Studies of a Biographer/The Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature
THE COSMOPOLITAN SPIRIT IN LITERATURE
M. Joseph Texte, Professor of 'Comparative Literature' at Lyon, has recently published an interesting book upon Rousseau and the 'Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature.' This 'Cosmopolitan Spirit,' for good or for bad, is spreading through the civilised world, and Rousseau marks one essential stage in the process. The spirit was born 'of the fruitful union' between 'the English genius and that of Jean-Jacques.' So says M. Texte at starting, and he concludes by prophesying that in two or three centuries Rousseau will be regarded as the Dante of modern times, the writer who has opened before us (the French people) the portals of the 'Northern and Germanic section of Europe.' Prophecies to be fulfilled at so distant a date are daring; but M. Texte, it is only right to say, qualifies his opinions with proper diffidence, and is not quite sure that even the assumed contrast between the Latin and the Germanic races, as if they were two distinct and definite units, can be justified. That, in a general way, the cosmopolitan spirit has spread and is spreading may be taken for granted. M. Texte himself illustrates one of its excellent results. He is one of many French writers who have added German thoroughness to their own admirable characteristics of clearness and vivacity. The home-bred British critic may well feel nervous when he sees how thoroughly his own field is being explored by such writers as M. Beljame, M. Jusserand, and M. Legouis. M. Texte's account of Richardson, for example, is probably better than anything in our own language. But I propose only to speak briefly of the thesis which I have already quoted. I have dabbled in criticism long enough to be something of a traitor. I am inclined to be suspicious of critical doctrines—including, I hope, my own, but certainly including all other people's. This doctrine about the mutual influence of the two races, if indeed they are properly two races and not each a mixture of a great variety of races, rouses a certain scepticism. One may ask whether the influence was really so great as is suggested; whether Rousseau had really so important a part in bringing the two into relation; and what, after all, is precisely meant by the 'cosmopolitan spirit.' The facts, which M. Texte has collected with great industry, may be quite correctly stated; I at least have no errors to point out; but when one gets beyond the facts, so many doubts spring up that no two people can be expected altogether to agree on the explanation. I will only say enough to suggest the nature of my chief difficulty.
First of all, M. Texte represents one general tendency of which I entirely approve. Critics, like other people nowadays, are anxious to be scientific. They wish to improve upon the old simple-minded criticism which expressed a mere individual liking or disliking. The personal element, indeed, is essential to all good criticism; to the only criticism which can really open our eyes to unrecognised genius; to such criticism, for instance, as that by which Coleridge and Lamb revived an interest in our older authors. But the individual taste now requires to be guided by a wide knowledge of the taste of other ages and countries. The critic should not accept the dogmatic utterances of academical professors who lay down an absolute code, or mistake the war-cry of some rising party for a complete and exhaustive statement of the truth. He should, therefore, so far adopt the scientific spirit as to begin by studying the facts as impartially as he can. Shakespeare was admired in one place, and Racine preferred in another. He should not set down one admiration as a mark of sheer folly and the other as a proof of sound taste, but try to understand the causes of preference and so to learn what were the real merits of each school. That is a very simple and sound principle, but rather difficult of application. If, seeking to be purely scientific, you keep to bare indisputable facts, you resign yourself to be a mere annalist or bibliographer. Theories, moreover, are things which have an awkward facility for intruding even when you are most on your guard against them. They slip in imperceptibly and colour your view of facts. You begin, of course, by clearing your mind of prejudices. You are to consider yourself simply as an observer, not as a judge. Therefore, you first resolve to discard mere local prejudices and show how the literature of any race or nation corresponds to its peculiar characteristics, and so candidly admit that what was good in Paris might be bad in London. Taine carried out that principle in his history of English literature; and since Taine, says M. Texte, 'the history of literature has been above all an ethnological problem.' In fact, all great English writers, as Taine showed us, were incarnations of the great John Bull; and Bull's peculiarities are to be explained, if we must explain further, by his race and his fogs. But this at once seems to involve whole systems of theory. We do not know accurately what is the composition of John Bull himself; how much of him, for example, is Celtic and how much Teuton; and few things are more difficult than to describe accurately the characteristics by which one race differs from another. A Frenchman and an Englishman represent different types. We all perceive the difference, but to say precisely in what it consists we should require nothing less than a complete psychology. We may take for granted, however, that we can fairly assume that a national character exists, and that it is very distinctly manifested in the corresponding literature. Then we can make at least some provisional inferences, to be verified or disproved when somebody will tell us what, after all, is the real distinction.
