Recent Works on English Literature

THE study of English literature has received a great impetus within the present generation. The impetus has come in part from the expansion of educational systems ; the number of those who seek or are invited to pass beyond the limits of elementary education has been swelled, and it has been found impossible to attract or satisfy such with humane letters in the antique form, or even with contemporary foreign letters, English literature is, in a vast number of schools, made to serve as a substitute for the Greek and Latin classics ; the very methods which rule in the teaching of those works have passed over into the teaching of English. The analytical, the philological, and now the historical and philosophical are applied, and it has been the hasty judgment of enthusiasts that the study of English is capable of banishing the study of Greek and Latin, at least of relegating it to the confines of a specific university curriculum. Happily for good letters, the revival of interest in ancient literature and the application of new methods in teaching are quite as significant phenomena as this increased attention to the study of English literature, and we may dismiss from view any alarm lest one shall supplant the other.

The impetus has come also from the development of the critical faculty, and especially from the steady rise of historical methods of study. If it be somewhat difficult to detect, either in England or America, the existence of great creative powers in literature, it is not at all difficult to see on all hands an access of zeal in historical criticism ; and it would seem to be a special function of this generation to review what has been done, to revive the study of past periods of literary activity, and to increase immensely the critical apparatus at the service of the young student. We may point, as evidence of this, to the several series of books dealing with the men of letters in England and America, with philosophical writers, with surveys of ancient and foreign classics, and to the primers, selections, critical editions of English classics, special dictionaries, grammars, and hand-books. Much admirable work has been expended in these directions, and it may be said, in brief, that it is much more common to find acute and learned criticism than it is to find books which have inspiration in them. Certainly, the books which deal in the criticism or history of other books rarely have a spirit which fires the reader with zeal to read the literature discussed.

The present season brings to our notice several works which have for their aim to guide the student through English literature, and we shall confine ourselves to those of American origin, and thus presumably fitted for the use of the American student. The whole field of the subject is so vast that scholars may easily find enough in any corner which they may fence off; but the fascination of a comprehensive survey is so great that there are few writers who do not attempt to put the reader into possession of the whole subject. Moreover, there are so many modes of ingress that every one fancies his own path has a special charm. Here, for example, is Professor James Baldwin, who has laid out his work systematically, and publishes a section 1 devoted to the consideration of English poetry. “ This book,” he says in his preface, “is not a History of English Literature, It aims rather to serve as a guide to the acquirement of a practical acquaintanceship (why not acquaintanceshippinginvoice ?) with all that is the best and the most worthy in our literature. The chronological arrangement, usually adopted in books upon this subject, has been in most part abandoned for the more natural arrangement by which works of a similar kind are grouped and studied together, and compared with each other. This, in the author’s judgment, is the only true method of study. To those who may find fault with his classification he will only say that he has chosen that arrangement which he considers the most convenient for giving aid and information to those in search of a certain kind of knowledge. One man may call a particular poem a Romance, another may call it an Epic ; but it matters not so much what we call it, as how and in what connection we present it to the attention of the reader or student.”

Mr. Baldwin is consistent with himself, therefore, when he sweeps the leavings of his poetical study into a final chapter headed Miscellaneous Poetry ; but if names like epic or romance indicate anything, they indicate great natural divisions of poetry, and not merely convenient groups, under which poems may be classed and studied. The only justification of this author’s method falls to the ground, if the names of his divisions of poetry represent his personal judgment. The weakness of this method lies in its emphasizing the form which poetry takes. It is true that one may make a study of the development of dramatic poetry in English literature, because there has been an historic connection between the early and the later forms, and because of the implication of the theatre; but what dependence is there of narrative or lyric poetry at any one time upon previous exhibitions of the same order ? No thorough study of poetry, at any time or in any form, is possible without an examination of the influences, whether native or foreign, which have determined both spirit and form. Mr. Baldwin attempts very little of this, and hence his book is scarcely more than a collection of external facts about poetry, arranged upon an artificial, and not a natural, system. It gives very few hints to the student of poetry, and even the illustrative criticism from many sources is so fragmentary as to have little value. A thorough, searching examination of one great poem would be worth a whole volume of this miscellaneous information.

Mr. Tuckerman has more reason on his side when he undertakes a study of the development of English fiction ;2 for he takes a form which has had a steady growth, and of which the latest manifestation bears some relation to the earliest. The historical method, also, is a very desirable one to apply to such a subject; and although Mr. Tuckerman does not interpret very fully the transitions from one period to another, or show the process by which one form passed into another, he does give with tolerable fullness the materials out of which one may develop a consecutive study. His characterizations of the older fiction are generally just, and, if not especially acute, are not marred by whimsicality ; but we fear he has shirked the hardest part of his work. At any rate, he has stopped short at the very point where the reader’s strongest interest begins. “ The novels of the nineteenth century,” he says in his preface, “are so numerous and so generally familiar that in the chapter devoted to this period I have sought rather to point out the great importance which fiction has assumed, and the variety of forms which it has taken, than to attempt any exhaustive criticism of individual authors, — a task already sufficiently performed by writers far more able to do it justice.” Mr. Tuckerman’s modesty cannot save him. It was his business to give his readers a clue through the mazes of contemporary fiction ; and he has made but one contribution to the subject which is of any interest, and that is when he says of the advance in refinement of manners, “ When we think of our improved morality and refinement, we must temper our pride with the reflection that we may be simply more hypocritical, and not more virtuous, than our ancestors. . . . This advance has left plainly marked traces on the fiction of our time, where, too, we shall find plentiful evidence of that hypocrisy which has become our besetting sin.” There was an excellent opportunity here, which Mr. Tuckerman missed, of contrasting the real refinement, which has its tendency to morbid casuistry, and the specious refinement, which is a mere thin sheet of ice, over which the reader is swiftly borne, in momentary danger of breaking through.

