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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

The invention of comparative philology


Science,

that is to say physical science, which has sometimes openly boasted itself as about to take, and has much more commonly made silent preparations for taking, the place both of philosophy and of theology, will hardly be said by the hardiest of her adherents to have done very much to justify these claims to seats not yet quite vacant from the point of view of the purely literary critic. We have had some excellent scientific writers, from Bishop Watson to Professor Huxley; and some of the books of the century which would deserve remembrance and reading, whatever their subject matter, have been books of science. Yet it is scarcely rash to assert that the essential characteristics of science and the essential characteristics of literature are, if not so diametrically opposed as some have thought, at any rate very far apart from one another. Literature can never be scientific; and though science may be literary, yet it is rather in the fashion in which a man borrows some alien vesture in order to present himself, in compliance with decency and custom, at a foreign court. Mathematics give us the example--perhaps the only example--of pure science, of what all science would be if it could, and of what it approaches, ever more nearly, as far as it can. It is needless to say that the perfect presentation of mathematics is in pure symbols, divested of all form and colour, of all personal tincture and bias. And it should be equally superfluous to add that it is in form and colour, in suggestion
of sound rather than in precise expression and sense, in personal bias and personal tincture, that not merely the attraction but the very essence of literature consists.

By so much as verbal science or scholarship, which would seem to be more especially bound to be literature, claims to be and endeavours to be strictly scientific, by so much also necessarily does it divorce itself from the literature which it studies. This, if not an enormously great, is certainly rather a sore evil; and it is one of the most considerable and characteristic signs of the period we are discussing. The older scholarship, though sufficiently minute, still clung to the literary side proper: it was even, in the technical dialect of one of the universities, opposed to "science," which word indeed was itself used in a rather technical way. The invention of comparative philology, with its even more recent off-shoot phonetics, has changed all this, and we now find "linguistic" and "literary" used by common consent as things not merely different but hostile, with a further tendency on the part of linguistics to claim the term "scholarship" exclusively for itself.

This could hardly in any case be healthy. What may be the abstract value of the science, or group of sciences, called philology, it is perhaps not necessary here to inquire. It is sufficient to say that it clearly has nothing to do with literature except in accidental and remote applications, that it stands thereto much as geology does to architecture. Unfortunately, while the scientific side of scholarship is thus becoming, if it has not become, wholly unliterary, the aesthetic side has shown signs of becoming, to far too great an extent, unscientific in the bad and baneful sense. With some honourable exceptions, we find critics of literature too often divided into linguists who seem neither to think nor to be capable of thinking of the meaning or the melody, of the individual and technical mastery, of an author, a book, or a passage, and into loose aesthetic rhetoricians who will sometimes discourse on AEschylus without knowing a second aorist from an Attic perfect, and pronounce eulogies or depreciations on Virgil without having the faintest idea whether there is or is not any authority for _quamvis_ with one mood rather than another. Nor is it possible to see what eirenicon is likely to present itself between two parties, of whom the extremists on the one side may justly point to such things as have here been quoted, while the extremists on the other feel it a duty to pronounce phonetics the merest "hariolation," and a very large part of what goes by the name of philology ingenious guesswork, some of which may possibly not be false, but hardly any of which can on principles of sound general criticism be demonstrated to be true. It is not wonderful, though it is in the highest degree unhealthy, that the stricter scholars should be more or less scornfully relinquishing the province of literary criticism altogether, while the looser aesthetics consider themselves entitled to neglect scholarship in any proper sense with a similarly scornful indifference.


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