De Vere, Aubrey. "Some Remarks on Literature in its Social Aspects." Essays: Chiefly Literary and Ethical. London: MacMillan, 1889. 1-57.
There is one section of Social Philosophy upon which less attention has perhaps been bestowed than it deserves, the relation, namely, in which literature stands, not to the individual intellect, but to Social Progress.
There was a time when books constituted a world of their own, and when that world and the world of men were "as kingdoms in oppugnancy." To be a man of letters was then looked upon almost as a monastic vocation. But the cloistral days of literature, whether for good or for evil, are over. Not only do men of the world and men of letters mix in society, but to a large extent the pursuits of each class are of a mixed character, derived partly from study and partly from the interests of life. Literature has acquired a history of its own; and in becoming acquainted with that history it is impossible not to perceive at how many points in the literary and the social development of man have touched each other. These points of contact coincide in the intellectual and the social development of different nations sufficiently to suggest not a few inferences of some interest as regards social philosophy. In many respects such a survey tends to exalt literature in our estimation; but to exalt it, not so much for what it effects by premeditated effort, as for what it effects unconsciously, as the interpreter of instincts deeper than any which it originates. It brings home to us, above all, the conviction that literature cannot be made to advance in a groove of its own, subject only to its own laws; that it comes from the heart of human kind, and, for good or evil, gives utterance to all that is deepest there.
As to the vast amount of power exercised by letters in our day, there can be no doubt. That power may be more or less of a spiritual, and therefore of a durable, character; but it makes itself felt in the present, and does not lack confidence at least as regards the future. A celebrated German philosopher remarks that in ancient times the State was the great power; in the Middle Ages the Church; and that to these in recent days we have added two others--commerce and literature. In earlier ages the influence both of commerce and of letters was comparatively local and occasional. In the modern world both influences are permanent, and aspire to become universal. What railroads and steam effect for trade, that popular education effects for literature. Schools and lecture halls and mechanic institutes have lent it wings. That which belonged of old to the few is now the inheritance of the many. Men are proud of their new possession, and proud for very different reasons. Some see in it a new gift of God to man, accompanied by a new responsibility; others value it as a human franchise, the result of human energies, and the triumph of natural powers. The religious see in it new means of acquainting man with his duties; the worldly new means of extending his sensuous enjoyments. In one thing they are agreed, viz. that in determining the future lot of man literature must have a great place; and consequently that to ascertain its relations to society is a problem not of mere speculation, but of practical philosophy.
We should have no reason to be surprised if we found that, high as are the services and just honours of literature, there is, among many, a disposition to exaggerate both. A temperate estimate of itself is not one of the characteristics of modern Intellect, which resembles a youth who has come too lately into possession of a large estate to appreciate its resources aright. Conscious of great and new powers, it has not had time to learn their limitations. There are some who fancy that the day has gone by when the statesman in his study, or the captain in the field, can exercise more than a seeming power, and that no genuine moral influence survives except that which proceeds from the author's desk. The "Slave of the Lamp" is the divinity in whom they believe. Such an exaggerated estimate of literary power proceeds, or course, mainly from an inadequate estimate of other things, and especially of revealed religion. The gifts such persons decline to accept from above, they claim as the spoil of human invention. A few years ago multitudes believed in a "reign of peace," of which commerce was the bond, and to which charity need give no help. There are still multitudes who look forward to a state of perfection as a thing guaranteed by the diffusion of general knowledge. To depreciate religion in order to exalt literature is to remove the buttresses and tamper with the foundations of a building, in the hope of raising higher, with the materials thus provided, its pinnacles and towers. The over-estimate of the influence exercised by literature as compared with the power of the State proceeds no less from the intemperate haste of an intellectual movement that has not yet acquired the sedateness of experience.
The "pride of literature," as it has been called, is closely connected with an ignorance of the real dignity that belongs to letters, and the genuine service they are capable of rendering to man. Those who are most infected with it boast much of the influence of books: but they think more of that immediate and palpable influence, which is obvious to all, than of that more spiritual influence which, though it lasts long, rises imperceptibly and diffuses itself slowly. Bentham, not Plato, is the idol of such encomiasts; and if they can afford a word of praise to Bacon himself, it is only on condition of being allowed to represent that great lover of knowledge as one who valued it only for its physical aids to man. The pamphlet of the hour interests them more than the philosophic page which lifted up human hearts three thousand years ago, and yet upon whose "lucid brow,"[a] as on the sea, "Time writes no wrinkle."[b] The characters which they can spell must be as large as those over shop-doors; and harmonies less obtrusive than those of drum and trumpet are lost on their ear. It is not long since a distinguished man proclaimed in Parliament that the newspaper press was the most useful part of literature. The boldest but speaks what the many think, or what they will think when they come to know their own mind. Such is the degradation that literature must reach if it forgets its fountain-head, which is hidden on the mountain summits of Truth, and if it attaches itself mainly to those material applications which belong to it but incidentally, as, descending from the heights, it irrigates the fields and farms of common life. In the old fable of King Log, we have a type of such exaltations and their consequences.[c] Literature in neither a divinity nor a drudge--converse errors very closely connected.
In casting a glance back upon the history of literature, what perhaps strikes us most is the orderly sequence with which its different periods, characterised in most nations by analogous merits and defects, succeed each other. Were all these periods like the earlier, it would be impossible not to speak of them in words which we should call enthusiastic, if we did not remember how far short even they must fall of our feelings in youth, when first the new world of perdurable books come in upon us. Amid the fleeting pageants of time the great poems of the world maintain an image of immortality. States, like men, drop back into the dust; that dust takes shape again, and again crumbles into dissolution; but the old Greek's song still pours life into the veins of successive generations in remote and unfriendly climes. Such is the mystery of musical words. The temples that seemed as stable as the quarries of Paros and Pentelicus out of which they rose have melted away like snow-wreaths: yet Achilles lives as when fire flashed from the sightless eyes of the gray rhapsodist, and the youngest shepherd-boy amid the listening group clasped the crook like a sword. Not a picture of Apelles survives, but Helen remains as when her beauty launched the fleets of Greece. Philip and Alexander are gone; their bones lie as passive as those of the broad elephants which, beside the Persian or Indian rivers, once divided the iron ranks of the Macedonian phalanx; but Demosthenes still denounces "the barbarian" as when he took his stand on the pnyx and "in Athens there was but one voice heard." (1) Dynasties have vanished; empires, foreshown to the sad prophet in symbolic image, are no more; hosts beneath whose tread the earth trembled have passed into earth; communities bright and fragile have risen like the flower, and broken like the bubble; yet no word is moved from its order of all those which Cassandra spoke in her madness, and &Aeschylus recorded. Time reveres that blind old discrowned head of dipus as, sitting beside the city gates in the laurel grove of the Eumenides, he bends it forward, listening to the Athenian nightingales. The song of those birds is unchanged; no link has been broken, from age to age, in the chain of the musical tradition. As secure against change is every modulation of that tragic chorus which celebrated their melody.
We enjoy our secure possession almost without memory either of the enjoyment or the debt. Let us try to realise what we should be without it. What if the world had lost the few and precious volumes of early History! To look back on the region of the Past, for us so beautified by the gradations of historical distances, so enriched by the boundary lines of successive ages, so ennobled by the monuments of great events just touched by the sunrise of authentic annals;--to look forth on that region, never fairer than when scarred with convulsions passed away, and to find in it but a waste! There are beings of a more exalted order than man, who abide in a region over which time has no sway; there are races below ours, who live but in an ever-shifting present; but for man to have no history, would be to exist in time, and yet know it only by its discords. The contemplatist would still gaze upward into the eternal and the infinite: but the eye that looks along the labours of man, and fixes itself wistfully on the far horizons of life, would find little to reward its quest.
