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At the Royal Society Rotorua

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 4 April 1961
Viscount Cobham, GCMG, TD

The Love of Good Letters

English literature is a subject so vast in scope that in attempting to talk upon it one feels like a man putting to sea in a rowing boat to cross the Atlantic. There is, moreover, no subject upon which it is more dangerous to be didactic, because there is no field wherein people have a wider disparity in their tastes.

I have always contended that there is only one really honest and valid criticism, which is quite simply "I like it" or "I don't like it." But this statement must be a completely honest one; it loses its vitality the moment a person praises a poet or an author merely because it is fashionable to do so.

Of course a person's upbringing and environment will almost certainly affect his choice of literature, as will also his religious and philosophical beliefs. The Western world has just fought two wars in defence of freedom; and freedom to believe what one likes, to think as one likes and to read what one likes is the very lifeblood of democracy. The only important thing is to read something, and not to become like Grocer Smith, of whom - was it Chesterton? - wrote, "When Grocer Smith has made his pile, does he grow nicer? No, sir! He goes on grocing with a smile and grows a grosser grocer."

I have sometimes been led, through my lover for form and line, into launching perhaps too violent an attack upon modern expressions of art; but I would like to emphasise that this is purely a personal opinion, which I do not expect to be shared. I am, moreover, fully aware of how terribly easily art becomes ossified, unless there are, so to speak, skirmishers, constantly exploring new territory.

One must always remember that Beethoven's sue of the Dominant led his teacher to exclaim, "This young man is the devil"; and that Dr Warre, Headmaster of Eton at the turn of the century, practically forbade boys to read the poems of Robert Browning. What he would have said of "Lady Chatterley" one cannot even begin to imagine, but, just in passing, I always think that Katherine Mansfield got nearest to a just assessment of D. H. Lawrence when she wrote: "There are three Lawrences - the black devil whom I hate, the prophet in whom I do not believe, and the artist whom I love and value."

Thus, as R. W. Livingstone pointed out, it is necessary to live in the world of today and to be at home with its current techniques so far as we need them. But if we stop there, we remain children, playing with the latest toys, and unaware that there is anything outside the nursery. We shall indeed be ephemera, creatures of a day, unable to look beyond it. That narrowness of vision is written all over our civilisation, and the more prosperous we are materially, the more legible is the inscription.

Surely Plato was right when he said that we must look at our world at a distance as well as near at hand - to see it in the year 1961 but also, in Plato's phrase, "in the light of all time and all existence."

My quarrel is not with the experimenters so much as with certain critics who seem unable to grasp the conception that there may be one glory of the sun and one of the moon.

Because Dickens was often sentimental, they say that Dickens couldn't write. Because Kipling extolled the Victorian qualities of patriotism, discipline and the family virtues, he is dismissed as a mere "jingoist," whatever that may mean.

Now I contend that merely because one admires the poetry of T. S. Eliot, there is no reason why one shouldn't also admire that of Geoffrey Chaucer. In other words, to appreciate literature, one must look at it standing, so to speak, well back. In so doing we may possibly avoid making ourselves ridiculous, as did some obscure American university professor of English some years ago, when he described "Paradise Lost" as "the dullest work in the English language."

A man must indeed be unusually complacent to contradict flatly such men of letters as Macaulay and Housman. Nobody would maintain, I imagine, that Macaulay was given to extravagant praise, but "Paradise Lost" led him to write one of the few passages in his History which obviously came from the heart rather than from the head. Speaking of the state of England in 1685 and deploring the current decline in manners and morals, he wrote:

"It is not strange, therefore, that our polite literature, when it revived with the revival of the old civil and ecclesiastical polity, should have been profoundly immoral. A few eminent men, who belonged to an earlier and better age, were exempt from the general contagion. The verse of Waller still breathes the sentiments which had animated a more chivalrous generation. Cowley, distinguished as a loyalist and as a man of letters, raised his voice courageously against the immorality which disgraced both letters and loyalty.

And then Macaulay pulls out all the stops and the great organ peels out in all its majesty:

"A mightier poet, tried at once by pain, danger, poverty, obloquy and blindness, meditated, undisturbed by the obscene tumult which raged all around him, a song so sublime and so holy that it would not have misbecome the lips of those ethereal virtues whom he saw, with that inner eye that no calamity could darken, flinging down on the jasper pavement their crowns of amaranth and gold."

This passage contained an allusion to the beautiful and melancholy lines on his blindness in Book III, which Housman called the "pinnacle of English poetry":

Thus with the year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day or the sweet approach of an ev'n or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer's rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of Nature's works to me expung'd and raz'd,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut or.
So much the rather thou, celestial light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate. There plant eyes. All mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

Perhaps the touch of mysticism is the flame that illustrates all great literature - that taproot to the unconscious which is the acknowledgement of mankind's terribly short range of vision.

As I have intimated, so often certain critics attack a writer or a poet for his worst work and not for his best. "Nemo mortalium sapit in omnibus horis," and there is point in George III's criticism of Shakespeare, in conversation with Fanny Burney: "Is there not sad stuff, what, what?"

