LITERATURE, a general term which, in default of precise definition, may stand for the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing. Its various forms are the result of race peculiarities, or of diverse individual temperaments, or of political circumstances securing the predominance of one social class which is thus enabled to propagate its ideas and sentiments. In early stages of society, the classes which first attain a distinct literary utterance are priests who compile the chronicles of tribal religious development, or rhapsodes who celebrate the prowess of tribal chiefs. As man feels before he reasons, so poetry generally precedes prose. It embodies more poignantly the sentiment of unsophisticated man. Hence sacred books and war- songs are everywhere the earliest literary monuments, and both are essentially poetic compositions which have received a religious or quasi-religious sanction. The recitation of the Homeric poems at the Panathenaea corresponds to the recitation elsewhere of the sacred texts in the temple; the statement of Phemios (Odyssey, xxii. 347) that a god inspired his soul with all the varied ways of song expresses the ordinary belief of early historical times. Versicles of the sacred chronicles, or fragments of epic poems, were learned by heart and supplied a standard of popular literary taste. The public declamation of long chosen passages by priests, and still more by contending rhapsodes, served to evoke the latent sense of literary criticism; and, at a later stage, the critical spirit was still further stimulated by the performance oi dramatic pieces written by competing poets. The epical record of the past was supplemented by the lyrical record of contemporary events, and as the Homeric poets had immortalized the siege of Troy, so Pindar commemorated Salamis. Prose of any permanent value would first show itself in the form of oratory, and the insertion of speeches by early historians indicates a connexion with rhetoric. The development of abstract reasoning would tend to deprive prose of its superfluous ornament and to provide a simpler and more accurate instrument.
No new genre has been invented since the days of Plato. The evolution of literature is completed in Greece, and there its subdivisions may best be studied. Epic poetry is represented by the Homeric cycle, lyrical poetry by Tyrtaeus, dramatic poetry by Aeschylus, history by Herodotus, oratory by Pericles, philosophy by Plato, and criticism by Zoilus, the earliest of slashing reviewers; and in each department there is a long succession of illustrious names. Roughly speaking, all subsequent literature is imitative. Ennius transplanted Greek methods to Rome; his contemporary L. Fabius Pictor, the earliest Roman historian, wrote in Greek; and the later Roman poets from Lucretius to Horace abound in imitations of Greek originals. The official adoption of Christianity as the state religion changed the spirit of literature, which became more and more provincial after the downfall of the empire. Literature did not perish during the " dark ages " which extend from the sixth century to the beginning of the nth, but it was subordinate to scholarship. The dissolution of Latin was not complete till about the middle of the 9th century, and the new varieties of Romance did not become ripe for literary purposes till a hundred years later. Meanwhile, not a single literary masterpiece was produced in western Europe for five centuries; by comparison only do Boethius and Venantius Fortunatus seem to be luminous points in the prolonged night; the promise of a literary renaissance at the court of Charlemagne was unfulfilled, and the task of creating a new literature devolved upon the descendants of the barbarians who had destroyed the old. The Celtic and Teutonic races elaborated literary methods of their own; but the fact that the most popular form of Irish verse is adopted from Latin prosody is conclusive evidence that the influence of Roman and therefore of Greek models persisted in the literature of the outlying provinces which had attained political independence. The real service rendered to literature by the provincials lay in the introduction and diffusion of legends freighted with a burden of mystery which had disappeared with Pan, and these new valuable materials went to form the substance . of the new poetry.
The home of modern European literature must be sought in France, which assimilated the best elements in Celtic and Teutonic literature. From the nth to the 14th century, France wag the centre of intellectual life in Europe, as Greece and Rome had been before, and as Italy was to be afterwards. The chansons de geste, inspired by the sense of patriotism and the yearning for religious unity, inculcate feudal and Catholic doctrine, and as society in the western world was universally committed to feudalism and Catholicism, these literary expressions of both theories were widely accepted and copied. The Germanic origin of the French epic is lost sight of, and imitators are attracted by the French execution, and by the creative power of the chansons de geste. Again, France takes the stories of the Arthurian court from Welsh texts or from the lips of Welsh settlers, rehandles the romantic element, and, through Marie de France and Chretien de Troyes, imparts to the whole a touch of personal artistry which is absent from the chansons de geste. The matiere de Brelagne goes forth to Italy, Germany and England later to Portugal and Spain bearing the imprint of the French genius. Thus France internationalizes local subjects, and first assumes a literary function which, with few interruptions, she has since discharged. She further gives to Europe models of allegory in the Roman de la rose, founds the school of modern history through Villehardouin, inaugurates the religious drama and the secular theatre. She never again dominated the literatures of Europe so absolutely.
