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the cast of social life. We know, likewise, that periods of great literary activity have always been periods in which intellect was most active in regard to objects not lying directly within the province of letters.
If we bear in mind such reflections as these, and if we qualify ourselves for applying them in partieular instances by an exact acquaintance with the events of our national history, the study of English literature, in the order of its successive periods, will become for us a pursuit as widely instructive as it is purely delightful. Beautiful and interesting in themselves, the phenomena will gain redoubled radiance from the light which is thrown on them from the world without.
Then, for instance, if we begin to contemplate the history of Modern Times, the blaze of intellectual glory which genius diffused around the throne of Elizabeth when her sun was near its setting, will be tinged with romantic hues like those of chivalry, by our remembrance of the manly adventurousness which reigned in her time. Yet a shadow of solemn thought will fall on the magnificent scene, when, scanning the aspect of society more closely, and detecting features of social and moral evil, and symptoms as well as causes of discontent and resistance, we perceive, already gathering in the horizon that seemed so clear, the little cloud which was soon to cover the whole sky, and convulse the land with one universal storm.
When, again, we pass on to our own agitated century, its literary monuments, which, amidst all their shortcomings, are so original and energetic, so interesting and valuable, will be for us lessons of wisdom as well as sources of delight, if we learn to think of them as facts in the history of the last two generations We shall perceive, in the unquiet restlessness and the extraordinary variety which distinguish them, a reflex of the questioning temper, the bold speculation, the thirst for action, by which society is ruled. But we shall not overlook the many features, both in the topics of literature and in the spirit that animates it, which are, equally with so much in our social and religious progress, the presaging tokens of a love of mankind more expansive and generous
which has ever yet pervaded society. Especially shall we be filled with humble thankfulness, when we remember that the new ideas, and wishes, and aspirations, which have resounded through Europe like the blast of a trumpet summoning all men to battle, have among us been so guided, by higher power than ours, as to seek their development by no force but that of honest conviction, through no agency but that of unfettered writing and speech. We and our fathers, gazing with
eagerness, have gazed also in safety on that wild conflict of opinions which elsewhere has overthrown, again and again, thrones, and liberty, and faith. The long tempest has, as we may venture to think, cleared away some dangerous elements from the air we breathe; and the bolt which was charged with its terrors has fallen on other homes than ours.
7. Earnestly and unceasingly, above all things, ought we to be impressed by this momentous truth. Literature has been endowed, by Him who rules the life and thoughts of all His intelligent creatures, with capacities which make it necessarily a moral power, a power modifying the character of mankind, and aiding in the determination of their position both now and hereafter. There is a philosophical falsity, as well as a heavy moral error, in
any view of the progress of knowledge, which either, in contemplating the gift, takes no note of Him who gave it, or, in tracing its consequences, overlooks the highest and most sacred of all the ends which it is designed to serve.
It is, indeed, an interesting thought, that, when the history of the worid is contemplated as a whole, the progress of literary culture is found to keep pace with the progress of the nations of the earth towards that mighty renovation of man's spiritual nature, which Christianity has been divinely appointed to create. The teaching of religion itself has always received from letters much of direct aid, in respect both of the materials which compose its lessons, and of the means which are used for their communication. But those intellectual pursuits, which do not ultimately aim at this highest of all purposes, have ministered indirectly towards its attainment. There has never, perhaps, been any age that has not borne some literary fruit wholesome for man; although, on the contrary, there is certainly not any that has not ripened many moral poisons.
It would be unreasonable to demand that there should be no books, unless such as are serious and solemn. Our life is a mingled and many-coloured web; and Literature, the image of life, held up for living beings to contemplate, may be allowed to reflect in its mirror all the threads which do not offend or hurt the organs of moral vision. Nor are such representations, if ethically correct, devoid of higher uses than those which they are immediately designed to serve.
A gracious spirit o'er the earth presides,
The truth is, that the influence of Literature does in itself tend to do good. It wars against the influence of sensualism and thoughtlessness. The present bears us down heavily towards the earth : we are lifted upwards, though it may be but a short way, by-all that prompts us to meditate on the past and the future. He to whom there has been hinted a striking general truth, or a vivid poetical image, has inhaled a draught of that purer air which every rational and accountable creature should always desire to breathe. By knowing more clearly, or by imagining more actively, he has been prepared for feeling, more finely, for wishing more worthily, perhaps for resolving more firmly.
Yet there are kinds of literary composition which raise us so very little above the dust we live in, that their real worth is inappreciably small; and all departments have given birth to many works which elevate us only to lead astray ; out of these facts arises a responsibility, resting indeed most heavily on those who write, but stretching likewise over all who read.