Assuming this, there is no doubt of one conspicuous fact. Buckle remarked in his famous book that the 'union of the French with the English intellect was by far the most important fact in the history of the eighteenth century.' He shows that nearly all the famous French authors of the century had learned English, and that many had visited England. In the preceding century English was a 'barbarous jargon,' classed by Corneille, as M. Texte observes, with 'Turkish and Sclavonian.' M. Texte traces some of the steps by which the change took place. When Louis XIV. tried to trample out French Protestantism by revoking the Edict of Nantes, he was really scattering the sparks for a new conflagration. Thousands of refugees settled in England, Holland, and elsewhere. Industrious and educated men supported themselves in the humbler walks of literature. In London they naturally drifted into Grub Street, and kept up a correspondence with their countrymen in Holland, which had come to be a great intellectual, as well as commercial, centre of exchange. Such names as Motteux, Boyer, Coste, Desmaiseaux, meet us constantly in the earlier annals of English journalism. They habitually gathered at the 'Rainbow' in Marylebone, and formed a kind of literary agency. They sat at the feet of Locke and Newton. They compiled, edited, translated and contributed to the long series of journals published in Holland. Bayle had already paid some attention to English writings in his Nouvelles de la République des Lettres; Le Clerc took up the task more thoroughly, and a whole series of journals dealing with English publications were afterward published in Holland. Knowledge of English philosophy and science, and, by degrees, of English literature, spread from the Hague and Amsterdam to the literary circles of France. Then a Frenchman or two drifted to England, and translated Addison and Swift. A Swiss traveller, Muralt, published some letters upon England about 1724, and drew a genuine portrait of John Bull, who had really good points in the eyes of a Protestant. Muralt admits that the animal can be fierce and misanthropic, and that his 'houmour' turns all things topsy-turvy; but he sympathises heartily with the serious, thoughtful, and vigorous character whose eccentricity is but one side of the independence which had won political liberty. Next came the Abbé Prévost, who passed some years in England, and worked up his experience into various novels, translated many English works, and published some twenty volumes of a magazine which, with much greater vivacity, carried on the work of the Dutch journalists. These writers were eclipsed by Voltaire, whose epoch-making visit to England lasted from 1726 to 1729. Voltaire, as Mr. Morley says, 'left France a poet and returned to it a sage.' The Lettres Anglaises appeared in 1733, and Voltaire was the ambassador who definitely proclaimed the new alliance between the French and English mind.
