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On English Literature
by [?]

Introductory Lecture given at Queen’s College, London, 1848.

An introductory lecture must, I suppose, be considered as a sort of art-exhibition, or advertisement of the wares hereafter to be furnished by the lecturer. If these, on actual use, should prove to fall far short of the promise conveyed in the programme, hearers must remember that the lecturer is bound, even to his own shame, to set forth in all commencements the most perfect method of teaching which he can devise, in order that human frailty may have something at which to aim; at the same time begging all to consider that in this piecemeal world, it is sufficient not so much to have realised one’s ideal, as earnestly to have tried to realise it, according to the measure of each man’s gifts. Besides, what may not be fulfilled in a first course, or in a first generation of teachers, may still be effected by those who follow them. It is but fair to expect that if this Institution shall prove, as I pray God it may, a centre of female education worthy of the wants of the coming age, the method and the practice of the College will be developing, as years bring experience and wider eye-range, till we become truly able to teach the English woman of the nineteenth century to bear her part in an era, which, as I believe, more and more bids fair to eclipse, in faith and in art, in science and in polity, any and every period of glory which Christendom has yet beheld.

The first requisite, I think, for a modern course of English Literature is, that it be a whole course or none. The literary education of woman has too often fallen into the fault of our “Elegant Extracts,” and “Beauties of British Poetry.” It has neither begun at the beginning nor ended at the end. The young have been taught to admire the laurels of Parnassus, but only after they have been clipped and pollarded like a Dutch shrubbery. The roots which connect them with mythic antiquity, and the fresh leaves and flowers of the growing present, have been generally cut off with care, and the middle part only has been allowed to be used–too often, of course, a sufficiently tough and dry stem. This method is no doubt easy, because it saves teachers the trouble of investigating antiquity, and saves them too the still more delicate task of judging contemporaneous authors–but like all half measures, it has bred less good than evil. If we could silence a free press, and the very free tongues of modern society; if we could clip the busy, imaginative, craving mind of youth on the Procrustean bed of use and wont, the method might succeed; but we can do neither–the young will read and will hear; and the consequence is, a general complaint that the minds of young women are outgrowing their mothers’ guidance, that they are reading books which their mothers never dreamt of reading, of many of which they never heard, many at least whose good and evil they have had no means of investigating; that the authors which really interest and influence the minds of the young are just the ones which have formed no part of their education, and therefore those for judging of which they have received no adequate rules; that, in short, in literature as in many things, education in England is far behind the wants of the age.

Now this is all wrong and ruinous. The mother’s mind should be the lodestar of the daughter’s. Anything which loosens the bond of filial reverence, of filial resignation, is even more destructive, if possible, to womanhood than to manhood–the certain bane of both. And the evil fruits are evident enough–self-will and self-conceit in the less gentle, restlessness and dissatisfaction in many of the meekest and gentlest; talents seem with most a curse instead of a blessing; clever and earnest young women, like young men, are beginning to wander up and down in all sorts of eclecticisms and dilettanteisms–one year they find out that the dark ages were not altogether barbarous, and by a revulsion of feeling natural to youth, they begin to adore them as a very galaxy of light, beauty, and holiness. Then they begin to crave naturally enough for some real understanding of this strange ever-developing nineteenth century, some real sympathy with its new wonders, some real sphere of labour in it; and this drives them to devour the very newest authors–any book whatever which seems to open for them the riddle of the mighty and mysterious present, which is forcing itself on their attention through every sense. And so up and down, amid confusions and oscillations from pole to pole, and equally eclectic at either pole, from St. Augustin and Mr. Pugin to Goethe and George Sand, and all intensified and coloured by that tender enthusiasm, that craving for something to worship, which is a woman’s highest grace, or her bitterest curse–wander these poor Noah’s doves, without either ark of shelter or rest for the sole of their foot, sometimes, alas! over strange ocean-wastes, into gulfs of error–too sad to speak of here– and will wander more and more till teachers begin boldly to face reality, and interpret to them both the old and the new, lest they misinterpret them for themselves. The educators of the present generation must meet the cravings of the young spirit with the bread of life, or they will gorge themselves with poison. Telling them that they ought not to be hungry, will not stop their hunger; shutting our eyes to facts, will only make us stumble over them the sooner; hiding our eyes in the sand, like the hunted ostrich, will not hide us from the iron necessity of circumstances, or from the Almighty will of Him, who is saying in these days to society, in language unmistakable: “Educate, or fall to pieces! Speak the whole truth to the young, or take the consequences of your cowardice!”