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sweeping on around it is so strong and so manifest that it cannot escape the notice of the most careless observer. The mighty burst of song in England during the reign of Elizabeth, a time of great men and great deeds, when new ideas and new influences were powerfully at work among all sections of society, has often been commented on. The impurity and heartlessness of the drama of the Restoration was a true type of the nation's wild outburst of revelry after its escape from the austere chains of Puritanism. Not so strikingly apparent, yet very noticeable, is the connection between the tortuous and shifty politics of the early years of the eighteenth century and the absence from the literature of that period of any high ideal or elevating principle. Coming nearer our own time, all are aware that the revolutionary movement of the close of the last century was active not only in politics but in letters; that as old laws and old principles were found inadequate to the needs of the time, so the literary fornis and rules of the preceding generation were cast to the winds as quite incapable of expressing the novel ideas and imaginations of a race of writers who possessed little or nothing in common with their predecessors. But even in quieter times, when the broad river of national life is unruffled by violent storms, careful inquiry will make it apparent that its influence upon literature is very close and very real.
The most useful commentary on a great writer is to be found in the works of his contemporaries. It is mainly the service which they render in this direction that prevents one from agreeing with Emerson when he says that perhaps the human mind would be a gainer if all secondary writers were lost. From an author's contemporaries we may learn what ideas in his time were, to use Dr. Newman's phrase, “in the air,” and thus be able to gauge with some degree of accuracy the extent of his originality. We have all been taught that Shakespeare far outshone any of the brilliant constellations of dramatic stars which adorned the reign of Elizabeth ; but this is only a barren phrase to us till we have studied the other dramatists of his time, and are thus in a position to realise
The Study of English Literature. 15 what it really means. The writings of contemporaries, more. over, often help us to account for the flaws and deficiencies which not unfrequently occur even in authors of the highest class, by giving us a clue to the literary fashions which prevailed in their time. Shakespeare's tendency to indulge in puns and verbal quibbles, which mars some of his finest passages, was, no doubt, due not so much to any natural inclination as because he lived in an age extravagantly fond of such ingenuities; and even he, immeasurably great man as he was, proved unable to resist the contagion which spread everywhere around him. In this connection we should not omit to notice the valuable aid which writers destitute of original power, but with a faculty for assimilating the ideas and imitating the style of others, often afford to the study of those whose voices they echo. Every great writer, while his popularity is at its height, is surrounded by a crowd of imitators, who copy in an exaggerated fashion his peculiar mannerism, and thus afford a very ready means of observing the minute traits of its style, and its little weaknesses and affectations, which might ctherwise escape our notice. If imitation be the sincerest form of flattery, it is often also the bitterest satire. The severest critics of Mr. Tennyson and Mr. Swinburne have not so accurately shown the imperfections in the work of these writers, nor have they, it is probable, caused them so much pain as the verses of certain minor singers of our day have done. No parody is at once so scathing and so ridiculous as an attempt made by a writer of feeble powers to emulate the production of a man of genius.
If ten men of literary culture were asked to write down the names of the thirty English writers (exclusive of authors of our own time) who are their greatest favourites, of whom they make as it were companions and friends, the lists, we may be sure, would differ widely. But if these ten men were asked to write down the names of the thirty English writers who occupy the highest rank, who are accepted as the best repre. sentatives of our literature, the lists would probably resemble each other very closely. In the former case, single lists would
contain names which were found in none of the others; in the latter case, it is very unlikely that any list would contain a name which was not also mentioned in several. "If I were confined to a score of English books," said Southey, “Sir Thomas Browne would, I think, be one of them ; nay, probably it would be one if the selection were cut down to twelve. My library, if reduced to these bounds, would consist of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton; Jackson, Jeremy Taylor, and South; Isaac Walton, Sydney's “Arcadia,” Fuller's “ Church History,” and Sir Thomas Browne;' and what a wealthy and well-stored mind would that man have, what an inexhaustible reservoir, what a Bank of England to draw upon for profitable thoughts and delightful associations, who should have fed upon them.” Some of the names in the above list will strike the reader as curious. Jackson, South, and even Fuller's “Church History” and Sydney's “Arcadia" are not books which can be ranked among general favourites.