Mr. Tuckerman has by his somewhat ineffective book indicated a solid and substantial subject, which waits for a masterly treatment; and the true historian, when he comes, will do more than trace the consecutive steps in English fiction. Let us hope that he will not fall into the snares which have beset the way of Mr. Welsh, who, in two octavo volumes,3 has undertaken to reveal the development of English literature and language. The subject was large enough, the books are large enough ; it is only the man who is deficient, and his deficiency, to speak in a paradox, lies through his superabundance. If it is unreasonable to ask that he who drives fat oxen should himself be fat, it is surely a simple requisite of a writer on English language and literature that his own language should be correct, and his literary style good. There is altogether too much of Mr. Welsh. His intellectual energy carries him too far. The very beginning of his work is marked by an impetuous, headlong rush into words, which argues ill for a pace to be kept up through a thousand pages. “ We are to think of England,” he says on his second page, “ in those dim old days, as, intellectually and physically, an island in a northern sea — the joyless abode of rain and surge, forest and bog, wild beast and sinewy savage, which, as it struggled from chaos into order, from morning into prime, should become the residence of civilized energy and Christian sentiment, of smiling love and sweet poetic dreams.” If Mr. Welsh can drive his thought, four in hand, like that, we can only venture to jump on behind; we should never think of taking the reins. Let us follow him, in his wild career, through another sentence : “Time is a camera-obscura, through which a man, if great while living, becomes tenfold greater when dead. Henceforward he exists to society by some shining trait of beauty or ability which he had ; and, borrowing his proportions from the one fine feature, we finish the portrait symmetrically. That feature is the small real star that gleams out of the dark vortex of the ages, through the madness of rioting fancy and the whirlwind chaos of images ; expanding, according to the glass it shines through, into wondrous thousand-fold form and color.” We think it safer to get down from Mr. Welsh’s chariot, after that. He is not to be trusted as a literary guide, nor as a literary gardener either. Here is one of the flowers of his fancy. The legendary stories, he says, “ may, and doubtless do, contain germs of truth, left on the shifting sands as wave after wave of forgotten generations broke on the shores of eternity.” We never tried to propagate germs under such trying circumstances, but Mr. Welsh seems to think that his came up and flourished.

If it be said that these are blemishes in diction, and that the real consideration is whether or no Mr. Welsh has done what he essayed in tracing the development of our language and literature, it might be enough to add that no one with so vicious a style can be a safe guide in the study of style, and the worst examples of his work are to be found in his characterization of the masters. This voluble showman stands before the procession of English-speaking authors, and makes it pass slowly enough to permit him to cover each individual in the procession with words as with a garment. When Spenser, for example, comes in sight, Mr. Welsh, after his customary division of the subject into biography, appearance, writings, and versification, refers to his style, and says, “ Luxuriant and spacious, yet simple and clear, seldom rivaled in the charm of its diffusion, the orient flush of its diction, and the music of its recurrent chimes. Many passages, it may be needless to observe, are beautiful, harmonious, combining a subtle perfection of phrase with a happy coalescence of meaning and melody.” One would like to have Mr. Welsh on the stand, that he might explain exactly, and not vaguely, what he means by this last sentence. He flourishes his showman’s stick when Irving appears. “ Our veteran chief of Letters was the amiable and gifted Irving, in whom the creative vigor, that, breathing and burning in the bosom of the nation, had found issue in action, blossomed into art. All his life a desultory genius, reading much, but studying little.” For a man so prodigal of words, Mr, Welsh is often singularly economical in his use of the simple copula. How Irving would have shuddered at such a pair of sentences : Of Bryant, who never used words unless he knew what they meant, Mr. Welsh remarks, “ There [in the quietude of nature] he saw only the tokens of creative beneficence, and from every scene could elicit some elevating inference or cheering sentiment.” It would be easy to multiply instances of Mr. Welsh’s obscure rhetoric, but we should like to know, in passing, just what he means when he says of Emerson, “ He has founded no school, he has left behind him no Emersonian system, but fragments of him are scattered everywhere, — germs of bloom that will perish never. A great book is a ship deep freighted with immortal treasures, breaking the sea of life into fadeless beauty as it sails, carrying to every shore seeds of truth, goodness, piety, love, to flower and fruit perennially in the soil of the heart and mind.”

Mr. Welsh, with all his swash of words, says some good things, and we have a species of respect for a writer who carries through the task of reading many books, appropriating many fine sentiments, and allowing his enthusiasm to run riot from Cædmon to Tennyson. Unfortunately, the mischief begins when Mr. Welsh is done. His book is printed, and its dignified appearance commands attention. We fear that young students will plow through it, and imagine that they are cultivating their minds. We find ourselves, after reading the book, under the spell of its incessant metaphor. From the heralding which the work has received, unsuspecting teachers and conscientious students will be likely to take it as a substantial guide in the study of English literature. It is one of the worst examples we have met of the false system which substitutes books about English literature for English literature itself. The careful study of two or three really great works in literature is worth something. To read Mr. Welsh’s big, philosophical, bloated treatise is to vitiate one’s taste for fine literature, and to become an amateur omniscience.

  1. An Introduction to the Study of English Literature and Literary Criticism. Designed for the use of schools, seminaries, colleges, and universities. By Professor JAMES BALDWIN. Volume I. Poetry. Philadelphia: John E. Potter & Co.
  2. A History of English Prose Fiction from Sir Thomas Malory to George Eliot. By BAYARD TUCKERMAN. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1882.
  3. Development of English Literature and Language. By ALFRED H. WELSH, A. M. In two volumes. Chicago: S. C. Griggs & Co. 1882.