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The Universal in English Literature

The Universal in English Literature

Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature . . . . His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world . . . . In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual: in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

—Samuel Johnson

This universality, this necessity, is an extra-logical psychological fact, resultant of a purely automatic act of the mind: it is not a logical conclusion from adequate premises—
   We express our belief in logically unjustifiable language—a universal statement is really a particular statement about the nervous apparatus of thought.

—Oscar Wilde


In their enthusiastic espousal of current doctrines neither Johnson nor Wilde gives us a very balanced statement of the age-old problem, What is particular and what universal? Johnson might better have said that Shakespeare creates characters who are both individuals and species. Wilde might better have said that expressions of common belief are both particular and universal. Nor is the individual less individual for belonging to a species, the universal less universal for being also particular: uttered in a given language by a given speaker at a given moment. Emphasis upon the particular is now favored in some circles over what was once called a more cosmopolitan view of things.

Do universals exist? we have asked—if not from the beginning of time at least from the beginning of philosophical speculation. In a common, as opposed to technical, sense, of course they do. We are all born, we all die; we all speak a language; we share certain needs, emotions, ideals. That these phenomena come to focus in individuals does not make them less universal. In fact for Augustine the most individual voice, that which speaks within us, is the most universal voice, the voice of Christ, of Truth—of the Parmatman, however we designate it. In short, the universal is always particular, the particular always universal.

The universal, like God, like existence, is not readily susceptible of logical proof. This Wilde takes note of, as he reduces philosophy to psychology. But the two are not the same. Western philosophy has long sought to define the universal, and a cursory review of such efforts might be of interest. Aristotle, the so-called “empiricist,” taught us to generalize by seeking the immanent universal in things. His view has much to do with the generalizing tendency of later classical—not to mention neoclassical—literature. Horace, for example, in the realm of literary criticism, reduced Aristotle’s theory of genre to a doctrine of fixed types. The classical view favored ethical norms, proportions of beauty, principles of decorum, all which tended to regularize esthetic theory and practice.

By its appeal to tradition Christianity reinforced this conservative strain in western thought. “What has been taught always, everywhere and by all,” said the fifth-century saint, Vincent of Lering, “is to be believed.” The medieval debate between particular and universal—termed nominal vs. real—see-sawed back and forth, as had the classical, though the more permanent realist view tended to prevail. For Aquinas the essential feature of the mind lies in its ability to grasp universals, those categories which transcend the knowledge provide by the senses.

The debate extended into the Renaissance, where Telesius (1509-1588) asserts that knowledge must be grounded in the senses but Campanella (1568-1639) that the senses must unite us with the universe. As Pomponatius (1462-1524) had attributed all religions to the operation of cosmic laws, so later Renaissance thinkers such as Hooker, Tyndale and Grotius developed the concept of the law of nature, a kind of concrete universal that prefigures Hegel.

Out of this concept of nature the Enlightenment produced the concept of human nature, which in turn led to thegeneral nature of Johnson’s pronouncement. “It is universally acknowledged,” Hume had observed, “that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations.” The new doctrine of uniformity extends it throughout space and time. In an Aristotelian move, the Enlightenment reduces multiplicity to unity by subsuming the particular in the general. Like Plato it sometimes regards the general as transcendental. Samuel Johnson, in his oriental tale Rasselas (1759), says of the writer that he

must divest himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and variable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same.

The English neoclassicist has arrived at a doctrine of universal truth that is culturally relative and metaphysically absolute.

From the love of clarity that characterizes the Enlightenment we turn to the love of mystery that characterizes much Romantic thought. Here the neoclassical preoccupation with general statement gives way to a preoccupation with symbol, as in Goethe’s reflections on its relation to idea, image and language:

The symbol transforms the visible into an idea and the idea into an image in such manner that the idea in the image stays infinitely potent and unattainable, remaining unutterable even if spoken in all languages.

There is something unitary and therefore universal in poetry, something that crosses the boundaries of culture and resists expression in words. For the more philosophical Coleridge, influenced by Goethe’s coevals of the German idealist school, the goal of poetry is to manifest “Unity or Revelation of the One in and by the Many.” By taking Goethe and Coleridge together we identify the process—if it still remains a mystery—whereby the intransigent particular becomes the luminous universal. In a movement parallel with Kant’s assimilation of subject to object in Experience (Erfahrung), Goethe speaks of symbolic objects as evoking in his mind “pertinent and similar as well as foreign ideas”—native as well as exotic ideas, we might say. “Consequently,” he continues, “from within as well as from without they claim a certain oneness and universality.” Symbol, then, vies with Kant’s Experience as the modality for the integration of subject and object. It remained only for Hegel to reknit this contrariety, to claim for the marriage of subject and object not only, as Kant did, truth, but also both particularity and universality: “Everything that is genuinely true, in mind as in nature, is inherently concrete, having both subjectivity and particularity in itself, as well as universality.” At last the concrete universal, having replaced Experience and symbol as the term of ultimate synthesis, attains its full philosophical dignity and force. Despite later developments we are still under the sway of Hegel’s generalization, which is neither fully concrete nor merely abstract. The protest against his high valorization of the universal also stems philosophically from Hegel himself.

What, then, of the universal principles of literature or the universal elements in a particular branch thereof? Aristotle, in a view later reinforced by the neoplatonists, says that poetry—what we would call literature—is itself universal, meaning that it generalizes from experience. For our purposes we require a more specific sense of the ways in which it can be universal. The subject at hand, the universal element in English literature, is two-fold: English literature, and its bearing in the world. Accordingly, we might divide the question: What about English literature is inherently universal? And what about it is practically so?

