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imagination. Wordsworth, in one of his most inspired passages, speaks of the quite similar workings of an early familiarity with the beauty and the mystery of external nature. “She shall be mine”, he makes Nature say of Lucy:
She shall be mine, and I will make
She shall be sportive as the Fawn,
Thus Wordsworth of Nature; and through books, especially such books as have the grandeur and simplicity of Wordsworth and of Nature, there is the same ready avenue to the stores of spiritual strength and spiritual consolation that lie at the heart of things. But with books as with Nature, there comes a moment when this uncritical, unsystematic acceptance, so valuable in childhood, no longer suffices us. We desire to drink a deeper draught of the Pierian spring, to surrender ourselves more completely and with fuller insight to that power which as yet we but dimly and vaguely feel. And the finer understanding of literature to which we now aspire, does not, like the first childish intimacy, come without taking thought for it. To win that secret, as to win anything else that is worth possessing, calls for its renunciations and its arduous toils. The kingdom of heaven is not taken by storm. Would we learn the great language and catch the clear accents of the masters of speech and song, we must prepare ourselves for a task that requires no small time, and is attended by no small difficulties. There is that obvious difficulty, which presents itself in some measure in approaching the earlier literature of one's own country, and which becomes really serious when one approaches any part of the literatures of other peoples and other countries, the difficulty of accustoming oneself to an alien tongue and an alien idiom. This in itself is so considerable, that, as has been pointed out, the surmounting of it is unfortunately too often taken as an end instead of as a means to the study of literature. And when, by the aid of grammar and dictionary and translation, this initial difficulty has been at last overcome, there still remains the further and perhaps even greater difficulty of learning to see what we read in its proper historical perspective. For no writer, however great, stands absolutely alone; each is the child of his own age, and the brother of his own people; nor is a complete understanding of any man's work possible, without some knowledge of the conditions under which it had its being, of the influences which helped to shape its form and inspire its purpose. This is an universal law. Wordsworth, indeed, says of Milton, “Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart"; and in a sense this is true, not of Milton alone, but of many another poet, the grandeur and purity of whose soul has outshone the petty and warped aims of lesser men, as the steadfast planet outshines the street-lamps. But it is not true if it is taken to mean that Milton or any of Milton's kin lived a life which was out of all relation to the common life of his own countrymen in his own day. The greatest are none the less, in their degree, subject to the ordinary limitations of humanity: their keenest vision cannot pierce far beyond the possibilities of existing knowledge, nor their highest aspirations soar a pitch out of all reach of existing ideals: the spiritual interests of those around them, purified and widened, it may be, in scope, but still essentially the same, are theirs also, and in their noblest utterances they do but give fuller and more conscious expression to the very ideas which, in forms crude and ill-defined, sway the contemporary masses. And, therefore, as in a mirror, they "show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. The annals of our country are written in its poets and novelists, no less than in its historians. As you pass from Chaucer to Spenser, and again from Spenser to Milton, the complete history of the Renascence is unrolled before you; while in the pages of Shakespeare, and in a less measure in those of Pope or of Tennyson, you may find the abstract and brief chronicle of a whole epoch of national civilization. It is also of course true, and should not be forgotten, that the greater a writer is, the more he takes his stand upon certain broad humanities, which are not of an age, but for all time; and this may be thought to require some modification of what has just been said. elementary facts of existence, birth and labour and death;
the primal relations of man to God, of lover to maiden, of mother to child; these themes, and others like them, have been at the root of every literature throughout the centuries. Homer knew them, and our latter-day singers are not weary of them yet. But, common as they are, every people and every age has interpreted them for itself afresh, has shed upon them the light of its own peculiar sentiment, and clothed them in the disguise of its own characteristic imagery. And so for each they have come to bear new and special forms, and to find expression in modes, which to those outside must needs be, at first sight, strange and unfamiliar. At heart the Oresteia of Aeschylus and the Macbeth of Shakespeare deal with the same problem, the eternal problem of sin and of sin's retribution. And yet how differently it presents itself; what a world of thought and feeling lies between the Greek of the fifth century before Christ, and the Englishman of the seventeenth century after; how difficult, how impossible, without an adequate knowledge of the mental history of that two-thousand years interval, to put them on the same plane, and to realize how far they are actually akin. It follows that one important object of the deliberate study of literature, as distinct from the casual and uninstructed enjoyment of it, must be to remove these obstacles which the inevitable lapse of time has set in our way. Until this is done we shall always feel to some extent strangers, when we wander outside the immediate domain of contemporary prose and verse. And in the absence of an historic background we shall hardly see even contemporary prose and verse as they really are. But with these, no doubt, the difficulty will be less. A modern writer must have links with the past; but, still more, he must be of the present: on the one side he may escape us, on the other he is necessarily ours. By a reader of the present day, Browning is more quickly appreciated than Spenser, although his thought is in itself far more obscure and intricate. But then he speaks directly to us, from our own point of view; we are in touch with him from the beginning, whereas we have to put ourselves in touch with Spenser, exercising a quasidramatic faculty, a painfully-acquired historic sense, which
may enable us to see as he saw, and to reconstruct for ourselves the mental and social conditions under which he wrote. And the acquirement of this historic sense or sympathy, difficult as it is to attain to, is the indispensable method, if we are ever to listen to Spenser, or any other of the great voices of the past, at all. Without it, they have nothing to say to us; with it, the barriers fall down, and the mighty of every age are declared to be of one heart and one tongue.
We may be certain, then, in the first place, of English literature, that it should be treated in the closest connection with English history. And, so treated, it is surely one of the most fascinating of all studies. For nowhere else, quite so clearly as in our books, may the many-sided, many-coloured genius of our nation be observed. The gradual development of this genius, the formation of the distinctively English temper out of isolated and warring elements, will be traced for us in the course of the present volume. We shall watch the coming together of the various racial stocks, each of them with its characteristic literary note, which constitute our ancestry. We shall see the imaginative fervour of the Celt, the sombre literalism of the Anglo-Saxon, the curious blend of gaiety and didacticism which marks the Norman-French, each in its turn absorbed into a whole, wherein all these divers qualities are still, as it were, held in solution, and uniting there to form a single spirit, flexible and richly endowed,