The full story, as told by M. Texte, is very interesting, and obviously suggests one comment. The man who was told that so many tons of water fell over Niagara, very naturally asked, Why shouldn't they? That France and England should come into intellectual contact was surely inevitable. The difficulty would have been to keep them apart. Historians of politics or commerce would have no difficulty in showing why the England of George I. should be much more interesting in France than the England of Charles II. The French refugees, no doubt, stimulated, but they could also presuppose, an interest in the nation which had taken so important a position in Europe. Many subsidiary symptoms might be mentioned which lie outside M. Texte's plan. The English influence upon France was partly a result of the French influence upon England. English writers since the Restoration had been assimilating French methods, and Addison and Pope came near enough to Racine and Boileau to be regarded as civilised human beings by Voltaire. Familiarity with their work suggested that there were some merits in the older English literature which they had refined, and that it might be worth while to look even at Shakespeare or other literary ancestors. The English nobleman, conversely, all through the century regarded France as the school of good manners. Bolingbroke and Chesterfield and Horace Walpole felt themselves at home in a society pleasantly contrasted with the clownish and brutal Squire Westerns who were their neighbours at home and elbowed them in the House of Commons. The 'grand tour' enabled the young noble and his bear-leader to get some French polish. He was easily made an honorary member of the highest circles; and men like Hume and Adam Smith were introduced through his patronage to society in which their intellectual eminence was more frankly recognised than in England. There arose a tacit freemasonry between the higher classes. M. Texte points out that the French appreciation of English literature was at its strongest during the wars. The eighteenth-century wars did not imply the profound antipathy of the religious wars of the past or the revolutionary wars to come. The 'patriotic idea,' says M. Texte, had become feeble. A person of quality often thought himself a gentleman first and a Frenchman or an Englishman afterwards. War to the enlightened aristocrat meant not an internecine struggle, but a game to be played in a sportsmanlike spirit. The English officers did not say at Fontenoy, 'Gentlemen of the French Guard, fire first,' but that was the spirit in which they might, or ought to, have acted. The 'cosmopolitan spirit,' in short, was the product of the innumerable causes which were bringing nations into closer intercourse at their higher levels; and the literary go-betweens were useful 'masters of the ceremonies' to bring together people anxious for an introduction. What, then, was Rousseau's special share in the process? Had not Voltaire already opened his countrymen's eyes? This gives the important distinction. Voltaire's special achievement was to make Frenchmen familiar with Locke and Newton—that is, with English philosophy and science. But, though an Englishman may make mathematical discoveries, mathematics cannot be especially English. Two and two make four in Paris as well as in London: and the reasoning of Newton's Principia was as valid in French as in English or Latin. Art, as M. Texte says, 'is infinitely various'; philosophy is (or ought to be) 'one.' Though art, therefore, may be national, philosophy must be cosmopolitan. The glory of discovering some new principle may be assigned to this or that country; but once discovered it loses all trace of its origin. How far, in point of fact, Voltaire learnt his doctrine from Locke or from Bayle or elsewhere is disputable. In any case, the doctrine, once reached, had to live or die mainly by its logic. The philosophy, indeed, had attracted Voltaire to other characteristics. It was one product of the English character. Britons, he thought, were philosophers because they were free men, resolved to think as they pleased and to say what they thought. To the earlier generation it only occurred that a race which could kill its king must be more savage than its own mastiffs. Now its fierceness, its rough energy and sturdy independence, appeared to have its merits. It had made kings know that they 'had a lith in their necks'; it could reduce priests into bondage to the State; and a man of letters would not be sent to the Bastille or thrashed with impunity by a great man's valet. The coarseness and eccentricity were but accidental defects of a strong vitality. Such qualities, incorporated in John Bull, attracted Voltaire and his fellows in their contest with the established order in France, and naturally suggested some interest in a literature which showed the same qualities. Voltaire, however, stopped at a certain point: he remained substantially faithful to the old literary ideal of his race; he renounced the Shakespeare whom he had once patronised, and the literary revolution was left to Rousseau.
