English Literature: A Survey for Students

Extracts from English Literature: A Survey for Students (1958):

 …..The subjects we study at school can be divided roughly into two groups—the sciences and the arts. The sciences include mathematics, geography, chemistry, physics, and so on. Among the arts are drawing, painting, modelling, needlework, drama, music, literature. The purpose of education is to fit us for life in a civilised community, and it seems to follow from the subjects we study that the two most important things in civilised life are Art and Science.

Is this really true? If we take an average day in the life of the average man we seem to see very little evidence of concern with the sciences and the arts. The average man gets up, goes to work, eats his meals, reads the newspapers, watches television, goes to the cinema, goes to bed, sleeps, wakes up, starts all over again. Unless we happen to be professional scientists, laboratory experiments and formulae have ceased to have any meaning for most of us; unless we happen to be poets or painters or musicians—or teachers of literature, painting, and music—the arts seem to us to be only the concern of schoolchildren. And yet people have said, and people still say, that the great glories of our civilisation are the scientists and artists. Ancient Greece is remembered because of mathematicians like Euclid and Pythagoras, because of poets like Homer and dramatists like Sophocles. In two thousand years all our generals and politicians may be forgotten, but Einstein and Madame Curie and Bernard Shaw and Stravinsky will keep the memory of our age alive.

Why then are the arts and sciences important? I suppose with the sciences we could say that the answer is obvious: we have radium, penicillin, television and recorded sound, motor-cars and aircraft, air-conditioning and central heating. But these achievements have never been the primary intention of science; they are a sort of by-product, the things that emerge only when the scientist has performed his main task. That task is simply stated: to be curious, to keep on asking the question ‘Why?’ and not to be satisfied till an answer has been found. The scientist is curious about the universe: he wants to know why water boils at one temperature and freezes at another; why cheese is different from chalk; why one person behaves differently from another. Not only ‘Why?’ but ‘What?’ What is salt made of? What are the stars? What is the constitution of all matter? The answers to these questions do not necessarily malke our lives any easier. The answer to one question—’Can the atom be split?’ – has made our lives somewhat harder. But the questions have to be asked. It is man’s job to be curious; it is man’s job to try to find out the truth about the world about us, to answer the big question ‘What is the world really like?’

‘The truth about the world about us.’ ‘Truth’ is a word used in many different ways – ‘You’re not telling the truth.’ ‘The truth about conditions in Russia.’ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ I want to use it here in the sense of what lies behind and outward show. I.et me hasten to explain by giving an example. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. That is what we see; that is the ‘outward show’. In the past the outward show was regarded as the truth. But then a scientist came along to question it and then to announce that the truth was quite different from the appearance: the truth was that the earth revolved and the sun remained still -the outward show was telling a lie. The curious thing about scientific truths like this is that they often seem so useless. It makes no difference to the average man whether the sun moves or the earth moves. He still has to rise at dawn and stop work at dusk. But because a thing is useless it does not mean that it is valueless. Scientists still think it worthwhile to pursue truth. They do not expect that laws of gravitation and relativity are going to make much difference to everyday life, but they think it is a valuable activity to ask their eternal questions about the universe. And so we say that truth – the thing they are looking for—is a value.

…1660 virtually starts a new era – an era in which the old land-owning class sinks and the new middle-class rises, an era too in which the English character seems to have become subtly changed. A sense of guilt seems to permeate all pleasure, and this has continued to the present day….the many living monuments to Puritan rule….the Englishman’s peculiar restraint – the coldness that repels so many Africans and Asians, an unwillingness to ‘let oneself go’.

…in the Restoration period, feeling and imagination were mistrusted: feeling implied strong convictions, and strong convictions had produced a Civil War and the harsh rule of the Commonwealth; imagination suggested the mad, the wild, the uncouth, the fanatical. It was best to live a calm civilised life governed by reason. Such a life is best lived in the town, and the town is the true centre of culture; the country estates are impoverished, and little of interest is going on there; the country itself is barbaric.

The story of English literature, viewed aesthetically, is one thing; the story of English writers is quite another. The price of contributing to the greatest literature the world has ever seen is often struggle and penury: art is still too often its own reward. It is salutary sometimes to think of the early deaths of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Chatterton, Dylan Thomas, of the Grub Street struggles of Dr. Johnson, the despair of Gissing and Francis Thompson. That so many writers have been prepared to accept a kind of martyrdom is the best tribute that flesh can pay to the living spirit of man as expressed in his literature. One cannot doubt that the martyrdom will continue to be gladly embraced. To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters.

Sit like a fool then, crassly emptying/Glass after wineglass in some foul tavern,/Watching the night and its candles gutter,/Snoring at sunrise.

In England now the wind blows high/And clouds brush rudely at the sky;/The blood runs thinly through my frame,/I half-caress the hearthstone’s flame,/Oppressed by autumn’s desolate cry./Then homesick for the south am I,/For where the lucky swallows fly,/But each warm land is just a name/In England now./The luckless workers I espy/With chins dipped low and collars high,/Walk into winter, do not blame/The shifting globe. A gust of shame/Represses my unmanly sigh/In England now.

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