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voiceless, unseen eternities. But the fleeting moments of life, like the swallow's Aight once more, are not quite voiceless; as surely as he may twitter in the ears of men, so men themselves may give sign to one another of what they think they know, and of what they know they feel. More too; men have learned to record these signs, so that long after they are departed, others may guess
what their life meant. These records are often set forth in terms which may be used only by those of rarely special gift and training, — the terms of architecture and sculpture, of painting and music; but oftener and more freely they are phrased in the terms which all men learn somehow to use,
the terms of language. Some of these records, and most, are of so little moment that they are soon neglected and forgotten; others, like the fancied story of the swallow, linger through the ages. It is to these that we give the name of literature. Literature is the lasting expression in words of the meaning of life.
Any definition is the clearer for examples. To make sure of ours, then, we may well recall a few names which undoubtedly illustrate it. The Psalms are literature, so is the
, Iliad, so are the Epistles of Saint Paul, so is the Æneid, and the Divine Comedy, and Don Quixote, and Hamlet. These few names are enough to remind us not only of what literature is, but also of the fact which most distinguishes it from other arts of expression. The lines and colours which embody architecture, sculpture, and painting, can be understood by anybody with eyes. Though to people like ourselves, who have grown up amid the plastic traditions of classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, an Egyptian painting or a Japanese print looks odd, it remains, even to us, comprehensible. The Psalms, on the other hand, were written in Hebrew, the Iliad and the Epistles in dialects of Greek, the Æneid was written in Latin, the Divine Comedy in Italian, Don Quixote in Spanish, and Hamlet in Elizabethan English; except through the unsatisfactory medium of translation one and all must be sealed books to those who do not know the languages native to the men who phrased them. World-old legends, after all, are the wisest; the men who fled from Babel could each see in the deserted tower a monument of impious aspiration, but this thought of each was sealed from the rest by the confusion of tongues. So to this day literature is of all fine arts the most ineradicably national.
Here again we come to a word so simple and so frequent that an important phase of its meaning is often overlooked. Nationality is generally conceived to be a question of race, of descent, of blood; and yet in human experience there is a circumstance perhaps more potent in binding men together than any physical tie. That old legend of Babel tells the story. The confusion of tongues broke every bond of common kinship; the races which should hold together through the centuries sprang afresh from men who newly spoke and newly thought and newly felt in terms of common language. For these languages which we speak grow more deeply than anything else to be a part of our mental habit who use them. It is in terms of language that we think even about the commonplaces of life, - what we shall eat, what we shall
whom we shall care for; in terms of language too, and in no others, we formulate the ideals which consciously, and perhaps still more unconsciously, guide our conduct and our aspirations. In a strange, subtle way each language grows to associate with itself the ideals and the aspirations and the fate of those peoples with whose life it is inextricably intermingled.
Languages grow and live and die in accordance with laws of their own, not perfectly understood, which need not now detain us.
This English of ours, with which alone we are immediately concerned, may be taken as typical. Originating, one can hardly say precisely when or how, from the union and confusion of older tongues, it has struggled through the infantile diseases of dialect, each of which has left some trace, until long ago it not only had become the sole means of expression for millions of people, but also had assumed the literary form which now makes its literature in some respects the most considerable of modern times. Whatever else, this literature is the most spontaneous, the least formal and conscious, the most instinctively creative, the most free from the rankness and the debility of extreme culture, and so seemingly the most normal. Its earliest forms were artless ; songs and sayings began to stray from oral tradition into written record, laws were sometimes phrased and chronicles made in the robust young terms which carried meaning to unlearned folks as wel! as to those versed in more polite tongues. By and by came forms of literature which at least comparatively were artistic, in Auenced by an impulse of writers and of readers too towards expression for expression's sake. The earliest of these which has lasted in general literary memory reached its height in the work of Chaucer. After his time came a century or more of civil disturbance, when Englishmen were too busy with wars of the Roses and the like for further progress in the arts of peace. Then, with the new national integrity which grew under the Tudors, came a fresh and stronger literary impulse, unsurpassed in vigorous spontaneity.
In 1575 there was hardly such a thing as modern English literature; in 1625 that great body of English literature which we call Elizabethan was complete. Fifty years had given us not only incomparable lyric verse and the final version of the Bible, but the work too of Spenser, of Shakspere and the other great dramatists, of Hooker, of Ralegh, of Bacon, and of all their fellows. Among these, of course, Shakspere stands supreme, just as Chaucer stood among his contemporaries whose names are now forgotten by all but special scholars; and one feature of Shakspere's supremacy is that his literary career was normal. Whoever has followed it from his experimental beginning, through the ripeness to which he brought comedy, history, and tragedy alike, to its placid close amid the growing languor of freshly established tradition, will have learned something more than even the great name of Shakspere includes, he will have had a glimpse of the natural law which not only governed the course of Shakspere himself and of Elizabethan literature, but has governed in the past and will govern in the future the growth, development, and decline of all literature and of all fine art whatsoever. Lasting literature has its birth when a creative impulse, which we may call imaginative, moves men to break the shackles of tradition, making things which have not been before; sooner or later this impulse is checked by a growing sense of the inexorable limits of fact and of language; and then creative imagination sinks into some new tradition, to be broken only when, in time to come, the vital force of imagination shall revive.
As English literature has grown into maturity, the working of this law throughout its course has become evident. The first impulse, we have seen, gave us the work of Chaucer; the second, which came only after generations, gave us the Elizabethan lyrics and dramas, Spenser and Shakspere, and the final form of the English Bible. This last is probably the greatest masterpiece of translation in the world; it has exercised on the thought and the language of English-speaking people an influence which cannot be overestimated. translation, however, it rather indicates how eager Elizabethan Englishmen were to know the splendours of world-old literature, than reveals a spontaneous impulse towards native expression. Apart from this supreme work, the fully developed literature of the Elizabethan period took on the whole the form of poetry; that of the eighteenth century, on the other hand, took on the whole the form of prose; and as English prose literature has developed, no phase of it has developed more highly than its fiction. Vaguely general though this statement be, it is perhaps enough to indicate an important general tendency. The first form in which the normal literature of any language develops is instinctively poetic ; prose comes later; and prose fiction, that intricate combination of
poetic impulse with prosaic form, comes later still. In 1625 English literature was fully developed only in the forms of lyric and dramatic poetry.
It was about this time that the America with which we shall be concerned came into existence. It began with a number of mutually independent settlements, each of which grew into something like political integrity. When the Constitution of the United States was adopted, somewhat more than a hundred years ago, the sentiment of local sovereignty in the separate States was accordingly too strong to allow the federal power to assume an independent name. As the power thus founded developed into one of the most considerable in modern history, its citizens found themselves driven by this unique fact of national namelessness to a custom which, if misunderstood, is often held presumptuous; they called themselves Americans, a name geographically proper to all natives of the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to Patagonia. By this time the custom thus historically established has given to the name “ America” the sense in which we generally use it. The America with whose literary history we are to be concerned is only that part of the American continent which is dominated by the English-speaking people now subject to the government of the United States.
A literary history of America, then, should concern itself with such lasting expressions in words of the meaning of life as this people has uttered during its three centuries of growingly independent existence; or, in simpler terms, with what America has contributed to the literature of the English language.
Accidents of chronology though the centuries of any era must be, they prove in such study as ours convenient divisions of time, at once easy to remember and characteristically distinct. In the history of America, at least, each century has traits of its
In 1600 there was no such thing as English-speaking America ; in 1700 all but one of the colonies which have