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and they helped forward the affliction."
That is, my people were scattered; they suffered unknown and unimaginable sufferings, and the nations of the world that dwelt at ease and were wealthy, and had power in their hands, helped forward a very weighty affliction which was upon them all.
My lord, I only hope this—that not one man in England who calls himself a civilized or Christian man will have it in his heart to add by a single word to that which this great and ancient and noble people suffer; but that we shall do all we can by labor, by speech, and by prayer to lessen if it be possible, or at least to keep ourselves from sharing in sympathy with these atrocious deeds.
[Address by Brander Matthews, author, Professor of American literature in Columbia University, New York City (born in New Orleans, La., February 21, 1852; --), delivered before the National Educational Association, July 8, 1896.)
The history of mankind is little more than the list of the civilizations that have arisen one on the ruin of the other, the Roman supplanting the Greek, as the Assyrian had been ousted by the Babylonian. The life of each of these successive civilizations was proportioned to the vitality of the ideas by which it was animated; and we cannot estimate it or even understand it except in so far as we are able to grasp these underlying principles. What the ideas were which dominated these vanished civilizations it is for us to discover for ourselves as best we may by a study of all the records they left behind them, and especially by a reverent examination of their laws, their arts, and their writings in so far as these have been preserved to us. Of all these relics of peoples now dead and gone, none is so instructive as literature, and none is so interesting; by its aid we are enabled to reconstruct the past, as we are also helped to understand the present.
Of the literatures which thus explain to us our fellow man as he was and as he is, three seem to me preēminent, standing out and above the others not only by reason of the greater number of me of genius who have illustrated them, but also by reason of their own more persistent strength and their own broader variety. These three literatures are the Greek, the French, and the English.
There are great names in the other modern languages, no doubt--the names of Dante and of Cervantes and of Goethe, than which, indeed, there are none greater. In French literature, however, and in English there are not wanting names as mighty as these. Fortunately, the possession of genius is not the privilege of any one language, of any one country, or of any one century. Where French literature and English can claim superiority over Italian, Spanish, and German is rather in sustaining a higher average of excellence for a longer period of time. The literature of the Italian language, of the Spanish, and of the German has no such bead-roll of writers of the first rank as illustrates the literature of the French and of the English. There is perhaps no more manly instrument of precision than the Latin language, none which better repays the struggle for its mastery; but Latin literature, if not secondrate, when tried by the loftiest standards, is at least secondary, being transplanted from Greece, and lacking resolute roots in its own soil. Nor is any dispute possible as to the high value of Hebrew literature; as Coleridge declared, with characteristic insight, “sublimity is Hebrew by birth"; but Hebrew literature has not the wide range of the Greek, nor its impeccable beauty.
“Art is only form,” said George Sand; and Goethe declared that the “highest operation of art is form-giving.” If we accept these sayings, there is no need to dwell on the supreme distinction of Greek literature, for it is only in Greek that we find the undying perfection of form. It is there only that we have clear and deep thought always beautifully embodied. Indeed, truth and beauty govern Greek literature so absolutely that, old as it is, it seems to us ever fresh and eternally young.
After two thousand years and more it strikes us to-day as startlingly modern. Thoreau—whose own phrase was often Attic in its delicate precision—Thoreau asked: “What are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles that are not decayed.” Nevertheless, the world has kept restlessly moving since the fall of Athens, and mankind has developed needs that the Greeks knew not. As Molière puts it, pithily, “The ancients are the ancients, and we are the men of to-day." There are questions in America now, and not a few of them, undreamed of in Sparta; and for the answers to these it is vain to go to Greek literature, modern as it may be in so many ways.
French literature has not a little of the moderation and of the charm of Greek literature. It is not violent; it is not boisterous, even; it is never freakish. It has balance and order and a broad sanity. It has an unfailing sense of style. It has lightness of touch, and it has also and always intellectual seriousness. The literature is like the language; and Voltaire declared that what was not clear was not French. And the language itself is the fit instrument of the people who use it and who have refined it for their needs--a people logical beyond all others, gifted in mathematics, devoid of hypocrisy, law-abiding, governed by the social instinct, inheritors of the Latin tradition and yet infused with the Celtic spirit.
To those of us who are controlled by the Anglo-Saxon ideals, whether or not we come of English stock, to those of us who adhere to Anglo-Saxon conventions, no other literature can serve as a better corrective of our inherited tendencies than the French. The chief characteristic of English literature is energy, power often ill-restrained, vigor often superabundant. From the earliest rude warsongs of the stalwart Saxon fighters who were beginning to make the English language, to the latest short story setting forth the strife of an American mining camp, there is never any lack of force in English literature. There is always the Teutonic boldness and rudeness-the Teutonic readiness to push forward and to shoulder the rest of the world out of the way—the Teutonic independence that leads every man to fight for his own hand, like the smith in Scott's story. What we do not discover in English literature, with all its overmastering vitality, is economy of effort, the French self-control, the Greek sense of form.
French literature and English literature have existed side by side for many centuries, each of them influencing the other now and again, and yet each of them preserving its own individuality, always and ever revealing the dominant characteristics of the people speaking its language. We need not attempt to weigh them one against the other, and to measure them with a foot rule, and to declare which is the greater. Equal they may be in the past and in the present; equal in the future they are not likely to be. The qualities which make French literature what it is tend also to keep the French race from expansion; just as the qualities which make English literature what it is have sent the English-speaking stock forth to fill up the waste places of the earth, and to wrest new lands from hostile savages or from inhospitable nature.
French was the language of the courts of Europe when English was little better than a dialect of rough islanders. When Chaucer chose his native English as the vehicle of his verse he showed both courage and prescience—a courage and a prescience lacking in Bacon, who lived two hundred years later, and who did not feel himself insured against Time until his great work was safely entombed in Latin. Even at the beginning of the Nineteenth century there were more men and women in the world speaking French than there were speaking English. But now, at the end of the Nineteenth century, with the steady spread of our stock into the four quarters of the world, there are more than twice as many people using English as there are using French. And the end is not yet; for while four-fifths of those who have French for their mother tongue abide in France or along its borders, not a third of those who have English for their mother tongue dwell in England. Not only in England, Ireland, and Scotland is English spoken, and in all the many British colonies which encompass the globe about; it is also the native speech of the people of the United States. English is the language of the stock which bids fair to prove itself the most masterful, hardy, and prolific, and which seems to possess a marvelous faculty for assimilating members of other allied stems, and of getting these newly received elements to accept its own hereditary ideals.
English literature is likely, therefore, to become in the future relatively more important and absolutely more influential. As there has been no relaxing of energy among the peoples that now speak the English language, probably there will be no alteration of the chief characteristic of English literature, although in time the changes of environment must make more or less modification inevitable. It will be curious to see in a century how the ideals and the practices of the race will alter, after the race is no longer pent up in an island, after it has scattered itself