Practically speaking, since English has become a universal language, English literature has become a subject of study for those who wish to master it. We might therefore say that English literature has become universal, that is, a world-wide subject of study. But even in translation it has achieved a notable international popularity. In other words, it is universal not only under duress but also in its general appeal. Some of this is no doubt due to several centuries of British hegemony. But much is not. Keats and Eliot, Dickens and Lawrence are read in countries that never fell under the cultural sway of the British Empire. We need not rely upon the overwhelming evidence of Shakespeare’s appeal to claim a universal appeal for the English classics, nor need we presume that they are read merely because of politics or economics.

English literature also has qualities that make it inherently universal. Here we may distinguish between two senses of our new term. English literature is inherently universal because it is preternaturally syncretistic and inclusive, modeling itself on and incorporating Greek, Roman, modern continental European, and latterly Asiatic, African and other literatures. Like western literature generally it is also inherently universal because it is concerned with the origin and structure of the universe: the myth of creation, the myth of divinity, the myth of original parents.

The Bible, with its many Western Asiatic origins, along with the classics of Greece and Rome, serve as the principal sources of traditional cosmology and theogony. These sources also provide western literature with the material for its recurrent revival of exotic motifs (Adam and Eve, the life of Christ, the matter of Troy, Roman history). We tend to forget that ancient Hebrew and Christian, Greek and Roman cultures were for the early English writers very exotic. The inclusion of these sources also produced a ground of historical retrospection, one which vastly extended in space and time the island world of early provincial England. The recursion to biblical and classical traditions became a less constant technique as the British Empire gradually attained its scope and influence.

The Bible, an anthology of widely diverse traditions and genres, itself served at the well-head as a standard of eclecticism. Moreover, its rhetoric of type and anti-type, prophecy and fulfillment, wisdom and commentary provided a model for the dialectic of ancient and modern. That much of the biblical story points to a future, as well as to a past and a present, further universalized time and encouraged English writers as diverse as Chaucer (in Troilus and Creseyde), Ralegh (in his plan for The History of the World) and Blake (in Jerusalem) to adopt this comprehensive pattern. As a multiple but also singular book, the Bible again served to centralize literary influence and thereby standardize, or universalize, the tradition.

The Greek and Roman classics were likewise influential in this regard. The early process of canon formation served to concentrate them as a source and moreover to provide a model for later canon formation. Again a bipolar system emerged, providing for all European cultures a common tradition of old and new. Though the Bible had its imitators and theorists, the classical principle of imitation, already encoded within the tradition itself, was more explicitly elaborated than the biblical. The imitative theories of Plato and Aristotle operated alongside late classical, medieval, Renaissance and neoclassical practice to provide both a common doctrine for that practice and a model for later theory.

As its adherents are fond of telling us, the word of God is universal, Christ the universal truth and savior. Much the same of course may be said of Allah. Do such claims contribute to Christian and Muslim literatures a principle of universality? And if so, does their universality depend upon belief, or simply upon the unified structure that monotheism lends to a culture? Whatever the answer, the question itself suggests yet another universal aspect of English literature. For Chaucer, Spenser and Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Auden cannot be read apart from the belief system that dominates their work. Though early English writers were universally Christian, later writers either fitfully endorse the faith or implicitly model themselves on those who had once professed it.

The classics, I have argued, exerted a universal influence on later western literature. In the early Renaissance, however, the idea of the classical assumed the status of a universal. As the monotheistic faith of Christianity began to wane, this new universal faith came for many to supplant, or at least supplement, their earlier faith. And so by the time of the neoclassical period western cultures defined themselves in terms of yet another centralizing doctrine.

I have spoken of the Bible as the original anthology and of the classics as the original canon of heterogeneous particulars. The Middle Ages were profoundly determined by both biblical and classical examples. But there also arose a new practice and accompanying principle, the collocation of contemporary sources, for example in the compilations of the Arthurian materials. In the later Renaissance, collocation gave way to deliberate syncretism, whereby classical and biblical traditions were merged with the modern. In the period that followed, syncretism in turn gave way to an enlightened eclecticism, whereby meaningful tradition was broadened to include materials that lay outside Europe or beyond the pale of previous cultural definitions.

In enumerating our catalogue of universalizing tendencies we have so far largely overlooked the role of interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics and classical allegoresis played a central role in unifying western literature. Moreover, as the ground of a critical tradition that moralizes and generalizes the canon, the two practices have been especially instrumental in determining the character of such later branches of western culture as English literature. It is not only that later literature became more critically conscious, inherently comparative, deliberately cosmopolitan; its very nature was determined by its absorption and perpetuation of the traditions of hermeneutics and allegoresis.

These broader traditions have early origins. The Bible is itself hermeneutical. Homer himself, I have argued, is an allegorist, or at any rate is soon the subject of allegoresis. These two methods of interpreting texts, once established as standard critical procedure, then began to affect the way in which primary texts themselves were composed. The formation of the Roman Catholic Church, that centralizing institution which determined the nature of so much early literature, depended in large part upon a hermeneutical activity that developed into theology. Vergil centralized himself as much through his allegoresis of Homer as by his allegorization of Rome. Early on the two modes of interpretation were combined. Vergil became the object of both Christian hermeneutical scrutiny and neoplatonic allegoresis. Meanwhile medieval traditions of allegoresisthemselves not wholly independent of Vergil, but more dependent yet on biblical commentary—had spawned a fully allegorical literature that fed into the work of such Renaissance writers as Tasso, Spenser and Du Bartas. The critical theories of Tasso came to have a crucial role in the formulation of later literary projects, notably Milton’s. The point here is that all this exegetical, allegorizing and theoretical activity, creative as well as critical, served to abstract, hypostasize and universalize the tradition. Due to its belatedness, English literature modeled itself on other literatures until, by developing its own criticism, it achieved a self-awareness. Once its own critical tradition had matured, English literature was in a position to perpetuate its own classics, with their inherently universalizing tendencies, even in the teeth of the broadly naturalistic movement that followed.

