HISTORY AND LITERATURE
AN ADDRESS BY MR. GEORGE MACAULAY
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
March 20, 1924.
Gentlemen,--From the time of Shakespeare until the memory of men still living, our ancestors, both in Great Britain and in English-speaking America, were brought up under a system of education through humane letters, the finest, as I believe, that any equally large portion of mankind has ever enjoyed. The thoughts, language and imagination of the "plain people" were soaked in the English translation of the Bible, while an an educated minority was further instructed in the history and literature of Greece and Rome. Much of what had been most valuable in the ancient Mediterranean world entered the homes and coloured the lives of our ancestors, not only of Shakespeare and Cromwell and Milton and Chatham and Wordsworth, of Franklin and Washington and Lincoln, but of the humbler fellow
Mr. Trevelyan was educated at Harrow, and Trinity College, Cambridge, and received his Litt.D. from Durham. He commanded the first British Ambulance Unit in Italy during the War and was awarded the silver medal for valor in 1915. As historian, his publications include "England in the Age of Wycliffe," "England Under the Stuarts," "Lord Grey of the Reform Bill," "British History in the Nineteenth Century," and some five volumes dealing with Garibaldi and Italy. In literature his "Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith" holds high place.
citizens of those famous men on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a great humanizing process, and it was essentially historical. But it was an education that never dissociated history from literature. The Bible and the Classics are history and literature in one, so closely intervolved that it is impossible to say where history ends and literature begins.
This humane education, which helped to make our ancestors what they once were, has dwindled down to something very small as compared to other influences now brought to bear on the popular mind. Physical science has replaced classics as the chief study of the educated, while the mind of the "plain people," that used to be soaked in the Bible and very little else, is soaked in the voluminous journals, magazines, novels, short stories and the cinema.
The physical sciences will continue to flourish, and let us be thankful for that. But can we expect to witness another humanist renascence, another efflorescence of spiritual and imaginative life in touch with reason and scholarship? Only, I think, in so far as we can, by taking thought, create substitutes for what we have lost.
There are many substitutes possible, and many are being attempted. In the realm of academic study the principal substitutes for the disappearing classical culture are two. First-in England and I imagine also very largely in Canada--the teaching of English language and literature (of the educational possibilities in this line my friend, Sir Henry Newbolt, has recently made himself an admirable exponent over here); and secondly, the teaching of History. If literature and history cannot hold their own, not only in numbers but in quality, then the analysis of the spiritual side of man, and the cultivation of the imaginative powers in alliance with reason and good taste will gradually be abandoned. Gresham's law will work on inexorably to its full logical conclusion and bad books will altogether expel good. That process is going on fast since the war. With the recent rise in the price of printing, good books that cannot command a very large sale are not reprinted, or else are never printed at all, while "best sellers" of indifferent value hold the field. I keep speaking of England-you are the judges how far what I say does or does not apply over here.
How and where are we to fight these dangers to our common heritage? Largely, it is clear, in the Universities. They must play the leading part in the difficult battle to keep alive in our machined-riven society some standard, some sense of value in subjects outside the physical sciences. Now the first condition for the survival of the humane studies is that we should not be ashamed of them as such. If the study either of literature or of history at the Universities is apologized for on the ground that they too are sciences, like chemistry or geology, then they are doomed. If we historians were to devote all our attention to the collection of facts and the collating of evidence and to nothing else at all, if we were to neglect the imponderabilia, the spiritual and human sides of life because we have no scientific scale to weigh them in (as indeed we cannot have), we should cease to attract the ablest minds of the rising generation into the army of historians. And history would cease to be read by anyone save its special students. If it is only science that is wanted, people will turn to physical scientists, who will tell them something certain and something useful. The appeal of history is different, and its utility is different. It can enthrall the imagination; that is its appeal. It can educate the mind; that is its utility.
And so with literature, which also is something more than a bundle of facts about dead languages and dead authors. The object of the academic study both of history and of literature is to make the dead live, to record the manifold adventures of the spirit of man.
History and literature, if they are going to survive, must not be ashamed of their special mission; and they must not lose touch one of the other. In the days of our grandfathers the classical education of the few and the Biblical education of the plain people was satisfying to many of the best minds of that day, because it kept history and literature in close connection. That is why the Bible and the Classics were such a great education-not yet satisfactorily replaced.
