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Concerning Giants

nothing shows the way in which fame concentrates itself on certain leading figures more effectually than an inspection of book catalogues. For instance, the British Museum catalogue gives fifty-eight folio pages —with double columns and small type—to its Dante entries, the forthcoming catalogue of the Dante collection in the Harvard College Library will include about eleven hundred titles; this being just about the size of the great collection of ‘Petrarch Books’ lately catalogued by its owner, Prof. Willard Fiske, formerly of Cornell University. The whole body of Dantean literature, it is estimated by experts, must extend to between two and three thousand titles; and the Napoleonic literature has been estimated, or rather guessed, at five thousand. The Barton Shakespearean collection in the Boston Public Library includes about a thousand titles under [186] the ‘works’ of Shakespeare, and fifteen hundred more under ‘Shakespeareana.’ It is certain that all these special collections are very incomplete, and it is altogether probable that all these estimates are too scanty. If they are not, they soon will be, since all these special literatures are increasing all the time. More than a hundred titles have been added to the Dante list, for instance, during the past year; and the Petrarch quinquecentennial called forth one hundred and twenty-five new works about that poet in Italy alone. If anything is certain, it is that, when the world has once definitely accepted a man as among the elect, his fame and his lead over his contemporaries go on increasing with the passing years. It is possible that the Academie Francaise may yet be chiefly remembered because it rejected Moliere, as the mighty Persian conqueror had a place in fame simply as one who knew not the worth of Firdousi.

‘Literature,’ it has been said, is ‘attar of roses: one distilled drop from a million petals.’ Those who learned their Italian nearly half a century ago will remember that the favorite [187] text-book was named, ‘The Four Poets’ (I Quattro Poeti). But Ariosto and Tasso are now practically dropped out of the running; and those who still read Petrarch are expected to treat rather deferentially those for whom Italian literature means Dante only. Yet Voltaire wrote of Dante, only a century and a half ago, that although occasionally, under favorable circumstances, he wrote lines not unworthy of Tasso or Ariosto, yet his work was, as a whole, ‘stupidly extravagant and barbarous.’ ‘The Italians,’ he says, ‘call him divine, but it is a hidden divinity; few people understand his oracles. He has commentators, which is perhaps another reason for his not being understood. His reputation will go on increasing, because scarce anybody reads him.’ How little he was known in England a hundred years ago may be seen from the fact that Dr. Nathan Drake, who had quite a name as a critic a century ago, spoke of Dr. Darwin's placid and pedantic poem, ‘The Botanic Garden,’ as showing ‘the wild and terrible sublimity of Dante.’ A hundred years from this have ended in Ruskin's characterization of Dante as ‘the [188] central man of all the world, as representing in perfect balance the imaginative, moral, and intellectual faculties, all at their highest.’ When we consider that this was said of a man born more than six centuries before the words were written, it certainly illustrates the concentration of fame upon a single name. With scarcely less superb exclusiveness, Goethe described Napoleon as ‘a compendium of the world’ (Dieses Compendium der Welt).

In allusion to such instances as these, Goethe expressed to Eckermann the conviction that the higher powers had pleased themselves by placing among men certain detached figures, so alluring as to set everybody striving after them, yet so great as to be beyond all reach (Die so anlockend sind, das jeder nach ihnen strebt, und so gross das niemand sie erreicht). ‘Mozart,’ he said, ‘represents the unattainable in music, and Shakespeare in poetry.’ He instanced also Raphael and Napoleon; and the loyal Eckermann inwardly added the speaker himself to the list. ‘I refer’ Goethe said ‘to the natural dowry, the inborn wealth’ (Das Naturell, das grosse Angeborene der [189] Natur).It will be a theme for never-ending discussion how far this concentration is really due to the exceptional greatness of the subject, and how far to the tendency of genius to draw to itself all the floating materials of the time, to drain its best intellects, to reflect its best impulses. Dante, of all great writers, is the least explainable in this way; but in the case of Shakespeare, of Voltaire, of Goethe, it is obvious enough. The last named was always ready to admit his own obligations, not merely to his own fellow-countrymen, as Schiller, but to Englishmen and Frenchmen; and was profoundly moved on receiving the first French version of his ‘Faust,’ from the thought of the profound influence exercised by Voltaire and his great contemporaries over him as over the whole civilized world. Humbler men are constantly obliged to recognize how they themselves have been fed and nourished by those lowlier still; and we may be very sure that the greatest are formed in the same way, and draw from many obscure and even inexplicable sources, as Heine claims that he learned all the history of the French Revolution through the drumming of an old French drummer. [190]

It is obvious enough that the relative proportions of printed matter do not precisely reflect absolute merit, because they are liable to be influenced by trivial considerations, apart from personal qualities. The Man in the Iron Mask was not necessarily a great man because he occasioned an extensive literature; and Junius fills the library as an inexhaustible conundrum, whereas plain Sir Philip Francis might never have elicited even a biography. Had Shelley been the contented husband of one wife, or had Poe selected any one city to dwell in and dwelt there, it is certain that the Shelley literature and the Poe literature would have been far slenderer in dimensions, though the genius of the poets might have remained the same. It is the personal qualities, in such cases, that multiply the publications, though it is quite true, on the other side, that Poe might have lived unnoticed in more cities than claimed Homer had it not been for ‘The Raven,’ and that Shelley might have had as many wives as a Mormon but for ‘The Skylark.’ As time goes on, it is the thought of the poet more than the gossip about his life which holds and creates literature, [191] and there are always a dozen who wish to unlock the mystery of Hamlet for one who demands positive evidence as to Shakespeare's wedded bliss. But, however we explain it, there is such a tendency of study and criticism toward concentration on single figures, that no nation in the course of centuries can furnish more than two or three; and it is much for any people if it can furnish one. The growing proportions of the Emerson literature leave little doubt who is to provide for America—if, indeed, any one is to supply it—that central and controlling figure.

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