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An essay by James Runciman

Colour-Blindness In Literature

Title:     Colour-Blindness In Literature
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The singular phrase at the head of this Essay came to me from a correspondent who wrote in great perplexity. This unhappy man was quite miserable because he found that his own views of the masterpieces of literature differed from those generally expressed; his modesty prevented him from setting himself up in opposition to the opinions of others, and he frankly asked, "Is there anything answering to colour-blindness which may exist in the mind as regards literature?" The absurd but felicitous inquiry took my fancy greatly, and I resolved to examine the problem with care. In particular my perturbed friend alluded to certain movements in modern criticism. He cannot admire Shelley, yet he finds Shelley placed above Byron and next to Shakspere; he reads a political poem by a modern master, and discovers to his horror that he fails to understand what it is all about. Moreover, this very free critic cannot abide Browning and the later works of Tennyson; nor can he admire Mr. Swinburne. This is dreadful; but worse remains behind. With grief and terror this penitent declares that he cannot tolerate "The Pilgrim's Progress" or "Don Quixote"; and he goes on to say, "How much of Milton seems trash, also Butler, very much of Wordsworth, and all Southey's Epics!" Then, with a wail of despair, he says, "These works have stood the test of time. Am I colour-blind?" Now this gentleman's state of mind is far more common than he supposes; only few people care to confess even to their bosom-friends that they do not accept public opinion--or rather the opinions of authority. The age has grown contemptible from cant, and traditions which are perhaps highly respectable in their place are thrust upon us in season and out of season. Regarding matters of fact there is no room for differences of opinion when once the fact is established; and regarding problems in elementary morality we perceive the same surety. No one in his senses thinks of denying that America exists; no one would think of saying that it is wrong to do unto others as we would they should do unto us; but, when we come to questions of taste, we have to deal with subtleties so complex that we are forced to deny any one's right to dogmatise. If a man says, "I enjoy this book," that is well; but if he adds, "You are a fool if you do not enjoy it too," he is guilty of folly and impertinence. These dogmatists have given rise to much hypocrisy. By all means let them hold their opinions; but at the same time let them make no claims upon us. Our beloved old friend Doctor Johnson had many views about literature which now appear to us cramped and strange, but we should examine his sayings with respect. When however it is found that the old man used to foam and bellow at persons who did not approve of his paradoxes, one is slightly inclined--in spite of reverence for his moral strength--to set him down as a nuisance, and to wonder how people managed to put up with him at times. In reading the conversations and essays of the moralist we constantly meet with passages which we should think over temperately were it not that we are informed by the critic or his biographer that only fools would venture to question Johnson's wisdom and insight.

Take the famous article on Milton. Speaking of "Lycidas," Johnson coolly observes, "In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral--easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting; whatever images it can supply are easily exhausted, and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind. He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour." Now this is blunt, positive speech, and no one would mind it much if it were left alone by ignorant persons; but it is a trifle exasperating when Johnson's authority is brought forward at second hand in order to convince us that a poem in which many people delight is disgusting. Again, the dictator said that a passage in Congreve's "Morning Bride" was finer than anything in Shakspere. Very good; let Johnson's opinion stand so far as he is concerned, but let us also consider the passage--

"How reverend is the face of this tall pile,
Whose ancient pillars rear their marble heads
To bear aloft its arched and ponderous roof,
By its own weight made steadfast and immovable,
Looking tranquillity! It strikes an awe
And terror on my aching sight."

This is the stuff which is called "noble" and "magnificent" and "impressive" by people who fail to see that Johnson was merely amusing himself, as he often did, by upholding a fallacy. The lines from Congreve are bald and utterly commonplace; they have no positive quality; and when some of us think of such gems as "When daisies pied and violets blue," or, "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," or even the description of the Dover cliff, not to mention the thousands of other gems in Shakspere's great dramas, we feel inclined to be angry when we are asked to admire Congreve's stilted nonsense. There is much to be objected to in Shakspere. I hold that a man who wrote such a dull play as "Pericles" would nowadays be scouted; but the incomparable poet should not be belittled by even a momentary comparison with Congreve.

