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of it, give to the readers of the age the sort of words and the sort of thoughts - the special literature, in fact - which those readers like and prize. And not only does the writer without thinking choose the sort of style and meaning which are most in vogue, but the writer is himself chosen : a writer does not begin to write in the traditional rhythm of an age unless he feels or fancies he feels a sort of aptitude for writing it, any more than a writer tries to write in a journal in which the style is uncongenial or impossible to him. Indeed, if he mistakes he is soon weeded out: the editor rejects, the age will not read, his compositions. How painfully this traditional style cramps great writers whom it happens not to suit is curiously seen in Wordsworth, who was bold enough to break through it, and at the risk of contemporary neglect to frame a style of his own; but he did so knowingly and he did so with an effort. “It is supposed," he says, “that by the act of writing in verse an author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprizes the reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded. This exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must in different eras of literature have excited very different expectations : for example, in the age of Catullus, Terence, and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley or Dryden or Pope.”* And then, in a kind of vexed way, Wordsworth goes on to explain that he himself can't and won't do what is expected from him, but that he will write his own words and only his own words. A strict - I was going to say a Puritan--genius will act thus; but most men of genius are susceptible and versatile, and fall into the style of their age. One very unapt at the assimilating process, but on that account the more curious about it, says,
* Preface to “Lyrical Ballads."
" How we
What writers are expected to write, they write; or else they do not write at all, but like the writer of these lines, stop discouraged, live disheartened, and die leaving fragments which their friends treasure, but which a rushing world never heeds. The nonconformist writers are neglected, the conformist writers are encouraged, until perhaps on a sudden the fashion shifts. And as with the writers, so in a less degree with readers: many men -- most men-get to like or think they like that which is ever before them, and which those around them like and which received opinion says they ought to like; or if their minds are too marked and oddly made to get into the mold, they give up reading altogether, or read old books and foreign books, formed under another code and appealing to a different taste.
The principle of “elimination," the “use and disuse" of organs which naturalists speak of, works here: what is used strengthens, what is disused weakens; “to those who have, more is given,” —and so a sort of style settles upon an age, and imprinting itself more than anything else in men's memories, becomes all that is thought of about it.
I believe that what we call “national character" arose in very much the same way. At first a sort of “ chance predominance” made a model, and then invincible attraction — the necessity which rules all but the strongest men to imitate what is before their eyes, and to be what they are expected to be- molded men by that model. This is, I think, the very process by which new national characters are being made in our own time. In America and in Australia a new modification of what we call Anglo-Saxonism
* Arthur Hugh Clough, “Amours de Voyage," Canto i., iv.
is growing: a sort of type of character arose from the difficulties of colonial life, - the difficulty of struggling with the wilderness, -and this type has given its shape to the mass of characters because the mass of characters have unconsciously imitated it. Many of the American characteristics are plainly useful in such a life and consequent on such a life: the eager restlessness, the highly strung nervous organization, are useful in continual struggle and also are promoted by it.
These traits seem to be arising in Australia too, and wherever else the English race is placed in like circumstances. But even in these useful particulars, the innate tendency of the human mind to become like what is around it has effected much: a sluggish Englishman will often catch the eager American look in a few years; an Irishman or even a German will catch it too, even in all English particulars. And as to a hundred minor points, – in so many that go to mark the typical Yankee, - usefulness has had no share either in their origin or their propagation: the accident of some predominant person possessing them set the fashion, and it has been imitated to this day. Anybody who inquires will find even in England, and even in these days of assimilation, parish peculiarities which arose no doubt from some old accident, and have been heedfully preserved by customary copying. A national character is but the successful parish character, just as the national speech is but the successful parish dialect; the dialect, that is, of the district which came to be more cases but a little more — influential than other districts, and so set its yoke on books and on society.
I could enlarge much on this, for I believe this unconscious imitation to be the principal force in the making of national characters; but I have already said more about it than I need. Everybody who weighs even half these arguments will admit that it is a great force in the matter, a principal agency to be acknowledged and watched; and for my present
in many purpose I want no more. I have only to show the efficacy of the tight early polity (so to speak) and the strict early law on the creation of corporate characters. These settled the predominant type, set up a sort of model, made a sort of idol; this was worshiped, copied, and observed, from all manner of mingled feelings, but most of all because it was “the thing to do," the then accepted form of human action. When once the predominant type was determined, the copying propensity of man did the rest. The tradition ascribing Spartan legislation to Lycurgus was literally untrue, but its spirit was quite true: in the origin of states, strong and eager individuals got hold of small knots of men, and made for them a fashion which they were attached to and kept.
It is only after duly apprehending the silent manner in which national characters thus form themselves that we can rightly appreciate the dislike which old governments had to trade. There must have been something peculiar about it, for the best philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, shared it; they regarded commerce as the source of corruption as naturally as a modern economist considers it the spring of industry, and all the old governments acted in this respect upon the philosophers' maxims. “Well," said Dr. Arnold, speaking ironically and in the spirit of modern times, “Well indeed might the policy of the old priest-nobles of Egypt and India endeavor to divert their people from becoming familiar with the sea, and represent the occupation of a seaman as incompatible with the purity of the highest castes: the sea deserved to be hated by the old aristocracies, inasmuch as it has been the mightiest instrument in the civ. ilization of mankind."* But the old oligarchies had their own work, as we now know: they were imposing a fashioning yoke, they were making the human nature which after times employ; they were at their
*“Social Progress of States,” Appendix to Vol. i. of his “Thucydides."
labors, we have entered into these labors : and to the unconscious imitation which was their principal tool, no impediment was so formidable as foreign inter
Men imitate what is before their eyes if it is before their eyes alone; but they do not imitate it if it is only one among many present things, - one competitor among others, all of which are equal and some of which seem better. “Whoever speaks two languages is a rascal,” says the saying; and it rightly represents the feeling of primitive communities when the sudden impact of new thoughts and new examples breaks down the compact despotism of the single consecrated code, and leaves pliant and impressible man—such as he then is — to follow his unpleasant will without distinct guidance by hereditary morality and hereditary religion. The old oligarchies wanted to keep their type perfect, and for that end they were right not to allow foreigners to touch it.
“Distinctions of race," says Arnold himself elsewhere in a remarkable essay (for it was his last on Greek history, his farewell words on a long-favorite subject), “were not of that odious and fantastic character which they have borne in modern times: they implied real differences often of the most important kind, religious and moral.” And after exemplifying this at length, he goes on, “It is not then to be wondered at that Thucydides, when speaking of a city founded jointly by Ionians and Dorians, should have thought it right to add that the prevailing institutions of the place were the Ionian,' for according as they were derived from one or the other of the two races, the whole character of the people would be different. And therefore the mixture of persons of different race in the same commonwealth, unless one race had a complete ascendancy, tended to confuse all the relations of life and all men's notions of right and wrong; or by compelling men to tolerate, in so
* Preface to Vol. iii. of his “ Thucydides."