« AnteriorContinuar »
moral teaching. Mrs. Oliphant acknowledges the existence in society of “ a slow progression, which, however faint, however deferred, yet gradually goes on, leaving one generation always a trifle better than that which preceded it, with some scrap of new possession, some right assured, some small inheritance gained. From age to age the advance may be sınall, yet it is appreciable.... New modifications and conditions arise, the public sense is awakened, or it is cultivated, or at all events it is changed. ... The reforms from which we hoped most, the advances for which we struggled most strenuonsly, do not produce all the good we expected ; but we cannot, nor would we, undo them. In everything there is a current onward, perhaps downward, but never back. ... The principle indeed changes from time to time. It comes to a climax.... All is not absolute good or advantage to the human race; but yet the race is stepping onward, it discovers new powers, it learns new ameliorations, and if it also makes proof of novel sufferings and dangers, it finds new defences and medicines for them. . . . It is in fact a real progress through a thonsand drawbacks, and every age leaves some foundation upon which the next can build.” This lucid description of the gradual progress of society might, it seems to me, apply perfectly to literature, but this, and its application to art, Mrs. Oliphant denies, because we have not'advanced upon Shakspere, Bacon, Chaucer, and Fra Angelico. This is, in brief, her reason for limiting the extent to which law may be affirmed to exist. According to her, and to a very current opinion which she represents, literature and art are outside of law.
Yet if we are unwilling to regard art and literature as miraculous, may we not be justified in supposing that there is some confusion in thus limiting the rules that govern the human mind in its other relations? Does it follow from the proposition that literature is governed by law that there should be a regular gradation of genius ? that Dryden's plays should be superior to Shakspere’s, and Dean Milman’s to both ? If these expectations are disappointed, is the law of progress at fault? I think not. Those who agree with Mrs. Oliphant in finding progress in political history certainly cannot find, let us say, in the arguments uttered a few years ago in Congress in favor of what was called the Force Law, an advance upon the position that was taken in Parliament, nearly two and a half centuries ago, against Charles I.; yet no one will deny the general advance in personal freedom throughout the civilized world since that day, and that in this country liberty is not a mere oratorical catch-word. The great literary glory of the reign of Elizabeth was but one expression of the same fervor that inspired Drake and Raleigh; and in our own time, when literature appears to languish, Mrs. Oliphant's own novels are expressing the same wider interest in the people that in politics makes itself felt as the spread of democracy. The construction of an arrears - of - rent bill is less dramatic than was the attempt to arrest the five members of the House of Commons, just as Marlowe's “Dr. Faustus” is more thrilling than any novel of the realists, but one is as much governed by law as the other, is equally the result of antecedent causes. To ask nothing but heroics of literature would be like demanding
nothing but the expression of devotion in painting. May we not hope that the present interest in reality and distrust of literary conventions may in time help the production of masterpieces? George Eliot's novels, for example, show us how far the province of literature has been enlarged, how great has been the addition to the material of writers, if the phrase may be allowed, within a century. There is no need of fearing that heroism is extinct, and it is not impossible that literature may yet flash into a brilliancy for which long years spent in studying real life shall have prepared writers and readers. At any rate, a genius, in the future as in the past and the present, is bound by the necessity of building on the foundations that society is laying every day. Every apparently insignificant action of ours contributes its mite to the sum of circumstances which inspire the writer, whose vision may be dim or inaccurate, but who can see only what exists or may exist, and is limited by experience whether this be treated literally or be modified by the imagination. No writer can escape this limitation any more than he can imagine a sixth sense.
If these statements are accurate, and a general, although not uniform, progress is acknowledged to exist in society, literature may also be said to be under the sway of law, or, rather, to move in accordance with law. We shall not expect every later writer to be greater than Shakspere, any more than we shall expect a greater enthusiasm for high truths in the birthplace of Daisy Miller than in the Athens of Pericles. Yet it may well be that, although the vivid genius is absent, there is a general widening of human interest and sympathies, which will be more apparent when it is crystal
lized by some great writer than it is now, when, as Cottle sang of climbing Malvern Hills,
“ It needs the evidence of close deduction
To know that ever I shall reach the top." Before closing, I wish to express my gratitude to the trustees and the officials of the Boston Public Library for their unfailing kindness.
My hearty thanks are also due to my friend, Mr. George Pellew, for many valuable suggestions and for much assistance in correcting proofs.