« AnteriorContinuar »
ihe sentence by acclamation. Taste, however, is governed by an uncertain standard; and the critic would do well to recollect that the. literary character may fail on the right side, when betraying what is so often termed want of judgment. It is ungraceful to be encumbered with learning, to swelter beneath the ample folds and furred trimmings- of the academical robe, but yet this display of opulence is more creditable to the wearer, than the pitiful nakedness of the literary vagrant. Mere learning may tire, yet instruct: the conceit of ignorance will always disgust without affording instruction.
An author who directs his energies to austere studies is apt to be voluminous. Desiring to become fully intelligible to the uninstructed, and eager, at the same time, to gratify the erudite with information hitherto unknown to them, he exhausts his subject. Hence the learned are often induced to censure him as trivial, the unlearned as obscure: and by each his comprehensive intent is unworthily contemned. Still more unreasonable are those who slight the intensity of labour, which is called for by the very nature of his, subject. The mould of the garden-bed may be turned up by the spade, and watered by a lady's hand: but he who wishes to found a settlement in the forest must toil in hewing the massy trunks, and in bestowing a sevenfold ploughing on the stubborn soil.
Wit, in unthinking levity, has sometimes scourged the studious tribes with undeserved harshness. Yet still more unkind and uncharitable are the dull, the sad, the solemn, and the grave, towards the antiquary, who, if endowed with genius, yields to the seductions to which he is then peculiarly exposed. Imagination endangers the reputation of the" learned. They follow the ignis fatuus over marshes and quagmires, and the trembling surface sinks beneath the steps of the giants of literature, whilst the lighter limbs of the poet, who is equally deluded by the wandering fire, enable him to spring along with ease. Ritson, attacking Warton, affords a striking example of the spiteful pleasure enjoyed by a sour, clear-headed precisian, when he detects the errors of a superior intellect. But we are not always satisfied even with the tests of sober reason as propounded by those who judge with more fairness, and who, proceeding upon decent and respectable principles of criticism, damn the ingenious theories of the historian, the mythologist, or the philologer, because they seem wild and speculative. A writer who pursues obscure and difficult inquiries, is compelled to accept the proofs afforded by circumstantial evideuce. There are certain optical glasses which, when applied to the eye, collect the spots and lines dispersed on a coloured tablet into a symmetrical form: like these, his mind associates and assembles the ideas dispersed through time and space. When he appears most arbitrary in his assumptions, most fanciful in his Conjectures, he is fortified by the internal consciousness, that his hypothesis is true; he feels a conviction of the truth which he cannot impart to others. In his devious course he guides himself by indications which the unpractised cannot discern. He tracks himself across the ocean by the floating weeds and the flight of the sea-fowl, and he convinces himself of the existence of the continent though his bark may never reach its shores.
The pleasures of laborious writers arise from their labours; they are joyful and triumphant when they verify a date, or adjust a verse, or explain the legend of a medal, tasks of which the world is reckless; and the attention with which they regard these supposed trifles is held to indicate a puny, feeble; mind yet they only yield to a Universal instinct. Whatever we discover, we make our own; whatever is our own, we love. The traveller prizes a sparry fragment which he has broken from its native cavern, above the choicest specimens which he finds in the cabinet of another. The game can only be run down by the sportsman who takes delight in the chase, and this gratification is not to be forgotten by him when he contemplates the objects which occasioned it. Hence he may sometimes be induced to set a value on the skin of the brock, and even on the antlers of the deer, which surprizes the sober citizen, who sees nothing in these enlivening trophies save hide and horn. Vanity is the original sin of literature; but the vanity of the antiquary does not savour of egotism: he contents himself with being proud of his researches. Unveiling the deity to the worshipper, he, the hierophant, claims not the incense, and tastes no portion of the sacrifice. Ministering to no faction, desiring no reward, and contemning the praise of the multitude, he takes refuge in the studious cloister. His spirit walks in communion with the mighty dead. Shadows are his consorts, whom he attempts to grasp as bodies, because to him the vision is reality. Occasionally his tongue falters, and his words are confused, but the accuracy of his judgment or the vigour of his intellect are not therefore impaired—his transient giddiness is caused by the height wherein he soars—he looks down upon middle earth from the summit of Olympus, or the battlements of Valhalla.
Art. VI.—Select Pieces in Prose and Verse, by the late John Bowdler, Junior, Esq. of Lincoln's Inn, Barrister at Law. Two vols. Svo. 1818.
THE work before us is the monument erected by a father to the memory of his son: and we approach it, therefore, with the sympathy which such sorrows require, even from strangers. We will not wantonly tear away the laurels planted there, and we
shall shall grieve if, in seeking to prune their wild luxuriance, we should be thought irreverently to expose any part of the fabric which they now embosom.
The contents of the vdlumes are a Life, Letters, Journal, Poems, Reviews, and Essays.
