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The following text comes from the HathiTrust online version of the 1894 The Encyclopaedia Britannica in the New York Public Library. Using ABBY OCR software I produced the following text from HathiTrust page images. Paragraphs have been added for easier reading. — George P. Landow


The passage below, which appears at the end of the 1894 The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s history of English literature broadly defined, consists of three paragraphs, the first of which emphasizes nonfiction genres, such as politics and economics and social justice, and includes John Stuart Mill and other mid- to late Victorian authors. The second paragraph oddly enough only mentions those generally considered pre-Victorian or romantic poets about whom the author offers what we might consider stringent Victorian criticism. The final paragraph, in contrast, emphasizes the positive effects of recent novels, nonfiction, and poetry, though it names no authors. It is possible that the history of English literature was written for a much earlier edition of the encyclopaedia, but even so one is surprised to see no mention of Tennyson and the Brownings or Arnold, Carlyle, and Ruskin. And what about Dickens?

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he study of social grievances, and of the means of removing them, assumed a prominent place among their objects, and gave rise to much laudable nnd beneficial activity. On humanitarian grounds they supported the agitation against slavery which Christian philanthropists like Clarkson and Wilberforce had commenced from a religious motive. Senior occupied himself with the evils of the old poor-law; Francis Homer became a great authority on finance; Sir Samuel Romilly took up the reform of our criminal jurisprudence; Ricardo, J. S. Mill, and M'Culloch studied the laws of the creation and distribution of wealth, and demonstrated the impolicy of restrictions on trade. The benefits of national education began to be seen and enforced; and Lancaster and Bell entered upon useful labors connected with the organization of schools and the supply of teachers. Harriet Martineau wrote popular tales, and Elliott “Corn-law rhymes” in order to indoctrinate the multitude with sound views on economical questions. In short, all the good was done or attempted which men starting from the basis of empirical philosophy could do or attempt; whatever was outside the range of that philosophy was neglected.

There is something rather saddening in the contemplation of the careers of most of the eminent literary men of this epoch. Byron and Shelley were cut off in the flower of their days; Southey’s overtasked brain gave way some years before his death, and the same fate befell Ireland’s gifted singer, Thomas Moore. Scott, ruined through too much haste to be rich, literally worked himself to death to clear off the mountain of liability which his implication in Bailantyne’s failure had thrown upon him. Coleridge, though he lived to old age, had weakened a will originally irresolute, and shattered nerves originally over-sensitive, by the fatal practice of opium-eating; in the time of gray hairs he subsided into a dreamy talker about “sum-in-ject” and “om-in-ject.” [quoting Carlyle’s Life of Sterling] Wordsworth alone preserved to the last an unimpaired sanity of mind and body, for which he might thank the simplicity and serenity of his life in Westmoreland, where he settled on his return from France. Rapt in profound meditation, he communed among the mountains with the spirit of the universe; and the beauty of the crag, the tarn, the flower, transmitted itself, through the lips of nature’s poet-priest, into verse of wondrous melody. When the period of inspiration was past, he quietly conformed to the religion and politics of his neighbors, and wrote much in support of them ; but these later works are pitched in a lower key.

Since the death of Scott, the power of literature, combined with journalism, has been continually on the rise. The novelists, while describing, have modified our social customs; the essayists have been instrumental in bringing about political reforms; the poets have stirred, — generally to thoughts and desires of change, — the impressible hearts of the young. The power of art over the human mind, and its influence in determining the aspects of life, have been, in all English-speaking countries, declining, while that of literature has been advancing. Whether this particular distribution of the master-influences that affect mankind will continue to prevail, or whether art is destined to regain among us a portion of its early power, and the sway of literature to be correspondingly restricted, is a question which the future must decide. [VIII, 387]


The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Dictionary of Arts, Sciences. and General Literature. 9th ed. (American Reprint). Vol. VIII. Philadelphia: Maxwell Sommerville, 1894. HathiTrust online version of a copy in the New York Public Library. Web. 25 August 2022.

Created 30 August 2022