The Name and Nature of Comparative Literature
The term “comparative literature” has given rise to so much discussion, has been interpreted so differently and misinterpreted so frequently, that it might be useful to examine its history and to attempt to distinguish its meanings in the main languages. Only then can we hope to define its exact scope and content. Lexicography, “historical semantics,” will be our starting point. Beyond it, a brief history of comparative studies should lead to conclusions of contemporary relevance."Comparative literature" is still a controversial discipline and idea. There seem no particular problems raised by our two words individually. “Comparative” occurs in Middle English, obviously derived from Latin comparativus. It is used by Shakespeare, as when Falstaff denounces Prince Hal as “the most comparative, rascalliest, sweet young prince,” 1 Francis Meres, as early as 1598, uses the term in the caption of “A Comparative Discourse of Our English Poets with the Greek, Latin and Italian Poets.”2 The adjective occurs in the titles of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century books. In 1602 William Fulbecke published A Comparative Discourse of the Laws. I also find A Comparative Anatomy of Brute Animals in 1765. Its author, John Gregory, published A Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man with hose of the Animal World in the very next year. Bishop Robert Lowth in his Latin Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), formulated the ideal of comparative study well enough: “We must see all things with their eyes [i.e. the ancient Hebrews]: estimate all things by their opinions; we must endeavour as much as possible to read Hebrew as the Hebrews would have read it. We must act as the Astronomers with regard to that branch of their science which is called comparative who, in order to form a more perfect idea of the general system and its different parts, conceive themselves as passing through, and surveying, the whole universe, migrating from one planet to another and becoming for a short time inhabitants of each.”3 In his pioneering History of English Poetry Thomas Warton announced in the Preface to the first volume that he would present “a comparative survey of the poetry of other nations.”4 George Ellis, in his Specimens of Early
Henry IV, 1.2.90.
Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. Gregory Smith, 2 (2 vols. Oxford, 1904), 314. Trans. G. Gregory, 1 (2 vols. London, 1787), 113-14.
Vol. 1 (2 vols. London, 1774), iv.
English Poets (1790), speaks of antiquaries whose “ingenuity has often been successful in detecting and extracting by comparative criticism many particulars respecting the state of society and the progress of arts and manners” from medieval chronicles.5 In 1800 Charles Dibdin published, in five volumes, A Complete History of the English Stage, Introduced by a Comparative and Comprehensive Review of the Asiatic, the Grecian, the Roman, the Spanish, the Italian, the Portuguese, the German, the French and Other Theatres. Here the main idea is fully formulated, but the combination “comparative literature” itself seems to occur for the first time only in a letter by Matthew Arnold in 1848, where he says: “How plain it is now, though an attention to the comparative literatures for the last fifty years might have instructed any one of it, that England is in a certain sense far behind the Continent.”6 But this was a private letter not published till 1895, and “comparative” means here hardly more than “comparable.” In English the decisive use was that of Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett, an Irish barrister who later became Professor of Classics and English Literature at University College, Auckland, New Zealand, who put the term on the title of his book in 1886. As part of Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trübner’s International Scientific Series, the book aroused some attention and was, e.g., favorably reviewed by William Dean Howells.7 Posnett, in an article, “The...
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