So far I have spoken of general tendencies, the most influential traditions, and critical techniques. Before we turn to individual authors and their works it remains to mention several specific themes which, because they persist as motifs from beginning to end, serve to universalize English literature. We return to the Bible for its primary influence. Not only is the idea of God a universal but also the notion of his singular incarnation. In this doctrine we note both a universalization of the particular and a particularization of the universal. The figure of Christ, compounded of Adam, provides a model for the emergence of the individual, whether in the form of a medieval genus humanum (Everyman), a suffering Renaissance stage hero (where classical models reinforce the tendency), or the singular protagonists of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. The medieval and renaissance recovery of classical epic reinforces this centralized image of man, in his struggle with nature and the gods, on his journey through life, in his effort at constructing a world. Other motifs that may be traced to the classics or to the Middle Ages but which blossomed in the Renaissance include the interaction of microcosm and macrocosm; the chain of being; the theory of correspondence; and the themes of time, mutability and immortality. The Enlightenment introduced a whole new vocabulary of philosophical universals, governed by a new goddess named Reason. The Romantic and post-Romantic periods, returning us in a sense to earlier biblical and classical motifs, refurbished those myths of disorder and order bodied forth in the earliest configurations of chaos and creation.

Cutting across the ages are certain political and emotional topoi that the rest of the world has come to see as typically western. Political universals include the ideas of empire and democracy. Among the sentimental motifs, love, whether sexualized or sublimated, is probably the most universal. As a theme it dominates the medieval romance, the early lyric, much of stage history, and the novel. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton are all preoccupied with the theme, as earlier Homer, Vergil, Ovid and Dante had been. Love may take many forms, spiritual or erotic, comic or tragic, mythic or realistic. Ethically it may be wholesomely domestic or marginally adulterous, incestuous, homosexual. As a theme it has an obviously universal appeal, though in such encompassing profusion it also serves to differentiate western from other less romantic, erotic or spiritual cultures.


Despite its Christian element and profundity of theme Old English literature is not cosmopolitan. Revived as a subject of study in the nineteenth century and sporadically emulated in the next, it remains in a special class of things admirable but provincial: Scythian gold, Jain belief, Etruscan culture. Overall it is too morose and fatalistic. True, life is a boat adrift on the cold ocean stream, a bundle of bitter breast-cares; it is, however, also a Fair Field of Folk. Langland, through the abstractive powers of Christian allegory, offers a more balanced philosophy, no less serious for the delicacy and delight of his personal vision. But Piers Plowman too is somehow restricted and provincial, restricted by the very conventions that enlarge it, provincial in its lack of the contemporary spirit of Italy that Samuel Daniel, in his Defense of Rhyme (1603), was later to call “the miracle and phoenix of the world, which wakened up other nations likewise with this desire of glory.” The motive of glory may have compelled Daniel’s age more than the age of Chaucer, but it is in the latter’s work, as in the work of no other medieval English writer, that we feel the invigoration of Italy, which the poet visited and otherwise absorbed through the work of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Chaucer mastered the medieval forms—from love vision to revival epic, from fabliau to romance—but enlivened this largely French tradition with a native realism and a seasoned irony hitherto lacking in English. In addition to classical and more recent continental models, his own comprehensive genius also contributed to his universality. In this he is like Shakespeare and Fielding.

A different kind of universalization occurs in the drama that we designate mystery and morality. The medieval mystery plays take as their frame the Christian calendar, as their subject, the mysteries of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. The calendrical feature unites them with the cultural agenda of the universal church, the themes of course with the Bible. Accordingly, we might say, the mystery play is both externally and internally universalized, the latter by virtue of the spectator’s identification with Christ and the reinforcement of his personal faith.

The medieval morality play, a somewhat crude form that dramatizes a single idea, elaborating it with the trappings of allegory, nonetheless demonstrates the power of the stage to give us at once a particular image and a universal meaning. The eponymous hero of Everyman, a figure both collective and singular, though timeless, is placed before us at a given point along the continuum of universal time (the history of the world from the Creation to the Apocalypse). All the morality plays have universal protagonists and universal plots that set the microcosm of the individual over and against the macrocosm of God’s conception. All are concerned with the Fall and Redemption, the Bible’s central doctrine. Everyman introduces allegorical figures drawn from tradition, such as the Seven Deadly Sins, along with other medieval types, such as Death, the universal scourge, a figure somewhat unbiblical in his fatalistic persistence. Compelling even to the non-western audience, the play nonetheless reflects a problem known to Dante: Christian Sin, like Hell, is easier to represent than Redemption or Paradise.

Auden once remarked that a Christian art is a contradiction in terms. As the representation of Christ in the Old English poem of that name demonstrates, as his depiction elsewhere in medieval literature confirms, the direct artistic embodiment of such spiritual themes is problematic. Perhaps the best solution is a collocation aimed at conflating Christ in his perfection with a secular figure in all his imperfection. It is some such sublimation of Christian within heroic values that Malory accomplishes, some such collocation of motifs that Caxton in his preface to the Morte Darthur may have been pointing to when he listed the Nine Worthies, three pagan, three Jewish, three Christian, as the context for under-standing Malory’s hero, whom he designates as the greatest of all. For Arthur absorbs something from each of the others, the mythic, military and political virtues, respectively, of Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; the prophetic, regal and administrative powers of Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus; the practical strength and romantic appeal of Charlemagne and Godfrey of Boulogne. Though Malory may be drawing on even deeper archetypes, he explicitly conflates the figures of Arthur and Christ, so as to sacralize the heroic and secularize the religious motifs. Arthur has died, “Yet some me say in many parts of England,” Malory reports, “that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place. And men say that he shall come again and he shall win the Holy Cross. Yet I will not say that it shall be so,” Malory comments, “but rather I will say, Here in this world he changed his life.” Though apparently rejecting a religious for a secular construction of his hero, he in fact has it both ways. If only in the figure of this semi-divine hero (his plot is too loosely episodic), Malory achieves the unity and depth of continental epic tradition, at least successfully enough to scare Milton off his subject.

