Home  »  On the Art of Reading  »  Wednesday, November 15, 1916

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Reading. 1920.

II. Apprehension versus Comprehension

Wednesday, November 15, 1916


LET us attempt to-day, Gentlemen, picking up the scent where we left at the conclusion of my first lecture, to hunt the Art of Reading (as I shall call it), a little further on the line of common-sense; then to cast back and chase on a line somewhat more philosophical. If these lines run wide and refuse to unite, we shall have made a false cast: if they converge and meet, we shall have caught our hare and may proceed, in subsequent lectures, to cook him.

Well, the line of common-sense has brought us to this point—that, man and this planet being such as they are, for a man to read all the books existent on it is impossible; and, if possible, would be in the highest degree undesirable. Let us, for example, go back quite beyond the invention of printing and try to imagine a man who had read all the rolls destroyed in the Library of Alexandria by successive burnings. (Some reckon the number of these MSS at 700,000.) Suppose, further, this man to be gifted with a memory retentive as Lord Macaulay’s. Suppose lastly that we go to such a man and beg him to repeat to us some chosen one of the fifty or seventy lost, or partially lost, plays of Euripides. It is incredible that he could gratify us.

There was, as I have said, a great burning at Alexandria in 47 B.C., when Caesar set the fleet in the harbour on fire to prevent its falling into the hands of the Egyptians. The flames spread, and the great library stood but 400 yards from the quayside, with warehouses full of books yet closer. The last great burning was perpetrated in A.D. 642. Gibbon quotes the famous sentence of Omar, the great Mohammedan who gave the order: ‘If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed,’ and goes on:

  • The sentence was executed with blind obedience; the volumes of paper or parchment were distributed to the four thousand baths of the city; and such was their incredible multitude that six months were barely sufficient for the consumption of this precious fuel.… The tale has been repeatedly transcribed; and every scholar, with pious indignation, has deplored the irreparable shipwreck of the learning, the arts, and the genius, of antiquity. For my own part, I am strongly tempted to deny both the fact and the consequences.
  • Of the consequence he writes:

  • Perhaps the church and seat of the patriarchs might be enriched with a repository of books: but, if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind. I sincerely regret the more valuable libraries which have been involved in the ruin of the Roman empire; but, when I seriously compute the lapse of ages, the waste of ignorance, and the calamities of war, our treasures, rather than our losses, are the object of my surprise. Many curious and interesting facts are buried in oblivion: the three great historians of Rome have been transmitted to our hands in a mutilated state, and we are deprived of many pleasing compositions of the lyric, iambic, and dramatic poetry of the Greeks. Yet we should gratefully remember that the mischances of time and accident have spared the classic works to which the suffrage of antiquity had adjudged the first place of genius and glory; the teachers of ancient knowledge, who are still extant, had perused and compared the writings of their predecessors; nor can it fairly be presumed that any important truth, any useful discovery in art or nature, has been snatched away from the curiosity of modern ages.
  • I certainly do not ask you to subscribe to all that. In fact when Gibbon asks us to remember gratefully ‘that the mischances of time and accident have spared the classic works to which the suffrage of antiquity has adjudged the first place of genius and glory,’ I submit with all respect that he talks nonsense. Like the stranger in the temple of the sea-god, invited to admire the many votive garments of those preserved out of shipwreck, I ask ‘at ubi sunt vestimenta eorum qui post vota nuncupata perierunt?’—or in other words ‘Where are the trousers of the drowned?’ ‘What about the Sthenoboea of Euripides, the Revellers of Ameipsias—to which, as a matter of simple fact, what you call the suffrage of antiquity did adjudge the first prize, above Aristophanes’ best?’

    But of course he is equally right to this extent, that the fire consumed a vast deal of rubbish: solid tons more than any man could swallow,—let be, digest—‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.’ And that was in 642 A.D., whereas we have arrived at 1916. Where would our voracious Alexandrian be to-day, with all the literature of the Middle Ages added to his feast and on top of that all the printed books of 450 years? ‘Reading’ says Bacon, ‘maketh a Full Man.’ Yes, indeed!

