individual knowledge ; and it does this, not only because it opens up new fields of experience and new lines of thought and speculation, but also, and even more notably, because it carries us beyond the pinched and meagre humanity of our everyday round of existence into contact with those fresh, strong, and magnetic personalities who have embodied themselves in the world’s great books.
Taking this as our point of departure, we must next seek to make our reading at once broader and more systematic. Between the mere reader of books and the student of literature the essential difference is not to be sought, as I am afraid it is very often sought, in the supposed fact that the one enjoys his reading and the other does not. The true difference is this, that the one reads in a haphazard and desultory way, while the other’s reading is organised according to some regular order or plan. So long as we simply take a book here and a book there, as chance or the whim of the hour may dictate, we are merely readers. It is only when we introduce method into our reading that we become students.
Obviously, our most natural course is to pass directly from the reading of books to the study of authors. Our first aim being, as we have said, to establish personal relations with a man in his work, we begin by devoting ourselves to some one or other of his writings which may have a special kind of interest for us. But as students we cannot rest here. We want to realise the man’s genius, so far as this is possible, in its wholeness and variety ; and to this end we have to consider his works, not separately, but in their relations with one another, and thus with the man himself, the growth of his mind, the changes of his temper and thought, the influence upon him of his experiences in the world. Those records of himself which he has left us in his books are now no longer to be regarded as detached and independent expressions of his personality— isolated productions forming a mere miscellaneous aggregate of unconnected units, to be read without any sense of their affiliations one with another. They are rather to be taken as a corpus, or organic whole—not simply as his works, but as his work. A telling illustration lies ready to hand in the case of Shakespeare. We may read, and we often do read, Shakespeare’s plays without the slightest idea of sequence or method, jumping, let us say, from the Comedy of Errors to King Lear, and from the Tempest back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and no one will deny that the keenest delight and a great deal of profit may be found in such random reading of them. But though in this way we may get to know much of Shakespeare, there is much that we cannot get to know. We have still to study these plays together as diverse expressions of one and the same genius : to compare and contrast them in matter and spirit in method and style ; to conceive them, alike in their similarities and in their differences, as products of a single individual power revealing itself, in different periods and in curiously varying artistic moods, now in one and now in another of them. Hence, manifestly the need of systematising our reading.
If, recognising this need, we raise the question of the course to be pursued, the answer is not far to seek. Clearly, the most natural and the most profitable of all plans of study that might be suggested is the chronological—the study of a writer’s works in the order of their production. Taken in this way such works become for us the luminous record of his inner life and of his craftsmanship ; and we thus follow in them the various phases of his experience, the stages of his mental and moral growth, the changes undergone by his art. “In order to know Balzac, and to judge him,” writes a French critic of that great novelist, “we must arrange his works in the order in which they were produced.” It is now almost universally recognised that the true, in fact the only, way in which to study Shakespeare, if we would properly know and judge him, is similarly to arrange his works, so far as we can do so, in the order in which they were produced, since in this way we can obtain, as we can obtain by no other method, a substantial sense of those works as a progressive revelation of his genius and power. And what is thus now taken as a principle of practice in the study of Balzac and Shakespeare will be found to hold equally good in the study of every other writer who is worth systematic study at all.
To prevent misapprehension, it should, however, be added that when we speak in this way of a writer’s work as a whole, it is generally with a certain amount of qualification. We may not always or usually mean literally everything that he produced, but simply everything that is really vital and important as an expression of his genius. Today there is something very much like a mania for the collection and preservation of every miscellaneous scrap which any great author allowed to remain unpublished, or perhaps threw aside as unworthy of publication; but the outcome of such indiscriminate enthusiasm has seldom any soild value. Even apart from these gleanings from the note-book and the wastepaper-basket (which here can hardly concern us), most writers, even the greatest, leave behind them a considerable body of published work, which is either tentative and experimental, or in which they are merely echoes of themselves, repeating less effectively what they have already said in other forms, and adding nothing to the sum-total of their real contribution to the world’s literature. Such secondary kind of work will always have its value for the special student intent upon the exhaustive investigation of a given author ; but to begin with we may, in the vast majority of cases, safely disregard it.
