It cannot be denied, I think, that in the long course of this War, now happily on the point of a victorious conclusion, we have suffered heavily through past neglect and present nescience of our literature, which is so much more European, so much more catholic, a thing than either our politics or our national religion: that largely by reason of this neglect and this nescience our statesmen have again and again failed to foresee how continental nations would act through failing to understand their minds; and have almost invariably, through this lack of sympathetic understanding, failed to interpret us to foreign friend or foe, even when (and it was not often) they interpreted us to ourselves. I note that America—a country with no comparable separate tradition of literature—has customarily chosen men distinguished by the grace of letters for ambassadors to the Court of St James—Motley, Lowell, Hay, Page, in our time: and has for her President a man of letters—and a Professor at that!—whereas, even in these critical days, Great Britain, having a most noble cause and at least half-a-hundred writers and speakers capable of presenting it with dignity and so clearly that no neutral nation could mistake its logic, has by preference entrusted it to stunt journalists and film-artistes. If in these later days you have lacked a voice to interpret you in the great accent of a Chatham, the cause lies in past indifference to that literary tradition which is by no means the least among the glories of our birth and state.
Masterpieces, then, will serve us as prophylactics of taste, even from childhood; and will help us, further, to interpret the common mind of civilisation. But they have a third and yet nobler use. They teach us to lift our own souls.
For witness to this and to the way of it I am going to call an old writer for whom, be it whim or not, I have an almost 18th century reverence—Longinus. No one exactly knows who he was; although it is usual to identify him with that Longinus who philosophised in the court of the Queen Zenobia and was by her, in her downfall, handed over with her other counsellors to be executed by Aurelian: though again, as is usual, certain bold bad men affirm that, whether he was this Longinus or not, the treatise of which I speak was not written by any Longinus at all but by someone with a different name, with which they are unacquainted. Be this as it may, somebody wrote the treatise and its first editor, Francis Robertello of Basle, in 1554 called him Dionysius Longinus; and so shall I, and have done with it, careless that other MSS than that used by Robertello speak of Dionysius or Longinus. Dionysius Longinus, then, in the 3rd century A.D.—some say in the 1st: it is no great matter—wrote a little book [Greek: PERI UPSOUS] commonly cited as “Longinus on the Sublime.” The title is handy, but quite misleading, unless you remember that by ‘Sublimity’ Longinus meant, as he expressly defines it, ‘a certain distinction and excellence in speech.’ The book, thus recovered, had great authority with critics of the 17th and 18th centuries. For the last hundred years it has quite undeservedly gone out of vogue.