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READING AND WRITING:—When lems to be solved, discoveries to be you consider the amount of writing made in science, food to be provided, done in the world, with the small beauty to fall in love with, each other chance of literary success, you are
to educate. When I have heard tempted to conclude it is in itself the specialists pleading for these matters, most exciting of human occupations. myself thrilled with a vision of chemEven when we can't get a soul to read istry, of politics, of philosophy, of what we write, we keep on, saying, history, even of the study of the “After all, I have the satisfaction of Chinese language, I have sometimes expressing myself.” Just what does thought of addressing to the orator that satisfaction consist of?
an ignoble remark: “Dear sir, people When you think of the number of can be persuaded to follow your callbooks read by this busy world, in the ing. They can't be stopped from persistent hope of finding a good one, trying to follow mine." and the much greater number of Evidently the impulse to write and manuscripts read free of charge and to read is not a bookish thing; it is as at unspeakable cost to eyesight, in vital and necessary to daily comfort the hope of finding a book fit to as eating and breathing. It is a give print, you conclude that reading and take of life, an exchange if not a comes next after writing as the most communion of spirit. It is the most widespread of excitements or nervous profound of human relations-more diseases. Either reading or writing so even than the relation of the sexes; may of course be an art, but first it is
for man often gets on without matuseful to think of them in bulk. rimony, but less frequently without There is an art of cooking and of writing and talking, and in the exdressing, but it is impressive oc- treme case, though he takes a vow of casionally to see in the mind's eye silence, he still reads. Why does he? the wide world getting up and going Until we know more about the exto breakfast. I submit there is perience of reading and writing, our something more astonishing—the vi- inquiries into other fields of knowlsion of humanity getting up every edge are somewhat futile. We hope morning to write and read its maga- to increase our empire of truth by zines. There is great business on experience, by research, by philoso foot-deeds of mercy waiting to be phizing; and most discussion of scholdone, political and economic prob- arship turns on these methods of collecting the material. When we which was which; and before we try have collected it, nothing remains but to teach people to express themselves, , to write down the result, and let our we ought to have clearer notions fellows read it. This last process, than we now show signs of, as to we have hitherto taken for granted, what in their experience will bear is a simple one, like tying up a bun- expressing. dle with a piece of string; it calls for a little dexterity and a reasonable amount of practice. Most colleges TRADITIONAL CRITICISM Tradiassume that the entire student body tional criticism of literature is in this can be taught to write in the fresh- respect almost entirely worthless. man year. Other colleges act upon It flatters your emotions or it dethe wild hope--and are rather proud ceives your mind, but in neither case of it—that all the freshmen have does it teach you to write. It flatters learned to write before they arrived. your emotions when it is of the apI won't say there aren't sound rea- preciative kind—Sainte-Beuve's kind sons for not asking them to take a or Matthew Arnold's or James Ruscourse in writing. Perhaps the pro- sell Lowell's. In their essays you fessors can't write, either. But this find more subtle reasons for liking the is not the reason usually given, and it books you already like, or disliking seems no exaggeration to say that those you already dislike; or if you few people, least of all the educated, happen not to agree in liking and disrealize the difficulties involved in liking, then you and the critic diswriting and the mysteries involved in agree. That's what we mean when reading
we say we don't like Matthew ArThere seems a fair probability that nold as a critic.
