Brander Matthews.

Gateways to literature, and other essays online

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'Books by Grander Matthews:

French Dramatists of the igth Century
Pen and Ink, Essays on subjects of more

or less importance

Aspects of Fiction, and other Essays
The Historical Novel, and other Essays
Parts of Speech, Essays on English
The Development of the Drama
Inquiries and Opinions
The American of the Future, and other


Moliere, His Life and His Works
Gateways to Literature, and other Essays
Shakspere as a Playwright ( preparation)

Moliere, His Life and His Works








Copyright, 1912, by

Published September, 1912







I Gateways to Literature 3

II The Economic Interpretation of

Literary History 35

III In Behalf of the General Reader . . 59

IV The Duty of Imitation ....... 77

V The Devil's Advocate 93

V I Literary Criticism and Book-Reviewing 1 1 5

VII Familiar Perse 39

VIII French Poets and English Readers . 189

IX A Note on Anatole France .... 207

X Poe's Cosmopolitan Fame .... 225

XI Fenimore Cooper 2 43

XII Bronson Howard 2 79


[This address was delivered at Columbia University on Octo-
ber 13, 1909, as the first of a series of Lectures on Literature.]




TWO winters ago Columbia University in-
vited its teaching staff, its students and its
friends to a series of lectures which set forth the
essential quality and the existing condition of
each of the several sciences ; and today Columbia
University begins another series of lectures de-
voted to a single one of the arts, the art of Lit-
erature. In the opening decade of this twentieth
century, when the triumphs of Science are exul-
tant on all sides of us, there would be a lack of
propriety in failing to acknowledge its power and
its authority; and a grosser failure would follow
any attempt to set up Art as a rival over against
Science. Art and Science have each of them
their own field; they have each of them their own
work to do; and they are not competitors but
colleags in the service of humanity, responding
to different needs. Man cannot live by Science
alone, since Science does not feed the soul; and
it is Art which nourishes the heart of man. Sci-


ence does what it can; and Art does what it
must. Science takes no thought of the individ-
ual; and individuality is the essence of Art. Sci-
ence seeks to be impersonal and it is ever
struggling to cast out what it calls the personal
equation. Art cherishes individuality and is what
it is because of the differences which distinguish
one man from another, and therefore the loftiest
achievements of art are the result of the personal
equation raised to its highest power.

Of all the liberal arts Literature is the oldest, as
it is the most immediate in its utility and the
broadest in its appeal. Better than any of its
sisters is it fitted to fulfil the duty of making man
familiar with his fellows and of explaining him
to himself. It may be called the most significant
of the arts, because every one of us, before we
can adjust ourselves to the social order in which
we have to live, must understand the prejudices
and desires of others and also the opinions these
others hold about the world wherein we dwell.
Literature alone can supply this understanding.
The other arts bring beauty into life and help to
make it worth living; but since mankind came
down from the family-tree of its arboreal ances-
tors, it is Literature which has made life possible.
It is the swiftest and the surest aid to a wide un-
derstanding of others and to a deep understand-
ing of ourselves. It gives us not only knowledge


but wisdom ; and thereby it helps to free us from
vain imaginings as to our own importance. Ig-
norance is always conceited, since it never knows
that it knows nothing; and even knowledge may
be puft up on occasion, since it knows that it
knows many things; but wisdom is devoid of
illusion, since it knows how little it ever can

The poet Blake it was who declared that we
never know enough unless we know more than
enough; and who of us is ever likely to attain
to that altitude of comprehension ? After all,
even the most protracted investigation of fact
and the most incessant meditation on truth must
be circumscribed by the brief radius of human
knowledge. What are threescore years and ten?
What is a century, even? And as time pulses
by, ever quickening its pace, we are often tempted
to echo Lowell's envious ejaculation, "What a
lucky dog Methuselah was! Nothing to know,
and nine hundred years to learn it in!"

