Saturday, 11 January 2014

HOW FAR IS THE HISTORY OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY REFLECTED IN ITS LITERATURE ?

[By JEAN FORSYTH.]*

History and Literature are both products of what Emerson calls "The universal mind," and it not easy to determine which is the reflector and which the reflected. Do the men of letters make their time, or are they made by it? Genius, truly, is affected by the period into which it is born, and just as truly is the period affected by genius ; but upon which side the balance of influence rests is a question depending on the state of the nation and the individual temperament. We hear of poets dying unappreciated, because ahead of their age, which does not argue in favour of their force ; but the fittest will survive in spite of uncongenial environment, and will in time change that environment to suit them. Whether or not the moment makes the man, it is certainly responsible for the form which his development takes. Shakespeare in our time would have headed the novelists.
History naturally precedes Literature. It is the events of to-day which act upon the writings of to-morrow, while the record of yesterday bears literary fruit to-day. Chronologically, the French Revolution belongs to the past century, but it is the event which is seen with the most vivid reflection in all the works of our time. Until there is another and a greater one, the din of that upheaval will ring in our ears, because it was not a solitary historical fact, but a mighty quivering of this "universal mind," of which we poor mortals have each to hold up a corner. Here, as in the Renaissance and the Reformation, which broke out spontaneously and almost simultaneously in so many different countries, we have a witness to the essential unity of mankind. France, the most volatile of nations, first reached the democratic boiling point, and her destructive overflow warned her neighbours against too fierce a fire, but the simmering was universal nevertheless.
The history of the beginning of this century is marked by an outburst of popular feeling regarding the rights of man as man, and the literature of all nations follows suit, studies the individual spirit from his surroundings. Men awake to the fact that things are not right merely because they are long established, and some go to the other extreme of believing that all taunts are wrong that are of old standing. Byron and Shelley show what even England, that abode of stability, can produce in the way of revolutionary spirits. They proclaim duty a treadmill, and inclination the only necessary guide to action. The earth is meant for the enjoyment of each man alike, and he is an idiot who fails to secure all within his reach. But this revolt against restraint, which produced such disastrous effects in their lives, inspires their writings with " liberty, equality, fraternity." They break loose from the stilted forms of verse in which their predecessors delighted, and are true children of nature, entering into her moods, and depicting her beauties as none can do like a loving son. Extreme views of any kind are generally best on paper!
The Lake school of poets, though by nature conservative, are also greatly affected by the spirit of the time, and each in his own way bears witness to it. Sober Wordsworth gets the fever into his blood, and sings in a loftier key than he otherwise would have done, being freed from a literary, if not from a social burden ; while Coleridge brings reason as well as conscience to bear on religion.
Macaulay was born with the century, and his writings are in its most liberal vein, while John Stuart Mill makes for the intelligence its declaration of independence.
Carlyle is the spirit of the age without the body. He is a strange mystic shape, an emanation of German philosophy wafted over the channel. There are magnetism, electricity, and all sorts of combustible forces dissolved in this apparition, before whose unearthly eye the shows of things melt into nothingness, and all is laid bare to be judged by the standard of the eternal verities.
But Tennyson is the real practical exponent of his time. In him is reflected the best and the worst that England has done during the last hundred years. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and the "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington " do not more plainly describe a period of which the nation may be proud, than the spirit of many of his poems reflects the administrative blundering of later times. Tennyson is not in the least cosmopolitan, and his insular way of looking at things is similar to the national disapprobation of everything un-English. The typical Briton can never condescend to put himself in the place of a Hindoo, an Arab, a Chinaman, a Turk, or even an Irishman, and view his foreign policy with their eyes ; nor can Tennyson, however deeply he may enter into the feelings of his own clime and race, extend his sympathy farther.
