Page:The Palace of Pleasure, Volume 1 (1890).djvu/19

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xiii
INTRODUCTION.

Undine and Monte Christo, have been produced in European literature. Be that as it may, nothing strikes the student of comparative literature so much as the paucity of plots throughout literature and the universal tendency to borrow plots rather than attempt the almost impossible task of inventing them. That tendency is shown at its highest in the Elizabethan Drama. Even Shakespeare is as much a plagiarist or as wise an artist, call it which you will, as the meanest of his fellows.

Not alone is it difficult to invent a plot; it is even difficult to see one in real life. When the denouement comes,—indeed when the wife flees or commits suicide—when bosom friends part, or brothers speak no more—we may know that there has been the conflict of character or the clash of temperaments which go to make the tragedies of life. But to recognise these opposing forces before they come to the critical point requires somewhat rarer qualities. There must be a quasi-scientific interest in life quâ life, a dispassionate detachment from the events observed, and at the same time an artistic capacity for selecting the cardinal points in the action. Such an attitude can only be attained in an older civilisation, when individuality has emerged out of nationalism. In Europe of the sixteenth century the only country which had reached this stage was Italy.

The literary and spiritual development of Italy has always been conditioned by its historic position as the heir of Rome. Great nations, as M. Renan has remarked, work themselves out in effecting their greatness. The reason is that their great products overshadow all later production, and prevent all competition by their very greatness. When once a nation has worked up its mythic element into an epos, it contains in itself no further materials out of which an epos can be elaborated. So Italian literature has always been overshadowed by Latin literature. Italian writers, especially in the Middle Ages and the Renais sance, were always conscious of their past, and dared not compete with the great names of Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and the rest. At the same time, with this consciousness of the past, they had evolved a special interest in the problems and arts of the present. The split-up of the peninsula into so many small states, many of