    Now I am glad that sentence of Bacon falls pat here, because it gives me, turning to his famous Essay Of Studies the reinforcement of his great name for the very argument which I am directing against the fallacy of those teachers who would have you use ‘manuals’ as anything else than guides to your own reading, or as perspective in which the authors are set out in the respective eminence by which they claim priority of study or indicate the proportions of a literary period. Some of these manuals are written by men of knowledge so encyclopaedic that (if it go with critical judgment) for these purposes they may be trusted. But to require you, at your stage of reading, to have even the minor names by heart is a perversity of folly. For later studies it seems to me a more pardonable mistake, but yet a mistake, to hope that by the employ of separate specialists you can get even in 15 or 20 volumes a perspective, a proportionate description, of what English Literature really is. But worst of all is that Examiner, who—aware that you must please him, to get a good degree, and being just as straight and industrious as anyone else—assumes that in two years you have become expert in knowledge that beats a lifetime, and, brought up against the practical impossibility of this assumption, questions you—not on a little selected first-hand knowledge—but on massed information which at the best can be but derivative and second-hand.

    Now hear Bacon.

  • Studies serve for Delight—
  • (Mark it,—he puts delight first)
  • Studies serve for Delight, for Ornament, and for Ability. Their Chiefe use for Delight, is in Privatenesse and Retiring; for Ornament, is in Discourse; and for Ability, is in the Judgement and Disposition of Businesse.… To spend too much Time in Studies is Sloth; to use them too much for Ornament is Affectation; to make Judgement wholly by their Rules is the Humour of a Scholler. They perfect Nature, and are perfected by Experience: for Naturall Abilities are like Naturall Plants, they need Proyning by Study. And Studies themselves doe give forth Directions too much at Large, unless they be bounded in by experience.
  • Again, he says:
  • Some Bookes are to be Tasted, Others to be Swallowed, and Some Few to be Chewed and Digested: that is, some Bookes are to be read onely in Parts; Others to be read but not Curiously; and some Few are to be read wholly, and with Diligence and Attention. Some Bookes also may be read by Deputy, and Extracts made of them by Others. But that would be onely in the lesse important Arguments, and the Meaner Sort of Bookes: else distilled Bookes are like Common distilled Waters, Flashy Things.
  • So you see, Gentlemen, while pleading before you that Reading is an Art—that its best purpose is not to accumulate Knowledge but to produce, to educate, such-and-such a man—that ’tis a folly to bite off more than you can assimilate—and that with it, as with every other art, the difficulty and the discipline lie in selecting out of vast material, what is fit, fine, applicable—I have the great Francis Bacon himself towering behind my shoulder for patron.

    Some would push the argument further than—here and now, at any rate—I choose to do, or perhaps would at all care to do. For example, Philip Gilbert Hamerton, whom I quoted to you three weeks ago, instances in his book The Intellectual Life an accomplished French cook who, in discussing his art, comprised the whole secret of it under two heads—the knowledge of the mutual influences of ingredients, and the judicious management of heat:

