Page images
PDF
EPUB

complexity, and in the simplicity of self-possession, unconscious that there was any difficulty, all that his predecessor had fruitlessly exerted himself to unfold.

• There are a multitude of causes that will produce a miscarriage of this sort, where the richest soil, impregnated with the choicest seeds of learning and observation, shall entirely fail to present us with such a crop as might rationally have been anticipated. Many such men waste their lives in indolence and irresolution. They attempt many things, sketch out plans, which if properly filled up, might illustrate the literature of a nation, and extend the empire of the human mind, but which they desert as soon as begun, affording us the promise of a beautiful day, that, ere it is noon, is enveloped in darkest tempests and the clouds of midnight.

midnight. They skim away from one flower in the parterre of literature to another, like the bee, without, like the bee, gathering sweetness from each, to increase the public stock, and enrich the magazine of thought. The cause of this phenomenon is an unsteadiness, ever seduced by the newness of appearances, and never settling with firmness and determination upon what had been chosen.

• Others there are that are turned aside from the career they might have accomplished, by a visionary and impracticable fastidiousness. They can find nothing that possesses all the requisites that should fix their choice, nothing so good that should authorise them to present it to public observation, and enable them to offer it to their cotemporaries as something that we should “not willingly let die." They begin often ; but nothing they produce appears to them such as that they should say of it, “ Let this stand.” Or they never begin, none of their thoughts being judged by them to be altogether such as to merit the being preserved. They have a microscopic eye, and discern faults unworthy to be tolerated, in that in which the critic himself might perceive nothing but beauty.'-pp. 59–63.

Another fine chapter on Man, is opened in ascertaining the durability of his achievements and productions. He is the only creature we know, that, when the term of his natural life is ended, leaves the memory of himself behind him! He decorates the plains, the valleys, and the hills, by industry and taste in cultivation, and in the erection of commodious buildings. Further than this, he gives a permanent, in some instances an imperishable record to his thoughts, and this, too, after having provided for his subsistence. • We manufacture these sublimities and everlasting monuments out of the bare remnants and shreds of our time. This subject leads to the consideration of fame and popularity, of the number of nien who have in various periods of the world made the sciences and arts the chief objects of their occupation, of the real state of the human mind during those ages when it is generally represented as wrapped in a profound sleep, of the connection of the feudal system with chivalry and romance, and of the preservation by the monasteries of the remains of ancient literature. The author, in order to shew the instability of fame, furnishes us with the names of many men who were celebrated in their day for their prodigious learning, but who have since sunk to the lowest depths of the pool of oblivion. We shall quote two or three of these examples.

• Nicholas Peiresk was born in the year 1580. His progress in knowledge was so various and unprecedented, that, from the time that he was twenty-one years of age, he was universally considered as holding the helm of learning in his hand, and guiding the commonwealth of letters. He died at the age of fifty-seven. The academy of the Humoristi at Rome paid the most extraordinary honours to his memory; many of the cardinals assisted at his funeral oration; and a collection of verses in his praise was published in more than forty languages.

• Salmasius was regarded as a prodigy of learning; and various princes and powers entered into a competition who should be so fortunate as to secure his residence in their states. Christina, queen of Sweden, having obtained the preference, received him with singular reverence and attention; and, Salmasius being taken ill at Stockholm, and confined to his bed, the queen persisted with her own hand to prepare his caudles, and mend his fire. Yet, but for the accident of his having Milton for his adversary, his name would now be as little remembered, even by the generality of the learned, as that of Peiresk.

• Du Bartas, in the reign of Henry the Fourth of France, was one of the most successful poets that ever existed. His poem on the Creation of the World went through upwards of thirty editions in the course of five or six years, was translated into most European languages, and its commentators promised to equal in copiousness and number the commentators of Homer.

