previous next


A world-literature

in Eckermann's ‘Conversations with Goethe’ that poet is represented as having said, in January, 1827, that the time for separate national literatures had gone by. ‘National literature,’ he said, ‘is now a rather unmeaning phrase (will jetzt nicht viel sagen); the epoch of world-literature is at hand (die Epoche der Welt-Literatur ist an der Zeit), and each one must do what he can to hasten its approach.’ Then he points out that it will not be safe to select any one literature as affording a pattern or model (musterhaft); or that, if it is, this model must necessarily be the Greek. All the rest, he thought, must be looked at historically, we appropriating from each the best that can be employed.

If this world-literature be really the ultimate aim, it is something to know that we are at least getting so far as to interchange freely our national models. The current London literature [229] is French in its forms and often in its frivolity; while the French critics have lately discovered Jane Austen, and are trying to find in that staid and exemplary lady the founder of the realistic school, and the precursor of Zola. Among contemporary novelists, Mr. Howells places the Russian first, then the Spanish; ranking the English, and even the French, far lower. He is also said, in a recent interview, to have attributed his own style largely to the influence of Heine. But Heine himself, in the preface to his ‘Deutschland,’ names as his own especial models Aristophanes, Cervantes, and Moliere —a Greek, a Spaniard, and a Frenchman. Goethe himself thinks that we cannot comprehend Calderon without Hafiz,—

Nur wer Hafis liebt und kennt
Weiss was Calderon gesungen,—

and Fitzgerald, following this suggestion almost literally, translated Calderon first, and then Omar Khayyam. Surely, one might infer, the era of a world-literature must be approaching.

Yet in looking over the schedules of our American universities, one finds as little reference [230] to a coming world-literature as if no one had hinted at the dream. There is an immense increase of interest in the study of languages, no doubt; and all this prepares for an interchange of national literatures, not for merging them in one. The interchange is a good preliminary stage, no doubt; but the preparation for a world-literature must surely lie in the study of those methods of thought, those canons of literary art, which lie at the foundation of all literatures. The thought and its expression, —these are the two factors which must solve the problem; and it matters not how much we translate—or overset, as the Germans felicitously say—so long as we go no deeper and do not grasp at what all literatures have in common. Thus in the immense range of elective studies at Harvard University there are twenty-one distinct courses in Greek, and about as many in Latin, English, French, and German; but not a single course among them which pertains to a world-literature, or even recognizes that these various branches have any common trunk. The only sign that looks in the slightest degree toward this direction is [231] the recent appointment of my accomplished friend, Mr. Arthur Richmond Marsh, as professor of Comparative Literature.

No study seems to me to hold less place in our universities, as a rule, than that of literature viewed in any respect as an art; all tends to the treatment of it as a department of philology on the one side, or of history on the other; and even where it is studied, and training is really given in it, it is almost always a training that begins and ends with English tradition and method. It may call itself ‘Rhetoric and English Composition,’ but the one of these subdivisions is as essentially English as the other. It not only recognizes the English language as the vehicle to be used,—which is inevitable, —but it does not go behind the English for its methods, standards, or illustrations. That there is such a thing as training in thought and literary expression, quite apart from all national limitations—this may be recognized here and there in the practice of our colleges, but very rarely in their framework and avowed method.

And, strange to say, this deficiency, if it be one, has only been increased by the increased [232] differentiation and specialization of our higher institutions. Whatever the evils of the old classical curriculum, it had at least this merit, that it included definite instruction in the fundamental principles of literature as literature. So long as young men used to read Quintilian and Aristotle, although they may have missed much that was more important, they retained the conception of a literary discipline that went behind all nationalities; that was neither ancient nor modern, but universal. I heartily believe, for one, in the introduction of the modern elective system; what I regret is that, in this general breaking — up and rearranging, the preparation for a world-literature has been so neglected. If Goethe's view is correct,— and who stands for the modern world if Goethe does not?—then no one is fitted to give the higher literary training in our colleges who has not had some training in world-literature for himself, who does not know something of Calderon through knowing something of Hafiz.

And observe that Goethe himself is compelled to recognize the fact that in this worldliterature, whether we will or no, we must [233] recognize the exceptional position of the Greek product. In this respect ‘we are not confronted by a theory, but by a condition.’ The supremacy of the Greek in sculpture is not more unequivocal than in literature; and the two arts had this in common, that the very language of that race had the texture of marble. To treat this supremacy as something accidental, like the long theologic sway of the Hebrew and Chaldee, is to look away from a world-literature. It is as if an ambitious sculptor were to decide to improve his studio by throwing his Venus of Milo upon the ash-heap. There is no accident about art: what is great is great, and the best cannot be permanently obscured by the second best.

At the recent sessions of the ‘Modern Language Association,’ in Cambridge, Mass., although all the discussions were spirited and pointed, it seemed to me that the maturest and best talk came from those who showed that they had not been trained in the modern languages alone. The collective literature of the world is not too wide a study to afford the requisite foundation for an ultimate worlderature; [234] and surely the nations which have brought their product to the highest external perfection need to be studied the most. It seems safe to rest on two propositions which seem irrefutable: first, that all advances towards a world-literature must be based on principles which have formed the foundation of every detached literature; and secondly, that these principles are something apart from the laws of science or invention or business, and not less worthy than these of life-long study. It was the supremely practical Napoleon Bonaparte who placed literature above science; as containing above all things the essence of human intellect. ‘J'aime les sciences mathematiques et physiques; chacune d'elles est une belle application partielle de l'esprit humain; mais les lettres, c'est l'esprit humain lui-meme; c'est l‘éducation de l‘âme.’

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Germany (Germany) (1)
Cambridge (Massachusetts, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
January, 1827 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: