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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

And fewest of all on the future


It

is, however, impossible that offences of this sort should not come now and then in the history of literature, and fortunately, in that history, they disappear as they appear. For the present purpose it is more important to conclude this conclusion with a few general remarks on the past, fewer on the present, and fewest of all on the future.

On this last head, indeed, no words were perhaps even better than even fewest; though something of the sort may be expected. Rash as prophecy always is, it is never quite so rash as in literature; and though we can sometimes, looking backward, say--perhaps even then with some rashness--that such and such a change might or ought to have been expected, it is very seldom that we can, when deprived of this illegitimate advantage, vaticinate on such subjects with any safety. Yet the study of the present always, so to speak, includes and overlaps something of the future, and by comparison at least of other presents we can discern what it is at least not improbable that the future may be. What, then, is the present of literature in England?

It can be described with the greater freedom that, as constantly repeated, we are not merely at liberty _ex hypothesi_ to omit references to individuals, but are _ex hypothesi_ bound to exclude them. And no writer, as it happens rather curiously, of anything like great promise or performance who was born later than the beginning of the fifties

has died as yet, though the century is so near its close. Yet again, all the greatest men of the first quarter of the century, with the single exception of Mr. Ruskin, are gone; and not many of the second remain. By putting these simple and unmistakable facts together it will be seen, in a fashion equally free from liability to cavil and from disobliging glances towards persons, that the present is at best a stationary state in our literary history. Were we distinctly on the mounting hand, it is, on the general calculation of the liabilities of human life, certain that we must have had our Shelley or our Keats side by side with our Wordsworth and our Coleridge. That we have much excellent work is certain; that we have much of the absolutely first class not so. And if we examine even the good work of our younger writers we shall find in much of it two notes or symptoms--one of imitation or exaggeration, the other of uncertain and eccentric quest for novelty--which have been already noted above as signs of decadence or transition.

Whether it is to be transition or decadence, that is the question. For the solution of it we can only advance with safety a few considerations, such as that in no literary history have periods of fresh and first-rate production ever continued longer than--that they have seldom continued so long as--the period now under notice, and that it is reasonable, it is almost certain, that, though by no means an absolutely dead season, yet a period of comparatively faint life and illustration should follow. To this it may be added as a consideration not without philosophical weight that the motives, the thoughts, the hopes, the fears, perhaps even the manners, which have defrayed the expense of the literary production of this generation, together with the literary forms in which, according to custom, they have embodied and ensconced themselves, have been treated with unexampled, certainly with unsurpassed, thoroughness, and must now be near exhaustion; while it is by no means clear that any fresh set is ready to take their place. It is on this last point, no doubt, that the more sanguine prophets would like to fight the battle, urging that new social ideas, and so forth, _are_ in possession of the ground. But this is not the field for that battle.


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