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"This volume would have been at least twice as large, if I had not made bold to strike out innumerable passages."-Publisher's Preface to The Travels of Mr. Lemuel Gulliver.
HISTORIES of English Literature with an apparatus of portraits and biographies would appear to supply a need which distinguishes a comparatively late phase in English letters. The eighteenth century had advanced some years before such a sentiment as curiosity in regard to the private lives of great authors can be said to have existed. The gradual awakening of some such interest brought in its train a series of classified biographies of poets, dramatists, and novelists. Eventually we arrived at the compilation of elaborate Fasti as represented by the manual of the late Prof. Henry Morley, and from this stage there was rapid progress to what the specialist calls "mere history." We are all historians now, and literature lends itself with exceptional ease to historical treatment. History, however, is an extremely ambiguous term. It is used indifferently to signify chronological annals, animated pictures, portraits of great men, the confused warrings of dynasties and races, and the still more perplexing conflicts of theories, political, ethical, economic, and social. Nor is the difficulty inherent in the word in any degree diminished by its application to literature. Analogy, however, suggests one extremely convenient demarcation of the subject. It prompts us to isolate the subject of origins as bearing the same relation to literature as anthropology bears to history; thus enabling us to start fair with a stablished nationality and a full-grown vernacular. The histories of
our vernacular European literatures are all comparatively brief-five or six centuries at most-and that of England is no exception. "Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay." That at any rate is the European point of view. Starting with a language and vocabulary in some respects rudimentary, and one or two simpler forms, the historical development proceeds with little break from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous.
The term "literature" itself is by no means easy to define. In the widest sense, every thought that is converted into script becomes literature from the moment of the conversion. Attempts have been made from time immemorial to circumscribe the plot of literature which is called fine or humane and corresponds to Fine Art (Belles Lettres, Beaux Arts) in such well-sounding but vague generalities as "the lasting expression in words of the meaning of life." The "best words in the best order" is another ingenious phrase which has been restricted generally to the definition of good poetry, but is equally applicable to good prose. There is one inevitable order. But all such definitions evade the question of significance; everything depends on the magnitude of the thought expressed and its relation to the more permanent elements of human wit and wisdom. We cannot satisfactorily define literature any more than we can agree upon a point of view from which critics are to approach and comment upon it. Are they to treat the history of literature as a process and its work as a product to be classified and standardised, or are they simply to gaze at its masterpieces and describe their sensations? These are a few of the problems. Other problems are suggested by the word "English." What do we mean by English?
A school we might almost call the nationalist school of English historians, headed by Freeman and Green, made the singular discovery that English history really began in
Holstein. A like ambition has tried to discover the wellhead of English literature in Jutland. That the preponderant element in our speech is not Latin or Norman-French but Low German is perfectly true, but the nomenclature which prefers Old English to the unsatisfactory but much more distinctive Anglo-Saxon as applied to this fossil English is worse than misleading. If we are to go into the misty period before the single speech emerges that men of to-day call English-groping among patois from which Chaucer would have recoiled and which Wyclif and Langland would hardly have understood there seems no adequate reason why we should not include the Latin Norman-French, and primitive Celtic literature of early Britain. All these languages were spoken and written by our forefathers in this country; Latin in church and cloister, by diplomatists and historians; French at court and camp, by lawyers and merchants; Welsh and Cornish west of Malvern and Mendip. Here, in fact, are two great subjects—the watershed or dividing line between which is formed by the century which unites the commencement of The Canterbury Tales in 1391 with the completion of Caxton's life-work just one hundred years later. The first subject, which is not ours, is the early literature of Britain-a literature not of one language nor of one race, and mainly of philological, historical, and antiquarian interest. The second great subject, and the greater, is English literature. From Caxton's death in 1491 England is no longer polyglot. The several streamlets have united to form one river, the current of which we must endeavour to follow in its ever-deepening course wherever English is cherished as the mother-tongue.
William Caxton began his work as a popular printer in this country, roughly speaking, in 1475, and he found books written in English to suit his purpose, going back just about a hundred years. He felt that it was necessary,
from every point of view, to confine himself to the King's English as it was understood in the days of Edward IV. And with the aid of his press he commenced that work of fixing the English that is written and printed, whereby was consummated in three or four generations a process which otherwise might have continued for several centuries. We follow Caxton in regarding Chaucer as the day-star of English poetry, as Wyclif may perhaps be regarded in a sense as the day-star of English prose; and our First Book is devoted to a discovery of the King's English as Caxton and our early English printers understood it. Quitting the era of transition, our Second Book deals with the great flowering time of English drama. We have a new England equipped with a new vision and intoxicated with a new language which overflows in an almost inexhaustible fulness of lyric poetry. It is the age of Spenser, of Marlowe, of Shakespeare, of Fletcher, of Jonson and Donne. In our Third Book we have to navigate the straits of Puritanism. It is something that religion was persuaded to countenance an epic poem-the one great epic in our language. In sharp contrast to the age of Milton and Bunyan is the region where Dryden and Pope, Addison and Swift, rose supreme over the taste of nearly a century and a half. It is an age of critical commentary and pungent epigram, of prose essay and verse satire. It is an age when the class of readers was immensely enlarged. Men began to collect in coffee-houses and divert themselves with social essays and moral satires. This era of red brick ushers in an age of Whig optimism, national expansion, and masculine common-sense. Our Fifth Book is sober with the multitude of moral tales and essays, enlivened with much descriptive letter-writing, informed by copious memoirs, historical and biographical. It is a well-to-do age that includes Johnson and Chesterfield, Richardson and Fielding, Gray and Walpole, Burke