If Literature is the most venerable of the arts
and if it is the most significant, should it not be
approach! with the outward signs of reverence?
When we stand up here to discuss it, to declare
its importance and to consider its purpose, ought
we not to robe ourselves in stately academic cos-
tume and to don gown and hood that the noble
theme may be dealt with in all outward respect?



Buffon was so possest by the dignity of letters
that he put on his richest garb, with lace ruffles
and gem-studded sword, before he sat him down
at his desk to labor at his monumental work;
and Machiavelli also arrayed himself "in royal,
courtly garments," and thus worthily attired he
made his "entrance into the ancient courts of
the men of old."

But this lordly approach, alluring as it is, is
not imperative, for Literature, lofty as it may be
at times, is not remote and austere. At its best
it is friendly and intimate. It is not for holidays
only and occasions of state; it is for every-day
use. It is not for the wise and the learned only,
but for all sorts and conditions of men. It provides
the simple ballad and the merry folk-tale that live
by word of mouth generation after generation on
the lonely hillside; and it proffers also the soul-
searching tragedy which grips the masses in the
densely crowded city. It has its message for all,
old and young, rich and poor, educated and ig-
norant; and it is supreme only as it succeeds in
widening its invitation to include us all. At one
moment it brings words of cheer to the weak-
kneed and the down-hearted; and at another it
stirs the strong like the blare of the bugle. It
has as many aspects as the public has many
minds. It is sometimes to be recaptured only by
diligent scholarship out of the dust of the ages;


and it is sometimes to be discovered amid the
fleeting words lavishly poured out in the books
of the hour, in the magazines and even in the
daily journals. It may be born of a chance oc-
casion and yet worthy to survive thru the long
ages the Gettysburg address, for example, and
the ' Recessional.'

LITERATURE is now what it was in the past, and
it will be in the future what it is now, infinitely
various and unendingly interesting. We can
venture to project the curve of its advance in the
years to come only after we have graspt what it
is today; and we can perceive clearly its full
meaning in our own time only after we have ac-
quainted ourselves with its manifold manifesta-
tions in the centuries that are gone. True is it
that literature is the result of individual effort and
that its sublimest achievements are due to single
genius; and yet it is racial also, and it is always
stampt with the seal of nationality, which is the
sum total of myriads of individuals. Literature
is ever markt with the image and superscription
of the people whose ideas it exprest and whose
emotions it voiced. Races struggle upwards
and establish themselves for a little while and
then sink back helpless; mighty empires rise and


fall, one after another, each believing itself to be
destined to endure; and it is mainly by the litera-
ture they may chance to leave behind them that
they are rescued from oblivion. What do we
really know about Assyria and about Babylon?
Where are the cities of old time ? Why is it that
we can see Sparta only vaguely, while Athens
towers aloft in outline we all recognize? The
massive monuments of Egypt persist thru thou-
sands of years, but the souls of the dwellers in
the valley of the Nile are not known to us as we
know the souls of the Hebrews, whom they took
captive and whose sacred books reveal to us their
uplifting aspirations and their unattained ideals.
We can extract not a little light from the laws of
Rome, but not so much as we can derive from
the minor writings of the Latins; and the code
which is known as the "novels" of Justinian
does not afford us as much illumination as the
realistic fiction of Petronius. The many ruins of
Rome are restored for us and peopled again with
living men and women only when we read the
speeches of Cicero, the lyrics of Horace and the
letters of Pliny.

It is not in the barren annals of a nation that
we can most readily discover the soul of a race.
Rather is it in those lesser works of the several
arts in which the men of old revealed themselves
unconsciously and yet amply. The records of


the historians and the codes of the lawgivers are
assuredly not to be neglected, but they are not
more significant than the unpretending efforts of
forgotten artists, the painters of the Greek
vases, for instance, and the molders of the Tan-
agra figurines. The idyls of Theocritus are not
less illuminating than the orations of Demos-
thenes or the tragedies of /Eschylus.