In following the chronological method we shall find ourselves, it is evident, continually comparing and contrasting a man with himself. Our next step will be to sharpen our impression of his personality by comparing and contrasting him with others—with men who worked in the same field, took up the same subjects, dealt with the same problems, wrote under similar conditions, or who, for any other reason, naturally associate themselves with him in our minds. The student of Shakespeare almost, inevitably turns to Shakespeare’s greater contemporaries—to men like Marlowe, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster—and rightly feels that by marking the points at which the master resembled these other dramatists, and the points in which he differed from them, he gains immeasurably in his realisation of the essential qualities of Shakespeare’s genius and art. We throw a flood of fresh light upon Tennyson and Browning alike when we read them side by side. The fundamental features of the art of Sophocles and Euripides are brought into relief when we pass backward and forward from one to the other. Thackeray furnishes us with an illuminating commentary on Dickens, and Dickens does the same service for Thackeray. We have laid down the principle that in studying literature our first business is to enter into the spirit of our author, to penetrate into the vital forces of his personality. We need add no further illustrations to show how the comparative method will help us to do this. The doctrine that “all higher knowledge is gained by comparison, and rests on comparison,” is as true and important in the study of literature as in the study of science.
In our study of the personal life in literature we shall of course be greatly helped by the judicious use of good biography. Our interest in the writings of any great author being once aroused, the desire will inevitably be stimulated to learn something of the man himself, as a man, beyond that which his work reveals to us. We shall be curious to see him in the social surroundings in which he lived, and in his daily converse with his fellows ; to know the chief facts of his outward history—his ambitions, struggles, successes, failures—and the connection of his books with these ; the way in which and the conditions under which such books were written ; his intellectual habits and methods of work. Curiosity on such and similar points is entirely natural and legitimate, and we need not scruple to gratify it. We may well be grateful, therefore, for such massive and detailed narratives as we possess, for instance, of the lives of Milton, Johnson, Goethe, Scott, Tennyson ; apart altogether from their interest simply as human documents (which is really a different matter), their direct literary value is inestimable, since we rightly feel that we can understand and enjoy the works of these men so much the better for the information they afford. And for every good piece of biographical writing, small or great, we shall be similarly thankful, and for the same reason. Side by side on our shelf with the books of any author we really care for, a place should thus certainly be made for some well-chosen account of his life.
It is necessary, however, to lay stress upon the two-­fold qualification which I have suggested ; it is good bio­graphy which alone can be of service to us, and this must be used judiciously and kept in its proper place. There is a great deal to-day which passes under the name of literary biography which yields little more than trivial gossip about those details of the private life of famous men with which the public has really no concern, and which the student is not in the least helped by knowing. “Petrarch’s house in Arqua, Tasso’s supposed prison in Ferrara, Shakespeare’s house in Stratford, Goethe’s house in Weimar, with its furniture, Kant’s old hat, the autographs of great men—these things,” as Schopenhauer rightly remarked, “are gaped at with interest and awe by many who have never read their works.” Since Schopenhauer’s time, the craze for mere personal detail, at once fostered and fed by a newspaper Press which, in these matters, has lost all sense of reticence and decency, has developed to an extent which may fairly be described as alarming, as the puerile chatter with which even our so-called literary and critical periodicals frequently fill their pages only too eloquently proves. We must not mistake our interest in the external facts of literary biography—which is generally an idle, often a vulgar interest—for an interest in literature itself ; our knowledge of these things, however wide and accurate, for literary culture. This warning is opportune, for the danger lest we do so is real and urgent, and may beset us at times when we are least on our guard against it. The student of Carlyle, for instance—I take an example which at once suggests itself, and than which it would be difficult to select one more immediately to the point—will find much to his purpose in Froude’s four volumes of biography ; yet through the perusal of those volumes he may easily get himself entangled in the whole problem of Carlyle’s home-life and domestic relationships, and in the mass of controversial literature which within recent years has unfortunately grown up about this. But the fact is that with this problem he, as a student of the great preacher and artist, has nothing whatever to do, and that thus all the hundreds of pages which have been written about it are for him little more than so much rubbish. Hence, as they add nothing of real significance to our knowledge of the essential personality and character of the author of Sartor Resartus and Past and Present, and as the mastery of them would at best involve an expenditure of time which could be much more profitably devoted to Sartor Resartus and Past and Present themselves, we shall do well, it is clear, to leave them severely alone. I am not one of those who believe that we are really better off for knowing no more than we are ever likely to know about the man William Shakespeare, actor, manager, playwright, frequenter of the Mermaid Tavern, citizen of Stratford; on the contrary, I quite frankly admit that I should be glad to have the greatest amount of detailed information about him in all these capacities. Yet I am bound to add that this feeling is more than half due to curiosity only ; and if I were asked whether I think it probable that we should gain in the least in our insight into the essential Shakespeare—the Shakespeare of the plays—if we had as many particulars concerning his relations with Anne Hathaway as we have of Carlyle’s relations with Jane Welsh, and were able to read the personal riddle, if personal riddle there be, of the Sonnets, I should answer with an unhesitating negative. And it is with Shakespeare the poet and dramatist, as it is with Carlyle the great prophet and consummate literary artist, that we ought rather, after all, to be concerned.
