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Two Lectures on the Influence of Poetry on the Working Classes, delivered before the Members of the Mechanics' Institution, February, 1852.
THE selection of the subject of this evening's Lecture, "The Influence of Poetry on the Working Classes," requires some explanation. What has Poetry to do with the Working Classes? What has it, in fact, to do with this age at all? Does it not belong to the ages past, so that the mere mention of it now is an anachronism-something out of date? Now, there is a large class of persons, to whom all that belongs to our political and social existence seems of such absorbing interest, that they look with impatience on any
* As some of the topics contained in the following Lectures might seem out of place, as addressed to the members of a Mechanics' Institution, it may be well to state that they were delivered before a mixed audience. They are printed, with some additions, from the corrected notes of a short-hand reporter.
thing which does not bear directly on it. A great political authority of the present day has counselled the young men of this country, and especially of the Working Classes, not to waste their time on literature, but to read the newspapers, which, he says, will give them all the education that is essential. Persons of this class seem to fancy that the all-in-all of man is "to get on; according to them, to elevate men means, chiefly, to improve their circumstances; and, no doubt, they would look with infinite contempt on any effort such as this, to interest men on subjects which, most assuredly, will not give them cheaper food or higher wages. "Lecture them," they will say, on the principles of political economy, in order to stem, if possible, the torrent of those dangerous opinions that threatens the whole fabric of society. Give them, if you will, lectures on science, on chemistry, on mechanics, on any subject which bears on real and actual life; but, really, in this work-day age, rhyming is out of place and out of date. We have no time for Poetry and prettiness." If, indeed, to have enough to eat and enough to drink were the whole of man-if the highest life consisted in what our American brethren call "going a-head”—if the highest ambition for Working Men were the triumph of some political faction, then, assuredly,
the discussion of our present subject would be waste of breath and time.
But it appears to me, that in this age of Mechanics and Political Economy, when every heart seems dry as summer dust," what we want is, not so much, not half so much-light for the intellect, as dew upon the heart; time and leisure to cultivate the spirit that is within us. The author of "Philip Van Artevelde," in his last published volume, "The Eve of the Conquest," has well described this our state of high physical civilization and refinement, in which knowledge is mistaken for wisdom, and all that belongs to man's physical comfort and temporal happiness is sedulously cared for, while much that belongs to our finer and purer being is neglected-an age of grim earnestness-not the noble earnestness of stern Puritanism for high principles, but one which is terrible only when the purse is touched.
“Oh, England! 'Merry England,' styled of yore!
Where is thy mirth? Thy jocund laughter where?
Makes a mute answer: driven from every door.
Whatever objection may deservedly belong to this Lecture, I hope that no "tired mechanic"