Still greater would be our loss if deprived of the earlier records of Philosophy. Directly or indirectly, it is through literature that these have been preserved for us; and but for them the most deeply interesting parts of literature would never have existed. Problems which for us are solved have for us lost much of their attraction; we hardly understand how they can ever have presented themselves to the human mind as things of dubious interpretation: yet whole volumes of literature--nay, often what we call "light literature"--are the memorials of intellectual strivings no longer ours, though labours analogous to them still remain for us. There is a profound pathos in those records of questionings and aspirations in days gone by. Man remembered his birthright, and therefore aspired after truth. No failures could drive him from the investigation; for he felt that in Truth the issues of his being were involved, and that disappointment in such a quest was nobler than success in meaner pursuits. Christianity had not yet illuminated man's life; but with such lights as he possessed, whether derived from reason or tradition, man continued to meditate, and an irresistible instinct made him record his thoughts. The questions which haunted him were ever the same. "What Power is that which whispers Duty in our ears, commanding us to act or to forbear? Human polities, whence come they? what claim have they on our allegiance? Those other beings of our kind, are they indeed our brethren, or are they creatures on whom we may prey?" In many a light song the answer to such inquiries, or rather many rival answers, remains not doubtfully expressed, no less than in the metaphysical treatise. Half of mythological poetry is but a reply to the questions the heart of man insisted on asking respecting external Nature. If to us some of those strange questionings appear fantastic or far-fetched, it is largely because in an age which science has made secure, and security effeminate, we find our rest in material occupations and conventional pleasures. It has been well observed that we can now hardly imagine with what wonder and admiration Nature affected the mind of man in the early stages of human societies. There are some admirable remarks on this subject in Carlyle's Hero-Worship. (2) Such was especially the case in those happier climates of the south, where the bodily organs possessed a marvellous sensitiveness, and where Nature played upon man as upon an instrument. But to admiration speculation soon succeeded. To children the outward world still remains a miracle. To too many of mature age it has become but a machine. We have acquired fixed habits of mind as regards nature. We regard it as a raw material which we are to turn to account, or as a power of which we are, through inductive science, to ascertain the laws. These habits, once established in the general mind of society, mould the intelligence of every member of it, even of those not addicted to science, and consequently exclude the opposite and imaginative habit of mind.
Far other was the aspect under which Nature presented herself to the human mind before the idea of physical law had grown familiar. The imagination became her interpreter, whether the interpretation was presented in the form of poetry or of philosophy. In man's poetic moods the torrent could not rend its way down the mountain without wearing the semblance of a Divinity, terrible or beneficent. In his philosophic moods the commonest herb that rose from the sod made him ask himself, "And I--whence do I come?" Poetry was but the flashing eye, and philosophy the brooding brow, of one and the same contemplative Intelligence. The artist may have laboured but to give pleasure or gain sympathy; but Art worked under an imperious necessity of expressing human needs. "What," the human mind was ever asking,--"what is this material universe around us, with all its moving imagery, now remote as a vision, now thrilling us like the limbs through which our lifeblood flows? What means it? What relations has it with the Divine? Is it one great whole; or are its several parts disconnected? Does it live? Shall we call it mortal, since all its products fall back again into stillness; or immortal, because from its decay new life, and nobler, is quickened. There is in it nothing solitary, nothing divided. Stream flows to sea; and sea revisits in cloud the failing stream. Nature! Is she finite? Is she infinite? We cannot trace her out. Her circles wind back into each other and are lost. Her harmonies are manifold, and we catch them but in fragments. We, we;--it is we who are the disjointed fragments, not Nature. Is the Universe, then, eternal as well as infinite, if infinite it be? Is it a God; or is there a God unseen who has created it? Or is it the outward semblance of a Divine Being, a robe of matter which is joined to Him, as with us body and soul are united?" Such were the questions which in all lands asked themselves, and patiently waited for an answer. Such were the strivings of the human mind after Truth. The permanent literature of every age is their memorial. The Greek answered those questions by the legend of Apollo; the Scandinavian by that of Odin, and the Giant race that warred on him.
Not less solicitous was the inquiry when Nature was thought of in her relations principally to man and his needs. "Is not Nature our mother and our nurse? Does she not wonderfully, in darkness, shape us, looking down into our being ere we are conscious of being, as the geometrician bends his brow over his theorem? Does she not breathe into us her own breath; command her mountain marble to pass into herb and air, and build up our bones? Does she not feed us as the panther feeds its young; lure us to walk by her side; send forth her winds to be as wings on our shoulders; and challenge us from crag and cliff? She is far from us, yet gives us strength to follow her voice. She promises to become ever more to us. She discloses herself to us in orderly gradations of Sense, and Intellect, and Soul. In our first days we felt her, and only felt her, like an infant lying on its mother's knees, blind and helpless, yet with a vague sense of protection. Afterwards she woke in us new instincts, and through the windows of growing intelligence communicated herself to us in ampler measure. At first we only heard her singing lullabies above our cradle; but ere long she put forth her hand, as if from infinite space, and touched our lids, and we looked up upon a countenance awful yet full of love. A third time she imparted herself to us. Infancy and childhood had both passed away: youth had come with its unblunted energies, its generous hopes, and boundless resources. Nature was with us still. She sent aspirations into our soul capable of directing the efforts of the intellect, and controlling the passions of the body. Beneath us we felt the mighty parent, but motionless no more. Singing loud hymns, and sustaining her young brood on her bosom, the Maternal Goddess seemed to ascend toward that heaven of which she sang. Newer knowledge streamed in upon us; but around us glowed the dawn of a life that seemed to transcend all knowledge." Such were the stages of our advancing estate. The first was the blind infant life of the senses; the second was that of the mental faculties blended with the animal; the third was that of spiritual aspirations, sent most abundantly when needed most, and mounting to regions dimly remembered, but remembered as our native place. All the three found a mirror in literature.
But too soon the voice of man's questionings lost its exulting tone. The lessons of Time by itself sound like a sour pedantry; and the teaching of mere experience is grievous to those who have not learned from a higher source that, if man is weak, a strength greater than any that Nature can give him is perfected in such weakness, a strength that descends from the supernatural, and alights on the humble. The Pagan appeal to Nature became at last but a reproach. "Is Nature," it murmured, "indeed our mother? Trial fell upon us. We woke as one stunned by a fall, or as the Mænad on the frosty mountain side. Nature helped us not. Her ear was turned on us as a rock in its sullenness. We appealed from her to the Will within us. Youth and its dreams past, there remained the resolute strength of manhood. We scorned to submit: we fought; we conquered. From the adversities of every clime new daring reaped new wisdom. What Nature would not give, we took. We clave open her fields with the plough, and dragged up the increase. We felled the pine, and bridged the sea. The mine yielded us the weapons of our battle with Nature, and the trumpet that sang our triumph. Nature, then, is not our mother, but our slave; and we, what are we? Are we Divinities that rule her;-her wonder, and her worship?" Thus man questioned in every land, and Nature made answer from a million of graves, "Thou conquerest me but through making thyself subject to my laws. The end of my law is death. Descend and question of me in the darkness." Such was Nature's reply as recorded by an Orpheus or a Linus.
There was a time when in such questionings nothing strange or exaggerated would have been found. Probably every early nation passed through such a stage, if it ever reached to any thing mature or added a bequest to man's inheritance. In literature we find the memorial of these inward strivings. Thence comes its moral significance. Among its great lessons is this--that man is ever the same. It is not improbable that all the modern schools of metaphysics were anticipated by those of Greece before the days of Alexander. The Pantheism of recent Germany had its prototype, as we are assured, in the Ionian school founded by Thales of Miletus: and a more spiritual philosophy, which has its disciples in our day, was anticipated by the Eleatic school founded by Zenophanes. Parmenides asserted the "subjective" character of space and time no less than the modern Germans: Pythagoras anticipated those who found a political system upon theological convictions; and embodied his own in social institutes almost of an ecclesiastical character, insisting upon the close connection between speculative principles and practical life. These anticipations are to be found in the earliest Indian as well as in the Greek philosophy, and it is thus through literature that we learn the substantial identity of the human mind. The Berkeleyan theory respecting matter is as clearly expressed in the Sanscrit hymns as in the treatises of the Irish prelate. To the end of time the lesson will probably be the same. The old Epicureans will always have their followers in materialism, and the Academicians in scepticism. It has been said that every one is born a Platonist or an Aristotelian: and doubtless, in proportion as the reason and the imagination predominate on the one side, or the understanding and the fancy on the other; as the faculty that creates or that which analyses is in the ascendant; as the instinct of the mind is ideal or is dialectic,--thinkers will, however unconsciously, range themselves under the one school or the other.
