JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter VI.
The Law of Literary Epochs.

THE intellectual development of society is like that of the individual. It has its years of puberty, when it waxes in power and influence; then comes its period of finished manhood, when it seems at a standstill, and self-possessed and conscious of its greatness and ability, it gives mature utterance to its thoughts; then it wanes and crumbles into dissolution; its voice grows cracked; its sayings are no longer heeded, and its broken sentences and wandering words excite the pity of those who knew that voice when rich and full, that language when graceful and elegant, those words when laden with deep import.

To the period of a nation's maturity our attention is at present directed. It is preceded by one of slow preparation, when the elements and energies of a nation are combining, and it is gathering strength, and becoming a recognized power in determining the world's destiny. This time of preparation is for a people what youth is for the individual -- what the formation of stem and leaf is for the plant -- a necessity for its after-greatness, when it stands forth clothed in its full power and complete energies. Then the shackles of youth are thrown off. The nation's personality becomes entire. Its civilization attains its most perfect development. Its language is the mirror of its power, maturity, and self-confidence. It partakes of the external grace and polish which society affects at such periods. It is the rounded expression of its genius, and the standard of utterance for all after-times. Then we look for the graceful and finished composition, the successful development of the panorama of life, and the not ineffectual efforts to solve the world-riddle, especially in the drama. Intellectual clusters invariably appear at such times, and shed a glory on their nation, and give to the date of their appearance the name of the golden era.

In contemplating these epochs, we must say that their formation is in obedience to law. All these pinnacles of literary excellence and political and social greatness, presenting so many common traits in nations that seem in other matters to be opposite poles, cannot be without design. We look along the mountain-ranges of the earth, and we notice each capped by one peak towering higher than all others -- its summit ever covered with snow -- and we know that such a peak was the centre and source of vast glacial forces whose marks we read to-day long after their work has been accomplished; we know that Nature exerted her energies more abundantly at that point than at any other in the whole range; and we know that Nature is ruled by law. We search the heavens, and behold vast clusters of stars beautifying the immense dome above us, and catch faint glimpses of others in a state of formation, even as our own earth was evolved from nebulous matter; and we know that the spheres of heaven move in obedience to the laws to which they were subjected at creation's dawn. We further know and believe that the same Mind that governs matter guards humanity with a care infinitely superior. We therefore consider these epochs, not as the result of any individual effort, not as a fortuitous meeting of circumstances, not as being due to chance of any kind; but solely to a law presiding over all particular facts of history -- a law beyond the control of human power, and in obedience to which society moves.

The law of literary epochs is this: When a nation has grown to maturity and arrived at the pinnacle of her prosperity, she possesses a strong sense of security, and devotes herself to peaceful pursuits, especially to literature and architecture, and gives utterance to her thoughts in language strong, clear, effective, such as becomes her maturity and dignity. Wherever there has been an advanced civilization, it has been adorned by such a golden era of letters. In every nation arrived at this maturity, we can trace the growth of its literature corresponding to the various stages of its development; at first through the clan and tribe spirit, thence into its feudal growth, thence through its town and guild life, to its final expansion into a national spirit, when under the polish of court and society influence the full-rounded expression is attained.

The enunciation of the law of literary epochs invalidates individual freedom no more than do the average tables of the statistician. But the bringing about of such periods is beyond any personal influencing power. No man can say when he chooses: "Go to; let us create a golden era of literature." Experience proves that genius is found where it is least looked for; and not always is the means taken to draw it out the one the most successful. The literature that lives enshrined in a people's thoughts and becomes part of a people's daily language, is a spontaneous expression of the wants and aspirations of the age.

The Elizabethan era -- the age of Shakspeare and Bacon -- was of this kind. The national spirit had risen high, and the fulness of life and activity found vent in fulness of noble expression. About the same time, when Spain was the greatest power in Europe, both in material resources and extent of dominion, she possessed Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and Calderon. Such another era was the age of Louis XIV., with its Corneille, its Moliere, and its Racine. Such was the age of Leo X., the age of art-worship and enthusiasm for the pagan ideal. Such was the age of Augustus, when Horace and Vergil and Livy wrote their graceful productions. Such, was the age of Vikramaditya in India, when "nine pearls" adorned his court, the brightest of whom was Kalidasa.{1} Such, centuries before, was the golden epoch of Pericles, which culminated in the grand works of AEschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

That the two pinnacles of Roman glory did not, like the others mentioned, excel in the drama, may be accounted for. In the first place, the dramatic spirit was incompatible with the patrician exclusiveness of social life in Rome. The family was too sacred a thing to represent upon a stage. The lines determining the relations of father to child and of husband to wife were too rigidly drawn to admit of sufficient variety for dramatic purposes. Life tragedies there were, and in abundance, among the Roman people, but the veil of silence was dropped over them, and they remained as family traditions or were buried in the excitements of public affairs. "It would have been untrue to Roman social life to have exhibited as Roman the relations of father and son, husband and wife, as Plautus and Terence borrowing from Greek models exhibit them always on a thoroughly Greek stage."{2} In the second place, the amphitheatre in the Rome of old was too real; there the peopIe saw action intensified in the death-struggle between the gladiators and the ferocious beasts of the forest; their tastes grew vitiated in the contemplation of such spectacles, and they in consequence flouted the mere imaginary scenes of the drama. They were not a people of dreams. They should have reality; and swayed as they then were by Epicurean principles, their realistic natures were amused only by vice and cruelty and the pleasures of the banquet, to such a degree as to well merit the strong rebuke of the satirist:

"And those who once, with unresisted sway,
Gave armies, empires, everything, away,
For two poor claims have long renounced the whole,
And only ask -- the Circus and the Dole."{3}

The age of Leo X. was too much an age of literary dilettanteism to produce anything original in letters. Men laid too great stress on the turn of a phrase, and were too slavish in their admiration for the classical literature of Rome, to possess anything peculiarly their own. The Madonnas and the Transfiguration of Raphael, the Last Judgment and Moses of Michael Angelo, are the real glory of this age.

The normal literature, then, of the golden era of a nation is the drama. This we should look for, considering the origin both of a people's civilization and of its drama. Each has its roots in religion. And as a nation grows powerful, and acquires all the refinements of civilization, the ease and security in which she lives, foster views of self-sufficiency; the religious element becomes weakened; her ideas grow secularized, and her literature expresses her actuating principles. Hence the drama no longer deals with the mysteries of religion; it enters the broader and more palpable field of humanity. But mark the result. After a nation has become completely secularized, corrupt human nature begins to play havoc, and she declines. Her energies soon become exhausted; her literature grows weak and sickly; she is only a shadow of her former greatness.{4}

{1} "It was at the court of this monarch, that flourished nine of the celebrated sages and poets of the second era of Indian literature; and among these was Calidas, the author of the beautiful dramatic poem of 'Sacontala,' so generally known by the English and German translations. It was in the age of Vikramaditya that the later poetry and literature of India, of which Calidas was so bright an ornament, reached its full bloom." -- SCHLEGEL, Philosophy of History, lect. v. p. 180. See Weber, History of Indian Literature, pp. 200-206.

{2} Posnett, Comparative Literature, p. 196.

{3} " -- Nam qui dabat olim
Imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia; nunc se
Continet, atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
Panem et circenses." -- JUVENAL, Sat. x., 78-81.

{4} See Velleius Paterculus, bk. i., chaps. xvi., xvii, xviii.

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