Only a generation separates the headstrong Ralegh (1552?-1618) from the volatile Donne (1572-1631), but the difference in their treatment of a single topos bespeaks the difference between two ages. In Book I of The History of the World Ralegh enunciates the standard, with its biblical roots and medieval trunk:

Man, thus compounded and formed by God, was an abstract or model, or brief story of the universal, . . . endued with the powers and faculties of reason and other abilities, that thereby he might govern and rule the world and all other God’s creatures therein. . . . And because in the little frame of man’s body there is a representation of the universal, . . . therefore was man called microcosmos, or the little world.

Ralegh goes on to elaborate the principle of correspondences—the four complexions resemble the four elements . . . the seven ages of man the seven plants”—in which “also is the little world of man compared, and made more like the universal.” Discontent with this balanced view of universal and particular, Donne elevates the latter: “It is too little to call man a little world,” he says in his fourth meditation. “Except God, man is a diminutive to nothing.” In other words, man is larger than the world, is himself a universe. Likewise man is different from the world: “For as the whole world hath nothing to which something in man doth not answer, so hath man many pieces of which the whole world hath no representation.” Like a universal, capable of transcending the world, he does so through the exercise of mind:

I their creator am in a close prison, in a sick bed, anywhere and any one of my creatures, my thoughts, is with the sun, and beyond the sun, overtakes the sun, and overgoes the sun in one pace, one step, everywhere.

Man through his imagination is therefore a rival creator, the particulars of his own experience rivaling in importance the universals of theology. With a new cosmology, a new science, and a new ethics of inward virtue taking shape around him, Donne postulates a new universe. He and his lover stand at its center (“The Sun Rising”), their eyes both perceiving and containing this new world (“The Canonization”). His poetry, then, is both a reflection of the universe and a universe itself. We are well on the way to Mallarmé. Situated half a generation between Ralegh and Donne is Shakespeare (1564-1616). Less consistent than either of theirs, his view is sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. His heroes are often tragic precisely because they mistake their own universe for the universe at large.

The Renaissance signals not the rebirth of an old universe but the birth of a new one. In this the Bible and the classics serve as midwives. Translation is a most important instrument not only for making texts available but also for showing how to bring forth new from old. The Bible, done into English half a dozen times in the period, is fresh and exciting, though by itself not enough for inspiration. As Petrarch had reinvented Rome and through Dante discovered a voice, so Wyatt, Surrey and Sidney reinvent Petrarch, in works that are neither translations nor original poems but something new and syncretistic. Versions of the classics are called for, and they in turn afford more models of how to combine the old with the new.

Sidney, no less than Golding, Chapman and Campion, is one of the great creative translators of the period. Though he sometimes redoes a foreign text into English, it is rather his wholesale transportation of exotic genres into the mainstream of English literature that constitutes his principle contribution. The pastoral romance he naturalizes in Arcadia, the sonnet sequence in Astrophil and Stella. As if this were not enough, he then syncretizes Plato, Aristotle and Horace, along with his own views, to offer us the first universal theory of poetry in English. Like the world of More’s Utopia, all the worlds that Sidney creates are superior to this one, hierarchical, holistic, serene. In accord with classical universal theory all science and art are directed toward architechtonike, “the mistress knowledge,” a goal both breathtakingly ambitious and practical, one that embraces the self, ethics and politics. Poetry itself for Sidney is universal, that is, all-inclusive, capable of imparting “all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral.” In an eclectic gesture he gathers together the views not only of the classical theorists but of Bembo, Scaligero, Clauserus, Landino and “the poets themselves.” Poetry, he says, “is so universal that no learned nation doth despise it.” It belongs, in other words, to the world at large.

Poetically Sidney closes his “Defense” by evoking time, death and love, three prominent universal themes that Shakespeare in his Sonnets also associates with poetry. A century earlier Leonardo too had linked them:

O time, thou that consumest all things! O envious age, thou destroyest all things and devourest all things with the hard teeth of the years, little by little in slow death! Helen, when she looked in her mirror and saw the withered wrinkles which old age had made in her face, wept, and wondered to herself why ever she had twice been carried away.

Though time and death are poignant, and just as universal, they are not so interesting as love. In the classical age Helen had stood as its adequate symbol. Some in the Renaissance tried to revive her. Significantly, Leonardo himself turns to other models, male as well as female, some more sinister, some more mysterious than Helen. A proliferation of types, one that will outstrip classical mythology, is under way. In short, we are witnessing a new theogony, one to which Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton, along with the sonneteers and divines, all contribute.

As Shakespeare had indicated early on, love was to be a major theme. For the most part he is romantic, though sometimes disillusioned, sometimes tragically so. Among his works of greatest universal appeal are Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest or, in a lighter vein, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Milton in this regard is closer to Molière and the novel, for his theme is domestic love. Milton was not romantically inclined. As a fellow universal writer, however, he shared Shakespeare’s generalizing power, his eclecticism and, surprisingly, his common touch. More of Milton later.

What now of Spenser? After Valmiki, Ovid and Dante, after the passionate poets of romance and amour courtois, Spenser may be the greatest poet of love. In fact he may surpass them all. More credible than Dante, more ethical than Ovid, more philosophical than the writers of romance, he also subsumes many of their virtues: Dante’s spirituality, Ovid’s variety, Ariosto’s humor. He succeeds despite a decision to invent his own system. On the other hand, his manifold sources and multiple plots give his allegory more particularity to work with than any single tradition or story would have afforded him.