Now in our modern attempts to find substitutes for the Biblical and Classical training, it is equally necessary that literature should not lose touch with history, and that history should not lose touch with literature. Twenty years ago there was more danger in England of their losing touch with one another than there is today. There is now more appreciation of the fact that united they stand, divided they fall.
Those who are responsible for the teaching of English language and literature are becoming increasingly aware that they cannot teach literature apart from its historical background. To be rightly understood, Shelley and Byron are in need of the prelude of the French Revolution and the environment of the Holy Alliance. Their poems can no more be studied in vacuo than Milton and Chaucer themselves. The great novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth century can be only half appreciated by people entirely ignorant of the social circumstances of the time which have already become a part of history. From Homer onwards, the great works of literature in every age have been closely connected in their origin and spirit with the main religious, political, social and commercial currents of the time that gave birth to each, and these must be known to the reader before the literature of the past can be understood and appreciated to the full. The essence and higher value of literature does not indeed lie in its historical accidents, but it can not be fully understood-in some cases it can not be understood at all-except in the light of these historical accidents.
No, the study of literature cannot get along without history. But can history get along without literature? Some people think it can. I don't.
The history of mankind is a record of the heart, the soul, the mind, the customs of man, and these things have in civilized ages found their subtlest and noblest record very largely in literature. The history of any civilized age of the past must therefore include the study of its literature. The Fifteenth Idyll of Theocritus will tell you much more about Alexandria in its great age than any other document of the same length. It supplies information not to be obtained elsewhere about the social life of a Hellenistic city. To understand the age of Chaucer, the age of Queen Anne, the age of Castlereagh, we must study among other things the literature of the ages of Chaucer, of Anne, of Castlereagh. I am glad to see that historians more and more refer to the novels of Smollett, Jane Austen, Dickens and others of less note, to illustrate or to prove points regarding the social conditions and atmosphere of bygone ages.
At the head of the works of fiction that Time has thus transformed into historical evidence, stand Homer's lays. In a period of which we know otherwise almost nothing at all,-far less than we know about the England at the Conquest-Homer has rendered the daily life and thought of those far off men and women more familiar and intimate to us, than are the lives of any of our English ancestors prior to the time of Chaucer. Homer gives us a glimpse--through the blackest part of the "curtain of old night"--into chambers hung with glittering armour and rocky coasts under a burning sun. Even "if the Iliad and Odyssey were all fiction," says Professor Gilbert Murray in that most imaginative and entrancing of works, of scholarship, The Rise of the Greek Epic.
"If the Iliad and Odyssey were all fiction we should still learn from them a great deal about early Greek customs, about practices of war and government, about marriage, land tenure, worship, farming, commerce, and above all, the methods of seafaring. Let anyone read thoughtfully the story which Eumaeus the swineherd tells of his life, in book XV of the Odyssey and then consider how much history of the life of the Aegean, about the seventh century B.C. he has learnt from three pages of poetical fiction."
The worst of legal and diplomatic documents, those sturdy and reliable fellows, is that they stop short at a certain point; the most human aspects of life are, as a rule, outside their ken. But Chaucer and Langland take up the wondrous tale just where the Manor Roll falls silent, and Ben Jonson where the State papers end. We value Ben Jonson today less for his "learned sock" than for such learning as he shares with Hogarth and Charles Dickens, the things he saw and heard in the pothouses and alleys of old London, and reproduced with an art that only the author of Falstaff could surpass. Beaumont and Fletcher's "Knight of the Burning Pestle" the Elizabethan "revue" which links up Aristophanes with Gilbert and Sullivan, is "of so airy and light a quality" that, considered as historical evidence, many will hold it "but a shadow shadow." And yet I think it helps to prove that the old 'prentice life of London, once contained a spirit of lyrical joy and imagination not to be found in the city life of today--an historical proposition which if true is of high interest.
But there is another way in which history is indissolubly bound to literature. Our modern conception of the past, as history reveals it to the student, can only be conveyed by the student to his fellow-men through the medium of literature. The historian must write a book, or enable some brother-historian to write a book--an equally noble function unless he is to carry his learning fruitless to the grave. In this the historian differs from the scientist, whose latest discoveries can at once be applied, in war and in peace, to prevent or to spread disease, to build or to destroy cities, without the medium of literature. But history can only affect mankind by improving or by debasing the minds of men. And if the student cannot, through the writings of himself or of his brother-historians, get his ideas and discoveries set before an audience of some kind, the only person whose mind will be improved by his life's work will be himself. That is certainly something--it may even be a great deal--but I submit that it is not enough. History ought to impinge on the understanding and imagination of others beside the student himself, and for that purpose the only possible medium is literature--of which one branch consists in the art of writing history.
