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ESSAY ON ADDISON
EDITED WITH NOTES
HERBERT AUGUSTINE SMITH, Ph.D.
INSTRUCTOR IN ENGLISH IN YALB COLLEGE
In the preparation of this little volume the editor has had in mind the needs of two different classes of students, intending it both for school and for college use. In consequence, the notes are not quite what they would have been had they been made for either class alone. Some of them will seem to a college Freshman or Sophomore unnecessarily elementary; while the school teacher may find the allusions to contemporary history and literature unnecessarily full, and implying a knowledge somewhat beyond that of his pupils.
Nevertheless, the editor trusts that its usefulness has in neither case been impaired. It does not take much experience with a college class to discover the possibilities of ignorance there; it is unsafe to assume a general knowledge of anything not required by the entrance examination, and no seed of information can be too elementary to drop somewhere into virgin soit. On the other hand, every school contains a considerable percentage of boys who are, in general information and wider reading, far ahead of their fellows. It does no harm to provide for the needs of these boys ; and the skillful teacher will find the utilization in the class-room of their knowledge an efficient aid to the instruction of their less intelligent companions.
The vital question in preparing a work of this kind is, of course, how to make the study both instructive and stimulating. Some of our friends are telling us that we are in
danger of making English, as taught in the schools, and perhaps in the colleges, lifeless and pedantic, and so of doing more harm than good. Such an essay as the one before us is, they say, first of all literary. No sane man sits down for the purely literary enjoyment of a literary work with a formidable armament of dictionaries, encyclopædias, literary histories, and other books of reference piled in front of him, ready at the first glimpse of a proper name which conveys a vague meaning, or none at all, to hunt the intruder down and dispatch him by committing to memory the dates of his birth and death. Why, then, should we require our boys and girls to read Macaulay with one finger in the notes? Such a method, we are told, is destructive of all literary enjoyment and literary taste, and fails equally of securing an intelligent comprehension of the substance of what is read, since the attention is distracted by the pursuit of irrelevant details. “They can't see the woods for the trees.”
It may be said, in the first place, that an intelligent and well educated reader does use reference books in connection with his reading. If he is confronted with a word in his own language which gives him no meaning, he reaches for his dictionary; if he finds his geography deficient, he is pretty likely to get out his atlas. He does these things for two reasons. His mind is alert, and seeking all the time to grasp the essential meaning of what he reads; if he fails to grasp it, he feels himself baffled and puzzled, and knows he has lost a part of the enjoyment of the author. Further, he wishes to increase his general knowledge. The best informed persons are just those who are most eager to be better informed.
It is highly desirable that boys and girls should early learn the use of books of reference. The best part of an education is that which is gained after one has learned to
go alone; a well stored mind comes only from a lifetime of acquisition. School and college can do no more than get people ready to take entire charge of their own education ; and they must train them to be acquisitive-capable of enlarging, and anxious to enlarge, their stores of information. The habit of using books of reference is certainly a very important one for the teacher to inculcate. But the habit cannot be developed by insisting that the pupil shall look up every unknown word, every proper name, every chance allusion. The boy who, reading that Addison's “knowledge of the Latin poets, from Lucretius and Catullus down to Claudian and Prudentius, was singularly exact and profound,” goes for his classical dictionary and looks up Lucretius, Catullus, Claudian, and Prudentius, with the result, very likely, of announcing to his teacher the next day that they are “all Latin poets,” has not got very far beyond his neighbor who took Macaulay's word for it. Nor would it have helped him, had his notes informed him that “Lucretius was a celebrated Latin writer, famous as the author of the De Rerum Natura, a philosophical didactic poem in six books." The result of annotating on such a plan as this is that the notes are usually skipped.
The thing that the pupil wants is the author's meaning. To get this, his attention must be concentrated on what he reads. He certainly cannot read intelligently, if his first endeavor is to carry in his memory various unrelated facts recorded in the notes a kind of bead exercise, with the text for string. But neither can he read intelligently what he does not understand. One great trouble is that he is very apt to be reading mechanically from the start, because he is preparing a lesson. Perhaps, too, he has never learned to read carefully, word by word, but only skims the surface; his reading has been children's books, light fiction, and the newspapers ; the ideas which reach his brain are