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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - THE IMAGINATION Post by :Ina_Collins Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :3080

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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - THE IMAGINATION



(Footnote 1: A small portion of this lecture appeared at the time of its delivery, in January, 1855, in a report printed in the _Boston Daily Advertiser_.)

Imagination is the wings of the mind; the understanding, its feet. With these it may climb high, but can never soar into that ampler ether and diviner air whence the eye dominates so uncontrolled a prospect on every hand. Through imagination alone is something like a creative power possible to man. It is the same in Aeschylus as in Shakespeare, though the form of its manifestation varies in some outward respects from age to age. Being the faculty of vision, it is the essential part of expression also, which is the office of all art.

But in comparing ancient with modern imaginative literature, certain changes especially strike us, and chief among them a stronger infusion of sentiment and what we call the picturesque. I shall endeavor to illustrate this by a few examples. But first let us discuss imagination itself, and give some instances of its working.

"Art," says Lord Verulam, "is man added to Nature" (_homo additus naturae_); and we may modernize his statement, and adapt it to the demands of aesthetics, if we define art to be Nature infused with and shaped by the imaginative faculty of man; thus, as Bacon says elsewhere, "conforming the shows of things to the desires of the mind." Art always platonizes: it results from a certain finer instinct for form, order, proportion, a certain keener sense of the rhythm there is in the eternal flow of the world about us, and its products take shape around some idea preëxistent in the mind, are quickened into life by it, and strive always (cramped and hampered as they are by the limitations and conditions of human nature, of individual temperament, and outward circumstances) toward ideal perfection--toward what Michelangelo called

Ideal form, the universal mould.

Shakespeare, whose careless generalizations have often the exactness of scientific definitions, tells us that

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact;


as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

And a little before he had told us that

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.

Plato had said before him (in his "Ion") that the poet is possessed by a spirit not his own, and that he cannot poetize while he has a particle of understanding left. Again he says that the bacchantes, possessed by the god, drink milk and honey from the rivers, and cannot believe, _till they recover their senses_, that they have been drinking mere water. Empedocles said that "the mind could only conceive of fire by being fire."

All these definitions imply in the imaginative faculty the capabilities of ecstasy and possession, that is, of projecting itself into the very consciousness of its object, and again of being so wholly possessed by the emotion of its object that in expression it takes unconsciously the tone, the color, and the temperature thereof. Shakespeare is the highest example of this--for example, the parting of Romeo and Juliet. There the poet is so possessed by the situation, has so mingled his own consciousness with that of the lovers, that all nature is infected too, and is full of partings:

Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the _severing clouds in yonder east.

In Shelley's "Cenci," on the other hand, we have an instance of the poet's imagination giving away its own consciousness to the object contemplated, in this case an inanimate one.

Two miles on this side of the fort, the road
Crosses a deep ravine; 't is rough and narrow,
And winds with short turns down the precipice;
And in its depth there is a mighty rock
Which has, from unimaginable years,
Sustained itself with terror and with toil
Over a gulf, and with the agony
With which it clings seems slowly coming down;
Even as a wretched soul hour after hour
Clings to the mass of life; yet clinging, leans;
And leaning, makes more dark the dread abyss
In which it fears to fall: beneath this crag,
Huge as despair, as if in weariness,
The melancholy mountain yawns.

The hint of this Shelley took from a passage in the second act of Calderon's "Purgatorio de San Patricio."

No ves ese peñasco que parece
Que se esta sustentando con trabajo,
Y con el ansia misma que padece
Ha tantos siglos que se viene abajo?

which, retaining the measure of the original, may be thus paraphrased:

Do you not see that rock there which appeareth
To hold itself up with a throe appalling,
And, through the very pang of what it feareth,
So many ages hath been falling, falling?

You will observe that in the last instance quoted the poet substitutes his own _impression of the thing for the thing itself; he forces his own consciousness upon it, and herein is the very root of all sentimentalism. Herein lies the fault of that subjective tendency whose excess is so lamented by Goethe and Schiller, and which is one of the main distinctions between ancient and modern poetry. I say in its excess, for there are moods of mind of which it is the natural and healthy expression. Thus Shakespeare in his ninety-seventh sonnet:

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen,
What old December's bareness everywhere!
And yet this time remov'd was summer's time.

