« AnteriorContinuar »
and speak of the labours of those ‘painful divines’ much as Homer does of the big stones which his heroes flung about so slightly, “such as would require ten men to lift, as men now are.” (Oto viv Booroi etc.) I am not concerned to deny in toto the truth of this estimate ; but there is something to be said on the other side. Let it first be considered, that it is easy to write big books if the writer puts down whatever comes into his head which has any connexion with the subject, near or remote. The task of selection and compression is one of the most difficult which an author has to discharge. The mere accumulation of material is easy. A literary hodman, with a library for his brickfield, may readily accumulate a cyclopoean pile; but then begins the labours of the true architect or artist. The task of selection and rejection is more protracted, more exhausting, and demands qualities of a far higher order, than the mere accumulating. It is often more difficult to write an article than a book. ‘Excuse my prolixity, I have not time to be brief,’ was thought a good joke, but it announced a great truth. There is a French proverb to the effect that there is ‘nothing so difficult as simplicity.’ I will cap it by the paradox, that “nothing requires so much time as brevity.’ This the folio writers of two centuries ago did not understand. They aimed to say everything which could be said upon the subject of which they were treating. They walked round about it, and looked at it from all sides, till they had exhausted both reader and subject. I take down from my shelves a volume of Owen's works, and opening it at random, come to a sermon on Heb. xii. 27, the exordium of which contains more than thirty divisions and sub-divisions, after which he gravely says, “And thus I am stepped down upon my text.” How many more heads and particulars follow hereupon, this deponeth sayeth not, he only knows that the next page contains sixteen. The Puritans, indeed, appear (pace Dr. Dryasdust) to have attained the same stage of mental development with the theological writers of modern Germany. None of them are able to omit anything, or even to perceive what is essential to the matter in hand, and what is so far incidental to it that it may be left out. ‘The half is often more than the whole,” is a proverb which will apply to the works in question. To reduce them in size by one-half, would be to double their value. Instead of expressing wonder that they had time to write so much, we should rather say of them that they wrote so much that they had not time to be briefer. The compactness, brevity, and to-the-pointedness of modern literature, which finds its aptest type in our periodicals, is an improvement upon those lumbering folios, just as a marble statuette is an advance upon a waggon load of marble. It is to be observed yet further, that many of the productions of our great-grandfathers, which come to us in the form of ponderous folios, appeared as pamphlets, or occasional discourses. If the magazine or the serial be an invention of more modern date, the tractate or flying sheet is not. People in the era of the Commonwealth lived in a perpetual snow-storm of pamphlets. All the prose works of Milton, most of those of Baxter, Owen, Jeremy Taylor, and other writers of the day, appeared in this form. Had they lived in our time, they would have been regular contributors to the Christian Spectator.' In the year 2062, when original copies of this number fetch their weight in gold at book sales, the complete series reprinted will look as big and bulky as the complete works of the Puritan divines, and will impress beholders with a similar sense of the intense mental activity and force of the men who lived A.D. 1862. Some laudator temporis acti, pointing to the volumes upon his shelf, glowing with gratitude to the able editor and his staff for the golden thoughts treasured up in such rich profusion for his benefit, and lamenting the degeneracy of the times on which he has fallen, will affirm that, 'there were giants in those days. He will speak of our labours with an admiring and despairing wonder, and will make it an article of faith to maintain that he and his contemporaries live in days of little men and worthless deeds. We practice a similar deception upon ourselves when we adopt the self-depreciating cant of the day. I do not believe that the former days were better than these. In spite of all that may be said on the other side,
Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widened with the progress of the suns.' This much, at any rate, is certain, that to speak of the past age as one which exclusively wrote, read, and thought folios, in contradistinction to the tracts, pamphlets, and review articles of the present day, is an historical blunder, due to the form in which the occasional Literature of our forefathers has come down to us.
