English Reading

WHEN at Oxford, you will not have much time for any reading, excepting that which has some reference to your examination. During the vacations, however, which occupy about half the year, you are more at liberty, and will do well, as I have already suggested to you, to give a good deal of your leisure to increasing your acquaintance with the classical writers of your own language.

Both at Oxford and home, endeavour, on most days, to catch some little portion of time,—a quarter of an hour may be sufficient,—for religious reading. Melmoth’s ” Great Importance of a Religious Life,” and the abridgment of Law’s ” Serious Call,” adopted by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, are two of the best books that occur to me, for the purpose of impressing you with the absolute necessity, of giving religion the first place in your thoughts and your heart. You may read either of them through in an hour. Of the former, 42,000 copies were sold in the eighteen years preceding 1784.

I mention this as an evidence of its popularity.

Some thirty years ago I was requested by a friend, to recommend some practical book to put into the hands of a young person. I named Nelson’s “Practice of True Devotion,” and have since seen no reason to alter my opinion. Let that be one of the first books that you make use of. If you read one chapter each day (and do not read more), it will last you about three weeks, After an interval of a year or so, go through it again.

Take next for this purpose Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying,” first reading (if you can borrow the book) what is said of this work by his highly-gifted and most amiable editor,

Bishop Heber. One passage from Heber’s remarks I must allow myself to quote : But I will not select, where all may be read with advantage, and can hardly be read without admiration. To clothe virtue in its most picturesque and attractive colouring ; to enforce with all the terrors of the divine law, its essential obligations ; and to distinguish, in almost every instance most successfully, between what is prudent and what is necessary ; what may fitly be done, and what cannot safely be left undone ;–this is the triumph of a Christian One of the five rules which Taylor gives in his Dedication, ” for the application of the counsels which follow,” applies to all books of a similar character, ” They that will, with profit, make use of the proper instruments of virtue, must so live as if they were always under the physician’s hand. For the counsels of religion are not to be applied to the distempers of the soul, as men used to take hellebore ; but they must dwell together with the spirit of a man, and be twisted about his understanding for ever : they must be used like nourishment, that is, by a daily care and meditation—not like a single medicine, and upon the actual pressure of a present necessity.”

The genuine spirit of Jeremy Taylor, with more correctness of taste, is found in that delightful book, ” The Christian Year.” Read it repeatedly.

It is every where full of poetry, and of the purest devotional feeling. The more you are imbued with the spirit which pervades that beautiful volume, the more fit you will be to have your part in ” the communion of saints,” among the spirits of just men made perfect.

Archbishop Seeker’s Lectures on the Catechism, contain a body of divinity, doctrinal and practical, singularly judicious and useful. They are full of good sense and accurate information. The style, perhaps, is rather involved, and not very engaging ; but you see a mind in full possession of its subject, anxious to put you in full possession of it also, without omitting any tiling of importance.

Gilpin’s Lectures on the Catechism are of a different character. This also is a very good and a very pleasing book, written with a particular view to young persons engaged in reading the Greek and Latin Classics.

Ogden’s Sermons, on Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,&c. are the offspring of a clear and powerful intellect, expressed in language remarkably perspicuous and elegant.

After these books, take some opportunity of reading the Sermons of Bishop Butler, including the Preface.

This is not a book to be read in a room full of brothers and sisters. It You will do well, at any odd intervals, or snatches of time, to make yourself familiar with Addison and Johnson. False delicacy shall not prevent me from recommending the selection from the writings of Addison which I made a few years ago.

My reasons for making such selection are given in the Preface. The same reasons now induce me to recommend it to you.

Johnson requires no pruning. You can hardly read a paper in the Rambler or Idler, and, I will add, the Adventurer, without deriving from it some improvement, either moral or intellectual, or both. The structure and cadence of Johnson’s sentences is certainly monotonous ; but I seldom read half a page without being struck by the depth of his thought, the accuracy and minuteness of his observation, and the astonishing extent of his multifarious reading.

