An Essay of Literature

[This is taken from William J. Long's Outlines of English and American Literature.]

WHAT IS LITERATURE? In an old English book, written before Columbus dreamed of a westward journey to find the East, is the story of a traveler who set out to search the world for wisdom. Through Palestine and India he passed, traveling by sea or land through many seasons, till he came to a wonderful island where he saw a man plowing in the fields. And the wonder was, that the man was calling familiar words to his oxen, “such wordes as men speken to bestes in his owne lond.” Startled by the sound of his mother tongue he turned back on his course “in gret mervayle, for he knewe not how it myghte be.” But if he had passed on a little, says the old record, “he would have founden his contree and his owne knouleche.”

Facing a new study of literature our impulse is to search in strange places for a definition; but though we compass a world of books, we must return at last, like the worthy man of Mandeville’s Travels, to our own knowledge. Since childhood we have been familiar with this noble subject of literature. We have entered into the heritage of the ancient Greeks, who thought that Homer was a good teacher for the nursery; we have made acquaintance with Psalm and Prophecy and Parable, with the knightly tales of Malory, with the fairy stories of Grimm or Andersen, with the poetry of Shakespeare, with the novels of Scott or Dickens,--in short, with some of the best books that the world has ever produced. We know, therefore, what literature is, and that it is an excellent thing which ministers to the joy of living; but when we are asked to define the subject, we are in the position of St. Augustine, who said of time, “If you ask me what time is, I know not; but if you ask me not, then I know.” For literature is like happiness, or love, or life itself, in that it can be understood or appreciated but can never be exactly described. It has certain describable qualities, however, and the best place to discover these is our own bookcase.

Here on a shelf are a Dictionary, a History of America, a text on Chemistry, which we read or study for information; on a higher shelf are As You Like It, Hiawatha, Lorna Doone, The Oregon Trail, and other works to which we go for pleasure when the day’s work is done. In one sense all these and all other books are literature; for the root meaning of the word is “letters,” and a letter means a character inscribed or rubbed upon a prepared surface. A series of letters intelligently arranged forms a book, and for the root meaning of “book” you must go to a tree; because the Latin word for book, liber, means the inner layer of bark that covers a tree bole, and “book” or “boc” is the old English name for the beech, on whose silvery surface our ancestors carved their first runic letters.

So also when we turn the “leaves” of a book, our mind goes back over a long trail: through rattling printing-shop, and peaceful monk’s cell, and gloomy cave with walls covered with picture writing, till the trail ends beside a shadowy forest, where primitive man takes a smooth leaf and inscribes his thought upon it by means of a pointed stick. A tree is the Adam of all books, and everything that the hand of man has written upon the tree or its products or its substitutes is literature. But that is too broad a definition; we must limit it by excluding what does not here concern us.


Our first exclusion is of that immense class of writings—books of science, history, philosophy, and the rest—to which we go for information. These aim to preserve or to systematize the discoveries of men; they appeal chiefly to the intellect and they are known as the literature of knowledge.  There remains another large class of writings, sometimes called the literature of power, consisting of poems, plays, essays, stories of every kind, to which we go treasure-hunting for happiness or counsel, for noble thoughts or fine feelings, for rest of body or exercise of spirit,--for almost everything, in fine, except information. As Chaucer said, long ago, such writings are:

For pleasaunce high, and for noon other end.

They aim to give us pleasure; they appeal chiefly to our imagination and our emotions; they awaken in us a feeling of sympathy or admiration for whatever is beautiful in nature or society or the soul of man.

The author who would attempt books of such high purpose must be careful of both the matter and the manner of his writing, must give one thought to what he shall say and another thought to how he shall say it. He selects the best or most melodious words, the finest figures, and aims to make his story or poem beautiful in itself, as a painter strives to reflect a face or a landscape in a beautiful way. Any photographer can in a few minutes reproduce a human face, but only an artist can by care and labor bring forth a beautiful portrait. So any historian can write the facts of the Battle of Gettysburg; but only a Lincoln can in noble words reveal the beauty and immortal meaning of that mighty conflict.

