Dante told the Florentines that it was possible to be a philosopher under any stars; Montaigne proved that it was so in his remote Gascon turret. It is curious that Montaigne's Essays is the only speculative book which Shakespeare can be proved to have read. Dante in one sense fought a losing battle, for his life-long endeavor was to keep the thread of tradition unbroken, to reform through the past and not in spite of it. We Americans are apt to undervalue tradition, and for this very reason I think a study of the motives and principles of such men as Dante of great value in deprovincializing our minds. Its guidance in politics may save the huge baggage wagon of human progress from many a sorry jolt and sometimes even from such a total overturn as that of the French Revolution. Montaigne's unconscious errand was not to break away from tradition, but to show that the past was even more valuable in certain ways as contrast than as example. In literature, the ability to make such contrasts is of incalculable advantage, nay, of prime necessity in acquiring breadth of view, and in defining our impressions more sharply. Without it, no man can be a critic. It was this which, in the absence of any original contemporary literature, gave to the classics that preponderance which degenerated into superstition. But the same result may be reached by the study of any literature that affords us the means of contrast and comparison with our own. Thus it was their knowledge of English authors that in great measure made Voltaire and Lessing such capable critics as they both undoubtedly were. In precisely the same way, I should say that Keats and Shelley might have profited by a study of Pope, because it would have made them feel conscious that exaggeration is always weakness, and would have taught them, as nothing else could, that felicity of expression and compactness of phrase have as absolute a value in the technic, as imagination in the substance of poetry.
III.Choice in Reading.Haydon says in his diary that we learn nothing after twenty, and perhaps this is so far true that the impulse which leads us to wisdom or to unwisdom may be thus early given to the character. In books, as in the world, it seems to me not only prudent but delightful to keep the best company. By that means the brain becomes at last plenam semper et frequentem domum concursu splendidissimorum hominum, and our minds acquire that tone of good society which only such intercourse can give. Remember, that as all roads lead to Rome, so from a really great book avenues open out that invite our curiosity and interest toward the most various and seemingly alien domains of thought.
We come here and too often go away from here, without any adequate conception of the responsibility which Literature lays upon us. It is nothing less than the power of the keys of unlooking bliss or bale, and it lies within our own choice whether we use them to open the pantry or the chapel.