Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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




I believe that all vital teaching of English, with culture and enlightened citizenship for its object, must be conveyed directly through the literature of the language.  This is teaching by example, and becomes a living influence.  The teaching conveyed through the myriad formulæ of rhetoric, and syntax, and composition handbook is, in its essentials, a teaching by precept, and becomes the very dustiest portion of one's stock of intellectual bric-a-brac.  The one supplies incentive to effort, and effectual guidance in the effort.  The other furnishes, if the reluctant memory consents to retain it in possession, some ingenious but harmless weapons for the light warfare of pedantic criticism.  It is, of course, of the utmost importance that our pupils should be made acquainted with those rules of syntax and analysis which are to be regarded as fundamental.  But when all is said, it yet remains true of most of the English instruction of the day that it takes the pupil into the Valley of Dry Bones and sets him diligently to the task of bringing one bone unto another; but of the breath of the wind of heaven which is at last to quicken his work he finds no one to tell him anything.  Now, as Mr. T.T. Munger has lately pointed out, the supreme essential of that teaching which is to educate, not to coach, is inspiration.  If otherwise, then, teachers being more expensive than text-books, let us have more text-books and fewer teachers.  A teacher who is not personal and inspiring in his methods is but a text-book of increased adaptability and emphasis perhaps, but of somewhat diminished accuracy.

The purposes to be served by the teaching of English I would class under three heads.  First, the discipline of the faculties, or mental calisthenics—an object to be attained with perhaps equal effect, and with less effort to the instructor, by means of certain other studies which serve this one purpose only.  Second, the power of effective expression in written or spoken words.  And, third, culture, intellectual and moral; whereby I mean a just perception of the relations of things, social insight, a capacity for wise patriotism, and a realization of the essential unity existing between beauty and rightness.  It is of this third object in particular, and of the second by the way, that I propose to speak.

The use in education of what are called literary, as distinguished from scientific, subjects finds its sanction, I think, in the words, "He that walketh with wise men shall be wise."  The boy that has learned to prove that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal to one another—especially if he has learned it after Euclid—has made a certain gain in mental power.  The boy who has learned the atomic constituents of marsh gas or that common salt is chloride of sodium has has acquired a fact that may be of much use to him if he properly correlates it with other similar facts; and he has also, by the way, acquired an increased respect for common salt!  But he who has shouted with Hector before the walls of Troy has gone somewhat further, I think, toward making himself a devoted servant of his country.  And he who has apprehended the loveliness of the spirit of Socrates, who has learned with Prospero forgiveness of enemies, and thrilled to the lyric emotion of one of Keats' odes, has been advanced further toward the goal of enlightened citizenship than he can be taken by a knowledge of the constituents of marsh gas or the properties of the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle.  I do by no means undervalue the results of scientific teaching.  I deeply appreciate the wisdom which may accrue, to the properly equipped mind, from a search into the mysterious workings and eternal processes which the material world is undergoing.  But the facts of science too often affect one like mere marvels, barren of influence upon daily life, unless the mind, through acquaintance with "what makes for beauty and what makes for conduct," has been qualified to set them in vital relationship with the processes of its own development.  To a crude perception the sublime story of the sequence of geologic ages, of the speed and journeyings of light, and of the spaces of the heavens, are wonders of about the same imaginative and ethical significance as were to our forefathers the tales of mermaid and of shrieking mandrake.  But observe how the great discoveries of modern science lift and stimulate the imagination which literature has made ready for them; how they educate, in its true sense, the mind that is capable of regarding them as something more than a series of remarkable bits of information.  The power to so regard them is of those powers which are developed by the study of literature, which treats of the wisest and most beautiful things said and done by the wisest men—which is in about equal proportions a "criticism of life" and a crystallization of noble emotions.  The contest between literature and science seems to me unreasonable.  Both are necessary factors in education.  But that literature should precede, govern, and include science can be denied, I think, only from the standpoint of pure materialism.  The facts of mind are of a higher order than are the facts of matter; and the sole utility to us of the facts of matter is dependent upon the use which mind can make of them.  The true wisdom which education should aim to confer consists mainly in the ability to handle the facts of life; and this wisdom, I believe, is to be attained most effectually through persistent contact with the wisest that has been thought and said—that is, the best literature.  Further, as the more immediate contact cannot but produce the more immediate and definite effect, it follows that the literature of our own language is the most practical means of acquainting our pupils with "what makes for beauty and what makes for conduct."  In the study of a foreign literature the inspiring influence of the literature must be exerted mediately, and much must be dissipated by friction, as it were, through the difficulty of the medium.  There are, indeed, great room and honorable office for all the accredited subjects of modern instruction.  But surely this study of English literature, which affords its students the surest means of realizing the promise, "He that walketh with wise men shall be wise," is the last which should be relegated to the subordinate position which we find it at present occupying.

