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1. Importance of Literature. No other study is more important than that of literature. It not only supplies the mind with knowledge, but also refines it in thought and feeling. Literature embodies the best thought of the world, a knowledge and appreciation of which is the essential element of culture. Of all literature, that of our native or adopted country stands in closest relation to us, and naturally possesses for us the greatest interest.
2. Comprehensive Meaning. The term literature needs to be carefully considered, and its general and its restricted meaning clearly comprehended. In its widest sense, literature may be regarded as including the aggregate body of printed matter in the world. It is thus a record of the acts, thoughts, and emotions of the human family. Its magnitude renders it absolutely impossible for any man ever to become acquainted with more than a very small part of it. The largest libraries, notably that of the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, number each more than a million volumes.
3. National Literature. This general or universal literature, of which we have just spoken, is obviously made up of national literatures. A national literature is composed of the literary productions of a particular nation. After reaching
a state of civilization, every nation expresses its thoughts and feelings in writings. Thus we have the literature of Greece, of Rome, of England, of America, and of other nations both ancient and modern.
4. Restricted Sense. But the word literature has also a restricted meaning, which it is important to grasp. In any literary production we may distinguish between the thoughts that are presented, and the manner in which they are presented. We may say, for example, "The sun is rising; " or, ascending to a higher plane of thought and emotion, we may present the same fact in the language of Thomson: -
"But yonder comes the powerful King of Day,
5. Artistic Form. It is thus apparent that the interest and value of literature are largely dependent upon the manner or form in which the facts are presented. In its restricted sense, literature includes only those works that are polished or artistic in form. The classic works of a literature are those which present ideas of general and permanent interest in a highly finished or artistic manner.
6. Three Potent Influences. Literature is influenced or determined by whatever affects the thought and feeling of a people. Among the most potent influences that determine the character of a literature, whether taken in a broad or in a restricted sense, are race, epoch, and surroundings. This fact should be well borne in mind, for it renders a philosophy of literature possible. We cannot fully understand any literature, nor justly estimate it, without an acquaintance with the
1 The Seasons. Summer, line 81.