• One of the most admired of our English poets, about the close of the sixteenth century, was Donne. Unlike many of those trivial writers of verse who succeeded hiin, after an interval of forty or fifty years, and who won for themselves a brilliant reputation by the smoothness of their numbers, the elegance of their conceptions, and the politeness of their style, Donne was full of originality, energy, and vigour. No man can read him without feeling himself called upon for the earnest exercise of his thinking powers, and, even with the most fixed attention and application, the student is often obliged to confess his inability to take in the whole of the meaning with which the poet's mind was perceptibly fraught. Every sentence that Donne wrote, whether in verse or prose, 'is exclusively his own. In addition to this, his thoughts are often, in the noblest sense of the word, poetical ; and passages may be quoted from him that no English poet may attempt to rival, unless it be Milion and Shakespear. Ben Jonson observed of him, with great truth and a prophetic spirit: “ Donne, for not being understood, will perish.” But this is not all. If Waller and Suckling and Carew sacrificed every thing to the Graces, Donne went into the other extreme. With a few splendid and admirable exceptions, his phraseology and versification are crabbed and repulsive. And, as poetry is read in the first place for pleasure, Donne is left undisturbed on the shelf, or rather in the sepulchre; and not one in an hundred, even among persons of cultivation, can give any account of bim, if in reality they ever heard of his productions.'--pp. 82-84.

The · Rebelliousness of Man,' affords to Mr. Godwin a subject for one of the most ingenious of his essays. He considers man both as a rational and an irrational being, a god and an animal, and describes in vivid colours the sublinities to which he is capable of reaching, as well as the extravagant absurdities into which he

[ocr errors]

frequently falls. From this theme the author passes to that of • Human Innocence,'—a captivating title, which he illustrates by a very engaging train of reflections. • When we observe,' he says,

the quiet manner in which the inhabitants of a great city, and, in the country, the frequenters of the fields, the high roads, and the heaths, pass along, each engrossed by his private contemplations, feeling no disposition to molest the strangers he encounters, but, on the contrary, prepared to afford them every courteous assistance, we cannot in equity do less than admire the innocence of our species, and fancy that, like the patriarchs of old, we have fallen in with “ angels unawares !” The crimes of the species are all registered in history, while few of their virtuous deeds are recorded, and thus we obtain a false impression as to the character of mankind in general. Violence only affords materials to the historian; the peaceful pursuits of men are seldom noticed. But even in times of war the great majority of mankind are occupied in the vocations of industry, which are always free from guilt.

The author next proceeds to treat (Essays VII. and VIII.) of the duration of human life, and contends that no more than about eight hours a-day are passed by the wisest and most energetic with a mind attentive and on the alert.' The remaining sixteen hours slide away in vegetation. Indeed, of the great mass of mankind, it is truly observed, that 'the whole of their lives while awake, with the exception of a few brief and insulated intervals, is spent in a passive state of the intellectual powers. Thoughts come and go, as chance or some undefined power in nature may direct, uninterfered with by the sovereign will, the steersman of the mind. And often the understanding appears to be a blank, upon which, if any impressions are then made, they are like figures drawn in the sand, which the next tide obliterates, or are even lighter and more evanescent than this.'

The Ninth Essay treats of leisure' as distinguished from that occupation which forms the business of life. The author does not mean by leisure mere idleness, but that pleasant kind of employnient which is not necessary or prescribed, which is incidental to our graver pursuits, and may be taken -up or laid down as fancy suggests. He doubts which of the two, occupation or leisure, is of the higher value, although the discussion of such a question carries no importance with it, the great and only legitimate object of leisure being to enable us to apply to our usual occupations with greater energy and effect. The bow that is always bent will lose its elasticity. As to the portion of time that may be usefully devoted to either, that is a point which every man must determine for himself, according to the extent of controul which he possesses over the distribution of his hours.

It is in the tenth Essay, on Imitation and Invention,' that we chiefly meet with those sneers against the scriptures to which we have already alluded. Mr. Godwin cannot understand how the

