In the dozy hours, and other papers/Lectures
"Few of us," says Mr. Walter Bagehot in one of his most cynical moods, "can bear the theory of our amusements. It is essential to the pride of man to believe that he is industrious."
Now, is it industry or a love of sport which makes us sit in long and solemn rows in an oppressively hot room, blinking at glaring lights, breathing a vitiated air, wriggling on straight and narrow chairs, and listening, as well as heat and fatigue and discomfort will permit, to a lecture which might just as well have been read peacefully by our own firesides? Do we do this thing for amusement, or for intellectual gain? Outside, the winter sun is setting clearly in a blue-green sky. People are chatting gayly in the streets. Friends are drinking cups of fragrant tea in pleasant lamp-lit rooms. There are concerts, perhaps, or matinées, where the deft comedian provokes continuous laughter. No; it is not amusement that we seek in the lecture-hall. Too many really amusing things may be done on a winter afternoon. Too many possible pleasures lie in wait for every spare half-hour. We can harbor no delusions on that score.
Is it industry, then, that packs us side by side in serried Amazonian ranks, broken here and there by a stray and downcast man? But on the library shelves stand thick as autumn leaves the unread books. Hidden away in obscure corners are the ripe old authors whom we know by name alone. The mist of an unspoken tongue veils from us the splendid treasures of antiquity, and we comfort ourselves with glib commonplaces about "the sympathetic study of translations." No; it can hardly be the keen desire of culture which makes us patient listeners to endless lectures. Culture is not so easy of access. It is not a thing passed lightly from hand to hand. It is the reward of an intelligent quest, of delicate intuitions, of a broad and generous sympathy with all that is best in the world. It has been nobly defined by Mr. Symonds as "the raising of the intellectual faculties to their highest potency by means of conscious training." We cannot gain this fine mastery over ourselves by absorbing—or forgetting—a mass of details upon disconnected subjects,—"a thousand particulars," says Addison, "which I would not have my mind burdened with for a Vatican." If we will sit down and seriously try to reckon up our winnings in years of lecture-going, we may yet find ourselves reluctant converts to Mr. Bagehot's cruel conclusions. It is the old, old search for a royal road to learning. It is the old, old effort at a compromise which cheats us out of both pleasure and profit. It is the old, old determination to seek some short cut to acquirements, which, like "conversing with ingenious men," may save us, says Bishop Berkeley, from "the drudgery of reading and thinking."
The necessity of knowing a little about a great many things is the most grievous burden of our day. It deprives us of leisure on the one hand, and of scholarship on the other. At times we envy the happy Hermit of Prague, who never saw pen or ink; at times we think somewhat wistfully of the sedate and dignified methods of the past, when students, to use Sir Walter Scott's illustration, paid their tickets at the door, instead of scrambling over the walls to distinction. It shows a good deal of agility and self-reliance to scale the walls; and such athletic interlopers, albeit a trifle disordered in appearance, are apt to boast of their unaided prowess: how with "little Latin and less Greek" they have become—not Shakespeares indeed, nor even Scotts—but prominent, very prominent citizens indeed. The notion is gradually gaining ground that common-school education is as good as college education; that extension lectures and summer classes are acceptable substitutes for continuous study and mental discipline; that reading translations of the classics is better, because easier, than reading the classics themselves; and that attending a "Congress" of specialists gives us, in some mysterious fashion, a very respectable knowledge of their specialties. It is after this manner that we enjoy, in all its varied aspects, that energetic idleness which Mr. Bagehot recommends as a deliberate sedative for our restless self-esteem.