  • Amongst the dishes for which my friend had a deserved reputation was a certain gâteau de foie which had a very exquisite flavour. The principal ingredient, not in quantity but in power, was the liver of a fowl; but there were several other ingredients also, and amongst these a leaf or two of parsley. He told me that the influence of the parsley was a good illustration of his theory about his art. If the parsley were omitted, the flavour he aimed at was not produced at all; but, on the other hand, if the quantity of the parsley was in the least excessive, then the gâteau instead of being a delicacy for gourmets became an uneatable mess. Perceiving that I was really interested in the subject, he kindly promised a practical evidence of his doctrine, and the next day intentionally spoiled the dish by a trifling addition of parsley. He had not exaggerated the consequences; the delicate flavour entirely departed, and left a nauseous bitterness in its place, like the remembrance of an ill-spent youth.
  • I trust that none of you are in a position to appreciate the full force of this last simile; and, for myself, I should have taken the chef’s word for it, without experiment. Mr Hamerton proceeds to draw his moral:
  • There is a sort of intellectual chemistry which is quite as marvellous as material chemistry and a thousand times more difficult to observe. One general truth may, however, be relied upon.… It is true that everything we learn affects the whole character of the mind.
  • Consider how incalculably important becomes the question of proportion in our knowledge, and how that which we are is dependent as much upon our ignorance as our science. What we call ignorance is only a smaller proportion—what we call science only a larger.
  • Here the argument begins to become delicious:
  • The larger quantity is recommended as an unquestionable good, but the goodness of it is entirely dependent on the mental product that we want. Aristocracies have always instinctively felt this, and have decided that a gentleman ought not to know too much of certain arts and sciences. The character which they had accepted as their ideal would have been destroyed by indiscriminate additions to those ingredients of which long experience had fixed the exact proportions.…
  • The last generation of the English country aristocracy was particularly rich in characters whose unity and charm was dependent upon the limitations of their culture, and which would have been entirely altered, perhaps not for the better, by simply knowing a science or a literature that was closed to them.
  • If anything could be funnier than that, it is that it is, very possibly, true. Let us end our quest-by-common-sense, for the moment, on this; that to read all the books that have been written—in short to keep pace with those that are being written—is starkly impossible, and (as Aristotle would say) about what is impossible one does not argue. We must select. Selection implies skilful practice. Skilful practice is only another term for Art. So far plain common-sense leads us. On this point, then, let us set up a rest and hark back.


    Let us cast back to the three terms of my first lecture—What does, What knows, What is.

    I shall here take leave to recapitulate a brief argument much sneered at a few years ago when it was still fashionable to consider Hegel a greater philosopher than Plato. Abbreviating it I repeat it, because I believe in it yet to-day, when Hegel (for causes unconnected with pure right and wrong) has gone somewhat out of fashion for a while.

    As the tale, then, is told by Plato, in the tenth book of The Republic, one Er the son of Arminius, a Pamphylian, was slain in battle; and ten days afterwards, when they collected the dead for burial, his body alone showed no taint of corruption. His relatives, however, bore it off to the funeral pyre; and on the twelfth day, lying there, he returned to life, and he told them what he had seen in the other world. Many wonders he related concerning the dead, for example, with their rewards and punishments: but what had impressed him as most wonderful of all was the great spindle of Necessity, reaching up to Heaven, with the planets revolving around it in graduated whorls of width and spread: yet all concentric and so timed that all complete the full circle punctually together—‘The Spindle turns on the knees of Necessity; and on the rim of each whorl sits perched a Siren who goes round with it, hymning a single note; the eight notes together forming one harmony.’

    Now as—we have the divine word for it—upon two great commandments hang all the law and the prophets, so all religions, all philosophies, hang upon two steadfast and faithful beliefs; the first of which Plato would show by the above parable.

    It is, of course, that the stability of the Universe rests upon ordered motion—that the ‘firmament’ above, around, beneath, stands firm, continues firm, on a balance of active and tremendous forces somehow harmoniously composed. Theology asks ‘by What?’ or ‘by Whom?’ Philosophy inclines rather to ask ‘How?’ Natural Science, allowing that for the present these questions are probably unanswerable, contents itself with mapping and measuring what it can of the various forces. But all agree about the harmony; and when a Galileo or a Newton discovers a single rule of it for us, he but makes our assurance surer. For uncounted centuries before ever hearing of Gravitation men knew of the sun that he rose and set, of the moon that she waxed and waned, of the tides that they flowed and ebbed, all regularly, at times to be predicted; of the stars that they swung as by clockwork around the pole. Says the son of Sirach:

  • At the word of the Holy One they will stand in due order,
  • And they will not faint in their watches.
  • So evident is this calculated harmony that men, seeking to interpret it by what was most harmonious in themselves or in their human experience, supposed an actual Music of the Spheres inaudible to mortals: Plato as we see (who learned of Pythagoras) inventing his Octave of Sirens, perched on the whorls of the great spindle and intoning as they spin.