Spenser of course is far more than a poet of love. In his faerie land he has posited a whole world of imagination. It is not, he insists, another world but this world. In other words, it is not fantastic, it is real. This causes a problem for the modern reader who regards as real what can be shown in a photograph. As in Plato, our world is merely a shadow of that ideal world which Spenser delineates, filling it with all the truth and value that he knows of. Who is the faerie queene? Certainly not Elizabeth, who recognized the fact by rewarding Spenser with only fifty pounds a year. A more glorious figure, in her Arthurian avatar she is called Gloriana, the king’s consort—which again helps us understand why Milton chose another subject. Unlike Eve, who is merely a part of it, the faerie queene comprehends the world, absorbing many of the classical and Christian goddesses and the allegorical figures (Wisdom, Nature, Mutability) with whom Spenser had familiarized himself.

Spenser did not know all there is to know about women, and his poem is less than complete. He planned to continue it to twice its length but died at forty-nine. (Like Shakespeare’s, his work is the work of a young man.) Nonetheless, the poem’s universality—its inclusiveness, its power of abstraction, its general ethical validity—will probably never be equaled. In this Dante is Spenser’s only rival. At certain moments we feel him to be a greater poet even than Vergil. He is a paragon of enlightened self-knowledge and civility. By comparison Milton seems curmudgeonly.

Any discussion of the universal element in sixteenth-century English literature would be incomplete without Marlowe. Dr. Faustus stands head and shoulders above his other work, as it does above other attempts to grasp the cultural and philosophical problem of the age. Because that problem has now become universal, Marlowe’s play has acquired a universal appeal comparable to that of Eliot’s Waste Land. Both describe man as caught between traditional and modern worlds. For Marlowe’s contemporaries Faustus may be said to stand for all who had left the Roman church. More generally he may stand for anyone who has lapsed from faith. For Marlowe’s contemporaries he may be said to stand for those who had dabbled in science, or for those who had come to realize that the universe was no longer hierarchical. Like Donne, Faustus has seen that man is godlike but still subject to God’s damnation. More generally again, he stands for those who have seen that man must create the world anew, that the individual must depend upon himself, and that the undertaking is perilous.

Marlowe’s (and later Goethe’s) Faust, like Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Hamlet, Cervantes’ Sancho and Don Quixote, Byron’s and Mozart’s Don Juan, are modern universal myths which, like the figure of Everyman, depend upon the prototypes of Adam and Christ. In their suffering, Faust, Hamlet and Juan all take on a Christ-like burden for the modern reader who has turned for illumination from the Bible to secular literature. Like the figure of Arthur, their universal appeal may in part be attributed to the persistence of an archetype. At the end of the Renaissance Milton makes this archetype explicit by naming one of his heroes Adam, the other Christ.

None of our Renaissance authors calls his hero Everyman, and yet Faustus, Hamlet, Adam and Christ are clearly so representative. Though transparently Christian in his ethics, Shakespeare remains secular in expression, thereby perhaps increasing his universal appeal. Here his variety is also a factor. For just as each age has had its different Shakespeare, so various cultures choose their favorite plays. Hamlet is the exception that proves the rule, for it has enjoyed a universal popularity, both historically and geographically, and the reason is not far to seek. Hamlet the character, like Hamlet the play, is full of contradictions. For Hamlet everything is problematic: one’s relations with the spirit world; with one’s family and colleagues; with one’s significant other—to say nothing of one’s self. Nor are Hamlet’s resourceful solutions to these problems satisfactory. If the situation that Shakespeare describes here were not universally perceived to be that of man in general, one doubts that the play would be so popular.

Ben Jonson is sometimes said to have what Shakespeare lacks: erudition, decorum, an ethical realism. For those who like morality there is much edification in the epigrams, the satirical verse, the popular plays and the masques. Volpone in certain ways is also universal—in its beast-fable framework, its egoistic theme, its comic motifs that absorb classical precedent. What Jonson, however, demonstrates is that one can be universal but not especially appealing. For poetry is not merely a record of sound procedures and judgment. It must also have the passion, spirit and inspiration that we associate with Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s plays together may be regarded as constituting a world, but it is Milton who wrote the universal Renaissance epic. So unlike his Roman predecessors in the form—Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid—Milton does not much resemble contemporary universalists either. Bacon had promulgated the principles, or at least certain procedures, on which our now universal scientific knowledge is based. Hobbes had begun a similar process in the realm of political theory. Descartes was engaged in a universal philosophical project. By contrast Milton is antediluvian: mythical, biblical, theological. In his double perspective he resembles Thomas Browne, who extends the progression that we witnessed from Ralegh to Donne: “Whilst I study to find out how I am a microcosm or little world, I find myself something more than great.” Browne predicts both Milton’s inwardness and his capaciousness. “The world that I regard is myself,” he says; and again: “There is all Africa and her prodigies in us.” Like Browne, Milton is both internally and externally universal. And in matters of authority he shares Browne’s independent spirit: “I borrow not the rules of my religion,” the physician asserts, “from Rome or Geneva but the dictates of my own reason.”

For his epic Milton seeks an adversative biblical myth as fatalistic as Homer’s Fall of Troy and finds it in the Fall of Man. The redemptive counterpart to the return of Odysseus he finds in Christ’s resistance to the force that had made Adam fall. As Homeric hermeneutics and biblical allegoresis it is impeccable, as is everything else in Milton’s art. We must only swallow the pills of original sin and the crucifixion to abort our misery and enter into the heaven of Milton’s vision. The mystery lies in how those who cannot do so still admire him. Here he stands with Dante as universal in spite of himself.

Enormously cosmopolitan in one sense, Milton, like Ezra Pound, is provincial in the schoolmaster’s zeal with which he turns his mind into a biblical and classical encyclopedia, a dictionary of a dozen languages, a pamphleteering machine. Except to marry a seventeen-year-old girl, whom he then ignores, he never stops reading—until, that is, he reaches the Homeric goal of blindness. For Milton himself is a vast void, a rewind of history to the point of Hesiodic Chaos, a fast-forward to Pater’s dissolve into inner sensation. It is in this sense that Milton is most universal: he includes all possibilities. But he himself is not one of them. For he has systematically reimagined himself: as Adam and Eve, as Satan, as God. This is his central work, his central panel. Christ and Samson are pendentives. He does bear relation to the world, for he was very much of it, and in his time. But his relation to it, as Blake saw, was that of a visionary Homer, whose voice Milton imitates more directly in his prose than in his verse:

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unscaling her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms.