Literature is precious for its own sake, but it
has ever an added value from the light it cannot
help casting on the manners and the customs
which disclose the indurated characteristics of a
people. The unmistakable flavor of the middle
ages lurks in the etherealized lyrics of the Ger-
man minnesingers no less than in the more mun-
dane fabliaux of the French satirists. We cannot
open a book, even if it shelters only evanescent
fiction aiming solely to amuse an idle hour,
without opening also a window on a civilization
unlike any other; and he would be a traveler of
marvelous ability who could make us as inti-
mately acquainted with the simple rustics of the
Black Forest, with the primitive peasants of Sicily
or with the deserted spinsters of New England
as we find ourselves after we have read a volume
or two by Auerbach, by Verga or by Miss Wil-
kins. Some of us there are who love literature
all the more because it can catch for us this local
color, fixt once for all, and because it can pre-



serve for us this flavor of the soil, this intimate
essence of a special place and of a special period.
"The real literature of an epoch," so Renan
declared, "is that which paints and expresses it,"
and such is the real literature of a race also. Per-
haps the epoch is most completely painted and
exprest when the author is interpreting the life
that is seething about him, dealing directly with
what he knows best, as Plautus has preserved for
us the very aroma of the teeming tenements of
the Latin metropolis, as Moliere has limned for
us the "best society " of France under Louis XIV,
and as Mark Twain has set before us the simple
ways of the Mississippi river-folk. But, after all,
this does not matter much ; and even if a writer
is handling a theme remote from his own experi-
ence, he is still painting his own epoch and ex-
pressing his own race, altho he may not be aware
of it. Whatever ineffectual effort he may make,
no man can step off his shadow. However vio-
lently he seeks to escape, he is held fast by his
heredity and his environment. ' Hamlet ' is a
tale of Denmark, ' Romeo and Juliet' is a tale of
Italy, and 'Julius Caesar' is a tale of ancient
Rome, but Shakspere himself was an Eliza-
bethan Englishman; and these tragic master-
pieces of his were possible only in the scepter'd
isle set in the silver sea in the spacious days of
the Virgin Queen. Racine borrowed his stories



from Euripides, persuading himself that he had
been able to make the old Greek drama live
again ; but his ' Phedre ' and his ' Andromaque ' are
French none the less and they are stampt with
the date of the seventeenth century. So abso-
lutely do they belong to the period and to the
place of their author that Taine insisted that these
tragedies of Racine could best be performed in
the court-costumes and in the full-bottomed wigs
of the reign of Louis XIV, since only thus could
they completely justify themselves.


THIS intimate essence of nationality is evident
not only in the thoughts that sustain the work
of the artist and in the emotions by which he
moves us, it may be discovered also in his style,
in his use of words to phrase his thoughts and
to voice his emotion, in the pattern of his com-
position and in the rhythm of his sentences.
The way in which he links paragraph to para-
graph may lead us back to his birthplace and the
stock from which he sprang. We can catch the
accent of his ancestors in the rise and fall of his
periods; and sometimes it seems almost as tho
his many forefathers were making use of him as
their amanuensis.

Consider Shakspere and Bacon, and set them



over against each other. They were contempo-
rary Englishmen, alike and yet unlike, alert and
intelligent, energetic and wise, both of them, yet
with a different wisdom, masters of expression
each in his own fashion, and possest of the in-
terpreting imagination. When our attention is
called to it by Mr. Havelock Ellis, we cannot
fail to find that Shakspere, "with his gay ex-
travagance and redundancy, his essential ideal-
ism, came of a people that had been changed in
character from the surrounding stock by a Cel-
tic infolding," and that Bacon, "with his in-
stinctive gravity and temperance, the supprest
ardor of his aspiring intellectual passion, his tem-
peramental naturalism, was rooted deep in that
East Anglian soil which he had never so much
as visited."

