Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Spirituality a Test of Literature
By Hiram Corson (18281911)
[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1828. Died in Ithaca, N. Y., 1911. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Brownings Poetry. 1886.]
LITERATURE, in its most restricted art-sense, is an expression in letters of the life of the spirit of man coöperating with the intellect. Without the coöperation of the spiritual man, the intellect produces only thought; and pure thought, whatever be the subject with which it deals, is not regarded as literature, in its strict sense. For example, Euclids Elements, Newtons Principia, Spinozas Ethica, and Kants Critique of the Pure Reason, do not properly belong to literature. (By the Spiritual I would be understood to mean the whole domain of the emotional, the susceptible or impressible, the sympathetic, the intuitive; in short, that mysterious something in the constitution of man by and through which he holds relationship with the essential spirit of things, as opposed to the phenomenal of which the senses take cognizance.)
The term literature is sometimes extended in meaning (and it may be so extended) to include all that has been committed to letters, on all subjects. There is no objection to such extension in ordinary speech, no more than there is to that of the signification of the word beauty to what is purely abstract. We speak, for example, of the beauty of a mathematical demonstration; but beauty, in its strictest sense, is that which appeals to the spiritual nature, and must, therefore, be concrete, personal, not abstract. Art beauty is the embodiment, adequate, effective embodiment, of coöperative intellect and spiritthe accommodation, in Bacons words, of the shows of things to the desires of the mind.
It follows that the relative merit and importance of different periods of a literature should be determined by the relative degrees of spirituality which these different periods exhibit. The intellectual power of two or more periods, as exhibited in their literatures, may show no marked difference, while the spiritual vitality of these same periods may very distinctly differ. And if it be admitted that literature proper is the product of coöperative intellect and spirit (the latter being always an indispensable factor, though there can be no high order of literature that is not strongly articulated, that is not well freighted, with thought), it follows that the periods of a literature should be determined by the ebb and flow of spiritual life which they severally register, rather than by any other considerations. There are periods which are characterized by a blindness of heart, an inactive, quiescent condition of the spirit, by which the intellect is more or less divorced from the essential, the eternal, and it directs itself to the shows of things. Such periods may embody in their literatures a large amount of thought,thought which is conversant with the externality of things; but that of itself will not constitute a noble literature, however perfect the forms in which it may be embodied, and the general sense of the civilized world, independently of any theories of literature, will not regard such a literature as noble. It is made up of what must be, in time, superseded; it has not a sufficiently large element of the essential, the eternal, which can be reached only through the assimilating life of the spirit. The spirit may be so cabined, cribbed, confined as not to come to any consciousness of itself; or it may be so set free as to go forth and recognize its kinship, respond to the spiritual world outside of itself, and, by so responding, know what merely intellectual philosophers call the unknowable.