But because we are fully alive to the danger lest biography may too easily degenerate into idle and impertinent gossip about unimportant things, we need not therefore go with some critics to the other extreme of maintaining that biography is valueless, and that the student of a man’s work should confine himself to that work, and has no proper interest in the man outside it. Distinguishing as we must between the reading of a biography simply as a piece of literature, which is one thing, and the reading of it in connection with and as a commentary upon an author’s writings, which is another, we shall in the latter case welcome and utilise everything that really brings us into more intimate relationships with the genius and essential character of the man with whom we have to deal; all else may go. And in good biography—as in Carlyle’s own admirable essays—it will be found that a line is commonly drawn between the important, intrinsic, and fundamental aspects of experience and character and those which are merely trivial, superficial, and accidental. Of course it will often be difficult, in any given instance, to say exactly up to what point the personal material will be useful to us, and where it will cease to be so. Sometimes a seemingly insignificant fact will prove to be unexpectedly illuminating and suggestive; sometimes, on the other hand, phases of a man’s career, important and interesting in themselves, will turn out on examination to have had so little to do with his work that on the literary side they will mean nothing. Hence we must exercise our own tact and discretion. Much will depend upon the special ob­jects we may for the moment have in view; a good deal also on the nature of the particular case. Thus, for instance, biographical detail will always occupy a prominent place in the study of Dante, whose writings can hardly be understood when detached from his life, and of Goethe, whose works, according to his own oft-quoted description of them, were but fragments of a great personal con­fession; while with Johnson, as every reader knows, the usual relations between production and biography are actually reversed, and instead of the life being read as a commentary upon the writings, the writings are read almost entirely in connection with the life. We can therefore lay down no hard and fast rule for the use of biography in literary study, nor is it necessary that we should try to do so. It will be well for us, however, to be on our guard against the rather widespread error of confusing means employed with end to be attained. Biography in itself is nearly always interesting and generally profitable. But the study of biography is not the study of literature, and should never be made a substitute for it.
In closing this section let me insist that it is beyond all things necessary that we should cultivate a spirit of sympathy—at least of provisional sympathy—with our author. We cannot of course expect that our personal relations with all the great writers we may from time to time take up will be uniformly intimate and agreeable. Our own temperaments have to be reckoned with. Literature contains the revelation of many different personalities, and we ourselves have our well-marked leanings and antipathies. It is to no purpose then that the dogmatic critic tells us that we must perforce enjoy this or that author, admire this or that book, on pain of instant condemnation as hopelessly lacking in taste. No one has a right thus to impose his own judgment upon us; and honest likes and dislikes are never to be despised. We cannot force our temperaments; in literature as in life there are people whose greatness we may indeed recognise, but with whom we should find good-fellowship altogether impossible; others, towards whom our feelings will be of positive repugnance. It is right to recognise this fact, and wise to accept its implications, if only that we may be saved thereby from the too common habit of indiscriminate or merely conventional admiration. Yet recognition of it should be accompanied by certain reserves. We must remember that many authors should prove interesting even when, and occasionally because, they are intellectual and moral aliens to us. We must remember, too, that it is precisely as it brings us into contact with many different kinds of personality, which often challenge our own, and thus increases our flexibility of mind, breadth of outlook, catholicity of taste and judgment, that the value of literature as a means of culture becomes so great. A certain amount of patience and persistency in our dealings with writers who at first rather repel than attract is therefore to be recommended. The fault may lie entirely with us—in prejudices which we ought to overcome ; in mere inability to place ourselves at once at their point of view, or even to rise to the level of their thought and power. In any event, we may rest assured that without some amount of initial sympathy, we shall never understand an author’s real character. To reach the best in literature, as in life, sympathy is a preliminary condition. Only through sympathy can we ever get into living touch with another soul.
It is while we are still dealing with literature on the personal side that style or expression first becomes important for us. It is very commonly supposed, indeed, that the formal element in literature is a matter for the specialist only. This is a serious mistake. Leaving the more technical and recondite aspects of the subject for the moment out of consideration, we have therefore to insist that the study of style is itself full of broad interest for every reader who seeks to enter into the human life in literature.
It is probable that we have all at some time or other had the experience of chancing upon a passage quoted without indication of authorship, and of exclaiming—”So and so must have written that.” In such a case, it is often not the thought that strikes us as familiar so much as the way in which the thought is expressed. The passage has somehow— we might be at a loss to say exactly how—a characteristic ring, like that of a well-known voice. However commonplace the idea, we feel sure that no one else would have put it just in that way. The choice of the words, the turn of the phrases, the structure of the sentences, their peculiar rhythm and cadence—these are all curiously instinct with the individuality of the writer. The thing said may have little to distinguish it, but the man has put himself into it none the less.
