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A Literary History of America
LITERATURE, like its most excellent phase, poetry, has never been satisfactorily defined. In essence it is too subtle, too elusive, too vital, to be confined within the limits of phrase. Yet everybody vaguely knows what it is. Everybody knows that human life, in its endless, commonplace, unfathomable complexity, impresses human beings in ways which vary not only with individuals, but with the generations and the nations. Somewhere in the oldest English writings there is an allegory which has never faded. Of a night, it tells us, a little group was gathered about the fireside in a hall where the Aicker of Aame cast light on some and threw others into shadow, but none into shadow so deep as the darkness without. And into the window from the midst of the night Aew a swallow lured by the light; but unable by reason of his wildness to linger among men, he sped across the hall and so out again into the dark, and was seen no more. To this day, as much as when the old poet first saw or fancied it, the swallow's Aight remains an image of earthly life. From whence we know not, we come into the wavering light and gusty warmth of this world; but here the law of our being forbids that we remain.
A little we may see, fancying that we understand, - the hall, the lords
, and the servants, the chimney and the feast; more we may feel, — the light and the warmth, the safety and the danger, the hope and the dread. Then we must forth again, into the