There can scarcely be a greater error than that of estimating the value of a literary production by its bulk-unless, indeed, we apply the rule inversely, and say, 'the less the better.' Meya Bibliov upya cacor is for the most part a true proverb. When Dr. Chalmers was recommended to read any book with which he was not acquainted, he used dubiously to ask, “Is it a big un ? Carlyle begins his famous article on Diderot by saying, The Acts of the Christian Apostles, on wbich we may say the world has now, for eighteen centuries, had its foundation, are written in so small a compass that they can be read in one little hour. The Acts of the French philosophers, the importance of which is already fast exhausting itself, are recorded in whole acres of typography, and would furnish reading for a lifetime.' Some readers value a book in proportion to the labour required to get through it, and the weariness and relief they feel when it is done; just as the Africans test a gun by the force of the recoil, a rifle which does not kick, being deemed worthless, whilst an old musket that cannot be fired without dislocating the shoulder, or laying its possessor breathless upon his back, is 'prized above all price. Not a few of the books without which no gentleman's library can be considered complete,' owe their position to this exhausting property. Whatever may have been done in foriner days, nobody does or can read them now. They are dummies on the shelves, and might without disadvantage, save for purposes of reference, be replaced by the traditional draught-board, with 'Hume's History of England,' lettered on the back. Yet to possess and to praise them is essential to every Englishman who would not be deemed a pert innovator, a shallow sciolist, or an ignorant dolt. For myself, I must confess that I am not altogether free from this Fetish worship. I have never been able to get through Clarendon's • History,' or Owen's Theologonmena,' or Baxter's Christian Directory,' and I have never yet met with any one who has done so. Yet I speak of these great works with bated breath and whispered humbleness. There are few men living, perhaps ncne, who know what they contain beyond the first few hundred pages. The interior, like that of Africa, is terra incognita. They may be as full of heresies and contradictions, as the African deserts are of wild beasts, for anything we know to the contrary. A literary Livingstone, who should set himself to explore those ‘Antres vast and deserts wide,' might make some strange discoveries there if he escaped with life and reason; meanwhile, omne ignotum pro magnifico is a safe motto, and, as Voltaire said, “the ancients will be every day more praised, because they will be every day less read.' If this be thought too strong, yet at least we may, with absolute truth and universal consent, apply the words which that grim old censor Johnson wrote of our great epic, 'It is one of the books which the reader admires, and lays down, and forgets to take up again ; none ever wished it longer than it is.' Or those which Macaulay used of Spenser's Fairy Queen,' 'One unpardonable fault, the fault of tediousness, pervades the whole. Of the persons who read the first canto, not one in ten reaches the end of the first book, and not one in a hundred perseveres to the end of the first poem. Very few and very weary are those who are in at the death of the Blatant Beast. If the last six books had been preserved, we doubt whether any heart less stout than that of a commentator, would have held out to the end.
There are some subjects which from their very nature require to be treated at considerable length, and are hard to be understood.' Metaphysics made easy,'Logic for Ladies,'and French in ten lessons,' are a delusion and a snare. As the old Greek apologue says, 'The Gods give nothing without dust and sweat.' The student who should endeavour to feed his mind exclusively on periodical literature, even though he read his Christian Spectator' through three times a month, by way of corrective to the trash he found elsewhere, would
un nothingness themith things in the
grow up a noodle,-ending as he began. But it is none the less true, that some of the most important work of the world has been done by literature, brief, fragmentary, incomplete, like a magazine article. The Mosquito fleet penetrates where three-deckers cannot approach within range. What would the Commonwealth have been without its pamphlets? or the German Reformation without its tracts? Let no one be scandalized if I say that the Bible itself is really a collection of periodical, or at least occasional, papers, which have appeared 'at sundry times and in divers manners.' The Psalms of David, the Books of the Prophets, the Epistles of St. Paul, were brief isolated effusions, each composed to meet some special case, written as any tract or pamphlet might be, though forming together one complete and perfect whole. There is not a book in the Bible larger than a modern penny magazine; the whole New Testament scarcely equals in size one of our monthlies, and both Testaments would form a single chapter out of the score required for a folio volume. Let no man then 'despise the day of small things.'
