Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies of English Writers: From Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker

Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies of English Writers: From Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker

Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies of English Writers: From Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker

Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies of English Writers: From Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker

Excerpt

TO THE READER

In time of danger and responsibility many people of many nations have drawn comfort from their great writers. At least one French scholar-soldier, and probably scores of his fellow- countrymen, found encouragement in the trenches by thinking of the words which the good Count of Soissons spoke to Joinville during the grim fighting near Mansourah: 'Seneschal, we shall yet talk of this day, you and I, in the drawing room among the ladies.' And English literature is as full of words of encouragement as that of any nation. Earl Baldwin found in Piers Plowman 'the Englishman immutable and eternal'. Carlyle saw Shakespeare 'shine over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying signs, indestructible.'

Nevertheless, it is fashionable to represent both these poets as victims of discouragement and disillusionment, overwhelmed by the sorrows of their age. It is the chief object of this book to acclaim their 'victorious strength'.

When Baldwin perceived in Piers Plowman 'the same Englishman with whom you have to work to-day -- the same Englishman in his strength and in his weakness, in his heroism and in his humour', he was, I believe, the first to stress, as it deserves, the heroism of the poem. The author is still generally held to have been what John Richard Green held him to have been, a victim of depression: 'the gaunt poet of the poor', who 'sings as a man conscious of his loneliness, and without hope', with 'narrow intensity', 'a deep undertone of sadness', and 'a terrible despair'. But that is not the whole truth. It can be shown that the poet, in his spirit, as in his metre and vocabulary, is the successor of the Old English heroic poets. He sees 'all the wealth of this world, and the woe both', and refuses to be flattered by the one or intimidated by the other. He confesses to moments of weakness, even to long periods during which he abandons his great quest; he has lost time, but he has not lost hope.

He will never give in. He makes the whole scheme of man's . . .

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