I. The Historical Study of Literature. What is a National Literature? II. Literature as a Social Product. Literature and the Spirit of the Age — The Epochs of Literary History — Literature as the Product of Society. III. Taine’s Formula of Literary Evolution. The Formula criticised— Interest of Literature on the Sociological Side. IV. The Comparative Method in the Historical Study of Literature. The Interaction of Races and Epochs in Literary Evolution — Illustration: Literary Relations of England and France — Another Illustration: Literary Relations of England and Germany — The Mediæval Revival. V. The Historical Study of Style. Illustration: the Growth of English Prose. VI. The Study of Literary Technique. Literature in the Making — The Study of Genealogy and Antecedents — The Technical Study of Style — The Art of Literature and the Life of Literature — The True End of Technical Study.
As we pass from individual books to their authors, so by an equally natural transition we pass from an individual author to the age in which he lived, and the nation to which he belonged. We cannot go far in our study of literature before we realize that it involves the study of the history of literature. A great writer is not an isolated fact. He has his affiliations with the present and the past ; and through these affiliations he leads us inevitably to his contemporaries and predecessors, and thus at length to a sense of a national literature as a developing organism having a continuous life of its own, yet passing in the course of its evolution through many varying phases. Thus in our study of literature on the historical side we shall have to consider two things—the continuous life, or national spirit in it ; and the varying phases of that continuous life or, the way in which it embodies and expresses the changing spirit of successive ages.
First, what do we mean when we speak of the history of any national literature—of the history of Greek, or French, or English literature ? The ordinary text-book may perhaps give us the impression that we mean only a chronological account of the men who wrote in these languages, and of the books they produced, with critical analyses of their merits and defects, and some description of literary schools and traditions, and of fluctuations in fashions and tastes. But in reality we mean much more than this. A nation’s literature is not a miscellaneous collection of books which happen to have been written in the same tongue or within a certain geographical area. It is the progressive revelation, age by age, of such nation’s mind and character. An individual writer may vary greatly from the national type, and the variation, as we shall have to insist presently, will always be one of the most interesting things about him. But his genius will still partake of the characteristic spirit of his race, and in any number of representative writers at any given time, that spirit will be felt as a well-defined quality pervading them all. We talk of the Greek spirit and the Hebrew spirit. By this we do not of course suggest that all Greeks thought and felt in the same way, that all Hebrews thought and felt in the same way. We simply mean that, when all differences as between man and man have been cancelled, there remains in each case a clearly recognised substratum of racial character, a certain broad element common to all Greeks as Greeks, and to all Hebrews as Hebrews. It is in this sense that we speak of the Hebrew and the Hellenic views of life, and compare and contrast them with one another. Now, as such common qualities are most fully expressed in the literatures of the two peoples—as Greek literature is the completest revelation of the mind and character of the Greek race, and Hebrew literature of the mind and character of the Hebrew race—it is through their literatures that we really come to know these peoples best, alike in their strength and in their limitations, and to learn at first hand what they have contributed to the permanent intellectual and spiritual possessions of the world. We travel that we may see other nations at home—their “cities of men and manners, climates, councils, governments”; and this we rightly conceive as an important agency in humane culture. The study of literature is a form of travel; it enables us to move about freely among the minds of other races; with this additional advantage that, as Professor Barrett Wendell has happily said, it gives us the power of travelling also in time. We become familiar not only with the minds of other races, but with the minds of other epochs as well.
The history of any nation’s literature, then, is the record of the unfolding of that nation’s genius and character under one of its most important forms of expression. In this way literature becomes at once a supplement to what we ordinarily call history and a commentary upon it. History deals mainly with the externals of a people’s civilisation, portrays the outward manner of their existence, and tells us what they did or failed to do in the practical work of the world. But it is to their literature that we must turn if we would understand their mental and moral characteristics, realise what they sought and achieved in the world of inner activity, and follow through the stages of their changing fortunes the ebb and flow of the forces which fed their emotional energies and shaped their intellectual and spiritual life.
We thus come to a singularly interesting and fertile line of inquiry—the study of the literature of an age as the expression of its characteristic spirit and ideals.
Even the most casual reader is soon struck by the many qualities exhibited in common by writers belonging to the same time, no matter how widely these may differ among themselves. There is perceptible among them a marked family likeness ; or, as Shelley put it, “a general resemblance under which their specific distinctions are arranged.” We have said that in order to get a clear idea of the salient features of Shakespeare’s genius and art it is necessary to compare and contrast him with his fellow-playwrights. Though in doing this we shall at first be most strongly impressed by those outstanding elements in his personality which set him altogether apart from men like Marlowe, Jonson, Fletcher, Webster, we shall hardly fail presently to observe also in how many ways he none the less resembled them, as they in turn resembled each other. Taking them as a group, and considering alike the matter and texture of their work and its form and spirit, we shall find in them a predominant and unmistakable common note; we shall feel that these Elizabethan dramatists are united by a number of elementary characteristics which sharply distinguish them as a group from the men of Pope’s time and the men of Wordsworth’s time. It is these group-characteristics which we have now to investigate if we would grasp the underlying principles and the historic significance of that large and intensely fascinating body of work which we call roughly the Elizabethan, or, more correctly, the English romantic drama, and if we would see that work in its vital relationships, not with this or that author only—Shakespeare or any other—but with the whole social world out of which it come. Hence, however much Shakespeare himself as a unit may interest us by the distinctive qualities of his individuality, attention to these must not be allowed to blind us to the fact that he too, like his companions and rivals, was after all the product and exponent of a particular phase of civilisation and culture, and that we may get far into the heart of the conditions and tendencies of his time if we devote ourselves to the consideration of the generic as well as to the specific aspects of his writings. Clear as this principle of historical interpretation should be, it may yet be well to illustrate it in a somewhat different way. If we place Pope side by side with Tennyson we shall of course be struck at once by the glaring contrast between the two poets, and our first impulse will probably be to regard this as merely a contrast of personality in the narrowest sense of that word. But as a contrast of personality only it cannot be entirely explained. The writings of both Pope and Tennyson everywhere bear, mingling with their individual qualities, the unmistakable impress of those impersonal forces of their respective epochs which combined to create what we describe as the Zeitgeist or Time-spirit of the age of Anne and the Victorian era ; and if we should be troubled by any doubt as to the reality and importance of such Time-spirit, it will be dissipated on our observing that precisely where the two poets differ most radically from each other there they often remind us most distinctly of their contemporaries. Apart from all considerations of individual genius and temper, The Rape of the Lock could hardly have been born of the age which produced The Princess. Pope’s mock-epic belongs to the days of The Spectator, Tennyson’s medley to those of Charlotte Bronte’s novels and Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh; which means that all the vast and far-reaching changes in the thought of a hundred years concerning women and their place in society and on many other matters, have to be taken into account in estimating the difference between two works which thus regarded become broadly typical of much beyond the individual poets’ characters and intentions. In the same way, the Essay on Man and In Memoriam express the mood and speculation, the one of an epoch of facile and superficial optimism, the other of an epoch of heart-searching doubt and spiritual struggle, quite as clearly as they set forth respectively the thoughts and feelings of the poet-philosophers themselves. Once more, the contrast between Tennyson’s intense love of nature and the conspicuous absence of any signs of such love in the town poetry of Pope is one that has to be interpreted on a wider basis than that furnished by any consideration of mere personal differences of taste and temper. It is a contrast which will be found to hold good as between all the poets of Tennyson’s time as a class and all the poets of Pope’s time as a class. The deep feeling for nature which is one of the most marked characteristics of our nineteenth century poetry as a whole is evidently, then, in large measure the product of a changing Time-spirit working more or less uniformly on many different minds, and tending at this point to bring them into a certain substantial harmony with one another.
