Cross-Currents in English Literature of the Xviith Century

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Read Books, 2006 - History - 356 pages
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Cross Currents in English Literature of the i 7 th Century THE BACKGROUND OF ENGLISH LITERATURE ESSAYS AND AXIRESSES A CRITICAI. HISTORY OF ENGLISH POETRY PREFACE A WORD of apology and explanation may be allowed for this book, not for its errors and shortcomings, which must accept the censure they merit, but for my choice of a subject which, it may well be said, lies somewhat outside my proper sphere, ne sutof supra crepidam. I am not a philo sopher or theologian. The explanation is to be sought in the title of the foundation on which these lectures were delivered at Cornell University. The words On the Evolution of Civilization are, I have learned, taken by the authorities of that University in the widest sense possible, and I might have chosen a more strictly literary theme. To me it seemed, when I received the kind invitation to deliver them, that I ought, if I could, to select for consideration some aspect of the contact between literature and the life and thought of the time, to discuss literature as re flecting the spiritual conflicts of an age, the growing pains might one hope of civilisation at a definite epoch: and so I was tempted to try to deal with a conflict which had often attracted my attention when studying the seventeenth century for more purely literary purposes. I thought I might venture to set forth to my sympathetic American audience what I had come to tnink, viz, that the conflict between the spirit or temper of the Renaissance and that of the Reformation, seen in its full power in the fanaticism of English Puritanism, had affected our literature in a deeper and more complex manner than our histories always made quite clear that it had, as I thought, limited the range and fullness of Shakespeares dramatic achievement, taking Shakespeare as the greatest of Elizabethan dramatists if Ben Jonson is in intention the most serious artistically and morally, so that Shakespeares tragedy is not quite such a serious and noble thing as Greek tragedy at its greatest, that he has left no play that strikes quite such a high ethical note as the Ajax the Antigone the Phihctetes. And if Shakespeare was thus, consciously or uncon sciously, confined, limited by the character and ideals of his audience, another result of the same conflict was that the genius of Milton was narrowed, his temper embittered he was to some extent soured and thwarted. He gave up to party what was meant for mankind, so that his great trilogy, epic and dram atic, have not, despite their wonderftil art, taken quite the place in the literature of the Spirit of Man that has been by the ages assigned to Virgil and Dante, are not such classics of Humanism. And that brings me to the second part of my pre face. I should like to indicate as clearly as may be the exact sense in which I am using the words Human ism7 and Puritanism, for both are current today in a looser and even misleading sense. There is much dis cussion at the moment of the nature and claims of Humanism as represented by Professor Babbitt, Mr. Paul Elmer More, Mr. Wyndham Lewis, and others. Now, in the controversial use of very general terms it is well to be sure what you and your antagonist have in mind as the opposite of the term you and he re using. When Pope and Wordsworth talk of follow ing Nature1 they do not mean quite the same thing, for the one is contrasting Nature with the fantastic, the farfetched, True Wit with False or MixedWit the other is thinking of the opposite of Nature as the conventional he is contrasting language which is..

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