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RETROSPECT OF LITERATURE,

FROM THE EARLIEST PERIOD TO THE TWELFTH CENTURY

OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA.

No. I.

The Permanence of Words. An eloquent, but extravagant, writer has hazarded the assertion, that “words are the only things that last for ever."* Nor is this merely a splendid say- , ing, or a startling paradox, that may be qualified by explanation into commonplace; but with respect to man, and his works on earth, it is literally true. Temples and palaces, amphitheatres and catacombs -monuments of power, and magnificence, and skill, to perpetuate the memory, and preserve even the ashes, of those who lived in past ages-must, in the revolutions of mundane events, not only perish themselves by violence or decay, but the very dust in which they perished be so scattered as to leave no trace of their material existence behind. There is no security beyond the passing moment for the most permanent, or the most precious of these; they are as much in jeopardy as ever, aster having escaped the changes and chances of thousands of years. An earthquake may suddenly ingulf the pyramids of Egypt, and leave the sand of the desert as blank as

* The late Mr. William Hazlitt.

the tide would have left it on the seashore. A hammer in the hand of an idiot may break to pieces the Apollo Belvedere, or the Venus de' Medici, which are scarcely less worshipped as miracles of art in our day than they were by idolaters of old as representatives of deities.

Looking abroad over the whole world, after the lapse of nearly six thousand years, what have we of the past but the words in which its history is recorded? What besides a few mouldering and brittle ruins, which time is imperceptibly touching down into dust,--what, besides these, remains of the glory, the grandeur, the intelligence, the supremacy of the Grecian republics, or the empire of Rome? Nothing but the words of poets, historians, philosophers, and orators, who being dead yet speak, and in their immortal works still maintain their dominion over inferior minds through all posterity. And these intellectual sovereigns not only govern our spirits from the tomb by the power of their thoughts, but their very voices are heard by our living ears in the accents of their mother-tongues. The beauty, the eloquence, and art of these collocations of sounds and syllables, the learned alone can appreciate, and that only (in some cases) after long, intense, and laborious investigation; but as thought can be made to transmigrate from one body of words into another, even through all the languages of the earth, without losing what may be called its personal identity, the great minds of antiquity continue to hold their ascendency over the opinions, manners, characters, institutions, and events of all ages and nations through which their posthumous compositions have found way, and been made the earliest subjects of study, the highest standards of morals, and the most perfect examples of taste, to the master-minds in every state of civilized society. In this respect, the so words” of inspired prophets and apostles among

the Jews, and those of gifted writers among the ancient gentiles, may truly be said to “last for

ever."

Words are the vehicles by which thought is made visible to the eye, audible to the ear, and intelligible to the mind of another; they are the palpable forms of ideas, without which these would be intangible as the spirit that conceives or the breath that would utter them. And of such influence is speech or writing, as the conductor of thought, that, though all words do not “last for ever," and it is well for the peace of the world, and the happiness of individuals, that they do not,-yet even here every word has its date and its effect; so that with the tongue or the pen we are continually doing good or evil to ourselves or our neighbours. On a single phrase expressed in anger or affection, in levity or seriousness, the whole progress of a human spirit through life-perhaps even to eternity-may be changed from the direction which it was pursuing, whether right or wrong. For in nothing is the power and indestructibility of words more signally exemplified than in small compositions, such as stories, essays, parables, songs, proverbs, and all the minor and more exquisite forms of composition. It is a fact, not obvious perhaps, but capable of perfect proof, that knowledge, in all eras which have been distinguished as enlightened, has been propagated more by tracts than by volumes. We need but appeal, in evidence of this, to the state of learning in our own land at the present day, when all classes of people are more or less instructed. On this point I shall have a future opportunity of expatiating, and will therefore, at present, offer only two examples of the permanence of words, involving sacred or important truth, of equal value and application, in all periods and coun. tries, and among all people to whom they may be delivered

In the youth of the Roman commonwealth, during a quarrel between the patricians and plebeians, when the latter had separated themselves from the former, on the plea that they would no longer labour to maintain the unproductive class in indolent luxury, Menenius Agrippa, by the well-known fable of a schism in the human body, in which the limbs mutinied against the stomach, brought the seceders to a sense of their duty and interest, and reconciled a feud which, had it been further inflamed, might have destroyed the state, and turned the history of the world itself thenceforward into an entirely new channel, by interrupting the tide of events which were carrying Rome to the summit of dominion. The lesson which that sagacious patriot taught to his countrymen and contemporaries, he taught to all generations to come. His fable has already, by more than a thousand years, survived the empire which it rescued from premature destruction.

The other instance of a small form of words, in which dwells not an immortal only, but a divine spirit, is that prayer which our Saviour taught his disciples. How many millions and millions of times has that prayer been preferred by Christians of all denominations! So wide, indeed, is the sound thereof gone forth, that daily, and almost without intermission, from the ends of the earth, and afar off upon the sea, it is ascending to Heaven like incense and a pure offering ; nor needs it the gift of prophecy to foretell, that though“ heaven and earth shall pass away,” these words of our blessed Lord “shall not pass away,” till every petition in it has been answered-till the kingdom of God shall come, and his will be done in earth as it is in heaven.

We now proceed to the immediate purpose of these papers-to take a brief, and necessarily imperfect, but perhaps not altogether uninteresting, retrospect of the history of literature, from the ear.

liest data to the period immediately preceding the revival of letters in modern Europe. I must premise that the method of handling such an argument in so small a compass can scarcely be otherwise than discursive and miscellaneous.

The general Forms of Literature. Literature, as a general name for learning, equally includes the liberal arts, and the useful and abstruse sciences. Philosophy, in this acceptation of the word, is a branch of literature. But literature, in its peculiar sense as distinct from philosophy, may be regarded as the expression of every fixed form of thought, whether by speech or writing. Literature in this view will embrace poetry, eloquence, history, romance, didactics, and indeed every kind of verbal composition, whatever be the subject : all books, in reference to their execution, are literary works; and so are the songs and traditions of barbarians among whom letters are unknown; the latter, not less than the former, being vehicles for communicating premeditated thought in set terms.

of literature thus defined there are two species, verse and prose ; and the first takes precedence of the second ; for though the structure of ordinary discourse be prose, the earliest artificial compositions, in all languages, have assumed the form of verse; because, as the subjects were intended to be emphatically impressed upon the mind, and distinctly retained in the memory-point, condensation, or ornament of diction, combined with harmony of rhythm, arising from quantity, accent, or merely corresponding divisions of sentences, were the obvious and elegant means of accomplishing these purposes.

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