Douglas Bush regarded Milton as the second of English poets, standing next to Shakespeare’s throne. In fact, Milton is either the first or the fourth of English poets, depending upon one’s attitude to life. If one believes what Milton believed, then Milton is supreme. But if one thinks that Chaucer, Spenser and Shakespeare have taught us how to live, then Milton follows. Wherever evangelical Christianity takes root, there Milton thrives.

Milton’s principal followers in the long poem are Blake, Wordsworth and Byron. Each has an original program for further universalizing Milton.

Blake creates a “Universal Man” who absorbs the figures of Adam and Christ but supplants God and supersedes the classical divinities, whom Blake scorns. This “Human Form divine” encompasses the cosmos and comprehends its various stages of development, thereby incorporating history. Among Blake’s goals are “universal Brotherhood” and “universal Poetic Genius,” by which he means the investment of every man with imagination. (“All,” he says, “are alike in the poetic genius.”)

Wordsworth discovers his universal principles in nature and his own mind. The Prelude, which he subtitles “Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” imitates Milton’s inner voice, narrowing the subject of Paradise Lost to the development of the poet’s own conception of the cosmos. In this democratization of the universe Wordsworth follows Blake and predicts Whitman. Like Blake, he believes that his own mind is capable of transforming nature. The microcosm—to use our earlier term—absorbs the macrocosm, if not half creating it. In this process of natural research, says the poet, “I looked for universal things” (Prelude, III, 109). In lines that follow directly thereon Wordsworth reinvents such universals as “that first paradise,” “highest truth” and “Divinity itself.”

Byron in Don Juan offers a comic reduction of The Fall of Man, repeating its pattern with each subsequent episode. Unlike Adam, who falls into sinfulness, Juan merely falls into experience. Like Byron’s poem, and like life itself, experience is open-ended. The unprecedented form of Don Juan adumbrates the modern conception of the universe as expanding, organic and incomplete. Byron’s hero, like Goethe’s Faust a modern mythic figure, is independent of biblical and classical models, though he gathers up and combines Adamic and Odyssean qualities. Juan, again like Goethe’s Faust, expresses both the universal and the autobiographical, the latter mode becoming itself increasingly universal as the nineteenth century progresses. Like The Prelude, Don Juan is related to the Bildungsroman. Like Blake’s work, Bryon’s moves toward a geographical universality, deliberately circling Europe in its extant seventeen cantos, presumably to set off farther afield in its remaining, projected eighty-three. Despite his adamant modernity, Byron, like both Blake and Wordsworth, revives and continues the high tradition of the long poem, absorbing such romantic models as Ariosto, disregarded by his peers. Even in its present form Don Juan is a consummate work.

In considering the universal element in nineteenth-century Romantic England, we might glance briefly at continental Europe. Unlike Byron, hell-bent in his escape from English insularity, Goethe embraced, indeed defined German culture, in a work that Schiller described as “the poem peculiar to Germans,” a phrase that we could modify to read “the poem universal to Germans.” For Goethe is one of the few western writers successfully to design and execute a work of national culture—one thinks of Vergil, Camoens and the Shakespeare of the Henriad as other examples. Like the first, and unlike the later two, Goethe’s work also achieved what Schlegel, speaking of the Frühromantiker, whose work followed that of Goethe, described as “eine progressive Universal-poesie.” Goethe, in other words, not only epitomizes German culture, he projects as well a vision of world culture. It is he, we recall, who originates our conception of Weltliteratur, or universal literature. At the middle of the nineteenth century Baudelaire introduces another sense of the universal potential of literature when he defines the poet as “un traducteur, un déchriffreur” (a translator, a decoder) who draws upon “l’inépuisable fonds de l’universelle analogie” (the inexhaustible stock of universal analogy).

Much of what is universal in English—or more broadly, western—literature, however, develops without a definition of universality and without agreement that universality is itself desirable. Paradoxically, just at the point when western letters take their turn toward particularity—personal experience and realistic representation, universality becomes a topic of discussion. A few highlights in the modern history of the notion may be helpful.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries writers revive the classics of Greece and Rome as models for imitation. Gradually an attendant interest develops in the historical circumstances under which those works had been produced. This in turn leads to definition of the universals that underlie works of all historical periods and cultures. Here science and rational philosophy encourage the formulation of a literary theory of universality that embraces values such as nature, reason and truth, which replace such earlier universals as Adam, Christ and God. In the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a canon is established: Homer, Vergil and Ovid from the world of Greece and Rome; Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton from English literary history. These figures are said to express “nature,” or “general nature,” as in Johnson’s famous pronouncement.

In the later eighteenth century critics begin to defend works that depart from the classics. The battle between ancients and moderns continues, with the latter consistently gaining ground. At this point a concomitant shift occurs: from concern with rules to concern with the universal, newly regarded as the defining characteristic of art and as a prescriptive principle. The imitation of models is rejected in favor of the representation of actuality. Greater attention is directed to the creative process, to the poet’s imagination, to his “genius.” The last of these, regarded as a power that appeals to all men, gradually gains the status of a universal. Emphasis begins to shift toward the audience of the work of art. The concept of “general humanity,” of the “natural” human being (as in Rousseau), his response to the work of art are all emphasized. Poet and reader, it is felt, share a universal humanity. In these shifts from ancient to modern, from nature to art, from poetry to the mind of the poet to his responsive auditor a new acceptation of “universal” has evolved. For it is no longer the genres, themes or moral lessons of poetry that are so considered, it is that which is most essential, individual, ineluctable.