Yet the sacrifice of time alone is worth some sorrowful consideration. We laugh at the droning pedants of the old German universities who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had well-nigh drowned the world with words. The Tübingen chancellor, Penziger, gave, it is said, four hundred and fifty-nine lectures on the prophet Jeremiah, and over fifteen hundred lectures on Isaiah; while the Viennese theologian, Hazelbach, lectured for twenty-two consecutive years on the first chapter of Isaiah, and was cruelly cut off by death before he had finished with his theme. But the bright side of this picture is that only students—and theological students at that—attended these limitless dissertations. Theology was then a battle-field, and the heavy weapons forged for the combat were presumed to be as deadly as they were cumbersome. During all those twenty-two years in which Herr Hazelbach held forth so mercilessly, German maidens and German matrons formed no part of his audience. They at least had other and better things to do. German artisans and German tradesmen troubled themselves little about Isaiah. German ploughmen went about their daily toil as placidly as if Herr Hazelbach had been born a mute. The sleepy world had not then awakened to its duty of disseminating knowledge broadcast and in small doses, so that our education, as Dr. Johnson discontentedly observed of the education of the Scotch, is like bread in a besieged town,—"every man gets a little, but no man gets a full meal."
What we lack in quantity, however, we are pleased to make up in variety. We range freely over a mass of subjects from the religion of the Phœnicians to the poets of Australia, and from the Song of Solomon to the latest electrical invention. We have lectures in the morning upon Plato and Aristotle, and in the afternoon upon Emerson and Arthur Hugh Clough. We take a short course of German metaphysics,—which is supposed to be easily compressed into six lectures,—and follow it up immediately with another on French art, or the folk-lore of the North American Indians. No topic is too vast to be handled deftly, and finished up in a few afternoons. A fortnight for the Renaissance, a week for Greek architecture, ten days for Chaucer, three weeks for anthropology. It is amazing how far we can go in a winter, when we travel at this rate of speed. "What under the sun is bringing all the women after Hegel?" asked a puzzled librarian not very long ago. "There isn't one of his books left in the library, and twenty women come in a day to ask for him." It was explained to this custodian that a popular lecturer had been dwelling with some enthusiasm upon Hegel, and that the sudden demand for the philosopher was a result of his contagious eloquence. It seemed for the nonce like a revival of pantheism; but in two weeks every volume was back in its place, and the gray dust of neglect was settling down as of yore upon each hoary head. The women, fickle as in the days of the troubadours, had wandered far from German erudition, and were by that time wrestling with the Elizabethan poets, or the constitutional history of republics. The sun of philosophy had set.
One rather dismal result of this rapid transit is the amount of material which each lecture is required to hold, and which each lecture-goer is expected to remember. A few centuries of Egyptian history or of Mediæval song are packed down by some system of mental hydraulic pressure into a single hour's discourse; and, when they escape, they seem vast enough to fill our lives for a week. "When Macaulay talks," complained Lady Ashburton tartly, "I am not only overflowed with learning, but I stand in the slops." We have much the same uncomfortable sensation at an afternoon lecture, when the tide of information, of dry, formidable, relentless facts, rises higher and higher, and our spirits sink lower and lower with every fresh development. "The need of limit, the feasibility of performance," has not yet dawned upon the new educators who have taken the world in hand; and, as a consequence, we, the students, have never learned to survey our own intellectual boundaries. We assume in the first place that we have an intelligent interest in literature, science, and history, art, architecture, and archæology; and, in the second, that it is possible for us to learn a moderate amount about all these things without any unreasonable exertion. This double delusion lures us feebly on until we have listened to so much, and remembered so little, that we are a good deal like the infant Paul Dombey wondering in pathetic perplexity whether a verb always agreed with an ancient Briton, or three times four was Taurus a bull.
"When all can read, and books are plentiful, lectures are unnecessary," says Dr. Johnson, who hated "by-roads in education," and novel devices—or devices which were novel a hundred and thirty years ago—for softening and abridging hard study. He hated also to be asked the kind of questions which we are now so fond of answering in the columns of our journals and magazines. What should a child learn first? How should a boy be taught? What course of study would he recommend an intelligent youth to pursue? "Let him take a course of chemistry, or a course of rope-dancing, or a course of anything to which he is inclined," was the great scholar's petulant reply to one of these repeated inquiries; and, though it sounds ill-natured, we have some human sympathy for the pardonable irritation which prompted it. Dr. Johnson, I am well aware, is not a popular authority to quote in behalf of any cause one wishes to advance; but his heterodoxy in the matter of lectures is supported openly by Charles Lamb, and furtively by some living men of letters, who strive, though with no great show of temerity, to stem the ever-increasing current of popular instruction. One eminent scholar, being entreated to deliver a course of lectures on a somewhat abstruse theme, replied that if people really desired information on that subject, and if they could read, he begged to refer them to two books he had written several years before. By perusing these volumes, which were easy of access, they would know all that he once knew, and a great deal more than he knew at the present time, as he had unhappily forgotten much that was in them. It would be simpler, he deemed, and it would be cheaper, than bringing him across the ocean to repeat the same matter in lectures.
