In the preceding pages the progress of literature has been briefly traced through its various periods—from the time when its meagre records were confined to inscriptions engraved on stone, or inscribed on clay tablets or papyrus leaves, or in its later and more perfect development when, written on parchment, it was the possession of the learned few, hidden in libraries and so precious that a book was sometimes the ransom of a city— till the invention of printing gave to the world the accumulated treasures of the past; and from that time to the present, when the press has poured forth from year to year an ever increasing succession of books, the records of human thought, achievement, and emotion which constitute literature.
The question here naturally arises as to whether the human mind has now reached its highest development in this direction, whether it is henceforth to retrograde or to advance. It was only towards the close of the last century that the idea of human progress gained ground, after the American and French revolutions had broken down old barriers, inaugurated new systems, inspired new hopes, and revealed new possibilities. What was then but a feeble sentiment, later advances in the direction of science have confirmed. Among them are the discovery of the correlation and conservation of force, according to Faraday the highest law which our faculties permit us to perceive; the spectroscope, that gives the chemist power to analyze the stars; the microscope, that lays bare great secrets of nature, and almost penetrates the mystery of life itself; the application of steam and electricity, that puts all nations into communication and binds mankind together with nerves of steel; above all, the theory of evolution, which opens to man an almost illimitable vista of progress and development. It is true that these great intellectual triumphs of the nineteenth century are all in the direction of science; but literature in its true sense embraces both science and art; science which discovers through the intellect, and art which transmutes, through the imagination, knowledge and emotion into beauty. When the stupendous discoveries of our time have been fully recognized and appreciated and followed, as they doubtless will be, by a long series of others equally great, a higher order of thought must follow, and literature, which, is but the reflection of the thought of any age, cannot but be in harmony with it.
This consummation more than one poet, with the prescience of genius, has already foretold. “Poetry,” says Wordsworth, “is the first and last of all knowledge, immortal as the heart of man. If the labors of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition and in the impressions we habitually receive, the poet will sleep no more then than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, and if the time should ever come when what is now called science shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration.” “The sublime and all reconciling revelations of nature,” writes Emerson, “will exact of poetry a corresponding height and scope, or put an end to it.” George Eliot says,—
“Presentiment of better things on earth
Sweeps in with every force that stirs our souls.”
Throughout the verse of Tennyson the idea of progress is variously expressed. He dreams of a future
“When the war-drum throbs no longer and the battle-flags are furled.”
“When comes the statelier Eden back to man.”
“When springs the crowning race of human kind.”
Thus the inspirations of poetry not less than the conclusions of science indicate that we must look for the Golden Age, not in a mythical past, but in an actual though far-off future.