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THE NEW AGE

11

Previous Page  ...a Heroic Soul never till then, in that naked manner." And he proclaimed, as the greatest task before mankind, the problem of organising the chaotic profession of letters. The problem is still unsolved, the profession is still chaotic; and while the public has grown far wider and the dependence of the men of letters upon it has become more and more direct, the price of the Heroic Soul is as uncertain as ever. The problem which was too great and too complicated for the intellect of Carlyle remains too great and too complicated for his successors.

Can this state of things fail to exercise the profoundest influence? Even in literature the souls are few which serenely dwell apart, and it may be questioned whether we should desire them to be many. Shakespeare himself was not of the number. The majority of writers must always be influenced by a conscious or an unconscious consideration of the character of their audience; and though there is danger in the influence, there can be no danger comparable to that which attaches to the cutting of literature adrift from life and from reality. It is such freaks as the "metaphysical" element in poetry, or the fantastic romance satirised by Cervantes, which stand permanently condemned in critical judgment. Their practitioners suppose that they are addressing a band of the elect, and are apt to value themselves in proportion as they leave the common earth behind; but what has saved them, in so far as they have found salvation, has been their failure to attain their end.

But if there is good there is unquestionably evil as well in the present state of matters. Johnson thought that even in his time there lurked a risk to literature in the multiplicity of books. If so the danger has vastly grown. In the introduction of slang, in roughness of style, in crudity of thought, sometimes in a certain vulgarity of tone, we seem to see the influence of modern conditions. Walt Whitman would have been impossible in an aristocracy, and Mr Rudyard Kipling must have undergone many changes. We are by no means destitute of examples of repose and dignity; but no one would single these out as characteristic qualities of recent literature. The great predominance of the novel, which is certainly connected with the character and ...Next Page




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