The literary sceptre passed from France to Italy during the 14th century. Brunette Latini, who wrote in French as well as in Italian, is the connecting link between the literatures of the two countries; but Italy owes its eminence not so much to a general diffusion of literary accomplishment as to the emergence of three great personalities. Dante, Boccacio and Petrarch created a new art of poetry and of prose. England yielded to the fascination in the person of Chaucer, Spain in the person of her chancellor Lopez de Ayala, and France in the person of Charles d'Orleans, the son of an Italian mother. Petrarch, once ambassador in France, alleged that there were no poets out of Italy, and indeed there were no living poets to compare with him elsewhere. But in all countries he raised up rivals Chaucer, Marot, Garcilaso de la Vega as Sannazaro did a century and a half later. Sannazaro's Arcadia captured the Portuguese Montemor, whose pastoral novel the Diana, written in Spanish, inspired d'Urfe no less than Sidney, and, as d'Urfe's Astree is considered the starting-point of the modern French novel, the historical importance of the Italian original cannot be exaggerated. Spain never obtained any intellectual predominance corresponding to that exercised by France and Italy, or to her political authority during the 16th and lyth centuries. This may be attributed partly to her geographical position which lies off the main roads of Europe, and partly to the fact that her literature is essentially local. Cervantes, indeed, may be said to have influenced all subsequent writers of fiction, and the influence of Spanish literature is visible in the body of European picaresque tales; but, apart from Corneille and a few other dramatists who preceded Moliere in France, and apart from the Restoration drama in England, the influence of the Spanish drama was relatively small. In some respects it was too original to be imitated with success. Much the same may be said of England as of Spain. Like Spain, she lies outside the Sphere of continental influence; like Spain, she has innumerable great names in every province of literature, and, in both cases, to Europe at large these long remained names and nothing more; like Spain, she is prone to reproduce borrowed materials in shapes so transformed and rigid as to be unrecognizable and unadaptable. Moreover, the Reformation isolated England from literary commerce with the Latin races, and till the 1Sth century Germany was little more than a geographical expression. Even when Germany recovered her literary independence, Lessing first heard of Shakespeare through Voltaire. Neither Shakespeare nor Milton was read in France before the 18th century the first translated by Ducis, the second by Dupre de Saint-Maur and they were read with curiosity rather than with rapture. On the other hand, Boileau, Rapin and Le Bossu were regarded as oracles in England, and through them French literature produced the " correctness " of Queen Anne's reign. Horace Walpole is half a Frenchman, Hume imitates Montesquieu's cold lucidity, Gibbon adapts Bossuet's majestic periods to other purposes. On the other hand Voltaire takes ideas from Locke, but his form is always intensely personal and inimitably French. After the 16th century English literature, as a whole, is refractory to external influence. Waves of enthusiasm pass over England for Rousseau, for Goethe but leave no abiding trace on English literature. During the latter half of the 18th century France resumed something of her old literary supremacy; the literatures of Italy and Spain at this period are purely derivative, and French influence was extended still further on the continent as the result of the Romantic movement. Since that impulse was exhausted, literature everywhere has been in a state of flux: it is less national, and yet fails to be cosmopolitan. All writers of importance, and many of no importance, are transated into other European languages; the quick succession of liverse and violent impressions has confused the scheme of iterature. Literature suffers likewise from the competition of the newspaper press, and as the press has multiplied it has grown less literary. The diversities of modern interests, the want of leisure for concentrated thought, suggest that literature may become once more the pleasure of a small caste. But the desire for the one just form which always inspires the literary artist visits most men sometimes, and it cannot be doubted that literature will continue to accommodate itself to new conditions. (J- F.-K.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)