I can readily imagine a man of real good sense and cultured taste objecting to "The Pilgrim's Progress." Why should he not? Millions of people have read the book, but millions have not; and the fact that many of the best judges of style love Bunyan offers no reason why the good tinker should be loved by everybody. As for "Don Quixote," a fine critic once remarked that he would choose that book if he were to be imprisoned for life, and if he were also allowed to choose one volume. Doubtless this gentleman has thrust his dictum concerning the value of Cervantes's work down the throats of many people who would have liked to contradict him. If his example were followed by critics universally, it would doubtless be hard to find in Britain a man pretending to culture who durst assert that he did not care for "Don Quixote." In spite of this, the grave terror with which my correspondent regards his own inability to appreciate a famous book is more than funny.

Regarding Browning I can only say that, although his worshippers are aggressive enough, one readily pardons any person who flies from his poems in disgust. A learned and enthusiastic editor actually gave "Sordello" up in despair; and even the late Dean Church averred that he did not understand the poem, though he wrote lengthy studies on it. To my own knowledge there are men and women who do derive intense pleasure from Browning, and they are quite right in expressing their feelings; but they are wrong in attempting to bully the general public into acquiescence. Certain members of the public say, "Your poet capers round us in a sort of war-dance; he flicks off our hats with some muddled paradox, he leaves a line unfinished and hurts us with a projecting conjunction. We want him to stop capering and grimacing, and then we shall tell him whether he is good-looking or not." I hold that the dissenters are right. People with the necessary metaphysical faculty may understand and passionately enjoy their Browning, but only too many simple souls have inflicted miserable suffering on themselves by trying to unravel the meaning of verses at which they never should have looked.

The fact is that we persistently neglect all true educational principles in our treatment of literature. Young minds have to be directed; but in literature, as in mechanics, the tendency of the force is to move along the lines of least resistance. A dexterous tutor should watch carefully the slightest tendencies and endeavour to find out what kind of discipline his charge can best receive. As the mind gains power it is certain to exhibit particular aptitudes, and these must be fostered. In the case of a student who is self-taught the same method must be observed, and a clever reader will soon find out what is most likely to improve him.

To my thinking some of the attempts made to force certain books on young folk are shocking and deplorable; for it must be remembered that in literature, as in the case of bodily nutriment, different foods are required at different times of life. I have known boys and girls who were forced to read "Rasselas." Now that allegorical production came from the mind of a mature, powerful, most melancholy man, and it is intended to show the barren vanity of human wishes. What an absurd thing to put in the hands of a buoyant youth! The parents however had heard that "Rasselas" was a great and moral book, whereupon the children must be subjected to unavailing torture. It maybe said, "Would not your hints tend to make people frivolous?" Certainly not, if my hints are wisely used. Let it be observed that I merely wish to do away with hypocritical conventions whereby timid men like my correspondent are subjected to extreme misery and a vast waste of intellectual power is inflicted on the world. Suppose that some ridiculous guardian had taken up the modern notions about scientific culture, and had forced Macaulay to read science alone; should we not have lost the Essays and the History?

That one consideration alone vividly illustrates my correspondent's quaint and pregnant inquiry. Macaulay was "colour-blind" to science, and the most painful times in his happy life were the hours devoted at Cambridge to mathematical and mechanical formulae. The genuinely cultured person is the one who thinks nothing of fashion and yields to his natural bent as directed by his unerring instinct. A certain modern celebrity has told us how his early days were wasted; he was first of all forced to learn Latin and Greek, though his powers fitted him to be a scientific student, and he was next forced to impart his own fatal facility to others. Thus his fame came to him late, and the most precious years of his life were thrown away. He was colour-blind to certain departments of literature which have gained a mighty reputation, yet he was obliged by sacred use and wont to act as though he relished things which he really abhorred. In a minor degree the same process of lavish waste is going on all around us. The most utterly incompetent persons of both sexes are those who, in obedience to convention, have tried to read everything that was sufficiently bepraised instead of choosing for themselves; in conversation they are objectionable bores, and it would puzzle the best of thinkers to discover their precise use in life. Take it once and for all for granted that no human creature attains fruitful culture unless he learns his own powers and then resolves to apply them only in the directions where they tell best; without so much of self-knowledge he is no more a complete man than he would be were he deficient in self-reverence and self-control. He must dare to think for himself, or he will assuredly become a mediocrity, and probably more or less offensive. All his possible influence on his fellow-creatures must depart unless he thinks for himself; and he cannot think for himself unless he is released from insincerity--the insincerity imposed by usage.

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James Runciman's essay: Colour-Blindness In Literature