In preserving the monuments of thought, even on the most abstract subjects, Literature discharges a function graver than that which her votaries often claim for her--a twofold function: she attests the fact that, even in periods we sometimes look on as half-barbarous, man refused to believe that nothing concerned him except what belongs to the senses. Amid all our bloated civilisation, how many there are to whom the dignity and preciousness of Truth are alike unknown! The World is with them. They believe in her with the faith of martyrs, advance her material interests with the zeal of missionaries, and commonly carry off those prizes which are the just reward of undivided energies. But what shall we say of those who can go no farther than all this? Nations do not live by bread alone. How do such persons stand as relates to spiritual good? How as relates to Truth? They do not deny her existence. They agree that it should be recognised; nay, that it should be allowed to "reign," on condition of not "ruling." Admitted truths are to be enthroned on high--so high, that their features become invisible. Truths not universally recognised (and only for that reason not regarded as truisms) are to be let alone. All search after them is to be stigmatised under the opprobrious names of speculation or of controversy. At no period and in no country has the love of Truth existed among men self-occupied, or mainly devoted to external things. As much of Truth as chances to receive the "sanction of public opinion" will be nominally theirs: but it is in them only as the motion of a carriage is in a man while he continues to sit in the carriage. It is in them, not of them. Truth does not abide in the temples preoccupied by the money-changers. She haunts rather the ruined precincts of some "creed outworn," where at least a nobler divinity than Pulutus was once worshipped, and where, amid Pagan follies and superstitions, some traces yet remain of man's primitive belief and deathless aspirations. How sternly is a practical indifference in the midst of light reproved by the noble industry of great minds, labouring at early periods and under adverse circumstances, to find that truth which its possessors can neither enjoy nor turn to account!
The second function exercised by these early records of man's strivings is one of rebuke, not directed against the indolence but the pride of human intellect. It addresses itself to those who seek Truth but to gratify self-love or extend the empire of Mind. They care nothing for its purity, so only that its apparent bulk may be added to, and by their hands. In their pursuit of Truth there may be courage and zeal, but there is neither reverence nor fidelity. To the human intellect alone they are loyal: and in each new philosophy they see the regeneration of the world. Such persons stand rebuked by the efforts of the past. They find that human intelligence revolves in the same track, and reproduces nearly the same systems in the same order. They leap forth upon an unknown shore: but the trace of a man's foot on the sand tells them that another has been before them. The same monuments which commemorate the strivings of the human heart confess the limitations of human intellect, and affirm that, while the physical sciences advance by their own energies, in spiritual things man owes his real progress not to Discovery but to Revelation. The same divine hand which imparted to him his natural faculties has been stretched forth again, and, raising him from his low estate, has enabled him to exercise those faculties with added lights, and to advance, with a greater strength, along a higher level.
In an age in which literature aspires to become universal, it is impossible for even the trifling not to perceive that nothing else connected with it is so momentous as the moral relations which it establishes with man. A serious tone of mind is forced upon any one who reflects on this great moral problem. There are many who look upon the subject with despondency. Knowing the manifold temptations connected with books--temptations from which, till lately, the great mass of mankind have been preserved by the urgency of daily toil and the absence of literary culture--they ask what is to be the consequence when the snares that assail the palace beset the cottage no less? Hitherto, they remark, the lot of the many has been one of physical toil, but of intellectual rest. It has lain in a valley thickset with fair households. On the one side has risen the great mountain range of inductive science, and on the other that of Christian Theology; but the poor man's foot has tarried by the stream that turns his mill, and no one has challenged him to scale the crags. Is all this to be changed? Among books the supply of good and bad will depend on the demand. Which class will the many prefer? Will literature, on the whole, be a nurse of the virtues or a pander to vice? There is neither a rural village nor a mighty city the peace of which will not one day depend upon the answer which time must make to such questions. I can but offer a few suggestions on the subject. Let us begin with the more hopeful.
There are, then, virtues as well as vices which we commonly associate with the few, and which, notwithstanding, sound literature tends to impart to all men of good will. Let us name, for instance, magnanimity. One who ranges among the great men of all ages, and recognises that far-reaching influence by which, silently, unostentatiously, and grasping at no power, they have built up the empire of thought, is less likely than another to join in the stress and strain of petty emulations. He does not need the lordship over a narrow circle. To him there are sceptres not made of iron or gold, and spiritual thrones, to rest at the foot of which is better than vulgar rule. The remoter power, he knows, is the more permanent. The senate amid which he may, if he deserves it, sit as an assessor, includes all the great men who have ever lived; yet within it there is no clamour and no pressure at the gate.
Nor should sound literature be less a promoter of unworldliness and self-sacrifice. It is the noble bequest of men who gathered up intellectual treasures while those around them snatched at gewgaws, or lay passive in listlessness. It denounces self-indulgence. "Who is he," says the great Tuscan bard,
"So pale with musing in Pierian groves?" [d]
Those whose ears were open to "the whispers of the lonely Muse" were supposed of old to have closed them against the "Lydian airs" of the frivolous or sensual. Literature was thus regarded as a manly art, the foe of luxury, and the inspirer of heroism; while in some languages the very term that denoted a life given to the imaginative arts was that word which meant "virtue." If, in later times, literature has been cultivated but as a means to a selfish end,--if vanity has been the student's stimulus, if an intellectual voluptuousness, more insidious than coarse sensuality, has turned the haunt of the Muses into a garden of epicurean delights,--the loss sustained by literature has punished the wrong. She possesses a healing power; but, like other physicians, she may catch the malady while she bends over the sickbed. Men of letters have often, and not always unjustly, charged the clergy with learning worldliness from the world they were sent to reform. Their own order bears no talisman against a similar infection. What sense of her genuine functions belongs to a literature which flatters where it should instruct, and flings itself in fawning dedications at the feet of a public more adulated than ever was Oriental despot? For excuse it can but take refuge in wit like Aristippus, who, on being reproved for falling at the feet of Dionysius while presenting a petition to him, replied, "That it was not his fault if Dionysius had ears in his feet."
Servile men of letters are reproved by the very name of the "liberal arts." Such arts are liberal, because, drawing us out from the false centre of self, and the narrow circle of merely conventional interests, they dilate our individual being to the dimensions of a world-wide humanity, imparting to us thus the freedom of "no mean city." [e] In this respect, as in some others, the loftiest literature is a shadow of religion, though the difference between the substance and the shadow is of course infinite, and though the shadow is often distorted by the inequalities of the surface along which it is projected. Contented ignorance is bounded by the senses: Literature breaks down that limit. A shelf stored with books of travel enables the artisan at his daily toil to send forth his thoughts through all lands. A few volumes of history, and Time is to him a grave that has given up its dead. Add a few volumes of poetry to a few of history, and the present catches all the radiance of the past. They remind us that if the things round us seem to us but little, so seemed to those who lived at an earlier day those things the fame of which has lasted for centuries. They tell us that in the present, too, virtue and genius retain that immortalising touch which changes dust into gems. It is through landscape-paintings that we learn best to appreciate nature, and perceive that weather-stain has its beauty as well as mountain and lake. Thus it is through a Homer or a Herodotus that we learn to understand human life. In every parish there is a whole Illiad of action and of passion, if we have been taught to trace their workings by one of those men whom Nature has chosen for her expositors. Everywhere around us there spreads the Infinite, but we need the optic glass to bring it out. A true book is such a glass: and such a book is now a telescope, drawing the distant close--now a microscope, magnifying what is near. It is thus that nature's largeness is made to break through the limits of our littleness; and that matter, subjecting itself to the interpretation of mind, becomes elevated, as it were, into spirit.
Influences such as these must ever be diffused in proportion as education--an education not based upon vanity--extends its sphere. They work for the many, because they work through those sympathies that exist in all. For the poor and the rich alike there is but one mode of being delivered from the thraldom of self: it is that of taking interest in things unconnected with self: the negative evil can only be obviated by the positive good. Can any one doubt that a cultivated Imagination helps a moral purpose? It is the ideal power that alone enables us to realise what belongs to the remote and the unseen, and by realising, to love it. If from the far distance of past time objects flash out as with a magic distinctness, like that which, in the evening of a rainy day, draws near to us the mountain-range till bush and scar leap forward to catch the "discriminating touch" of a setting sun, it is not wonderful that our affections too should attach themselves to beings thus suddenly made known to us-beings in whom we descry at once all that we are and all that we fain would be! Which of the virtues is not fostered by this noble emulation? Sophocles, it has been generally thought, can belong but to the few: but it was to the many that he addressed himself. In his most touching tragedy, Antigonè is warned that whosoever buries the dead bodies of her brothers shall share their fate. She replies that this mandate is but the law of a tyrant, and that it has never issued from Jove nor from that sceptred Justice which reigns among the Shades;--that she will be true to the dead, and bear her fate. Is her resolve more a lesson of fidelity to the nursling of the palace than to the son of the shepherd, the fisherman, or the artisan? Heroic arms of old cut down the Pelian pines, and dragged the oar all night long through the foam of an unknown sea. Is this more a lesson of courage and perseverance to the Arctic discoverer than to the village boy who finds a brave resolution checked by a trivial obstacle? Men read these things, and their physical aspect itself, mien, and step, are altered. A breath from far summits sends strength into their souls. Experience not their own is imparted to them; the heart is made more single; but the mind is made many-sided; and the faculties of the individual are multiplied into those of his kind.
