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rsity of Califon
ithern Regional
brary Facility

Eutijor's lEtrtttott

This special edition is limited to One Thousand
numbered Copies. No. v




Thomas Gray.

7bomiis Gray.






Copyright, 1892, 1893, IQOO

All rights reserved

Printed in October 1900










CISM ... 71








Essays in
Literary Interpretation

Chapter I

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

MR. ANDREW LANG, in a re-
cent article on the Greek An-
thology, reminds us that in many of
these fragments of a rich and varied lit-
erature we come upon lines full of the
modern spirit. The large objective man-
ner of the earlier poets has given place
to an introspective mood significant of
a deepening self-consciousness, and the
remote epic themes have been succeeded
by subjects more intimate and personal.
It is true that no period of literature is
wholly destitute of glimpses into famil-
iar life, of disclosures of personal ex-
perience ; but when the epic and the
drama are in the ascendant, these are

Essays in Literary Interpretation

incidental and subordinate. The great
emotions and convictions are presented
in types and symbols ; multitudes of per-
sons are represented by colossal figures,
the range and compass of whose lives
create an impression of universality. The
pyramids are race monuments ; they have
preserved no record of the individual
hardship and sacrifice involved in their
construction. In like manner the Book
of Job, " Prometheus Bound," " CEdipus
Tyrannus," and the " Cid " perpetuate
ages of personal experience and achieve-
ment in commanding types of human
nature. The personal element is the
very substance of which these typical
men and women are formed ; but art
has discarded that which was individual,
in its instinctive search for those quali-
ties which are of universal moment and
significance. The personal element en-
ters as substance, but not as form, in
the earlier literatures; the individual is
of value only as he contributes to those
ideal conceptions which live and act in

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

epic remoteness from common life. The
mountains are of the same substance as
the plain ; but on their summits the
shepherd's pipe is not heard, nor are
the sheep housed there.

We note here one of the most strik-
ing differences between the literature of
comparatively modern origin and that of
earlier periods. The books of this cen-
tury, contrasted with those of preceding
centuries, present a greatly increased
complexity of motives, moods, themes,
situations. Probably not one phase of
experience of any significance has escaped
record at the hands of poet, novelist, es-
sayist, or critic. Never before has there
been such a universal confession of sins
to a confessor devoid of any power of
absolution ; never before such a com-
plete and outspoken revelation of the
things which belong to our most secret
lives. The old declaration that there is
nothing hidden which shall not be re-
vealed is already fulfilled in our hear-
ing. Those of us who read books must

Essays in Literary Interpretation

be slow of mind and of heart if we have
missed a real and vital knowledge of the
age in which, and the men among whom,
we live. An impartial spirit of revela-
tion presides over the world of our time
and uncovers the unclean and the loath-
some as persistently as the pure and the
good. The selective principle of the
older art has given place to a profound
passion for knowledge of life; we are
determined to know what is in man at
all risks to our tastes and our conven-
tional standards. The process is dis-
agreeable, but the fact is significant ; and
we shall make a great mistake if in our
detestation of the methods of some
contemporary writers we refuse to see
the meaning of their appearance and

Literature is so closely related to the
whole movement of life that every de-
cided tendency which it discloses, every
dominant impulse which it reveals, may
be studied with the certainty that some
fact of human experience, some energy

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

of human purpose and desire, lies be-
hind. The reflection of moving , stars
and overhanging trees in the depths of
still waters is not more perfect than the
reproduction of the thoughts and aims
and passions of a generation in the books
it writes and reads. This conception of
the indissoluble union of literature and
life is no longer novel and startling to
us ; but we have so recently come to
understand it that we have not yet fully
grasped all there is in it of suggestive
and fruitful truth. Not until we have
finally and forever abandoned the old
conception of literature as an art con-
formed to certain fixed and final stand-
ards shall we learn the deepest things
which books have to teach us. So long
as we conceive of literature as an art
whose limitations and methods have been
established for all time, we shall have
small comprehension of modern litera-
ture, very imperfect sympathy with it,
and a very inadequate conception of its
meaning and its tendency.

Essays in Literary Interpretation

Compared with the literature of earlier
periods, modern books, as has been said,
show distinctly and obviously an im-
mensely increased complexity of form
and spirit ; the passion for truth and for
expression has become so general and so
powerful that it has burst many ancient
channels and made countless new courses
for itself. Literature to-day tells the
whole truth so far as it knows it ; for-
merly it told only such truths as were con-
sistent with certain theories of art. If
a modern artist were to paint the parting
of Agamemnon and Iphigenia, he would
tell the whole story in the agony of the
father's face ; the Greek artist, on the
other hand, veiled the father's anguish
in order that the high tranquillity of art
might not be disturbed. When Aga-
memnon was murdered, or CEdipus with
his own hand put out his eyes that they
might not be the unwilling witnesses of
his doom, the theatre knew only by re-
port that these events had taken place ;
to-day the whole direful course of the

