…Between the world-religions of Israel and Islam and the world-cultures of Alexandria and Rome there are, no doubt, very wide differences. Yet, though the former reach universality through social bonds of creed and the latter reach universality through the unsocial idea of personal culture, the outcome of both is to rise above old restrictions of place and time, and to render possible a literature which, whether based on Moses or Homer, may best be termed a “world-literature.”

What, then, is world-literature? What are the marks by which it may be known? What is its proper place in the evolution of literature?

The leading mark of world-literature has been already stated; it is the severance of literature from defined social groups — the universalising of literature, if we may use such an expression. Such a process may be observed in the Alexandrian and Roman, the later Hebrew and Arab, the Indian and Chinese, literatures; and this universalism, though differing profoundly in its Eastern and Western conceptions of personality, is alike in the East and West accompanied by the imitation of literary work wrought ougt in days when the current of social life was broken up into many narrow channels foaming down uplands of rock and tree. Closely connected with this imitation of early models is the reflective and critical spirit, which is another striking characteristic of world-literature. Language now becomes the primary study of the literary artist, and the causes of his devotion to words are not difficult to discover. Just as the language of Hebrew life, in its struggle with Northern and Sourthern invasion, and in its internal break-up, underwent a gradual change which necessitated the produciton of Tragums, or Paraphrases of the Law, Prophets, and Writings, thus led to a scrupulously exact study of the sacred texts; just as the Sanskrit, in the course of likewise becoming a dead language, roused that spirit of grammatical criticism for which India from early times has been famous, so among Greeks, Romans, and Arabs deterioration in language was met by the rise of verbal criticism….

But besides the universal idea of humanity and the critical study of language as the medium of sacred books or models of literary art, there is a third characteristic of world-literature which to our modern European minds is perhaps the most interesting. This is the rise of new aesthetic appreciations of physical nature and its relations to man. Among the Hebrews and Arabs, it is true, we cannot observe this characteristic of world-literature so distinctly as elsewhere….But in India, China, Greece, and Italy it was otherwise….we are justified in regarding the world-literature of Rome, like that of India or Greece, as a witness to the sentiment of Nature in man.

But here we must draw a distinction between some of the world-literatures known to history and others….Hence the great differences between the sentiment of Nature as manifested in the Graeco-Latin literature of Alexandria and Rome, and the same sentiment as manifested in the literatures of India and China. In the latter no separate relation between each individual and the physical world is observed; all is social, and differences of human personality do not obtrude themselves between the world of Man and the world of Nature. But in the former the isolated feelings of individuals, their personal loves, their personal pains and pleasures, are brought into constant contrast or comparison with Nature’s life. (pp. 235–240)


National literature is an outcome of national life, a spiritual bond of national unity, such as no amount of eclectic study or cosmopolitan science can supply. So thought Goethe, when he said that the Germans of his youth, though acquainted with all the kinds of poetry in which different nations had distinguished themselves, lacked “national material” — “had handled few national subjects of none at all” (Wahrheit und Dichtung, bk. vii); and yet Goethe is the admirer of world-literature.

National literatures, then, require a vigorous and continuous national life; and if we seek for perfect types of national literature, we shall find them only under such conditions….In the literature of France, since the firm establishment of centralised monarchy in the seventeenth century, we everywhere feel the presence of that centralising spirit which in the Academie Francaise found a local habitation and a name. Mr. Matthew Arnold, in his essay on the literary influence of academies, ç2ë has shown how much may be said for literary centralism. The improvement of the French language, as the statutes of the Academy bear witness, was the great aim of the institution; and opponents of such institutions must admit the usefulness of this aim and the success of the Acdemy in this direction. In a democratic age, moreover, when, as De Tocqueville observed, accuracy of literary style is liable to be lost in the temporary predominance of inferior work, a central tribunal may maintain an ideal of style which in the rush of trade-literature is likely to be trampled underfoot. Still, Mr. Arnold’s conception of provincialism cannot be accepted as either as in harmony with English literary development in the past, or as a prophetic forecast of its future….Another critic — Macaulay, in his essay on the Royal Society of Literature, — takes a very different view of learned academies and their literary influences. It is in literary academies, he tells us, that “envy and faction exert the most extensive and pernicious influence.” … There is some exaggeration in this view; yet Macaulay expresses the national spirit of English literature. Local and individual independence from the control of any central corporation is the peculiar characteristic of English literature — an independence equally removed from the dictation of a tribunal like the French Academy, and that total absence of any literary centre which Schlegel and Calsabigi deplore.

Mr. Arnold’s transference of the French centralism into the life of English literature is capable of its best defence from the standpoint of cosmopolitan culture. From this standpoint national centres like Paris and its Academy become the best substitute for a world-centre which differences of language and national character cannot permit. “Let us conceive the whole group of civilised nations,” says Arnold, “as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation bound to a joint action and workings towards a common result. This was the ideal of Goethe, and it is an ideal which will impose itself upon the thoughts of our modern societies more and more” (Preface to Wordsworth’s Poems). Yes; the ideal of world-literature, whcih Herder’s Voices of the People did so much to foster in Germany, is attractive, especially to men who have never known true national unity. But, however deeply national literature may be indebted to an international exchange of ideas, however splendid may be the conception of universal principles in literary production and criticism, the true makers of national literature are the actions and thoughts of the nation itself; the place of these can never be taken by teh sympathies of a cultured class too wide to be national, or those of a central academy too refined to be provincial. Provincialism is no ban in truly national literature. The influence of London has indeed been continually expressed by Chaucer, by Shakespere, by Milton, by Dryden, by Addison and Pope and Johnson. Perhaps the flavour of London life has been sometimes too strong in English literature. But provincial language as well as spirit have found a ready place in the literature of England.

Here, then, we have two types of national literature — the English, blending local and central elements of national life without losing national unity in local distinctions such as Italy and Germany have known too well; the French, centralising its life in Paris, and so tending to prefer cosmopolitan ideals. (pp. 339–345)

My Editorial Notes:

This passage is much like Fredric Jameson’s famous footnote on the aesthetics of 3rd world literature. Aijaz Ahmad’s well-known critique of Jameson spins in part around Jameson’s positing of a “third world aesthetic” that marks the difference between western and non-western literatures — an aesthetic that derives from a difference in form (national allegory here ascribed as the province of the non-western) and from a difference in thematic content. Cf. Jameson, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (Fall 1986): 65–88 and Ahmad, “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory,’” Social Text 17 (Fall 1987): 3–25; reprinted in Ahmad’s In Theory.

Essays in Criticism, pp. 42 (1884)

Rita Raley / Dept of English / University of California, Santa Barbara



University Professor • Author •Translator