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In the largest or loosest sense of the expression a History of English Literature might be taken to mean an account of everything that has been written in the language. But neither is the literature of a language everything that has been written in it, nor would all that has been written in the language necessarily comprehend all its literature, for much true literature may exist, and has existed, without having been written. Literature is composed of words, of thought reduced to the form of words; but the words need not be written; it is enough that they be spoken or sung, or even only conceived. All that writing does is to record and preserve them. It no more endows them with any new character than money acquires a new character by being locked up in a desk or paid into a bank.
But, besides this, if the history of a national literature is to have any proper unity, it can rarely embrace the language in its entire extent. If it should attempt to do so, it would be really the history not of one but of several literatures. In some cases it might even be made a question when it was that the language properly began, at what point of the unbroken thread—which undoubtedly connects every form of human speech with a succession of preceding forms Out of which it has sprung—we are to say that an old
language has died and a new one come into existence;
enumerated by way of Introduction, along with the
leading particulars of the same kind belonging to the