As there is a common racial character in the literary productions of any given people, so therefore there is a common time-character in the literary productions of such people at any given period. A nation’s life has its moods of exultation and depression ; its epochs now of strong faith and strenuous idealism, now of doubt, struggle, and disillusion, now of unbelief and flippant disregard for the sanctities of existence; and while the manner of expression will vary greatly with the individuality of each writer, the dominant spirit of the hour, whatever that may be, will directly or indirectly reveal itself in his work ; since every man, according to Goethe’s dictum, is a citizen of his age as well as of his country, and since, as Renan put it, “one belongs to one’s century and race even when one reacts against one’s century and race.”
Thus when we speak of periods of literature—of the literature of the age of Pericles or Augustus, of Louis XIV or the Revolution, of Elizabeth or Anne or Victoria—we have in mind something far more important than the establishment of such chronological divisions as may be arbitrarily made for the sake of mere convenience. Such phrases really refer to differential characteristics—to those distinctive qualities of theme, treatment, manner, spirit, tone, by which the literature of each period as a whole is marked, which are more or less pronounced in all the writers of that period, and by virtue of which these writers, despite their individual differences, stand together as a group in contrast with the groups formed by the writers of other periods.
We have, therefore, to study the literature of an age, as we study the writings of each separate author, as a great body of work expressing a common spirit under many diverse individual forms. We may of course do this, after the habit of many historians of literature, by looking no further than literature itself. Our chief object will then be to investigate the origin, growth, and decay of literary fashions and tastes, the formation of schools, the rise and fall of critical standards and ideals, the influence of particular men in initiating fresh tendencies and giving a new direction of literature, and so on; keeping meanwhile strictly to the literary phenomena themselves, and conceiving of these as explicable by reference only to such forces as lie within the field of literary activity. Of this narrower method of treatment I shall have something more to say presently. But those who care preeminently for the life which is in literature will scarcely be content to rest at this point of view. They will rather press on to examine the connection of the literature of the period under consideration with all the motive forces at work outside literature in the society of the time. If we ask, for example, Why did our English writers produce and English readers enjoy, at the end of the sixteenth century, The Faery Queene, at the end of the seventeenth, The Hind and the Panther, at the end of the eighteenth, the poems of Burns and Cowper ? or, Why did the age of Shakespeare find its main artistic outlet in the drama, and what were the causes which combined in the eighteenth century to bring about the decline of the drama and the rise of the modern form of prose fiction ? or, How are we to account for the general coldness and aridity of the literature of Pope’s time, and for the strong and often stormy passion which swept into poetry with the development of what we call Romanticism ? then we have to seek our answers in considerations which carry us far beyond all questions of literary taste and critical theories. The historian of literature may indeed object that with all these remoter problems he as a student simply of literature has really nothing to do ; that his business is entirely with books as he finds them, and with such forces as lie, as I have put it, within the field of literary activity. We need not quarrel with those who take up such a position ; rather, we may gladly allow them to do their own work in their own way, while we ourselves profit to the fullest extent by the results. At the same time we have to insist that the domain of literature cannot permanently be thus isolated, and that really to understand literature we have continually to get out of literature into the life by which it is fed. As behind every book that is written lies the personality of the man who wrote it, and as behind every national literature lies the character of the race which produced it, so behind the literature of any period lie the combined forces—personal and impersonal—which made the life of that period, as a whole, what it was. Literature is only one of the many channels in which the energy of an age discharges itself ; in its political movements, religious thought, philosophical speculation, art, we have the same energy overflowing into other forms of expression. The study of English literature, for example, will thus take us out into the wide field of English history, by which we mean the history of English politics and society, manners and customs, culture and learning, and philosophy and religion. However, diverse the characteristics which make up the sum-total of the life of an epoch, these, like the qualities which combine in an individual, are not, as Taine puts it, merely “juxtaposed” ; they are interrelated and interdependent. Our aim must therefore be to correlate the literature of any age we may take for consideration with all the other important aspects of the national activity of the time. In doing this we must of course remember that the age in question grew out of that which preceded it ; that its own spirit and ideals were never fixed or settled, but were on the contrary in a continuous process of transformation ; and, above all, that many different and often conflicting tendencies (some arising in natural reaction against others) are always to be found at work together in the civilisation of any period. This means that we have not only to investigate the literature of any given moment in connection with the then existing state of society, but have also to follow the movements of literature in their connection with contemporaneous movements and cross-currents in other regions of life and thought.