nold as a critic. That's what we we may shortly begin to investigate usually mean when we say that compethese two occupations, and may build tent criticism is lacking in contempo up an esthetic which really takes ac- rary America; we wish there were count of our mental behavior when more critics to praise our books. we read and write, which will dimin- But in one sense at least our current ish the smugness in our assumption criticism in magazines and newsthat we know how to express our- papers is quite as competent as Arselves, and which will define, not nold's or Sainte-Beuve's: in neither only some of the ways and means of case can you learn from it how to communicating with our fellows, but write. Sometimes the traditional also the limits within which com- critic tries to ennoble his judgments munication is possible. Some things by making them authoritative, by can be said but not written. Some casting his vote with a more certain people have ideas which cannot be air. If we agree with him we are put into words at all-unutterable convinced. We used to have a critic
a thoughts. Many of my students at the Poetry Society who prohave them. And we hear of emo- nounced final judgments. When a tions or intuitions which cannot be poem was read and discussed, this thought out. Before we begin to critic would wait till small things like write, it would save time if we knew technic and craftmanship were disposed of, and then would say, "This River aren't as élite as they should poem will live,” or “That poem will be; while others who feel that Spoon not live.” The spark in either poem River is God's country cannot forwas so feeble that only an inspired give Edith Wharton for writing, as person could distinguish the degree they say, about society morons. of vitality, and, aside from the evi- Meanwhile we don't know how to dent inspiration, we never knew how teach the art of writing like Mr. the critic came at the result, and we Masters nor like Mrs. Wharton, nor, got no help toward producing im- on the basis of this kind of criticism, mortal poems ourselves. It's an old the art of writing at all. Our formal tradition. It is said that Porson literary esthetics seems to be still in once dined with some other Cam- the medieval state-in the state of bridge scholars, and after dinner, science before Francis Bacon, when having drunk too much, as his cus- effects were described as though they tom was, he went to sleep. Nothing were causes, and man lived in a perin the conversation roused him till petual frustration, attempting to one man said of a certain con- control the action of nature by imitemporary, “That poet will be read tating its results. “The hairs of the when Homer is forgotten.” Porson eyelids," said the schoolmen, "are came to and added, “And not till for a fence to the sight.” The eyethen!” But if Porson seems to have lids are a protection, of course, but it the advantage of the Poetry Society is not the protection which produces critic, it is only in wit; his remark, by the eyelids. “A great poem will itself, is no more enlightening as to have important characters,” says the what makes a poem great.
critic. If the poem is great, the If we could ask Porson to go further characters will seem important, but into details, he would say the sort of by themselves important characters, thing which deceives our minds. He even if we knew which they are, would tell us that a great poem has a would not make a poem great. noble subject, a significant plot or I take it that the scholars, the profable, important characters, and a fessors of literature, are no more grand style. That is the traditional stupid in this matter than the unformula. Matthew Arnold seems to academic men of letters. But since have thought the grand style enough. we give our time to it, perhaps we We then go completely off the track ought to be wiser. We need more and ask ourselves which subjects are Francis Bacons among us to ask why noble, which plots are significant, we stick to our syllogistic methods which characters are important, and and allow nature to slip out of our which styles are grand. The result hands; why we collate the outward of these questions, of much alterca- characteristics of books, instead of tion, tearing of hair and of reputa- observing what produced those chartions, is that we fall into schools, ac- acteristics; why, seeing man's incording to the kind of subject, plot, satiable desire to read and write, we character, or style we like. Some do not investigate the phenomenon, critics are hard on Mr. Masters be- not as a bookish problem, but as a cause, as they say, the élite of Spoon recurring attitude in nature,
“I sing but as the linnet sings,” find difficulty with the idea in ansays
the poet. He seems to be excus- other form, that the writing exing himself, on the ground that he presses the reader as much as the can't help it. Since Tennyson's time writer. Probably it expresses the the poets have preferred to say they reader more. The writer who has