The arts that do these things impart to man the noblest freedom, that of just dependence and true service. In conferring freedom on responsive minds, they confer empire also. We are told that "the meek inherit the earth." [f] They do so doubtless because humble hearts are large hearts, and possess, through love and through the absence of pride and fear, the reality of those serene enjoyments which belong to our universal nature, and which are grasped but in shadow by those who make the world their prey. The enlarging influence of an imagination developed by the higher class of literature does for the intellect of man something analogous to that which a holier power does for him at the depths of his being. It creates a communion of intelligences; it abolishes isolation; it bestows on each what belongs to all: it cannot therefore but abate prejudice, break through narrowness, destroy littleness. All this, we are sometimes told, may yet create a good the enemy of some higher good. Doubtless it not only may, but must do so if the gift be perverted; but the very adage, Corruptio optimi res pessima est, includes the confession that the gift is good, though the corruption of it be fatal. Fatal indeed is the influence of a literature, however able, which forgets its true vocation, and seeks its reward in what is below, not in what is above it. An allegiance broken is commonly an allegiance transferred. When literature ceases to be the servant of Truth, it becomes the slave of the world, and ministers but to bondage. A touch from the breath of vanity changes what was a "palace of the Humanities" into a splendid prison, and the pictures with which the walls of that palace were once hung are replaced by mirrors reflecting but self-love.
We are thus brought to the less agreeable part of our theme; but were I merely to "pronounce the panegyric" of literature, we should do it less than justice while I flattered it. It can well afford to discard exaggerated pretensions, and need not conceal its aberrations or shortcomings. Partial views often lead to deeper delusion than statements wholly false: and literature is the first to proclaim that its part in human affairs, though great, is subordinate. Many of the charges brought against it will be found to be such as ought to have been brought only against those who abuse its gifts, usurp its functions, or claim for it what, when sound, it never claims for itself.
What are the censures commonly directed against literature by devout men who fear its attractions and distrust its aids? It is not on the corruptions of letters that they descant; for these are accidental: nor do they deny that literature has amassed "much goods," and is as skilful in trading with as in collecting them. Their charge is of an opposite sort. They regard literature as a siren, whose shore is strewn with dead men's bones; as a witch, whose gold is an illusion. "Her wealth," they say, "is our poverty; and the strength she bestows is but weakness disguised. Her spoils are fine, and brought from afar: the silkworm has woven the texture, and the sea-cave added the purple dye. But are these the stores, they demand, which moth and rust cannot corrupt? Might they not rather be called the sum-total of all that virtue has dispensed with often, and wisdom not seldom despised? The heroes who founded or who restored states were men not of arts, but of arms. They were not poets: poets but crept up and fed upon their work, as the caterpillar on the green leaf it destroys. They were not philosophers; they but supplied subjects for philosophy. First nations achieve great things: when that energy is gone, they sing them. Heroism thinks, and acts, and suffers: virtue is silent, or sings but like that bird whose song is its dirge. The Apostles were not, with one exception, men of learning. The highest sanctity is perhaps oftenest reached by illiterate peasants of whom nothing is heard-men who frequented no illusory realms of Fancy, but deemed themselves sufficiently provided for by a world of Duty and a world of Hope. Religion is an abstinent thing: her loftiest temples have often ascended after the devotion that created them had long been on the wane--the monuments of a faith extinct, not the shrines of a living one."
This is the truth as regards bad literatures, but not the whole truth; and it is capable of very different applications. The hero comes before the poet, and is the greater poet of the two; for he is the poet in act, not in word alone. He does not lift up his voice, but he lifts up his being: it is his life, not his song, that ascends and draws up many to it. The legislator comes before the philosopher. It is not intellectual systems that he builds up, but human polities, social fabrics, the homes of a people, the fortresses of successive generations. The deliverer who leads forth a rescued nation is nobler that the minstrel who takes the timbrel, one day to celebrate its deliverance, and the next perhaps to inaugurate idolatrous rites. Great deeds are more than great words, because inclusively they are great words-the select and perdurable speech of great nations. Great men are more than great writers; for their greatness is more inwardly theirs, and more diffused throughout the whole of their being. The true poet projects himself forward through the power of imagination, and for the time leaves behind him the meaner part of his nature: the true hero retains the full integrity of his being, and in an unbroken unity of soul is that which the other aspires to be.
These truths are humiliating to letters, and literature has not always acknowledged them, disposed as she often is to identify civilisation with that which is, in fact, its offspring and its record. The successive periods of literature correspond with analogous periods in the growth of society. The tendency of literature in every nation has been to decline after a certain and early period. An important light is thrown on this fact if we believe that even at the first growth of a nation's literature there had already commenced a decline in some of a nation's moral characteristics. Observing that the earlier period of literature is the nobler, we are tempted not unnaturally to infer that the epoch of social development which it practically represents is likely to have been that one in which morals were purest and sentiment most sound, however defective may have been the more conventional parts of its civilisation. But the inference is a hasty one. Such a social period must have been a noble one: but it may easily be that an earlier one was, in some vital respects, a nobler one still. We often fall into the illusion of counting that age the primitive one in a nation's history, which was the first to speak of itself and leave records behind. Yet it too had a past as well as a future; and of that silent past the earliest literature is the memorial. The same ascending literature that heralded a new era of society commemorated an earlier one.
It is not merely the instinct witnessed to by the adage, Omne ignotum pro magnifico,which makes us attribute a high moral condition to that historic phase in each nation which immediately preceded its literary development. The single circumstance that the villagers who gathered round Homer appreciated the most perfect poetry ever composed, and, except Shakespeare's, the most thoroughly human, proves that at a very early period there existed in Greece a state of society high as regards refinement of taste, and of which, but for that one memorial of it, we should have known little. That the same period was in its moral relations comparatively a sound one, is implied by the many natural virtues illustrated by Homer's poetry, by a general purity the more striking from its unguardedness, and by the absence of all allusion to vices common in the subsequent ages of Greek society. Something like this is to be found in the earliest literature of most countries. A character of greatness, generosity, and innocence belongs to it, the mere appreciation of which by contemporaries indicated tenderness, magnanimity, and a majestic simplicity. Later ages, indeed, have often not retained enough of these qualities to enjoy the literature of the earlier period. Their critical discernment may have been clear enough to recognise its greatness, so far as verbal acknowledgments go; but the many, while they acquiesced in the traditionary verdict of Fame, were in practical harmony with those later and inferior works which their sympathy indirectly produced. If, then, the earlier period of society illustrated by literature was morally the nobler, it seems difficult to sever that age from one earlier still, the greatness of which by necessity found expression in its offspring. The earlier writers of each nation generally extol an earlier age, as one compared with which their own was degenerate; and it seems an arbitrary proceeding to attribute such expressions merely to a melancholy fancy.
Let us test this remark by the case of Italy. Dante may be looked on as the beginning of true Italian literature; and in him it reached a greatness which in more prosperous, and in some respects more civilised periods, it could neither surpass nor sustain. In his Divina Commedia we find perhaps the most splendid union of deep thought and soaring imagination which the world has yet produced. That poem is the great exponent of the Middle Ages, embodying all the lore of the scholastic theology, in union with countless interests, legendary, political, and personal; while it is characterised also by a style seldom approached, either for grave strength or for severe grace. Even the party-spirit of a small community, the fiercest perhaps of passions, could not long keep that poem in obscurity; and in a few years Florence had founded a professorship for the exposition of the work of him whom she had made an exile. His prayer had been granted; and the song which had "made him lean" for many a year, bade him at last stand up beside his baptismal font in the old baptistery-then not old-and claim the poet's crown. The age for which such a work was written, and which appreciated its greatness, must have possessed a moral depth, a spiritual fervour, and an imaginative refinement, such as have not characterised later ages during which the descendants of those who crowded round Boccaccio, as he lectured on Dante, hardly knew that the mighty bard had ever lived. Yet Dante repeatedly assures us that his age was a degenerate one. Conversing in the Paradiso with his ancestor Cacciaguida, the latter bitterly contrasts the morals of Florence with those of his earlier day--
"Florence within her ancient limit-mark,
Which calls her still to matin prayers and noon,
Was chaste and sober, and abode in peace.