Thus—to take a single illustration only, and this from a field which lies very near to the sympathies of every reader— the literature of the Victorian era, marvellously rich as it is in the range and variety of its purely personal interests, will gain immensely in significance and value if we study it in detail in its relations with the many-sided life and activities, with all the great intellectual and social movements and counter-movements, of Victorian England—with the growth of democracy, humani-tarianism, and the zeal for reform ; with the enormous progress of science, and the profound disturbance of thought produced by this ; with the immense industrial changes brought about in large part by the application of science to practical life ; with the resultant struggle between materialism and idealism, upon both the theoretical and the practical sides ; with the art-revival ; with the development of the romantic spirit prompting men to seek an imaginative escape into the past ; with the later blending of this romantic spirit with the spirit of reform ; and so on. Thus studied, Victorian literature, while never for a moment ceasing to appeal to us as the varied product of many different minds working independently upon the most divergent lines, will be found to exhibit fresh depths of interest and meaning as a revelation of the thoughts and feelings, the aspirations and ideals, the doubts and struggles, the faith and hope, of a great, intense, complex, and turbulent period of our history.
From my thus emphasising the immediate and necessary connection between the literature of an age and the general life out of which it grows it may be inferred that I am to a certain extent following the lead of Taine, who attempted to interpret literature in a rigorously scientific way by the application of his famous formula of the race, the milieu, and the moment ; meaning by race, the hereditary temperament and disposition of a people ; by milieu, the totality of their surroundings, their climate, physical environment, political institutions, social conditions, and the like ; and by moment, the spirit of the period, or of that particular stage of national development which has been reached at any given time. I must, however, hasten to add that I am no disciple of the brilliant French theorist. Suggestive as his method may be when employed carefully and with a full sense of its limitations, it is still clear that it breaks down completely at several important points. I do not now dwell upon the fact, which must be patent to every reader who takes up his Literary History of the English People, that Taine’s interest is in reality not in literature as literature, but in literature as a document in the hisotry of national psychology, and that thus, subordinating as he does the study of literature to the study of society, he necessarily approaches the problem of their relationship from a point of view and with a purpose quite different from our own. Setting this consideration aside, I shall content myself with indicating two conspicuous defects of his method as it directly concerns the student of literature itself.
According to Taine’s theory, all the individuals of a nation at any particular time are to be regarded simply as the products of the three great impersonal forces which he evokes to account for them ; and thus the study of any author is reduced by him to an examination of the manner in which his genius and work express the combined action of the influences which play upon him in common with all his fellow-countrymen and contemporaries. The initial error in this view, and it is one that goes far to vitiate it entirely, is its neglect of that essential factor of all really great literature upon which I have already laid so much strees—the factor of personality. In Taine’s hands the individual becomes little more than a sample of his race and epoch. Thus he practically overlooks the individual variation, or the qualities which differentiate a man from his surroundings ; and this is a fatal mistake, since the greater the genius, the greater and the more important the individual variation, the differential qualities, are likely to be. It is the minor men of an age in whose work the general spirit of that age is most faithfully reflected, and by which it is transmitted with the least amount of personal colouring ; a fact which shows that from the historical point of view these minor men will always have a special interest of their own. The strong man is most himself, is most independent of current influences, and it is in its application to his work, therefore, that the scientific formula will leave most unexplained. “It has been said that the man of genius sometimes is such in virtue of combining the temperament distinctive of his nation with some gift of his own which is foreign to that temperament ; as in Shakespeare, the basis is English, and the individual gift a flexibility of spirit which is not normally English.” So with the man of genius and the spirit of his time ; we must make the fullest allowance for the individual gift, the marked and exceptional personal quality, which combines in him with the common characteristics of the world to which he belongs ; and unless we do this—unless, in other words, we lay hold of precisely those features of his genius which are not to be accounted for by any reference to his race, surroundings, and period—we shall misunderstand him altogether. In the historic study of literature, then, we are quite as much concerned with variations from the predominant type as with the type itself. After investigating in the greatest detail the way in which the forces of an age entered as formative factors into the personality of any great writer, and helped to give direction and tone to his work, we are still brought back to that which no formula will elucidate, and no analysis explain—the original, mysterious, incommunicable element of personal genius itself. This we must be content to take as we find it ; and however wide the lines of our subsequent inquiry, it is from this that we have to set out as our datum and point of departure.
In one other most important respect Taine’s theory must be pronounced unsatisfactory. Neglecting the individual, he naturally neglects personality as an originating force. He notes the manner in which the age affects the author ; the manner in which the author affects the age he does not note. But the relation of literature and life is a double-sided relation ; while the work of a great author is fed by the combined influences of his epoch, it enters again into that epoch as one of its most potent seminal elements. If we cannot understand Victorian literature unless we connect it with the large social and intellectual movements of Victorian civilisation, neither can we understand these movements themselves unless we realise how they were stimulated, or guided, or checked, by contemporary literature. The names of Tennyson and Browning, of Carlyle, and Ruskin, and Dickens—to take the most prominent examples only—are the names of men who counted enormously in the development of the Timespirit of the world in which they lived. In our own study, therefore, we must be careful to keep this double-sided relationship always in view. We must regard the great writer as the creator as well as the creature of his time, and while keen to appreciate what the age gave to him, we must be equally solicitous to discover what in turn he gave to the age.
It is evident, then, that Taine’s attempt to write the Literary History of the English People on the basis of a formula in which the fundamental element of individuality is practically ignored, was necessarily foredoomed to failure, and that, in the nature of things, no such scientific treatment of literary facts and problems can be other than disappointing, at any rate for the student of literature. It remains for us none the less to insist on the great interest and importance of the study of literature as literature on the sociological side. It is sometimes felt that to take literature in this way is to destroy our personal sense of the life in it ; that when we adopt the historical method, great books, instead of being enjoyed as expressions of individual thought and feeling and masterpieces of art, come to be regarded rather as specimens to be analysed with critical disinterestedness, or classified and ticketed like the bones of dead animals in a museum of anatomy. One may well be pardoned for sympathising with such a misgiving. At the same time it should now be apparent that it is really founded upon a mistaken idea of the historic method and its results. To relate literature to the whole world of varied activity of which it is one expression, is not to destroy its living interest, but to make that interest broader and deeper ; without ceasing to be essentially individual, literature thus comes to be more comprehensively human, as a record of the life of man as well as of the lives of men. Moreover, by realizing the relativity of literature we gain a point of view from which every aspect of literary art becomes quickened for us into fresh significance. Henceforth we need not find any period of literary history wholly wanting in the quality of life. Much of the literature of the past must on our first approach to it necessarily seem to us both dull and unattractive— matter for the specialist, not for the general student. Thoughts, feelings, ideals change ; the fashion of their utterance changes likewise ; chasms yawn between us and bygone generations ; and many a book which once held its readers spellbound seems a vapid and futile thing to us who belong to another age, and are touched by other modes of passion and other manners of speech. Our text-book writers and professional critics seldom acknowledge this, and by their failure to do so they often discourage young and untried students, who are apt to feel that their own inability to take a vital and personal interest in many books which figure prominently in the annals of literature is entirely due to some radical defect in themselves. This is not necessarily so. Or even the greater books of the past there are comparatively few which have not suffered more or less seriously, while all but the very greatest have suffered much, from the changes which are ever going on in life, fashion, taste ; and it is at once idle and unwise to attempt to deny this fact or to shirk its obvious implications. But it is precisely here that the value of what we call the historic or sociological study of literature should become apparent. When we take up the historic point of view, we can carry every book, even the dullest, back into the life out of which it originally grew ; we can place ourselves to some extent in the relations of its first readers with it ; and the result is that the rich life-blood of humanity begins to flow once more through its long-dead pages. Forms of art, which to us are simply archaic—subjects and methods which can never now be revived—suddenly become of interest. If only as a record of what men once found potent to move, charm, console, inspire—if only as an example of what once seemed beautiful and engaging to them—literature which we might otherwise pass over as hopelessly deficient in every element of appeal reveals itself as worthy of close and sympathetic attention. It will live again for us if only by virtue of the life which was once in it.