This marks Rousseau's special function. He not only admired the English character, but introduced English canons of art. He joined the barbarians, whose incursion was still dreaded by Voltaire. The Nouvelle Héloïse was admittedly an imitation of Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe. Rousseau imitated even its defects. The awkwardness, for example, of telling a story by letters leads to comic results in both. The heroes and heroines of both have to sit down at the most exciting moments and pour out reams of correspondence for the benefit of the general public. The likeness of form corresponds to a more important likeness in substance. Richardson and Rousseau are both preachers, and both preachers of a 'bourgeois' morality, adapted to the British tradesman or the citizen of a little Swiss town. Both, too, are 'realists' in the sense of producing their effects by the minute descriptions of commonplace and ugly facts, the mention of which would be incompatible with the old literary conventions. Thus, though Rousseau has an exquisite style and Richardson no style at all, both represent 'a plebeian type of art.' This, no doubt, is the truth, and points to an important observation. In fact, Richardson, and another of Rousseau's favourites, Defoe, had stumbled upon a great discovery. Defoe, a thoroughly trained journalist, had found out the secret of successful journalism; the charm of a straightforward circumstantial narrative. He could save trouble by inventing his facts, but to all appearance they must be still simply facts. Defoe had no literary dignity to prevent him from supplying what his audience really wanted. Richardson, again, began by publishing a series of edifying letters. He afterwards discovered how to make letters interesting by stringing them upon a story. They became a prolonged religious tract, which also happened to be a great romance. Both Defoe and Richardson being men of genius, they founded a new literary genus. But the cause of their immediate success was that they were frankly suiting the taste of a new class of readers. Addison and Pope thought first of gentlemen and scholars, and could not condescend to lower their dignity for readers who cared nothing for the high court of criticism. Voltaire, as M. Texte observes, did not see Defoe in England. Voltaire's friends, that is, were in the upper circle, to which Defoe was utterly inadmissible, and who partly shared Congreve's wish to be regarded as gentlemen, not as authors. To Swift, Defoe was the fellow who stood in the pillory—'I forget his name'; and Pope pleasantly calls him 'earless' and 'unabashed.' To see him, it would have been necessary to descend into the slums. Richardson was eminently respectable, but bishops and deans still write to 'good Mr. Richardson,' with the condescension of great dons recognising merit in a humble, self-taught scribbler. His work was suited for the inhabitants of Salisbury Court, not for St. James's. The novelty was that as the habit of reading spread to a lower social stratum, literature had to adopt new ideals, and to leave off some of the fine lace and full-bottomed wigs which it still had to wear in the elegant world. Rousseau, brought up in a similar atmosphere, took the hint, and no doubt himself shared the taste of his class. He was the first French writer, so far, to exemplify one symptom of the great social changes which were to bring about the Revolution. Literature in England was already taking the middle class instead of the aristocracy for its patrons. Rousseau naturally sympathised with the 'plebeian' tendency, and was ready to take advantage of Richardson's innovation.
The enthusiasm which greeted the Nouvelle Héloïse was due, of course, to the sentiment which found easier expression in the new form. Here, again, Richardson was followed by Rousseau. The generation which wept over the wrongs of Clarissa was succeeded by the generation which wept over the death of Julie. We, though we have a sentimentalism of our own, find it rather difficult to shed tears upon either tomb. We can see that both writers were men of genius, though we cry 'with difficulty' over the pathos. But did Rousseau learn his sentimentalism from Richardson? Would he not have been as sentimental if Richardson had never existed? And was the 'sentimentalism' a specially Northern product transplanted from the Germanic to the Latin races, or a product of conditions common to both? It was in some respects even opposed to the English character. The true founder of the English novel was not Richardson so much as Fielding. To most modern readers, to me certainly, Fielding is incomparably the more readable of the two. I can put myself by an effort into the proper attitude about Clarissa; but I can adopt it spontaneously for Amelia. Fielding, however, achieved no such popularity abroad as Richardson. One obvious reason is precisely that he was too thorough a John Bull. The great coarse vigorous animal, the 'good buffalo,' as Taine calls him, disgusted our more refined neighbours. He began by a hearty guffaw at Richardson's 'sentimentalism,' and embodies the really British view of that product. It is, he held, substantially an unmanly, mawkish affectation, fit only for tea-drinking, effeminate, molly-coddling tradesmen and Frenchified dandies. So far