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

tragedy is wrought out in full view of
the spectators. It may be urged that
this removal of the old limits of proper
representation in art marks a decadence
of the art spirit, a loss of the instinct
which set impalpable bounds to the
work of the imagination. But it is evi-
dent that this expansion of the scope of
artistic representation has not been con-
sciously brought about by men who have
worked to a common end and bequeathed
to their intellectual successors a tradition
of iconoclasm. The change has come
so slowly and so inevitably that it must
be recognised as a universal movement,
the working out of impulses and in-
stincts which are a part of universal hu-
man nature, and, therefore, normal and
necessary. Great literary movements
are never consciously directed ; they are
always the expression through art of
some fresh energy of conviction, some
new and large hope and passion of a
race or an epoch. The general devel-
opment of literature is, therefore, in its

Essays in Literary Interpretation

main directions inevitable and benefi-
cent ; if it were not so, progress would
be a blunder and life a stagnant pool
rather than a running stream.

While there have been periods of de-
cadence, we must assume that the unfold-
ing of the literary power and faculty has
been progressive, and has taken place
under laws whose operation has been
above and beyond human control. Men
have spoken through all the forms of art
thoughts of whose origin and final out-
come they have known as little as one
knows of the ports from which and to
which the vessels sail as they come and
go against the blue of the offing. The
expansion of the field of literature has
not been a matter of choice ; it has been
a matter of necessity, and our chief con-
cern is to accept it as a revelation of the
general order under which we live, and
to seek to understand the meaning of it.
Students of literature know that when
they come upon a period of large and
fruitful activity, they will find the lit-

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

erary movement contemporaneous with
some widespread and vital movement of
thought, some profound stirring of the
depths of popular life. Without the un-
usual enrichment of soil, the sudden and
affluent fertility never takes place. If
the English people had not been charged
with an outpouring of national spirit
strong enough to invigorate English life
from the Strand to the Spanish Main,
the great drama of Shakespeare and his
fellow-craftsmen would not have been
written. If literature has been vastly
extended, it has been because the literary
impulse has made itself more generally
felt. Formerly a few men and women
wrote the books of the world. They
were the voices of a silent world ; as we
listen we seem at first to hear no other
words but theirs. We might hastily
conclude that there were no thoughts in
those old times but those that come to
us from a few lips, musical with an elo-
quence which charms time itself into
silence and memory. These great souls

Essays in Literary Interpretation

must surely have been of other substance
than the countless multitudes who died
and gave no sound ; remote from the
lost and forgotten civilisations which sur-
rounded them, they breathed a larger air
and moved with the gods. But as we
listen more intently and patiently, these
puissant tones seem to issue from a
world-wide inarticulate murmur ; they
are no longer solitary ; they interpret
that which lies unspoken in countless
hearts. How solitary Job sits among
his griefs as we look back upon him !
All the races who dwelt about him have
vanished ; the world of activity and
thought in which he lived has perished
utterly ; but there stands the immortal
singer with that marvellous song,
"sublime sorrow, sublime reconciliation ;
oldest choral melody as of the heart of
mankind ; so soft and great ; as the sum-
mer midnight, as the world with its seas
and stars." But this sublime argument,
which moves on with such a sweep of
wing, is not the thought of Job alone ;


Some Aspects of Modern Literature

it is the groping, doubting aspiration of
the East rinding voice and measure for
itself; it is the movement of the mind
of a people through its long search for
truth ; it is the spiritual history of a
race. The lonely thinker, under those
clear Eastern skies, made himself the
interpreter of the world which he alone
has survived. Back of the great poem
there is an unwritten history greater and
more pathetic than the poem itself, could
we but uncover it.

Great books are born not in the intel-
lect, but in experience, in the contact
of mind and heart with the great and
terrible facts of life ; the great concep-
tions of literature originate not in the
individual mind, but in the soil of com-
mon human hopes, loves, fears, aspira-
tions, sufferings. Shakespeare did not
invent Hamlet ; he found him in human
histories already acted out to the tragic
end. Goethe did not create Faust; he
summoned him out of the dim mediaeval
world, brought him face to face with

Essays in Literary Interpretation

the crucial experiences of life, and so
fashioned a character and a career which
have become typical. " It takes a great
deal of life," said Alfred de Musset, " to
make a little art." The more deeply
we study great books the more clear it
becomes that literature is not primarily
an art born of skill and training, but the
expression of man's growth into compre-
hension of his own life and of the sub-
lime order of which he is part. Life
itself is the final fact for which all men
of genuine gift and insight are searching ;
and the great books are either represen-
tations or interpretations of this all-em-
bracing fact. There are wide differences
of original endowment, of temperament,
of training, of environment. There are
broad contrasts of spirit, method, treat-
ment ; but a common impulse underlies
all great works of literary genius. When
Byron, with a few daring strokes, draws
the portrait of Manfred, when Words-
worth meditates among the Cumberland
Hills, each in his way draws near to life,


