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THE study of literature is the study of the works of an author, not
, personal history. Some knowledge of the latter, however, is humanizing in its influence, and adds greatly to the pleasure derived from the study.
It is impossible to appreciate the literature of any period without some knowledge of the every-day life of the people. In the present work, in order to bring the student into sympathy with the writers of the past, brief glimpses of the manners and customs of each successive period have been given, letting the writers themselves, wherever it was possible, present “ the age and body of the time.”
The pupil cannot be too strongly recommended to study well the great founders of our literature. A love for the simple Saxon tongue may readily be acquired, and, for one who intends to make literature a study, the old writers should be considered first. If the teacher has to create a taste for literature, it would not be amiss to begin with some writers of the present day, and so lead the pupil back to the “well of English undefyled.”
One of the most important lessons that the genuine student learns is that of sifting. It is impossible to remember everything, but it is of the utmost importance to learn to generalize, to take in as nearly as possible the general and prominent features of a subject, and leaving details for a more thorough and minute examination of some portion or portions of the subject. I have doubted, sometimes, the wisdom of assigning short lessons, unless the lesson cover some one subject. A mere paragraph in a text
book may serve for a lesson, expanded by reference to other works, or by observations from the teacher, for he who confines himself or his pupils to a text-book, is not teaching the subject, but the dictum of the one book.
“Going through " a book, according to the ordinary acceptance of the term, is no more proof of having acquired an acquaintance with the subject, than going through a picture-gallery would ensure a knowledge of art. Absurd as the phrase is as applied to any subject, it is beyond expression absurd when applied to literature.
The pupil may, however, with judicious training, have a fair glimpse of the outlines of the History of English Literature in a very few lessons, and these outlines may be filled in at discretion by the teacher, or by the student himself who studies with no other guide than books. The course of study will be determined by the amount of time the pupil has to devote to the subject. I would offer the following suggestions:
1. As the work is a connected history, and the character of each subsequent period is in a degree dependent on the preceding period, it is extremely desirable that any one intending to take “a course” in literature should begin at the beginning. The work is divided into seventeen chapters, each chapter representing an era. If the prominent features of each era could be given in one lesson, enabling the pupil to get through the outline of the subject in a few lessons,-merely the outline,-and then returning, take up whatever period may be deemed the most serviceable, the profit would be infinitely greater than studying with painful accuracy from the beginning to the end of the book, with the aim merely of “getting through."
Suppose the era selected for especial study, after the outline preparation, be the Elizabethan period. If in a term at school the pupil gains a lively interest in that one age, and a tolerable knowledge of the character of its literary productions, he has gained enoughi to grow upon; his knowledge will not die there. And what, after all, can a school-training do but cultivate the soil for future "increase"?
2. Or, let the pupil whose time is limited devote himself only to the representative writers of a period, for instance, to CHAUCER, SHAKESPEARE, Milton, DRYDEN, POPE, GOLDSMITH, BURNS, Byron, WORDSWORTH, MRS. BROWNING, TENNYSON, IRVING, BRYANT, LONGfellow, Emerson, etc., associating the author as far as possible with contemporary events and characters.
3. Or, if a taste has to be created, as before suggested, begin with
any of the interesting writers of the present day, and insensibly lead the pupil up to the fountain's source, or dwell with him longer on modern writers alone.
4. If the time will admit of detailed study, and the love for literature be already kindled, the best possible plan is the simplest and most natural one of beginning at the beginning, studying thoroughly, and with every aid which the earnest student knows how to bring around him-dictionaries, maps, charts, and other works of reference, and continuing to the end, forming his own judgment of the merits of the writings under consideration. He will find his interest growing as he proceeds, perceiving that each age has been the stepping-stone to the next.
5. It sometimes adds interest to a lesson to divide it into topics, letting each pupil find out all he can under one head. For instance, the teacher will say; For the next lesson A. will tell us what he has learned about the early inhabitants of Britain ; B. will tell us where the English people came from; C. all that he knows or can find out about the first Anglo-Saxon poem; D. all concerning the first Anglo-Saxon poet, etc. Thus, each pupil coming with a budget of facts or ideas on his own topic, and all the class giving minute attention to his recital-each pupil being responsible, in fact, for all that has been given by the whole class-the lesson may be made more profitable and interesting than for all to take the whole chapter.
6. Another equally interesting exercise is to conduct a review by having the pupils themselves ask the question. Give, for instance, a certain period to be reviewed, and request each pupil to come prepared with, say ten questions upon that period, prepared, also, to answer them. The asking of a question frequently indicates the state of knowledge better than the answering.
7. I would especially discourage teachers from dwelling too long, upon minute details. Teach, rather, that
“Not to know some trifles is a praise.” For instance, the dates bounding the life of the chief representative of a period being known, it is not desirable to attempt to burden the memory with the dates of the birth and death of contemporaries. It shows more intelligence and knowledge of the subject to know about what time a minor author lived than to know the exact dates of his existence. There are comparatively few dates that should be committed to memory. These few being stamperl indelibly on the mind, the student will learn to associate
minor ideas and events with the central, leading circumstances or character. Thus, Milton's dates are 1608–1674. The great events of this time are the Civil War, the execution of Charles I., etc. Learning the position which Milton assumed in the struggle for liberty, his unceasing labors in behalf of his country, that his friends were the friends of Cromwell, of the Commonwealth, of Parliament, of Liberty, and Puritanism-against these the pupil will mentally array the King and his friends, the Royalists, the Church of England, and the writers who represented that party. He will recall, also, contemporary events in American history, how this same struggle for freedom of conscience in England planted the seeds of Liberty in New England. Identifying the writers with the events of the time, it would be but insignificant study to attempt to memorize individual dates. If a pupil is required to dwell too minutely on these smaller facts, the grander objects of the study will be sacrificed, and the power of generalizing will be left uncultivated.
8. After pupils have gained a respectable knowledge of several authors, it is a good exercise to let them bring in brief extracts from these authors-a striking sentence in prose, or a line or stanza of poetry-selecting judiciously--and recite them in class, letting the class recognize the author, either from memory of the lines quoted or from a knowledge of the general style of the writer. They should also know from what work the lines are extracted, and all that it is possible to know about them. Encourage pupils to make their own criticisms of an author's style.
In the first conception of this volume, the intention was to give more copious illustrations of the literature of each period; but the present limits of the work precluding this, if I have succeeded, by giving a taste, to cause the student to wish for more, and to send him to the author's own works, and not to text-books about them, one aim has been accomplished.
ESTHER J. TRIMBLE LIPPINCOTT. PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 27, 1882.