from being specially English, it was everything that was rightfully despised by your lusty Englishman, who held, with 'old Mr. Meynell,' that 'foreigners were fools.' No doubt John Bull was already notorious for his melancholy. He was a victim to the 'spleen' and given to committing suicide during his November fogs. Jaques had already learnt to suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs, and classified and compounded the various brands of melancholy. Great English poets had invoked 'divinest melancholy.' We had an 'anatomy' of melancholy; and one of the greatest writers of the time had combined melancholy with misanthropy and died 'like a poisoned rat in a hole.' Swift was melancholy in the true British fashion, but hardly sentimental. Probably enough our national character, or our fogs, predisposed us to a certain gloom, which might take the form of grim humour or tinge imaginative work with sadness. But, then, surely a Frenchman can be melancholy too, though he may wear his melancholy with a difference. A characteristic example often noticed is the simultaneous appearance of Candide and Rasselas, both of them powerful protests against optimism, but couched by the Frenchman in brilliant wit and by the Englishman in ponderous moralising. The true sentiment is the same in both. Pessimism, misanthropy, and melancholy are not the property of any particular race—for reasons only too obvious. Now Rousseau—it requires no proof—was, if ever such a thing existed, a born sentimentalist. He needed no teacher to explain the luxury of grief or the charm of sad and solitary musing; nor, in fact, would he have found his precise shade of sentimentalism in Richardson. I will not try to define precisely what was the sentimentalism which undoubtedly charmed readers both at home and abroad. But the British product, as it seems to me, was appreciated abroad just in so far as it was not specifically British. The thoroughly national article could not be exported. Richardson's sentimentalism inclined to twaddle; and there is nothing, I fancy, so cosmopolitan as downright twaddle. Obvious little moral commonplaces are current in every market. Twaddle pure and simple, indeed, may be a drug. Richardson's genius, his command of the pathetic and the realistic, was undoubtedly the secret of his success; but it could be assimilated by foreigners, because it was diluted with the obvious morality which is just as good at Geneva as at London. Fielding's work supposed some familiarity with his powerfully-drawn British types, and with the downright brutal common-sense which came like a slap in the face to your pure sentimentalist. Richardson's characters and sentiments have less idiosyncrasy, and can, therefore, be more easily transported. The quality which now makes them tedious was then one cause of their success. They suited the middle class all over the world just because they had not too strong a flavour of their native soil. This suggests another point. M. Texte insists in a very interesting way upon the bond of sympathy due to the common Protestantism of Richardson and Rousseau. The English sentimentalism had obviously a distinct religious colouring. Richardson in literature was a parallel to Wesley in theology. Both men represent the dissatisfaction of the middle classes with the codes which were respected in the upper circles. The 'enthusiasm' of Methodists was the antithesis of the 'cold morality' of such men as Clarke and Hoadly. In literature, 'enthusiasm' became sentimentalism. Pope's Essay on Man, more or less dictated by Bolingbroke, represented the eighteenth century rationalism. Young's Night Thoughts, as he boasted, was meant to supply the desirable corrective. He meditated among the tombs, as a great many Englishmen had done before him, but professed to find consolation in the revealed truths which were ignored in Pope's philosophy. Hervey took up the strain in the prose Meditations, which, I fancy, have still a kind of faded vitality. The Night Thoughts gained extraordinary popularity in France at a later period, and chiefly, as M. Texte thinks, because readers saturated with Rousseauism were prepared to accept any kindred sentimentalism. The relationship, anyhow, implies also a curious difference. Rousseau and Rousseau's followers held forms of religious belief which would have set Richardson's hair on end. Probably he would have agreed with his friend Johnson that the proper way of dealing with Rousseau was by a sentence of transportation. Richardson's discontent with the dominant ideals might be compared to that of Dickens, whose sentimentalism delighted the same class, and was met by the heartless sneers (so he thought them) of cold-blooded people in clubs and drawing-rooms. But, in English conditions, this did not imply any revolutionary outbreak, political or theological. The enthusiasm could still run in the old channels, and Richardson could still be a sound Tory and Churchman. Rousseau, on the other hand, was to become the mouthpiece of the most ardent revolutionists. Instead of promoting a religious revival in the British manner, he was to convert the revolutionary movement itself into a kind of new religion. Rationalism was not to be his enemy, but to be converted into a creed to be preached with all the fervour of a fresh gospel.