Some Aspects of Modern Literature

the one to picture and the other to
interpret it No rapt and lonely vision
lifts them to heights inaccessible to com-
mon thought and need ; their gift of in-
sight, while it separates them from their
fellows as individuals, unites them the
more closely with humanity. For the
essential greatness of men of genius does
not lie in their separation from their fel-
lows, nor in any moods which are pecu-
liarly their own, but in that inexplicable
union of heart and mind which makes
them sharers of the private life of the
world, discerners of that which is hidden
in individual experience, interpreters of
men to themselves and to each other.

The great mass of men arrive late at
complete self-consciousness, at a full
knowledge of themselves. The earlier
generations attained this self-knowledge
for the most part very imperfectly ; it
was the possession of a few, and these
elect souls spoke for the uncounted
hosts of their silent contemporaries.
When any considerable number of in-

Essays in Literary Interpretation

dividuals of the same race secured this
complete possession of themselves, there
was a wide and adequate expression of
life as they saw it. By virtue of natural
aptitude, of exceptional opportunity for
knowing what is in life, and of a train-
ing of a very high and complete kind,
the Greeks attained a degree of self-
knowledge which was far in advance of
the attainment of most of the Oriental
races. This mastery of life and its arts
was disclosed chiefly in one city, and
within a single century that city enriched
literature for all time by a series of mas-
terpieces. If there had been elsewhere
the same degree of self-knowledge, there
would have been a corresponding im-
pulse toward expression. But except
among the Hebrews, there was not ; for
the most part the races in the East con-
temporaneous with the Greeks did not
attain anything more than a very inad-
equate conception of themselves and
their relation to the world. Among the
Hindus there was, it is true, a very

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

considerable and a very noble literary
development; but this movement for
expression was partial and inadequate
because the knowledge that inspired it
was partial and inadequate. The Hin-
dus entangled God in the shining
meshes of his own creation ; they never
clearly separated him in thought from
Nature, and they never perfectly real-
ised their own individuality. The great
Western races, on the other hand, were
so absorbed in the vast activities of
growth and empire that they had small
inclination to study themselves ; the
Romans conquered the world, but when
it lay within their grasp, they did not
know what to do with it, so inadequate
was their knowledge of themselves and
of the real nature of their possessions.
The literature of such a people will
rarely reveal any original impulse or
force ; it will not even express the con-
sciousness of power, which is more
clearly realised than anything else by
such a people; it will be an imitative

Essays in Literary Interpretation

art, whose chief attraction will lie in the
natural or acquired skill of individuals,
and whose chief use will be to register
great deeds, not to express and illustrate
great souls and a great common life.
The Northern races, whose various stages
of growth were to be recorded in noble
literary forms, were still in the period of
childhood, and knew neither their own
strength nor the weakness of the older
civilisation which surrounded them.

During periods of imperfect self-
knowledge there will be necessarily fewer
thoughts, convictions, or emotions to
inspire expression ; and these will be
clearly felt and adequately uttered by a
few persons. The simplicity of life in
such periods makes a very massive and
noble art possible ; such an art as the
Greeks created as a revelation of their
own nature and an expression of their
thought about themselves and the world.
The limitations of such an art give it
definiteness, clearness of outline, large
repose and harmony. And these limi-

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

tations are not imposed as a matter of
artifice ; they are in large measure un-
conscious, and they are, therefore, inev-
itable. To impose the standards and
boundaries of the art of such a period
upon the art of later and immensely
expanded periods would be as irrational
as to impose on the America of to-day
the methods of the America of the
colonial period.

As self-knowledge becomes the pos-
session of a larger number of persons,
becomes general rather than individual,
the faculty of expression is correspond-
ingly developed until the gift and office
of the fortunate few become almost
public functions. Apollo's lyre still
yields its supreme melodies to the great-
est souls only, but a host have learned
to set their thought to its lighter strains.
Now, it is precisely this general develop-
ment of self-knowledge which character-
ises our modern life and reveals itself
in our varied and immensely diversified
literature. Humanity has come to a
a 17

Essays in Literary Interpretation

large measure of maturity. It has had
a long history, which has been the record
of its efforts to know its own nature and
to master the field and the implements
of its activity. It has made countless
experiments, and has learned quite as
much from its failures as from its suc-
cesses. It has laboriously traversed the
island in space where its fortunes are
cast ; it has listened intently, generation
after generation, for some message from
beyond the seas which encompass it. It
has made every kind of venture to en-
large its. capital of pleasure, and it has
hazarded all its gains for some nobler
fortune of which it has dreamed. It has
opened its arms to receive the joys of
life, and missing them, has patiently
clasped a crucifix. It has drank every
cup of experience; won all victories and
suffered all defeats; tested all creeds
and acted all philosophies ; illustrated
all baseness and risen to the heights of
all nobleness. In short, humanity has
lived, not in a few persons, a few