I saw Bellincion Berti walk abroad
In leathern girdle, and a clasp of bone;
And with no artful colouring on her cheeks,
His lady leave her glass." (3)
He describes the domestic life of Florence before the age of frivolity had set in--
"One waked to tend the cradle, hushing it
With sounds that lulled the parent's infancy;
Another with her maidens, drawing off
The tresses from the distaff, lectured them
Old tales of Troy, and Fiesolé, and Rome.
A Salterello and Cianghella we
Had held as strange a marvel as ye would
A Cincinnatus or Cornelia now." (4)
Yet the society of Dante's time had escaped some social vices, as would seem from such lines as these, referring to detraction--
"And as the unblemished dame, who in herself
Secure of censure, yet at bare report
Of other's failings, shrinks with maiden fear,"--
an assumption upon which later poets could hardly have ventured. That the age which produced Dante, with all its intellectual advance, was yet morally inferior to the preceding age, is certainly what we should infer from his poetry.
In our own literature Chaucer holds a position analogous to that which Dante, different as is the character of his genius, occupies in Italian. In him we see the stately foundation laid for a period of English poetry which exists, alas, but in that unfulfilled promise. Of the fabric which must otherwise have been raised upon that basis we were deprived by the Wars of the Roses, and the barbarism which that struggle bequeathed. Chaucer is, among us, the representative Poet of the Middle Ages; but the best in them had passed away when he wrote. In his works we recognise two ages: a past one, with all its chivalrous splendours and ecclesiastical solemnities; and again a very different age which was at hand, and of which the indications are to be found chiefly in his humorous poems--an age in which, with the great towns, the commerce of England was springing up, a commerce destined subsequently to bear so great a part in that battle fought by the people of England against that Oriental despotism founded by the Tudors on the ruin of the old nobility and the ancient Church. The poet of Edward the Third's court and Philippa's bower does not let us forget that the age in which he lived was a great age; but he reminds us also that "the bright consummate flower" had already begun to shed its leaves. To us his age, like his verse, wears ever a youthful and vernal character: but the evening twilight has much resemblance to the dawn; and that age was the evening of a time in some respects the nobler still. Two generations had elapsed since the last of the crusades; and the last had been very different from the first. When a few more had passed away, nations which had rushed to arms to free the Holy Sepulchre and rescue Christian captives, could not unite in their own defence. The Eastern empire fell. The West looked quietly on while the Crescent supplanted the Cross on the summit of the first-born of Christian cathedrals. She trembled for herself. Vienna was saved by the princely son of that land which now groans beneath a barbaric yoke; and Europe scarcely escaped the domination of the Moslem. An earlier period than Chaucer's was a sounder one, though it had less to say for itself, and though its monuments are to be found less in books than in those mighty piles, wind-wasted and weather-stained, which still lift up their courses of "lonely stone into the region of sailing cloud and silent air." (5)
So in Spain. The age of the chivalrous virtues, to which many a noble ballad bears witness, had long passed when Calderon built their monument. So in ancient Italy. A Camillus, a Regulus, a Cornelia-these had become but names when Virgil and Horace rose, and
Faint echoes of Ionian song." (6)
Horace indeed sings the moral decay with just anger, if not without a touch of that imaginative pleasure with which we note the advancing tokens of mortality in an autumnal wood. He admired virtue truly, but his delicate ear was well pleased also by her voice when the cadence was dying away in distance. If there existed a literature in the severer days of Roman morals, it survived but in that legendary lore with which Livy enriched his history; lore which, if untrue in its details, was founded in truth, and only continued to live because it expressed the higher spirit of the early Roman state.
Many persons perhaps would concede that the age which precedes that of literature, in the development of society, is superior to any that follows it as regards the hardier virtues, but yet rejoin that it is inferior in refinement. They would point to the ceaseless wars of early times, and to deeds of atrocity at later times rare. But this is a delusive test. The most terrible cruelties were enacted in ages which are not by any means characterised by such crimes. Where the best men abound, the bad will inevitably become the worst to be found anywhere. They became the worst in large part by their resistance to the special opportunities then existing for the development of virtue. Morally and intellectually the character of an age is to be inferred rather from its higher specimens than from its lower. The character of the worst is no doubt an important element in the analysis; but it is from that of the best men, especially if they were held in contemporary honour, that we can make the safest inference. An early, and in some respects barbaric, time does not care, like later times, to hide its defects; its greater crimes lie upon the surface of its annals; and to suppose that they represent the age is as though we were to seek an average exponent of a later time in its police reports, taking no notice of its less obtrusive traits or its permanent institutions. In spite of its wildness, it is especially by imaginative refinement and moral tenderness that a primitive age is characterised. Whence but from this source proceed that reverence, modesty, and courtesy which belong to such an age, and which, when extinct elsewhere, we often meet among the rural poor who live on traditions, and in ranging among whom we seem to have passed into an earlier century?
The essential refinement of periods which were coarse indeed as well as refined, but which neither boasted of its refinement nor concealed its grossness under a specious disguise, is proved to us by the literature of those periods. The true test, however, is the positive, not the negative, one. The question is, what period showed the highest imaginative and moral refinement by the strongest evidence--not what period was most careful to shun or to gloss everything of an opposite character. The latter is a question of consistency, and neither nations nor individuals are consistent. To apply the test: Is not Shakespeare, with all his strength, quite as much distinguished from the poets of a feebler day by his light touches-hair-strokes they might be called-of tenderness? In whom do we meet such a delicate implication, such a graduated expression, a reticence so eloquent and suggestive, so nobly modest a reserve? What is it that especially characterises our ballads, composed for the poor chiefly, and the delight of an early age? It is their exquisite, though unconscious pathos, even more than their vigour,-that fine, though careless, handling, compared with which the most laborious imitations are clumsy. A better illustration of the subject cannot be found than in old Chaucer. It is true that he is often most censurably coarse, but this is chiefly when treating low or humourous themes. His was a large nature; and in a large nature, if it be not held under discipline, there is often room for much evil. But the loftier region of his poetry is marked by the most opposite character. Where his subject is a high one, there is no English poet either more simply or more subtly refined. Whoever has read the versions of Chaucer, made more than three centuries after his death by Dryden, must have been struck by the superiority of the early bard in this respect. The coarser passages are brought into prominence in the later versions, and divested largely of the humour which is a partial veil to them in the original. The refinement and pathos of other parts are all but lost. These qualities belong still more eminently to Dante, in spite of his austerity, and what has been called his cruelty. Notwithstanding the stern deeds with which they abounded, the times which appreciated those qualities in Dante and Chaucer must have had a very remarkable degree of imaginative refinement; and that they actually possessed it a proof is to be found in the other arts beside that of poetry. To apply this. If, in spite of advancing civilisation, such qualities, beside the other moral characteristics of a simple age, declined, it can hardly be but that the moral and social decline must have begun at an earlier period. The first-class poets are above their age; but we can see, notwithstanding, to what extent they could count on its sympathy and appreciation, and no less the degree in which they were dragged down by its infection. (7)
It may be asked, how it can happen that in the age of the greatest moral soundness a nation does not make at least a beginning of its literature? But might we not as justly demand why those ages during which literature advances are not necessarily ages of advancing virtue? The earlier age has nobly done its part by indirectly causing what it has not actually produced. That a moral decline, though not without revivals, takes place, no one doubts: the only question is, when it begins. It must have been at work a considerable time before it was perceived; and during that time all that produces literature may have been at work also with an energy equally unseen. That in other respects there is an advance-that the political and intellectual energies of a nation make progress at periods subsequent to that in which its moral heart was soundest-cannot be doubted.