The difference corresponds to another contrast, of which M. Texte has something to say. If Shakespeare appeared to be half a lunatic to the admirers of French tragedy, it was partly because he is so deeply impressed by the greatest riddles of human life—by the silences and the eternities, as Carlyle would say. The French drama, says M. Texte, held aloof from such thoughts; 'where, in the plays of Racine and Corneille, are we to look for their philosophy?' They have nothing to say of the 'problems which bring anguish to lofty souls.' This, he thinks, is because in France there was a divorce between secular and religious literature. The conventions of the French stage confined the drama to a sphere of emotion from which the profoundest poetical sentiments were excluded. It was certainly not that Frenchmen were insensible to such thoughts; but that they left them aside as belonging to the domain of the Church. Bossuet could preach upon the emptiness of worldly glory; and Pascal could be profoundly, even morbidly, sensible of the impotence of human reason and the worthlessness of human happiness. In the French pulpit, if not in the English, it was admittedly becoming that hell should be mentioned to 'ears polite'; but the dramatist felt that in his surroundings the topic would be really inappropriate and savour of profanity. The remark is very suggestive, and, I think, may help to explain what it was that Rousseau really owed to Richardson. Rousseau clearly was a sentimentalist in his own right; not because he had been infected by Richardson. His philosophy, again, wherever he learnt it, was certainly not due to the worthy old printer. It had to express passions and emotions which were not allowed to find free utterance under the academic régime. So far, Richardson might give him a lead by his 'plebeian' indifference to accepted canons of art. They had, so to speak, a common enemy. Richardson's revolt was comparatively easy, because the dominion against which he protested had never been very solidly founded. The English authors, whom we call after Queen Anne, represented our nearest, but still a temporary and half-hearted, approximation to the French conception. Swift tried to persuade his Tory friends to found an academy. The town wits who gathered in London coffee-houses made for the time such a circle as was required, and were fully prepared to accept an absolute code of literary orthodoxy, and, but for certain patriotic prejudices, to condemn as Gothic and barbarous everything that would have displeased a French critic. But this corresponded to a temporary phase; it was 'un-English.' We could never live up to an academy, and had no intolerable critical yoke to throw off. The literary, like the political, movement could therefore take place by gentle compromise instead of violent revolution. In France the classical rule had been stronger, and the explosion was proportionately forcible. It had forbidden men to speak upon the deepest subjects and provided no utterance for the passions which were beginning to demand open expression. The English precedent encouraged an advance, which soon went far beyond English limits. In the same way the political Anglomaniacs in France saw that in some things England was ahead of them, and aspired to transplant the British Constitution bodily. In literature, Rousseau was attracted by a style which was breaking with the old conventions, and was admired for its frank utterance of common sentiments and freedom in dealing with common objects and simple human emotions. He loved the 'individualism' which meant an expression of a man's natural feelings without deference to pretentious authority. But in politics, Anglomania turned out to be an impossible compromise; and, in literature, the new spirit introduced by Rousseau came into alliance with a radical revolt against the old order. Cowper in England impressed his sentimentalism in terms of Evangelical religion; but Rousseau made a religion out of the rights of man.
