Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


The Study of the English Classics*


Mr.Roberts . . . read a paper on the study of the English Classics:—It is imperative that those subjects be studied, the pursuit of which will most efficiently equip one for the battle of life with what is at once both sword and shield, a clear, discriminating, and comprehensive judgment.  Science, in the main, is occupied in the acquisition and imparting of facts.  It must be the effort of the Mathematician to retire within the innermost recesses of his mind, remote from all distractions, from all external influences, there sleuth-hound-like to follow up one trail to its one legitimate conclusion, oblivious to all else.  The student of literature, on the other hand, while dealing with keenest subtleties of language and thought, is introduced to problems of life, whose threads may lead to a thousand widely varying but equally legitimate solutions, as they may chance to be deflected hither or thither by internal or external forces of ambition, passion, accident, or even a fit of indigestion.  The keenest judgment listening to the burning utterance of Marc Antony—as standing over the body of the slain Cæsar he kindled to dreadful fury the grief of the people, till the hot noon in the Forum grew suddenly loud with inarticulate rage—could it, with any certainty of demonstration, have prophesied of Actium?  And who will be so rash as to assert even now that this was the only legitimate conclusion to the life of the "plain, blunt man, that loved his friend"?

A mathematician cannot be expected to be tolerant of or susceptible to such wayward and half-defined forces as the classical student must be familiar with.  The Binomial Theorem is quite unaffected by any idols of camp or cave or mart; and neither by the most violent passion nor by the effects of a lobster supper will the solution of a problem from Wormel be swerved one hair's-breadth. 

The study of literature and language, unlike most other studies, is not only a most potent means of development,  it is in itself an end, the most desirable of acquisitions, a never-failing delight.  But in no literature lies embedded more wealth than in our own; and these veins are easily worked.

Those most important hours, the reading hours, should not be wasted upon fragments, however, excellently chosen, but should be devoted to the mastering in their entirety of the finest works of the finest minds.  Plays of Shakspeare, single books of Milton, and other supreme creations are now being published in cheap form, and the time of High School scholars would be better occupied with them than with "Readers."  The unerring faculty of "Imitativeness" affords the strongest of all arguments for the continual impression upon pupils of the highest manifestations of beauty and power.  The appreciative teacher will shun the desecration of a sublime passage to the ugly and mechanical uses of parsing, or the torture and dismemberment of an exquisitely knit sentence upon the rack of particular analysis.  Above all, he will be loth to apply the lofty science of "paraphrasing" to thoughts already wedded by a master hand to one immortal form, with which to tamper is profanity.  To labour with elaborate care to render into elegant prose some lines from Shakspeare or Shelley, is—well, a funny proceeding.  The mind unable to grasp the idea except through the medium of that process will lose little by remaining unenlightened.


"The Study of the English Classics," from the proceedings of the Fifth Annual meeting of the Northumberland County Teachers' Institute, Thursday Morning Session, The Miramichi Advance (Chatham, N.B.), Oct. 20, 1881 [back]