Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
The Spiritual Element in Modern Literature
By Hamilton Wright Mabie (18461916)
[Born in Cold Spring, N. Y. Died in Summit, N. J., 1916. The Andover Review. 1886.]
WITH all its radiant loveliness Greek art is of the earth; it is forever lost to us, not because skill has forsaken us or the instinct for beauty died out in our souls, but because we can never return to the attitude in which men stood when they created it. It is true, as we are constantly reminded, that we can never match it with a kindred perfection; it is also true, and true in the deepest sense, that we have outgrown it. It no more represents our thought, our ideal, our faith, than the images of the gods which it has preserved for us represent our conception of the unseen and eternal Spirit. The Greek moved through a single world, and his thought, by virtue of self-imposed limitations, was simple, clear, orderly, and harmonious; we live, move, and have our being in two worlds, and our perpetual struggle is to bring them into harmony; hence the complexity, variety, and apparent confusion of our life and our art. We have lost the antique simplicity, definiteness, and harmony, but we have gained the inexhaustible inspirations and resources of the spiritual life.
What, then, is the spiritual element in literature, and how does it reveal itself? The spiritual element is the perception of a relationship between humanity and a divine nature outside of and above it, of actual fellowship between men and this divine nature, and of obligations, resources and consolations growing out of that fellowship; in brief, of a complete organized life of the soul in large measure independent of its material surroundings, and in which is to be found the fulness and completeness of life. In the Iliad, for instance, though the gods hover over the plains of Troy they are as material as the men who struggle beneath them, and the poem finds its motive and its consummation within the limits of purely human activity. There is not a breath from Olympus which inspires any hero with an unselfish or ideal purpose; there is no suggestion anywhere that the long struggle is to be decided by any but material forces, or that victory is to bring anything greater than a material reward. In Brownings Paracelsus, on the other hand, or in Goethes Faust, both representative modern poems, the story has a spiritual motive; there is a recognition of spiritual relationships that rest upon spiritual need and fellowship; there is clear, definite movement to a spiritual end. And all through the literature of this century we find such relationships, purposes, and ideals. The books of pure literature are few which do not bring into the foreground the thoughts of God, of immortality, and of the possible greatness of human life reached by the power and through the consciousness of these fundamental conceptions. The spiritual world is the background of almost all modern poetry, from those early songs of Longfellow which have become the familiar psalms of universal experience to such noble interpretations of human life from the spiritual side as Tennysons In Memoriam. In the poetry which does not give this thought prominence it is still present in ever-recurring suggestion and illustration; we feel its presence as we feel the presence of the sky when we look into the heart of the summer flowers and know that without it they could not have been.
Almost without exception the names of the poets of this century who have reached the maturity of their powers and turned the passing attention of men into lasting fame suggest, by a law of common association, some human relationship lifted into the light of a spiritual significance, some interpretation of life from the spiritual side. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, the Brownings, Tennyson, the entire company of American poets, with one or two exceptions, have carried this light in their hands in all their explorations of nature and life, and it is this interpenetration of supernal radiance which gives their best work its beauty and its truth. It is not too much to say that it is the presence and power of this spiritual element which differentiates our century from all preceding ages most decisively .
We have no monopoly of the spiritual life, and every great writer is by no means an interpreter of spiritual truth; but the spiritual experience of the race has brought the spiritual perceptions in this century to a far more fruitful and constant discovery of spiritual truth, and has suffused the horizon of thought with the glow of spiritual aspirations and ideals. It must be borne in mind that there is a fundamental difference between the morality which other ages have described and illustrated even more effectively than our own, and this spiritual element. Morality is based upon the recognition of the sovereignty of moral law, and received its noblest expression as long ago as those remote ages in which the Hebrew Scriptures were written, or as that wonderful period of Greek development when Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides each disclosed, according to the method of his genius, the play and supremacy of that law. In one form or another this law has never ceased to be proclaimed. Shakespeare taught it as no modern writer has been able to teach it; and George Eliot, in whose latest work the presence of the spiritual element can scarcely be detected, has been its eloquent and convincing exponent. But spirituality is something altogether different; something higher, more subtle, pervasive and vital. Morality is obedience to law; spirituality. is an intuitive perception of spiritual truth, a personal consciousness and reception of that truth, and a conception of life which accepts it as controlled and governed by spiritual forces. Morality recognizes the law written in our own natures; spirituality is personal fellowship and communion with an invisible spiritual world.
Many causes have combined to develop the spiritual perceptions in recent years. The stream of modern civilization shows two great currents; one having origin among the Greeks, the other among the Hebrews. These two tendencies are now in process of assimilation, but are still in some measure divergent and at times antagonistic. We have the Greek spirit almost entirely unmodified by the Hebrew spirit in such writers as Walter Savage Landor, and the Hebrew spirit almost entirely unmodified by the Greek spirit in such writers as Carlyle. It is the struggle between these two tendenciesthe one artistic, plastic, and liberalizing; the other moral, intense, and conservativewhich introduces an element of confusion into the literature of our century. The Greeks had their consistent thought of the universe, and their unbroken effort to express that thought in art. The Hebrews, on their side, had their one distinct and commanding thought of the universe, and the unique characteristic of their literature is the marvellous power with which that thought was developed, extended, and made controlling through their long and varied history .
The reaction against Puritanism, against the exclusive rule of the Hebrew spirit, is still incomplete. It is not a reaction toward worldliness, conformity to lower and more material standards; it is a reaction from the partial to the whole; from the rigid and arrested movement of mind to its free, healthful, and complete activity; from the endeavor to live by vision of a single side of life to the endeavor to live by vision of a complete life. Matthew Arnold has said Puritanism locked the English mind in a dungeon; a more exact statement would be that it led the English people through a deep defile in the mountains from which only a single star was visible, the polar star of righteousness. That star is not less visible to us than to the Puritans, but it is no longer solitary; a whole heaven of moving constellations has swept into our vision. We see the star of righteousness as clearly as ever the Puritan saw it, but it has become the centre of a universe that shines out in a divine revelation of beauty around it. The Hebrew tendency is being supplemented by the Greek tendency, but neither diverted nor impaired by the process. The note of unrest in the verse of the poets of the art school, and of Arnold and Clough, is the expression of this lack of harmony in the age. It is the recovery of that harmony which these poets have striven after. They bring us face to face with the great problem which confronts us: the harmonizing of beauty and liberty with the order, the discipline, and the noble severity of the moral law. Two worlds lie in our vision, and art cannot turn its face from either. Milton has given us an earthly and Dante a heavenly paradise; the masters have left us an imperishable heritage in the immortal faces on the walls of Italian palaces and churches, but Christianity has yet to find its highest expression in art.