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Literature, in its most restricted art-sense, is an expression in letters of the life of the spirit of man co-operating with the intellect. Without the co-operation of the spiritual man, the intellect produces only thought; and pure thought, whatever be the subject with which it deals, is not regarded as literature, in its strict sense. For example, Euclid's `Elements', Newton's `Principia', Spinoza's `Ethica', and Kant's `Critique of the Pure Reason', do not properly belong to literature. (By the "spiritual" I would be understood to mean the whole domain of the emotional, the susceptible or impressible, the sympathetic, the intuitive; in short, that mysterious something in the constitution of man by and through which he holds relationship with the essential spirit of things, as opposed to the phenomenal of which the senses take cognizance.)
The term literature is sometimes extended in meaning (and it may be so extended), to include all that has been committed to letters, on all subjects. There is no objection to such extension in ordinary speech, no more than there is to that of the signification of the word, "beauty" to what is purely abstract. We speak, for example, of the beauty of a mathematical demonstration; but beauty, in its strictest sense, is that which appeals to the spiritual nature, and must, therefore, be concrete, personal, not abstract. Art beauty is the embodiment, adequate, effective embodiment, of co-operative intellect and spirit, -- "the accommodation," in Bacon's words, "of the shows of things to the desires of the mind."
It follows that the relative merit and importance of different periods of a literature should be determined by the relative degrees of spirituality which these different periods exhibit. The intellectual power of two or more periods, as exhibited in their literatures, may show no marked difference, while the spiritual vitality of these same periods may very distinctly differ. And if it be admitted that literature proper is the product of co-operative intellect and spirit (the latter being always an indispensable factor, though there can be no high order of literature that is not strongly articulated, that is not well freighted, with thought), it follows that the periods of a literature should be determined by the ebb and flow of spiritual life which they severally register, rather than by any other considerations. There are periods which are characterized by a "blindness of heart", an inactive, quiescent condition of the spirit, by which the intellect is more or less divorced from the essential, the eternal, and it directs itself to the shows of things. Such periods may embody in their literatures a large amount of thought, -- thought which is conversant with the externality of things; but that of itself will not constitute a noble literature, however perfect the forms in which it may be embodied, and the general sense of the civilized world, independently of any theories of literature, will not regard such a literature as noble. It is made up of what must be, in time, superseded; it has not a sufficiently large element of the essential, the eternal, which can be reached only through the assimilating life of the spirit. The spirit may be so "cabined, cribbed, confined" as not to come to any consciousness of itself; or it may be so set free as to go forth and recognize its kinship, respond to the spiritual world outside of itself, and, by so responding, KNOW what merely intellectual philosophers call the UNKNOWABLE.
To turn now to the line of English poets who may be said to have passed the torch of spiritual life, from lifted hand to hand, along the generations. And first is "the morning star of song, who made His music heard below: "Dan Chaucer, the first warbler, whose sweet breath Preluded those melodious bursts that fill The spacious times of great Elizabeth With sounds that echo still."
Chaucer exhibits, in a high degree, this life of the spirit, and it is the secret of the charm which his poetry possesses for us after a lapse of five hundred years. It vitalizes, warms, fuses, and imparts a lightsomeness to his verse; it creeps and kindles beneath the tissues of his thought. When we compare Dryden's modernizations of Chaucer with the originals, we see the difference between the verse of a poet, with a healthy vitality of spirit, and, through that healthy vitality of spirit, having secret dealings with things, and verse which is largely the product of the rhetorical or literary faculty. We do not feel, when reading the latter, that any unconscious might co-operated with the conscious powers of the writer. But we DO feel this when we read Chaucer's verse.
All of the Canterbury Tales have originals or analogues, most of which have been reproduced by the London Chaucer Society. Not one of the tales is of Chaucer's own invention. And yet they may all be said to be original, in the truest, deepest sense of the word. They have been vitalized from the poet's own soul. He has infused his own personality, his own spirit-life, into his originals; he has "created a soul under the ribs of death." It is this infused vitality which will constitute the charm of the Canterbury Tales for all generations of English speaking and English reading people. This life of the spirit, of which I am speaking, as distinguished from the intellect, is felt, though much less distinctly, in a contemporary work, `The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman'. What the author calls "KIND WIT", that is, "natural intelligence", has, generally, the ascendency. We meet, however, with powerful passages, wherein the thoughts are aglow with the warmth from the writer's inner spirit. He shows at times the moral indignation of a Hebrew prophet.
The `Confessio Amantis' of John Gower, another contemporary work, exhibits comparatively little of the life of the spirit, either in its verse or in its thought. The thought rarely passes the limit of natural intelligence. The stories, which the poet drew from the `Gesta Romanorum' and numerous other sources, can hardly be said to have been BORN AGAIN. The verse is smooth and fluent, but the reader feels it to be the product of literary skill. It wants what can be imparted only by an unconscious might back of the consciously active and trained powers. It is this unconscious might which John Keats, in his `Sleep and Poetry', speaks of as "might half slumbering on its own right arm", and which every reader, with the requisite susceptibility, can always detect in the verse of a true poet.
In the interval between Chaucer and Spenser, this life of the spirit is not distinctly marked in any of its authors, not excepting even Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, whose sad fate gave a factitious interest to his writings. It is more noticeable in Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst's `Induction to the Mirror for Magistrates', which, in the words of Hallam, "forms a link which unites the school of Chaucer and Lydgate to the `Faerie Queene'."
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