The Columbia Studies in Comparative Literature

“ THE criticism which alone can much help us for the future,” wrote Mr. Arnold in his luciferous manner, “ is a criticism which regards Europe as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result.”

It is the hope of attaining such constructive thought as this, which, in a day when the artfully phrased gustation of bookish flavors too often passes under the name of criticism, can best justify single-minded devotion to the tenth Muse. To many it is a pleasure to observe how the saner manifestations of the study of comparative literature are tending to the realization of this ideal. The name comparative literature may be new, but the thing is old. In its best contemporary form it is quite in the genial English tradition of humane scholarship. Bacon’s Advancement of Learning was perhaps its first important document, and, despite the alleged insularity of English taste, it has nowhere been more finely exhibited than in the work of such scholars as Bowles, Southey, Hallam, and Pater, or in that of their American cousins, Ticknor and Lowell. It has, indeed, been advanced by influences from the Continent, by the synoptic idealism of the German philosophers and critics of the romantic period, by the indefatigable delving of German students, and by the keen Gallic discriminations of the school of SainteBeuve ; it has caught something of peninsular enthusiasm from Italy and Spain ; yet at its best, English scholarship in this kind has been distinguished by flexibility of sympathy and a just perspective. It has been notably free from the apoplectic erudition, the excessive preoccupation with dusty detail, the logomachies, and fractious arietations, which elsewhere have drawn upon such studies the reproach of vanity.

At Columbia University, under the inspiration and editorial control of Professor Woodberry, there has grown a series of books which illustrates admirably that minute and careful research is not inconsistent with sound taste and a wide horizon. Taken as a whole, indeed, these Studies in Comparative Literature constitute a singularly substantial and important contribution to literature in the wider sense, and an unusually interesting chapter in the World’s Culturgeschichte. Viewed in the round they summarize many of the more important and significant aspects of European literature and intellectual life from the decadence of paganism to that flooding of literary lowlands which was consecutive upon the Renaissance. Withal they constantly regard Europe as “ bound to a joint action and working to a common result,” and they resume the inter-action of the various European national literatures in a way little seen in the run of Einfluss studies where the form of knowledge is too often divorced from its substantial body.

Mr. Taylor’s Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages, though one of the latest volumes in the series, is logically its beginning. It traces the passing over of the pagan man into his mediæval character with commendable lucidity and suggestiveness, and with copious evidence of full-bodied research. Any one who has seen the league - long set of Migne’s Patrologiæ Cursus Completus will have some faint notion of the character of Mr. Taylor’s wide and inarable field. That he has educed from it such a wealth of informing criticism is the more to his praise. To the literary student the chief interest of the book lies in its account of the growth of the more poignant emotions of Christianity in the controlled pagan heart, — resigned to order, — and the consequent merging of law-abiding classical literature in the rhymed exuberance, the unction and mysticity, of mediæval poetry. This was the outgrowth of that aspiration of the Christian soul, which, as Mr. Taylor says finely, " will produce at last on one hand the Roman de la Rose, and on the other the Divina Commedia; while as it were between these two, swing and waver, or circle like starlings, strange tales of sinful love and holy striving, whereof Arthur’s knights shall be the heroes, and wherein across the stage pass on to final purity Lancelot and Guinevere as well as Galahad and Parcival.”

The tonic chord of the series is struck in Dr. Spingarn’s History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance. Here the problem was to show how the men of the Renaissance justified imaginative literature, which to the mediæval “mind with its rigors and beatific visions had come to seem a light and vain thing. The interest for us lies in the fact that the justification was grounded upon those ever memorable generalizations of Aristotle about the universal in art, warmed and vitalized by the breath of Platonic idealism. Dr. Spingarn’s learned and skillful account of the rise of Aristotelian canons of criticism will perform a double service to most students of literature. It will remind them of the truth, too often forgotten, that modern classicism which they sometimes decry as formal and uninspired, or at best praise for its lucid order and labor of the file, did, as a matter of fact, draw inspiration from the perennial springs of ideal art. Furthermore it should impress many with a fresh sense of the debt owing to Italy for the spread of just and pregnant notions concerning the essential nature of the art they love. The frequent presence in Dr. Spingarn’s pages of such poetic and engaging figures as Sidney, best of poet-courtiers, and golden-haired Pico della Mirandola imparts to them a humane charm not common in such treatises.