To all such written works, which quicken our sense of the beautiful, and which are as a Jacob’s ladder on which we mount for higher views of nature or humanity, we confidently give the name “literature,” meaning the art of literature in distinction from the mere craft of writing.

Such a definition, though it cuts out the greater part of human records, is still too broad for our purpose, and again we must limit it by a process of exclusion. For to study almost any period of English letters is to discover that it produced hundreds of books which served the purpose of literature, if only for a season, by affording pleasure to readers. No sooner were they written than Time began to winnow them over and over, giving them to all the winds of opinion, one generation after another, till the hosts of ephemeral works were swept aside, and only a remnant was left in the hands of the winnower. To this remnant, books of abiding interest, on which the years have no effect save to mellow or flavor them, we give the name of great or enduring literature; and with these chiefly we deal in our present study.

To the inevitable question, What are the marks of great literature? no positive answer can be returned. As a tree is judged by its fruits, so is literature judged not by theory but by the effect which it produces on human life; and the judgment is first personal, then general. If a book has power to awaken in you a lively sense of pleasure or a profound emotion of sympathy; if it quickens your love of beauty or truth or goodness; if it moves you to generous thought or noble action, then that book is, for you and for the time, a great book. If after ten or fifty years it still has power to quicken you, then for you at least it is a great book forever. And if it affects many other men and women as it affects you, and if it lives with power from one generation to another, gladdening the children as it gladdened the fathers, then surely it is great literature, without further qualification or need of definition. From this viewpoint the greatest poem in the world—greatest in that it abides in most human hearts as a loved and honored guest—is not a mighty Iliad or Paradise Lost or Divine Comedy; it is a familiar little poem of a dozen lines, beginning “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

It is obvious that great literature, which appeals to all classes of men and to all times, cannot go far afield for rare subjects, or follow new inventions, or concern itself with fashions that are here to-day and gone to-morrow. Its only subjects are nature and human nature; it deals with common experiences of joy or sorrow, pain or pleasure, that all men understand; it cherishes the unchanging ideals of love, faith, duty, freedom, reverence, courtesy, which were old to the men who kept their flocks on the plains of Shinar, and which will be young as the morning to our children’s children.

Such ideals tend to ennoble a writer, and therefore are great books characterized by lofty thought, by fine feeling and, as a rule, by a beautiful simplicity of expression. They have another quality, hard to define but easy to understand, a quality which leaves upon us the impression of eternal youth, as if they had been dipped in the fountain which Ponce de Leon sought for in vain through the New World. If a great book could speak, it would use the words of the Cobzar (poet) in his “Last Song”:

The merry Spring, he is my brother,
And when he comes this way
Each year again, he always asks me:
“Art thou not yet grown gray?”
But I, I keep my youth forever,
Even as the Spring his May.

A DEFINITION. Literature, then, if one must formulate a definition, is the written record of man’s best thought and feeling, and English literature is the part of that record which belongs to the English people. In its broadest sense literature includes all writing, but as we commonly define the term it excludes works which aim at instruction, and includes only the works which aim to give pleasure, and which are artistic in that they reflect nature or human life in a way to arouse our sense of beauty. In a still narrower sense, when we study the history of literature we deal chiefly with the great, the enduring books, which may have been written in an elder or a latter day, but which have in them the magic of all time.

One may easily challenge such a definition, which, like most others, is far from faultless. It is difficult, for example, to draw the line sharply between instructive and pleasure-giving works; for many an instructive book of history gives us pleasure, and there may be more instruction on important matters in a pleasurable poem than in a treatise on ethics.  Again, there are historians who allege that English literature must include not simply the works of Britain but everything written in the English language. There are other objections; but to straighten them all out is to be long in starting, and there is a pleasant journey ahead of us. Chaucer had literature in mind when he wrote:

Through me men goon into that blisful place
Of hertës hele and dedly woundës cure;
Through me men goon unto the wells of grace,
Ther grene and lusty May shal ever endure:
This is the wey to al good aventure.





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