To seek to seize these subtler differences, due
not so much to nationality as to provinciality, if
the word may be thus applied, is not to inquire
too curiously, for it is to advance in knowledge
and to draw a little nearer to that secret of genius
which must remain ever the inexplicable result
of the race, the individual, and the opportunity.
There is not a little significance in Mr. Ellis's sug-
gestion that we can perceive in the pages of Haw-
thorne a glamor of which "the latent aptitude
had been handed on by ancestors who dwelt on
the borders of Wales," whereas Renan came



from a family of commingled Gascon and Breton
descent, so that "in the very contour and melody
of his style the ancient bards of Brittany have
joined hands with the tribe of Montaigne and
Brantome." It was Comte who declared that
"humanity is always made up of more dead than

There is significance also in the fact that the
most of the major writers of Latin literature were
not Romans by birth and that not a few of them
were Spaniards, Seneca for one and Martial for
another. Petronius was possibly a Parisian; and
the mother of Boccaccio was probably a French
woman. It is to be noted also that Ruteboeuf,
Villon, Regnier, Scarron, Moliere, Boileau, La
Bruyere, Regnard, Voltaire, Beaumarchais, Be-
ranger, and Labiche were all of them natives of
Paris. Who can dispute the deduction that cer-
tain of the dominant characteristics of French
literature may be due to the circumstance that so
many of its leaders were born in the streets of
the city by the Seine? May not this be one of
the causes of that constant urbanity which is the
distinguishing note of the best French authors?
May it not be one of the reasons for that unfail-
ing regard for his readers and that incessant ef-
fort to gage their capacity which possess the
French men of letters?

That accomplisht scholar, Gaston Boissier, did



not hesitate to assert that he wrote not for his
fellow-investigators, but for the general reader.
This is what all French authors have done when
they have preserved the true Parisian tradition.
They have willingly renounced overt individual-
ity and they have shrunk from a self-expression
which they could not transmit without the risk
of shocking or at least, of annoying those to
whom they were talking, pen in hand. They
accepted the wholesome restraints of the rules of
art, which, so M. Faguet has maintained, "are
all of them counsels of perfection, allowing every
exception which good taste will justify, from
which it results that the one important rule is to
have good taste. " The value of good taste in liter-
ature will be strikingly revealed to any one who
comes from the profitable pleasure of reading
Boissier's ' End of Paganism, ' with its rich scholar-
ship, its large and penetrating wisdom, its gentle
urbanity and its ripe ease of style, to take up Pater's
'Plato and Platonism,' thin and brittle in its tem-
per, artificial and affected in its manner, and, in
a word, self-conscious and berouged. Still may
we hail France in the words of the Scotchman,

At tu, beata Gallia,
Salve, bonarum blanda nutrix artium.



THERE is ever profit in this effort to seize the
potent influence of heredity and environment
even upon the genius who may seem at first
glance to be the least controlled in the exuber-
ance of his personality. We have graspt a true
talisman of artistic appreciation when we com-
pare the practical common sense and the aus-
tere gravity of the Roman with the inexhaust-
ible curiosity and the open-minded intelligence
of the Greek, and when we contrast the restrain-
ing social instinct of the French with the domi-
neering energy of the English. But however
interesting may be this endeavor to perceive the
race behind the individual and to force it to help
explain him, there are other ways not less in-
structive of seeking an insight into literature.

We can confine our attention, if we please, to
a chosen few of the greatest writers, the men of
an impregnable supremacy. We can neglect the
minor writings even of these masters to center
our affections on their acknowledged master-
pieces. We may turn aside from the authors
individually, however mighty they may be, and
from their several works, however impressive,
to consider the successive movements which one
after the other have changed the stream of liter-


ature, turning it into new channels and sweep-
ing along almost every man of letters, powerless
to withstand the current. We may perhaps pre-
fer to abandon the biographical aspects of litera-
ture to investigate its biological aspects and to
consider the slow differentiation of the several
literary species, history from the oration, for ex-
ample, and the drama from the lyric. Or, finally,
we may find interest in tracing the growth of
those critical theories about literary art which
have helped and which have hindered the free
expansion of the author's genius at one time or
at another. There are many different ways of
penetrating within the open portals of literature.
All of them are inviting; all of them will lead a
student to a garden of delight; and which one
of them a man may choose will depend on his
answer to the question whether he is more in-
terested in persons, or in things, or in ideas.

