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The Decline Of Literature
by [?]

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.