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Sir Walter Raleigh

Reading Books


At least these great artists of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries are agreed upon one thing, that the public, even in its most gracious mood, makes an ill task-master for the man of letters. It is worth the pains to ask why, and to attempt to show how much of an author's literary quality is involved in his attitude towards his audience. Such an inquiry will take us, it is true, into bad company, and exhibit the vicious, the fatuous, and the frivolous posturing to an admiring crowd. But style is a property of all written and printed matter, so that to track it to its causes and origins is a task wherein literary criticism may profit by the humbler aid of anthropological research.


For hardier aspirants, the two main entrances to popular favour are by the twin gates of laughter and tears. Pathos knits the soul and braces the nerves, humour purges the eyesight and vivifies the sympathies; the counterfeits of these qualities work the opposite effects. It is comparatively easy to appeal to passive emotions, to play upon the melting mood of a diffuse sensibility, or to encourage the narrow mind to dispense a patron's laughter from the vantage-ground of its own small preconceptions. Our annual crop of sentimentalists and mirth-makers supplies the reading public with food. Tragedy, which brings the naked soul face to face with the austere terrors of Fate, Comedy, which turns the light inward and dissipates the mists of self-affection and selfesteem, have long since given way on the public stage to the flattery of Melodrama, under many names. In the books he reads and in the plays he sees the average man recognises himself in the hero, and vociferates his approbation.


... There may be literary quality, it is well to remember, in the words of a parrot, if only its cage has been happily placed; meaning and soul there cannot be. Yet the voice will sometimes be mistaken, by the carelessness of chance listeners, for a genuine utterance of humanity; and the like is true in literature. But writing cannot be luminous and great save in the hands of those whose words are their own by the indefeasible title of conquest. Life is spent in learning the meaning of great words, so that some idle proverb, known for years and accepted perhaps as a truism, comes home, on a day, like a blow. `If there were not a God,' said Voltaire, `it would be necessary to invent him.' Voltaire had there-fore a right to use the word, but some of those who use it most, if they would be perfectly sincere, should en-close it in quotation marks. Whole nations go for centuries without coining names for certain virtues; is it credible that among other peoples, where the names exist, the need for them is epidemic?


All style is gesture, the gesture of the mind and of the soul. Mind we have in common, inasmuch as the laws of right reason are not different for different minds. Therefore clearness and arrangement can be taught, sheer incompetence in the art of expression can be partly remedied. But who shall impose laws upon the soul? It is thus of common note that one may dislike or even hate a particular style while admiring its facility, its strength, its skilful adaptation to the matter set forth. Milton, a chaster and more unerring master of the art than Shakespeare, reveals no such lovable personality. While persons count for much, style, the index to per-sons, can never count for little. `Speak,' it has been said, `that I may know you' -- voice-gesture is more than feature. Write, and after you have attained to some control over the instrument, you write yourself down whether you will or no. There is no vice, however unconscious, no virtue, however shy, no touch of meanness or of generosity in your character, that will not pass on to the paper.

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