There is unfading joy in a lasting friendship
with a great writer, whether it is Aristotle, "the
master of all that know," or Sophocles, who
"saw life steadily and saw it whole," or Dante,
who "wandered thru the realms of gloom," or
Milton, the "God-given organ-voice of England."
Such a friendship brings us close to a full mind
and to a noble soul. And such a friendship can
be had only in return for loyal service, for a
strenuous resolve to spare nothing needed for full


appreciation of the master's genius. A friendly
familiarity with an author of cosmopolitan fame
can be achieved only by wide wanderings to and
fro here and therein the long centuries in search
of the predecessors whom he followed, the con-
temporaries to whom he addrest his message,
and the successors who followed the path he had
been the first to tread. Wisely selected, by an
honest exercise of our own taste, a single author
may serve as a center of interest for the loving
study of a lifetime. Lowell found that his pro-
found admiration for Dante pleasantly persuaded
him to studies and explorations of which he little
dreamt when he began. A desire to understand
Moliere will lead an admirer of that foremost of
comic dramatists to investigate the history of
comedy in Greece and Rome, in Spain and Italy,
and to trace out the enduring influence of the
great French playwright on the later comedy of
France, England and Germany; it will also tempt
him into unexpected by-paths, whereby he may
acquire information about topics seemingly as
remote as the Jesuit methods of education, as
Gassendi's revival of the atomic theories of Lu-
cretius, and as the practice of medicine in the
seventeenth century.

Closely akin to this devotion to one of the
mighty masters of literature is the concentration
of our interest on a single literary masterpiece.


We may prefer to fill our ears with "the surge
and thunder of the Odyssey " or to recall the in-
terlinked tales "of the golden prime of good
Haroun al Raschid." We may find ample satis-
faction in following the footsteps of one or an-
other of the largely conceived cosmopolitan
characters, figures which have won favor far
beyond the borders of their birthplace. Some of
these heroic strugglers live only in the language
which they lispt at first, while others have gone
forth to wander from one land, one literature, one
art, that they may tarry awhile in other lands,
other literatures and other arts.

After all his travels Ulysses abides with his own
people; the gaunt profile of Don Quixote still
projects itself against the sharp hills of Spain;
and Falstaff is at home only in the little island
where he blustered boldly and breezily. But
Faust is a seedling of one soil transplanted into
another where he struck down deeper roots only
to tower aloft again in the land of his origin.
And Don Juan, the lyrical hero of a mystical Span-
ish legend, tarried in Italy, before he was re-
ceived in France, where he was transformed into
the implacable portrait of "a great lord who is a
wicked man." And from the French drama ' Don
Juan ' strays into English poetry and into German
music; so Faust, born obscurely in Germany,
has ventured from English poetry into German


drama and French music. It is well for the arts
that there is and always has been free trade in
their raw materials and that no custom-house can
take toll on the ideas which one nation sends to
another to be workt up into finisht products.
From race to race, from century to century, from
art to art, there is unceasing interchange of intel-
lectual commodities; and no inspired statistician
can strike the balance of this international trade
whereby men are enabled to nourish their souls.
Nor are these brave figures the sole travelers
whose wanderings we may trace from one liter-
ature to another, subduing their native accents to
new tongues. Even humbler characters may
bear a charmed life; and the intriguing slave of
Greek comedy was taken over by the Latins, to
revive after a slumber of more than a thousand
years in the Italian comedy-of-masks and in the
Spanish comedy of cloak-and-sword, from which
he slept forth gaily to disguise himself as the
Mascarille and the Scapin of Moliere, and as the
Figaro of Beaumarchais, of Mozart, and of Rossini.

ALTHO many lovers of letters may be tempted
to devote themselves mainly to the masters and
to the masterpieces of literature and to the peren-
nial types which literature has seen fit to pre-



serve thru the ages, there are other students who
will find their profit in fixing their attention
rather on the several movements which have
modified literary endeavor. Even today one can-
not help perceiving the persistence of the irre-

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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsGateways to literature, and other essays → online text (page 1 of 15)