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said there are actually now in existence a people in the Foero Islands whose intellectual state faithfully represents that of the whole of Europe in the middle ages.* All the subjects on which men write — every separate line of thought — have been drawn out of the general mass on which the bards of the old saga operated. And the division of labour has enabled the artists in each branch of literary composition to arrive at a higher pitch of excellence than was attained by the earlier and more universal genius. Whoever is ambitious to make a systematic history of the subjects of literary exercise might do so by decomposing the Scald, and tracing the growth of the various races of authors which were once, as it were, enclosed in his loins. The process is to be performed by the rules of Herculean arithmetic. Take a primitive author and divide him into any number of parts; each springs up an independent author.
The first step towards such a division, as it is the first step towards national progress, is the invasion of conquest. The early Scald became then bisected into Homer (singular or plural as you please), the poet of the conquerors, who
, sang of heroes and kings, and the gods their ancestors, and Hesiod, whom the later Greeks called the poet of the Helots, or subject race, because he taught how the tiller of the ground should spend his days.
As national progress goes on, and the aristocracy on the one hand becomes more cultivated and refined, while the
ulace on their part, by commerce and conglomeration into towns, feel the necessity for a more extensive practical knowledge, Homer is drawn out into the dramatic
in the modern sense of the term, that is, the soliloquist whose emotions are the links of associa
* Laing's Denmark, p. 349.
† Our Amoibean eclogues, which used to be sung and sold at village fairs, contests between workmen for the superior worth and dignity of their several callings, were our earliest Hesiodic literature. See Coleridge's Friend, iii. 82.
tion by which his ideas are connected together*, the historiant, the orator, the elegant essayist; and out of the Hesiodic element spring the dry writers on practical subjects, the composers of manuals of useful arts, which precede scientific treatises as art precedes science. The former class of writers, growing up under aristocratic favour, create what are called the belles-lettres, while the latter keep in humble abeyance till the social elevation of the populace calls them into preeminence; for literature and fine arts are the creatures of the noblesse, science of the populace and plebs.
In order that a national literature should be brought within any respectable approximation towards perfection, there are two necessary political conditions: first, Social inequality ; second, A refined taste in the higher classes of the state.
The principal motive in every artist of the pen is either a desire of bread or personal eminence. The two desires are usually combined, but combined in different proportions. In an aristocratic society mere wealth is not of account, and personal merit gives a higher position than newly-acquired riches. The adventurer, therefore, seeks rather for eminence than a fortune ; and eminence is to be acquired only by merit. Hence in such a society each artist aims rather at perfection than a multitude of works. In a democratic society a reputation for extraordinary ability is in disfavour : men are socially equal, and silently estimated by their wealth ; and that which con
* Mill, Dissert. i. 80.
† The great master of Roman history has traced its origin among the lays of the old Roman patricians- the Homers of Italy. “Among the ancient Romans it was the custom, says Cato, for the praises of great men to be sung to the flute at banquets.”—Cicero Tusc. Quæst. iv. 2. Niebuhr, H. R. iv. 12, 13. So at the tables of the German knights stories were read ud, which were founded either on the events of the Old Testament or the heroic deeds of the Romans. --Niebuhr, II. R. iv. 93.
duces most to wealth wins to itself the choicest spirits of the age ; that which pays best, not which is most excellent, is pursued. Hence, in the first case, literature is a profession, and each man aims to excel in it; in the second it is a trade, and each man tries how he can make most money by it. It is manifest in which the art has most chance of approaching perfection.
I have no doubt the mind of the learned reader has by this time suggested to him many objections entirely subversive of my positions, and perhaps I cannot do better than discuss a few most likely to occur. First, for the instance of Rome. Literature, you will say, flourished there after a despotism had annihilated the independence of the patricians. True enough ; but then while there was social inequality there was not sufficient refinement. It was not till about the time of Cæsar that the patricians of Rome became sufficiently soft and luxurious to encourage literature as one of the fine arts ; so that, as Lord Shaftesbury says*, “ 'Twas the fate of Rome to have scarce an intermediate age, or single period of time between the rise of arts and fall of liberty.” In the time of Augustus there was the necessary refinement in the patrician wreck that lingered round his court, and enough social inequality was left to encourage for a while the two poets, who have made the “ Augustan era ” proverbial for literary excellence; for in a society where all men are equal slaves, the only distinctions are those of court favour, and in Rome court favour, owing to the influence of one of the old patricians, was lavished upon literary men.