The comparative method, the importance of which in the study of individual authors has already been recognised, becomes of great service when we are dealing with literature historically ; but after what I have said in discussing the relations of literature with the life of the race and age, this aspect of our subject hardly calls for elaboration. No one who passes from the literature of one nation or epoch to that of another nation or epoch will fail to be struck by the complete change in intellectual and moral atmosphere. Now, as the study of literature here as elsewhere means an effort to define and correlate phenomena which in casual reading we allow to remain vague and unconnected, it will be the business of the student as he pursues his inquiries along these wider lines, to note carefully and to formulate those fundamental differences which are frequently obscured by our paramount interest in individual, authors, or are at most simply taken for granted. He will thus be led, for example, to consider the various ways in which the large, permanent themes of literature—love, hatred, jealousy, ambition, men’s common joys and sorrows, the problems of life and destiny which were already old when literature began, and are as new as ever to-day—are taken up and handled, not merely by different great writers, but also by different peoples and at different times. He will observe how now one subject and now another comes to the front, and for a while holds the chief place in story and song, and he will investigate the causes of such ebb and flow of interest. He will mark the changes in temper, tone, emphasis, perspective, as he follows the same motive through its various forms of expression ; the motive, say, of the love of man and woman, from Greek tragedy to mediaeval romance, from the drama of the age of Shakespeare to that of the Restoration, from the prose fiction of the eighteenth to that of the nineteenth century, from the English novel to that of contemporary France. And discovering, moreover, that now one vehicle of expression and now another is for a time in the ascendant, he will endeavour to trace the history of the transformation and alternation of the great literary forms—such as the lyric, the drama, the novel—under changing conditions and in response to shifting conceptions of literary art, as they are freshly shaped to ever-varying uses by the masters of different nations and of different periods.
In his exploration of the vast field of study thus opened up—a field, it is clear, of almost inexhaustible interest—the reader will find one special line of inquiry particularly worthy of his attention.
Even if, our interest in literature being of the most narrowly personal kind, we set out with the purpose of confining ourselves to the writings of a single favourite author, we are certain sooner or later to discover that we shall never properly understand such author if we remain obstinately within the limits of his own personality and work. We are repeatedly reminded by him of the influence exerted upon his thought and style by the thought and style of other men, and to estimate him rightly we have to take account of such influence, to consider its sources, range, and significance, and to measure its extent for good or evil. And if, recognising the personal forces which helped to shape his character and art, we turn, as presently we shall of necessity be led to turn, to the question of his influence upon the thought and style of others, we shall come to see that our study of individual authors involves us everywhere in the study of the power exercised by mind upon mind. In precisely the same way, in the general evolution of literature, will the genius of one race or age be found to have influenced—sometimes slightly, sometimes to the extent of turning it aside from its natural course of development, and of almost destroying for a season its essential characteristics—the genius of another race or age ; and thus, in our reading of the history of literature, we cannot go far before we find ourselves committed to the consideration of the various tributary streams, small or great, by which the literature of each country and each generation has been fed. Even the briefest text-book of the literary history of Italy, France, or England, will tell us something of the enormous changes wrought during the period of the revival of learning by the enthusiastic study of the classics, which not only furnished artistic inspiration and set fresh models and standards of taste, but by bringing men into living contact with the genius of Greece and Rome, and with a world of thought, feeling, and ideals, which was then entirely new to them, did much to emancipate their minds from the trammels of effete dogmatism, and to break up the intellectual and religious fabric of the Middle Ages. A fact of chief importance then in the genesis of the modern spirit and of modern literatures at the time of the Renaissance, this influence of pagan antiquity alike on form and on thought has to be followed through all their later developments as a constituent agency, varying greatly in the extent and intensity of its power, and in the modes of its manifestation, but never wholly lost ; and thus the student of the history of literature has to inquire where and when it has been in the ascendant, and when and where it has waned ; to seek the causes of these fluctuations, and to consider how far, at different epochs, classicism has proved fruitful of good by stimulating original activity and leading men to higher conceptions of art, and how far it has been detrimental by paralysing individual genius and turning literature into bypaths of pedantic theory and lifeless imitation.
Here, then, in one of the most familiar facts in the history of modern literature we have an illustration of the profound influence exerted by the genius and art of one race upon those of other races. Another example is furnished by the interchange of influence during something like a century and a half, first between the literatures of France and England, and then between the literatures of England and Germany.
