Page images
PDF
EPUB

an

which I take the liberty to reproduce. “What I advance is true,” said one. “But not the whole truth," answered the other. “Sir,” returned the first (and it seemed to me there was a smack of Dr. Johnson in the speech), "Sir, there is no such thing as the whole truth!” Indeed there is nothing so evident in life as that there are two sides to a question. History is one long illustration. The forces of nature are engaged, day by day, in cudgelling it into our backward intelligences. We never pause for a moment's consideration, but we admit it as axiom. An enthusiast sways humanity exactly by disregarding this great truth, and dinning it into our ears that this or that question has only one possible solution; and your enthusiast is a fine florid fellow, dominates things for a while and shakes the world out of a doze; but when once he is gone, an army of quiet and uninfluential people set to work to remind us of the other side and demolish the generous imposture. While Calvin ? is putting everybody exactly right in his Institutes, and hotheaded Knox 8 is thundering in the pulpit, Montaigne is already looking at the other side in his library in Perigord, and predicting that they will find as much to quarrel about in the Bible as they had found already in the Church. Age may have one side, but assuredly Youth has the other. There is nothing more certain than that both are right, except perhaps that both are wrong. Let them agree to differ; for who knows but what agreeing to differ may not be a form of agreement rather than a form of difference?

I suppose it is written that any one who sets up a bit of a philosopher, must contradict himself to his

For here have I fairly talked myself

for

very face.

into thinking that we have the whole thing before us at last; that there is no answer to the mystery, except that there are as many as you please, that there is no centre to the maze because, like the famous sphere, its centre is everywhere; and that agreeing to differ with every ceremony of politeness, is the only “one undisturbed song

of pure content" to which we are ever likely to lend our musical voices.

ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON

BOOKS

a

The one room in my College which I always enter with a certain sense of desolation and sadness is the College library. There used to be a story in my days at Cambridge of a book-collecting Don who was fond of discoursing in public of the various crosses he had to bear. He was lamenting one day in Hall the

. unwieldly size of his library. “I really don't know what to do with my books,” he said, and looked round for sympathy. “Why not read them?” said a brisk and caustic Fellow opposite. It may be thought that I am in need of the same advice, but it is not the case. There are, 'indeed, many books in our library; but most of them, as, D. G. Rossetti used to say in his childhood of his father's learned volumes, are "no good for reading.” The books of the College library are delightful, indeed, to look at; rows upon rows of big irregular volumes, with tarnished tooling and faded gilding on the sunscorched backs. What are they? — old editions of classics, old volumes of controversial divinity, folios of the Fathers, topographical treatises, cumbrous philosophers, pamphlets from which, like dry ashes, the heat of the fire that warmed them once has fled. Take one down; it is an agreeable sight enough; there is a gentle scent of antiquity; the bumpy page crackles faintly; the big irregular print meets the eye with a pleasant and leisurely mellowness. But

а

what do they tell one? Very little, alas! that one need know, very much which it would be a positive mistake to believe. That is the worst of erudition - that the next scholar sucks the few drops of honey that you have accumulated, sets right your blunders, and you are superseded. You have handed on the torch, perhaps, and even trimmed it. Your errors, your patient explanations, were a necessary step in the progress of knowledge; but even now the procession has turned the corner, and is out of sight.

Yet even here, it pleases me to think, some mute and unsuspected treasure may lurk unknown. In a room like this, for over a couple of centuries stood on one of the shelves an old rudely bound volume of blank paper, the pages covered with a curious straggling cipher; no one paid any heed to it, no one tried to spell its secrets. But the day came when a Fellow who was both inquisitive and leisurely took up the old volume, and formed a resolve to decipher it. Through many baffling delays, through many patient vindings, he carried his purpose out; and the result was a celebrated Day-book, which cast much light upon the social conditions of a past age, as well as revealed one of the most simple and genial personalities that ever marched blithely through the pages of a Diary.

But, even in these days of cheap print and nasty paper, with a central library into which pours the annual cataract of literature, these little ancient libraries have no use left, save as repositories or store

They belong to the days when books were few and expensive; when few persons could acquire a library of their own; when lecturers accumulated knowledge that was not the property of the world;

rooms.

when notes were laboriously copied and handed on; when one of the joys of learning was the consciousness of possessing secrets not known to other men. An ancient Dean of Christ Church is said to have given three reasons for the study of Greek; the first was that it enabled you to read the words of the Saviour in the original tongue; the second, that it gave you a proper contempt for those who were ignorant of it; and the third was that it led to situations of emolument. What a rich aroma hangs about this judgment! The first reason is probably erroneous, the second is un-Christian, and the third is a gross motive which would equally apply to any professional training whatsoever.

Well, the knowledge of Greek, except for the schoolmaster and the clergyman, has not now the same obvious commercial value. Knowledge is more diffused, more accessible. It is no longer thought to be a secret, precious, rather terrible possession; the possessor is no longer venerated and revered; on the contrary, a learned man is rather considered likely to be tiresome. Old folios have, indeed, become merely the stock-in-trade of the illustrators of sensational novels. Who does not know the absurd old man, with white silky hair, velvet skullcap, the venerable appearance, who sits reading a folio at an oak table, and who turns out to be the villain of the piece, a mine of secret and unsuccessful wickedness? But no one in real life reads a folio now, because anything that is worth reprinting, as well as a good deal that is not, is reprinted in convenient form, if not in England, at least in Germany.

And the result of it is that these College libraries are almost wholly unvisited. It seems a pity, but

« PreviousContinue »