Interest in the Present.—One result of the growing scientific spirit has been an increasing interest in contemporary problems and literature. At the beginning of the Victorian age, the chief part of the literature studied in college was nearly two thousand years old. When English courses were finally added, they frequently ended with Milton. To-day, however, many colleges have courses in strictly contemporary literature. The scientific attitude toward life has caused a recognition of the fact that he who disregards current literature remains ignorant of a part of the life and thought of to-day and that he resembles the mathematician who neglects one factor in the solution of a problem.
It is true that the future may take a different view of all contemporary things, including literature; but this possibility does not justify neglect of the present. We should also remember that different stages in the growth of nations and individuals constantly necessitate changes in estimating the relative importance of the thought of former centuries.
The Trend of Contemporary Literature.—The diversity of taste in the wide circle of twentieth-century readers has encouraged authors of both the realistic and the romantic schools. The main tendency of scientific influence and of the new interest in racial welfare is toward realism. In his stories of the “Five Towns,” Arnold Bennett shows how the dull industrial life affects the character of the individual. Much of the fiction of H.G. Wells presents matter of scientific or sociological interest. Poets like John Masefield and Wilfrid Gibson sing with an almost prosaic sincerity of the life of workmen and of the squalid city streets. The drama is frequently a study of the conditions affecting contemporary life.
Twentieth-century writers are not, however, neglecting the other great function of literature,—to charm life with romantic visions and to bring to it deliverance from care. The poetry of Noyes takes us back to the days of Drake and to the Mermaid Inn, where we listen to Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson. The Irish poets and dramatists disclose a world of the “Ever-Young,” where there is:—
“A laughter in the diamond air, a music in the trembling grass.”
The influence of the great German skeptic, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), appears in some of Shaw’s dramas, as well as in the novels of Wells; but the poets of this age seem to have more faith than Swinburne or Matthew Arnold or some of the minor versifiers of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Two prominent essayists, Arthur Christopher Benson (1862- ) and Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874- ) are sincere optimists. Such volumes of Benson’s essays as From a College Window (1906), Beside Still Waters (1907), and Thy Rod and Thy Staff (1912) have strengthened faith and proved a tonic to many. Chesterton is a suggestive and stimulating essayist in spite of the fact that he often bombards