Soon after the middle of the seventeenth century a variety of circumstances, political and other, combined to bring English genius under the sway of the genius of France. Thus we enter upon what the historian of our literature is accustomed to describe as the period of French influence. “Until the time of Charles I,” English literature, “insofar as it owed anything to external patterns of modern date, had been chiefly dependent upon Italy.” (The importance of Italian culture and art as a force in the English literature of the Renaissance is not, it may be said in passing, quite adequately recognised in this sentence.) “This might have long continued but for the decay of Italian letters consequent upon the triumph of foreign oppression and spiritual despotism throughout the peninsula. France stepped into the vacant place…….Erelong French ideas of style had pervaded Europe, and approximation to French modes was the inevitable qualification for the great mission of human enlightenment which was to develve upon Britain in the succeeding century.” Thus “the dominant foreign influence on our literature, through the great part of the eighteenth century, was certainly French. By this declaration is not at all meant that we did nothing but ape and imitate the French classics, though they were translated or in some way reproduced often enough. What is meant is that the direction and tone of our literature were to a large extent imparted by France, then, and just before then, at the height of its literary glory. Pope’s work is thoroughly his own, and not to be confounded with that of anybody else at home or abroad ; but in many respects that work would have been different had not Boileau, for instance, preceded him. And so elsewhere we see deeply impressed the influence of Racine, Voltaire, Rousseau.” Here, in the ascendency of this French influence, we put our finger, as any historian of literature will tell us, upon one of the principal causes of the extraordinary transformation which English literature then underwent in matter, spirit, and style ; and the English literature of the later seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries cannot therefore be understood without constant reference to the literature of France. But by the time we reach Voltaire and Rousseau (here classed as a French writer), we become aware of a fact not touched upon in the above quotation, but of very great significance for students of both French and English literatures—that another current of influence was now flowing fast and strong in a reverse direction, or from England into France. A period of pronounced Anglomania had begun, and the French mind was now busy absorbing English ideas and speculations on many subjects— on religion, philosophy, society, politics, and even the forms of literature. Voltaire’s three years of exile in England are rightly described by Condorcet as of European importance, because it was by this direct contact with English life and thought that his spirit was first awakened to a sense of his mission as the apostle of intellectual liberty. “Voltairism may be said to have begun from the flight of its founder from Paris to London. This……was the decisive hegira, from which the philosophy of destruction in a forma shape may be held seriously to date.” Rousseau and Diderot alike derived much of their philosophy from thinkers like Locke, and of their literary inspiration from such men as Richardson and Lillo, and from the whole domestic movement in English letters which these represented. And among the other great French writers of the period preceding the Revolution hardly one could be named whose work does not exhibit the most unmistakable evidence of his profound indebtedness to England. English literature was, in fact, as Hettner has said, the real starting-point of the whole European movement of enlightenment in the eighteenth century and of the literature to which this movement gave birth. It was through their French interpreters, indeed, that English ideas became European and practically effective. But if we are to follow the history of the revolutionary movement at large on the intellectual side, and of the rise and spread of revolutionary ideas and of the revolutionary spirit in literature, it is with England and English writers that we have to begin. Thus in the literatures of France and England from the middle of the seventeenth century to the close of the eighteenth, we shall find a continual revelation of the influence exerted, now on this side and now or that, by one national genius upon another; and thus, for the full comprehension of either French or English literature during this period, it is evident that they must be studied together.
Equally interesting will be the inquiry into the literary relations of England and Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century, particularly in respect of their reciprocal influences in the development of Romanticism. Here, in the first place, we shall have to note that, as men like Bodmer and Lessing will show us, English literature was a main power in the emancipation of Germany from the long tyranny of French modes and of pseudo-classicism, and thus in turning German genius inward upon itself and in preparing the way for the rise of a truly national literature. Then we enter upon a period of rapidly developing Romanticism, during which the wild enthusiasm of “young Germany” for those English writers who had already caught up and expressed the romantic spirit is everywhere felt as a predominant force. I am not now writing the history of English influence upon German literature at this time, but am simply trying to exhibit the interest of this history ; and it will therefore be quite enough for my purpose if I point out how Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry stimulated the study of folkpoetry and the preference for the natural to the artificial in verse, and how, inspired by them, Burger wrote his ballads and Herder produced his Stimmen der Völker, and formulated his theory of the essential superiority of ‘popular’ poetry to all the productions of refinement and art ; how Macpherson’s Ossian fired the imagination with grandiose visions of a past world which had known nothing of the petty conventions and restraints of ‘civilization,’ and thus gave a fresh impetus to the movement for a “return to nature” initiated by Rousseau ; how Shakespeare became the god of the idolatry of those who had cast down the graven images of the artificial drama, was proclaimed by Lessing as a new standard of dramatic art, and taken by Goethe and Schiller as model and master. These few illustrations will suffice to exemplify the extraordinary sway of English literature in the earlier stages of developing German Romanticism. But ere long the counter-current set in, and Germany began to return with interest what she had borrowed from England. “Whatever Germany owed to us at that time of its so splendid regeneration,” writes Prof. Hales, “it repaid us, and still repays us, good measure, pressed down and shaken together, and running over”; and a part reason for this is indicated in the fact that “the German impulse harmonised with impulses that were already permeating England, and to these it gave a stronger force and more successful action.” Much of the influence which the great English romantic writers derived directly from their English predecessors was thus combined with the influences which came originally from the same sources, but were now transmitted to them by those Germans who had first been inspired by English masters ; as in the case of Scott, whose poetic genius was aroused both by Percy’s Reliques and by the ballads which Bürger had written under the impulse of Percy, and whose novels are in part to be traced to Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen, itself an offspring of Shakespearean enthusiasm. Hence if English genius was an important factor in the development of romantic German literature, German genius in its turn was an important factor in the development of romantic English literature ; and to trace out the interplay of influences, to estimate the value of the lendings and the borrowings between the two peoples, would evidently prove a line of inquiry rich in interest and fruitful of results.
