A History of the British People

A History of the British People

A History of the British People

A History of the British People

Excerpt

It is generally the origin of the new that we seek in the past. We want to know how the new thoughts and new forms of life, which in later times revealed themselves in all their fullness, developed. We examine every period chiefly for the promise it conceals of that which follows, especially of that which helps to control the life of today. Yet in this search for the seeds of new life we sometimes forget that in the life of man, as in that of a forest, birth and death are forever taking place side by side and almost unnoticed. Old forms of civilization die at the same time and on the same soil wherein the new finds the nourishment by which it grows. Feudalism, useful as it was in its day, had to disappear before men could live together as a nation. Nowhere else is the chronicle of this birth and death to be found in greater variety and fullness than in literature. There we may see the world of the body, the intellect, and the soul; there we are given glimpses of the lowest depths and the loftiest heights; there are to be seen the broad influences to which millions of men have been subjected in common, the general outlook on life, and the prevailing types of sentiment. Literature obtains its subject-matter from life. It is informed and colored by the life to which it gives expression. In its turn it helps to change life. Dickens, for instance, gave "a greater impulse than any other man of his generation to that righteous hatred of castefeeling and class-cruelty which more and more distinguishes modern society" from every preceding period. It is for these reasons that so much space in this story of a people, in this attempt to narrate their essential thoughts and deeds, has been devoted to literature.

Yet this unusual attention to literature has not made impossible a fairly full treatment of political development. Nowhere else in the world has the progress of constitutional government, of the spirit and the institutions of democracy, been so important as in the British Isles; and so an attempt has been made to record and explain every essential step in that long march from the days of the Witenagemot to the last extension of the suffrage and the curtailment of the veto power of the House of Lords.

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