Abbildungen der Seite

the general character of the age in which he lived, and the physical and social conditions by which he was surrounded. The relation between literature and history is very intimate.

The human family is divided into several races, which are distinguished from one another by different physical and mental characteristics. The Caucasian is clearly distinguishable from the African, not only by his fairer skin and straighter hair, but also by his superior intellectual powers. Within the same race we discover similar, though less clearly marked, differences. Apart from noticeable physical differences, the Teuton, with his serious, reflective, persistent temper, is quite unlike the Celt, with his vivacity, wit, and ready enthusiasm. No two nations are exactly alike in form and in mind. These differences, wherever found, are naturally reflected in literature, which is the expression of the life of the soul.

Every age has its peculiar interests, culture, and tendencies. With the ancient Jewish nation, religion was a predominant interest. In the Elizabethan Age, culture was far more general than at the period of the Norman Conquest. The present century is characterized by its democratic tendencies. Whatever may be the epoch, its peculiarities will inevitably be reflected in its literary productions. An acquaintance with the general character of an age gives a deeper insight into its literature.

The third formative influence in literature is environment or the prevailing physical and social conditions. The literature produced in the presence of a sterile soil and rigorous climate is different in tone and color from that produced in the midst of fruitful fields and under sunny skies; and, in like manner, its quantity and quality are affected, to a greater or less degree, by a state of war or peace, intelligence or ignorance, wealth or poverty, freedom or persecution.

But it is a mistake to suppose that race, epoch, and surroundings will explain everything in literature. There is a personal element of great importance. From time to time, men of great genius appear, and rising by native strength high above the level of their age, become centres of a new and mighty influence in literature. This truth is exemplified by Homer in Greece, Luther in Germany, and Chaucer in England, each of whom exerted an incalculable influence upon the subsequent literary development of his country.

The word literature, which up to this point has been used in its large, general sense, has also a restricted meaning, which it is important to understand, and with which we are principally concerned in this work. In any literary production we may distinguish between the thoughts that are presented, and the manner in which they are presented. We may say, for example, “The sun is rising ;' or, ascending to a higher plane of thought and feeling, we may present the same fact in the language of Thomson :

“But yonder comes the powerful King of Day,
Rejoicing in the east. The lessening cloud,
The kindling azure, and the mountain's brow
Illumed with Auid gold, his near approach
Betoken glad."

It is thus apparent that the interest and value of literature are largely dependent upon the manner or form in which the facts are presented. In its restricted sense, literature includes only those works which are polished or artistic in form. Poetry, fiction, essays, and oratory are its principal forms, though history and scientific treatises often reach an excellence that makes them literature in the narrower sense. The classic works of a literature are those which present ideas of general and permanent interest in a highly finished or artistic manner.

The importance of literature, both in its larger and its narrower sense, can hardly be over-estimated. Books are the treasure-houses, in which the intellectual riches of all past ages have been permanently stored. Literature is our principal means of acquiring a knowledge of the achievements of our race, and of rising to the highest plane of intellectual and spiritual culture. By means of literature we reach beyond the narrow limits of our own life and experience, and appropriate the best intellectual and spiritual results of all ages and all civilized peoples.

Literature is a great force in the world. “Books," as Milton said, “are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” Many of the great religious, social, and political movements of the Christian era have stood in close relation to literature. The Christian church to-day owes its development and character chiefly to the writings of the New Testament. The great intellectual movement of the fifteenth century, to which we give the name of Renaissance, was largely due to a revived study of the literary treasures of ancient Greece. The American and French revolutions at the close of the last century owed their origin and vitality, in no small degree, to the views of human rights previously promulgated in the writings of a few clear-sighted patriots and philosophers; and to-day the power of literature is so generally recognized that every party, sect, or organization deems it necessary to have its printed organ, and to promulgate its views through tracts and books.

It is not easy to acquire the literary taste that is satisfied only with what is excellent in thought and expression. Good taste in literature is a combination of adequate knowledge, delicate feeling, and sound judgment. It goes hand in hand with general culture. Natural gifts facilitate its acquirement, but in every case it is the result of extensive reading and careful study. The guiding hand of a competent teacher is at first almost indispensable. Our great writers, almost without exception, serve a long apprenticeship. As in the acquisition of language, it is necessary to begin with what is simple and easy. We rise to the mountain summits of thought and feeling, as to the summit of the Alps, by slow and laborious steps.

The history of English literature, following the development of the English language, may be divided into three general periods :

1. The Old English or Anglo-Saxon Period, extending approximately from 500 to 1066 A.D., the date of the Norman Conquest. The literature of this period is written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, with very little admixture with other languages.

2. The Middle English or Formative Period, extending approximately from 1066 to 1400, the date of Chaucer's death. This period is characterized by the loss of Old English inflections, and by the introduction of a large French element through the Norman Conquest.

3.. The Modern English Period, extending approximately from 1400 to the present time. It is characterized by the fixed forms of our expanded language, and by its varied and unsurpassed literature. It is subdivided, as will be hereafter noted, into several subordinate periods, according to the literary or social movements of the time.

« ZurückWeiter »