This is enough to show that style—I am using the word in its broadest sense—is fundamentally a personal quality: that, as Buffon’s oft-quoted dictum has it, le style est de l’homme meme. When Pope called it “the dress of thought,” he failed entirely to recognise its essentially organic character, for he evidently conceived it as something apart from the man, which he could put on or take off at will. Style, as Carlyle says in one of his Journals, is not the coat of a writer, but his skin. There are authors, of course, who have deliberately shaped their utterance on the speech of stronger men, and set themselves to reproduce their very gestures and mannerisms ; the tyro in letters is often, indeed, advised by teachers who know no better to take this or that master as his model. Moreover, the strongest and most original men are frequently deeply influenced by others, and carry traces of such influence in their style. But as sincerity is the foundation-principle of all true literature, so is it the foundation-principle of all true style. A man who has something really personal to say will seldom fail to find a really personal way in which to say it. Thought which is his own will hardly permit itself to be shaped into the fashion of some one else’s expression. Imitation will always be significant as revealing the sources from which a writer who deals with life mainly at second-hand derives his inspiration ; but it takes us in reality but a short distance beneath the surface even of his work. Imitate as he may, the native qualities of a man—his inherent strength and   weakness—will   ultimately   show   through,   and he will of necessity write himself down for what he is. So profound a truth is it that “every spirit builds its own house.”
“Literature,” says one who was himself a great master of style, “is the personal use or exercise of language. That this is so is … proved from the fact that one author uses it so differently from another….. While the many use language as they find it, the man of genius uses it indeed, but subjects it withal to his own purposes, and moulds it according to his own peculiarities. The throng and succession of ideas, thoughts, feelings, imaginations, speculations, which pass within him, the abstractions, the juxtapositions, the comparisons, the discriminations, the conceptions, which are so original in him, his views of external things, his judgments upon life, manners, and history, the exercises of his wit, of his humour, of his depth, of his sagacity, all these innumerable and incessant creations, the very production and throbbing of his intellect, does he image forth…in a corresponding language, which is as multiform as this inward mental action itself, and analogous to it, the faithful expression of his intense personality, attending on his inward world of thought as its very shadow ; so that we might as well say that one man’s shadow is another’s as that the style of a really gifted mind can belong to any but himself. It follows him about as a shadow. His thought and feeling are personal, and so his language is personal.”
I have made this long quotation chiefly with the view of further elucidating the principle I am trying to make clear by putting it in language other than my own. One point touched upon by Newman is, however, worthy of special attention. He notes, it will be observed, that while the majority of men use the language of their time “as they find it,” the man of genius sub­jects such language “to his own purposes, and moulds it according to his own peculiarities.” This means that language always receives a certain fresh impress from the hands of every writer of strongly marked personality. As Dr. Rutherford, Headmaster of Westminster, in speaking of the style of Thucydides, has well said: “Just in proportion to the measure of individuality with which a man is gifted, does his use of the language of his race”—and we may add, of his period—”differ from the common or normal use” ; and this difference is sometimes so great that “we may know a language very well in an ordinary way, and yet be unable to enjoy perfectly some of the greatest writers in it.” In this fact we have another illustration of the intimate and inevitable relation of personality and style.
As even an uncritical reader, then, must recognise the individual quality in style, and as this is something which we are bound to feel with ever-increasing distinctness the more we think about it, the student will naturally be led to consider wherein, in any given case, this individual quality consists, and to look closely into the connection between the character of a writer’s genius and thought and the form of expression which he has fashioned for himself. To approach style in this way is to find in it not only the living product of an author’s personality, but also a transparent record of his intellectual, spiritual, and artistic growth. Carefully examined, it will tell us much of his education ; of the influences which went to shape and mould his nature ; of the masters at whose feet he sat, and who helped him to find himself ; of the books he lived with; of his intercourse with men ; of the development and consolidation of his thought ; of his changing outlook upon the world and its problems ; of the modifications of his temper and of the principles by which he governed his art in the successive stages of his career. All the factors which combine in the making of a man will subtly play their parts in giving to his style its well-defined individuality of form and colour ; all the phases of his outer and inner experience will register themselves in it. In the chronological study of his writings, therefore, it will become interesting to correlate the changes undergone by his style with contemporaneous changes in his matter and thought. Even his defects of utterance, his limitations, his mannerisms, will thus have their value. Matter and expression being no longer thought of apart, as things which have no connection or at most only an accidental one, style will become for us a real index of personality, and the way in which a writer expresses himself a commentary upon what he says.

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