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

periods, a few activities, but in countless
persons, through long centuries, and
under all conditions. Surely some larger
and more comprehensive idea of life lies
in the mind of the modern world than
ever denned itself to the men of the
earlier times. Society has still much to
learn; but men have now lived long
enough to have attained a fairly com-
plete self-knowledge. They have by no
means fully developed themselves, but
they know what is in them. Humanity
has come to maturity, and to the self-
consciousness which is the power of

With this self-consciousness there has
come a corresponding power of expres-
sion ; the two are as inseparable as the
genius of the composer and the music
through which it reveals itself, as the
impulse of the sculptor and the carven
stone in which it stands expressed.
Thought and expression are parts of one
complete act. As conceptions of life
multiply and widen, language is uncon-

Essays in Literary Interpretation

sciously expanded and enriched to re-
ceive and convey them ; as experience
deepens, speech matches it with pro-
founder and subtiler phrase. With the
power to communicate that which is
essentially novel comes also the impulse.
Expression is the habit and the law of
civilised life. There is within us an
instinctive recognition of the universal
quality of thought and experience ; we
feel that neither can be in any sense our
private possession. They belong to the
world, and even when we endeavour to
keep them to ourselves they seem to
elude and escape us. No sooner does
one utter a thought that was new to him
than a hundred other men claim a com-
mon ownership with him. It was, as we
say, in the air, and he had unconsciously
appropriated that which was public prop-
erty. There is a large and noble con-
sistency behind our fragmentary think-
ing which makes us aware of some
great order of things with which we
are unconsciously working. Our lesser

Some Aspects of Modern Literature

thought is always seen in the end to be
part of a larger thought. The investi-
gator, working along one line of scien-
tific research, finds his latest discovery
of that which seemed the special law of
his department matched by the discovery
of the same law operating in an entirely
different field. Men of large vision
know that the same general tendencies
are discoverable at almost any given
time in science, art, philosophy, litera-
ture, and theology. The significance of
these common tendencies is deepened
by the fact that for the most part the
individual workers in the different fields
are unconscious of them. They are all
unwitting witnesses to a higher and
more comprehensive truth than that
which each is bent upon demonstrating.
There is, in other words, a continuous
revelation of ultimate things through the
totality of human activity and experi-
ence ; and this revelation, which is co-
extensive with universal life, presses
upon men for expression. Whether


Essays in Literary Interpretation

they will or not, it must utter itself; be-
hind all life it sets its mighty impulse,
and nothing can resist it. With the
immense expansion of modern life it was
inevitable that there should be an im-
mense expansion of literature ; that new
literary forms like the novel should be
developed ; that facts hitherto suppressed
or unobserved should be brought to
light ; and that phases and aspects of
experience hitherto unrecorded should
suddenly enshrine themselves in art.

The broadening of the literary im-
pulse, the impulse of expression, has
materially changed the prevailing char-
acter of literature and indefinitely multi-
plied its forms. Instead of commanding
types, massive because isolated, there
has succeeded a vast variety of more
specialised types, in which the great
truths of experience, instead of being
generalised into a few personalities, are
dispersed through many. Literature
no longer reveals only the summits
of thought and action ; it displays the


Some Aspects of Modern Literature

whole landscape of life, continent and
sea, barren wilderness and blossoming
field, lonely valley and shining peak.
Personality is no longer sublimated in
order to present its universal elements ;
it is depicted in its most familiar and
intimate forms. In art Raphael's Ma-
donnas and Michael Angelo's colossal
figures have been succeeded by Bastien-
Lepage's Jean d'Arc and Millet's An-
gelus, not because the religious feeling
is less penetrating and profound, but
because it recognises in nearer and more
familiar forms the sanctity and dignity
it once saw only in things most beautiful
and august. Under the same impulse the
literary instinct seeks to discover what is
significant in the life that is nearest, con-
vinced that all life is a revelation, and
that to the artist beauty is universally
diffused through all created things. As
the wayside flower, once neglected, dis-
closes a loveliness all its own, so does
the human thought, emotion, experience,
once passed by in the pursuit of some

Essays in Literary Interpretation

remoter theme. Literature, which holds
so vital a relation to the inner life of
men, shows in this more catholic and
sympathetic selection of characters and
scenes the new and deeper conception
of human relationship which is now the
most potent factor in the social life of
the world.

One looks in vain through the earlier
literatures for such frank disclosures of

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Online LibraryHamilton Wright MabieEssays in literary interpretation; → online text (page 1 of 15)