Looking back upon it, our successors will doubtless say that the nineteenth century is more noted for scientific than for literary progress. The theory of evolution, applied to the realms of both mind and matter, is one of the sign posts on our road, and the tacit acceptance of it by modern authors marks a divergence from the beaten track of past centuries. Tennyson's poems are full of references which would be inexplicable to his ancestry. He is also a type of the present desire for perfection in detail, which leads one to infer that he is the high water mark of his tide.
The wave must ebb again before it returns to flow still further upon the expectant soil. Tennyson and his imitators have had their day, and just as there are signs in the political atmosphere that the lull is nearly over, so in the literary world we look for a great change in the near future.
Browning and Swinburne give us a foretaste of what we imagine the coming man to be. If there are stirring times in store for England, will there not arise a race of dramatists such as flourished under Elizabeth? The drama will not be the drama of Shakspeare, but it will bear the same relation to the coming phase of the "universal mind" as his did to his time.
Even Tennyson feels the reviving dramatic instinct, and strains his ear to catch the key-note of the advancing symphony, but his attempts are feeble. Browning does not pay enough attention to the instrument upon which he plays. With him the music is everything, but he has not that regard for melody in which Swinburne's compositions excel. Both, however, mark a transition state in philosophy and literature.
That the century is more famous for material than for artistic advancement, is proved by the form which the genius of the age has taken. Men are now exercised in examining the machinery of every day life, oiling it to ensure smooth running, and it is pictures of this social system, drawn with more or less minuteness, which most interest them. They have become introspective, and study mankind through themselves.
The novels of Dickens and Thackeray reflect the history of their time, in so far as they paint its life and manners, which are an important outgrowth of political condition. Both aim to be reformers, the one of low, and the other of high life, and in the enthusiasm of humanity which breathes through Dickens' pages, we recognise the spirit that has inspired the nation at schemes of philanthropy.
George Eliot may be taken as a representative woman of the nineteenth century, an instance of the rich harvest we may expect to result from the higher education of women. She has taken a manly grasp of the most profound scientific and philosophical problems, and better still, can grasp sympathetically the hand of "all sorts and conditions of men"—especially women.
Mrs. Browning is another exponent of the "women question," but a more orthodox type. She lifts her voice against special grievances, and in that way affects the history of her time. The heart of the people is generally swelling with the wrong before it finds voice through the poet, and a stentorian tone is needed to rouse an apathetic government to action.
Free trade for England is one of the triumphs of this era, and with it is joined free-thinking within her borders, but British liberality in regard to commerce has not yet induced her to open her mental ports to receive the treasures of all lands. She is still a foe to new ideas, and her writers come naturally by that imperturbability which many of them exhibit in so small measure. London society and London mobs may applaud foreign agitators to the echo, and many an enthusiastic upholder of a righteous cause be misled by these mere ripples on the surface, while the real heart of the nation is quite unmoved.
The labour troubles form one vital topic of the time, and besides the specialist literature, most of the great minds of the day have a pet remedy "doctors differ and the patient dies." Ruskin would have us return to hand work once more, throw our machinery overboard, tear up railroads, those inventions of the evil one, and employ all idle men in building cathedrals. Matthew Arnold would apply culture as a balm for every wound. The ability of each to see the other's side of the question would be sufficient to make labour and capitalist like David and Jonathan. The most quixotic remedy of all is that of which Count Tolstoï has set the example, dividing his goods with the poor, trying to follow literally the Scriptural injunction "judge not," and crying down the sin of warfare between civilized nations.
There is something so extremely fresh about Tolstoi's writing, that one does not need to be told that Russian literature is of recent date. Her history is shown in the absence of it heretofore. Nowhere does despotism weigh more heavily than in the Press, and who can calculate how many poets, historians, critics and novelists have been nipped in the bud by the frosts of Siberia?