If this be true, as, at least, it is tolerably commonplace, we must surely modify the statement of Rousseau's influence. Clearly he learnt something from England, but what he learnt was mainly encouragement to express more directly sentiments which he had learnt from nobody outside of himself. We might rather say that he assimilated just what was cosmopolitan in the English movement, and rejected whatever was really national. A curious illustration of the same process might be found in the singular popularity of Ossian. The Ossianic enthusiasm is one of the most remarkable of literary phenomena. Goethe admired Ossian; Chateaubriand translated him; Napoleon revelled in Ossian; Madame de Staël, equally enthusiastic, considers Ossian as a typical example of the influence of the Northern spirit. I will not say that Ossian—or so much of him as appeared in Macpherson—was a mere humbug. But I may say, without incurring much risk of critical wrath, that I cannot read him. Nobody can read him. Wordsworth, as we know, was disgusted with his unreal mountains; and his scenery strikes one, so far as it strikes one at all, like so much 'carpenter's Gothic.' It is a mere sham, and, in fact, it never produced any very assignable effect upon English literature. Yet the impression which it made upon people of the highest intelligence is a fact, and ought to be explained. It seems to show, as some other cases show, that popularity abroad may be unaffected by, if not exactly due to, faults which are fatal at home. The reader of a translation is not shocked by defects of style apparent to the native, and gets general impressions in the lump. Wordsworth was offended because Ossian's mountains were not the real thing; only what a Cockney might see through a Scottish mist. But Chateaubriand was content with a 'mountain' in the abstract, and supplied details for himself. Ossian's mountains might be mere scene-painting. When Scott or Wordsworth gave genuine likenesses Ossian's were seen to be intolerable blurs. That made no difference to people who simply wanted what Mr. Ruskin described as the 'mountain gloom.' A vague daub answered the purpose as well as Turner's most powerful drawing of the reality. May we not say the same of the sentiment itself? Was it really specifically Northern, or simply eighteenth century, characteristic of the period, and common to the Germanic and the Latin races? This, indeed, suggests another question. Matthew Arnold argues that the effect of Ossian was due to the specially Celtic sentiment, which survived even through Macpherson's manipulation. Madame de Staël and most contemporaries were indifferent to such niceties. For them the Northern races were a unit; Celt and Scandinavian both lived in the North, and represent bogs and moors and wind-swept seas in general. Gray complained of Mason for mixing Scandinavian scalds with Celtic bards, but the distinction was scarcely recognised by less learned scholars. M. Texte, of course, is well aware that the English are not a single race. He would feel it more keenly, perhaps, if he were a poor Anglo-Saxon whose thick-headed incapacity for wit, humour, fancy, or imagination is being daily impressed upon him by his Irish friends. This, however, becomes a real difficulty in 'ethnological' theories of literature. If Ossian represents the Celt as distinguished from, and not as merely one of, the Northern races, will not theories as to the influence of Germanic and Latin races require modification? If Matthew Arnold's view be accepted, it would apparently follow that race differences are so indelible that centuries of close contact cannot obliterate them. If all Northern races are alike in so far as they are all 'children of the mist,' can these qualities be really transmitted till London fogs have occupied Paris?
I do not presume to treat such questions. I confine myself to a simpler point. The 'cosmopolitan' movement, in one sense, needs no exposition. That Europe is becoming a unit for scientific purposes, or that the great changes, which we generally sum up as democratic, affect all civilised countries, is too obvious to be insisted upon. But does this imply a corresponding unity of art and literature; a fusion of different types, and an influence of Northern, for example, upon Southern races? That is where I hesitate. Critics trace the growth of 'sentimentalism,' 'romanticism,' 'love of nature,' and so forth; they show their acuteness by recognising early symptoms of each type; and then speak as though its first representative had made a discovery of a new product as a chemist discovers a gas which nobody had ever before perceived. Rousseau, or somebody else, has then the credit of all the subsequent developments, as Watt gets the credit of the steam-engine. Each new critic pushes the origin a little further back, because in reality there is no origin but only a gradual change of form. The real process seems to me to be very different. 