Mr. Einstein has taken up the torch and pursued still further the story of Italian influence on the world’s culture in his studies of The Italian Renaissance in England. This minute account of certain strains in the life of Italianate England contains much of interest and novelty drawn from rare and hardly accessible manuscripts, and it is, we believe, the first attempt to present a complete conspectus of the singular relations between Italy and England in the sixteenth century. By virtue of its subject Mr. Einstein’s book has something of the subtle romantic appeal which inheres in the close study of an age of transition and complex development, like the peculiar interest we feel in Hellenizing Rome during the second and third centuries of this era, or in Gallicizing Germany during the eighteenth. This volume is further notable for the rare and striking portraits of old worthies by which it is embellished.

Not the least interesting of the series are the two books which deal with some of the literary influences flowing from the Spanish peninsula. There is no richer and fresher field for the pursuit of genial learning than the literatures which boast the great names of Cervantes, Calderon, and Camoens, which have, too, an incomparable store of picturesque songs and fables of the people. There is at the root of all this peninsular literature an intense, esoteric, indigenous quality, a profound racial idealism, which will elude all but the most patient and sympathetic study; yet when once the scholar has realized this he will have his reward, for Spanish Literature will then stand to him as perhaps the clearest and most coherent type of a national literature playing its part with others in joint action toward one result.

Dr. Underhill’s Spanish Literature in the England of the Tudors is informed by this fructifying idea. He presents for the first time a comprehensive view of political, social, and literary relations between Spain and England in the sixteenth century, and traces the part played by Spanish pride, worldly wisdom, mysticism, and high-flown courtesy in forming the ideals and manner of English writers in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The book is notable for the wealth of evidence other than literary which is adduced, and for the intimacy of the comparisons of English and Spanish authors. Herein the work is exemplary for the comparative student, who is too often lamentably deficient in his knowledge of the authors compared, while he is long, so to say, on their relation.

The ever delightful picaro, that glad, extra-moral personage, through whom we enjoy vicariously rich pleasure of knavery and robustious horse-play, all the rare, old-world adventures of the life of the road, is made the subject of Dr. Chandler’s readable and suggestive treatise of Romances of Roguery, of which mention has already been made in the pages of the Atlantic.

As an episode in the development of the modern novel the history of the Spanish picaresque romances is of very considerable importance. It was with the rogue — the anti-hero — that story-tellers first learned the trick of realism, of embodying the result of nice observation in the portrayal of character, and thus these rollicking human stories, purgée, as Le Sage has it, des moralitez superfluës, came to be of incalculable moment in forming the robust English art of Fielding and Smollett. All this is presented by Dr. Chandler clearly and cogently, with a reticulation of roguish narrative which makes excellent reading.

We remember the typical story of the youthful savant who laid as a love-gift at the feet of his sweetheart “ an impertinency in folio,” a fat and learned Latin dissertation, De Levitate Feminarum. It is a noteworthy fact that while three of the five volumes of the series under review were composed for doctoral purposes, they are all as singularly free from this distortion of perspective as from the arid parvitude of style which we associate with the academic dissertation. They show, indeed, throughout, a fresh and lively enthusiasm for orderly and humane learning that gives them a literary quality almost equivalent to temperament. In the images and old thoughts which they have transferred from scarce and cryptic pages is preserved the essence of humanism, “ that belief,” as Pater said, " that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality, — no oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have been passionate or expended time or zeal.” Furthermore it is in the constructive conclusions to which these five volumes lead that they are representative of the best contemporary literary study, which is more and more leaving the primrose way of lyrical and personal writing to study literature as the cumulative record of the life of society. Hence it is a pious and particular pleasure to notice these earnest studies which contrive to unite something of the range of the literary Darwinians with the generous flexibility of the older scholarship, so to pave a little portion of the way to wider and juster views of that large life of which the finest vision is seen through the spectacles of books.

F. G.

  1. A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance. With special reference to the influence of Italy in the formation and direction of modern classicism. By JOEL ELIAS SPINGARN. New York : The Columbia University Press. The Macmillan Co. 1899.
  2. Spanish Literature in the England of the Tudors. By JOHN GARRETT UNDERHILL. New York : The Columbia University Press. The Macmillan Co. 1899.
  3. Romances of Roguery. An episode in the history of the novel. By FRANK WADLEIGH CHANDLER. Part I. The Picaresque Novel in Spain. New York : The Columbia University Press. The Macmillan Co. 1899.
  4. The Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages. By HENRY OSBORNE TAYLOR. New York: The Columbia University Press. The Macmillan Co. 1901.
  5. The Italian Renaissance in England. Studies. By LEWIS EINSTEIN. Illustrated. New York: The Columbia University Press. The Macmillan Co. 1902.