In the third book of the "Ethics", and in the second chapter, Aristotle, dealing with certain actions which, though bad in themselves, admit of pity and forgiveness because they were committed involuntarily, through ignorance, instances 'the man who did not know a subject was forbidden, like Aeschylus with the Mysteries,' and 'the man who only meant to show how it worked, like the fellow who let off the catapult' ([Greek: e deixai Boulemos apheinai, os o ton katapelten]). I feel comfortably sure, Gentlemen, that in a previous course of lectures "On the Art of Writing", unlike Aeschylus, I divulged no mysteries: but I am troubled with speculations over that man and the catapult, because I really was trying to tell you how the thing worked; and Aristotle, with a reticence which (as Horace afterwards noted) may lend itself to obscurity, tells us neither what happened to that exponent of ballistics, nor to the engine itself, nor to the other person. My discharge, such as it was, at any rate provoked another Professor (emeritus, learned, sagacious, venerable) to retort that the true business of a Chair such as this is to instruct young men how to read rather than how to write. Well, be it so. I accept the challenge. I propose in this and some ensuing lectures to talk of the Art and Practice of Reading, particularly as applied to English Literature: to discuss on what ground and through what faculties an and his Reader meet: to enquire if, or to what extent, Reading of the best Literature can be taught; and supposing it to be taught, if or to what extent it can be examined upon; with maybe an interlude or two, to beguile the way.
At Surat, by a window of his private office in the East India Company's factory, a middle-aged man stared out upon the broad river and the wharves below. Business in the factory had ceased for the day: clerks and porters had gone about their own affairs, and had left the great building strangely cool and empty and silent. The wharves, too, were desertedÑall but one, where a Hindu sat in the shade of a pile of luggage, and the top of a boat's mast wavered like the index of a balance above the edge of the landing-stairs. The luggage belonged to the middle-aged man at the window: the boat was to carry him down the river to the Albemarle, East Indiaman, anchored in the roads with her Surat cargo aboard. She would sail that night for Bombay and thence away for England. He was ready; dressed for his journey in a loose white suit, which, though designed for the East, was almost aggressively British. A Cheapside tailor had cut it, and, had it been black or gray or snuff-coloured instead of white, its wearer might have passed all the way from the Docks to Temple Bar for a solid merchant on 'ChangeÑa self-respecting man, too, careless of dress for appearance' sake, but careful of it for his own, and as part of a habit of neatness. He wore no wig (though the date was 1723), but his own gray hair, brushed smoothly back from a sufficiently handsome forehead and tied behind with a fresh black ribbon. In his right hand he held a straw hat, broad-brimmed like a Quaker's, and a white umbrella with a green lining. His left fingered his clean-shaven chin as he gazed on the river. The ceremonies of leave-taking were done with and dismissed; so far as he could, he had avoided them. He had ever been a hard man and knew well enough that the clerks disliked him. He hated humbug. He had come to India, almost forty years ago, not to make friends, but to make a fortune. And now the fortune was made, and the room behind him stood ready, spick and span, for the Scotsman who would take his chair to-morrow. Drawers had been emptied and dusted, loose papers and memoranda sorted and either burnt or arranged and docketed, ledgers entered up to the last item in his firm handwriting, and finally closed. The history of his manhood lay shut between their covers, written in figures terser than a Roman classic: his grand coup in Nunsasee goods, Abdul Guffere's debt commuted for 500,000 rupees, the salvage of the Ramillies wreck, his commercial duel with Viltul Parrak . . . And the record had no loose ends. He owed no man a farthing.
It was not so much a day as a burning, fiery furnace. The roar of London's traffic reverberated under a sky of coppery blue; the pavements threw out waves of heat, thickened with the reek of restaurants and perfumery shops; and dust became cinders, and the wearing of flesh a weariness. Streams of sweat ran from the bellies of 'bus-horses when they halted. Men went up and down with unbuttoned waistcoats, turned into drinking-bars, and were no sooner inside than they longed to be out again, and baking in an ampler oven. Other men, who had given up drinking because of the expense, hung about the fountains in Trafalgar Square and listened to the splash of running water. It was the time when London is supposed to be empty; and when those who remain in town feel there is not room for a soul more. We were eleven inside the omnibus when it pulled up at Charing Cross, so that legally there was room for just one more. I had travelled enough in omnibuses to know my fellow-passengers by heart— a governess with some sheets of music in her satchel; a minor actress going to rehearsal; a woman carrying her incurable complaint for the hundredth time to the hospital; three middle-aged city clerks; a couple of reporters with weak eyes and low collars; an old loose-cheeked woman exhaling patchouli; a bald-headed man with hairy hands, a violent breast-pin, and the indescribable air of a matrimonial agent. Not a word passed. We were all failures in life, and could not trouble to dissemble it, in that heat. Moreover, we were used to each other, as types if not as persons, and had lost curiosity. So we sat listless, dispirited, drawing difficult breath and staring vacuously. The hope we shared in common—that nobody would claim the vacant seat—was too obvious to be discussed. But at Charing Cross the twelfth passenger got in—a boy with a stick, and a bundle in a blue handkerchief. He was about thirteen; bound for the docks, we could tell at a glance, to sail on his first voyage; and, by the way he looked about, we could tell as easily that in stepping outside Charing Cross Station he had set foot on London stones for the first time. When we pulled up, he was standing on the opposite pavement with dazed eyes like a hare's, wondering at the new world—the hansoms, the yelling news-boys, the flower-women, the crowd pushing him this way and that, the ugly shop-fronts, the hurry and stink and din of it all. Then, hailing our 'bus, he started to run across—faltered—almost dropped his bundle—was snatched by our conductor out of the path of a running hansom, and hauled on board. His eyelids were pink and swollen; but he was not crying, though he wanted to. Instead, he took a great gulp, as he pushed between our knees to his seat, and tried to look brave as a lion.
By recasting these lectures I might with pains have turned them into a smooth treatise. But I prefer to leave them (bating a very few corrections and additions) as they were delivered. If, as the reader will all too easily detect, they abound no less in repetitions than in arguments dropped and left at loose endsÑthe whole bewraying a man called unexpectedly to a post where in the act of adapting himself, of learning that he might teach, he had often to adjourn his main purpose and skirmish with difficultiesÑthey will be the truer to life; and so may experimentally enforce their preaching, that the Art of Writing is a living business. Bearing this in mind, the reader will perhaps excuse certain small vivacities, sallies that meet fools with their folly, masking the main attack. That, we will see, is serious enough; and others will carry it on, though my effort come to naught. It amounts to thisÑLiterature is not a mere Science, to be studied; but an Art, to be practised. Great as is our own literature, we must consider it as a legacy to be improved. Any nation that potters with any glory of its past, as a thing dead and done for, is to that extent renegade. If that be granted, not all our pride in a Shakespeare can excuse the relaxation of an effortÑhowever vain and hopelessÑto better him, or some part of him. If, with all our native exemplars to give us courage, we persist in striving to write well, we can easily resign to other nations all the secondary fame to be picked up by commentators.
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