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- Hold Up Your Heads, Girls! - 10/19 -


VI.

ENGLISH LITERATURE AND OTHER STUDIES.

In the majority of our higher schools, and probably in the education of most persons, a deficiency in the knowledge of English is to be remarked. Now, if girls are not fond of science, nor inclined to the study of philosophy, foreign languages, music, or painting, why do they not follow certain courses in English? Why do they not study English literature, paying heed to its history, its rhetoric, but more especially to the works of its greatest authors? Literature is the most cultivating to the mind, the most necessary to a general education, and it affords the most pleasure to persons, no matter what their condition may be. Easily pursued, it requires no capital but time, and costs no more than a walk to the public library. The liberal educations which some persons have acquired from what they have read in English literature demanded only wise choice of books, time, and perseverance.

I find, on an examination of the requirements for entrance to college, that English is the least regarded. It rarely goes beyond spelling, punctuation, figures of speech, and the reading of prescribed books, few in number, and which do not require a month's study. The absurdity of demanding all the rules of Latin prosody, when the student never read a line of the "Deserted Village," and probably will not, through his college course! Says one catalogue, which represents a great institution, "A large proportion of those who seek admission to the university are found to be very deficient in their preparation in English." It is not surprising. May they be helped before they graduate from the university.

In looking over the catalogues of numerous colleges where girls are educated, I have been indeed gratified with the great advantages they present to young women. How I wish I could enjoy even a few of these privileges,--these opportunities for a higher education! Is it not much to be grateful for, that so many of you girls not only can go to college, but really do go? I am glad for you all. Smith and Wellesley, Boston University and the Annex at Cambridge, Michigan University, Cornell, Bryn Mawr, and the rest, are all magnificent attractions to the student. Yes, indeed! But how I wish that English--English literature--was more earnestly pursued in every one of them!

Within the limits of this talk, I can say but little on the study of English; so I shall confine my suggestions to a few courses of reading, which I hope may be helpful to some of you.

A knowledge of literature implies an actual acquaintance with the works of authors; and no lists of names and dates, no anecdotes, nor literary gossip, can take the place of this acquaintance: but, to make these works more useful and intelligible, we should connect history with them. How can I fully appreciate the oratory of the American Revolution, if I know nothing of the war between England and the Colonies? How can I get the real value out of "The Talisman," "Kenilworth," or "Ivanhoe," if I have no knowledge of the Crusades, of Elizabeth's reign, or of that period in English history when Richard of the Lion Heart was king? Again, how can I understand why any age in English prose or poetry was characterized by a peculiar kind of thinkers, if I do not know the history and tendency of that age? Why, in one epoch, do we have men writing on classical subjects in a way which represents form as more important than matter? and why, in another age, are writers turning from an artificial to a natural style?

Experience proves that it is profitless to study the formative periods of English literature before trying to get acquainted with it in its present condition. One should work backwards, and not forwards, in this study. The practice of beginning with Anglo-Saxon writers, and studying down to nineteenth-century authors, is to be utterly condemned. How can I hope to like or even comprehend an English version of Caedmon, or, later, Chaucer, if I cannot yet see the beauty of Whittier? The history and philosophy of English literature are indeed important, but they are entirely subordinate to the works themselves.

English literature was not hatched full-fledged; its feathers have been growing for centuries; it did not even fly high till Elizabeth's reign; and it has not been prolific till within a century or two. We want to see what the bird looks like full grown, before we can understand about the embryo in the egg.

In the first place, I should get familiar with some very concise manual, so that I might refer to it for guidance; but my most earnest work should be with certain epochs in literature, and with special representative authors, around whom I could group other dependent writers, or such as did not so nearly represent the period I was studying.

If you are studying epochwise, why not read choice selections from the prose of the nineteenth century,--some of its masterpieces? Get a general notion of the earlier parts of the century by consulting some manual on the subject, such as Spalding's "English Literature," chapters XIII., XV., and XVI. When you have ascertained that the reviews founded in the first quarter of the century contained the most valuable literature, read some of the papers in the "Edinburgh Review," the "Quarterly," and "Blackwoods." Very good collections have been made from them, especially in a series of books known as "Modern British Essayists." Read, for example, Sydney Smith's essay on "Female Education"; one of Jeffrey's criticisms on the early poets of this century; an historical or a biographical article by Alison; or one of Professor Wilson's sketches in his "Recreations of Christopher North." But be most desirous of reading that brilliant essayist, and that most impressive of contributors to the "Edinburgh Review,"-- Macaulay. I wish you would read his articles which have special reference to literature, perhaps in this order: Moore's "Life of Byron," "Mme. D'Arblay," "Goldsmith," "Samuel Johnson," "Addison," "Dryden," "Leigh Hunt," "Bunyan," "Milton," "Bacon." Of miscellaneous essays, please note "Von Ranke," "Warren Hastings," and "Frederick the Great."

