Obrázky stránek







In beginning so wide a survey as that of general literature during the nineteenth century, it is necessary to have some background or setting. For we cannot take the hundred years just closing and treat them as constituting an exact literary period from 1801 to 1900. Literature does not follow the orderly course of centuries ; its development is the most irresponsible of movements. The laws which govern it are entirely uninvestigated. Its growth is not at all like that of life. As some one has wisely said, life develops along lines that can be traced, and according to laws which may be calculated. There has been a progress, gradual but steady, in human affairs during the whole epoch of which history speaks. But with literature this does not hold good. Some of the world's greatest books have appeared when the conditions of life were poor to a quite disproportionate degree. And if at one time we see a great outburst of literature corresponding to a powerful expansion of national lifeas in the English Age of Elizabeth, at another we find no less that a very low ebb of national existence is compatible with the loftiest literary achievement—as when the utter lack of public spirit in Germany was contemporary with the grand writings of Goethe and Schiller. So that as a rule the group of qualities which distinguishes an epoch in letters develops independently of life and without regard to arbitrary divisions of time. And when we speak of Nineteenth Century Literature we use a name which is not altogether correct, some of its greatest and most typical representatives having lived before the century opened. This is a paradoxical state of affairs, but unavoidable.

For the necessary setting we must go back a good many years. We cannot begin at once with the literature of England or of Europe during the nineteenth century, because the characteristics depend so much upon the struggle of two forces, “Classicism” and “Romanticism," and the victory of the latter, that we must have some idea what these forces were and how they came into existence. The struggle agitated the whole of Europe-which was natural; the interchange of ideas that has brought about a similarity in law, government and

tradition among nations so contiguous, has caused also a general resemblance in literary movements. It is from the most remarkable of these movements that we must take our start.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a gigantic upheaval took place in the Old World. Men have since called it the Renaissance; it was indeed a New Birth, for from it date the principles of modern life. The subject is a vast one, and even now not perfectly understood. Speaking very superficially, the Renaissance was the transition from one historical stage to another. We shall bave to disregard its immense significance in religion, in statecraft, in travel, and fix our attention on the great Revival of Learning. This was a prominent feature of the time, and should not be too closely identified with the Renaissance itself, because some of the most important factors in that complex movement had nothing to do with it.

The New Learning began towards the close of the fifteenth century. In 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turks. It had been the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and a city of high importance. It was the stronghold of Greek learning, which was dead through the rest of Europe. In it were gathered all the men who had the most thorough knowledge of Greek, and thousands of invaluable ancient manuscripts. When it fell the scholars fled westward, finding first in Italy a permanent place of abode. Italy was more ready tban

any other nation to receive the influx of new mental life, and froin that time grew up the Revival of Learning. It was based primarily upon the study of Greek. During the Middle Ages the intellectual condition of all but a very few was dry and lifeless. The Greek literature was essentially opposed to anything of that nature, and the study of Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Æschylus, Demosthenes, pro. duced a profound effect upon the European mind. Students poured into Italy; then, returning to their own lands, carried with them the riches of Greek culture. All nations felt the powerful mental stim. ulus thus afforded. The New Learning—which meant practically the “ resuscitation of simply intellectual activity," and the Renaissance—which meant practically the entrance of Europe upon a new stage of vital energy, enlarged the whole field of European life.

Now, the force called Classicism arose out of the heart of the New Learning. The name is not quite satisfactory; neither is that which we have termed its rival: both have a wider than literary significance. Romanticism, for instance, was “a literary, artistic and philosophic movement of a highly composite character.” So that, in attempting to explain what they meant, it must be remembered that only those phases can be described which have a literary bearing, and that the whole sketch is necessarily superficial. The first effect of the New Learning was broadening in the highest sense, and

for about a century it remained of this type. Then began to appear a keener regard for Latin at the expense of Greek. Especially was this true of France. Latin was a more dignified language, it was said. “Whereas the Greeks were acquainted only with Greeks and barbarians, the Latins attained to a knowledge of mankind in general. Latin was the language of a sovereign people, the speech of civilization.” The Latin language is the sign of the European. From this increasing regard was evolved slowly the “classic” idea. Writers aiming at perfection of style approximated more and more to the Latin manner. And, having gained what they considered a perfect style, they tried to make as perfect what they said. They strove after solidity and dignity in matter as well as manner.

This was all very well. It conferred upon literature in Europe some valuable characteristics. But, in course of time, it was carried to extremes, and developed into the Classicism that for so long determined the literary aspect of Europe. Nowhere did it obtain so strong a foothold as in France. This fact was due, perhaps, to the French love of exactness and logical order, of clearness and precision in. expression coupled with sobriety of thought, and before very long France passed the borders of true classicism, which, briefly put, means the conforming of literature to a standard based upon the literatures of Rome and Greece. France inclined strongly to the Latin model, and gradually classicism became

« PředchozíPokračovat »