    Dante (Chaucer copying him in The Parlement of Foules) makes the spheres nine: and so does Milton:

  • then listen I
  • To the celestial Sirens harmony,
  • That sit upon the nine infolded Sphears,
  • And sing to those that hold the vital shears,
  • And turn the Adamantine spindle round
  • On which the fate of gods and men is wound.
  • Such sweet compulsion doth in musick lie
  • To lull the daughters of Necessity,
  • And keep unsteady Nature to her law,
  • And the low world in measur’d motion draw
  • After the heavenly tune.…
  • If the sceptical mind object to the word law as begging the question and postulating a governing intelligence with a governing will—if it tell me that when revolted Lucifer uprose in starlight—

  • and at the stars,
  • Which are the brain of heaven, he look’d, and sank.
  • Around the ancient track march’d, rank on rank,
  • The army of unalterable law—
  • he was merely witnessing a series of predicable or invariable recurrences, I answer that he may be right, it suffices for my argument that they are recurrent, are invariable, can be predicted. Anyhow the Universe is not Chaos (if it were, by the way, we should be unable to reason about it at all). It stands and is renewed upon a harmony: and what Plato called ‘Necessity’ is the Duty—compulsory or free as you or I can conceive it—the Duty of all created things to obey that harmony, the Duty of which Wordsworth tells in his noble Ode.
  • Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong:
  • And the most ancient heavens, through Thee, are fresh and strong.
  • III

    Now the other and second great belief is, that the Universe, the macrocosm, cannot be apprehended at all except as its rays converge upon the eye, brain, soul of Man, the microcosm: on you, on me, on the tiny percipient centre upon which the immense cosmic circle focusses itself as the sun upon a burning-glass—and he is not shrivelled up! Other creatures, he notes, share in his sensations; but, so far as he can discover, not in his percipience—or not in any degree worth measuring. So far as he can discover, he is not only a bewildered actor in the great pageant but ‘the ring enclosing all,’ the sole intelligent spectator. Wonder of wonders, it is all meant for him!

    I doubt if, among men of our nation, this truth was ever more clearly grasped than by the Cambridge Platonists who taught your forerunners of the 17th century. But I will quote you here two short passages from the work of a sort of poor relation of theirs, a humble Welsh parson of that time, Thomas Traherne—unknown until the day before yesterday—from whom I gave you one sentence in my first lecture. He is speaking of the fields and streets that were the scene of his childhood:

  • Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born, are the best unto this day wherein I can see the Universe.… The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees, when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me.… Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were moving jewels; I knew not that they were born or should die.…
  • The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars; and all the World was mine, and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it.
  • Then:

  • News from a foreign country came,
  • As if my treasure and my wealth lay there;
  • So much it did my heart inflame,
  • ’Twas wont to call my Soul into mine ear;
  • Which thither went to meet
  • The approaching sweet,
  • And on the threshold stood
  • To entertain the unknown Good.…
  • What sacred instinct did inspire
  • My Soul in childhood with a hope so strong?
  • What secret force moved my desire
  • To expect new joys beyond the seas, so young?
  • Felicity I knew
  • Was out of view,
  • And being here alone,
  • I saw that happiness was gone
  • From me! For this
  • I thirsted absent bliss,
  • And thought that sure beyond the seas,
  • Or else in something near at hand—
  • I knew not yet (since naught did please
  • I knew) my Bliss did stand.
  • But little did the infant dream
  • That all the treasures of the world were by:
  • And that himself was so the cream
  • And crown of all which round about did lie.
  • Yet thus it was: the Gem,
  • The Diadem,
  • The Ring enclosing all
  • That stood upon this earthly ball,
  • The Heavenly Eye,
  • Much wider than the sky,
  • Wherein they all included were,
  • The glorious Soul, that was the King
  • Made to possess them, did appear
  • A small and little thing!
  • And then comes the noble sentence of which I promised you that it should fall into its place:
  • You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.
  • Man in short—you, I, any one of us—the heir of it all!
  • Tot circa unum caput tumultuantes deos!
  • Our best privilege to sing our short lives out in tune with the heavenly concert—and if to sing afterwards, then afterwards!