Let us return now in our review of English literature to those neoclassical English critics who had first defined the universal. In “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (1668) Dryden has one of his interlocutors pronounce: “A thing well said will be wit in all languages; and though it may lose something in the translation, yet to him who reads it in the original, ‘tis still the same . . . .” The essence of a text, in other words is universal, its verbal expression accidental. Dryden, we might note, is also preparing the way for the use of translation as the foundation for a world literature. Like Pope, and unlike other major poets, he devotes much of his career to translating the classics. But Dryden is also a defender of the modern, a newly emergent universal value. Unlike Johnson, who unfavorably compares Shakespeare with classical models, Dryden advocates the Bard’s modernity. Like Johnson, he also stresses Shakespeare’s inclusiveness: “He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” Paradoxically, Dryden’s original productions in verse and poetic drama, though they reinforce his respect for the modern, represent a retreat from his critical advocacy of universality. For unlike the cosmological, comprehensive design that we find in Milton, the work of his first major follower is much smaller in scale, more particular in detail.

In this Dryden’s work parallels the development of bourgeois expression, such as that of his contemporary John Bunyan, who in The Pilgrim’s Progress reduces the macrocosm of biblical allegory to the microcosm of the individual Christian’s experience. An emphasis upon the individual and his experience is of course a leading feature of the novel, the most original form to arise in the period, and the one practiced by many of the leading prose writers of the next century: Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne and Austen. It represents, among other things, such universal aspects of experience as Erziehung (education) and Entwicklung (development), to use the German terms which name two of its sub-types.

In the eighteenth century the term “universal” begins to be used explicitly as a measure of worth. Addison, for example, says of Paradise Lost that “The great moral which reigns in Milton is the most universal and the most useful that can be imagined,” a comment that Johnson endorses: “It is justly remarked by Addison that this poem has, by the nature of its subject, the advantage above all others, that it is universally and perpetually interesting.” By “interesting” Johnson means “in our interest to know,” as his next sentence makes clear: “All mankind will, through all ages, bear the same relation to Adam and to Eve, and must partake of that good and evil which extend to themselves.” For both Johnson and Addison universality denotes that which all Christians accept as universally true. Johnson, that is to say, has retreated from the enlargement of the term which he and Dryden in their criticism of Shakespeare had undertaken.

Nor do all eighteenth-century writers whole-heartedly endorse the new principle. More skeptical than Johnson, Swift is ambivalent about the value of universality, especially when it promotes a scientific utopianism. In Part III of Gulliver’s Travels, for example, he treats with irony his protagonist’s enthusiastic hopes for the discovery of universal formulas and remedies, including “the universal medicine,” a formula for eternal life. Elsewhere Swift ridicules the idea of a universal language, of a universal monarch, the longing for immortality merely because it is universal. Though he includes mathematics in his ideal curriculum, he excludes those hard sciences that are based upon universal laws. In The Tale of a Tub he rejects the substitution of microcosm for macrocosm: “For what man, in the natural state or course of thinking, did ever conceive it in his power to reduce the notions of all mankind exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height of his own?”

At the same time, if only implicitly, Gulliver’s Travels endorses the principle of universality, perhaps more strongly than any other work since More’s Utopia. Its geographical range, its typology of human vice and virtue, its conception of l’homme moyen sensuel all imply the principle. Likewise, the world-wide reception of the book by readers young and old attests to its universal appeal. In fact Swift is one of the first modern western writers—Shakespeare is another—to achieve a universality without relying explicitly on classical or Christian values. Dr. Johnson’s remark that once you have grasped the principle of big people and little people you have the essence of the book identifies the central device of Parts I and II but fails to recognize the sources of its universal fascination. Ironically, it is precisely here that Swift appeals to “general nature,” whether it be our fantasies of supremacy or our common infantile experience. Like those critics who regard as too simple Cervantes’ scheme of skinny idealist and fat realist, Johnson is either blind to Swift’s genius or jealous of it. For whereas Rasselas is universal in its philosophical generalizations, Gulliver’s Travels is universal in its appeal: everyone is interested in animals who can talk.

Alexander Pope may be taken as a turning point in the development of English literature. In one sense he is all general principle, in another sense all personal experience. Two of his major works, the Essay on Criticism and the Essay on Man are fundamentally concerned with universals. “First follow Nature,” says the poet,

Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged, and universal light . . .

Pope’s definition of the central neoclassical principle suggests its geographical universality. His definition of wit, on the other hand, suggests Nature’s historical universality:

True wit is Nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

An Essay on Man, the most ambitious cosmological poem since Milton, begins with the topic, “Of the Nature and State of Man, With Respect to the Universe,” thereby reviving the motif of the microcosm and macrocosm that has often figured in works of universal imagination. In this regard Pope follows the progressive emphasis upon the little world observed in Ralegh, Donne and Browne:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.

If the Essay on Criticism enunciates universal critical principles, the Essay on Man enunciates universal principles of human nature, principles culled in part no doubt from Pope’s massive labor of translating Homer and editing Shakespeare, those poets of general nature. That Pope is not only a poet of universal light is revealed in The Dunciad, whose final line, “And Universal Darkness buries All,” expresses another, equally important principle. “All,” another word for the cosmos, taken together with “Universal Darkness” in the sense of extinction, may be read as prefiguring the poet’s own death (Après moi, le déluge). If so, the experiential and the universal here combine in a single conclusion. Pope’s Paradise Regain’d (his Essay on Man) might be said, then, to precede his Paradise Lost (The Dunciad), the last line quoted perhaps even echoing the fate of the blind Samson, buried, we recall, under the weight of the Philistine temple.

