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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 4

Mr John Morley on Literature

page 143

Mr John Morley on Literature.

At the centenary dinner of the Royal Literary Fund, Mr John Morley responded for « Literature, » and in the course of his speech said: « I often whether there are fifty, or even twenty, men and women who are earning competence by the authorship of books, putting schoolbooks out of the question. We can depend upon it—and in saying this I am not sure that I ought not to address my remarks equally to the ladies who grace us with their presence to-night—that the book-writer, unless he chance to have a great natural gift for fiction however frugal and homely his life, whatever his resources of accumulated knowledge, if he depends upon the authorship of books as his only resource, he or she will be likely to have a hard time of it. And this marks a great change in our literary history—that the opening now, for those who look to literature as a subsistence, is in journalism. It has been truly said that the great advantage of literature is that it has the last word. So it has, in a sense—at least the highest kind of literature has. But there is also a kind of literature which nobody can afford to despise, and which has the first word—I mean journalistic literature. The great historian of the Council of Trent said that it was enough for him if he got a dozen readers in an age. That is one kind of literature. The other kind, to which the modern ideal more readily conforms, is that which has a hundred thousand readers for two minutes after breakfast. The result for journalism has been undoubtedly good: and we have in England, in journalism of the highest kind, a vivacity, an industry, and I will even say a conscientiousness, which has never before been seen in journalism. I know very well what journalism is. I began a good many years ago by teaching Lord Palmerston and Mr Disraeli and Mr Gladstone the arts of statesmanship in the columns of important prints. As Thackeray has said of that band of which I was a very humble member: 'We taught painters how to paint, poets how to write, and we taught ladies of the ballet how to pirouette.' I have now had the advantage of seeing the other side of it; and in my very small experience I have been taught myself by young gentlemen of twenty or of five-and-twenty the arts of politics and public life. On the whole, however stinging, however biting journalism may be, it is a great force for good; and we may be well satisfied if there is a certain diversion of cultivation, of intellectual interest, and of moral interest into what seems like ephemeral production; because along with it there is no cessation of great monumental works. We have them in every form and in every kind; and I must say that I for one feel that the more letters are followed as a profession the less likely is the great art of literature to suffer. But the more letters are followed as a profession, the heavier will be the demands upon this society. Many will drift into it, will struggle on, and will not find out their mistake until it is too late. All of us hold our life, and even our reason, as Sir Walter Scott well says, upon a tenure more precarious than we should be content to hold even an Irish cabin upon. With many, or with some, the stage darkens before the curtain falls. Youth must always have its struggle and battle; and I have heard from those who have now grasped the glittering bubbles of fame and reputation that the days of their youth, when they were in solitary chambers with not too much to eat, when they had within them the fire of the zeal for truth and knowledge, and all the enthusiasm and illusions of youth—that those, after all, were not the least happy portions of their lives. Youth, therefore, must fight its battles; but it is not for youth that this society exists. It is for those who, as I say, have made a mistake in their vocation, and there is no vocation in which there are so many who think themselves called in proportion to the few who are chosen. In conclusion, I will only express my full confidence in the future of letters in this country. I am fully persuaded, as I am sure all of you are, that the same moral energy, the same vivid intellectual perception, the same mastery of that great instrument, our language, which has made our literature one of the greatest triumphs of Great Britain—that all these qualities will remain, will operate, and will add still further in the future to that great capital which the renown of our men of letters has given to us, and will still further strengthen the moral dominion of our realm, which is more important to us than extent of territorial possessions, and more lasting than any material supremacy. »