We ought to remember, for ourselves, in the selection of our studies, that every choice we make may, and probably will
, modify permanently our future character. Every new thought which our reading prompts, every emotion or desire which that thought awakens, may be a link, never to be unfastened, in the chain of mental phenomena which runs unbroken through the life of man, and which reaches from life into the world beyond the grave. Every thought steadily attended to, excites a series of others whose nature it powerfully affects; and these again become elements in new trains of associated ideas. An impure image, a false doctrine, a grovelling or malevolent wish, excited by a book we read, may be the opening of a gate that will lead us downward into deep moral depravation. We may be made, for our whole existence, better as well as wiser, by an hour of well-advised study, which has led to earnest meditation on our own character and destiny, or has inspired gratitude for the goodness of Him from whom we receive knowledge, and intellectual enjoyment, and life, and all things.
In the preparation of this little Manual of Literary History, it has been a duty to collect facts and receive opinions from many and various sources; and it would be a duty not less agreeable to cite these often and thankfully, if the limits and purpose and small pretensions of the bouk did not make notes and references both inconvenient and needless.
It must be enough to offer cordial acknowledgment, once for all, in pointing out to the student some of those works, distinctively historical, by the careful reading of which he ought to fill up in his mind the elementary outline here presented to him.
The History of English Literature, in all its periods and kinds, is given, with many specimens and valuable criticisms, in two popular text-books: Chambers "Cyclopædia of English Literature," 2 vols. large 8vo, 1843– 44; and Craik's “Sketches of the History of Literature and Learning in England,” 6 vols. 12mo, 1844–45. The leading facts are related, with very full and able remarks on some of the principal writers, in Shaw's “Outlines of English Literature,” 1 vol. 8vo, 1849.
All the other books to be named are confined either to particular periods or to particular classes of writings, or in both ways.
The Anglo-Saxon period and that which is nearest to it have been illustrated, in our own day, by a very large number of instructive publications, of which the only one falling within the scope of this short list is Wright's “Biographia Britannica Literaria,” 2 vols. 8vo: Anglo-Saxon Period, 1842; Anglo-Norman Period, 1846.
For our Poetical Literature, from the infancy of the English language till near the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, the leading authority is still Warton's “ History of English Poetry,” 1774–1781, now in 3 volumes, 8vo, with corrections and supplements. Coming much farther down, embracing in its masterly review all departments of intellectual effort, and especially interesting for its history of letters in England, is Hallam’s standard work, the “Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries,” first published in 1839, and now in 3 volumes, 8vo.
A sketch of our poetical history, and criticisms written in the fine spirit of a poet, accompany the beautiful series of extracts in Thomas Campbell's “Specimens of the British Poets,” which first appeared in 1819, and is now in one volume, 8vo. The early Literature of Scotland is admirably treated in Irving's “Lives of the Scottish Poets,” 2 vols. 1804, and the more recent learning of the country in the same author's Lives of Scottish Writers," 2 vols. 1839.
SECTION FIRST: LITERATURE IN THE CELTIC AND LATIN TONGUES,
1. The Four Languages used in Literature-Latin and Anglo-Saxon-The two Celtic
Tongues--The Welsh-The Irish and Scottish Gaelic. -CELTIO LITERATURE.-2. Gaelic Literature-Irish Metrical Relics and Prose Chronicles-Scottish Metrical Relics-Ossian.—3. Welsh Literature-The Triads-Supposed Fragments of the Bards-Romances-Legends of King Arthur.-LATIN LITERATURE.-4. Introduction of Christianity-Saint Patrick-Columba-Augustine.-5. Learned Men-Superiority of Ireland-Intercourse with the Continent–The Anglo-Saxons in Rome.-6. The Four Great Names of the Times-Alcuin and Erigena-Bede and Alfred-Latin Learning among the Anglo-Saxons.
1. DURING the Anglo-Saxon times, four languages were used, for literary communication, in the British islands.
Latin was the organ of the church and of learning, here as elsewhere, throughout the Dark and Middle Ages. Accordingly, till we reach Modern Times, we cannot altogether overlook the literature which was expressed in it, if we would acquire a full idea of the progress of intellectual culture.
Of the other three languages, all of which were national and living, one was the Anglo-Saxon, the monuments of which, with its history, will soon call for close scrutiny. The second and third were Celtic tongues, spoken by the nations of that race who still possessed large parts of the country. These, with their scanty stock of literary remains, must receive some attention at present; although they will be left out of view when we pass to those later periods, in which the Germanic population became decisively predominant in Great Britain.