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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 9 (February 25, 1927)

Authors — Britain's Pageant Of Prose And Poetry

page 52

Britain's Pageant Of Prose And Poetry.

Though it may be outwith the ordinary man's reach to span the width, and plumb the depth, of the knowledge of the origins and developments of our Saxon speech, of its thought and literary expression, he can, at least, explore the fringes of our wondrous heritage of English literature. If the desire be there, one has but to begin his study to find that desire grow and, captivated by its literary charm, refuse to be satisfied until he has gained a sympathetic understanding of the genius of our race. The books that tell the story of English literature are already legion, and every publishing season sees many more added to the list. The close of last year saw quite a number of important additions. The subject is so entrancing that it will always find willing pens, more or less competent, to dilate upon its charms, if for no other reason than that which our English Bible has made familiar to us all—out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh.



The study of English literature may seem uninviting, just as the game of golf seems silly to the uninitiated, but once entered upon in earnest, though the task be hard, the hazards many, the bunkers great and fortune often lay one a “stimie,” if one persevere he soon knows that delight that “physics pain.” The further he advances the more eager he becomes to push on to “fresh woods and pastures new,” to cull the flowers of poesy and prose that there await his coming, and, though he pluck them all, will leave none the less for those who follow after. Three of the most recent books, books that no true bookman can afford to be without, are “Authors Dead and Living,” By F. L. Lucas (Chatto and Windus), “Studies Green and Gray,” by Sir Henry Newbolt (Nelson), and, last, but not least, John Buchan's “Homilies and Recreations” (Nelson). We live in a happy age in that it is now possible for the lover of books, even if poor, to learn more of past and present literary history than our grandfathers knew about the authors of their own day. But charming and absorbingly interesting as the literary achievement of the past is to the reader of to-day, if he desire to reap the best he must not neglect contemporary authors. As to those of the past, it may be true, it is true, that “there were giants in the land in those days,” but he must beware of falling into the error of assuming that there are none in our own time. There are. But the past is, and always will be the greater storehouse of genius, for the simple reason that every day that passes adds to its store. Tennyson, Browning, Dickens, Thackeray, page 53 Meredith and others, who were contemporary with the youth of many of us, have now for years belonged to the past. So while the field of English literature is ever widening in the present, the past, too, must needs continue to grow, not only in bulk, but in worth.

The early literature, like the early history of the mingled peoples now known as the British race, exists only in fragmentary form, and from it we had learned but little, had it not been that modern science came to our aid and with its wizard wand made dead things speak. The old traditions that had survived the centuries were undated and their origin unknown. All that could be said was that such things were “a long time ago.” Then the Questers came—men whose whole lives were notes of interrogation. Old foundations of ancient ruins were digged about and tools and other things discovered of which at first they could but guess the use. Tombs were opened and, lo, in the hands of the dead were golden coins. These coins bore the images of rulers and gave the dates of their rule. Thus the dead were made to tell the secret of the past. Ancient parchments, after many years of patient toil, were deciphered and, as has been said, out of them rose songs, music, love-ditties and war-cries—phrases so full of life that the living hearts of to-day have been stirred by them; words with so much colour in them that the landscape so familiar to the ancient Kelt and Briton reappeared before our eyes!

Chaucer is the accepted “Father of English Poesy.” Much as I love Chaucer, I reserve such honourable distinction not for him, but for the Bard who, many years earlier, gave us “Beowulf.” And the mention of “Beowulf” prompts the query: Why is it that even many learned Britons neglect the ancient culture of our country and people, and know little or nothing of its early literature, in which they ought to take a national pride? How different is the attitude of our recent enemies, the Germans, to the old warrior poems. In Germany there is scarcely a home without its copy of the “Edda.” A new translation of this work was recently published, and a new edition was called for every month for two years. I wonder how many Britons have read William Morris's version of “Sigurd the Volsung,” a poem which has been described as the greatest epic in the world, with Homer's work as a good second? And what do they know of “Beowulf?” Why this neglect? Is it that such modern versions as have been produced are too scholarly, or do not rise near enough to the accepted standard of modern verse to please our refined poetic palates? This is true not only of “Beowulf.” Few Britons and fewer Englishmen can read Chaucer to-day with intelligent appreciation, not to say enjoyment.

Or turn to the domain of prose and much the same thing meets us there. How many who read regularly ever think of taking a course of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett or Sterne? And is it not equally true that a great number of our so-called bookish persons have not read Lytton, Disraeli, ay, and even Thackeray? But though we may pass the father of English poetry, be he the bard of “Beowulf” or Chaucer, we cannot, an we would, pass the father of the English novel—Defoe. He, with Scott and Dickens, will last when many newer and “louder” writers of to-day are silenced for ever. Most of you who are mature in years, and fond of good literature, know your Scott and your Dickens, and after them, your Thackeray. I wonder how many of you know Meredith? Meredith is not as popular as he should be, nor nearly as popular as he will be. He is not altogether easy to read. His novels are novels each with a purpose. Some unthinkingly condemn this type of romance, quite page 54 unaware that, with the exception of those of Scott and Lytton, most every great English novel is a novel with a purpose. Meredith, however, is not for the careless, the superficial or the surfeited reader. Such, if they would retain their good opinion of him, begat and nourished by the remarks of literary critics, had better leave him unread. Among the writers of to-day we have many who fittingly uphold the traditions of those great masters of fiction who blazed the trail for them and all who are yet to follow. Surely, on that shelf of yours, reserved for the very best of the moderns, you find a place for John Galsworthy, W. J. Locke, Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan and, last but not least, that grand old man of fiction, Thomas Hardy!