But Southey found in them the mental food best adapted to his constitution, and therefore preferred them to others of greater intrinsic merit and much wider popularity. In books, as in other things, tastes differ very much. Not a few, whether they are honest enough to confess it or not, agree with wortiry George III. in thinking that Shakespeare often wrote “sad stuff ;” some people, by no means deficient in abilities, can read “ Pickwick” without a laugh or even a smile; Macaulay, Mr. Trevelyan tells us, was so disgusted with the unconventional style of Ruskin and Carlyle that he resused even to look at their works.
It is, therefore, not at all surprising that when a young reader takes up a book which, he has heard, is enrolled in the list of English classics, he should not unfrequently find little in it to please him, and thus be tempted to think that it has been overrated. But if, as in the case we suppose, the book is one which has stood the test of time, he may be sure he is wrong. “Nature," writes Emerson, “is much our friend in
1 Doubtless from inadvertence, Southey mentions only eleven writers. Who the twelfth was affords matter for curious speculation.
The Study of English Literature. 17 this matter. Nature is always clarifying her water and her wine ; no filtration can be so perfect. She does the same thing by books as by her gases and plants. There is always a selection in writers, and then a selection from the selection. In the first place, all books that get fairly into the open air of the world were written by the successful class, by the affirming and advancing class, who utter what tens of thousands feel though they cannot say. There has already been a scrutiny and choice from many hundreds of young pens before the pamphlet or political chapter which you read in a fugitive journal comes to your eye. All these are young adventurers, who produce their performances to the wise ear of Time, who sits and weighs, and ten years hence out of a million of pages reprints one. Again, it is judged, it is winnowed by all the winds of opinion-and what terrific selection has not passed on it before it can be reprinted after twenty years—and reprinted after a century! It is as if Minos and Rhadamanthus had indorsed the writing. 'Tis therefore an economy of time to read old and famed books. Nothing can be preserved which is not good.” We might almost add that whatever has not been preserved is not good. Those whose duty or inclination leads them to wander in literary bypaths sometimes come across forgotten writers in whom they find a certain tone of manner or feeling which gives them, in their eyes, more attractiveness than is possessed by writers whose praises are echoed by thousands. But all attempts to resuscitate such books fail as utterly as attempts to lower the position of books which have been accepted as classical. The opinion of the majority of readers during many years is better than that of any individual reader, or any small coterie of readers, however high their gifts or attainments may be.
It often happens that wider knowledge and culture lead one who at first was unable to recognise the merits of a classical author to see his error and acquiesce in the general verdict In the case of our older authors, there are preliminary difficulties of style and language, which must, at the cost of some trouble, be vanquished before they can be read with pleasure. The practice of "dipping into" an author and reading bits here and there is productive of a great deal of literary heterodoxy. It is, for example, a not uncommon remark that articles, of which the writers are never heard of, but which are as good as any in the Spectator. or Tatler, appear in our newspapers every day. No doubt there is a very large amount of talent now employed in newspaper-writing ; nevertheless our average journalists are not Steeles or Addisons. The reason, in most cases, why newspaper articles are thought equal to the Spectator is because the former deal with living subjects, subjects which are interesting people at the moment, while the latter, having been written more than a century and a half ago, has an antique flavour about it. The Spectator cannot be appreciated but by those who, not content with dipping into it here and there, have read at least a considerable portion of it, and thus gained such a knowledge of the manners and opinions which prevailed when it was written as to be able to enter into the spirit of the work. A newspaper article, referring to matters occupying the minds of all, may be perused with pleasure without any preparation.
But though increased knowledge and wider culture generally lead one to acquiesce in received opinions regarding the value of authors, they do not always do so. Every critic, however large his range and however keen his discernment, occasionally meets in with works of great fame of which he cannot appreciate the merit. He may, indeed, be able to perceive the qualities which cause others to admire them, but they are written in a vein which he cannot bring himself to like: the tone of sentiment running through them, or the style in which they are written, is repugnant to his nature The fact that this is so, generally leads to a plentiful indulgence in what Mr. James Payn has so happily christened “sham admiration in literature.” People praise books which they have never been able to read, or which they have only read at the cost of much labour and weariness, not because they like them themselves, but simply because they have heard others praise them. It is melancholy to reflect how