If Goethe represents the great humane conceptions of the revolution most profoundly, Wordsworth comes very near him in the depth of his knowledge of humanity, and in his supreme sense of the unity of all life and nature with the living spirit who is in all things; and the great romantic artists of France are governed by the same sense of nature and love and the spiritual, and in Victor Hugo this reaches a level only just below that of Goethe himself.
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You must not misunderstand me, nationality has real meaning, it has something akin, but distantly, to personality; but in the main it affects the more superficial aspects of art. In painting and sculpture the European artists use a language which we can all understand, imagine life and nature under terms which we all feel and know to be true. And, though in literature the language creates a real difference, and causes a difficulty in recognizing the unity which lies behind the difference, yet the moment we begin to overcome that difficulty we find ourselves in a world intelligible, familiar, moving to us all; and intelligible just in proportion to the greatness of the artist.
It is idle for us to dispute about the relative greatness of our national arts, for their greatness lies not in national idiosyncrasies, but in the personality of the artist, and in the single, the unique quality of the particular works of art, and these belong not to this country or nation or to that, but to us all. It is not to Frenchmen only that the intellectual passion of Pascal, or the hatred of shams and the love of the honest man of Moliere or of Voltaire, appeal, but to us all. It is not only Germans who understand the splendour of human experience, and the infinite pathos of the mistakes of the human heart, but we all. And the spectacle of the tempest in the heart of Lear, that tempest of the soul, of which the storms of nature are but a faint reflection, or the exquisite serenity and humanity of the recognition of Cordelia, these are not the prerogative possessions of England, but they speak to the heart and soul of the whole world.
We may be divided from each other by many things, material or political, but in the supreme art and poetry we rise above all these distinctions and are only men and women, with the earth under our feet and the heavens above us.
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The subject treated in the essay may be considered in relation to the following works:
Beowulf; The Song of Roland; The Nibelungenlied.
Tristan and Iseult (Thomas, or Beroul); Mary of France, Lais.
Dante, Divina Commedia.
Boccaccio, Decameron; Chaucer, Canterbury Tales.
Shakespeare; Lope de Vega; Calderon.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; Le Sage, Gil Blas.