The First Delight

[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]

Venus of Melos postage stamp, from Greece

"We were reading Plato's Apology in the Sixth Form," says Mr. Symonds in his account of his school life at Harrow. "I bought Cary's crib, and took it with me to London on an exeat in March. My hostess, a Mrs. Bain, who lived in Regent's Park, treated me to a comedy one evening at the Haymarket. I forget what the play was. When we returned from the play I went to bed and began to read my Cary's Plato. It so happened that I stumbled on the 'Phædrus.' I read on and on, till I reached the end. Then I began the 'Symposium;' and the sun was shining on the shrubs outside the ground floor on which I slept before I shut the book up. I have related these unimportant details because that night was one of the most important nights of my life.... Here in the 'Phædrus' and the 'Symposium,' in the 'Myth of the Soul,' I discovered the revelation I had been waiting for, the consecration of a long-cherished idealism. It was just as though the voice of my own soul spoke to me through Plato. Harrow vanished into unreality. I had touched solid ground. Here was the poetry, the philosophy of my own enthusiasm, expressed with all the magic of unrivalled style." The experience recorded in these words is typical; it comes to every one who has the capacity for the highest form of enjoyment and the highest kind of growth. It was an experience which was both emotional and spiritual; delight and expansion were involved in it; the joy of contact with something beautiful, and the sudden enlargement which comes from touch with a great nature dealing with fundamental truth. In every experience of this kind there comes an access of life, as if one had drunk at a fountain of vitality.

A thrilling chapter in the spiritual history of the race might be written by bringing together the reports of such experiences which are to be found in almost all literatures,—experiences which vary greatly in depth and significance, which have in common the unfailing interest of discovery and growth. If this collocation of vital contacts could be expanded so as to include the history of the intellectual commerce of races, we should be able to read the story of humanity in a new and searching light. For the transmission of Greek thought and beauty to the Oriental world, the wide diffusion of Hebrew ideas of man and his life, the contact of the modern with the antique world in the Renaissance, for instance, effected changes in the spiritual constitution of man more subtle, pervasive, and radical than we are yet in a position to understand. The spiritual history of men is largely a history of discovery,—the record of those fruitful moments when we come upon new things, and our ideas are swiftly or slowly expanded to include them. That process is generally both rapid and continuous; the discovery of this continent made an instant and striking impression on the older world, but that older world has not yet entirely adjusted itself to the changes in the social order which were to follow close upon the rising of the new world above the once mysterious line of the western horizon.

Now, this process of discovery goes on continuously in the experience of every human soul which has capacity for growth; and it is the peculiar joy of the lover of books. Literature is a continual revelation to every genuine reader; a revelation of that quality which we call art, and a revelation of that mysterious vital force which we call life. In this double disclosure literature shares with all art a function which ranges it with the greatest resources of the spirit; and the reader who has the trained vision has the constant joy of discovery: first, of beauty and power; next, of that concrete or vital form of truth which is one with life. One who studies books is in constant peril of losing the charm of the first by permitting himself to be absorbed in the interest of the second discovery. When one has begun to see the range and veracity of literature as a disclosure of the soul and life of man, the definite literary quality sometimes becomes of secondary importance. In academic teaching the study of philology, of grammar, of construction, of literary history, has often been mistaken or substituted for the study of literature; and in private study the peculiar enrichment which comes from art simply as art is often needlessly sacrificed by exclusive attention to books as documents of spiritual history.

It must not be forgotten that books become literature by virtue of a certain quality which is diffused through every true literary work, and which separates it at once and forever from all other writing. To miss this quality, therefore, is to miss the very essence of the thing with which we are in contact; to treat the inspired books as if they were uninspired. The first discovery which the real reader makes is the perception of some new and individual beauty or power; the discovery of life and truth is secondary in order of time, and depends in no small measure on the sensitiveness of the spirit to the first and obvious charm. If one wishes to study the life—not the mere structure—of an apple-tree in bloom, he must surrender himself at the start to the bloom and fragrance; for these are not mere external phases of the growth of the tree,—they are most delicate and characteristic disclosures of its life. In like manner he who would master "As You Like It" must give himself up in the first place to its wonderful and significant beauty. For this lovely piece of literature is a revelation in its art quite as definitely as in its thought; and the first care of the reader must be to feel the deep and lasting charm contained in the play. In that charm resides something which may be transmitted, and the reception of which is always a step in culture.

To feel freshly and deeply is not only a characteristic of the artist, but also of the reader; the first finds delight in creation, the second finds delight in discovery: between them they divide one of the greatest joys known to men. Wagner somewhere says that the greatest joy possible to man is the putting forth of creative activity so spontaneously that the critical faculty is, for the time being, asleep. The purest joy known to the reader is a perception of the beauty and power of a work of art so fresh and instantaneous that it completely absorbs the whole nature. Analysis, criticism, and judicial appraisement come later; the first moment must be surrendered to the joy of discovery.

Heine has recorded the overpowering impression made upon him by the first glimpse of the Venus of Melos. An experience so extreme in emotional quality could come only to a nature singularly sensitive to beauty and abnormally sensitive to physical emotion; but he who has no power of feeling intensely the power of beauty in the moment of discovery, has missed something of very high value in the process of culture. One of the signs of real culture is the power of enjoyment which goes with fresh feeling. All great art is full of this feeling; its characteristic is the new interest with which it invests the most familiar objects; and one evidence of capacity to receive culture from art is the development of this feeling. The reader who is on the way to enrich himself by contact with books cultivates the power of feeling freshly and keenly the charm of every book he reads simply as a piece of literature. One may destroy this power by permitting analysis and criticism to become the primary mood, or one may develop it by resolutely putting analysis and criticism into the secondary place, and sedulously developing the power to enjoy for the sake of enjoyment. The reader who does not feel the immediate and obvious beauty of a poem or a play has lost the power, not only of getting the full effect of a work of art, but of getting its full significance as well. The surprise, the delight, the joy of the first discovery are not merely pleasurable; they are in the highest degree educational. They reveal the sensitiveness of the nature to those ultimate forms of beauty and power which art takes on, and its power of responding not only to what is obviously beautiful but is also profoundly true. For the harmonious and noble beauty of "As You Like It" is not only obvious and external; it is wrought into its structure so completely that, like the blossom of the apple, it is the effluence of the life of the play. To get delight out of reading is, therefore, the first and constant care of the reader who wishes to be enriched by vital contact with the most inclusive and expressive of the arts.



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