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MASTERS OF ENGLISH LITERATURE

CHAPTER I

Introduction What Is Literature?- There is no generally accepted definition of literature, for literature like religion is hard to define. One could collect several hundred definitions of literature or religion, but any conception of either of these subjects based exclusively on a single brief definition would be most inadequate. The line of demarcation between what is and what is not literature has never been sharply drawn. We feel that neither a city directory nor even a dictionary should be classed as literature. Charles Lamb went so far as to exclude the writings of Hume, Gibbon, and Josephus, together with “ draughtboards bound and lettered on the back.” But Hallam would include works on jurisprudence, theology, and medicine. Professor W. H. Hudson writes :

“ Literature is composed of those books, and of those books only, which, in the first place, by reason of their subject matter and their mode of treating it, are of general human interest; and in which, in the second place, the element of form and the pleasure which form gives are to be regarded as essential."

In other words, the substance must be of wide interest, the form must be artistic. “ The object of literature is Delight,” says Mr. Saintsbury, “its soul is Imagination, its body is Style.” Making use of Matthew Arnold's definition of the means of culture, we may say that literature is the record of the best that has been said and thought in the world. And then to this it may be well to add what Wordsworth said of poetry, making the

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application to literature in general, it is "the breath and finer spirit of knowledge."

An Expression of Life.- Literature is the expression of life, and as life is infinitely varied and complex so literature manifests itself in a great variety of form and substance. Diversity of national ideals has produced diversity in the literatures of different nations. The high seriousness of the Hebrew, the joyous spontaneity of the Greek, the sparkling clarity of the French, the ethical earnestness of the English, are reflected in their respective literatures.

The life of a nation varies with the centuries, these variations are also reflected in its literature. Dryden, Swift, and Pope reproduce the life and spirit of their period, just as Shakspere bears the impress of the Elizabethans. And as no two men see life from exactly the same angle, we may have in the same epoch a poet of doubt like Matthew Arnold, and a poet of optimism like Browning.

Why Study Literature?-To be cultured is to know ourselves and the world. Shelley has called the poets “the hierophants of an unapprehended revelation." The makers of literature are the interpreters of the inner life of the soul and the revealers of the outer world of nature. Literature helps man to see that his individual experience is part of the universal. It gives voice to the soul that is struggling for self-expression. The murkiness and fog of the prison-house, breeders of a morbid sentimentalism, are shot through by the “light that never was, on sea or land,' until they are clarified and purified. There is an

“ Innermost
Of the inmost, most interior of the interne,"

where dwells the Spirit that giveth life. This Spirit is quickened by a sympathetic appreciation of literature.

Then, too, literature aids in the revealing of this wonderful external world of ours. This is allied to the first aim, for the internal and external are a unit. I know myself only by knowing the world. Cries Fra Lippo Lippi,

“You've seen the world -
The beauty, and the wonder, and the power,
The shapes of things, their colors, lights, and shades,
Changes, surprises — and God made it all!”

The old theological notion that this world is but a dismal place, a vale of tears where man is but a pilgrim for a night, has largely disappeared. Science has done much in bringing to our notice the wonder and power of our external world; but the poets, like Chaucer, Shakspere, and Wordsworth, have been the hierophants who have revealed to the heart of man the marvelous beauty of the visible universe. The spiritual interpretation of nature has come through the artist rather than through the scientist. The eye of the poet may not see so minutely as the microscope of the scientist, but it sees as truly. The wonders of the microscope and scalpel are niggardly in comparison with the revelations of the unaided eye. Clouds, rivers, mountains, the blue of sky and sea, the glories of sunrises and sunsets, the common aspects of trees and flowers, are, to say the least, as wonderful and helpful in the interpretation of life as the cross-section of a frog's leg, even though it be magnified and thrown upon the

screen.

Part of this external world which we must kncw, if we would be cultured, is the rich world of humanity. Deeper and more mysterious than the “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea” is the heart of humanity. The great masters of literature present to us the types of the past and present. Writing of art George Eliot said, “It is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowmen beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” The thought is especially applicable to literature. Our lives have been enlarged and enriched by having dreamed of Utopia with More, soliloquized with Hamlet, laughed with Falstaff, raged with Lear, walked the mountain-side with Wordsworth, traced the consequences of a single deed with George Eliot, sailed the seas of romance with Stevenson, or sought for the Holy Grail with Tennyson.

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