To turn to the practical work of teaching English, my own view is that the avowed object of instruction should be literary, in a broad sense, and that the dryer points of language and structure should be instilled incidently, though persistently, by a process of emphasizing examples.  In these days one of the most practically valuable of the equipments which education can furnish is the power of effective expression.  As one's conversation is more affected by the speech of his familiars than by the rules of the grammar-book, so is one's style influenced by the books with which he associates rather than by the directions of his composition primer.  To the avoidance of certain palpable errors the composition primer may contribute; but its effects will hardly be traced to the formation of a pure and telling style.  This is to be acquired (and by anyone of average ability it may be acquired, to a greater or less degree) by two means chiefly: by persistent and reiterative study of good models, and by assiduous practice.  The reading of many masterpieces will have less effect upon a student's expression than will the oft-repeated searching of a few.  It is the intimate intercourse with our kin and our few close friends which moulds our conversation; even so it is the half dozen books which we have lived with, taken to our heart, set line by line to our loving memory, which will form our style and shape our inclination.  The judicious teacher, therefore, seeks above all to make his pupils intimate with their model, impressing and re-impressing on their minds the various excellences to which its greatness is due.  Not to be over-technical, I omit discussion of the ordinary and necessary exercises of transcriptions from memory, essay writing, the construction of abstracts, and so forth.  But a word in regard to paraphrasing.  The indignity of the class-room paraphrase should rarely be inflicted upon anything but hopelessly inferior work should not be brought into contact with the pupil's perceptians.  To set a pupil deliberately to the task of expressing feebly what has already found perfect expression at the hands of a master, be it in prose or verse, seems to me one of the strangest methods of instruction that ever seduced to itself the approval of instructors.  To dismember, and then hideously reconstruct, a matchless paragraph; to torment the melody and cadence and fire out of an exquisite stanza; and then to look with complacence upon the poor, misfeatured thing which arises out of the ruins of the perfect utterance—this is what the highly commended exercise of paraphrasing is skillfully devised to teach.  I have seen a class much elated at having accomplished an ingenious paraphrase of "The Skylark."  The exercises were thoroughly grammatical.  The pupils had cleverly rearranged all those ideas which had proved too gross to evade their desecrating fingers.  But the subtler essence, the spirit, the lift, the song—against these had their perceptions been close-sealed.  Henceforth for them "The Skylark" contained nothing but what could be expressed in prose.  This is, of course, an extreme case, but it serves to point the moral; which moral is, in a word, that paraphrasing is irreverent, that it encourages pleasure in inferior expression, and that by its prescribed conditions it shuts off the pupil from that very perfection toward which he should be striving.

