The Spirit of the Age and National
The spirit of the age is a collection of character sketches by the early 19th century English essayist literary critic and social commentator William Hazlitt portraying 25 men, mostly British , whom he believed to represent significant in the thought , literature and politics of his time .
The subjects include thinker, social reformers, politicians, poets, essayists and novelists many of whom Hazlitt was personally acquainted with or hand encountered. Originally appearing in English periodicals, mostly the new Monthly Magazine in 1824, the essays were collected with several others written for the purpose and published in book from in 1825.
The writings of both Pope and Tennyson everywhere bear, mingling with their individual qualities, the unmistakable impress of those impersonal forces of their respective epochs which combined to create what we describe as the Zeitgeist or Time –Spirit of the age of Anne and the Victorian era; and if we should be troubled by any doubt as to the reality and importance of such Time-Spirit, it will be dissipated on our observing that precisely where the two poets differ most radically from each other there they often remind us most distinctly of their contemporaries.
A nations literature is not a miscellaneous collection of books which happen to have been written in the same tongue or with in a certain geographical area. It is the progressive revelation, age by age, of such nation’s mind and character.
An individual writer may vary greatly from the national type, and the variation, as we shall have to insist presently, will always be one of the most interesting things about him. But his genius will still partake of the characteristic spirit of his race, and in any number of representative writers at any given time that spirit will be felt as a well-defined quality pervading them all. We talk of the Greek spirit and the Hebrew spirit. By this we do not of course suggest that all Greeks thought and felt in the same way, that all Hebrews thought and felt in the same way.
The history of any nation’s literature, then, is the record off the unfolding of that nation’s genius and character under one of its most important forms of expression. In this way literature becomes at once a supplement to what we ordinarily call history and a commentary upon it. History deals mainly with the externals of a people’s civilization.
The study of the literature of an age as the expression of its characteristic spirit and ideals. Even the most casual reader is soon struck by the many qualities exhibited in common by where belonging to the same time, no matter how widely these may differ among themselves. There is perceptible among them a marked family likeness; or, as Shelly put it, “a general resemblance under which their specific distinctions are arranged”. The Spirit of the Age, despite its essays’ uneven quality, has been generally agreed to provide “a vivid panorama of the age”. Yet, missing an introductory or concluding chapter, and with few explicit references to any themes, it was for long also judged as lacking in coherence and hastily thrown together. More recently, critics have found in it a unity of design, with the themes emerging gradually, by implication, in the course of the essays and even supported by their grouping and presentation.