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GREAT artist once said that for him at the heart of the religious idea was a sense of continuity, that, in
deed, this sense amounted to religion. I was standing with him at the time looking over an English landscape, and on the hill-side opposite to us was an old track which generations ago had been used by ponies to carry up the daily supply of bread to the little village on the hill-top. The years have changed all that. Modern methods of transport have superseded the ponies, but the track on the hill-side can still be seen, a reminder of the unbroken continuity of life through the centuries. And one felt the force of the artist's words. It is just as when, perhaps, you are walking about London and thinking of Shakespeare's London your mind seems to be in some city not only of three hundred years ago but a thousand miles away, and then suddenly you realise that his London was this London and there has been no violent change but only a gradual shifting and growth and redistribution. And again in the thought is the very root of the religious idea. And that is the answer to anyone who may question the use of such a thing as the history of literature, as apart from the direct study of literature itself. This present OUTLINE has two functions. First, it is to give the reader something like a representative summary of the work itself that has been accomplished by the great creative minds of the world in letters. But, also, it aims at placing that work in historical perspective, showing that from the beginning until now, from the nameless poets of the earliest scriptures down to Robert Browning, the spirit of man when most profoundly moved to creative utterance in literature has been and is, through countless manifestations, one and abiding. It aims not only at suggesting to the reader the particular quality of Homer and Shakespeare and Goethe and Thomas Hardy, but also at showing how these men and their peers, for all their new splendours of voice and gesture, are still the inheritors of an unbroken succession.
The modern reader of the poetry of, say, Mr. Ralph Hodgson, or Mr. W. H. Davies, or Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie, is doing well by himself in the mere reading. But his pleasure is the greater if at the time he dimly remembers how Mr. Hodgson's rapture flooded through the mystical poetry of the seventeenth century, and how the beautiful lyric insolence of Mr. Davies once did duty in Robert Herrick's country parsonage, and how Mr. Abercrombie is adding the stamp of his own genius to a manner known centuries ago to Lucretius and through a line of philosophical poets down to Walter Savage Landor, to whom it would have been possible for some of the readers of this OUTLINE to have spoken. Or to take another, and by the taste of to-day, a more popular example. The hungry reader of the modern novel loses nothing in his appreciation of the splendid work that is being done by so many writers in that form if upon the background of his mind there move the not too shadowy figures, fading from Dickens and Thackeray through Walter Scott and Jane Austen to Fielding and Samuel Richardson, and beyond them to Thomas Lodge and his fellow-writers of Elizabethan romance, and again beyond them to the mediæval troubadours and trouveres who told their stories by the evening firelight.
The comparison of one age's literature with that of another in point of merit is as little profitable as the comparison of one individual writer with another. The fine attitude towards art, as towards everything else, is to be grateful always for the good and beautiful thing when it comes, without grudging and without doctrinaire complaint that it is not something else. It does not help anybody to say that eighteenth century English poetry is inferior to that of the seventeenth century, or that Fielding was a better novelist than Meredith. All these things alike are the great glories of a race, the one as honourably to be kept in memory as another. But it does help appreciation to know what was the relation of eighteenth to seventeenth century poetry, and what was the line of descent by which Meredith came from Fielding. Such knowledge makes us remember always that however great the hero of our worship, he is but one figure in an organic whole which is yet greater than he. We may, for example, put Shakespeare with justice above all our own writers, but we remember that the very secret of his honour is that he stands so proudly at the head of a story so wonderful.
To know intimately the whole literature even of one language is beyond the industry of a lifetime. But here in this OUTLINE are working a number of men whose devotion has been to many branches of the art in many tongues. Together they hope to present, in a simple form that has authority, brief annals of the most living record of the soul of man. It is an enterprise which must have the blessing of many for whom the way of life has made reading necessarily haphazard and fragmentary, but who are none the less alert to the beauty of every true book.