ON my breakfast table there is a pot of honey. Not the manufactured stuff sold under that name in shops, but honey of the hive, brought to me by a neighbouring cottager whose bees often hum in my garden. It gives, I confess, more pleasure to my eye than to my palate; but I like to taste of it, because it is honey.
There is as much difference, said Johnson, between a lettered and an unlettered man as between the living and the dead; and, in a way, it was no extravagance. Think merely how one's view of common things is affected by literary association. What were honey to me if I knew nothing of Hymettus and Hybla? — if my mind had no stores of poetry, no memories of romance? Suppose me town-pent, the name might bring with it some pleasantness of rustic odour; but of what poor significance even that, if the country were to me mere grass and corn and vegetables, as to the man who has never read nor wished to read. For the Poet is indeed a Maker: above the world of sense, trodden by hidebound humanity, he builds that world of his own whereto is summoned the unfettered spirit. Why does it delight me to see the bat flitting at dusk before my window, or to hear the hoot of the owl when all the ways are dark? I might regard the bat with disgust, and the owl either with vague superstition or not heed it at all. But these have their place in the poet's world, and carry me above this idle present.
I once passed a night in a little market-town where I had arrived tired and went to bed early. I slept forthwith, but was presently awakened by I knew not what; in the darkness there sounded a sort of music, and, as my brain cleared, I was aware of the soft chiming of church bells. Why, what hour could it be? I struck a light and looked at my watch. Midnight. Then a glow came over me. "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!" Never till then had I heard them. And the town in which I slept was Evesham, but a few miles from Stratford-on-Avon. What if those midnight bells had been to me but as any other, and I had reviled them for breaking my sleep? — Johnson did not much exaggerate.
TO-DAY I have read The Tempest. It is perhaps the play that I love best, and, because I seem to myself to know it so well, I commonly pass it over in opening the book. Yet, as always in regard to Shakespeare, having read it once more, I find that my knowledge was less complete than I supposed. So it would be, live as long as one might; so it would ever be, whilst one had strength to turn the pages and a mind left to read them.
I like to believe that this was the poet's last work, that he wrote it in his home at Stratford, walking day by day in the fields which had taught his boyhood to love rural England. It is ripe fruit of the supreme imagination, perfect craft of the master hand. For a man whose life's business it has been to study the English tongue, what joy can equal that of marking the happy ease wherewith Shakespeare surpasses, in mere command of words, every achievement of those even who, apart from him, are great? I could fancy that, in The Tempest he wrought with a peculiar consciousness of this power, smiling as the word of inimitable felicity, the phrase of incomparable cadence, was whispered to him by the Ariel that was his genius. He seems to sport with language, to amuse himself with new discovery of its resources. From king to beggar, men of every rank and every order of mind have spoken with his lips; he has uttered the lore of fairyland; now it pleases him to create a being neither man nor fairy, a something between brute and human nature, and to endow its purposes with words. These words, how they smack of the moist and spawning earth, of the life of creatures that cannot rise above the soil! We do not think of it enough; we stint our wonder because we fall short in appreciation. A miracle is worked before us, and we scarce give heed; it has become familiar to our minds as any other of nature's marvels, which we rarely pause to reflect upon.
The Tempest contains the noblest meditative passage in all the plays; that which embodies Shakespeare's final view of life, and is the inevitable quotation of all who would sum the teachings of philosophy. It contains his most exquisite lyrics, his tenderest love passages, and one glimpse of fairyland which — I cannot but think — outshines the utmost beauty of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Prospero's farewell to the "elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves." Again a miracle; these are things which cannot be staled by repetition. Come to them often as you will, they are ever fresh as though new minted from the brain of the poet. Being perfect, they can never droop under that satiety which arises from the perception of fault; their virtue can never be so entirely savoured as to leave no pungency of gusto for the next approach.
Among the many reasons which make me glad to have been born in England, one of the first is that I read Shakespeare in my mother tongue. If .I try to imagine myself as one who cannot know him face to face, who hears him, only speaking from afar, and that in accents which only through the labouring intelligence can touch the living soul, there comes upon me a sense of chill discouragement, of dreary deprivation. I am wont to think that I can read Homer, and, assuredly, if any man enjoys him, it is I; but can I for a moment dream that Homer yields me all his music, that his word is to me as to him who walked by the Hellenic shore when Hellas lived? I know that there reaches me across the vast of time no more than a faint and broken echo; I know that it would be fainter still, but for its blending with those memories of youth which are as a glimmer of the world's primeval glory. Let every land have joy of its poet; for the poet is the land itself, all its greatness and its sweetness, all that incommunicable heritage for which men live and die. As I close the book, love and reverence possess me. Whether does my full heart turn to the great Enchanter, or to the Island upon which he has laid his spell? I know not. I cannot think of them apart. In the love and reverence awakened by that voice of voices, Shakespeare and England are but one.
I CAME home this afternoon just at twilight, and, feeling tired after my walk, a little cold too, I first crouched before the fire, then let myself drop lazily upon the hearthrug. I had a book in my hand, and began to read it by the firelight. Rising in a few minutes, I found the open page still legible by the pale glimmer of day. This sudden change of illumination had an odd effect upon me; it was so unexpected, for I had forgotten that dark had not yet fallen. And I saw in the queer little experience an intellectual symbol. The book was verse. Might not the warm rays from the fire exhibit the page as it appears to an imaginative and kindred mind, whilst that cold, dull light from the window showed it as it is beheld by eyes to which poetry has but a poor, literal meaning, or none at all?