Less important than the influence of one nation’s genius upon another, but still important, is that which from time to time is exerted on the themes, temper, and fashions of literature by the genius of some past age. This has already been exemplified by what has been said about the influence of pagan antiquity, which might indeed have been treated under the present head. Apart from this, the most interesting illustration of the phenomenon in question is undoubtedly the imaginative revival of the ‘romantic’ past, which began, roughly speaking, about the middle of the eighteenth century, and the power of which, though it reached its culmination and partly spent itself in the great romantic outburst of the first three decades of the nineteenth century, has still been conspicuous in nearly all European literatures ever since. For something like a hundred and fifty years, and especially during what is often termed the “Augustan” period of literature, general critical taste in England, largely moulded, as we have said, on the principles of the dominant French or pseudo-classic school, was in revolt against the whole spirit and method of pre-Restoration literature. So little affinity was there between the temper and ideals of the early eighteenth century and those of the Elizabethan epoch or the Middle Ages that men for the most part turned away contemptuously from Chaucer and Spenser, treated Shakespeare as a rude genius totally wanting in refinement and art, and found in the word “gothic,” which they used as synonymous with barbarous, a term of sweeping condemnation for whatever failed to satisfy the requirements of their new creed. The change from the temper thus revealed to that of the romantic period, with its enthusiastic admiration for precisely those gothic qualities which had formerly been spurned or ridiculed, was not, as I have already insisted, a change only in literary taste; it was correlated, as part cause and part effect, with various broad and comprehensive movements in life at large and with a general change in men’s attitude to things. But in literature itself it was marked, among other ways, by a number of revivals—the revival of Spenser, the revival of Shakespeare, the revival of the old ballads—and by a return of the imagination to the Middle Ages with their romance, their chivalrous idealism, their supernaturalism. Classic antiquity had been reborn in the fifteenth century; the Middle Ages were reborn in the eighteenth. And so large a place does this mediaeval or gothic Renaissance fill in the history of Romanticism from the time of Walpole, Chatterton, and Percy to that of Coleridge and Scott, and onward again to Ruskin, Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites, and William Morris, that historians of literature and art often confound the two, and treat mediævalism not only as a large feature of Romanticism, but even as entirely synonymous and co-extensive with it. This is indeed a mistake; but the fact that it is so frequently and so naturally made serves to bring out the only points with which we are now concerned—the influence of the genius of the Middle Ages as expressed in their poetry, art, and religion, in some of the most important developments of modern literature, and the wide interest which this subject therefore possesses as a special theme for study.
Yet one other aspect of the historical study of literature may be indicated—the historical study of style. This is, perhaps, too technical a line of inquiry to appear at the outset very attractive to any but the specialist, but the general student may still be encouraged to give it some attention, since he will soon find that it has its broader as well as its more purely technical interest. On the principle already laid down that style, properly conceived, is not an accidental or arbitrary feature of literature, but an organic product of vital forces, some consideration of the larger movements of style from age to age, and of their significance, of the causes, literary and extra-literary, which have combined to bring them about, and of their connection with corresponding changes in the inner life of literature, will come to constitute an almost necessary part of our study of the literature of any given period. Whatever affects the inner life of literature will both directly and indirectly affect at the same time that outer organism which the inner life fashions for its manifestations. Thus, in the way in which he expresses himself no less than in what he has to express, every individual author will betray something of his affiliations with his age ; and the form of his work, like the substance and tone of it, will, however personal to himself, find its place in the history of those comprehensive movements which, diversely as they may be represented in the writings of different men, are movements nevertheless in which they are all involved. In what has been said about style as an index of personality all this has indeed been implied. To insist that Carlyle, could never have written as he did had he been born into the age of Addison, that his prose is of the ‘romantic,’ not of the ‘classic’ kind, that it everywhere bears the unmistakable impress of those German influences of which we have recently spoken, is to indulge in mere commonplaces of criticism. But if these are facts too familiar to need elaborate restatement, their meaning must not be obscured by their familiarity. They show us that, individual as it is to the point of extravagance and mannerism, Carlyle’s style does not wholly defy classification or stand outside the lines of historic development, but that, on the contrary, it was in part a product of the forces of his time and place and has to be considered therefore in its relations with them.
In order to bring out the larger interest of the historic study of style I will suggest an illustration which, I think, should appeal even to students who may care little for details of mere technique. It is usual, as a glance at any text-book will tell us, to take the Restoration as the starting-point of an entirely new order of things in the formal evolution of our prose literature. “The Restoration,” as Matthew Arnold puts it, “marks the real moment of birth of our modern English prose. It is by its organism—an organism opposed to length and involvement, and enabling us to be clear, plain, and short—that English prose after the Restoration breaks with the style of the times preceding it, finds the true law of prose, and becomes modern; becomes, in spite of superficial differences, the style of our own day.” That this statement, while in certain respects a little too emphatic and uncompromising, is still substantially correct, any reader can readily convince himself by comparing a page out of Hooker, or Clarendon, or Milton’s Areopagitica, with a page out of Dryden, or Defoe, or Addison. The writing of the men of the latter group will strike him at once as characteristically modern; in structural principles, theirs is the kind of prose we still use; occasional archaisms will not prevent us from recognising that our own style stands in the direct line of descent from it. The prose of the earlier writers mentioned, on the other hand, is, it will be equally obvious, not our prose at all ; often splendid in diction and various in its harmonies, it is for our taste altogether too cumbrous, unwieldy, and involved; it is manifestly built upon structural principles radically different from those which form the basis of our own prose writing. Now, how are we to interpret this transformation of prose style in the period of its great metamorphosis ? how explain substitution of the new prose which was rapidly taking shape in the closing decades of the seventeenth century for the old prose which had hitherto remained in almost undisputed possession of the field ? It seems a much easier and more natural thing to write in the style of Addison than in the style of Milton, because Addison’s prose is the artistic development of real speech, while Milton’s is scarcely nearer to real speech than is his blank verse, and is in fact at its best when in his own phrase it “soars a little” into the higher regions of eloquence and imagination. Why was it that the secret of naturalness and simplicity had thus far eluded our greatest masters? and why did it become an open secret, free to even the smallest men, in the generation immediately following Milton‘s death ? Well, the history of the formation and establishment of the new prose after the Restoration will, as we shall soon discover, carry us far afield into the consideration of many co-operating causes, some of them at first sight too remote from the question in hand to have had any bearings upon it; among which may be mentioned, by way of illustration:—the change from the poetic to the critical temper, which was one of the most noteworthy characteristics of the time ; the spread of the spirit of common sense, of the love of definiteness and perspicacity, and of the hatred of the pedantic and obscure; the growth of science which greatly aided the general movement towards precision and lucidity; the eminently practical purposes to which prose was now largely turned as an instrument of argument, persuasion, satire, in an age of unceasing political and religious controversy ; the rise of a larger and more miscellaneous public to be addressed, and of the resulting influence of the general reader, of women, of the coffeehouse and the drawing-room ; the desire for the de-specialisation and popularisation of knowledge ; the demand which thus grew up for that kind of writing which could be easily produced to meet the interests of the hour and as easily understood and enjoyed by those for whom it was intended ; the consequent output of a mass of pamphlets and of periodical literature in which the element of journalism and the pen of the ready writer are everywhere apparent ; and—a point already noted—the influence of France, whose prose furnished to those who were thus prepared to appreciate its virtues and receive its guidance, an established model of just the qualities they were now most anxious to seek—ease, lucidity, sobriety, grace. It is manifest, therefore, that the great changes which our prose underwent during the ages of Dryden and Addison, and which had their parallels in analogous changes in the texture and form of verse, are to be understood only when they are studied in their connection with contemporary changes in the inner life of literature and with the whole complex of forces by which these were brought about. And similarly, if, passing from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, we observe that a strong reaction had now set in against the limitations of the classic tradition in style—that in the hands of men like Wilson and De Quincey, and later, Carlyle and Ruskin, prose sought a freer movement, fuller harmonies, greater richness, warmth, and colour ; then the development of this ‘romantic’ prose is once more to be considered in relation with the evolution of literature in general—that is, with the romantic movement in all its varied phases, and with the many streams of influence by which this was fed.
