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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: Introduction

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)

ENGLISH literature is the record of the growth of a few petty tribes into an empire and the spread of a language from the corner of one island over both hemispheres. For thirteen centuries this literature has been continuous,—interrupted at times, and now and again dominated by foreign influences, but, in spite of vicissitudes and recessions, presenting a long and integral evolution. Even if this literature were inferior in quality or frugal of masterpieces, it would still deserve the study of all interested in the development of a great people. But English literature has attracted the greatest minds to its service; it has been the one fine art in which Englishmen have excelled; and it carries in its volumes the ideas which have stirred the nation most profoundly and which have contributed most largely to the national character. For the student of the growth of civilization, of the changes in manners, morals, and ideals, as well as for the lover of beauty, English literature opens a long highway with wide horizons and many a noble view.

To all English-speaking readers, this literature has a special interest, which is scarcely less important for a resident of Australia, Canada, or the United States, than for a resident of the British Isles. However individual and independent the literature of any English-speaking nation may become, it must always trace its ancestry back to the mother literature, and it must continue to be influenced enormously by the later developments of that literature. The American must study English literature in order to understand the literature, and indeed the thought, taste, institutions, and habits of his own country. There are many ties that bind America to Europe, and especially to England—the ties of race, of business, of religion, of law, of forms of government. But no bond of union is more fundamental than the common language, and no bond has a firmer hold on the imaginations of both peoples than their common literature.

Americans may indeed share in the pride that Englishmen take in the extraordinary value and richness of this great tradition. No other national literature reaches greater heights of genius or covers a wider range of thought and emotion, or reveals a more varied humanity. Apart from its value as a record of political, social, and intellectual progress, it must appeal to every reader with the unfailing interest of human personality. There, great men of all ages have expressed themselves. In its pages are written the minds and hearts of the men who centuries after their deaths are still our leaders and masters. As in legislature, or war, or scientific discovery and invention, so here we have the archives of one great form of human activity. And in no other form of activity have Englishmen expressed themselves more individually or more potently.

In reading English literature, the student will meet with unexpected reward, for he will find English literature the gateway to the whole field of European writing. No literature lives by itself or to itself. What has been called “comparative” literature has taught us to take a view wider than the merely national, has shown us the essential interrelation of all European literature, has given us a view even wider than the continental, and has made us realize the fundamental unity, the common humanity, behind all the impulses to, and the forms of, literature. From Chaucer’s day down to the present, the roots of continental literature have come to the surface in England and have blossomed there. To know English literature is to know the literature of France, of Italy, and of Germany, at least. To know English literature is, therefore, a liberal education.

But though England’s literature is thus closely related to that of continental countries, it has a strong and distinct individuality of its own. Not less than the virtuosity of Italy, nor the wit and polish of France, do the characteristics of England show themselves in her writing: sobriety of tone, and seriousness of purpose in prose, keenness of satire, genius of dramatic representation, lyric songs as of lark or nightingale, and a whole nation taking itself too seriously or too lightly in the manifold pages of its fiction.

Reading Recommended

For general introductions to the study of literature the reader is referred to:

R. G. Moulton: ‘The Modern Study of Literature,’ Chic., 1915; Arlo Bates: ‘Talks on the Study of Literature,’ Bost., 1905; Laurie Magnus: ‘How to Read English Literature,’ Lond., 1906; and W. H. Hudson: ‘An Introduction to the Study of Literature,’ Bost., 1910.