to express themselves, to learned that fact will have respect for achieve their own personalities. A his audience; he will begin the study later school says that if you don't ex- of his art with some attention to the press what is in you, if you repress creative act of reading. yourself, then whatever otherwise would become art turns to a sort of poison inside of you. You write, as Who SHALL BE EXPRESSED?-In it were, to get rid of the poison. what I am to say now, I should be This explanation seems rather gross, sorry if you found any suggestion as though the poet resigned himself that a writer should compromise with to writing by way of psychic sanita- his readers, talk down to them, or tion. I would not say, however, in any other way be untrue to himthat its grossness makes the theory self. But a false loyalty to one's self unsound with respect to some poets has prevented many people from in all ages. We really don't know learning to write. The art, as I see why men write, in the first place; but it, consists in putting that best part once they begin, they usually keep of you, to which you should be loyal, on, and they do so because they like into terms which your hearers will to. Two reasons are given for their understand. It's a question not of liking to: the joy of creation, and the the subject-matter but of the lanlove of an audience. It is hardly guage. If I have a message for a worth while to debate which is the German audience or a French, I correct reason, for they are essen- don't debase my message by finding tially the same. The joy of creation, out what words the Germans or the I suppose, is the joy of living. We French are using in the present live all we can in our first-hand lives; century, and on their home ground, and the experiences which are still though there are always upright and unattained, or which we wish to re- unpoetical folk like Mr. Ford who peat, we live at second-hand, in art. think it would be better if the GerBoys like to play baseball, but, next mans and the French learned the to that, they like to read baseball American language. If I use a cerstories. Next to that, if they can tain word, as I say, in a certain sense, write at all, they like to write them. it is wise to be sure my readers will If there were no baseball stories in understand it in that sense. Before existence, the boy would make them, I can form a line of verse in a pattern not in writing at first, perhaps, but which I like, I ought to know how my certainly in his talk about the high expected audience is in the habit of moments of the beloved game. The reading verse.
Before I can say creative impulse is as strong in the what I mean in a story, I had better reader'as in the writer. This is per
know what that kind of story means haps easy to grant, but sometimes we to my audience. Once I know, I can
say what I want to in the way word, sides of our nature we have formost likely to produce the effect I gotten, or never yet observed. desire.
After all that has been said about This simple principle, if once it is poetry, the theories for judging it, grasped, opens up the mystery of the methods of writing it, this one writing and reading. It explains simple principle remains, that literawhy this form of human communica- ture is great when it calls out of us a tion is as exciting as a game. Of richer imaginative life. From this course the writer wishes to say what one principle we can easily build
up is on his mind, but much more he method of judging stories, plays, and wishes to be sure his audience under- poems—a rather ruthless method stands him. And the moment he which often will enrage the literary realizes the fascinating mystery of man who likes complicated ways of our minds, as reader collaborates going about such things, but still a with writer in any story, that mo
sound method. If a story provides ment literature becomes visibly a me with an immense amount of increative art.
formation about life, if it excites my The French praise poetry with a curiosity and then satisfies it, as debeautiful word; they call it évocatif. tective stories do, or if a poem reAt its best, that is, they say it calls ports to me in detail the emotional out of the reader the life half buried state of the poet, I take the liberty of within him which is still his life, but observing that all this by itself is not which he did not realize until the enough. The literature which does poet said the magic word. We know only this has never been great literathe experience from a humbler angle, ture. Much of our modern poetry when we go to the theater and get full of intellectual subtleties is absurd lost, as we say, in an engrossing play. when compared with the great lyrics At its best the drama evokes our or epics of the world, for in these natures to such a degree that in great things, whether they are the imagination we are living on the product of simpler men in folk-ballad stage, and the adventures our eyes or legend, or of supreme artists in and ears attend to seem not external sophisticated times, the reader has to us, but of our very being. When his chance; he finds himself in the we leave the theater after such a play poem; he recognizes life instead of we usually experience a little shock, a having his curiosity excited about let-down, as it were, a coming back to some phase of it for the first time. I earth and remembering what our open a modern volume and read: actual fate is. No amount of information which the writer could im- "A bird chirped at my window this part out of his own life could ever
morning, equal in importance to us the ex- And over the sky is drawn a light perience he has evoked out of our
network of clouds. natures. We go to a play, then, in Come, the hope of finding ourselves there, Let us go out into the open, and we read books in the hope also of For my heart leaps like a fish that is discovering, through some evocative
ready to spawn.”