In order to enter with more discrimination into the style of our different authors, read often ” Blair’s Lectures.”

They are, I believe, sometimes spoken slightingly of by men of learning ; I, however, as an unlearned man, think them particularly useful. The Lecture on the Origin of Language, indeed, the absurdity of which has been exposed with so much playfulness by Cowper, might well have been omitted.

I have already advised you, during the two longer vacations, to acquire, or to keep up, some knowledge of modern history. Russell’s ” Modern Europe” is, upon the whole, a useful book. It is, perhaps, too compendious ; and I dislike its being given in the form of letters. Robertson’s Charles the Fifth” you have probably read already ; if not, read it carefully when, in Russell, you arrive at the period at which it commences.

Pay particular attention to the First Book. Perhaps Robertson was not sufficiently impressed with the importance and the effects of the Reformation in Germany ; and he formed, I think, an unfair estimate of the character and motives of Luther. This matter will, I doubt not, be shortly set right in the Life of Luther about to be given to the public by one of the ablest and most learned men of the present day.

With respect to the history of our own country, I hardly know what advice to give you. Hume’s style is very pleasing, but he cannot be implicitly depended on, especially where relies on and the ministers of religion are concerned.

Henry’s “History of Great Britain” is a very good and accurate book; but the continuity of the narrative is broken by the multiplicity of divisions in each period, (learning, arts, commerce, manners, &c. &c.), and by the transitions to the history of Scotland.

Lingard I have not read ; I am told that his style is good, and his information extensive. It was natural that, as a zealous Romanist, he should seek to extenuate the faults of men of his own persuasion, and to exaggerate the failings, and place in an unfavourable point of view the motives and actions of the assailants of Popery ; but he has, I think, been fully convicted of carrying misrepresentation beyond all reasonable bounds.

There was but too much of bigotry and persecution on both sides.

Turner’s History is, I believe, strictly honest and impartial, and a work of prodigious labour and research.

But in our attention to prose writers, we must not forget the classical poets of our own country. Make yourself familiarly acquainted with Shakspeare, Milton, and Pope. The more you read of Young and Cowper, the better. Young is sometimes turgid, with a good deal of bad taste ; but he abounds in real poetry, and in strong truths most forcibly expressed. Cowper sometimes carries simplicity to the verge of being prosaic ; but lie is generally graceful, often pathetic, and sometimes approaches to sublimity.

Of both, it was the common object to increase the influence of genuine Christianity; of both, the perusal has a direct tendency to make you a better and a more religious man.

Two of our most distinguished living poets—Sir Walter Scott and Southey-have seen their poetry cast into shade by the popularity of their own prose. The poems of both will live, and have justice done them by posterity. ” Madoc” was many years ago recommended to me by one of the most able, and most candid, of our living authors. I read it with much interest. ” The Curse of Kehama” is full of high and wild poetry ; and Roderick, the last of the Goths ” gives a noble picture of deep penitence and of devoted patriotism. You will hardly read any ten lines of the longer poems of Sir Walter Scott, without meeting with some striking beauty of expression or of sentiment.

I am afraid, however, that the English poets, both those of former times and those of the present day, have been, in great measure, superseded, among you young Oxonians, The publication of Lord Byron’s life and correspondence has contributed, a good deal, to divest him of that mystery, which hung about him, and in which he himself so much delighted ; and has brought him down rather more to the level of ordinary mortals. They show him to us as a man possessed of splendid talents, of extensive and various attainments, and of the seeds of many noble and generous qualities ; but as a man actuated by ungovernable passions, and by an overweening opinion of his own superiority to all other mortals. Self, whether intellectual or sensual, seems to have been the idol that he worshipped. His own antient family, his own talents, his own attainments, his own whims, his own passions, his own excesses, seem all to have furnished food for his vanity, because they were his own.

I acknowledge that, in all the circumstances of his bringing up, he was singularly unfortunate. His early destitution, the character and habits of his mother, the neglect of his noble relations, the venal praises of his parasites and dependents, all acted upon his character with pernicious influence.