As for Lamb, we have not only his frankly stated opinion, but—what is much more diverting—we have also the unconscious confession of a purely human weakness with which it is pleasant to sympathize. Like all the rest of us, this charming and fallible genius found that heroic efforts in the future cost less than very moderate exertions in the present. He was warmly attached to Coleridge, and be held him in sincere veneration. When the poet came to London in 1816, we find Lamb writing to Wordsworth very enthusiastically, and yet with a vague undercurrent of apprehension:—
"Coleridge is absent but four miles, and the neighborhood of such a man is as exciting as the presence of fifty ordinary persons. 'Tis enough to be within the whiff and wind of his genius for us not to possess our souls in quiet. If I lived with him, or with the author of 'The Excursion,' I should in a very little time lose my own identity, and be dragged along in the currents of other people's thoughts, hampered in a net."
This is well enough by way of anticipation; but later on, when Coleridge is a fixed star in the London skies, and is preparing to give his lectures on Shakespeare and English poetry, Lamb's kind heart warms to "his perpetually impecunious friend. He writes now to Payne Collier, with little enthusiasm, but with great earnestness, bespeaking his interest and assistance. He reminds Collier of his friendship and admiration for Coleridge, and bids him remember that he and all his family attended the poet's lectures five years before. He tells him alluringly that this is a brand-new course, with nothing metaphysical about it, and adds: "There are particular reasons just now, and have been for the last twenty years, why he [Coleridge] should succeed. He will do so with a little encouragement."
Doubtless; but it is worthy of note that the next time the subject is mentioned is in a letter to Mrs. Wordsworth, written more than two months later. The lectures are now in progress; very successful, we hear; but—Lamb has been to none of them. He intends to go soon, of course,—so do we always; but, in the mean while, he is treating resolution with a good deal of zest, and making the best plea he can for his defalcation. With desperate candor he writes:—
"I mean to hear some of the course, but lectures are not much to my taste, whatever the lecturer may be. If read, they are dismal flat, and you can't think why you are brought together to hear a man read his works, which you could read so much better at leisure yourself. If delivered extempore, I am always in pain lest the gift of utterance should suddenly fail the orator in the middle, as it did me at the dinner given in honor of me at the London Tavern. 'Gentlemen,' said I, and there I stopped; the rest my feelings were under the necessity of supplying."
We can judge pretty well from this letter just how many of those lectures on Shakespeare Lamb was likely to hear; and all doubts are set at rest when we find Coleridge, the following winter, endeavoring to lure his reluctant friend to another course by the presentation of a complimentary ticket. Even this device fails of its wonted success. Lamb is eloquent in thanks, and lame in excuses. He has been in an "incessant hurry." He was unable to go on the evening he was expected because it was the night of Kenney's new comedy, "which has utterly failed,"—this is mentioned as soothing to Coleridge's wounded feelings. He has mistaken his dates, and supposed there would be no lectures in Christmas week. He is as eager to vindicate himself as Miss Edgeworth's Rosamond, and he is as sanguine as ever about the future. "I trust," he writes, "to hear many a course yet;" and with this splendid resolution, which is made without a pang, he wanders brightly off to a more engaging topic.
It is a charming little bit of comedy, and has, withal, such a distinctly modern touch, that we might fancy it enacted in this year of grace eighteen hundred and ninety-four by any of our weak and erring friends.