Robert Burns.

Robert Burns.

Of our poets it is much easier to write. Dramatic poetry culminated in Shakespeare (Bacon?) in England, and lyrical poetry in Burns in Scotland. Their works are well known to everybody who is anybody. Indeed, a volume of Shakespeare may be said to have become a collection of “familiar quotations,” while Burns' songs, not only in his native country, but throughout the world, are “familiar as household words.” There are other poets aplenty, who give much pleasure to the readers of verse and the singers of songs; but these two have been enthroned as Kings of Song, each in his own domain, and the human mind cannot conceive of a time when they will be forced to abdicate for two more worthy of the love and homage of the people.

But Britain's pageant of poesy and prose numbers in its longdrawn lines a multitude of other writers who hold front rank in other domains than those of song and story. Indeed,

‘Twould take near-hand a page o’ type

Did I but name them all!

I must ask you, therefore, to be satisfied with the names of a few. John Trevisa (1387) and Sir John Maunderville (1410) are still worth reading. Skipping a century, we come to Sir Thomas More (1513) with John Bellenden (1536), Hugh Latimer (1548) Lindsay of Pitscottie (1570), James Melville (1574), John Lyly (1579), Sir Walter Raleigh (1591), John Donne (1624), Principal Baillie (1639) and John Milton (1644), bringing us much that we may still read with profit, pleasure and appreciation. Following on these, among many others, come Dr. Johnson (1709), Burke (1729), Gibbon (1737), Boswell (1740), Lamb (1775), De Quincey (1785), Carlyle (1795), Ruskin (1819) and Alexander Smith (1830), all equally famous and still widely read, with the exception of Alexander Smith, who for the purity of his prose takes front rank with the masters of all time. The names of recent and living essayists are legion, and great as some of these latter day writers undoubtedly are, we stand too near to their work in point of time to be able to decide with any likelihood of correctness, their relationship to all who have gone before, or in what esteem they will be held by future generations of readers.

In the scientific world, also, English literature provides a galaxy of names unsurpassed in number and genius by any other single nation. Foremost among these are Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley of the old brigade, while among present day sociological and scientific writers the first to rise to our lips are the names of J. M. Robertson, Joseph MeCabe, Philip Vivian, Ray Lankester, Julian Huxley, Gowans White, J. A. Thomson and a hundred others. We have named many masters of romance and melody, and scientists and essayists. All but a few of these are for the few and the leisured. The poets who appeal to the multitude, with the exception of Burns and Byron and a few others, are those who play upon the oaten reed, the minor minstrels who sing of their loves and domestic joys and sorrows.

page 55

Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like a benediction
That follows after prayer.

I should like to quote a number of such gems of song as have become endeared to the “common people,” but space is limited. As things are, the great treasures of literature are hidden wealth to the average worker. This is greatly his own fault. He is, in too many cases, content to sit and, at best, watch the pageant pass, and others do not even that. Many, even among the workers themselves, think that such things and the culture they transmit to all who pay them court, are not for men who have to earn their living at hard and exacting toil. There never was a greater falsehood, or a more hurtful and unfounded folly. It is the worker, whether of brain or brawn, who needs most, and who is best entitled to the enjoyment of the best our poets and thinkers have given us. It was the happy realisation of this that made William Cameron, the cobbler poet, sing:

“They say I'm poor and scant of wealth, my sunny moments few;
They deem my comforts small, my friends false, fickle and untrue;
They reckon that because I toil all day where hammers clink,
My soul's a midnight without stars. They dream;
but I? I think!
They little know with head bowed down my mind's away on wing;
And 'though 'mong humble men I work, I'm happier than a king!
They say that care has chained my chair and clogged my fettered feet;
And deem a wife's and children's needs tax all my powers to meet;
They say my barque, all tempest tost, beneath the waves will sink,
But, no! when waves are wild I still have got the power to think.
Ah, little know they that my thoughts (like Noah's dove) take wing
And fly away o'er field and flood, and make me “feel a king.”
They ask me in derisive strains where flowers and fern leaves grow?
And whether grass is green or brown, and how the roses blow?
They say I only live to toil, to eat and sleep and drink;
They little guess that mind's a world that has the power to think.
They never dream, though working hard, books to my mind can bring
The wealth of flowers, of birds, of streams, as well as to a king!
Who says my friends are few and poor? Come, tattler, see them here!
Who says “they're false and fickle friends!”
I've found them aye sincere!
I've Byron, Burns, and Hogg and Hood—ay, more than pen and ink
Can trace or tell, and all my friends speak truths that make me think.
Blair preaches to me wond'rous words, and Keats and Milton sing;
And Scott and Dickens tell me tales—I'm happier that a king!

“Shakespeare,” said Ingersoll, “exceeded all the sons of men in the splendour of his imagination. To him the whole world paid tribute, and nature poured her trensures at his feet. In him all races lived again, and even those to be were pictured in his brain.

Shakespeare was an intellectual ocean, whose waves touched all the shores of thought; within which were all the tides and waves of destiny and will; over which swept all the storms of fate, ambition and revenge; upon which fell the gloom and darkness of despair and death and all the sunlight of content and love, and within which was the inverted sky lit with the eternal stars—an intellectual ocean—towards which all rivers ran, and from which now the isles and continents of thought receive their dew and rain.”