Much, of course, might be added on this point. But enough has, I think, been said to make good my contention that the historic study of style, thus broadly conceived, like the personal study of it, has plenty to interest the reader for whom the ordinary study of rhetoric would be barren of attraction.
In the foregoing pages I have tried to indicate some of the main lines of literary study, taking what seems to me the natural course, by beginning with the primary interest of literature, which is the personal interest, and working from that into the wider fields of social and historical inquiry. But though we have followed our subject as it branches out in various directions, our business has thus far been expressly limited to the content and interpretative power of literature—to the thought and feeling embodied in it, and to its many-sided relationship with life ; and even when we have paused to deal with questions of style, it has been with style in its general and not in its technical aspects. It remains for us now to touch upon the interest which literature possesses when approached from an entirely different point of view.
One essential characteristic of any piece of literature is, as we said at the outset, that, whatever its theme, it yields aesthetic pleasure by the manner in which such theme is handled. Beyond its intellectual and emotional content therefore, and beyond its fundamental quality of life, it appeals to us by reason of its form. This means that literature is a fine art, and that, like all fine arts, it has its own laws and conditions of workmanship. And as these laws and conditions, like the laws and conditions of all arts, may be analysed and formulated, one other phase of literary study is obviously the study of literary technique.
It is of course no part of our purpose here to attempt the task of analysis and formulation. All that falls within the proper limits of our plan is to suggest some lines of investigation in this new and vast region of inquiry.
Our point of departure is the broad fact that whatever connects itself with workmanship—with method and treatment, form and style—will now, in the technical study of literature, become of interest for its own sake ; as all such details become of interest for their own sakes in the study of other arts.
If, for example, we are studying the plays of Shakespeare, or Spenser’s Faery Queene, or Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, or a novel of Dickens or Thackeray, we may for a long while be quite contented to take these works as they stand, and to enjoy them for their human qualities, their power, beauty, and meaning. But there will presently come a time when we shall feel prompted to follow the dramatist, or the poet, or the novelist into his workshop, and to study his work in the making—to watch the processes and examine the methods by which the results we have been enjoying in the completed piece of art were achieved. Every stage in the history of play, poem, or novel, from raw material to finished product, will now come in for scrutiny ; we shall observe the conditions under which the given work was wrought ; the technical difficulties which the artist had to encounter ; the way in which these difficulties were met and the extent to which they were overcome ; the effects which he designed to obtain and the measure of his success in obtaining them ; and from the consideration of these and other such points we shall pass naturally to a critical judgment upon the qualities of his work as a piece of literature—upon its merits and defects, its power and limitations, when regarded simply as drama, or poem, or novel. We shall thus be led further to inquire into the principles of the arts of drama, poetry, and prose fiction, and to an investigation of the sources, significance, and value of the standards by which these arts have been tried.
Many things, moreover, in any piece of literature which to the ordinary reader may seem of quite secondary importance or which he may even ignore altogether, will now be found to press for attention. Among the first questions, for instance, that will be likely to arise in connection with any work we may take up for technical study is that of its literary genealogy and antecedents. It is open to every one to enjoy to the full the earlier plays of Shakespeare without troubling himself to consider the condition of the stage at the time they were produced or the dependence of their author upon the guidance of those who had brought the English drama to the point of development which it had reached at the beginning of his career. But Shakespeare’s plays are not isolated phenomena, nor was Shakespeare himself (as, owing to our habit of detaching him from his surroundings, we are too apt to assume) a great initiator in dramatic forms and methods. He began to write under the powerful influence of Lyly in comedy and of Marlowe in both tragedy and chronicle-drama ; and the study of his earlier work thus necessarily involves an inquiry into the extent of his indebtedness to those two writers who, however much he may have bettered their instruction, may without exaggeration be described as his masters in the art of dramatic composition. Again, if we are taking up the study of Paradise Lost, we may begin by reading it as the expression of Milton’s personality and philosophy of life, and viewed historically, as the poetic masterpiece of English puritanism. Having so read it, we may next go on to consider its general qualities as a poem— its imaginative power, descriptive power, dramatic power, its merits and defects as a narrative, the splendour and range of its imagery, the majesty, beauty, and variety of its versification; and so on. But instead of finding that these matters exhaust its critical interest, we shall rather discover, sooner or later, that they lead us on to a different class of questions. Milton’s poem belongs in plan and structure to a particular and well-defined kind of poetry—to the kind which we call ‘epic’ poetry ; it was written by a man of enormous scholarship who sought to make his own work accord with the technical principles of the great epics of classical antiquity, and who not only adopted these as his models, but also drew continually upon them for various details—incidents, metaphors, similes, turns of speech. Paradise Lost has therefore to be studied as an example of the epic ; its plan and composition have to be examined from the standpoint of epic art ; it has in particular to be compared with its acknowledged models. Milton’s indebtedness to literature in a wider sense has also to be considered—to the Bible, the Greek dramatists, Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser ; and while his countless borrowings are duly noted, special attention will have to be paid to the use to which these borrowings are put by “the greatest of plagiarists,” and to the skill with which he adapts them and so makes them his own. In much the same way we may study with almost equal advantage the genealogy and literary antecedents of such poems as The Faery Queene and the Idylls of the King.
