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religion has become 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 prominent in every work that seeks to relieve the unfortunate and reclaim the lost. The treatment of the unfortunate and the criminal classes is more humane. The insane are no longer chained in loathsome cells, the unfortunate debtor is not thrown into jail, the petty criminal is not hanged. The church seeks to bring a pure and benevolent spirit to the settlement of the great social and political problems of the day.
The foregoing survey of present conditions, as they exist in England and elsewhere, enables us to understand more fully the literary character of the Victorian Age. It will be recognized that this period has been exceedingly favorable to general literature. The rich and varied life of the English people has been reflected in their writing. If we seek to characterize this period on its literary side, we may designate it as creative and diffusive. New fields of thought have been opened up; new questions have been brought before society; and the interests of life — social, religious, industrial, scientific have been enormously multiplied. Never before, if we except the drama, was English literature so rich and so varied. In style there has been a return to nature; at the same time there has been an artistic finish, particularly in prose, 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. The great critics of the Age of Scott were usually ponderous. But at present, in the form of popular 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. Our leading magazines and reviews register the successive stages of human progress; and without an acquaintance with their contents, it is difficult to keep fully 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 period 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 contemporary 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.
During the Victorian Age there has been a notable reaction, generally called realism, against the romanticism of the earlier part of the century. The scientific spirit of the time became dissatisfied with the fanciful pictures of past ages and with the impossibilities of wild romance. Realism, as the term indicates, adheres to reality. Discarding what is idealistic or unreal in characters and situations, it aims at being true to life. All the greatest novelists of this period- Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot were, in the best sense of the word, realists. Their works present a striking contrast with those of Scott, who was the prince of romanticists.
As an effort to represent life as it is, we must acknowledge the worth of realism. In its proper application, it places the novel on an immovable basis. Like Shakespeare's plays, it holds the mirror up to nature. Unfortunately, the realistic writers have not, in many cases, been true to their fundamental principles. The great continental leaders of realism - Tolstoi, Zola, Ibsen - have been tainted with a fatal pessimism. Realists of this type seem to see only one side of life—the darker side of sin, and wretchedness, and despair.
They often descend to what is coarse, impure, obscene. No doubt their pictures are true, as far as they go; but the fatal defect of their work is that it does not reflect life as a whole. It does
not portray the pure and noble and happy side of life, which is just as real as the other.
Except in the hands of genius, realism is apt to be dull. It gives us uninteresting photographs. There are times when we do not so much care for instruction as for amusement and recreation. This fact opens a legitimate field for the imaginative story-teller. There is to-day a decided reaction against realism in the form of what has been called the new romanticism. It does not present to us elaborate studies of life, but entertains us with an interesting or exciting story. The leaders of this movement in England are Doyle, Stevenson, Weyman, and Hope, whose works in recent years have been widely read.
As might be expected from the practical tendencies of the time, poetry is less prominent in literature than in some previous periods. But it has had not a few illustrious devotees, who stand out with prominence in the Victorian era. There are, perhaps, no names that stand higher than those of Tennyson and Browning. Poetry partakes of the many-sided character of the age. While the poetic imagery inherited from Greece and Rome has been swept away by the progress of science, poetry itself has gained in variety and depth. It treats with equal facility the present and the past. It voices the manifold interests and aspirations of the age-social, political, scientific, religious. Never before did the stream of poetry have such volume and power; and if sometimes, as in Clough and Matthew Arnold, it has been lacking in faith and cheer, it has in the main borne to men a message of hope, courage, and truth.
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.