That branch of literature can take many forms. Some historians who are not usually called literary historians have a wonderful power of style. Not only Carlyle and Parkman, but Maitland also were great historical writers, great artists-if you like to employ the term. I had very much rather read, for sheer pleasure, Maitland's Domesday Book, or Professor Vinogradoff's Growth of the Manor than some smooth narrative of events with no stuff of the brain in it.
It is, of course, impossible to distinguish by a clear line the content of an historical work from its form of expression. The things run into each other. It is only for clearness' sake that I divide the work of the historian up into three parts:
(1) The collection and collation of evidence. This part is, if you like the word, scientific.
(2) The interpretation of the results of the evidence.
(3) The exposition of the results, which is, if you like the word, literature.
But the interpretation-the part that comes in between collecting the evidence and setting out the results for the public-the interpretation does not seem to me either scientific or literary. It is just intellect, engaged in speculating about the past with the aid of a number of facts.
There are, then, roughly speaking, these three parts of the historian's work
1. Collection of the facts (scientific).
3. Exposition (literary).
It is impossible to give absolutely too much time and energy to any one of these. But it is very easy to give relatively too much time to one of them at the expense of one or both of the others. Twenty and thirty years ago, exposition, or the literary side, was unduly neglected and decried, by reaction against a previous state of things. Theoretically at least there is today a juster balance. In England historians do not any longer regard other historians as outsiders for having tried to write history with the modicum of literary art that they were able to command.
I notice one thing in England. There is a public demand for historical literature, for the interpretation of the results of historical research thrown into a literary form. The public has not the time to read mere collections of facts and interpret them for itself. Some people, indeed, still declare that the function of the historian is to throw the facts at the head of the public and leave people -to make their own interpretation. But it does not work. The public, even that part of it which we call the serious reading public, has not the time to make its own interpretation of undigested masses of fact. They pass by on the other side. But they turn to books like Mr. Wells' History of the World, and Mr. Strachey's essays. Mr. Strachey is not a man of deep historical learning, but he is a man of letters of the first order, and so there is a large public in England that "wants" whatever he has to say about history. He is doing history a great service by connecting her again with literature and by interesting the public in her themes. But I should be sorry if those who know most about history, those who give their whole lives to the study of history, relinquished the interpretation and exposition of history entirely to novelists and to literary men who were not primarily historians.
History will always be interpreted by someone--otherwise it has no value. It would be as well to say that the results of scientific research were not to be applied to practical life, as that the results of historians' research were not to be interpreted to the public.
I have spoken several times already of the value of contemporary fiction, such as Homer, Chaucer, and the novels of the 18th and 19th century, as providing evidence of historical value with regard to the life of the times in which the authors lived. Such novels have become historical by the process of time, but they were not historical novels when they were written. I should now like to say a word about historical novels proper; they have, of course, no value at all as historical evidence, yet they stand in an important relation to history. Historical novels proper are works of fiction composed by modern authors in an attempt to imagine past ages which the authors themselves never saw. I should like to say a word about them, and especially about the king and father of them all, Sir Walter Scott.
A hundred years or more ago, Scott by his antiquarian lays and novels revolutionized history. Born in 1771, he found history, in his boyhood, composed of two elements distinctive of 18th century thought: first, the patient antiquarianism that was laying the foundations of history proper, and secondly, a habit of sententious generalization which, though much in advance of the wholly unphilosophic historical gossip of preceding ages, missed a number of the most important points for want of sympathy and experience. "The age of common sense" had forgotten, among other things, what a revolutionist or a religious fanatic was really like.