It is only when it becomes a habit, instead of a mood of the mind, that it is a token of disease. Then it is properly dyspepsia, liver-complaint--what you will, but certainly not imagination as the handmaid of art. In that service she has two duties laid upon her: one as the _plastic or _shaping faculty, which gives form and proportion, and reduces the several parts of any work to an organic unity foreordained in that idea which is its germ of life; and the other as the _realizing energy of thought which conceives clearly all the parts, not only in relation to the whole, but each in its several integrity and coherence.

We call the imagination the creative faculty. Assuming it to be so, in the one case it acts by deliberate forethought, in the other by intense sympathy--a sympathy which enables it to realize an Iago as happily as a Cordelia, a Caliban as a Prospero. There is a passage in Chaucer's "House of Fame" which very prettily illustrates this latter function:

Whan any speche yeomen ys
Up to the paleys, anon ryght
Hyt wexeth lyke the same wight,
Which that the worde in erthe spak,
Be hyt clothed rede or blak;
And so were hys lykenesse,
And spake the word, that thou wilt gesse
That it the same body be,
Man or woman, he or she.

We have the highest, and indeed an almost unique, example of this kind of sympathetic imagination in Shakespeare, who becomes so sensitive, sometimes, to the thought, the feeling, nay, the mere whim or habit of body of his characters, that we feel, to use his own words, as if "the dull substance of his flesh were thought." It is not in mere intensity of phrase, but in the fitness of it to the feeling, the character, or the situation, that this phase of the imaginative faculty gives witness of itself in expression. I know nothing more profoundly imaginative therefore in its bald simplicity than a line in Webster's "Duchess of Malfy." Ferdinand has procured the murder of his sister the duchess. When her dead body is shown to him he stammers out:

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.

The difference between subjective and objective in poetry would seem to be that the aim of the former is to express a mood of the mind, often something in itself accidental and transitory, while that of the latter is to convey the impression made upon the mind by something outside of it, but taken up into the mind and idealized (that is, stripped of all unessential particulars) by it. The one would fain set forth your view of the thing (modified, perhaps, by your breakfast), the other would set forth the very thing itself in its most concise individuality. Subjective poetry may be profound and imaginative if it deal with the primary emotions of our nature, with the soul's inquiries into its own being and doing, as was true of Wordsworth; but in the very proportion that it is profound, its range is limited. Great poetry should have breadth as well as height and depth; it should meet men everywhere on the open levels of their common humanity, and not merely on their occasional excursions to the heights of speculation or their exploring expeditions among the crypts of metaphysics.

But however we divide poetry, the office of imagination is to disengage what is essential from the crowd of accessories which is apt to confuse the vision of ordinary minds. For our perceptions of things are gregarious, and are wont to huddle together and jostle one another. It is only those who have been long trained to shepherd their thoughts that can at once single out each member of the flock by something peculiar to itself. That the power of abstraction has something to do with the imagination is clear, I think, from the fact that everybody is a dramatic poet (so far as the conception of character goes) in his sleep. His acquaintances walk and talk before him on the stage of dream precisely as in life. When he wakes, his genius has flown away with his sleep. It was indeed nothing more than that his mind was not distracted by the multiplicity of details which the senses force upon it by day. He thinks of Smith, and it is no longer a mere name on a doorplate or in a directory; but Smith himself is there, with those marvellous commonplaces of his which, could you only hit them off when you were awake, you would have created Justice Shallow. Nay, is not there, too, that offensively supercilious creak of the boots with which he enforced his remarks on the war in Europe, when he last caught you at the corner of the street and decanted into your ears the stale settlings of a week of newspapers? Now, did not Shakespeare tell us that the imagination _bodies forth_? It is indeed the _verbum caro factum_--the word made flesh and blood.

