To go into a library is like the wandering into some great cathedral church and looking at the monuments on the walls. Every one there was in his or her day the pattern of all the virtues, the best father, the tenderest wife, the most devoted child. Never were such soldiers and sailors as those whose crossed swords or gallant ships are graven in marble above their tombs; every dead sovereign was virtuous as Marcus Aurelius, every bishop as blameless as Berkeley. The inscriptions are all of the kind which George IV. put on the statue of George III. at the end of the “Long Walk” at Windsor. Having embittered his father’s life while that father had mind enough to know the baseness of his son, he called him “pater optimus” best of fathers! This same George, it may be said in a parenthesis, gave to the library of Eton School, not such a tomb of dead books as is the library of Eton College, the dead Delphin Classics, which have been well described as “the useless present of a royal rake.”
Yet those names so forgotten which meet us in the Church were not without their influence. If there be one statement more than another to be disputed among those made by Shakespeare’s Mark Antony it is —
“The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.”
It has a truth, but a less truth than that the good more often lives, and passes into other lives to be renewed and carried forward with fresh vigour in the coming age. Were it not so the human race would steadily deteriorate, weltering down into a black and brutal corruption, ever quickening, if at all, into lower forms. As it is we know that the race, with all its imperfections, “moves upward, working out the beast, and lets the ape and tiger die.” The great men stand like stars at distant intervals, individuals grander, perhaps, than ever will be again, each in his own way; but still the average level of every succeeding age is higher than that which went before it. We may never again have an Homer, Aristotle, Archimedes, St. Paul, Cæsar, or Charlemagne; but in all things those great ones who forecast philosophy, or science, or mediæval civilization bear sway over us still, — “the living are under the dominion of the dead.” Those lesser forgotten ones of whom we have spoken have carried on the torch of life in his or her own home circle, were influential even if not widely known, and have helped to make humanity what she is and will be, — our lady, our mistress, our mother, and our queen.
It is the same with literature. The shelves of a library are catacombs. There stand out among the dead who are yet alive such names, to speak only of more modem days, as Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, “on whose forehead climb the crowns o’ the world. O! eyes sublime, With tears and laughter for all time”; there too are ”the ingenious” Mr. This, or “the celebrated” Mr. That, now forgotten. But they too have formed the literature which is ours. Does a modem strive after originality, ten chances to one his best things have been said before him; the only true originality is to reconstruct, recast, and transmit, with just the additions enforced by the special circumstances of the time. Again: “the living are under the dominion of the dead.”
(C. Kegan Paul, “The Production and Life of Books,” The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XXXIX, 1883, pp. 497–499).