And was it not J. K. Stephen who wrote:

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony
And, Wordsworth, both are thine.
Yet even the most case-hardened modern critic would deny the essential greatness of Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

How is it done? How are great prose and great poetry produced? And why have we largely lost the art today of constructing lines that send an ecstatic shiver down one's spine, like Miltons'

So Lycidas sank low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves.

And Shakespeare's description of the bees in "Henry V": "The singing masons building roofs of gold."

I think that all great literature originates in the heart rather than the brain of man, and that in the long run no art will be accepted that has not got, so to speak, its roots firmly in earth and its branches reaching toward the heavens. To me, D. H. Lawrence seems to be metaphorically writing upside down. The tremendous sensibility, the love of beauty, the power of words are all there, but they seem to be afraid to take wings; it is as though his sense of beauty is to him such sheer pain that he must needs turn for comfort not only to the earth but to the waters under the earth.

Hardy put what I am trying to convey in one sentence: "I begin to feel that merely intellectual subtlety will not hold its own, in time to come, against the straight-forward expression of good feeling."

This is borne out by the fact that strong feeling has a way of transcending the accurate use of words or even construction. Many years ago to anarchists in America were put to death, after spending many years in gaol, for a crime for which it is doubtful whether they were justly sentenced. Their names were Saccho and Vanzetti, and a piece of paper was left by Vanzetti in his cell and found there after his execution. On it was written the following:

If it had not been for these thing, I might have live out my life, talking at street-corners to scorning men. I might have die unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man, as we now do by an accident. Our words - our lives, our pains - nothing! The taking of our lives, lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-pedlar - all! That last moment belong to us - that agony is our triumph."

By no stretch of the imagination can that be called great prose, but it is packed with the power which is so often contained in incoherence struggling for expression. One might say of it that it is like Irving's "Hamlet," as described by C. E. Montagu: "All over faults but a regular globe of passion and romance, with huge subterranean caverns, and flames of fire inside it."

(Sometimes immense drama is added to a tale by a simple mistake in spelling, as when a schoolgirl, narrating how an earthquake destroyed half the house of a sleeping bishop, ended, "The bishop awoke to find himself looking at a yawning abbess").

We live in a materialistic age, and, as Frank Swinnerton wrote, "materialism is inimical to ecstasy. Nobody but Rhodes and Churchill in this century has used the tones of greatness, has imagined England in the old heroic terms."

This is not quite true; King George VI used unmistakable tones of greatness in his Empire Day speech on 24th May, 1940, one of the darkest moments of the war:

Against our honour is set dishonour, against our faithfulness is set treachery, against our justice, brute force. There in clear and unmistakable opposition, lie the forces which now confront one another. The great uprising of peoples throughout the Empire shows without doubt which will prevail In perfect unity of purpose they will defend their lives, and all that makes life worth living.

Let no one think that my confidence is dimmed when I tell you how perilous is the ordeal we are facing. On the contrary, it shines in my heart as brightly as it shines in yours. But confidence alone is not enough. It must be armed with courage and resolution, with endurance and self-sacrifice Keep your hearts proud and your resolution unshaken. Let us go forward to that task as one man, a smile on our lips, and our heads held high, and with God's help we shall not fail.

I doubt if Sir Winston, mighty orator though he is, would himself claim ever to have spoken nobler words.

I think, then, that all the greatest literature originates in the heart. And there is one last point I would like to make and it is this: That of the many invisible bonds that unite the Commonwealth, none is stronger or more enduring than the English tongue, and deriving from that, English literature. As George Eliot wrote: "If art does not enlarge men's sympathies, it does nothing morally; opinions are a poor cement between human souls."

It was an Indian gentleman of great perception, Mr Nirad Chaudheri, who wrote the following remarkable passage:

We stand nowhere in regard to England if we give up things like literature. Neither the racehorse, nor cricket and football, nor even whisky, on which greater reliance if often placed, can be an adequate substitute. We cannot say, as an Australian, New Zealander, or even American can say to his son, "Go and see that manor or farm, for that is where your ancestors came from." It is not for us to say that blood is thicker than water. The only ties felt in the heart that we can have with England are those created by things of the mind."

I think that this passage holds out more hope for the future that all the Summit Conferences and Trade Missions ever convened, implying as it does the writer's belief that in the realm of the mind there are no national barriers. Another Indian gave this idea his blessing when he wrote to his English lady correspondent:

Sometimes upon my lonely walks I think about these things, Lady Sahib, and I come to the conclusions that it is the small things that separate man from man, not the large ones. The hats, the habits, and the customs more than the religious and political convictions. To some men the top hat will always be a joke; as with Englishmen must always be the turban or the fez Do you think that if one day the ingenious mind of man could invent a hat acceptable to all mankind, we could at last be friends?

That, too, is a thought worth pondering - that it is the "small things that separate man from man." Kipling who, more than almost any other poet, lived to hear "the truth he had spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools," realised this when he wrote that "there is neither East nor West, border nor breed, nor birth when two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth."

Ladies and Gentlemen, this has been, I fear, in no sense a cohesive or even intelligible talk on English literature. I have wandered about withersoever my footsteps have led me: I have given expression to few opinions, and I have reached no conclusion because there was none to be reached. I am the veriest amateur, but at least an amateur in its truest sense: I love good letters, and I greatly enjoy meeting others who love them too.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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