I said that the imagination always idealizes, that in its highest exercise, for example, as in the representation of character, it goes behind the species to the genus, presenting us with everlasting types of human nature, as in Don Quixote and Hamlet, Antigone and Cordelia, Alcestis and Amelia. By this I mean that those features are most constantly insisted upon, not in which they differ from other men but from other kinds of men. For example, Don Quixote is never set before us as a mere madman, but as the victim of a monomania, and that, when you analyze it, of a very noble kind--nothing less, indeed, than devotion to an unattainable ideal, to an anachronism, as the ideals of imaginative men for the most part are. Amid all his ludicrous defeats and disillusions, this poetical side of him is brought to our notice at intervals, just as a certain theme recurs again and again in one of Beethoven's symphonies, a kind of clue to guide us through those intricacies of harmony. So in Lear, one of Shakespeare's profoundest psychological studies, the weakness of the man is emphasized, as it were, and forced upon our attention by his outbreaks of impotent violence; so in Macbeth, that imaginative bias which lays him open to the temptation of the weird sisters is suggested from time to time through the whole tragedy, and at last unmans him, and brings about his catastrophe in his combat with Macduff. This is what I call ideal and imaginative representation, which marks the outlines and boundaries of character, not by arbitrary lines drawn at this angle or that, according to the whim of the tracer, but by those mountain-ranges of human nature which divide man from man and temperament from temperament. And as the imagination of the reader must reinforce that of the poet, reducing the generic again to the specific, and defining it into sharper individuality by a comparison with the experiences of actual life, so, on the other hand, the popular imagination is always poetic, investing each new figure that comes before it with all the qualities that belong to the genus; Thus Hamlet, in some one or other of his characteristics has been the familiar of us all, and so from an ideal and remote figure is reduced to the standard of real and contemporary existence; while Bismarck, who, if we knew him, would probably turn out to be a comparatively simple character, is invested with all the qualities which have ever been attributed to the typical statesman, and is clearly as imaginative a personage as the Marquis of Posa, in Schiller's "Don Carlos." We are ready to accept any _coup de théâtre of him. Now, this prepossession is precisely that for which the imagination of the poet makes us ready by working on our own.

But there are also lower levels on which this idealization plays its tricks upon our fancy. The Greek, who had studied profoundly what may be called the machinery of art, made use even of mechanical contrivances to delude the imagination of the spectator, and to entice him away from the associations of everyday life. The cothurnus lifted the actor to heroic stature, the mask prevented the ludicrous recognition of a familiar face in "Oedipus" and "Agamemnon"; it precluded grimace, and left the countenance as passionless as that of a god; it gave a more awful reverberation to the voice, and it was by the voice, that most penetrating and sympathetic, one might almost say incorporeal, organ of expression, that the great effects of the poet and tragic actor were wrought. Everything, you will observe, was, if not lifted above, at any rate removed, however much or little, from the plane of the actual and trivial. Their stage showed nothing that could be met in the streets. We barbarians, on the other hand, take delight precisely in that. We admire the novels of Trollope and the groups of Rogers because, as we say, they are so _real_, while it is only because they are so matter-of-fact, so exactly on the level with our own trivial and prosaic apprehensions. When Dante lingers to hear the dispute between Sinon and Master Adam, Virgil, type of the higher reason and the ideal poet, rebukes him, and even angrily.

E fa ragion ch'io ti sia sempre allato
Si più avvien che fortuna t' accoglia
Ove sien genti in simigliante piato;
Chè voler ciò udire è bassa voglia.

Remember, _I am always at thy side,
If ever fortune bring thee once again
Where there are people in dispute like this,
For wishing to hear that is vulgar wish.

Verse is another of these expedients for producing that frame of mind, that prepossession, on the part of hearer or reader which is essential to the purpose of the poet, who has lost much of his advantage by the invention of printing, which obliges him to appeal to the eye rather than the ear. The rhythm is no arbitrary and artificial contrivance. It was suggested by an instinct natural to man. It is taught him by the beating of his heart, by his breathing, hastened or retarded by the emotion of the moment. Nay, it may be detected by what seems the most monotonous of motions, the flow of water, in which, if you listen intently, you will discover a beat as regular as that of the metronome. With the natural presumption of all self-taught men, I thought I had made a discovery in this secret confided to me by Beaver Brook, till Professor Peirce told me it was always allowed for in the building of dams. Nay, for my own part, I would venture to affirm that not only metre but even rhyme itself was not without suggestion in outward nature. Look at the pine, how its branches, balancing each other, ray out from the tapering stem in stanza after stanza, how spray answers to spray in order, strophe, and antistrophe, till the perfect tree stands an embodied ode, Nature's triumphant vindication of proportion, number, and harmony. Who can doubt the innate charm of rhyme who has seen the blue river repeat the blue o'erhead; who has been ravished by the visible consonance of the tree growing at once toward an upward and downward heaven on the edge of the twilight cove; or who has watched how, as the kingfisher flitted from shore to shore, his visible echo flies under him, and completes the fleeting couplet in the visionary vault below? At least there can be no doubt that metre, by its systematic and regular occurrence, gradually subjugates and tunes the senses of the hearer, as the wood of the violin arranges itself in sympathy with the vibration of the strings, and thus that predisposition to the proper emotion is accomplished which is essential to the purpose of the pest. You must not only expect, but you must expect in the right way; you must be magnetized beforehand in every fibre by your own sensibility in order that you may feel what and how you ought. The right reception of whatever is ideally represented demands as a preliminary condition an exalted, or, if not that, then an excited, frame of mind both in poet and hearer. The imagination must be sensitized ere it will take the impression of those airy nothings whose image is traced and fixed by appliances as delicate as the golden pencils of the sun. Then that becomes a visible reality which before was but a phantom of the brain. Your own passion must penetrate and mingle with that of the artist that you may interpret him aright. You must, I say, be prepossessed, for it is the mind which shapes and colors the reports of the senses. Suppose you were expecting the bell to toll for the burial of some beloved person and the church-clock should begin to strike. The first lingering blow of the hammer would beat upon your very heart, and thence the shock would run to all the senses at once; but after a few strokes you would be undeceived, and the sound would become commonplace again. On the other hand, suppose that at a certain hour you knew that a criminal was to be executed; then the ordinary striking of the clock would have the sullen clang of a funeral bell. So in Shakespeare's instance of the lover, does he not suddenly find himself sensible of a beauty in the world about him before undreamed of, because his passion has somehow got into whatever he sees and hears? Will not the rustle of silk across a counter stop his pulse because it brings back to his sense the odorous whisper of Parthenissa's robe? Is not the beat of the horse's hoofs as rapid to Angelica pursued as the throbs of her own heart huddling upon one another in terror, while it is slow to Sister Anne, as the pulse that pauses between hope and fear, as she listens on the tower for rescue, and would have the rider "spur, though mounted on the wind"?