Of this more technical kind of literary inquiry, the aspects and bearings of which are manifestly too numerous and varied for anything like exhaustive treatment in so brief a survey as ours, one further illustration may be taken from the plays of Shakespeare.
If we are dealing with King John, Macbeth, Julius Cæar, Othello, As You Like It, our first business will of course be with these dramas themselves and as they stand—with the finished products of the master’s genius and skill ; and if we choose, we may continue to regard them in their completed state only, and to set at nought all questions which would carry us beyond the finished product into considerations of genesis, external history, matter, technique. But when we have once become deeply interested in Shakespeare and his art, we shall certainly find ourselves tempted to give such questions at least a share of our attention. Even in the smallest details of his method—in such recondite problems, for example, as those of his management of the element of dramatic time, and the significance of the alternations of verse and prose in the dialogue of most of his plays—we shall discover something which will repay exploration ; while a specially attractive and fertile field of study will be opened up in the comparison of the dramas as we have them with the raw material out of which they were made. Shakespeare, as every one knows, rarely troubled himself to devise a plot outright, but commonly helped himself freely to such themes and incidents, wherever found, as he felt he could turn to good service. Thus King John is a rifacimento of an older play, Macbeth is based on the narrative of Holinshed’s Chronicles, Julius Caesar on Plutarch’s lives of Brutus, Cæsar, and Antony, Othello on an Italian novella, As You Like It on a prose romance. As in each of these cases Shakespeare worked in the main on themes and characters which he had taken our from others, the question of his manipulation of his borrowed subjects is one which it is scarcely possible to avoid. Here and there a reader may perhaps be inclined to object that this question has really nothing to do with the study of Shakespeare himself, and that our real business should be with the plays, with what we have termed the finished products, and not with the details of their composition. But to this objection a two fold answer may be returned. In the first place, the study of Shakespeare’s use of his sources—the consideration of what he did with the stories he chose for dramatic treatment, how he adapted them to his own purposes, where he changed, what he omitted, what he added—must be in itself extremely interesting and suggestive, for so we may get very close indeed to the principles which governed his workmanship and the self-imposed laws which he obeyed. And secondly, such a study must of necessity throw a flood of fresh light on the plays themselves and therefore increase greatly our intelligent enjoyment of them. To follow Shakespeare in his transformation—often little less than miraculous—of the rough material on which he worked, to note the results of his humanising touch upon it, to be led in this way to appreciate his psychological insight and his technical skill ; all this is not merely to gratify our curiosity in regard to questions which might just as well be left alone, and it is certainly not to be misled from the true highway of literary study into narrow bypaths of pedantic investigation. It is one of the best of all possible helps to the real comprehension of Shakespeare’s greatness, and therefore one of the best of all possible ways to get into vital contact with the essential principles of his art.
Twice already we have spoken of the study of style, dealing with its interest first on the personal side and then on the historical side. We have now to add that there is a third way in which style may be studied and to which we are brought round by the view of literature as an art, which we are now emphasising—the technical or rhetorical way. That this way will have much attraction for the general student of literature in contradistinction to the rhetorical specialist, I do not suggest. Yet even for the general student it should not be without its value. Experts, leaving out of the discussion all question of that purely personal quality which, as we conceive it, is fundamental, have drawn up for us various lists of the elements which should combine in the making of a good style. There are the intellectual elements— the precision which arises from the right use of the right words ; the lucidity which results from the proper disposition of such proper words in the formation of sentences ; propriety, or the harmony which should exist between the thing said and the phrasing of it ; and so on. There are the emotional elements of force, energy, suggestiveness, or the elements by which a writer conveys not only his thought but his feeling, stimulating in his reader sentiments and passions akin to his own, and calling up vivid pictures of things he wishes his reader to see with him. There are the aesthetic elements of music, grace, beauty, charm, which make a style a pleasure in itself apart from the thought and feeling of which it may be the vehicle. This kind of analysis might of course be carried to almost any extent, but to pursue it further would be to overpass the line of demarcation which, wherever it is drawn, has to be drawn somewhere between the study of literature and the study of rhetoric. How far in our own study of literature we may find it profitable to apply to the style of any great writer the abstract standards which the rhetorician proposes, is a question which must be left to each individual student to decide for himself. But it should be evident that if the rhetorician, looking at style simply as style, undertakes to analyse its elements and to estimate its merits and shortcomings without reference to the personality behind it, we, as students of literature, are not called upon, nor are we in the least likely, to do so. For us, the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic qualities of any man’s writings will relate themselves at bottom to all the personal qualities of his genius and character ; and thus the technical study of his style will become an aid in our more systematic study of the individuality embodied in his work.
This remark suggests the important general principle that though the study of literary technique is in the hands of scholastic critics too often divorced from the study of literature in its personal and historical aspects, it need not and should not be so divorced. If the art of literature may be taken by itself as subject-matter for analysis and discussion, it can also be connected directly with the substance and human meaning of literature, and indeed treated as supplementary to these. In this way, while, as we have said, everything connected with workmanship—method, treatment, form, style—may be considered for the interest they possess for their own sakes, it is not for their own sakes only that we shall be contented to consider them. In fact, the further we go with our own study the more keenly we shall be likely to feel that any attempt to separate the art of literature from the life of literature must, both from the side of the art and from the side of the life, be unsatisfactory.
To this consideration another of even greater importance has to be added. The art of the artist is to hide the art, and the business of the critic is to find it again. But we must be on our guard lest in our search for the art the true results of the art may be lost for us. Analysis must not be allowed to outrun its proper purpose and to become an end in itself ; if we are right in considering how a great piece of literature has come to be what it is, it is still with the work as it is that we have mainly to do. To stand before a picture and to forget its totality of quality and effect as a picture in the interest which the method and technique of the painter may arouse, is to confuse the means of artistic study with the end which should always be kept in view. So it is with the study of a piece of literary art ; for here too the ultimate secret of its power over us must be sought in our own personal apprehension, not of the artist’s methods in the creation of its life and beauty, but in the life and beauty themselves. And thus we come round to emphasise once again one of the elementary principles with which we started. Good reading is better than all scholarship, and the cultivation of the art of good reading infinitely more important than all the acquisitions of scholastic learning. The study of literature in all its phases and details may be so planned and conducted as to render our enjoyment of literature ampler and richer. If it does this, its justification of incontestible. If it fails to do this, then, whatever else it accomplishes, it misses its true purpose.