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A DEFINITION OF LITERATURE
“ Literary men are a perpetual priesthood.”
-Thomas Carlyle. What is literature? Before we begin the study of English literature, let us ask ourselves in what sense we are to use the word. Dr. Johnson described it as something designed to make familiar things new and new things familiar. Matthew Arnold called it a criticism of life. Shelley considered one branch of it, poetry, as a record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best lives. Milton said that a good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. To Carlyle it was the thought of thinking souls.
Though these sayings are all suggestive and inspiring, none of them, strictly speaking, is a definition, because none of them tells the two things which a definition of literature should tell: (1) all that it is; (2) all that it is not. Everybody remembers how Plato defined man as a featherless biped, and how Diogenes the next day brought to his lecture room a plucked fowl, which he exhibited to the assembled students with the ill-natured remark: “Behold Plato's man! These definitions of literature are open to the same objection. If you analyze them carefully you will perceive that they all apply with practically equal exactness to other things as well as to literature. Pictures, statues, travel, often make familiar things new and new things familiar. Music, sculpture, and painting are criticisms of life. The steam-engine and the telephone are records of the best and happiest moments of great and happy lives. Milton's definition of a good book is equally applicable to a fine statue. An automobile is just as surely as a poem the thought of a thinking soul.
Between the steam-engine, the telephone, and the automobile on the one hand, and the picture, the statue, and the song on the other, there is, however, a difference. The first three are designed primarily to promote our physical comfort and convenience; the latter three minister to our spiritual requirements. To which class do books belong?
Some books belong obviously in the first class: cook-books, algebras, scientific treatises, books on law and medicine, guide books. Others, such as poems, novels, plays, sermons, belong as clearly in the second class. To books of this class, to sculpture, to music, to certain forms of architecture, and to landscape gardening it is customary to apply the name Art. Literature, then, is an art, but not all writing is literature. But what is art?
There are two worlds. The one is of the senses, the other of the spirit. The one is of things seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched; the other of things understood, felt, imagined, and willed. The one is physical, the other spiritual. Between these worlds there is just the difference that there is between noise and music, a pile of bricks and a cathedral, a dictionary and a poem. The artist turns noise into music, paint into pictures, words into novels and plays. He accomplishes this by expressing in concrete form ideas that are abstract. Instead of writing a poem on wisdom, he carves a statue of Minerva; instead of composing a treatise on the sin of procrastination, he produces the play of “Hamlet.” Priests and philosophers discuss the infinite and abstract in terms of the infinite and abstract; scientists discuss the concrete in terms of the concrete; artists express the infinite and the abstract in terms that are finite and concrete, giving to the finite the grace and dignity of the infinite, bestowing upon the abstract the precision, the color, and the interest of the concrete.
This is equally true of all the arts. They differ because they deal in different materials. The architect uses brick, the sculptor marble, the painter canvas, the writer words.
Literature therefore includes all writing which expresses spiritual truth by means of concrete imagery. For this reason, in common with other arts, it is often characterized as imaginative; that is, it accomplishes its end by producing concrete images. It will be seen, then, that a piece of writing, in order to be classed in the strict sense as literature, must fulfil two conditions: first, it must have what is called local color; that is, it must be vivid, concrete, picturesque; second, it must present ideas that are interesting and intelligible in distant lands and times. A treatise on algebra, for instance, is perfectly intelligible to anybody of reasonable intelligence, but it is not in the strict sense of the word literature, because it has no local color. The “Merchant of Venice,” on the other hand, gives us a picture of certain men and women of Shakespeare's generation, a picture that is as readily understood to-day as it was three hundred years ago, a picture that is as intelligible in San Francisco or Sydney as in London or Liverpool. It presents passions and ideas that are interesting always and everywhere, but it presents them in the guise of a story about particular people. This is what we call literature.
In its narrow sense, then, literature is that one of the arts which finds its expression in language. In common with painting, sculpture, architecture, and landscape gardening, it embodies abstract and universal ideas in concrete form, giving to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. It differs from other arts in that its medium of expression is language.
In a broader sense, the literature of a nation is the entire body of its thoughts, discoveries, memories, fancies, imaginations, reasonings, and aspirations as these find permanent expression in letters. The word “ literature,” it should be noted here, comes from the Latin word litera, which means letter.” The French term belles lettres (literally “ beautiful letters ") is used sometimes to designate literature so far as it is an art.
In this book, English literature is treated in its broad sense. Many of the works noticed do not belong in the realm of belles lettres. Many of the important works belonging in the realm of belles lettres are left unnoticed. The aim has been to exclude all those books which have no direct or immediate interest for the beginner and to omit nothing which has been proved to contain a real message for him.
QUESTIONS AND EXERCISES 1. Who were Dr. Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Shelley, Milton, and Carlyle?
For answers consult the index of this volume. 2. How did each define literature? 3. In what respect is the definition of each faulty? 4. What two things must a definition do ? 5. How did Plato get into trouble through carelessness in defining ? 6. Who were Plato and Diogenes ? 7. What is the fundamental difference between a steam-engine and a
song? 8. Are all books art? If not, what books? 9. What is art? 10. What is the fundamental difference between literature and sculpture?
THE ROOTS OF ENGLISH
“He who is acquainted with no foreign tongue knows nothing of his own.”
-Goethe. As language is the material in which the literary artist works, it seems proper at this point to say a word about the English language as the medium of English literature. Whence came it and what are its relations with other languages?
To anybody who has studied a little Latin, French, or German it is clear that English in some ways is related to all three. The English words “father," “mother," " brother,” and “sister," for example, are obviously like the Latin words pater, mater, frater, and soror; the French words pere, mere, frère, and soeur; and the German words Vater, Mutter, Brüder, and Schwester. Everybody has known this for a long time, but it is only since 1783 that its fuller meaning has become clear.
In that year the British government sent out to India as a judge a young man named Sir William Jones. Being a student of languages he became familiar, while there, with Sanskrit; and, to his great surprise, discovered that, instead of being closely related, as he had expected, to the languages of the East, it bore every mark of being a cousin, so to speak, to the languages of Europe. The German scholar, Franz Bopp (1791-1867), by a scientific comparison of Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin, Gothic, and German, in his “Comparative Grammar," 1833–1852, proved Jones's guess to have been right, founded the science of comparative philology, and gave the world a vision of our ancestors that extends back many ages before the dawn of authentic history. His conclusions and those of his immediate successors amount to what follows:
Perhaps 6000, perhaps 60,000 years ago, there lived in the highlands of central Asia a sturdy, warlike, and progressive race. Their lands being too small for their needs, they took territory away from