But this lasts only for a short time, and in fact the Augustan splendour was rather the effect of the former age of aristocracy. It was the gorgeous illumination left in the heavens after the sun had sunk beneath the horizon. Not all the efforts of the Hadrians and Antonines could produce a single poem, statue, or piece of architecture that could show itself be
Characteristics. Advice to an Author, p. 219.
sides the productions of those nations where arts and letters are fostered by the encouragement of a refined aristocracy, and inspired by the rising liberty of the commons.
Next let us take the instance of Athens. The national acme and the flourishing epoch of its arts and letters was immediately after the Persian war--the period when the aristocratic and the democratic factions were most nearly balanced. I know it is the custom to claim Athens as an instance of a refined democracy ; but I put it to the classical reader whether it was the faction of the Piræusin whose number were Cleon the leather-seller, Eucrates the rope-seller, and Ilyperbolus the lamp-maker-or the faction of Alcibiades, which was most adapted to patronise the cultivators of literature. Pericles was, as every one knows, one of their greatest patrons and a great democrat; but in fact he was of the number of the Athenian whigs, who, themselves refined aristocrats, only used the popular sympathies as a weapon against another section of their own order.*
Why were the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the most flourishing period of French literature, but because both of the above conditions were then, and then alone, present? Charles V. made some efforts to create a taste for knowledge and literature in his dominions, partly, no doubt, from a desire to draw away his turbulent nobles from their warlike habits, and enervate them elegantly; for, as D'Alembert remarks, “ The cultivation of letters is one of
* On the aristocratic nature of Greek and Roman literature there are some very just remarks in De Tocqueville's Dem. en Ameri. iii. 122. “ The first fruits which are reaped under a bad system often spring from seed sown under a good one. Thus it was in some measure with the Augustan age.
Thus it was with the age of Raphael and Ariosto, of Aldus and Vida.”—Macaulay, Essay on Machiavelli. And to these may be added the age of Charles V., in which, amid the decline of industry and the loss of liberty, the splendour sown in the age of Ferdinand and Isabella came to bloom.
the most infallible means of securing the tranquillity of a monarchy, for a reason which on the contrary may render them pernicious to republics, because, when pursued too far, there is an attraction belonging to them which absorbs men's attention, and makes them cold to every other object.” * Indeed, I ought to have enumerated above, among the means which a monarch can take for reducing the power of the nobles, the introduction of letters and the fine arts.
Francis I., actuated more by a real love of letters, made the same endeavour to refine his nobility, but they were still devoted to military glory, and not even the example of the court, powerful as it has been in French history, could immediately recall them from their ancestral pursuits. Montaigne and Amyot were but rough precursors of Malherbe, Corneille, and Racine. So that before the seventeenth century France had scarcely produced a single work upon which its literary fame is in any measure founded, whereas England, whose nobles were less military and more refined, had before that time produced some of the greatest works in our language. But in France the change arrived, though late, and in the time of Louis XIV., the noblesse of France, without having lost its military character, became the most cultivated of Europe. Then both conditions existed : social inequality and refinement in the higher classes ; and accordingly, from that time to the middle of the eighteenth century, a refined taste prevailing among the aristocracy called forth from the bourgeois and more ambitious of the noblesse, a class of distinguished men, who, urged by a desire for personal distinction, gave the last classic finish to the language and literature of France. Nowhere, says Burket, were men of letters so highly esteemed, courted, caressed, and even feared, as in France during the days of its refined aristocracy. The same incentive to distinction for some time remained, but gradually their literature became
† Works, vii. 22.
D'Alembert, (Euvres, iü. 25.