This form of the historical art, with its sound antiquarianism and its superficial analysis, was already moribund, having reached perfection under the hands of Gibbon. For within its narrow limits something like perfection was possible to this kind of history, and perfection cannot grow. No one could improve on Pope, so poetry stood still for fifty years, till Wordsworth gave it "another heart and other pulses." History had not so long to wait. For Scott followed on Gibbon so soon as to leave history no time to dawdle and decay, perched on the height where the great master had set it. Gibbon had traced in his cold, clear outline, the procession of fourteen calamitous centuries, that move past us with slow and stately pace, each as like to the one that it follows as are the figures in the frieze of the Parthenon. That was how Scott found history; he left it what it has been ever since, an eager aspiration, destined to perpetual change, doomed to everlasting imperfection, but living, complex, broad as humanity itself. To the calm eye of Gibbon mankind remained from the age of the Antonines to the age of Rienzi, essentially the same, divided up in each succeeding era into a number of formulae,--the magistrates, the philosophers, the priests, the nobles, the plebeians, the Barbarians,each class retaining the same generalized character throughout the piece. It was Sir Walter Scott who first showed us how not only clothes and weapons, but thought and morals vary according to the period, the province, the class, the man. To him the pageant of history was more like a Walpurgis night than a Parthenon procession. His Shakespearean wealth of imagination and breadth of sympathy, furnished with ever fresh material from the mine of his antiquarian researches, answered more truly than Gibbon's classicism to the wild variety of nature, for ever making and breaking new types of men and things.
The most famous lines of the poetry of Scott's own era, though I daresay Sir Walter thought them sad stuff, read like an aetherialized version of his own view of history:
"Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
From creation to decay,
Like the bubbles on a river,
Sparkling, bursting, borne away.
But they are still immortal
Who, through birth's Orient portal
And death's dark chasm hurrying to and fro, Clothe their unceasing flight In the brief dust and light
Gathered around their chariots as they go. New shapes they still may weave, New Gods, new laws, receive:
Bright or dim are they, as the robes they last On death's bare ribs have cast."
Not only poets but historians who came after Scott thought quite differently about the past from those who came before him. Macaulay, when he and the century were each twenty-eight years old, wrote an essay on History (now printed in his Miscellaneous Works). The young essayist there sketched out the kind of history which he already aspired to write, and actually wrote twenty years later. He says: "Sir Walter Scott has used those fragments of truth which historians have scornfully thrown behind them. But a truly great historian would reclaim those materials which the novelist has appropriated." Now, if you will look to see what the 18th century historians Hume, Robertson and Gibbon lack, you will see at once how very large are the "fragments of truth" that even the greatest historians "threw behind them" before Scott taught them better. Everything that is intimate, everything that is passionate, everything also that is of trivial or daily occurrence, all the colour and all the infinite variety of the past.
Ivanhoe is less like the Middle Ages than Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, because in Scott's day less was known about the period. But Ivanhoe was the greatest single step towards opening out the Middle Ages to modern conception; for it was the first attempt to envisage our distant ancestors as human beings at all.
It is not merely the "truly great historian," but the middle-sized and small historians whose sphere has been enlarged by the pioneer work and infectious example of Scott. But the great ones no doubt profited most. To use Browning's words, Scott "fished the murex up," so that Carlyle outdid Macaulay in "azure feats." "Both gorged," but Scott himself, we all rejoice to remember, managed to "eat turtle" for awhile.
Over and above his influence upon historians proper, Scott founded a school of historical novelists who have done much and are still doing much to render history interesting to the public. They are the light horse of the historical army. Thackeray's Esmond, Kingsley's Westward Ho, Stevenson's eighteenth century tales, and Kipling's Puck o f Pook's Hill are the masterpieces of the art. And much good work has been done by Charlotte Yonge, Charles Reade, Mr. Stanley Weyman, Mr. Winston Churchill, author of the Crisis, and Mr. John Buchan, who is good almost in exact proportion as he leaves sensationalism and turns to history,--witness his best and least popular work: "The Path of the King."
In our own day a new branch is being added to historical fiction: the modern chronicle drama. Mr. Hardy's Dynasts and Mr. Drinkwater's plays are both of them very different in many respects from Shakespeare's chronicle plays of English and Roman history. But the only difference with which I am now concerned is this, that the interest and attraction of Mr. Hardy's and Mr. Drinkwater's plays lies mainly in their degree of historical truth. Something like the real scenes and people of the Napoleonic period are presented to us by Mr. Hardy in a poetical dress, something like the real Lincoln and Lee are presented in a more realistic dress by Mr. Drinkwater. That is why we want to read or see their plays. The interest, in short, is mainly historical, the imaginative appeal which they make is related to the supposed degree of their actual truth to fact. If we thought they had no relation to historical truth we should not trouble to read them or see them acted. But Shakespeare's Henry IV and Julius Caesar would please us only a little less if their personages were as fictitious as those of Hamlet.
