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history of the English-speaking race, the present is an age of political freedom, justice, and humanity.
The age is one of social advancement. It is true that much remains yet to be accomplished. The agitation of social questions makes us observant of existing evils. However much may be lacking in comparison with an ideal condition, there is great improvement in comparison with the past. The facilities of modern manufacture and commerce have greatly multiplied and cheapened the necessities and comforts of life. Wages have increased. The poor, as well as the rich, live better than ever before.
With increased intelligence, the popular taste has become more refined. Amusements have become less coarse and brutal. Public libraries and museums give the laboring classes the means of intellectual culture and refined enjoyment. Machinery has decreased the amount of drudgery. The hours of work have been shortened. Children are protected from the cruelty of parents and the inhumanity of employers. A great levelling process is lessening the inequalities of social condition. Serfs and slaves are things of the past.
The religious advancement of the time is specially noteworthy. Christian doctrines have felt the touch of a broadened culture and a scientific spirit. Superstition has become a thing of the past. The emphasis of religious teaching is now centred upon fundamental truths. We understand more clearly the nature and the works of God. A new life, begotten and sustained by Christianity, receives increased emphasis. Piety in the daily life is considered of more importance than the formal acceptance of elaborate creeds. Christ has become more and more the conscious ideal of the world. The ascetic spirit has
given place to an active spirit that bravely meets the duties of every-day life.
Religion never had greater power. Its principles pervade every department of life. Christian churches are multiplied; religious literature is widely extended; the Bible is more carefully studied. The asperities of religious sects are softening, and the general tendency is to Christian unity. The Evangelical Alliance and the Young Men's Christian Association are the practical manifestation of the general desire for closer union and co-operation among Christian people.
In accordance with the practical tendencies of the age, religion is more benevolent in its activities. The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man are appreciated as never before. The church is active in missionary work at home and abroad. It is foremost in every work that seeks to relieve the unfortunate and reclaim the lost. It seeks to bring a pure and benevolent spirit to the settlement of the great social and political problems of the day.
Literature, in sympathy with the intellectual movements of the age, has shown a many-sided activity. It is at once creative and diffusive. Both prose and poetry have been cultivated to an extraordinary degree. Old forms of literature have been expanded, and new forms devised to contain the rich intellectual fruitage of the present century. In style there has been a return to nature; at the same time there has been an artistic finish unknown in previous eras.
With the establishment of many periodicals, essay writing has attained a new importance and excellence. In the days of Addison and Johnson, the essay was devoted
chiefly to brief discussions of light social and moral topics. It is different now. In the form of reviews and magazine articles, the essay deals with every subject of interest or importance. The scholar, the scientist, the philosopher, the historian, — each uses the periodical press to set forth the results of his studies and investigations. The cream of human thought and activity is contained in our leading magazines and reviews. Without an acquaintance with their contents, it is difficult to keep abreast with the times.
A notable advance is discernible in the writing of history. Greater prominence is given to the social condition. of the people. The sources of information have been greatly enlarged, and historians are expected to base their statements on trustworthy data. Besides, a philosophy of history has been recognized. Greater attention is given to the moving causes of events, and to the general tendencies in national life. With this greater trustworthiness and more philosophic treatment, history has lost nothing of its excellence of style. If it has given up the uniform stateliness of Robertson and Gibbon, it has become more graphic, more varied, and more interesting.
No other department of literature has shown a richer development during the present century than fiction. It occupies the place filled by the drama during the Elizabethan period. The plot is skilfully conducted; the characters represent every class of society; the thoughts are often the deepest of which our nature is capable. Fiction is no longer simply a means of amusement. Without laying aside its artistic character, it has become in great measure didactic. In the form of historical romance, it seeks to reproduce in a vivid manner the thoughts, feelings, and customs of other ages. The novel of contem
porary life often-holds up to view the foibles and vices of modern society. In many cases fiction is made the means of popularizing various social, religious, and political views.
The many changes in politics, science, and religion have produced a notable change in poetry. The poetic imagery inherited from Greece and Rome has been swept away. Modern science has been too strong for the mythology of the ancients.
Yet the general effect upon poetry of the modern scientific spirit has been salutary. While it has swept away what was unessential and temporary, it has led the way to deeper verities. Poetry now penetrates more deeply into the secrets of human nature and of the physical universe. The revolutionary social and political ideas, with which the century opened, have likewise proved favorable to poetry. For a time, as in Shelley and Byron. it resulted in productions outrageously hostile to existing institutions. But after a time the perturbed current of poetry began to run clear, and it was seen to have gained in volume and power. Throwing aside its anarchical tendencies, it became the advocate of justice, freedom, and truth.
With clearer views of divine truth, poetry has gained in geniality, and in power to reach the profound spiritual part of man. The hardness of Puritanic asceticism has been laid aside. In Christian lyrics of unsurpassed sweetness, poetry breathes the spirit of divine and human love; and in elegies, it draws strength and comfort from the deepest resources of philosophy and inspiration.
While in large measure realistic, poetry has not cast aside its ideal character. Modern progress in culture has
placed it on a high vantage ground far in advance of all the preceding ages; and from this new position, its penetrating vision pierces farther into the realms of unexplored and undiscovered truth. With its present expansion in thought and feeling, poetry has naturally assumed new forms. While in dramatic poetry there is a humiliating decay in comparison with the Elizabethan era, yet in lyric, narrative, and didactic poetry we find almost unrivalled excellence. With naturalness of form and expression, there is a careful and conscientious workmanship not found in previous periods.