    But how shall Man ever attain to understand and find his proper place in this Universe, this great sweeping harmonious circle of which nevertheless he feels himself to be the diminutive focus. His senses are absurdly imperfect. His ear cannot catch any music the spheres make; and moreover there are probably neither spheres nor music. His eye is so dull an instrument that (as Blanco White’s famous sonnet reminds us) he can neither see this world in the dark, nor glimpse any of the scores of others until it falls dark:
  • If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?
  • Yet the Universal Harmony is meaningless and nothing to man save in so far as he apprehends it: and lacking him (so far as he knows) it utterly lacks the compliment of an audience. Is all the great orchestra designed for nothing but to please its Conductor? Yes, if you choose: but no, as I think. And here my other quotation:
  • That all spirit is mutually attractive, as all matter is mutually attractive, is an ultimate fact.… Spirit to spirit—as in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man.
  • Yes and, all spirit being mutually attractive, far more than this! I preach to you that, through help of eyes that are dim, of ears that are dull, by instinct of something yet undefined—call it soul—it wants no less a name—Man has a native impulse and attraction and yearning to merge himself in that harmony and be one with it: a spirit of adoption (as St Paul says) whereby we cry Abba, Father!
  • And because ye are Sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying Abba, Father.
  • That is to say, we know we have something within us correspondent to the harmony, and (I make bold to say) unless we have deadened it with low desires, worthy to join in it. Even in his common daily life Man is for ever seeking after harmony, in avoidance of chaos: he cultivates habits by the clock, he forms committees, governments, hierarchies, laws, constitutions, by which (as he hopes) a system of society will work in tune. But these are childish imitations, underplay on the great motive:
  • The Kingdom of God is within you.
  • Quid aliud est anima quam Deus in corpore humano hospitans?
  • V

    Gentlemen, you may be thinking that I have brought you a long way round, that the hour is wearing late, and that we are yet far from the prey we first hunted on the line of common-sense. But be patient for a minute or two, for almost we have our hand on the animal.

    If the Kingdom of God, or anything correspondent to it, be within us, even in such specks of dust as we separately are, why that, and that only, can be the light by which you or I may hope to read the Universal: that and that only, deserves the name of ‘What Is.’ Nay, I can convince you in a moment. Let me recall a passage of Emerson quoted by me on the morning I first had the honour to address an audience in Cambridge:

  • It is remarkable (says he) that involuntarily we always read as superior beings. Universal history, the poets, the romancers, do not in their stateliest pictures … anywhere make us feel that we intrude, that this is for better men; but rather is it true that in their grandest strokes we feel most at home. All that Shakespeare says of the king, yonder slip of a boy that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself.
  • It is remarkable, as Emerson says; and yet, as we now see, quite simple. A learned man may patronise a less learned one: but the Kingdom of God cannot patronise the Kingdom of God, the larger the smaller. There are large and small. Between these two mysteries of a harmonious universe and the inward soul are granted to live among us certain men whose minds and souls throw out filaments more delicate than ours, vibrating to far messages which they bring home, to report them to us; and these men we call prophets, poets, masters, great artists, and when they write it, we call their report literature. But it is by the spark in us that we read it: and not all the fire of God that was in Shakespeare can dare to patronise the little spark in me. If it did, I can see—with Blake—the angelic host

  • throw down their spears
  • And water heaven with their tears.
  • VI

    To nurse that spark, common to the king, the sage, the poorest child—to fan, to draw up to a flame, to ‘educate’ What Is—to recognise that it is divine, yet frail, tender, sometimes easily tired, easily quenched under piles of book-learning—to let it run at play very often, even more often to let it rest in what Wordsworth calls
  • a wise passiveness
  • passive—to use a simile of Coventry Patmore—as a photographic plate which finds stars that no telescope can discover, simply by waiting with its face turned upward—to mother it, in short, as wise mothers do their children—this is what I mean by the Art of Reading.

    For all great Literature, I would lastly observe, is gentle towards that spirit which learns of it. It teaches by apprehension not by comprehension—which is what many philosophers try to do, and, in trying, break their jugs and spill the contents. Literature understands man and of what he is capable. Philosophy, on the other hand, may not be ‘harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose,’ but the trouble with most of its practitioners is that they try to comprehend the Universe. Now the man who could comprehend the Universe would ipso facto comprehend God, and be ipso facto a Super-God, able to dethrone him, and in the arrogance of his intellectual conceit full ready to make the attempt.