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I. Literature.— In its largest sense, literature includes all the written records of man. It presents the thoughts, emotions, and achievements of the human family. Its vast extent renders it absolutely impossible for any person to become acquainted with more than a small part of it. The greatest libraries of the world now contain more than a million volumes, to which thousands are added every year.
2. National Literature.— This general or universal literature is made up of national literatures. A national literature is composed of the literary productions of a particular nation. After reaching a state of civilization, every nation accumulates a body of writings that express the thoughts, feelings, and achievements of its people. Thus we have the lietrature of Greece, of Rome, of Germany, of England, and of other nations, both ancient and modern.
3. English Literature. - English literature embraces the writings of the people of Great Britain. It covers a period of about twelve hundred years; and five hundred years ago it had in Chaucer one of the world's great writers. It shares in the greatness of the English people. It combines French vivacity with German depth; and in its scope, variety, and excellence it is second to no other. No department of literature has been left uncultivated. Poets have sung in sweet and lofty strains; novelists have portrayed every phase of society; orators have convinced the judgment and moved the heart; scientists have revealed the laws of the physical world; historians have eloquently told of the past; and philosophers have deeply pondered the mysteries of existence.
4. Molding Influences.- Literature is influenced or de
termined by whatever affects the thought and feeling of a people. Among the most potent influences that determine the character of a literature are race, epoch, and surroundings. This fact should be clearly understood, for it renders philosophy of literature possible. We cannot fully understand any work of literature, nor justly estimate its excellence, without an acquaintance with the national traits of the writer, the general character of the age in which he lived, and the physical and social conditions by which he was surrounded. The relation between literature and history is very intimate.
Race.— The human family is divided into several races, which are distinguished from one another by different physical and mental characteristics. The Caucasian is clearly distinguishable from the African, not only by his fairer skin and straighter hair, but also by his superior intellectual powers. Within the same race we discover similar, though less clearly marked, differences. Apart from noticeable physical differences, the Teuton, with his serious, reflective, persistent temper, is quite unlike the Celt, with his vivacity, wit, and ready enthusiasm. No two nations are exactly alike in form or in mind. These differences, wherever found, are naturally reflected in literature, which is the expression of the life of the soul.
b. Epoch.— Every age has its peculiar interests, culture, and tendencies. With the ancient Jewish nation, religion was a predominant interest. In the Elizabethan Age, culture was far more general than at the period of the Norman Conquest. The present century is characterized by its democratic tendencies. Whatever may be the epoch, its peculiarities will inevitably be reflected in its literary productions. An acquaintance with the general character of an age gives a deeper insight into its literature.
c. Environment. The third formative influence in literature is environment or the prevailing physical and social conditions. The literature produced in the presence of a sterile soil and rigorous climate is different in tone and color from that produced in the midst of fruitful fields and under sunny skies; and, in like manner, its quantity and quality are af
fected, to a greater or less degree, by a state of war or peace, intelligence or ignorance, wealth or poverty, freedom or persecution.
5. Personal Element. But it is a mistake to suppose that race, epoch, and surroundings will explain everything in literature. There is a personal element of great importance. From time to time, men of great genius appear, and rising by native strength high above the level of their age, become centres of a new and mighty influence in literature. This truth is exemplified by Homer in Greece, Luther in Germany, and Chaucer in England, each of whom exerted an incalculable influence upon the subsequent literary development of his country.
6. Literature in a Restricted Sense. — The word literature, which up to this point has been used in its large, general sense, has also a restricted meaning, which it is importan: to understand, and with which we are principally concerned in this work. In any literary production we may distinguish between the thoughts that are presented, and the manner in which they are presented. We may say, for example, “The sun is rising;” or, ascending to a higher plane of thought and feeling, we may present the same fact in the language of Thomson :
But yonder comes the powerful King of Day,
It is thus apparent that the interest and value of literature are largely dependent upon the manner or form in which the facts are presented. In its restricted sense, literature includes only those works which are polished or artistic in form. Poetry, fiction, essays, and oratory are its principal forms, though history and scientific treatises often reach an excellence that makes them literature in the narrower sense.
The classic works of a literature are those which present ideas of general and permanent interest in a highly finished or artistic manner.