The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time

§ 9. Afterword

It seemed to us not inappropriate to conclude the final volume of The Cambridge History of English Literature with a summary of the progress and development of the English language during the three centuries which have passed away since the death of its greatest master. To his name we would fain offer this work as a tribute of reverence and recognition. Whether the year of the tercentenary of his death will close before the country in which he took pride, and its sisterlands, have completed the sacrifice offered by them neither with a light heart nor for ignoble ends, is hidden from our eyes; but, alike in war and in peace, the creations of his genius form part of the inheritance of which it behooves our nation and our empire to remain worthy.

The English language, since the death of Shakespeare—an event almost coincident with the beginnings of Britain beyond the seas—has been employed in many offices besides serving as the vehicle of our literature; and English literature has fulfilled other purposes besides that of being simply a part of our national life. Indeed, no observation is more trite than the warning often addressed to students of a national literature to abstain from seeking in the literary productions of any particular period, or even in the leading ideas and influences to be traced in them, a reflection or refraction of the experiences of contemporary national history. Some response of the kind the mirror will never altogether refuse; but its strength and distinctness will vary indefinitely; at times, they will be faint; at others, marred or invaded by counteracting or by independent forces. Of these, as the history of English literature alone, from its earliest stages to the present, would suffice to show, the most important is that of individual genius, which defies conditions of time and place. Nor should it be forgotten that literature is an art, and that art, and her fellow science, though they have often been the servants of kings, or of communities of divers kinds, are, of their nature, freeborn, and do not owe obedience to any laws save their own. The relations between ethical and æsthetical standards are not the less real and vital; but they have no title to be considered identical.

The harmless method of former generations—which was wont to tack on chapters treating particular periods in the history of literature (as in those of religion, commerce, education and so forth) to the political history of the same divisions of time—will, therefore, no longer meet the demands of the present age of study and research. And equally unsatisfactory—any brilliant attempts to carry it out notwithstanding—is the other more seductive method of simply treating the course of a nation’s literary history as an organic part of its political and social experiences, which accompanies their movement from stage to stage, as though it were a resultant of the same causes and subject to the same curves of progress or reaction.

The difficulties of the task undertaken in attempting to construct a consecutive narrative of the growth through many centuries of a national literature remain undiminished when not only is the centre of gravity of such a history sought in itself, but, also, its unity is dependent on the general conception of it by those responsible for its execution. These difficulties are certainly not least formidable when the work follows the cooperative system, practically indispensable in the case of a history so vast in its dimensions and so varied as that of English literature. Since the day when, in or near the college from which these parting words are dated, Gray, whose own lyrics bridged the distance between the medieval bards and the poets of his own age, conceived—though, like Pope before him, he never himself executed—the plan of a general history of English poetry, the attempts to realise his idea either for the poetical branch, or for the entire body, of English literature have been few though far from insignificant. Yet, while the field of research has continually expanded, the demands of the scientific method of critical treatment have, very properly, become more and more exacting. For ourselves, we felt no hesitation in adopting the principle of co-operative authorship; and the result has been to identify with this History, as a whole, a body of contributors who have written in the spirit of devotion to the same principles of criticism, as well as, each of them, to the interest of his particular theme.

The limits of our enterprise—for which, as a whole, we hope all the writers in these volumes will allow us to claim a collective responsibility—have now been reached. We send forth this work, completed so far as it was in our power, with a clear sense of its imperfections, unavoidable or not, but, also, in the hope that, in some measure, it may attest the interest taken by our age and country in one of the noblest of their inheritances.

A. W. W.
A. R. W.

April, 1916.