Dr. Johnson tells us that that only is good poetry which may be translated into sensible prose. I greatly doubt whether any very profound emotion can be so rendered. Man is a metrical animal, and it is not in prose but in nonsense verses that the young mother croons her joy over the new centre of hope and terror that is sucking life from her breast. Translate passion into sensible prose and it becomes absurd, because subdued to workaday associations, to that level of common sense and convention where to betray intense feeling is ridiculous and unmannerly. Shall I ask Shakespeare to translate me his love "still climbing trees in the Hesperides"? Shall I ask Marlowe how Helen could "make him immortal with a kiss," or how, in the name of all the Monsieur Jourdains, at once her face could "launch a thousand ships and burn the topless towers of Ilion"? Could Aeschylus, if put upon the stand, defend his making Prometheus cry out,

O divine ether and swift-winged winds,
Ye springs of rivers, and of ocean waves
The innumerable smile, all mother Earth,
And Helios' all-beholding round, I call:
Behold what I, a god, from gods endure!

Or could Lear justify his

I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdoms, call'd you children!

No; precisely what makes the charm of poetry is what we cannot explain any more than we can describe a perfume. There is a little quatrain of Gongora's quoted by Calderon in his "Alcalde of Zalamea" which has an inexplicable charm for me:

Las flores del romero,
Niña Isabel,
Hoy son flores azules,
Y mañana serán miel.

If I translate it, 't is nonsense, yet I understand it perfectly, and it will, I dare say, outlive much wiser things in my memory. It is the very function of poetry to free us from that witch's circle of common sense which holds us fast in its narrow enchantment. In this disenthralment, language and verse have their share, and we may say that language also is capable of a certain idealization. Here is a passage from the XXXth song of Drayton's "Poly-Olbion":

Which Copland scarce had spoke, but quickly every Hill
Upon her verge that stands, the neighbouring valleys fill;
Helvillon from his height, it through the mountains threw,
From whom as soon again, the sound Dunbalrase drew,
From whose stone-trophied head, it on to Wendrosse went,
Which tow'rds the sea again, resounded it to Dent,
That Broadwater therewith within her banks astound,
In sailing to the sea, told it in Egremound.

This gave a hint to Wordsworth, who, in one of his "Poems on the Naming of Places," thus prolongs the echo of it:

Joanna, looking in my eyes, beheld
That ravishment of mine, and laughed aloud.
The Rock, like something starting from a sleep,
Took up the Lady's voice, and laughed again;
The ancient Woman seated on Helm-crag
Was ready with her cavern; Hammar-scar,
And the tall steep of Silver-how, sent forth
A noise of laughter; southern Loughrigg heard,
And Fairfield answered with a mountain tone;
Helvellyn far into the clear blue sky
Carried the Lady's voice,--old Skiddaw blew
His speaking-trumpet;--back out of the clouds
Of Glaramara southward came the voice;
And Kirkstone tossed it from his misty head.

Now, this passage of Wordsworth I should call the
idealization of that of Drayton, who becomes poetical
only in the "stone-trophied head of Dunbalrase";
and yet the thought of both poets is the same.

