The poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, and modern Italy, and our own country, has been to me like external nature, a passion and an enjoyment. ... I have considered poetry in its most comprehensive sense; and have read the poets and the historians and the metaphysicians whose writings have been accessible to me—and have looked upon the beautiful and majestic scenery of the earth—as common sources of those elements which it is the province of the Poet to embody and combine. And he appends a note:
In this sense there may be such a thing as perfectibility in works of fiction, notwithstanding the concession often made by the advocates of human improvement, that perfectibility is a term applicable only to science.
In other words, all the increases of human experience, from age to age, all the speculative adventures of the intellect, provide the artist, in each succeeding generation, with more abundant sources for aesthetic treatment. As years go on, life in its widest sense offers more and more materials “which it is the province of the Poet to embody and combine.” This is evidently true; and would it not seem to follow that literature is not excluded from participating in the common development of civilisation? One of the latest of the champions of the Moderns, the Abbe Terrasson, maintained that “to separate the general view of the progress of the human mind in regard to natural science, and in regard to belles-lettres, would be a fitting expedient to a man who had two souls, but it is useless to him who has only one.” [Footnote: Abbe Terrasson, 1670-1750. His Philosophie applicable a tons les objets de l’esprit et de la raison was issued posthumously in 1754. His Dissertation critique sur l’Iliade appeared in 1715.]He put the matter in too abstract a way to carry conviction; but the nineteenth century was to judge that he was not entirely wrong. For the question was, as we shall see, raised anew by Madame de Stael, and the theory was finally to emerge that art and literature, like laws and institutions, are an expression of society and therefore inextricably linked with the other elements of social development—a theory, it may be observed, which while it has discredited the habit of considering works of art in a vacuum, dateless and detached, as they were generally considered by critics of the seventeenth century, leaves the aesthetic problem much where it was.
Perrault’s suggestion as to the enrichment of the material of the artist by new acquisitions would have served to bring literature and art into the general field of human development, without compromising the distinction on which Wotton and others insisted between the natural sciences and the aesthetic arts. But that distinction, emphatically endorsed by Voltaire, had the effect of excluding literature and art from the view of those who in the eighteenth century recognised progress in the other activities of man.