I HAVE been dull to-day, haunted I by the thought of how much there is that I would fain know, and how little I can hope to learn. The scope of knowledge has become so vast. I put aside nearly all physical investigation; to me it is naught, or only, at moments, a matter of idle curiosity. This would seem to be a considerable clearing of the field; but it leaves what is practically the infinite. To run over a list of only my favourite subjects, those to which, all my life long, I have more or less applied myself, studies which hold in my mind the place of hobbies, is to open vistas of intellectual despair. In an old note-book I jotted down such a list — "things I hope to know, and to know well." I was then four and twenty. Reading it with the eyes of fifty-four, I must needs laugh. There appear such modest items as "The history of the Christian Church up to the Reformation" — "all Greek poetry" — "The field of Mediaeval Romance" —"German literature from Lasing to Heine" — "Dante!" Not one of these shall I ever " know, and know well; " not any one of them. Yet here I am buying books which lead me into endless paths of new temptation. What have I to do with Egypt? Yet I have been beguiled by Flinders Petrie and by Maspéro. How can I pretend to meddle with the ancient geography of Asia Minor? Yet here have I bought Professor Ramsay's astonishing book, and have even read with a sort of troubled enjoyment a good many pages of it; troubled, because I have but to reflect a moment, and I see that all this kind of thing is mere futile effort of the intellect when the time for serious intellectual effort is over.
It all means, of course, that, owing to defective opportunity, owing, still more perhaps, to lack of method and persistence, a possibility that was in me has been wasted, lost. My life has been merely tentative, a broken series of false starts and hopeless new beginnings. If I allowed myself to indulge that mood, I could revolt against the ordinance which allows me no second chance. O mihi praeteritos referat si Jupiter annos! If I could but start again, with only the experience there gained! I mean, make a new beginning of my intellectual life; nothing else, O heaven! nothing else. Even amid poverty, I could do so much better; keeping before my eyes some definite, some not unattainable, good; sternly dismissing the impracticable, the wasteful.
And, in doing so, become perhaps an owl-eyed pedant, to whom would be for ever dead the possibility of such enjoyment as I know in these final years. Who can say? Perhaps the sole condition of my progress to this state of mind And heart which make my happiness was that very stumbling and erring which I so regret.
WHY do I give so much of my time to the reading of history? Is it in any sense profitable to me? What new light can I hope for on the nature of man? what new guidance for the direction of my own life through the few years that may remain to me? But it is with no such purpose that I reed these voluminous books; they gratify — or seem to gratify — a mere curiosity; and scarcely have I closed a volume, when the greater part of what I have read in it is forgotten.
Heaven forbid that I should remember all I Many a time I have said to myself that I would close the dreadful record of human life, lay it for ever aside, and try to forget it. Somebody declares that history is a manifestation of the triumph of good over evil. The good prevails now and then, no doubt, but how local and transitory is such triumph. If historic tomes had a voice, it would sound as one long moan of anguish. . . .
It were wiser to spend my hours with the books which bring no aftertaste of bitterness — with the great poets whom I love, with the thinkers, with the gentle writers of pages that soothe and tranquillize. Many a volume regards me from the shelf as though reproachfully; shall I never again take it in my hands? Yet the words are golden, and I would fain treasure them all in my heart's memory. Perhaps the last fault of which I shall cure myself is that habit of mind which urges me to seek knowledge. Was I not yesterday on the point of ordering a huge work of erudition, which I should certainly never have read through, and which would only have served to waste precious days? It is the Puritan in my blood, I suppose, which forbids me to recognise frankly that all I have now to do is to enjoy. This is wisdom. The time for acquisition has gone by. I am not foolish enough to set myself learning a new language; why should I try to store my memory with useless knowledge of the past?
Come, once more before I die I will read Don Quixote.
HOW the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion. Yesterday I was walking at dusk. I came to an old farmhouse; at the garden gate a vehicle stood waiting, and I saw it was our doctor's gig. Having passed, I turned to look back. There was a faint afterglow in the sky beyond the chimneys; a light twinkled at one of the upper windows. I said to myself, "Tristram Shandy," and hurried home to plunge into a book which I have not opened for I dare say twenty years.
Not long ago, I awoke one morning and suddenly thought of the Correspondence between Goethe and Schiller; and so impatient did I become to open the book that I got up an hour earlier than usual. A book worth rising for; much better worth than old Burton, who pulled Johnson out of bed. A book which helps one to forget the idle or venomous chatter going on everywhere about us, and bids us cherish hope for a world "which has such people in 't."
These volumes I had at hand; I could reach them down from my shelves at the moment when I hungered for them. But it often happens that the book which comes into my mind could only be procured with trouble and delay; I breathe regretfully and put aside the thought. Ah! the books that one will never read again. They gave delight, perchance something more; they left a perfume in the memory; but life has passed them by for ever. I have but to muse, and one after another they rise before me. Books gentle and quieting; books noble and inspiring; books that well merit to be pored over, not once but many a time. Yet never again shall I hold them in my hand; the years fly too quickly, and are too few. Perhaps when I lie waiting for the end, some of those lost books will come into my wandering thoughts, and I shall remember them as friends to whom I owed a kindness — friends passed upon the way. What regret in that last farewell!
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