Authors may be offended, but literature is not disparaged by the supposition that its upgrowth is most often immediately subsequent to a nation's highest period of moral excellence. It would follow, indeed, that society can do without books, but not that it can dispense with that which inspires books, and much less that it could recover virtue by discarding letters. Supposing the principle in question fully established, it is capable of two opposite applications, and of these the sounder one is anything but sad. If a high moral condition exists before it illustrates itself in literature, it does not assuredly exist in vain. It exists because the same virtuous and fruitful spirit, of which literature becomes in time the legitimate offspring, has embodied itself in forms yet more exalted-in a life magnanimous and plain, in large sympathies, in pure manners, in heroic toils, in useful institutions, in religious rites. There is surely something cheering in the thought that an early greatness existed which needed and sought no fame, and that the ancestral claims of great races date back to a term earlier than they suspect. There is something not out of harmony with a spiritual philosophy in the belief that the merit which wears a conspicuous crown is yet but a token of another merit less within the ken of the senses, and protected by the veil cast over it. Poetry and the other arts are not less virtuous arts because they derive their inspiration from an influence at once so potent and so inward that it can sway great communities before it manifests itself in books, marble, or colour. The glory diffused by that influence may have become greater when its power has become less. It is after the sun has set that the heavens are enkindled above it.
No doubt this is a statement which should be qualified. In thus speaking of literature, we speak, in fact, but of a part of it-the only part which has been faithfully transmitted to us. We must here distinguish between two stages in the early growth of literature. There is a stage when it becomes conscious of its greatness, and takes thought for its own preservation. There is a previous stage in which literature has scarcely disengaged itself form the ordinary offices of life, and in which the minstrel no more knows that he sings than the shepherd-boy that he whistles. This primitive literature, if it be not a solecism so to designate what has existed independently of written letters, commonly disappears after a life more or less long of oral transmission, and survives chiefly in its effects. Doubtless at this early stage literature may well be supposed to have coincided with the manliest period of a nation's existence, and before any moral decline had begun. The oral era of poetry must ever have preceded that of books. We know that it did so in Hellas. The Grecian literature that dates from after the Persian War is, we must remember, but its surviving portion. Long before that time Greece had been rich in minstrelsies which have not descended to us, and most of which were probably never committed to writing. Whether the art of writing existed among the Greeks till centuries after the death of Homer, is a matter of dispute.
That his works should have survived seems almost a miracle; and that many works analogous to them, if not equal to them, perished, admits no doubt. The two great poems of that early age which remain to us remind us, as Landor remarks, or those that oblivion has covered, as rocks that rise above the surface report of continents buried beneath the sea. The only one of his contemporaries, or immediate successors, of whom anything has been preserved, is Hesiod; and he, like Homer, derived his mythic lore from bards whose very names we have never heard. The cyclic or epic poets who succeeded Homer and Hesiod, during a period of several centuries, were numerous. Of their works we know no more than that they embodied the fortunes of heroes and demigods--of Hercules, of Theseus, and of the Argonauts. When the epic poetry ceased, the early lyric poetry arose. It, too, existed for a long period: it embodied in mystic hymns the earliest traditions of the Grecian, and probably of the Egyptian, temples; it tracked the progress of the Hellenic race through the changing fortunes that shaped its various communities; and yet of all its schools--Aeolian, Ionian, Dorian, and Theban--we retain almost nothing. We know little more of them than their names. Arion and Stesichorus sang, we are told, choral strains, out of which tragedy, at a later day, took its rise. Archilochus caught his inspiration from political passion; and Alcæus not less--
"'Woe, woe to tyrants!' from his lyre
Broke threateningly in sparkles dire
Of fierce vindictive song." (8)
Ibycus, Callinus, and Sappho,-these and many more such are to us little but names. Their songs were part of the early Grecian life, and with it they have perished. Their authors probably no more thought of a literary immortality than an eloquent converser or preacher does now. They sang from impulse, or to serve some immediate moral or political end-a circumstance not wonderful at that early period. Tyrtæus and Terpander (9) were in the strictest sense politicians. In the Dorian states the character of poetry was regulated by law; so little original was the maxim of the modern philosopher who exclaimed, "Let who will make the laws of a country, so I may make its songs!"
If we have lost so much that belonged to a time later than that of Homer, what chance had earlier minstrelsies of surviving? The verses that once most deeply moved their hearers frequently perished because the language was not, in their day, fixed in a permanent shape. In the absence of a language tolerably matured, the poet is as the sculptor with imperfect tools, or the architect with a bad quarry. The great poets, it is true, have sometimes formed a language: but if they had come a little earlier, they would have found no material sufficiently coherent to take a permanent shape. This circumstance would of itself suggest as probable that a developed literature belongs to a period later than that when society was morally best qualified to produce it. But what inference are we to draw from the fact? Not surely that society would never have lost its youth if literature had not taught it to grow old. As well might it be said that we lose our infancy by cutting our teeth. A nation's heroic time must pass away in any case. If it be followed by literature, it is at least by the heroic age of literature, which takes its themes from the age gone by, adds to them the radiance of the imagination, and far from hastening the evanescence of a noble time, prolongs its stay, and provides its substitute. Our grievance is but one of the "sentimental" order. To abolish literature by way of restoring a greatness which preceded it would be to clip the wrinkles on the face of one debilitated by disease, instead of feeding him up to restored strength, and thus renewing the wasted flesh. Literature has its three distinct periods, which correspond with those of social development. Let us glance at these. It begins by being a Vocation or an Art; it becomes subsequently a Profession; in its decline it sinks into a Trade.
The earliest of these periods is the noblest, because it is the one least detached from actual life. Men sing of the great deeds their fathers wrought, and in which they themselves in boyhood had perhaps a part: but daily the connection between literature and action becomes less close; and society is either affected by that change, or, from other causes, undergoes a similar one. We are told by the great master of the human heart that the native hue of resolution becomes "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." Hamlet, the man of contemplation, when forced into action, is found wanting: he can moralise every trifle; but every trifle can make him defer action, and he ends by acting from an accident. It is thus with nations too. A spell seems sometimes to lock up their energies after that period when the literary intellect has attained, not only a large, but a separate development. For many years one of the chief Continental nations was constantly referred to as an example of this weakness.
I use the word "separate" as well as "large," because this weakness, national or individual, does not proceed so much from intellectual development as from the circumstance that the intellect, during its development, is apt to separate itself from the moral powers; so that the man is weakened by that which destroys the unity of his being. The first-class men of action, heroes, conquerors, legislators, are always, it should be remembered, men of thought also; but men of thought inclusively, not exclusively. Their intellectual processes may be conducted with more or less of consciousness; but all their actions are founded on a solid judgment, and directed by a piercing foresight. The converse proposition does not hold equally good; and the man of thought does not, whether consciously or unconsciously, often include the man of action. He is therefore a smaller being than a first-class man of action; for, though a larger range of objects presents itself to his intellect, he yet himself includes a smaller number of those faculties, moral and intellectual, which are the constituents of human nature. There is also less greatness in him in proportion as there is more consciousness of greatness. He loses that simple power through which the "men of old," as a true poet tells us,
"Went about their gravest deeds
Like noble boys at play." (10)
To the man of action he stands in relation like that which criticism bears to poetry. The power that analyses sits in judgment over the power that creates, and does not know that it is but a separated section of that great creative mind. Nations often lose in energy as they gain in thoughtfulness-a circumstance which renders one that has retained somewhat of barbaric strength and unity of action not a little formidable to its more peaceful neighbours. But the change is far from being caused exclusively by literature, or being exclusively injurious. It often averts a worse evil than it brings. Without it the light heart might more often be lost without the grave mind being won.
"Of all low ways that worry, vex, and weary us,
Preëminently two there may be reckoned:
The first of these is trifling with things serious,
And seriousness in trifles is the second."
When the season of buoyancy departs, that of seriousness comes perforce; and if the culture of high literature did not aid those influences which turn that season to a better mood, it might more often degenerate into that seriousness about trifles from which levity on grave matters is the dreary recoil.
