BLTC Press Titles

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The Diplomatic Background of the War

Charles Seymour

Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll

The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, Rudolf Steiner

The Worm Ouroboros

E. R. Eddison

English Language and Literary Criticism: English poetry

by James Baldwin


English literature includes all that has been written in the English language,—whether by Englishmen or by Americans,—and which from the excellence of its character has been deemed worthy of preservation. The literature of no other people is so interesting or so complete.; none have written on such a variety of subjects or with greater care and skill. "It is rare to find," says M. Taine, "a people with a literature so grand. There are few nations 1 «k '(1)

who have, during their whole existence, really thought and written. Among the ancients, the Latin literature is Worth nothing at the outset; then it borrowed, and became imitative. Among the moderns, German literature does not exist for nearly two centuries. Italian literature and Spanish literature end at the middle of the seventeenth century. Only ancient Greece, modern France, and England offer a complete series of significant monuments."

The student of English literature has entered upon a broad field,—one so vast, indeed, that a life-time of study will enable him to master only parts of the stupendous whole which lies before him. He should approach the work with an earnest, inquiring spirit and an enthusiastic desire for knowledge and mental improvement. He should not rest content with merely superficial attainments, but should strive for that thoroughness without which there is neither true excellence nor enjoyment. He must not expect to find the whole of English literature in a single book or in any number of books. It is not a mere array of names and dates, of short biographical sketches, and select quotations from standard authors. Neither does it consist of a series of ingenious and sentimental speculations relative to the love-affairs, the religious opinions, the politics, of great writers. It deals primarily with books; and the study of these books necessarily involves the investigation of every important circumstance connected with their production.

To acquire any serviceable knowledge of a book, the student must become familiar with the conditions under which it was first conceived. He must become acquainted with the history of the country and of the period which produced it. Moreover, he should seek to trace the influence which that book has exerted, or is likely to exert, upon subsequent'events. For there is a mutual and allimportant interdependence "between history and literature which should never be overlooked. "A book is the offspring of the aggregate intellect of humanity," and it gives baflk to humanity, in the shape of new ideas and new combinations of old ideas, not only all that it has derived from it, but more—increased intellectual vitality, and springs of action hitherto unknown.

For the proper understanding and enjoyment of a book, a knowledge of its author is often important and sometimes necessary. But the value of this kind of biographical knowledge has been frequently and very generally overestimated. The excellence of Shakspeare's works is no whit diminished by the paucity of our knowledge concerning his life. The Lady of the Lake may be thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed by those who have never heard of Sir Walter Scott, and but little would be added to the real value of the Junius Letters should the mystery of their authorship be solved. But a knowledge of the political, social, and religious environment is more frequently indispensable.

Again, the earnest student will be interested in tracing the influences of climate, of geographical position, of race, of surroundings, upon a people's modes of thought. He will perceive how these modes of thought have imparted individuality and character to the literature, and then how literature has exerted a reflex action upon the character of the people. A study of literature, therefore, includes a thorough and systematic study of history. Properly pursued, it will embrace also a knowledge of geography, of ethnology, psychology, sociology, and all those branches of science which have to do with man in his intellectual capacity and in his relations to his fellow-man.

Still further, in order to appreciate a book and its author's modes of thought and expression, and to profit by its study to the fullest extent, the student should acquire a certain knowledge of the laws of rhetoric. And here the reflex influences of literature and a study of literature are seen to the greatest advantage. For in what better way can we secure a knowledge of correct and elegant modes of thought and expression than by the study of the style and language of our best writers? Thus the study of literary criticism becomes of high importance. What has this famous critic said about the book we are studying? Why docs he speak thus favorably or thus unfavorably of the work? By what means, or for what reasons, have different critics arrived at opinions so diverse? In the consideration of such questions as these, the student himself becomes insensibly a critic. His powers of observation are sharpened, his taste is improved, his judgment is cultivated.

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