Excerpt from “on reading shakespeare”

“Whether there are sailors who sail without charts is doubtful, but there certainly are

travellers who prefer to journey with no map to guide them, and readers who are

contemptuous of books about books. They gain no profit, they say, by looking at

things through the eyes of others. But this impromptu, uninstructed way of grasping

at masterpieces in spontaneous leaps of feeling is but a poor way of learning how

to enjoy them. The first surprise and flush of prompt delight is, of course, of great,

perhaps the greatest, value; but a true appreciation is only enjoy, but understand

our pleasure, and make it food for thought; should learn the aesthetic reasons for it,

and learn also all we can about the origins and environments of the monuments

and masterpieces we gaze on. To understand them we must know their place in

history, and their relative position among other masterpieces. And I at least find that

my vision of the things I like is greatly enhanced and clarified by seeing them

reflected the luminous minds of other people. Esthetic appreciation is, luckily, a

thing that can be communicated, can be learnt from others- the glow of it is catching

fire. How often an admiration spoken of by someone we admire- sometimes the

mere mention of a preference- has opened for us the gate into a new world of

beauty! And certainly the debt I owe to the great interpreters of literature is far too

large to allow me to join in the common abuse of critics; they have given me ears,

they have given me eyes, they have taught me- and have taught all of us really-

the best way of appreciating excellence, and how and where to find it. How many

sights unguided travellers pass by! how many beauties readers of great works will

miss, if they refuse to read the books about them!”


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