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Previous Page the social struggles of England during the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century. So far, then, as the outward and visible circumstances of national life are concerned, we should not be surprised to find those decades to be a period of comparative sterility. And such is in fact their character. But this phenomenon of rise and fall in literature is so universal, and is in itself so interesting, that it may be not amiss to examine it more carefully and to attempt, in some measure at least, to account for it.

In the first place, it is to be observed that the phenomenon is by no means confined to literature. At one time the whole stream of life seems to flow on in a single triumphant and irresistible current; at another the movement is slow, uncertain, purposeless, as if in some "backwater of the soul." The facts of history, and especially of literature, often suggest the analogy of the life of the individual. We seem to see years of growth, years of highest energy, years of decline, just as we see the individual man wax and flourish and wane. The explanation is doubtless to be sought in the rise and decay of ideas. Though the stream of human life flows on, unlike the life of the individual, in a steady and equable volume, those ideas which, like the winds, agitate its surface or stir it to its depths, are variable. To their appearance and disappearance is due the semblance of the kind of change which marks the individual life. When a dominant idea or group of ideas is in full vigour, we seem to be as it were on the crest of a wave of life. But the interest sinks, the power lessens, the fervour is lost, the whole tone of life becomes lower. The race, we imagine, has aged, though the men are as young as they ever were. We imagine so, and it may be the case. A nation which has marched in the van may fall permanently behind; it may pass into the winter of its days; and, with nations as with men, there is no following spring to renew the vigour of life. Rome went down before the onslaught of the barbarians because Roman life was already debased. It was not the ridicule of Don Quixote that killed Spanish romance, it was the disease already inherent in it. But in the case of a nation in normal social health and enjoying a vigorous spiritual life, it will be found that the times of apparent ...Next Page

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