” Untaught in youth his heart to tame, His springs of life were poison’d.”

He was sensitively alive to all the beauties and the sublimities of external nature, and had a most penetrating insight into the complicated feelings, and the various workings of the human heart, with all its passions and affections ; consequently, he abounds in passages of great beauty, and of singular strength and power. The gratification derived from the perusal of such passages, however, to a man at least who really believes himself to be an immortal and a responsible being, is but a poor compensation for the moral effects of many of his poems, his later poems more especially. They too often appear to breathe a spirit of engrossing selfishness ; a spirit of captious and gloomy scepticism,–scepticism extending, not only to revelation, but to the primary truths of what is called natural religion, and even the most acknowledged bonds of moral obligation.

The tendency of his writings is to make you dissatisfied with almost everything, and every body in this world, and at the same time to unfit you for the world to come ; indeed, to make you doubt, whether the idea of a world to come is not altogether a mere delusion.

Lord Byron particularly excels in I had heard much of Don Juan, and felt some curiosity to read it; but I was aware of the manner in which bold and flippant ribaldry sometimes takes hold of the mind, even when shocked at it. I knew well, that human nature has in itself but too much of passion and sensuality, without needing any additional stimulus. I was unwilling to soil my mind” when I could avoid it.

For my own sake, I was unwilling to see the most destructive vices treated as mere matter of jest, and the most awful truths of religion introduced in connexion with ludicrous images, and spoken of in the language of mockery.

However much our judgment may disapprove of these things, yet the ludicrous passages and images are too apt to stick by us, even when we most wish to shake them off.

A book was advertised, called ” The Beauties of Don Juan, including those passages only which are calculated to extend the real fame of Lord Byron.”

The editor acknowledges that the poem itself, from the unpruned luxuriance of the authors powers, has remained a sealed volume” certainly it ought to be a sealed volume—” to the fairest portion of the community.”

This expurgate selection, however, though it contains many passages of great beauty, is a book which I should be sorry indeed to place in the hands of any young lady; and one against which I would forewarn every young man, who is not prepared to run the risk of sacrificing, at the shrine of genius, Christian faith, and Christian soberness, and Christian purity.

The description of the shipwreck had been spoken of as particularly fine. I read it. Not long since several accounts of actual shipwrecks and disasters at sea were published’.

Some of these accounts, are among the most interesting and edifying narratives, that I am acquainted with.

They abound in instances of heroic courage, of unshaken endurance, of a noble disregard of self, of the warmest benevolence, and of the most exalted piety. Don Juan seems to have taken a wayward pleasure in culling from these narratives the most distressing and painful facts, and then mixing them up in doggrel verse, with ludicrous images and ludicrous rhymes ; the main wit often consisting in some unexpected absurdity of sound or cadence.

One of the most dreadful consequences of shipwreck is, when a remnant of the crew, cast off in an open boat, are reduced, by extremity of hunger, to determine by lot, which of them shall first be made the food of his companions. Even in such calamity, this perverse and bitter spirit contrives to find matter for merriment. He laughed in himself when he wrote the stanzas, and tries to make his readers laugh; though they must feel indignant with themselves if they give way to the limpulse.

I conclude my letter with two sayings of Bishop Horne’s. ” He who sacrifices religion to wit, like the people mentioned by AElian, worships a fly, and offers up an ox to it.”

Again ; Sir Peter Lely made it a rule, never to look at a bad picture, having found, by experience, that, whenever he did so, his pencil took a tint from it. Apply this to bad books and bad company however brilliant the talents of a writer may be, yet, if a book has a tendency to produce a bad effect upon the moral habits of the mind, that book is a bad book.

” When I behold a genius bright and base, Of tow’ring talents, and terrestrial aims ; Methinks I see, as thrown from her high sphere,

The glorious fragments of a soul immortal, With rubbish mixt, and glitt’ring in the dust.”

I remain,

My dear Nephew,

Your affectionate Uncle.