'Sentimentalism' was due, I should guess, to the truly 'cosmopolitan' movement: to the social, political, and philosophical changes which were common to all Europe. The emotions, of course, are as old as human nature; they only required a new form of utterance. Rousseau, as abnormally sensitive to the great impulses of the time, was bound to find some appropriate form, and in the Nouvelle Héloïse he imitated Richardson, the man who under English conditions had already made a step in the same direction. But then, he did not appropriate what was English in Richardson, but only what was cosmopolitan; or, rather, the specifically English element was soon thrown off, and the genuine French characteristics speedily reappeared. The Anglomania in literature and in society corresponds, that is, to a fashion essentially superficial and transitory. Anglomania, we are told, was rampant in France before the Revolution; it made 'appalling progress'; it tended to replace the 'social spirit' by 'individualism.' Frenchmen read Shakespeare; drank tea; dressed like jockeys; imported race-horses; set up English clubs and had assemblées à l'anglaise destructive of the old French salon. As Fox observed, the imitation was equally ridiculous on both sides of the Channel. It was ridiculous, because superficial. We know perfectly well that to land at Calais was then—as it is even now to some degree—to find oneself in a new world, with radically different manners, religion, politics, institutions, and ways of thinking. A Frenchman might put on top-boots and keep a bull-dog without being really one bit the more a genuine John Bull. He was only masquerading—a mere stage caricature, whose likeness to the original was skin-deep. The whole phenomenon represented a passing enthusiasm, resting, to a great degree, on a total misunderstanding, and without any real roots in the soil. So British aristocrats sympathised at first with the French Revolution, and French reformers admired the British Constitution, precisely on account of the utter ignorance on both sides of the real significance of the foreign state of things. Was it not really the same in literature? Richardson and Young and Ossian could be admired, although they were English; and admiration for them and others suggested a fashion of imitation which implied no real appreciation of the peculiarly English qualities. Regarded in this way, it seems to me that a moral might be drawn which would be different from M. Texte's. Rousseau shows how one nation may take a hint from another; but shows also how the different national characteristics act as a non-conducting medium. They allow the 'cosmopolitan' or congenial element to pass freely, as the Röntgen rays pass through an opaque body; but to the really national element they are obstinately non-transparent. He shows not so much the blending of two types as the persistence of each, even when brought into close external contact.
If there be any truth in this it applies to M. Texte's final moral. He observes that there is a danger of literature becoming too cosmopolitan. The distinctive qualities in which French literature has been super-eminent may disappear: and if something is gained for science, much may be lost for art. At present, indeed, we do not seem to be rapidly approaching the period at which patriotism will be lost in universal philanthropy. When the 'parliament of man' has been elected by the 'federation of the world' it will be time enough to make up our minds as to the gain and loss. The real danger is, to my mind, a little different. It is quite true that the modern author does his best to be in one way cosmopolitan. He goes about the world searching for new sensations. If an original writer arises in France or Germany, Russia or Norway, he is translated and imitated, and has his sect of fervent admirers in every other civilised country. That, no doubt, represents a very different state of things from the old order, under which each vernacular literature grew up utterly unconscious of the existence of others, or even from the order in which a small body of critics could lay down a code of absolute laws and keep to the elaboration of a single type. In spite of that, it may be that the national taste will still assert itself. We plant, it is true, all manner of exotics, but only a few take root, and those in virtue of their suitability to our soil. But if the vision of our political Jeremiahs is to be fulfilled; if the inevitable growth of democracy means a growing uniformity and growing vulgarisation of the human being everywhere; if it implies, too, an indefinite multiplication of masses, in which the individual is insignificant, occupied by the same petty round of interests, and incapable of appreciating refinement or high intellectual powers, there can be no doubt that literature also will become commonplace and vulgar, and so far alike throughout the world. There may be reasons for thinking that, in point of fact, there is a strong temptation for men of genius to write down to a low level and produce literary shoddy instead of thorough works of art. It may be, on the other hand, that democratic literature may represent wider sympathies and more genuine enthusiasms. But this opens problems far wider than any mere literary criticism can approach; as, indeed, the scientific critic, if such a person is to come into existence, would be the first to admit that it is impossible to explain literary changes if the literary movement be taken by itself as an isolated phenomenon.
- A translation by Mr. J. W. Mathews has recently appeared.