« FöregåendeFortsätt »
some range or other of literature: and nothing else is so entitled. And here let me step aside for a moment to notice an unworthy and very inadequate term, which, in its day has had some currency as a substitute for the term “ literature." I refer to that vapid, half-naturalized term
belles-lettres,” which was more in vogue formerly than now, getting currency, I suppose, during a period of shallow criticism not very remote from our day, when Doctor Blair and Lord Kames were great authorities. I have never met with anybody who could tell me what precise meaning it is meant to convey. The term had an appropriateness for much in the literature of France, but translate the words and transfer them to English literature, and how inane is such a title, so applied ! Doctor Johnson has given it a place in the English vocabulary, and tells us it means “polite literature,” which does not help the matter much. I should not have thought it worth while to stop to comment on this term, if I did not believe it to be not only vague and inadequate, but also mischievous ; and it is well known what power of mischief there may be in a word. “Belles-lettres”—fine letters-polite literature—what thought do these terms convey but of luxuries of the mind, a refined amusement, but no more than amusement, confectionaries (as it were) of the mind, rather than needful, solid, healthy, life-sustaining food. If the term “belles-lettres” excludes the weighty and sublime productions of the mind, then is it a miserable substitute for what should be comprehended in such a term as “literature:" if it includes them, then is it a pitifully inapposite title. Now the mischief is just here: this dainty, feeble term leads people to suppose that literature is an easy, indolent cultivation, a sort of passive, patrician
pleasure, instead of demanding dutiful and studious and strenuous energy. It lowers the great works of genius, as if they could be approached indolently, thoughtlessly, and without preparatory discipline. When the term was most in use, it was meant for that which is essential literature, and yet how meanly inadequate and injurious is it now in the department of poetry, if applied to the Fairy Queen, Paradise Lost, The Excursion! We might call the fanciful things in The Rape of the Lock, creations; but who will so speak of Milton's ruined Archangel, or Lear, or Hamlet? It is to be noticed that as the term “belleslettres” was introduced in a feeble age of the British mind, so it has been in a great measure cast out by the deeper philosophy of criticism which has arisen in this century.
I have adverted to this subject, because the term detracts from that which is the prime characteristic of literature—its universality—its appeal to man as man. In this simple, elementary principle, we may unfold some of the manifold powers and uses of a literature: it would not thus address itself to all human beings, whose minds can be open to it, unless it had some great purpose—some worthier end than pastime. It is one of the countless and varied influences under which man's spiritual being passes through this mortal life. It is one agency amid many, only one among many, for we must not exaggerate its importance. We are dwelling amid the things of sight and sound in this inanimate world; and that has its influences on the soul of man: we are dwelling in the social world of kindred human beings, giving and receiving from one another impressions to last, it may be, through eternity: We are living amid the spiritual agencies which are vouch
safed to redeemed man: and our life is also in the world
And books, we know,
Our pastime and our happiness will grow.*
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Than all the sages can.f
* Wordsworth. Sonnet, “ Personal Talk,” p. 186.
in true adjustment. There is a time for the eye to dwell on the printed page, but there is also a time to gaze "on earth, air, ocean, and the starry sky;" there is a time to look into the faces of our fellow-beings, the bright and laughing face, or the sad and sorrowing one; there is a time too for silent, solitary, spiritual looking inward into the soul itself; and thus by no one function, but by many, does man build up his moral being. Such is education, in its large and true significancy. Looking to literature as our present subject, and having ascertained that its prime quality is its power of addressing itself to man as man, let us now see for what purpose it so deals with our common humanity, that we may have a principle to guide us in our choice of books. One of the most acute and logical minds of our time, that of him who has coupled his name with a morbid and ill-omened title—I refer to Mr. De Quincey, the English opium-eater-has drawn a distinction between two species of literature. « There is," he says, “first, the literature of knowledge, and, secondly, the literature of power. The function of the first is to teach ; the function of the second is to move. ... The very highest work that has ever existed in the literature of knowledge is but a provisional work; a book upon trial and sufferance. Let its teaching be even partially revised, let it be but expanded, nay, even let its teaching be but placed in a better order, and instantly it is superseded. Whereas the feeblest work in the literature of power, surviving at all, survives as finished and unalterable among men. For instance, the Principia of Sir Isaac Newton was a book militant on earth from the first. In all stages of its progress it would have to fight for its existence: first, as regards absolute truth; secondly, when that combat is over, as regards its form or mode of presenting the truth. And as soon as a La Place or anybody else builds higher upon the foundations laid by this book, effectually he throws it out of the sunshine into decay and darkness; by weapons even from this book he superannuates and destroys it, so that soon the name of Newton remains as a mere nominis umbra, but his book, as a living power, has transmigrated into other forms. Now, on the contrary, the Iliad, the Prometheus of Æschylus, the Othello or King Lear, the Hamlet or Macbeth, and the Paradise Lost are not militant, but triumphant power as long as the languages exist in which they speak or can be taught to speak. They never can transmigrate into new incarnations.
All the literature of knowledge builds only groundnests, that are swept away by floods, or confounded by the plough; but the literature of power builds nests in aerial altitudes, of temples sacred from violation, or of forests inaccessible to fraud. This is a great prerogative of the power-literature. . . . The knowledge-literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. . . . But all literature, properly so called, . . . for the very same reason that it is much more durable than the literature of knowledge is ... more intense and electrically searching in its impressions. The directions in which the tragedy of this planet has trained our human feelings to play, and the combinations into which the power of this planet has thrown our human passions of love and hatred, of admiration and contempt, exercises a power bad or good over human life that cannot be contemplated when seen stretching through many generations, without a sentiment allied to awe. And of this let every one be assured, that he owes to the impassioned books which he has read many