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An essay by James Runciman

The Decline Of Literature

Title:     The Decline Of Literature
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

It may seem almost an impertinence to use such a word as "decline" in connection with literature at a date when every crossing-sweeper can read, when free libraries are multiplied, when a new novel is published every day all the year round, and when thousands and tens of thousands of books--scientific, historical, critical--are poured out from the presses. We have several weekly journals devoted almost entirely to the work of criticising the new volumes which appear, and the literary caste in society is both numerous and powerful. In the face of all this I assert that the true literary spirit is declining, and that the pure enthusiasm of other days is passing away.

I emphatically deny that the actual literary artists in any line are inferior to the men of the past, and never cease to contemn the impudent talk of those who shake their heads and allude to the giants who are supposed to have lived in some unspecified era of our history. Lord Salisbury is greater than Dean Swift as a political writer; the author of "John Inglesant" is a finer stylist than any man of the last two centuries; as a writer of prose no man known in the world's history can be compared to Mr. Ruskin; with Messrs. Froude, Gardiner, Lecky, Trevelyan, Bishop Stubbs, and Mr. Freeman we can hold our own against the historian of any date; the late Lord Tennyson and Mr. Arnold have written poetry that must live. Then in science we have a set of men who present the most momentous theories, the most profoundly thrilling facts in language which is lucid and attractive as that of a pretty fairy-tale. If we turn to our popular journals, we find learning, humour, consummate skill in style from writers who do not even sign their names. Day by day the stream of wit, logic, artistic power flows on, and for all these literary wares there must be a steady sale; and yet I am constrained to declare that literature is declining. This may sound like juggling with words in the fashion approved by Dr. Johnson when he was in his whimsical humour; but I am serious, and my meaning will shortly appear. We have more readers and fewer students. The person known as "the general reader" is nowadays fond of literary dram-drinking--he wants small pleasant doses of a stimulant that will act swiftly on his nerves; and, if he can get nothing better, he will contentedly batten on the tiny paragraphs of detached gossip which form the main delight of many fairly intelligent people. Books are cheap and easily procured, and the circulating library renders it almost unnecessary for any one to buy books at all. In myriads of houses in town or country the weekly or monthly box of books comes as regularly as the supplies of provisions; the contents are devoured, the dram-drinkers crave for further stimulant, and one book chases another out of memory. Literature is as good as and better than ever it was in the fabulous palmy days, but it is not so precious now; and a great work, so far from being treated as a priceless possession and a companion, is regarded only as an item in the _menu_ furnished for a sort of literary debauch. A laborious historian spends ten years in studying an important period; he contrives to set forth his facts in a brilliant and exhilarating style, whereupon the word is passed that the history must be read. People meet, and the usual inquiries are exchanged--"Have you read Brown on the Union of 1707?" "Yes--skimmed it through last week. But have you seen Thomson's attack on the Apocrypha?" And so the two go on exchanging notes on their respective bundles of literary lumber, but without endeavouring to gain the least understanding of any author's meaning, and without tasting in the smallest degree any one of the ennobling properties of ripe thought or beautiful workmanship. The main thing is to be able to say that you have read a book. What you have got out of it is quite another thing with which no one is concerned; so that in some societies where the pretence of being "literary" is kept up the bewildered outsider feels as though he were listening to the discussion of a library catalogue at a sale. Timid persons think that they would be looked on lightly if they failed to show an acquaintance with the name at least of any new work; and the consequences of this silly ambition would be very droll did we not know how much loose thought, sham culture, lowering deceit arise from it. A young man lately made a great success in literature. For his first book he gained nothing, but lost a good deal; for his second he obtained twenty pounds, after he had lost his eyesight for a time, owing to his toiling by night and day; his third work brought him fame and a fortune. He happened to be in a bookseller's shop when a lady entered and said, "What is the price of Mr. Blank's works?" "Thirty shillings, madam." "Oh, that is far too much! I have to dine with him to-night, and I wanted to skim the books. But he isn't worth thirty shillings!" Twenty discourses could not exhaust the full significance of that little speech. The lady was typical of a class, and her mode of getting ready her table talk is the same which produces confusion, mean sciolism, and mental poverty among too many of those who set up as arbiters of taste. A somewhat cruel man of letters is said to have led on one of the shallow pretenders in a heartless way until the victim confidently affected knowledge of a plot, descriptions, and characters which had no existence. The trick was heartless and somewhat dishonest; but the mere fact that it could be played at all shows how far the game of literary racing has done harm.

