« PreviousContinue »
CONTENTS OF VOLUME I.
its Effects. Norman Oppression. Moulding of the People and
Poetry. Saxon Verse-Form. Alliteration. Rhyme. The Saxon Ideal
– Beowulf. Tragic Tones of Saxon Poetry. Sombre Imagination
A nation's literature is the outcome of its whole life. To consider it apart from the antecedents and environments which form the national genius were to misapprehend its nature and its bearing. Its growth in kind and degree is determined by four capital agencies,— RACE, or hereditary dispositions; SURROUNDINGS, or physical and social conditions; EPOCH, or spirit of the age; PERSON, or reactionary and expressive force. Historical phenomena are not all to be resolved, as with Draper, into physiological; nor all to be explained, as with Buckle, by an a priori necessity; nor chiefly to be referred, as with Taine, to the sky, the weather, and the nerves. On the other hand, they are as far removed from an individual spontaneity as from a depressing fatalism. Personal genius remakes the society which evolves it. In so far as it rises above the table-land of national character, it not only expresses but intensifies the national type. Shakespeare and Bacon wrought under the circumstances of their birth, but were also, by their own supremacy, original and independent sources of influence. Yet progress is according to law. In the midst of eternal change is unity. The relations of the constants and the variables have the true marks of development. On a survey of the whole, human wills, however free, are seen to conform, under a general Providence, to a definite end.
A history of English Literature requires, therefore, a description of English soil and climate, of English thought and English character, as they exist when first the English people come upon the arena of history, of the growth of that character and that