Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 43.djvu/699

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ORIGIN OF LITERARY FORMS.

of projecting mental images outward, of reproducing with all the relief of reality what exists in the brain only in the state of recollection or desire. The civilized theater is only the natural development of this opera-ballet, and it preserves an equal attraction and an equal power, even after losing the lyrical form, which dated from its origin.

Dramatic art was even more than lyric poetry subjected by the dominant classes; and in Greece, in India, and in Europe of the middle ages the clergy of the great religions seized such a powerful means of expression, confiscated it for a longer or shorter time, and even permitted it only with reluctance to become laic. Dramatic art being an essentially collective sort of literature, addressing itself to the multitude, could not express more than the average of the prevailing opinions, of the ideas current in the surrounding social medium; too original views, too special feelings, were not in its domain; in return it is, more than any other kind of literature, the reflection of the mental and moral condition of a class, accordingly as it is popular or aristocratic; and instead of correcting manners it continually confines itself to depicting them. In the golden age of Greece the theater was lyric and heroic; with social and political decay, Hellenic tragedy could not stand the competition of satirical comedy, which is a social protestation. At Rome, where social iniquity was at a very early period more crying than in Greece, the theater never had a heroic age.

In all times and in all countries literature has declined morally, and has lost its nobility, its force, and its æsthetic beauty, in periods of moral decomposition; but the first of all kinds of literature to be debased and corrupted was dramatic, for societies could not support any theater above their own standard. On the contrary, lyric poetry, compositions entirely personal, might protest as survivals for a longer or shorter time against the general decadence by expressing the sentiments of the minority, which will never bend to the new manners. In dramatic literature, or in literature in general, for the observation is true for all kinds, there is a sign of decadence no longer moral but intellectual, which is constant and which I will now point out. When we follow the evolution of literatures from their infancy to their old age, we are struck at seeing how, during their period of growth and vigor, they make little account of an æsthetic element, which is highly esteemed, on the contrary, in periods of decline; I mean what is called "the feeling of the beautiful in Nature." In the choral poetries this element is wholly wanting; they are preoccupied solely with mythical conceptions of subjects of social interest. In general, during the virile age of literatures, descriptions of landscapes hold only a very accessory place; on the other hand,