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|Book I, Chapter I→|
|Published in 1886, source Internet Archive|
To assume a position on the border-lands of Science and Literature is perhaps to provoke the hostility of both the great parties into which our modern thinkers and educationists may be divided. The men of Literature may declare that we have fallen into the hands of the Philistines, and that the mere attempt to explain literary development by scientific principles is worthy of none but a Philistine. The men of Science may be inclined to underrate the value of a study which the unveiled presence of that mysterious element, imagination, makes apparently less definite than their own. In a word, our position may arouse hostility and fail to secure friendship. What, then, is our apology for assuming it?
To our friends, the men of Science, we would say that the culture of imagination is of the utmost service alike in the discovery of new truths and in the diffusion of truths already known; that the supposed hostility of Science to Literature, by discrediting this faculty, tends to lower our attainments alike in Science and Literature; and that the study on which we now propose to enter affords a splendid field for the exercise at once of analysis and of imagination.
To our friends, the men of Literature, we would say that nothing has contributed more largely to lower the value of their studies in the eyes of thinking men than the old-fashioned worship of imagination, not merely as containing an element of mystery, but as altogether superior to conditions of space and time; that, under the auspices of this irrational worship, the study of Literature tends to become a blind idolatry of the Unknown, with a priesthood of textual pedants who would sacrifice to verbalism the very deity they affect to worship; but that the comparative study of Literature not only opens an immense field of fruitful labour but tends to foster creative imagination.
Mr. Matthew Arnold in his Discourses in America has recently discussed this supposed conflict between Science and Literature; and, though his treatment of the definition of Literature a subject to which we shall presently refer -is by no means satisfactory, few will refuse to join with him in the hope that Literature may some day be "studied more rationally" than it is at present. To such rational study this volume is intended as a contribution, however slight an effort, it may be feeble, to treat Literature as something of higher import to man than elegant dilettantism or, what is possibly worse, pedantry devoted to the worship of words.
Should the present application of historical science to Literature meet with general approval, the establishment of chairs in Comparative Literature at the leading Universities of Great Britain, America, and the Australian Colonies would do much to secure the steady progress of this vast study, which must depend on the co-operation of many scholars. The harvest truly is plenteous; but the labourers, as yet, are few.
The translations which this volume contains are, for the most part, the author’s workmanship. Many illustrations, however, which he had placed in his manuscript have been left out from want of space, even an entire chapter, on the development of Greek prose, having been omitted for the same reason. These illustrations may be added on some future occasion, or published in another volume. Meanwhile, indulgent readers will kindly attribute any apparent dearth of evidence to this want of space.
Should errors of print or matter have escaped the author’s notice, he would also beg his readers to remember that this work was passing through the press just as he was on the eve of leaving this country for New Zealand.
24, TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN,
January 14, 1886.
- Discourses in America, p. 136.