After Macaulay, study Carlyle, though only in parts, reading "Heroes and Hero Worship," and "Burns." The last is especially valuable to you. Note Carlyle's sincerity, his "gospel of work," his love of Nature, his earnestness, his despair, his giant intellect. If you are interested in his peculiar merits, read the "French Revolution."

Read selections from Emerson; but always slowly, carefully, dwelling longest on this writer's more practical essays, those which inspire impulses within you to nobler living.

Realizing how great an influence Nature has exerted over the prose as well as the poetry of this century, study Emerson's two essays on "Nature"; selections from Thoreau, especially from "Excursions"; Kingsley's "Winter Garden"; passages from Ruskin, particularly those written about "The Sky," "Clouds," "Water," "Mountains," "Grass."

You will appreciate the critical spirit of this age. Though most of the authors so far mentioned were critics, as well as essayists, you will find it helpful to read from the following: De Quincey, Hazlitt, Hallam, Ruskin, Whipple. If you can read but one work from DeQuincey, take, instead of a criticism, his "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," the style of which is considered masterly. Its sentences are melodious, its English elegant and classical. From Ruskin, that writer who founded art criticism, read those delightful passages brought together in the volume called "The True and the Beautiful"; and carefully peruse the little book known as "Sesame and Lilies." Hallam I should refer to for special information in regard to European literature. Our own Whipple will aid you to a knowledge of Elizabethan learning.

Next, read the essays of Lamb, such as are included in "Elia." Love the quaint, beautiful spirit of the author; and take delight in his witticisms, his reveries, and playful fancies.

Perhaps, just here, it would be well to introduce Irving. Pay especial heed to his "Sketch-Book," "The Alhambra," and "Bracebridge Hall." In order to appreciate the position this writer holds in American literature, and the feeling with which he is regarded, both in our own country and abroad, get some knowledge of the condition of our literature before Irving placed it upon a firm basis, and learn about the grace and dignity of this man's deportment. Appreciate, too, the beauties of this author's style in writing.

Then examine the sketch as it appears in Leigh Hunt's "Wishing Cap Papers," Thackeray's "Roundabout Papers," Curtis's "Potiphar Papers." You might include under this head such rare bits of prose as you cannot conveniently classify, as, for example, Dr. Brown's "Rab and His Friends," Curtis's "Prue and I."

Now look a while at the uses of biography. I think the study of every great author's works should be either prefaced or supplemented by a good biography or correspondence. This necessary aid to literature has been amply afforded by the celebrated "English Men of Letters" series, and also by the "American Men of Letters." The influence of biographies upon your lives you will find of the highest importance. There are other lives than those of purely literary men and women which I should recommend.

You must have become aware of the great value of historical literature in this age. Note what additions it has received from the intellects of such historians as Macaulay, by his "Life of Frederick the Great" and by his "History of England"; as Motley, by his "Dutch Republic"; as Prescott, by his "Ferdinand and Isabella"; as Alison, by his "History of Europe"; as Froude, by his "Life of Caesar." One can hardly be without such valuable reference-books as Green's "History of England," Freeman's various histories, and those included in the Epoch Series. But, before reading any of these works, it would be well to read various essays on how history should be written. There is an article by Macaulay on this subject, very brilliantly written, and truthfully. There are also valuable essays on the same subject by Froude, Freeman, Carlyle, Emerson, Miss Cleveland.

You might profitably combine with this topic of history that of travels. You know works of travel form a large, and certainly a delightful, part of our reading.

You have doubtless noticed the popularity which fiction always receives. It embraces the majority of the books written in this age. Try to study, in a concise way, the development of the novel from the time of Richardson and his immediate followers, and find its most perfect expression in the works of George Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, Hawthorne. Look a little at the history of the romance previous to this century, beginning, if you like, away back with Thomas Malory's "Morte d'Arthur." Find the best illustration of the romance in Scott. To such a writer as Scott you might add Cooper and Kingsley, though the romance is presented by the last writer in but one powerful book, "Westward, Ho!"-- at least, it seems so to me. Novelists always require a very just choice of their works. If you start with a novel of Dickens which does not lead you gradually into an appreciation of his genius, you will throw the book away in disgust. One needs to be particular about the order in which one reads Thackeray, or Scott, or Cooper, or Kingsley, even. I


Hold Up Your Heads, Girls! - 10/19

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