On the other hand, of course, there are companionable, sympathetic writers whose whole stock-in-trade is themselves, their personal charm, their personal way of looking at things. Of these, Montaigne and Charles Lamb are among the great examples. It matters to us little or nothing what they are writing about; for their subjects, so far as they are concerned, are only important in relation to themselves, as revealing to us by reflection two uncommonly “human” human beings, whom it is impossible to mistake for any one else; just as we enjoy the society of some whimsical talker among our living friends, valuing him not so much for what he says, but for the way he says it, and because it is he, and no one else, that is talking.
Again, there are other men whose names, in addition to their personal suggestion, have an impersonal significance as marking new eras of human development, such as Erasmus or Rousseau or Darwin; men who embodied the time-spirit at crucial moments of world change, men who announced rather than created, the heralds of epochs, men who first took the new roads along which the rest of mankind were presently to travel, men who felt or saw something new for the first time, prophets of dawn while yet their fellows slept.
Sometimes a man will come to stand for a whole nation, like Robert Burns or Cervantes; or a great, half-legendary age of the world, like Homer; or some permanent attitude of the human spirit, like Plato.
No fixed star, great or small, in the firmament of literature ever got there without some vital reason, or merely by writing, however remarkable. The idea that literature is a mere matter of writing is seen to be the hollowest of misconceptions the moment you run over any list of enduring names. Try any such that you can think of, and in every case you will find that the name stands for something more than a writer. Of course, the man had to have his own peculiar genius for writing, but the peculiarity was but the result of his individual being, his own special way of living his life or viewing the world.
Take Horace, for example. Does he live merely because of his unique style, his masterly use of the Latin tongue? By means of that, of course, but only secondarily. Primarily, he is as alive today as he was when he sauntered through the streets of Rome, because he was so absolutely the type of the well-bred man of the world in all countries and times. He lived seriously in the social world as he found it, and felt no idealistic craving to have it remoulded nearer to the heart’s desire. He was satisfied with its pleasures, and at one with its philosophy. Thus he is as much at home in modern Paris or London or New York as in ancient Rome, and his book is, therefore, forever immortal as the man of the world’s Bible.
Take a name so different as that of Shelley. We have but to speak it to define all it now stands for. Though no one should read a line of Shelley’s any more, the dream he dreamed has passed into the very life-blood of mankind. Wherever men strive for freedom, or seek to attune their lives to the strange spiritual music that breathes through all things—music that none ever heard more clearly than he—there is Shelley like the morning star to guide them and inspire.