Whether, however, it be good or for evil, the fact is patent, that periodical literature supplies the chief mental pabulum of the age. Multitudes who read nothing else, except the newspaper, look eagerly for magazine day, which brings them their monthly store of knowledye, and puts them au courant with things in general. Multitudes, who would otherwise be excluded from the great world of letters, thus gain a tincture of art, science, and literature. The most recent discoveries are popularized, the last new poem or picture is criticised, philosophical theories are expounded, and political questions discussed, in a form and with a brevity which bring them within the reach of all. Few persons would now quote with approval the line, 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.'* Even a little is, by universal consent, better than done at all and there are multitudes who, but for these appliances, must remain without that little. If the masses derive benefit from these brief, cheap, and simple expositions of the omne scibile, it may be doubted whether literature and science have not derived a yet greater benefit from the correlative extension of their audience. They emerge from the close stifling atmosphere of the class-room into the fresh air of the outer world. They no longer appeal exclusively to the contracted judgments of a clique, but seek the suffrages and win the applause of mankind. During what is called the Augustan period of our literature, a successful writer was féted by the wits at the Dolphin
• Or rather misquote it. The little man of Twickenham did not state it absolutely, but secundum quid, as the logicians say. The passage is in the Essay on Criticism,' and is addressed to authors generally-critics specially. Sir E. L. Bulwer has pointed the equally false use of the contrasted passage, supposed to have the authority of Bacon, 'Knowledge is power.'
or the Cocoa Tree, was the hero of clubs and coffee-houses, received. ten guineas from a noble patron for a dedication, or became the pensioned pamphleteer of a party. Philosophy and science were the arcana of a caste, and partook of the exclusiveness and narrowness thence resulting. Now, the great public have been admitted to share the privileges previously enjoyed by the few, and they have repaid the boon by the broader sympathies, and wider views they have elicited in their teachers. The rewards of success are increased with the extension of the area, and the stimulus to labour is proportionately enhanced. Magazines and reviews form the medium of communication between the hierarchy of literature and science and the masses of society. Tennyson and Wordsworth, Faraday and Owen, Humboldt, Whewell, Murchison, and Lyell, have become household words among thousands who never read a line of their writings save in the pages of periodicals. That the public derive good from this cannot be doubted, and the advantages are reciprocal. I once heard an eminent authority in scientific questions say, that it would be difficult to exaggerate the benefits accruing to science from its popularization, in which technicalities and esoteric formulae have to be thrown aside, and the truth presented in a simple, popular, and concrete form. The great law of trade, that supply follows demand, holds good in literature no less than in commerce. To some extent genius is exempt from control, is above law being ‘a law unto itself,' and forces a new channel in which it may flow. But talent supplies the market with the literary wares that happen to be in demand. Let the reading public evince a preference for any class or style of composition, and it is forthwith produced in any quantity that may be required. And whatever commands the readiest sale and the highest price, will be furnished in the largest quantities, and the best quality. This may seem a very pedestrian and prosaic view of literature. Many will indignantly protest against the idea that Pegasus can be harnessed to a common cart, or that ‘the gift and faculty divine' will work for wages. But the fact is palpable. Haydon's theory, that high art required a large canvas may be true, but his example finds no imitators. In spite of his tirades, the walls of our exhibitions continue to be hung with small pictures which will sell. Tennyson holds fast by the old doctrines that the complete epic is the noblest form of poetry, but such a poem would be a drug in the market, and he therefore confines himself to lyrical pieces, or fragments of his great Athurian epic, which he calls Idylls. Dickens, Thackeray, and Bulwer discovered that a tale pays better if introduced to the world a bit at a time; they therefore publish their productions periodically. A successful magazine may circulate from 20,000 to 50,000 a month, and can hence afford to pay a higher price to contributors than they could earn in any other way. Indeed, so re