It is not, however, when literature advances to its second period that it most ennobles the serious mind. It is itself thoughtful: but its thoughts have lost their solidity. Here again the individual is the interpreter of the social body. The different classes of thoughtful men differ from each other as much as the man of thought differs from the man of action. We find one class of men whose thoughts are substantial and vital, moulding their being and determining their deeds; we find another class whose thoughts, no matter how beautiful, or even profound, are but barren thoughts, and produce no more effect on the mind through which they pass than the reflection of clouds produces on the water through which they seem to move. The thoughts which inspire a vigorous literature are those which have been quickened by experience, not those which rise out of a region of pure abstraction. They are connected with actual life by the bond of action and suffering. Action and suffering, not abstraction, bequeath experience, and experience communicates reality to thought. The thoughts thus produced bear on them the likeness of the soul, and therefore preserve a family resemblance to each other. They may be few in number, and they are slowly matured; but they possess the consistency of life, and they enlist strong sympathies. With the other and more abstract class of thoughts it is different. They cost little and bequeath nothing. They are but ciphers without a unit to stand before them.
Here, then, are two classes of thoughts. Which should we expect to predominate in the earlier, and which in the later, period of literature? The order is the same as that which we find in the growth of society itself. That earlier literature which has scarcely separated itself from life is that which possesses solidity of thought. The consistency of sincerity belongs to it. Its mirth is as earnest as its pathos. It comes from the heart, and goes to it. At this period books are looked on with reverence, as human souls embodied; nay, as truth itself, militant or triumphant. At a later period, literature would be embarrassed by such tokens of respect. It claims far other merits. Its pride is in its versatility. It prefers aspects and phases of truth to truth full-faced, and looks on reality as its rival. It has lost its hold both of fact and of the ideal; and is thus separated from truth by two removes. This is the period when books multiply, and knowledge is mapped out into provinces, but when men are moved no more. It becomes an understood thing that authors are too clever to mean quite what they say, and that, however conclusive a statement may seem, the opposite one might be made to appear conclusive no less. Opinions take the place of convictions, and views of opinions. Literature acknowledges a dependance neither on faith nor on nature. She has set up in her own name and become a Profession. She copies the great works of antiquity, or re-combines their elements. She exposes their faults, but cannot catch their inspiration. Her hand has precision, and her taste is good; but her work cannot rise above the academic.
There remains to be noticed the third period of literature, which, however low it may be, knows how, with the aid of a little plunder from better times, to trick itself out to advantage. It is the decline. The period of thought divorced from moral vitality is succeeded by that of words divorced from thought. "A man full of words shall not prosper:" neither shall a nation or a literature. A time comes when literature pours itself forth on all the winds, and means nothing. Here and there it has learning; but its learning is undigested; its precision is but pedantry; and what passes for originality proceeds not from depth, but from paradox, or from the circumstance that the writer seeks but to gratify curiosity, chronicling trifles which it was not worth while to observe. We speak of contempt of the Eastern opium-eaters, and do not know that in reading such books, remote from all truth, we are opium-eaters in our way, contented if a gay imagery passes before a vacant eye, and unweeting of the avenging debility. A portion of this literature embodies a nation's daydreams, another its gossip. One of its types is to be found in the lower newspapers; while the higher newspaper press lavishes such a remarkable amount of real ability and strenuous purpose on "leaders" by necessity ephemeral.
Whoever has been thrown, during a rainy day at a country inn, upon a file of some clever newspaper belonging to the less respectable class, can hardly fail to have learned something. He has been amused finding so much more skill than he knew to have been thus spent. He has admired the tact with which the reader's interest has been kept up from day to day: the rumours circulated to be contradicted, but never contradicted till a new one had been provided; the clever disquisitions resting upon a baseless hypothesis; the art with which brilliant illustrations of past history were woven into a context with which they had no relation. He has seen the petty scandal of the hour blown to the dimensions of a political philosophy or a theology, and replaced by another with still brighter hues, when the last bubble has burst. He has observed the culinary skill with which an article, which was first served up hot, was a week later made to do duty cold, with the aid of a little fresh garnish; the ability with which a single truism was expanded into a column of letterpress, while yet a concise style made each sentence, apart from the rest, seem to burst with significance. He has noted the craft that guided a popular sentiment which it seemed to follow, or that followed where it was supposed to guide. The work was never allowed to lose its freshness; something was always reserved for the morrow; and each day had its infinitesimal portion of real news spread over tracts of letterpress large enough to paper the walls of Bedlam. The man of anecdote drew his nets alike from the nearest servants' hall or from foreign courts and camps, and affirmed that in his pilferings was to be found the fate of the civilised world. The philosopher provided his theory to prove the party nostrum to be a profound discovery, or change the popular appetite into "simple modesty." The moralist did the virtuous indignation with dignity; and the prophet had his vaticination in time and tune. Every one had played his part with a considerable share of self-respect; but a great conspiracy had, notwithstanding, been carried on against truth. Each contributor had worked as much from some strange sympathy with the vast machine of which he was a part, as for pay. The world was deceived; but that was because it was more anxious to be deceived than any one was to deceive it.
Is this exaggeration? Literature sinks low in proportion as its pretensions are high, from the moment when it proves false to them; and with all its parade of high functions, it may easily subject itself to influences scarcely nobler than those which determine the character of the newspaper press in its ignobler forms. A book of metaphysics may be but the battle-cry of a faction, and a history in many volumes but a party-pamphlet in disguise. Novels, or works that bear the name, may introduce the reader to company as low as the theatre could have introduced him to at its vilest period. The religious problem may be placed in the hands of the penny-a-liner, and its solution be illustrated by the caricaturist. Gossiping memoirs may but "lend corruption lighter wings to fly."[g] Literature may become but the servant of a nation's humours, or of her curiosity. Society having got into a morbid state, literature has to sympathise with morbidness. With the melancholy it must be melancholy, ever implying that the universe was made by mistake. Like the attendant of a wealthy hypochondriac, it must know how to talk of every symptom, tread the deep carpet noiselessly, and draw back the curtain pensively, not letting in a sudden light on a temple consecrated to all the maladies. It must prove that society is ill-used; and enlarge on the fact that the richer the nation grows, the more loudly a certain formidable class announces that it is starving. It must be caustic on foreign morals, and apologetic as to our own. Punctual to the hour, books and pamphlets must come by hundreds, stuffed with the novel theory and the jest that has "the sanction of antiquity." Hardly an incident in Church or State that does not admit of a humorous exhibition, if the adept has but learned the art of tossing it, and then catching it on the reverse side. The tourist shuns antiquities and arts, but preserves in amber his bill of fare and the witticisms of the valet de place. Philosophy laughs like a monkey; but the mirth means neither gladness of heart nor a sense of the humorous: it is a stereotyped affectation implying nothing but a fixed resolution to see nothing seriously. The effete cynicism looks down upon all things with the same stolid eye and from the same imaginary elevation.
The picture is a sad but not necessarily a hopeless one. Whence comes the evil? Even the lightest species of literature is obliged, by an inner law, to delineate with fidelity that society of which it is the exponent; only its fidelity is that, not of the compass, but of the weathercock-faithful but to the fleeting breeze, and telling the truth of that in which the truth is not. It may increase the evil which it illustrates, but in the main it must be regarded as a symptom rather than a cause. Its ordinary cause is to be found in the condition of society; but it may proceed also from maladies more near the surface and less difficult to deal with. The triumph of literature itself produces some of the evils it has to contend with. The number of readers has grown immensely large; the necessary consequence is, that there gradually comes into existence a vast book-trade, ruled by the ordinary commercial laws of supply and demand. Now there are objects enough which may become legitimate matters of barter; but thoughts are not of their number; and when that sinks into the commercial which was meant for higher things, the commerce becomes among the lowest that exist. The evil is increased when the wholesale or retail dealers in it are called on, not to meet intellectual needs, but to provide intellectual luxuries, cosmetics, and trinkets. The flimsier the merchandise, the more unscrupulous will naturally be its vendors. Another cause for the evil will be found in the large number of writers who are now drawn to literature by vanity or the instinct of imitation. The aids and appliances of knowledge have multiplied: dictionaries, grammars, and careful editors have thrown the gates of ancient learning back on their hinges; and translations have made all literatures of one tongue. The natural consequence is that multitudes are called authors who, with great powers of expression, have nothing to say. They began without genius, found subsequently none of those wholesome difficulties by rubbing against which inferior faculties acquire a finer edge; and as literary vanity gains upon them, they seek in affectation or exaggeration the originality denied to them by nature. It has been truly said that improvements in the medical art have an indirect tendency to make the human race degenerate, by keeping alive multitudes of sickly children, but who, in an earlier period of the world, would have died off in infancy. It is thus that bad books generate worse, until the swarm appears less the offspring of living intelligence than an insect race generated by intelligence dead.
