By HAROLD NICOLSON
MUST have been one of the last little boys in England to I receive Martin Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy as a prize at school. It was a handsome volume, bound in glistening calf, and stamped on the outside with a crest and motto in gold. On the inside was inscribed the fact that the prize had been awarded to me for Divinity, a subject in which my early excellence has not been main- tained. As a theologian, I damped off after the age of ten. But I was pleased with the book at the time ; I bowed low to the Arch- deacon who was distributing the prizes ; I descended the steps of the platform glowing with the reward of virtue ; and amid the plaudits of my companions and the smiles of their parents I returned to my seat clasping Tupper in my arms. My pleasure was renewed a week later when, on reaching my home, I was able to extract the book from my bag (in which it had been wrapped in my nightshirt in order to preserve the sheen of its binding) and display it in triumph to my parents. And thereafter it took its place upon the shelf among other infrequent prizes, such as Motley's Dutch Republic and Madam How and Lady Why. In later years, when I distribute but do not receive prizes, it has occurred to me that prize-winners are allowed, within certain limits, to choose their own books. No longer, I admit, are the outsides of these books resplendent with armorial bearings ; nor do their boards shine as some highly polished walnut cabinet. But I should not have minded ordinary cloth bindings had I, in fact, been able to choose the books I wanted and not been fobbed off with moral rhythmics or studies of pond life. Even at the age of ten I might have had the sense to choose a book which it was possible for me to read. We were given no chance ; the books were selected irrespective of our age or taste ; and in this again I prefer the modern practice to the old ; little boys today are treated as people and not just as mice.
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What has recalled to my memory that prize-giving ceremony of more than half a century ago is Mr. Derek Hudson's biography of Martin Tupper which is published this week. This excellent book will doubtless be reviewed elsewhere ; all I wish to say is that it has aroused in me a whole train of memories and reflections. I do not think that I actually read my prize at the time it was presented to me ; all I did was to polish, with proud tenderness, the outside of the volume until it shone and shone. Had I glanced at the inside I should at that date have derived the impression that it was a religious work, probably some paraphrase of the Psalms or some variation of the Athanasian Creed. But in after years I have often glanced at the book, read a page or two, and been left bewildered by the fact that such sententious rubbish could ever have been admired by men of culture, such as the Prince Consort, Longfellow and Mr. Gladstone. The spirit of an epoch, or of any given society; may become so concentrated and so intent that there arises a wide suspension of disbelief. The positive formula becomes so compelling, the appetite for affirmation so eager, the impropriety of negation or deviation so generally accepted, that the most acute intellects lose their critical faculties. People are so pleased to read things which they agree with that they do not pause to consider whether those things are serious, or original, or well phrased, or even quite true. What is important to them is the general synthesis ; any analytical approach appears to them both dangerous and wrong. They thus come to accept as valuable things which, although devoid of value, are in tune with the spirit of the time.
We no longer laugh very much at the Victorians, realising that they possessed a vigour which we lack. We envy them their self- confidence, their earnest assurance, since we know the unhappiness which comes from self-distrust. We have come to realise, far better than we realised in 192o, that such constant intellectual and spiritual energy implied a certain degree of uniformity of thought and inten- tion ; and that this uniformity created and required a suspension, perhaps even a suppression, of the critical faculties. Their com.- placency, now that we have studied the matter more carefully, does not today strike us as merely self-righteous : we know the torments of doubt by which they were assailed. Some of us even are coming to doubt whether this matter of " taste," which in the first half of the twentieth century appeired as the badge of culture, is anything much more important than a frail and transient fibre. I rejoice to feel that the younger generations are more serious-minded than my own ; that their social conscience is more acute and that their sense of values is more accurate than any standards by which we ourselves were governed ; that they can detect and despise the intellectual flippancy of their fathers ; and that they can appreciate better than we could the excellent seriousness which the Victorians inculcated and observed. Even the gaiety of the Victorians, which to my generation seemed so unspontaneous and forced, appears to them to possess a fine quality of robustness and to echo with a virile laugh. I welcome all this as an improvement on all the epicene titters in which we indulged. But this does not mean that I have come to like the Victorians ; derision may have been succeeded by respect ; but my old dislike of their self-deception and harsh arrogance remains unabated. Nor do I to this day even begin to understand why they were all of them taken in by Martin Tupper.
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We do not study with sufficient scholarship the succession, the incidence and the influence of literary fashions. The torrent of literature has for two thousand years poured down the gorge of time; the granite rocks and precipices still endure as masterpieces ; the mud-banks and the sand have all been washed away. Yet at the time it must have been difficult to discern what was rock and what was alluvial deposit. We imagine that the Greeks enjoyed only those masterpieces which have survived them ; we forget all about the Battle of the Frogs and Mice or the Persae of Timotheus. We know a great deal about the greater Roman poets, but are unaware of the lesser Saturae, the fashion for erotic lyrics or the elegiacs which Virgil's friend Gallus addressed to Lycoris. We know about LylyPs Euphues, but only experts have studied the enormous influence, even upon Shakespeare, of his intolerable employment of antitheses and alliteration. We are familiar with the masterpieces of French literature, but only students are aware of the fashions set at different epochs by the romans d'aventure, the fabliaux, or the Grand Cyrus. We have in our minds a landscape of our own romantic period, in which all the peaks and pinnacles stand out, without realising that it would have been almost unrecognisable to the romantics themselves. We forget that Samuel Rogers was admired at- a time when Shelley was still unread ; that the Mysteries of Udolpho and even Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were read with horror and delight by many serious people ; or that Monk Lewis and Charles Churchill enjoyed between 5760 and 1820 a reputation which to our minds appears misplaced. Even the first two cantos of "Childe Harold" do not, for us, seem to justify the excitement which they aroused.
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I should suppose that in Russia today there are books published which although of little value are acclaimed sincerely by those who possess the party mind and dread all deviations. The fashion which but a few years ago raised the works of Galsworthy and Barrie to a peak of eminence is already on the wane, whereas Kipling is returning after his eclipse. It is surely a mistake to dismiss as illiterate or insincere those people who admire books, not for their intrinsic merits, but because they accord with the climate of their time. I quite understand why Gladstone, that formidable scholar, admired Martin Tupper. But when I open my Divinity prize, I doubt whether any sane person will ever admire Martin Tupper again.