"O Attic receptacle O!
Chaste crucible made long ago!
Informing our youth
That beauty is truth.
Truth, Beauty, that's all they need know!"
Undoubtedly this is a very fine piece of poetry; it has a catchy swing to it and contains a great deal of meaty matter. The religion of the chief Romantic poets is expressed here in a nutshell, surely much better than they themselves could ever have done. How much more concise it is, too, than the "Ode to a Grecian Urn." Such an opinion, no doubt, might be expressed by some readers quite frankly and honestly--so seriously, in fact, that a writer in the Atlantic Monthly feels forced to suggest that every student be prescribed a course in the "Appreciation of Literature" an English 4, so to speak.
What is it that makes Shakespeare great? Why is the original of the Canterbury Tales finer poetry than Dryden's translation? What differentiates genius from mediocrity? These are subtleties that cannot be expressed in so many words, in any course. Literature is not yet an exact science. But all that can be taught is being taught now in such courses as English 41 and 28, which deal not only with facts (as the writer seems to think) but with the theories of style, taste and method. What they teach is an intelligent critical attitude, which, applied to the actual reading of literature, is the only trustworthy guide to "appreciation".
The real suggestion lurking in the mind of the Atlantic's contributor, is perhaps that some clearer synthesis is needed between reading and the study of technicalities, a synthesis which is made only by the rare student who applies the lecturer's critical doctrines to the "required reading" faithfully and sensitively. If his only knowledge consists of hastily digested critical formulae and an Independent glance at the authors themselves, often through the crude spectacles of tutoring notes, he will never learn what is meant by genius. A tentative answer to the difficulty has been proposed uniquely in the Freshman class at the University. Again English 28 must be the example. The English 28 Club is an active semi-social group of students, which meets informally for the discussion of topics related to the course. "Discussion" implies two things: participation by a group, and material to be considered from-various points of view; in this case, a voluntary applying of criteria and comparison of one author or work or method with another. Here, then, is the germ of genuine "appreciation". If all our literary courses could be turned into English 28 Clubs, there would be no further fear of confusing Service with Shelley, or F. Scott Fitzgerald with the translator of Omar Khayyam.