In Russia, if nowhere else, the history of the nineteenth century is painted in strong colours upon the literature. Great national grievances call for genius to sound the alarm, and the late Czar acknowledged that it was Tourguénieff's "Annals of a Sportsman" which first opened his eyes to the wrongs of the serfs, and led ultimately to their emancipation. In that case literature preceded history, but in some of Tolstoi's works we have a direct reflection of the events of the century. "War and peace" is a realistic picture of Napoleon's Russian campaign, while "Sevastopol" gives the horrors of the siege within the walls, but the object of both is not to relate history, but to enlarge on the futility of war, the emptiness and vanity of so-called heroic achievement.
Gogol was the first to make it known that Russians could enter the lists with the world's novelists, but Tolstoï is the best known out of his own country, because his sympathy is not confined to it. The narrowest nation needs the broadest mind to preach to it, and when a few more such children have been born to her, we shall see Russia's political aggressiveness extended to her intellect—and she will have breadth of mind to match her territory.
Considering what the history of Italy has been during this century it is not surprising that much of her literature should be patriotic and political in character. The frequent struggles for, and the subsequent attainment of, independence, are cause and effect of the works produced. But though national peculiarities abound, the spirit of the age is prominent throughout. The romantic poet Leopardi is Byronic in his pessimism, and Mazzoni may be classed among the realistic novelists of Europe.
Italy has inspired not only her own sons, but foreigners to sing of her woes. Mrs. Browning makes eloquent poetical appeals for their redress, and most of the romantic school of English poets are for a season in love with this much abused, though nobly descended, dusky damsel of the south.
Chateaubriand and Mdme. de Stael are the foretaste of the critical attitude of the time, and elevate, though with clumsy unaccustomed hands, the banner of liberalism in literature which Victor Hugo bears triumphantly on. His long life, beginning two years after the birth of the century, and continuing almost to the present time, is one perpetual conflict with established ideas. He fights for romanticism, for the privilege of painting things as they really are, in opposition to the degenerate form of classicism which preceded him, and his poems, dramas, novels, all bear the stamp of his own chequered life, as well as the turbulent career of the nation. "Les Miserables" would not have such a hold upon the imagination were it not a realistic picture of a terrible time in Parisian history.
The feeling of the times in England gave rise merely to a few Chartist riots, and some Irish attempts at revolt, which came to nothing. The Anglo-Saxon mind is not composed of such flammable material as the Celtic, which may be one reason why England can show no modern drama such as those of Victor Hugo. But he has fought and won his battle, and soon will arise a new school who know not Hugo. The great critics for whom France is famous, are preparing the soil for a glorious new harvest, the nature of which we can only conjecture. The French theatre being the ground for the popular discussion of matters political, the plays written for it are valuable as contemporary history.
Germany, too has, crowded a lot of living into this eventful nineteenth century. Contrary to the general rule, her literature precedes her real national history. Her great men inspired her with self-esteem, and a desire for unity, and their efforts have been crowned with success in the present important empire. They have done the thinking, not only for themselves but for all Europe, and the constant striving for an ideal is shown in their military and educational systems, as clearly as in their poetry and philosophy. How long the Germans will remain satisfied with their present system of government is a question for tile future to answer.
The essence of all their best thinking is to be found in Goethe, a man worthy of the modern greatness of his country. His manysidedness represents the composite nature of German civilisation, but in him there is no direct reflection of her history. He belongs not merely to Germany but to the world, is the strongest advocate for the establishment of a commonwealth of intellect. He writes for all time, and we may take him as an instance that, the greater the writer, the less will the national history of his day be directly reflected in his works. Shakespeare was, doubtless, inspired by the glorious events of Elizabeth's reign ; but as far as any allusion to them occurs in his writings, he might have lived a hundred years sooner or later. So with this German Shakespeare. His unlimited versatility, and the grasp which he has upon the problems of the greatest interest to man as a whole, raise him above those authors who are merely reflections of contemporary history. Heine wars not against the physical foes of his country, but against the enemies of her ideas. He is a modern David, going out to slay the giant Philistine.
