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The love of song and the love of listening to stories are among the primitive instincts of the human race. A group of people acknowledging the tie of race always feels the desire of recording the events of its own history, especially the deeds of popular heroes. A few individuals appear in every generation who have the power of responding to these instincts in a manner so acceptable that their words are transmitted to posterity in a more or less fixed form. Such persons are called literary artists, and the body of their records is called a national literature. Naturally, it is affected by the religion and ethics of the time, by the prevalent views of life and nature, by the current speculations on the origin and destiny of the world and by the character of the language in which it is embodied. In its production imagination and reality play important parts, sometimes one and sometimes the other having the most influence, so that it is frequently difficult to distinguish their relative importance.
In the very earliest ages, and in undeveloped communities in later times, the medium of transmission is memory, as was the case with the Homeric poems and the old English ballads. This necessitates the use of the metrical or rhythmical form, and accounts for the fact that poetic literature is older than prose literature, since meter and rhythm are very great aids to the memory. When letters were invented, the written document gradually displaced
memory, until at present everything that is composed is committed to writing, and even the word "literature" is derived from the Latin word meaning letters.
Since society is continually subjected to various experiences, war, peace, and political and industrial revolutions, it is continually developing, and its tone or what may be called the spirit of the age changes as time passes on. As literature is the expression of the prevalent views and character of the nation, it also passes through phases reflecting the spirit of the age. It changes as civilization changes. The time during which literary expression remains substantially the same in form, following it may be also certain lines of thought, is called a literary period.
Literary periods will be found to correspond roughly to political periods, for the development of free institutions has very great influence on national character. The character of religious and philosophic thought is closely connected with literary tone and political growth, and tends to bring about marked changes in both at nearly the same time. The triumph of Puritanism in 1645 and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 affected the literature of the time profoundly. But further, the literature of one nation is affected by that of another without much reference to historical events. Latin literature has always been studied in England, and its great masterpieces have always been regarded as models, but Greek was not read in the universities till the reign of Henry VIII. France and Italy have twice been sources of inspiration to English writers. Literature is therefore subject to influences quite independent of historical or political events, and its periods correspond only approximately to periods of historical or political development.
A consideration of literary periods is not only justifiable
as calling our attention to the life and movement of history, but it is of very great assistance to the memory. enables us to associate writers with important changes in society and with phases of culture and thought. By grouping them, it enables us to understand their relations to other men and to their times. It gives us a sort of scaffolding about which we can erect in our minds a structure in which dates and names have their places. It is difficult to remember dates and names unless associated with characters and events, or to remember characters and events unless they are paragraphed into periods. Indeed, it is hardly worth while to try to remember them at all unless they are grouped and arranged with reference to some principle. For these reasons the history of literature is almost invariably divided into periods. Indeed, it divides itself naturally.
But it must not be concluded that these periods are detached and independent. Each grows out of the past and sends its influence into the future. Nor can we say that they begin at a certain definite date and terminate at another. The dates must always be approximate and uncertain, for literary periods are not sharply defined. In one period may exist a group of influential writers whose roots are in the past, who in reality belong to the past, and with them others who belong to their own time, and possibly even others who in some regards seem to anticipate the future. It is only in a general and broad way that we can say that the spirit of an age is reflected in the writings of that age. The “spirit of the age” is sometimes very complex and, even in a well-defined period, is probably changing. The period, marking an evolution in the history of thought and art, is itself an evolution, and has a beginning, a middle, and an end. All these modify