Even what is essentially vulgar may be idealized by seizing and dwelling on the generic characteristics. In "Antony and Cleopatra" Shakespeare makes Lepidus tipsy, and nothing can be droller than the drunken gravity with which he persists in proving himself capable of bearing his part in the conversation. We seem to feel the whirl in his head when we find his mind revolving round a certain fixed point to which he clings as to a post. Antony is telling stories of Egypt to Octavius, and Lepidus, drawn into an eddy of the talk, interrupts him:

_Lepidus_: You gave strange serpents there.

_Antony (_trying to shake him off_): Ay, Lepidus.

_Lepidus_: Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun: so is your crocodile.

_Antony (_thinking to get rid of him_): They are so.

Presently Lepidus has revolved again, and continues, as if he had been contradicted:

Nay, certainly, I have heard the Ptolemies' pyramises are very goodly things; without contradiction, I have heard that.

And then, after another pause, still intent on proving himself sober, he asks, coming round to the crocodile again:

What manner o' thing is your crocodile?

Antony answers gravely:

It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs: it lives by that which nourisheth it; and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.

_Lepidus_: What color is it of?

_Antony_: Of its own color, too.

_Lepidus (_meditatively_): 'T is a strange serpent.

The ideal in expression, then, deals also with the generic, and evades embarrassing particulars in a generalization. We say Tragedy with the dagger and bowl, and it means something very different to the aesthetic sense from Tragedy with the case-knife and the phial of laudanum, though these would be as effectual for murder. It was a misconception of this that led poetry into that slough of poetic diction where everything was supposed to be made poetical by being called something else, and something longer. A boot became "the shining leather that the leg encased"; coffee, "the fragrant juice of Mocha's berry brown," whereas the imaginative way is the most condensed and shortest, conveying to the mind a feeling of the thing, and not a paraphrase of it. Akin to this was a confounding of the pictorial with the imaginative, and personification with that typical expression which is the true function of poetry. Compare, for example, Collins's Revenge with Chaucer's.

Revenge impatient rose;
He threw his blood-stained sword in thunder down,
And, with a withering look,
The war-denouncing trumpet took,
And blew a blast so loud and dread,
Were ne'er prophetic sound so full of woe!
And ever and anon he beat
The doubling drum with furious heat.

"Words, words, Horatio!" Now let us hear Chaucer with his single stealthy line that makes us glance over our shoulder as if we heard the murderous tread behind us:

The smiler with the knife hid under the cloak.

Which is the more terrible? Which has more danger in it--Collins's noise or Chaucer's silence? Here is not the mere difference, you will perceive, between ornament and simplicity, but between a diffuseness which distracts, and a condensation which concentres the attention. Chaucer has chosen out of all the rest the treachery and the secrecy as the two points most apt to impress the imagination.

The imagination, as concerns expression, condenses; the fancy, on the other hand, adorns, illustrates, and commonly amplifies. The one is suggestive, the other picturesque. In Chapman's "Hero and Leander," I read--

Her fresh-heat blood cast figures in her eyes,
And she supposed she saw in Neptune's skies
How her star wander'd, wash'd in smarting brine,
For her love's sake, that with immortal wine
Should be embathed, and swim in more heart's-ease
Than there was water in the Sestian seas.

In the epithet "star," Hero's thought implies the beauty and brightness of her lover and his being the lord of her destiny, while in "Neptune's skies" we have not only the simple fact that the waters are the atmosphere of the sea-god's realm, but are reminded of that reflected heaven which Hero must have so often watched as it deepened below her tower in the smooth Hellespont. I call this as high an example of fancy as could well be found; it is picture and sentiment combined--the very essence of the picturesque.

But when Keats calls Mercury "the star of Lethe," the word "star" makes us see him as the poor ghosts do who are awaiting his convoy, while the word "Lethe" intensifies our sympathy by making us feel his coming as they do who are longing to drink of forgetfulness. And this again reacts upon the word "star," which, as it before expressed only the shining of the god, acquires a metaphysical significance from our habitual association of star with the notions of hope and promise. Again nothing can be more fanciful than this bit of Henry More the Platonist:

What doth move
The nightingale to sing so fresh and clear?
The thrush or lark that, mounting high above,
Chants her shrill notes to heedless ears of corn
Heavily hanging in the dewy morn?

But compare this with Keats again:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown;
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.

The imagination has touched that word "alien," and we see the field through Ruth's eyes, as she looked round on the hostile spikes, not merely through those of the poet.

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