NO, IV.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

2 N

Old Testament came indiscriminately to be considered as written by divine inspiration.' He looks upon it as nothing more than a collection of the literary remains of an ancient and memorable people, whose wisdom may furnish instruction to us, and whose poetry abounds in lofty flights and sublime imagery.' He condescendingly adds, that it certainly contains a sufficient quantity of unquestionable truth, to induce us to regard it as springing from profound observation, and comprehensive views’!! Besides that these remarks expose Mr. Godwin to the risk of being ranked among the Carliles and Taylors of the day, he has gone out of his course in order to make them. They have nothing whatever to do with the question, whether human speech is but imitation, whether we are angry or pleased because we see others undergoing those moods of the mind. Much as the author has sought in other chapters to exalt his species, in this he endeavours to depress them to the rank of monkies. We pretend,' he says, ' each of us to have a judga ment of our own; but in truth we wait with the most patient docility till he whom we regard as the leader of the chorus, gives us the signal-here you are to applaud, and here you are to condemn! We are,' he maintains, all apes, fixing our eyes upon a model, and copying him gesture by gesture. Upon this dark side of the question, Mr. Godwin pours a flood of astounding eloquence. He does not, however, omit to shew, that it has also its light side, and that there are splendid monuments of human genius in existence, which shew that man is not altogether the mere slave of imitation.

The subjects of Self-love and Benevolence,' of 'The Liberty of Human Actions,' are delightfully discussed in the eleventh and twelfth Essays. The thirteenth, which treats of 'Belief, brings us to more dangerous ground, over which, however, the author effects his progress with but a few allusions to religion. Youth and Age, 'Love and Friendship, Frankness and Reserve,'furnish the subjects of the succeeding three Essays, and the seventeenth is devoted to the now much-agitated theme of the 'Ballot.' We own, that from the republican tendency of Mr. Godwin's politics, we had expected to find him a strenuous advocate for this secret mode of voting, and were surprised to find him wholly opposed to it. He looks upon the Ballot' as the badge of slavery, and uses some of the strongest arguments against it that we have yet seen.

Two or three of the latter Essays in the volume are taken up with the subjects of · Phrenology' and 'Astronomy. The former he easily demolishes as a science; he attempts to treat the latter in a similar way, and laughs at Ferguson and Herschell, whose calculations about the sun, moon, and stars, he considers as utterly incredible. It is very certain that the astronomers sometimes demand of us a measure of faith next in degree almost to the mysteries of religion : but to say that they have accomplished nothing, ascerlained nothing, that all their systems are mere visions of the brain, is of itself a proposition that produces neither faith nor conviction.

In the concluding Essay we have an amiable view of the natural disposition to virtue which animates the human race. Even Nero, during the first part of his reign, not only shed no blood, but acquired, at least from Seneca, his panegyrist, the epithet of Clement. The suggestions of the youthful mind are all ingenuous and honourable; but riches and vices, springing out of the scheme of civil society, soon turn him from the paths of virtue to those of debauchery and crime. Poverty, on the other hand, produces a similar effect, and thus the race becomes degraded, while our nature still remains the same, capable of good, and originally aspiring to it, but led away by temptation, which Mr. Godwin does not teach us how to resist. Here his philosophy falls to the ground, exhibiting its imbecility upon the very point with which it is of the greatest importance to us all to be acquainted in theory, but still more in practice.

ART. IV.-A Year in Spain. By a young American.

In two volumes, 8vo. London: Murray, 1831. Had the author not announced his country in the title-page, and permitted his name to be disclosed in the Quarterly Review, which trumpeted forth loud praises of his work before it appeared in public, we should never have supposed that it was written by any other than an Englishman. There are, indeed, two or three sentences, towards the close of the second volume, which might have convinced us of our mistake; but, in all other respects, we should have easily believed that these volumes were the production of one of our own countrymen, thoroughly versed in the idiomatic simplicity of our language, and the best style of our literature. It is not among the least of the pleasures which we have derived from the perusal of them, that they have afforded to us a remarkable indication of the return of our American brethren to the “ Wells of English undefiled," and of their abandonment of that ambitious phraseology which has so long tarnished their compositions, and limited them to an ephemeral popularity. We do not of course assert that this has been the case with all their authors; their Coopers and Irvings form brilliant exceptions in a crowd of motley aspirants, though they, indeed, seem to belong more to ourselves than to the land of their birth. But American literature, as such, has hitherto exhibited nothing destined to the enjoyment of a permanent fame, beyond the essays contained in the Federalist, which again date so near the separation of the two countries, that they may be said to constitute part of our political philosophy. In almost all the departments of writing the native archives of the Union as yet present a woful show of empty cases. They have no history worth reading, not a canto of poetry, no memoirs, no collections of speeches, no miscellaneous works of amusement, very few travels, and not even a single good sermon.

« PreviousContinue »