Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


Literature and Politics*


If the reader, after glancing at the above heading, should question, rather cynically "what connection is there, or can there be, between them?" no student of contemporary legislation could refrain from accepting the inquiry as a pertinent one. The connection, just at this day, is certainly neither obvious nor intimate. A broader outlook, however, may yield a different result.

Directly or indirectly, manifestly or by unseen process, the national literature and the national politics must act and react upon each other; and it might be accepted as a safe induction from historic facts that the more immediate the connection between them the better for the nation. When they become estranged, the estrangement tends immediately to the debasement of politics, to the emasculation of literature. Literature makes alliance with dilettantism, and politics with the saloon.

The literature of a people, if genuinely a nations product, is of necessity shaped by the national character. It is the effect, not the cause, of the national character. In its turn, however, when once set in motion with the nation’s force behind it, it exerts an almost incalculable influence upon the direction of the nation’s aims, upon the mode in which the national character takes expression. This it continues to do, so long as its connection with the springs of national life is full and vital. The ideal, surely, of a national literature, is that it shall be the most perfect expression in written words of the best of the nation’s thought and feeling. The ideal of a national politics, speaking broadly, is that it shall be the most effective expression in act and deed of the best of the national thought and aspiration. How far literature may fall short of this ideal, and how much further politics, we have all been made two vividly aware; but history reassures us by showing that there have been times when such an ideal appears to have been clearly apprehended, and in a manner realized by politics no less than by the sister art. At such periods we find that, almost without exception, the national literature and the national politics were going hand in hand,—and the politics, though perhaps not avowedly, depending upon the literature for its sanction and its guidance. This has been the case with England and France in their times of most shining splendour—the days of Shakspeare, Raleigh and Elizabeth; of Corneille and Richelieu; of Lamartine, Swift, Thiers; of Macaulay, Disraeli, Gladstone. United Germany is no more the work of Bismarck than of Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Arndt. Italy has taken again her place among the nations. The impulse which stirred her out of her long ignoble sleep was no less literary than political. The rallying cry of "Italia Irredenta" was a cry of poets and patriots. Observe the case of Portugal; Philip the Second could annex her by force, but the national spirit remained alive in the song of Camoens, and the mighty Spanish failed to absorb even this small and kindred people. In the beginning of the present century Portugal found herself once more trembling on the verge of the same fate; but a little band of patriotic poets and historians rose up and fanned into new flame the fading spark of national sentiment,—and the nation lived again. To view the obverse of these instances we need not go far afield. Under the second Charles and James of England literature and politics vied with each other in their degradation.

To find a milder but more immediately applicable illustration we may turn our gaze yet nearer home. The fathers of the American Republic were, for the most part, her literary statesmen. Later, the period of the richest outflowing of American literature, when Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Bryant, Whittier, were doing their best work, was a shining period in American politics; and such men-of-letters as Bancroft, Palfry, Everett, adorned the American Congress. At present, surely it will be allowed, things are not quite so well with literature and politics in America. The question of our cynical interrogator at the beginning of this paper is sufficient proof of this. From politics the best men in America are too apt to stand aside in indifference or disdain. The literary output is enormous, but too generally characterized by cleverness rather than by large impulse and strenuous purpose. Certain illustrious exceptions will of course occur to us; but, these aside, would not one almost be justified in complaining that American literature had made alliance with dilettantism, her politics with the saloon?

During periods of estrangement between literature and politics, we may be sure that the fault lies not wholly on the one side or the other. Politics, though perhaps dimly conscious of what she might gain by keeping in touch with the best thought and most unbiased wisdom of the nation, is alienated by some unpractical Utopianism on the part of a literature that may seem to have withdrawn its finger from the common pulse. Though ready to acknowledge the dangers of the appeal to ignorance and prejudice, she cannot conceal her contempt for mere closest statesmanship,—for political theorizings which are not based on a comprehension of the true inwardness of the ballot-box. On the other hand, the tendency of literature to shirk responsibility for the public weal is at least as old as the days of Plato. It is Plato, I think, who says that if the wise are too indifferent to concern themselves in the government of the state they must endure to be governed by their inferiors. If the wise are anywhere at the present day, fallen into this predicament, it is not an illustrious one, but they have only themselves to blame. The writers of a nation are, whether they will or not, to a great extent the teachers of the nation. They are false to one of their chief trusts if they languidly leave the great problems of public policy to just anyone who will take the trouble to attempt them. It is not strange that the literary class become impatient with the tools and material which politics is compelled to use. They should not forget, however, that it is the plainest duty of every intelligent citizen in a democratic country to interest himself actively in the public policy. The greater the intelligence and knowledge of the citizen, the more incumbent upon him the duty of exercising his wisdom for the public good. What is true of the individual is true of the class. Without indulging in a wearisome recapitulation we may give our inference a yet wider sweep, and reach the conclusion that on the literature of a nation rests the heaviest political responsibility.


"Literature and Politics," Canada 1:5, May 1891, 52-52 [back]