Nineteenth-century English literature is preeminently a literature of personal experience: lyric poetry, spiritual autobiography, the personal essay, the novel. It particularizes human affairs but is not without its ideals. One such ideal is the universal. Shelley, dragging wholesale into his Defence of Poetry the perennial neoclassical values, defines poetry in terms of “its eternal truth,” calling it “the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature.” The poem, he says, by contrast to the story—which is “partial, and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur”—“is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.” The universal, that is to say, is holistic, eternal and recurrent. For a more original, philosophical definition we must turn to Coleridge, who reconfigures the classical or neoclassical terms into an ascending order (individual, special, general, universal), which he then synthesizes in the manner of the German idealists. Like the Goethe whom we quoted earlier, Coleridge finds in symbol the proper instrument for assimilating one to another: “A Symbol,” as he defines it then, “is characterized by translucence of the Specil in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General.” Coleridge’s series of linked terms produces a generality dependent upon particularity. It is also clear that universality has become a permanent Romantic desideratum.

To the Victorians, with their extensive empire and ever-expanding popular audience, the term “universal” comes to acquire a more practical meaning. In this period England achieves universal literacy, universal communication (by rail, telegraph, newspaper, circulating book). For the first time, not only in England but throughout the empire and the former colonies, one can begin to speak of a universal audience for English literature. Furthermore, in this period English develops into a universal language (by the end of the next century the non-native-speaking audience will surpass in size the native-speaking).

“May we not call Shakspeare the still more melodious Priest of a true Catholicism, the ‘Universal Church’ of the Future and of all times?” asks Carlyle, in whose prescient imagination English literature begins to assume its modern status as a quasi-religious institution. Asking us rhetorically to choose between the Indian empire and Shakespeare, Carlyle answers, “We cannot do without Shakspeare! Indian Empire will go, at any rate, some day; but this Shakspeare does not go, he lasts forever with us.” Elsewhere, like Johnson, he calls the Bard both “universal and perennial.” Other major Victorians evoke the same usage, as they register and encourage the age’s expansive catholicity. Ruskin admires the Gothic for its universality and posits a “universal law” in defense of its imperfections. Like Carlyle, he is merely extending the neoclassical acceptation of the term. Likewise Arnold, when he finds in both Greek and Hebrew cultures a “feeling after the universal order.” But when the latter also finds in the French Revolution an appeal to “an order of ideas which are universal, certain, permanent,” he has ventured onto new ground. For these ideas, like the laws of mathematics (“to count by tens is the easiest way of counting,” he says) have a force of truth that goes beyond the mere tradition of a literary canon. The principle of reason, “its prescriptions” enforced by a new political order, are, says Arnold, “absolute, unchanging, of universal validity.” Significantly, the universal has now been associated with a modern rather than ancient set of ideas (however much reason—to say nothing of democracy—may owe to the classical world). The future universal order, Arnold implies, will be ideological.

As the last quarter of the nineteenth century began, Pater, in The Renaissance, his epoch-making fusion of the historical past and the personal present, defined the problem—his own and the century’s—in terms of Winckelmann’s:

For him the problem came to be:—Can the blitheness and universality of the antique ideal be communicated to artistic productions, which shall contain the fulness of experience of the modern world?

It is a problem that exercises Tennyson, Browning, Arnold and the lesser luminaries of the esthetic movement. Browning solves it by amalgamating features of Shakespearean soliloquy, modern historiography and the contemporary novel into a new form, the dramatic monologue.

The greatest Victorian novelists seek other means to universalize their stories, often treating an individual life with such intensity as to enlarge it into an emblem sub specie aeternitatis. Dickens, through the voice of Pip, gives us a clue to this procedure:

That was a memorable day to be, for it made great changes in me. But it was the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

With equal economy the novelist explores those matters most plangent to reader, character and author alike, as when Miss Havisham, Pip tells us, “asked me such questions as what I had learnt and what I was going to be.” The changes rung on the formula are legion: “I put my light out, and crept into bed,” says Pip in London; “and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more.” Modeling his upon Milton’s mythical account of Adam’s encounter with Satan, Dickens intimates a reader closing Pip’s tale, putting out the light and creeping serpent-like into bed, where, instead of falling into innocent sleep he falls into his own uneasy experience.

Tennyson, employing a strategy of generalization, in a post facto critical gloss similarly universalizes In Memoriam: “The ‘I,’ he says of the poem’s voice, “is not the author speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking thro’ him.” In the poem itself Tennyson generalizes perhaps a little too grandly for our present taste, but some such principle of universalization must be inherent in the work, otherwise how account for its world-wide popularity? Beyond Tennyson, the esthetic movement’s emphasis upon art extends the Romantic universalization of man so as to define him in terms of a formal activity equal in discipline to those of science, religion and philosophy. Simultaneously, the Romantic particularization of experience, which I shall take up in my final essay, begins to create a problem for the would-be English universalist.

Also partly responsible for his difficulties may be the coming of age of Irish and American literature. For the best—or at least the most universalizing—twentieth-century writers of English are not English. Yeats, Joyce and Beckett, though Irish, are also international, not only by virtue of their geographical dislocations but also by a conscious linguistic design, Yeats mastering an alien tradition of English poetry, Beckett alternating English with French, Joyce at last creating for himself a dubious international language. The Americans, James, Pound and Eliot, are equally dislocated, though two of them, along with Yeats, more or less successfully assume the mantle of English tradition. When we seek for native English writers to measure against the Irish and the American we are left with the likes of Hardy, Lawrence and Auden. Though all substantial figures, none is so imposing, at least in the role of universalist. Hardy and Lawrence express their universality the new way, through a defiant localism which says that we all have a place of origin—if Lawrence too is vagrant. Complementing the English immigration of James and Eliot, Auden emigrates to America. All three are cosmopolitan, but the work of the Americans has greater universal appeal than Auden’s, as does the work of Hardy and Lawrence for that matter. In a category apart, Joseph Conrad, Polish by birth but writing in a language acquired as an adult, masters the medium and contributes his cosmopolitan, if not precisely universal, perspective. Perhaps he holds the key for the non-native speaker who would enter and transform the tradition of English literature.