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Introduction

A section of a long and splendid literature can be most conveniently
treated in one of two ways. It can be divided as one cuts a currant cake
or a Gruyère cheese, taking the currants (or the holes) as they come. Or
it can be divided as one cuts wood--along the grain: if one thinks that
there is a grain. But the two are never the same: the names never come
in the same order in actual time as they come in any serious study of a
spirit or a tendency. The critic who wishes to move onward with the life
of an epoch, must be always running backwards and forwards among its
mere dates; just as a branch bends back and forth continually; yet the
grain in the branch runs true like an unbroken river.

Mere chronological order, indeed, is almost as arbitrary as alphabetical
order. To deal with Darwin, Dickens, Browning, in the sequence of the
birthday book would be to forge about as real a chain as the "Tacitus,
Tolstoy, Tupper" of a biographical dictionary. It might lend itself
more, perhaps, to accuracy: and it might satisfy that school of critics
who hold that every artist should be treated as a solitary craftsman,
indifferent to the commonwealth and unconcerned about moral things. To
write on that principle in the present case, however, would involve all
those delicate difficulties, known to politicians, which beset the
public defence of a doctrine which one heartily disbelieves. It is quite
needless here to go into the old "art for art's sake"--business, or
explain at length why individual artists cannot be reviewed without
reference to their traditions and creeds. It is enough to say that with
other creeds they would have been, for literary purposes, other
individuals. Their views do not, of course, make the brains in their
heads any more than the ink in their pens. But it is equally evident
that mere brain-power, without attributes or aims, a wheel revolving in
the void, would be a subject about as entertaining as ink. The moment we
differentiate the minds, we must differentiate by doctrines and moral
sentiments. A mere sympathy for democratic merry-making and mourning
will not make a man a writer like Dickens. But without that sympathy
Dickens would not be a writer like Dickens; and probably not a writer at
all. A mere conviction that Catholic thought is the clearest as well as
the best disciplined, will not make a man a writer like Newman. But
without that conviction Newman would not be a writer like Newman; and
probably not a writer at all. It is useless for the æsthete (or any
other anarchist) to urge the isolated individuality of the artist, apart
from his attitude to his age. His attitude to his age is his
individuality: men are never individual when alone.

It only remains for me, therefore, to take the more delicate and
entangled task; and deal with the great Victorians, not only by dates
and names, but rather by schools and streams of thought. It is a task
for which I feel myself wholly incompetent; but as that applies to every
other literary enterprise I ever went in for, the sensation is not
wholly novel: indeed, it is rather reassuring than otherwise to realise
that I am now doing something that nobody could do properly. The chief
peril of the process, however, will be an inevitable tendency to make
the spiritual landscape too large for the figures. I must ask for
indulgence if such criticism traces too far back into politics or ethics
the roots of which great books were the blossoms; makes Utilitarianism
more important than _Liberty_ or talks more of the Oxford Movement than
of _The Christian Year_. I can only answer in the very temper of the
age of which I write: for I also was born a Victorian; and sympathise
not a little with the serious Victorian spirit. I can only answer, I
shall not make religion more important than it was to Keble, or politics
more sacred than they were to Mill.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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