Germany turns to philosophy that speculative eye which, in America, is absorbed in business. Men in the United States are too eager in the pursuit of wealth to leave much energy or ability for the pursuit of literature. The respective value they put on each is evident in their Custom regulations. Hand work is strongly protected, while head work suffers from the too open market provided for foreign productions. So long as the copyright law exists as at present, Americans will enjoy this Free Trade, and will not trouble themselves to engage largely in a home industry which does not pay.
Here, as in most young countries, the literature is in direct connection with the history. The United States was but a stripling when the century was born, and as in Russia, which is also a youth in literature, oppression and misery within her gates called poets to the front. They make the history instead of the history making them. Only in a land with a good constitution, not distracted from mental studies by weakness of body, has the universal mind a chance to grow mellow, to turn upon itself and discuss abstract questions. Slavery in the Southern States was a wrong great enough to call for a poet, a truth teller, and Whittier answered in no feeble voice. The civil war drove men to action rather than to thought, but its effects will be seen in the writings of the future. Excepting that great eruption, the history of America during this century means the opening of new settlements, the invention of labour-saving machines. It means strikes and riots, and great material progress joined to little high cultivation. According to Matthew Arnold this is a greater stronghold of the Philistine than even Britain itself.
The few stray song birds that try to be heard above the din of the exchange are children of the pine woods, and the open hill side, who sing of freedom and testify to the absence of game-laws, Where the country is open to lovers of it, there is less need for the poet to seek his subject in crowds, or in his own hackneyed sensations.
The form that American literature takes is a sign of the haste of the day. Why else this mass of periodicals, newspapers, short stories written in the most spasmodic style? Of political writing there is no end, from the Utopian schemes of Henry George to the organ of every sect and party in each State. The interest in the institutions of the land extends so far down in the social scale, and education is becoming so universal, that the literary average here is higher than in other countries, though there have not yet arisen so many mountain peaks above the plain. Youth is the season for admiring the works of age, and America is not a dunce in that respect.
The States in a literary sense are united only in name. Most of her authors are not Americans, but New Englanders, the fruit of the most settled region. Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes are her schoolmasters, and as such bear witness to the national necessities. The constant infusion of foreign blood makes a homogeneous type impossible. The country is too large and varied in its interests for any one man to be stamped with its condensation. There are poets of the east, poets of the west, poets of the south, and novelists all over, but the only real originals are those who draw the magnificent outlines of nature peculiar to this continent. The realistic school of novelists is a poor imitation of the European Academy. The reason may be that they were too late in catching the spirit of the time. In no other line are Americans so far behind.
Whitman is a republican of the republicans—an extreme type of American ideas ; while Emerson is the tutor above all others that the rising generation needs. He influences both history and literature, and unfolds ever to this matter-of-fact community the presence of a soul—an ideal in all things. Believing in the oneness of mankind, instead of extolling his own pupil and praising his performances, he strives to raise his standards of comparison, to make him feel his kinship with the best minds of Europe, though the Atlantic Ocean rolls between.
On the whole, this century had a precocious childhood, followed by an "uninteresting age" before coming to its brilliant youth. Literature goes in cycles, like aught else, and it is but in general lines that one can trace the history of the day. Certain tendencies have borne fruit in both departments. The undulations of the universal mind are perpetual, and we are now in a valley, or rather half way up the slope. There are signs in the air of a great upheaval in Europe, but would that the twenty-fifth century might remember the nineteenth as the time when wars ceased from off the earth. That is, perhaps, wishing for the millennium, but we can look forward with more joy and confidence, if it be that this same unrest, this critical investigating mind, foretells the advent of a brilliant literary epoch. Shall the star appear in the east as of old ?
Wherever the crust is thinnest the volcano will burst through.

*In a competition in a correspondence class connected with Queen Margaret's College, Glasgow, the essay we publish herewith, was assigned first place.

 Morning Bulletin 6 February 1890,

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