So long as the impaired condition of literature results only from special circumstances inherent in a particular stage of society, not from a decay of its moral energy, there is room for a better order of things. In the midst of ephemeral letters real books still rise up: for a time they are lost in the crowd; but it dies off from them at last, and they emerge. These could not have survived, had not the spirit of life been strong within them; and they are often in a remarkable degree free from conventional vices. To produce them their authors are compelled to have recourse to deeper principles than prevail in their own day, or in times near theirs: the consequence is, that those works, while belonging to what I have called the third period of literature, often resemble those of the first period more than those of the second, as a man often resembles his grandfather more than his father. While such books appear, the struggle is still going on between the two spirits that rule the age; and as the higher or the lower one prevails, literature must rise or fall. Indirectly its battle is fought by whatever imparts to society, especially amid dangers and difficulties, a more manly heart, which has always the finer sensibilities, and a deeper mind. The merest drudgery that ever vexed genius, if it imparts strength or exacts self-denial, contributes to the elevation of literature more than all the patronage of wealth or protection of academies. In proportion as vanity, effeminacy, and self-occupation cease, intellectual labour will become more attractive, and idleness resume its less noxious forms. Idleness in the fields, or idleness among neighbours, is visited by many a healthy and genial influence; but the idleness of those who are always breathing the exhausted air of books intended but to amuse the idle, debilitates and destroys. Literature throws off its diseases chiefly by a recurrence to wholesome food and wholesome exercise. However beset by modes and fashions, the aspirant may ever turn his eyes back upon that one great model of all genuine art--Nature.
The following remarks may fitly find a place here. They are extracted from my preface to a book published in America:--
We are sometimes told that, in our day, Poetry which does not affect the "sensational" must not hope to be popular. The "sensational" includes several schools, the worst of which is that one which is sensual as well as sensational. The fanatics of this school declaim about Passion; but they mean by the word little more than Appetite intellectualised. Far other was the meaning of Milton, when he described Poetry as a thing "simple, sensuous, and impassioned;" for it was he who characterised specially the stately and severe Greek Tragedy, as "high actions, and high passions best describing."[h] Neither did he use the word "sensuous" in opposition to that lofty doctrine of Bacon, who affirms that Poetry "subjects the shows of things to the desires of the mind."[i] Milton but intended thus to contrast Poetry with Science, which last has been well said to draw up the exterior universe into that of Thought and Law, whereas it is the office of Poetry to embody the interior world of thought and feeling in palpable form. The great master of Inductive Philosophy was here Idealist; while Milton, the great Idealist, confessed, perhaps against the tenor of his habitual sympathies, the objective character of Poetry; but these two authentic canons of criticism set forth but the same philosophy as regarded from two opposite points of view, the one asserting that the soul of Poetry is Mind, the other adding that for that soul a body exists also.
Let not the Sensationalists of the sensual school imagine that Passion is their characteristic. It belongs to their narrow domain neither exclusively not inclusively. True Passion finds its sustenance everywhere--in every joy and woe of humanity--in the faith and patience of oppressed nations, and no less in the cry from the lonely hearth.
False Passion, in its ultimate development Sensuality, loathes all food but carrion, and destroys all that a sane heart reveres. It ignores the affections and values the passions themselves but for the mud turned up by the storm. Its wit is maliciousness, and its humour but the pretext for license. It blots even from material nature her beauty; for it abolishes, in its gross delineations, all her variety and harmony of expression, as well as that gradation which metes and measures human enjoyment. Resolving all things into the senses, it stultifies the senses themselves, which for man have no true existence except in so far as they receive and give forth their stories subordinately to man's higher Powers. It overruns whatever is fresh, and tramples down whatever is sweet. It rushes over God's fair creation like a conflagration, licking up those innumerable half lights and half shades, precious alike in their reserve and their disclosures, through which the beauty of Nature is rendered infinite, and her bounty inexhaustible. It leaves behind it nothing but blackness and barrenness. It may content itself with the suggestive, and conceal beneath the whitened outside of decorous language the implication that dares not be named; or it may boast that it is natural, because it has renounced faith in the primary instincts of our moral nature that it may celebrate the animal instincts in language that knows itself to be naked, and is not ashamed; or it may endeavour to galvanise dead Art with the spasmodic tricks of spurious Science, exhibiting the malformations of depraved fancy, or of nature disnatured, in psychological poems and philosophic "Etudes," revolting as those anatomical eccentricities ranged round the walls of a museum:--to such achievements it may rise; but it has forfeited all heritage in the two great homes of authentic poetry-man's heart and the universe of God. The sensual-sensational cannot plead the excuse of a tender weakness. It is essentially the heartless. In it the pathetic has no part. To feel anything it must have nails driven into it. In it Love has no part; for it has broken loose from that Reverence which is itself but Love shrouded beneath her sacred and protecting veil, and from that moral sense from which, and not from the animal nature or a blind and self-willed caprice, the genuine human affections are outgrowths. In it the imagination has no part-that large and free imagination which aspires to breathe the spiritual into the material, not to merge the former in the latter. In her forest-pleasaunce there remains not a tree that is not branded nor a spring that is not brackish.
Literary heresies, like religious, attract at first through their supposed originality. "Sensationalism" in this form--for I do not speak of that which offends only against refinement--fancies that it has discovered a new sort of "muscular" literature. It is new in nothing but the circumstances which aggravate the offence. The better time of Paganism itself was a reproach to the inferior times of countries nominally Christian; and it was only when the higher genius of the ancient world had been blighted by bad morals and materialistic despotisms, that sensuality usurped upon its literature. Cast down from its Pagan throne, and remanded to the reptile form, it worked up again even in the ages of Faith, creeping back into the precinct made pure, and blending, in a half-merry, half-mystical libertinage, the higher thoughts of a chivalrous time with the renewed revolt of fallen nature. To what extent the corrupt element in the Fabliaux, Tales, and Troubadour songs of the Middle Ages defrauded the world of that complete Mediæval literature of which the Vita Nuova was the snowy bud, and the Divina Commedia the half-opened flower, we shall probably never know; but what Dante did, Boccaccio and the writers of the Novelle undid, and in Chaucer's poetry a dark stream ran side by side with the clear one. For a long time a childlike Faith made head against a childish instability and inconsistency as to right and wrong; but by degrees the loftier element evaporated, while the coarser residuum remained behind. In ages of less simplicity the same evil again and again recurred, marring the heroic strength of the Elizabethan drama, scattering plague spots over the dreary revel of Charles the Second, and in France pushing aside the Bossuets and Racines, and sealing a large part of literature, by its own confession, against the young and innocent-that is, against those who, owing to their leisure, their vivid perceptions, quick sympathies, and unblunted sensibilities, can best appreciate what is beautiful, best profit by what is ennobling, and best reward, by innocence confirmed and noble enjoyments extended, the great writer who has ever regarded them as his glory and his crown.
De Vere's Notes
1. Landor. [back to text]
2. The Hero as Divinity. [back to text]
3. Cary's translation of Dante, Paradisio, Canto xv. [back to text]
4. Ibid. [back to text]
5. Ruskin. [back to text]
6. Shelley. [back to text]
7. Among the better signs of this age we may count the many translations of Dante and editions of Chaucer which have appeared in it. Among the latter may be named an excellent work, edited by Mr. Charles Cowden Clarke, the friend of Keats, under the name of The Riches of Chaucer. It is intended for popular reading, the metre being accented, the spelling modernised, and obsolete words explained; while those passages are not included which Chaucer repented of having written. [back to text]
8. Wordsworth. [back to text]
9. See Thirlwall's Greece, vol. ii. p. 124. [back to text]
10. Lord Houghton. [back to text]
[a] The phrase is from John Addington Symonds' Eudiades. [back to text]
[b] The phrase is from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. [back to text]
[c] See Aesop's Fables. [back to text]
[d] The line is from Dante's Divine Comedy. [back to text]
[e] See Acts 21.39 (King James Version of the Bible). [back to text]
[f] Psalm 37.11 (King James Version of the Bible). [back to text]
[g] See Epistle III of Alexander Pope's Moral Essays. [back to text]
[h] The first phrase is from John Milton's Tractate of Education, and the second is from Book IV of Milton's Paradise Regain'd. [back to text]
[i]The phrase is from Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning. [back to text]