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Many people in our day, readily merchants and often lawyers, say and repeat, "poetry is gone." It is almost as if they said, "There are no more roses; spring has breathed its last; the sun has lost the habit of rising; roam about all the fields of the earth, you will not find a butterfly; there is no more light in the moon, and the nightingale sings no more; the lion no longer roars; the eagle no longer soars; the Alps and the Pyrenees are gone; there are no more lovely girs or handsome young men; no one thinks any more of the graves; the mother no longer loves her child; heaven is quenched; the human heart is dead."
If it was permitted to mix the contigent with the eternal, it would be rather the contrary which would prove true. Never have the faculties of the human soul, investigated and enriched by the mysterious excavation of revolutions, been deeper and more lofty.
And wait a little; give time for the realization of the acme of social salvation,-- gratuitous and compulsory education. How long will it take? A quarter of a century; and then imagine the incalculable sum of intellectual development that this single word contains: every one can read! The multiplication of readers is the multiplication of loaves. On the day when Christ created that symbol, he caught a glimpse of printing. His miracle is this marvel. Behold a book. I will nourish with it five thousand souls, a hundred thousand souls, a million souls,-- all humanity. In the action of Christ bringing forth the loaves, there is Gutenberg bringing forth books. One sower heralds the other.
What is the human race since the origin of centuries? A reader. For a long time he has spelt; he spells yet. Soon he will read.
This infant, six thousand years old, has been at school. Where? In Nature. At the beginning, having no other book, he spelt the universe. He has had his primary teaching of the clouds, of the firmament, of meteors, flowers, animals, forests, seasons, phenomena. The fisherman of Ionia studies the wave; the shepherd of Chaldæa spells the star. Then the first books came. Sublime progress! The book is vaster yet than the grand scene, the world; for to the fact it adds the idea. If anything is greater than God seen in the sun, it is God seen in Homer.
The universe without the book is science taking its first steps; the universe with the book is the ideal making its appearance,-- therefore immediate modification in the human phenomenon. Where there had been only force, power reveals itself. The ideal applied to real facts is civilization. Poetry written and sung begins its work, magnificent and efficient deduction of the poetry only seen. A striking statement to make,-- science was dreaming; poetry acts. With the sound of the lyre, the thinker drives away brutality.
We shall return later to this power of the book; we do not insist on it at present; that power blazes forth. Now, many writers, few readers; such has the world been up to this day. But a change is at hand. Compulsory education is a recruiting of souls for light. Henceforth progress of the human race will be accomplished by the literary legion. The diameter of the moral and ideal good corresponds always to the opening of intelligences. In proportion to the worth of the brain is the worth of the heart.
The book is the tool to work this transformation. A constant supply of light, that is what humanity requires. Reading is nutriment. Thence the importance of the school, everywhere adequate to civilization. The human race is at last on the point of stretching open the book. The immense human Bible, composed of all the prophets, of all the poets, of all the philosophers, is about to shine and blaze under the focus of this enormous luminouos lens, compulsory education.
Humanity reading is humanity knowing.
What, then, is the meaning of that nonsense, "Poetry is gone"? We might say, on the contrary, "Poetry is coming!" For he who says "poetry" says "philosophy" and "light." Now, the reign of the book commences; the school is its purveyor. Increase the reader, you increase the book,-- not, certainly, in intrinsic value; that remains what it was; but in efficient power; it influences where it had no influence. The souls become its subjects for good purposes. It was but beautiful; it is useful.
Who would venture to deny this? The circle of readers enlarging, the circle of books read will increase. Now, the want of reading being a train of powder, once lighted it will not stop; and this, combined with the simplification of hand-labour by machinery, and with the increased leisure of man, the body less fatigued leaving intelligence more free, vast appetites for thought will spring up in all brains; the insatiable thirst for knowledge and meditation will become more and more the human preoccupation; low places will be deserted for high places,-- a natural ascent for every growing intelligence. People will quit Faublas to read "Orestes." There they will taste greatness; and once they have tasted it, they will never be satiated. They will devour the beautiful because the refinement of minds augments in proportion to their force; and a day will come when the fulness of civilization making itself manifest, those summits, almost desert for ages, and haunted solely by the élite,-- Lucretius, Dante, Shakespeare,-- will be crowded with souls seeking their nourishment on the lofty peaks.
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