After this excursus on historical fiction, I return to the subject of history proper.
I am not one of those who undervalue research. It is the basis of all history worthy of the name. I am strongly in favour of more provision for research at our British Universities, and more leisure for the lecturers to do original work. Research is ill provided for at all our British seats of learning, and in some it is insufficiently honoured.
But when the research is done, what use are you going to make of it? It is not an end in itself.
The use of history is, to train the minds of men by a just contemplation of the past. History cannot prophesy the future; it cannot deduce laws of universal applicability. The story of man and the variation of his circumstances from age to age and from place to place is too complicated to allow of the deduction of such laws. Indeed the study of history has often disproved the universal applicability of supposed laws laid down by political or other theorists with an insufficient range of observation. History does not provide a series of short cuts for modern statesmen, though it may possibly hint that some types of short cut often lead into an ambush. History does not deal in tips or in prophecies. But it trains the minds of men through the contemplation of past events. Such is one part of its utility. Another part is the high intellectual pleasure that it gives. But that I will call its appeal rather than its utility.
Its appeal is pure intellectual curiosity about the past of mankind. Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the life-blood of real civilization. History is one of its best forms. And at bottom, I think, the appeal of history is largely imaginative. Our imagination craves to behold our ancestors as they really were, going about their daily business and daily pleasure in the past. Carlyle called the antiquarian or historical researcher "Dryasdust." Dryasdust at bottom is a poet. His most difficult problem is how to express to his neighbour the poetry he finds for himself in the muniment room. But the main impulse of his own life is the desire to feel the reality of life in the past, to be familiar with "the chronicle of wasted time" for the sake of "ladies dead and lovely knights"-if it were only by discovering the nature of the "lovely knights' " fees.
Scott began life as Dryasdust--as an antiquarian because that way he could find most poetry, most romance. Carlyle, like every great historian, was his own Dryasdust. Indeed he is really the greatest defender of Dryasdust in the whole field of literature. He declared, with a striking exaggeration, that the smallest real fact about the past of man that Dryasdust could unearth was more poetical than all Shelley and more romantic than all Scott.
"Consider," he writes, "all that lies in that one word Past! What a pathetic, sacred, in every sense poetic, meaning is implied in it; a meaning growing ever the clearer, the farther we recede in time-the more of that same Past we have to look through! History after all is the true poetry. And Reality, if rightly interpreted, is grander than Fiction."
Intellectually, of course, everyone would always admit that the past was real-with the exception of a few metaphysicians who might claim to reserve judgment on the point. But to admit the truth of the proposition is not always to feel it as a living fact. It is the detailed study of history that makes us feel that the past was as real as the present; that is the attracting pleasure of this study, which inspires us to scorn delights and live laborious days.
The world supposes that we historians are absorbed in the dusty records of the dead; that we can see nothing save--
"The lost-to-light ghosts, grey-mailed, As you see the grey river-mist Hold shapes on the yonder bank."
But to us, as we read, they take form, colour, gesture, passion, thought. It is only by study that we can see our forerunners, remote and recent, in their habits as they lived, intent each on the business of a long-vanished day, riding out to do homage or to poll a vote; to seize a neighbour's manor house and carry off his ward, or to leave cards on ladies in crinolines.
And there in the field, generation after generation, is the ploughman behind the oxen, the horses, the machine, and his wife busy all day in the cottage, waiting for him with her daily accumulated budget of evening news.
Each one, gentle and simple, in his commonest goings and comings, was ruled by a complicated and ever-shifting fabric of custom and law, society and politics, events at home and abroad, some of them little known by him and less understood. Our effort is not only to get what few glimpses we can of his intimate personality, but to reconstruct the whole fabric of each passing age, and see how it affected him; to get to know more in some respects than the dweller in the past himself knew about the conditions that enveloped and controlled his life.
There is nothing that more divides civilized from semi-savage man than to be conscious of our forefathers as they really were, and bit by bit to reconstruct the mosaic of the long-forgotten past. To weigh the stars, or to make ships sail below the sea, is not a more astonishing and ennobling performance on the part of the human race in these latter days, than to know the course of events that had been long forgotten, and the true nature of men and women who were here before us.
Truth is the criterion of historical study; but its impelling motive is poetic. Its poetry consists in its being true. There we find the synthesis of the scientific and literary views of history.