In the selection of works for class study a point on which Matthew Arnold has laid great stress is the avoidance of fragments.  A play, an essay, a lyric, an idyll, or a ballad, should be presented to the student in its artistic entirety, the compilers of elegant extracts to the contrary notwithstanding.  Of the faculties which education should develop, very important are the sense of proportion and the sense of unity.  Half the mistakes of life, half the mental disabilities which hamper so many men in all their relations, may be traced to a defect in the sense of proportion.  Harmony of structure will not readily be realized by the pupil who gets a soliloquy of Hamlet presented him on top of a descriptive passage from "The Lady of the Lake," or some stanzas from "Childe Harold" about the battle of Waterloo trodden on the heels by a string of sententious moralizings from the "Essay on Man."  Leaving out of view those briefer and more subtle lyrics of mood, in which our language is so rich, but whose beauty is too evasive to be well demonstrated in class, let me repeat that the best ends are to be served by leading the pupil into intimacy with some great masterpiece.  Intimacy is the secret of influence.  Whatever the work in question, be it a book of the "Faerie Queene" (each book is a complete poem), a play of Shakespeare, a tale of Chaucer or Morris, an ode of Gray or Keats, a paper of Addison or Steele or Goldsmith, an essay of DeQuincey or Emerson or Ruskin, a verse-romance of Scott or Longfellow, an idyll of Tennyson, or a character lyric of Browning—whatever the work, it should be gone over and over, through and through, till every line wears a face of welcome, till every peculiar beauty shines out clear, till every difficulty has been grappled, though by no means of necessity overthrown; till the origins of the work, the forces that gave it birth in the author's brain, have been searched into; till the best that has been said of it by others has been considered; and till liberal portions of it have been memorized.  The work so studied will leave its impress upon the student's language, and upon his inmost thought.  But that the work may be so studied, the teacher must inspire; and perhaps no other subject makes more demand upon the teacher for interpretive capacity, for cultured taste, and for enthusiasm.

Another point in connection with the choice of works is that poetry affords a wider field than prose.  Only what is known as modern prose, beginning, say, with the essays of Dryden, will be found suitable to our purpose, save in the case of those advanced students who have attained a certain stability of expression.  Such prose as that of the Areopagitica, for instance, splendid as it is, will confuse the student's ideas of style, and will tend to make him labored and extravagant.  I have known a young student, who was developing a simple and graceful style, to be thrown back a year or so in this respect by a too close study of Locke.  The effect on his expression was visible immediately, and he was long in throwing off the harsh influence.  For a like reason, an author with such obtrusive and infectious mannerisms as Carlyle is to be avoided in one's susceptible period.  Imitated mannerisms are always offensive.  As Dr. Holland has put it, fish is good, but fishy is always bad.  Carlyle is a master of style, but none can handle this style save himself.  These bludgeons and torpedoes, and Catherine-wheels, and sky-rockets—we could not tolerate them in the hands of another.  The style for imitation, that which possesses unobtrusive simplicity, clearness, and directness, is of all styles the hardest to imitate.

The best prose, generally speaking, is of its age, while the best poetry is for all time.  Hence the greater universality of poetry, its most cosmopolitan character; and hence, too, it follows that we find poetry suitable for instruction in periods that offer no prose at all to our purpose.  It is important, also, that the works selected be the product of an age of earnestness and faith.  The poetry of the Elizabethans is filled with all manner of riches for the forming character.  The period was one of high hope, of self-reliance, of honor, of uncalculating devotion.  It was frank, joyous, wholesome, packed with achievement; and its literature, taking it all in all, is perhaps the very best basis for educational work.  The artificialities, the middling aims, the commonplace ideals, the pettinesses, vanities, and insincerities of the later Stuart period, are not a desirable element to introduce to the attention of our classes.  But with the return to nature effected by Burns, Wordsworth, Scott, and other leaders of the Romantic movement, we get work of the highest educative value.  The present age is a dual one, wherein doubt that often turns to atheism is set over against faith that verges on credulity; but its literary masterpieces are of unmeasured excellence, and, besides serving all the other purposes that have been mentioned, they will help us particularly to bring our pupils into right relationship with their day and their surrounding.

To sum up, the basis of my educational creed is this: "He that walketh with wise men shall be wise;" and my main superstructure is that this walk and conversation with the wise is most readily attained by means of the study of English.


"The Teaching of English," King's College Record, Nov. 1888 [back]