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A Literary History of America


LITERATURE, like its most excellent phase, poetry, has never been satisfactorily defined. In essence it is too subtle, too elusive, too vital, to be confined within the limits of phrase. Yet everybody vaguely knows what it is. Everybody knows that human life, in its endless, commonplace, unfathomable complexity, impresses human beings in ways which vary not only with individuals, but with the generations and the nations. Somewhere in the oldest English writings there is an allegory which has never faded. Of a night, it tells us, a little group was gathered about the fireside in a hall where the Aicker of flame cast light on some and threw others into shadow, but none into shadow so deep as the darkness without. And into the window from the midst of the night Aew a swallow lured by the light; but unable by reason of his wildness to linger among men, he sped across the hall and so out again into the dark, and was seen no more. To this day, as much as when the old poet first saw or fancied it, the swallow's Aight remains an image of earthly life. From whence we know not, we come into the wavering light and gusty warmth of this world; but here the law of our being forbids that we remain. A little we may see, fancying that we understand, - the hall, the lords and the servants, the chimney and the feast; more we may feel, – the light and the warmth, the safety and the danger, the hope and the dread. Then we must forth again, into the voiceless, unseen eternities. But the fleeting moments of life, like the swallow's Aight once more, are not quite voiceless; as surely as he may twitter in the ears of men, so men themselves may give sign to one another of what they think they know, and of what they know they feel. More too ; men have learned to record these signs, so that long after they are departed, others may guess what their life meant. These records are often set forth in terms which may be used only by those of rarely special gift and training, - the terms of architecture and sculpture, of painting and music; but oftener and more freely they are phrased in the terms which all men learn somehow to use, -- the terms of language. Some of these records, and most, are of so little moment that they are soon neglected and forgotten; others, like the fancied story of the swallow, linger through the ages. It is to these that we give

the name of literature. Literature is the lasting expression in ✓ words of the meaning of life.

Any definition is the clearer for examples. To make sure of ours, then, we may well recall a few names which undoubtedly illustrate it. The Psalms are literature, so is the Iliad, so are the Epistles of Saint Paul, so is the Æneid, and the Divine Comedy, and Don Quixote, and Hamlet. These few names are enough to remind us not only of what literature is, but also of the fact which most distinguishes it from other arts of expression. The lines and colours which embody architecture, sculpture, and painting, can be understood by anybody with eyes. Though to people like ourselves, who have grown up amid the plastic traditions of classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, an Egyptian painting or a Japanese print looks odd, it remains, even to us, comprehensible. The Psalms, on the other hand, were written in Hebrew, the Iliad and the Epistles in dialects of Greek, the Æneid was written in Latin, the Divine Comedy in Italian, Don Quixote in Spanish, and Hamlet in Elizabethan English; except through the unsatisfactory medium of translation one and all must be sealed books to those who do not know the languages native to the men who phrased them. World-old legends, after all, are the wisest; the men who fled from Babel could each see in the deserted tower a monument of impious aspiration, but this thought of each was sealed from the rest by the confusion of tongues. So to this day literature is of all fine arts the most ineradicably national.

Here again we come to a word so simple and so frequent that an important phase of its meaning is often overlooked. Nationality is generally conceived to be a question of race, of descent, of blood; and yet in human experience there is a circumstance perhaps more potent in binding men together than any physical tie. That old legend of Babel tells the story. The confusion of tongues broke every bond of common kinship; the races which should hold together through the centuries sprang afresh from men who newly spoke and newly thought and newly felt in terms of common language. For these languages which we speak grow more deeply than anything else to be a part of our mental habit who use them. It is in terms of language that we think even about the commonplaces of life, - what we shall eat, what we shall wear, whom we shall care for; in terms of language too, and in no others, we formulate the ideals which consciously, and perhaps still more unconsciously, guide our conduct and our aspirations. In a strange, subtle way each language grows to associate with itself the ideals and the aspirations and the fate of those peoples with whose life it is inextricably intermingled.

Languages grow and live and die in accordance with laws of their own, not perfectly understood, which need not now detain us.

This English of ours, with which alone we are immediately concerned, may be taken as typical. Originating, one can hardly say precisely when or how, from the union and confusion of older tongues, it has struggled through the infantile diseases of dialect, each of which has left some trace, until long ago it not only had become the sole means of expression for millions of people, but also had assumed the literary form which now makes its literature in some respects the most considerable of modern times. Whatever else, this literature is the most spontaneous, the least formal and conscious, the

most instinctively creative, the most free from the rankness v and the debility of extreme culture, and so seemingly the most

normal. Its earliest forms were artless ; songs and sayings began to stray from oral tradition into written record, laws were sometimes phrased and chronicles made in the robust young terms which carried meaning to unlearned folks as well as to those versed in more polite tongues. By and by came forms of literature which at least comparatively were artistic, influenced by an impulse of writers and of readers too towards expression for expression's sake. The earliest of these which has lasted in general literary memory reached its height in the work of Chaucer. After his time came a century or more of civil disturbance, when Englishmen were too busy with wars of the Roses and the like for further progress in the arts of peace. Then, with the new national integrity which grew under the Tudors, came a fresh and stronger literary impulse, unsurpassed in vigorous spontaneity.

In 1575 there was hardly such a thing as modern English literature; in 1625 that great body of English literature which we call Elizabethan was complete. Fifty years had given us not only incomparable lyric verse and the final version of the Bible, but the work too of Spenser, of Shakspere and the other great dramatists, of Hooker, of Ralegh, of Bacon, and of all their fellows. Among these, of course, Shakspere stands supreme, just as Chaucer stood among his contemporaries whose names are now forgotten by all but special scholars; and one feature of Shakspere’s supremacy is that his literary career was normal. Whoever has followed it from his experimental beginning, through the ripeness to which he brought comedy, history, and tragedy alike, to its placid close amid the growing languor of freshly established tradition, will have learned some

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