Let us turn from the book-clubs, the libraries, and the swarming cheap editions of our own days, and hark back for about seventy-seven years. The great Sheriff was then in the flush of his glorious manhood, and it is amazing to discover the national interest that was felt in his works as they came rapidly out. When "Rokeby" appeared, only one copy reached Cambridge, and the happy student who secured that was followed by an eager crowd demanding that the poem should be read aloud to them. When "Marmion" was sent out to the Peninsula, parties of officers were made up nightly in the lines of Torres Vedras to hear and revel in the new marvel. Sir Adam Fergusson and his company of men were sheltered in a hollow at the battle of Talavera. Sir Adam read the battle-scene from "Marmion" aloud to pass away the time; and the reclining men cheered lustily, though at intervals the screech of the French shells sounded overhead. It may be said that the publication of a new work by Dickens was a national event only a quarter of a century ago. True; but somehow even Dickens was not regarded with that grave critical interest which private citizens of the previous generation bestowed on Scott. The incomparable Sir Walter at that time was dwelling far away amid the swamps and grim hills and shaggy thickets of Ashestiel. Town-life was not for him, and he grudged the hours spent in musty law-courts. Before dawn he went joyously to his work, and long before the household was astir he had made good progress. At noon he was free to lead the life of a country farmer and sportsman; the ponies were saddled, the greyhounds uncoupled, and a merry company set off across the hills. The talk was refined and gladsome, and visitors came back refreshed and improved to the cottage. And now comes the strange part of the story--this healthy retired sporting farmer was in correspondence with the greatest and cleverest men in the British Isles, and the most masterly criticisms of literature were exchanged with a lavish freedom which seems impossible to us in the days of the post-card and the hurried gasping telegram. In our day there is absolutely no time for that leisurely conscientious study which was usual in the time when men bought their books and paid heavily for them. Even Mr. Ruskin, in his retirement on the shores of Coniston, cannot carry on that graceful and ineffably instructive correspondence which was so easy to Southey, Coleridge, and the others of that fine company who dwelt in the Lake District. Marvellous it is to observe the splendid quality of the literary criticisms which were sent to the great ones by men who had no intention of writing or selling a line. In studying the memoirs of the century we find that, long before the education movement began, there were scores of men and women who had no need to make literature a profession, but who were nevertheless skilled and cultured as the writers who worked for bread. Who now talks of Mr. Morritt of Rokeby? Yet Morritt carried on a voluminous correspondence with Scott and the rest of that brilliant school. Who ever thinks of George Ellis? But Ellis was the most learned of antiquaries, and devoid of the pedantry which so often makes antiquarian discourses repellent. His polished expositions have the charm that comes from a gentle soul and an exquisite intellect, while his criticism is so luminous and just that even Mr. Ruskin could hardly improve upon it. Then there were Mr. Skene, Joanna Baillie--alas, poor forgotten Joanna!--Erskine, the Shepherd, the Duke of Buccleuch, Wilson, and so many more that we grow amazed to think that even Scott was able to rear his head above them. All the school were alike in their love and enthusiasm for literature; and really they seemed to have had a better mode of living and thinking than have the smart gentlemen who think that earnest and conscientious study is only a heavy species of frivolity. And let it be marked that this wide-spread company of private citizens and public writers by no means formed a mutual admiration society, for they criticised each other sharply and wisely; and the criticism was taken in good part by all concerned. When Ellis wrote a sort of treatise to Scott in epistolary form, and complained of the poet's monotonous use of the eight-syllable line, Scott replied with equanimity, and took as much pains to convince his friend as though he were discussing a thesis for some valuable prize. On one occasion a few of the really great men found themselves in the midst of a society where the practice of mutual admiration was beginning to creep in. The way in which two of the most eminent guests snubbed the mutual admirers was at once delightful and effective. One gentleman had been extravagantly extolling Coleridge, until many present felt a little uncomfortable. Scott said, "Well, I have lately read in a provincial paper some verses which I think better than most of their sort." He then recited the lines "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter" which are now so famous. The eulogist of Coleridge refused to allow the verses any merit. To Scott he addressed a series of questions--"Surely you must own that this is bad?" "Surely you cannot call this anything but poor?" At length Coleridge quietly broke in, "For Heaven's sake, leave Mr. Scott alone! I wrote the poem." This cruel blow put an end to mutual admiration in that quarter for some time.

Byron, Southey, Wordsworth, Jeffrey--all in their several fashions--regarded literature as a serious pursuit, and they were followed by the "illustrious obscure" ones whose names are now sunk in the night. How the whirligig of time sweeps us through change after change! Any of us can buy for shillings books which would have cost our predecessors pounds; we can have access to all the wit, poetry, and learning of our generation at a cost of three guineas a year. For little more than a shilling per week any reader who lives far away in the country can have relays of books sent him at the rate of fifteen volumes per relay. Very satisfactory. Most satisfactory too are the Board-school libraries, from which a million children obtain the best and noblest of literature without money and without price. Still there remains the fact that any man who sat down and wrote long letters on literary subjects would be looked upon as light-headed. We are too clever to be in earnest, and the expenditure of earnestness on such a subject as literature is regarded as evidence of pedantry or folly, or both. Those men of former days knew their few books thoroughly and loved them wisely; we know our many books only in a smattering way, and we do not love them at all. When Mr. Mark Pattison suggested that a well-to-do man reasonably expend 10 per cent. of his income on books, he roused a burst of kindly laughter, and it was suggested that solitary confinement would do him a great deal of good. That was a fine trenchant mode of looking at the matter. When, in meditative hours, I compare the two generations of readers, I think that the mental health of the old school and the new school may be compared respectively with the bodily health of sober sturdy countrymen and effete satiated gourmands of the town. The countrymen has no great variety of good cheer, but he assimilates all that is best of his fare, and he grows powerful, calm, able to endure heavy tasks. The jaded creature of the clubs and the race-courses and the ball-room has swift incessant variety until all things pall upon him. In time he must begin with damaging stimulants before he can go on with the interesting pursuits of each day. Every device is tried to tickle his dead palate; but the succession of dainties is of no avail, for the man cannot assimilate what is set before him, and he becomes soft of muscle, devoid of nerve--a weed of civilisation. Are not the cases analogous to those of the sound reverent student and the weary _blase_ skimmer of books? So, in sum, I say that, even if our enormous output of printed matter goes on increasing, and if the number of readers increases by millions, yet, so long as men read the thoughts of other men not to search for instruction and high pleasure, but to search for distraction and vain delirious excitement, then we are justified in talking of the decline of literature. Far be it from me to say that people should neglect the study of men and women and devote themselves to the strained study of books alone. The mere bookman is always more or less a dolt; but the wise reader who learns from the living voice and visible actions of his fellow-creatures as well as from the dead printed pages is on the way to placidity and strength and true wisdom. Thus much I will say--the flippant devourer of books can neither be wise nor strong nor useful; and it is his tribe who have discredited a pursuit which once was noble and of good report.

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Decline Of Literature