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F it be true that ancient literature concerned itself largely
with Nature, and mediæval with ideas of God, surely the literature of the modern world has neglected neither of these great subjects, but has united them with a third, - the character of man, his origin, his present condition, and his future destiny. Again, while in the earlier periods man was a creature of the present and lived in the senses, and in the Middle Ages he was oblivious of the present and looked only to the securing of a peaceful future, now he considers the present in its relation to the future, and views life as one and continuous, having no abrupt changes or limitations.
Views of the place of man in the Divine plan, which prevail now among the most thoughtful, are more consistent with the spirit of Christianity than those which were held heretofore. To what is this due? I believe that it is quite as much the result of the transparent Christian character, the beautiful sympathy, and the catholic fraternity of those who have influenced literary taste, as to the founding of systems of philosophy or theology. While modern science has often
assumed the truth of conclusions which have seemed atheistic, it has been confronted, not with theoretical commonplace, but with moral life ; and when it has attempted to account for this, and it has failed to find in its laboratory apparatus sufficiently delicate to test spirit, motive, life, men have concluded that its philosophy was not final after all.
The struggle of this century has been between the advocates of blind force — worshippers at the altar of an eternal IT — and the disciples of Intelligent Free Causation, with results by no means discouraging to the latter. It is in aid of faith that literature has contributed its best efforts, and in it we find that trinity of God, Man, and Nature which appeals to the imagination, the heart, and the conscience; its motive has been to free, arouse, dilate.
A companionship with those who have been foremost in the application of ideas to life will assist us in dispelling those illusions which tend to refine away the personality of man, and attempt to account for consciousness in terms of physics, destroying the unity both of the world and of the mind.
The connection between literature and life is vital ; and what we need is not acquisition and information, so much as inspiration and illumination - a consciousness of mental and moral power which can see clearly and feel deeply. By living in vital relation to such writers as have furnished the literature of power, and feeling the force of their clear and pure spirituality, we attain that attitude of mind in which we are able to receive faithful impressions, and to make true observations. When the heart of the reader beats in sympathy with the heart of the writer, both the sense and beauty of the work become apparent. But this mental attitude is one of the rarest in the history of criticism ; it requires patience and fortitude, a willingness to use all the faculties of our nature, and then abide the result without exercising a prurient curiosity, or becoming anxious lest we be not able to formulate the method.
In the matter of literary criticism we need to guard against those scientific methods which assume that culture is mainly a thing of the head, and that the interpretation of literature is a thing to be acquired by the same methods as the ability to dernonstrate Euclid. An age of speculation is not an age of faith, nor is an age of criticism an age of creation.
A system has prevailed by which the critic is constituted a supreme judge, who, sitting apart, without sympathy or reverence, is to pronounce sentence upon the culprit who has dared to violate the judicial standard. In his charge he uses those maxims and doctrines which have become the commonest furniture of the commonest minds; he pronounces the style obscure, affected, or classical, the method involved, and the matter puerile or unintelligible, but does not explain what he means by these terms; 'if he would only give us the law by which we might be prevented from writing or speaking anything that is not simple, natural, and manly' what a blessing he would confer! Our disciples of this inner temple of formalism ply their trade and insist upon a microscopical analysis, a fine sifting of word and phrase, a delicate classification of figure, and a comparative anatomy of form; while the student, who may not taste a flower till it have yielded up its sweets a prelibation to this pedant's idol, seeing that his
knowledge is purchased by the loss of power, votes the author dull and the study of literature a bore :
“For this unnatural growth the trainer blame,
It was at the bar of such criticism that Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Tennyson, and Browning were condemned. Now if the history of art has decided anything, it is that an attitude of mental receptivity is what enables one to sympathize, to grasp a work as an organic whole, and to understand the law governing the combination of phenomena which produced the supreme total effect.
Maurice, one of the most sympathetic and catholic men of this century, says : “Let us try to know what an author says before we proceed to classify or to pass sentence upon him. It is wonderful how much our faculties of discernment will grow and unfold themselves if we begin by throwing all our notions about style overboard, and simply come to be taught why this author spoke in this way, and that in another; why this was significant of him and of the time in which he lived, and another belonged to a person who lived in a different time and who had another work."
It is by vital energy of soul projected into their works that the poets have moved men.
Wordsworth, “a severe but genial critic," was the first to insist that each new genius, each new personality, should be judged by new canons applicable to him alone, and that every artist must create the taste by which he is to be appreciated. For this he was roundly abused; his prefaces were