The interest of the work will not, perhaps, be in any material degree increased by the sketch of the life of the author, which is prefixed to it. It is too long for an epitaph, and too short for any other memorial of the dead. Yet it deserves the praise, which, short as it is, it might easily have forfeited, of saying nothing in bad taste, or bad spirit. Its value would surely have been considerably greater, if it had been connected by some stronger tie than that of mere juxta-position with the letters which now follow it; and these, on the other hand, would have lost nothing of their interest, by being interwoven with an explanatory narrative. Mason in his life of Gray, and Hayley in his life of Cowper, have adopted this principle of making their authors relate their own lives: and though some letter-writers must be excluded by their own confession as incompetent witnesses in their own case, when they fairly avow that their epistles, like the decads of Bishop Hall, never travelled farther than from their own desks to the printing-house; no such suspicion can exist in relation to the Letters in these volumes. The earlier series, in particular, must have been written at an age, and under circumstances when the hope or the apprehension of appearing in print could have had no operation. They are the letters of a boy who had just quitted school, and are addressed to another boy whom lie had left behind; and contain as satisfactory evidence of his mind and morals as criticism can reasonably demand, and display such an union of knowledge and intelligence with playfulness of manner and affection of heart as is not often exhibited at so early an age.
It would not be a difficult, and, therefore, not a very glorious enterprise to overthrow errors in the style, the reasoning, or the facts of a boy of eighteen; and, accordingly, in calling the attention of our readers to the letters before us, written at that age, and, indeed, to the larger compositions of a somewhat later period, we reserve, expressly, the question of their impeccability: and, with that reservation, we have no hesitation in saying, that in expression and illustration they are at least equal, and in general,reasoning, superior to the similar works of Kirke White, and other youths of genius prematurely snatched away.—
In the first letter (dated in March 1801, when the writer was eighteen) he mentions incidentally an act of labour, alike new and unnecessary, which he had imposed on himself:—' I have just begun to learn a law-book by heart: it contains 30,000 lines; and I Vol. xxi. No. Xli. H hope hope, to get it through twice in six months; but it is most dry, and like learning so many proper names.'—I. p. 72. It would be lamentable to think, that such a mind was so degraded, and such time so wasted, if we did not know that half the benefit of all education is the indirect attainment of a habit of applying the mind steadily to any object, and of grappling with difficulties. The habit, and not the acquirement itself, is the real prize.
'26th March, 1802. 'For myself I go on much in my old routine, fagging hard at classics and harder at law: I have lately been attacking " Trojani Belli Scriptorem," have nearly read through eight books, and have learnt A, which is a very long one, by heart. He helps to dispel the " tedia vitae," and I may say as justly of the mists of this city, as Gray did of frozen regions, that " the muse has broke the twilight gloom." I have lately also read Juvenal, with some of Persius, two or three times, (omitting the sixth and ninth satires), and learnt about 1300 lines, which though certainly nothing to be named as real labour, yet is fair enough for the lighter hours of a stupid, illiterate quill-driver, bending over a desk in these regions of Cimmerian darkness,
Where murky mists the struggling morn disclose,
And howling watchmen lull me to repose: and I scarce hear of any thing but mortgages, releases and assumpsits, —vol. i. p. 79.
'It is impossible for you to conceive the labour I go through, or at least the constant succession of employment; for I believe I may say, on an average, I am employed in reading or writing nearly fourteen hours every day. I am endeavouring, among my other various occupations, to obtain a knowledge of some branches of algebra and the mathematics as introductory to mechanics, optics, navigation, natural philosophy, &c. but now as my eyes, my head, my fingers, ray pens, and my patience are all gone, and the night also is going fast, I must subscribe myself, &c.'—vol. i. p. 84.
On leaving his clerkship in an attorney's office, in the city, he became the pupil of a Chancery draftsmau of great eminence. In 1806 he appears, by the date of two or three of the letters, to have been on the circuit; and in 1807 he was called to the bar. In the course of these two years, a considerable alteration is perceptible in his correspondence. Before this period, his letters are stiff and somewhat too learned, being in truth such as learned boys often attempt to write. The style, though not elaborately modelled on that of Johnson, seems to have been the result of too indiscriminate an admiration of that great writer, and has a stateliness not altogether epistolary. The sentiments, ethical and religious, with which they are interspersed, though plainly flowing from a mind of great purity and very carefully trained, yet appear, like the learning, to be somewhat too much produced for the occasion. We would hot be understood to insinuate for a moment, that the singular and
interesting interesting character, whose boyish history we have traced, was inconsistent with himself, or that his maturity proved other than his childhood has promised. Yet at the period of his life to which we are now adverting, his mental growth is visible. His thoughts, his feelings, bis opinions appear to become his own, and, though very modestly delivered, are communicated with the freedom and independence of one who is dispensing from original stores. The appearance of effort and constraint almost wholly ceases. The impressions of religion, for which he was so remarkable, seem to become more profound and intimate; and his enunciation of them to assume an intonation not equally observable in his earlier compositions.
There are some admirable passages in the letters which follow; but we have not room for them. Yet we cannot refuse to extract the following on the Study of Ecclesiastical History.
'Pray give my kindest regards to , and tell or read
her this, and add, what I am persuaded her own piety would suggest, (yet which she will forgive me for mentioning,) that the Holy Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, furnish by far the best light, direction and antidote to the reading of ecclesiastical history. I know of no study in which it is more necessary to carry along with us an intimate acquaintance with the standard of faith and holiness delivered in holy writ. It happens of necessity that the most valuable part of the Church story, the lives, opinions, tempers, and practices of the most eminent saints, has been lost. These men contributed in general but little to the changes in church or state, which it is in the office of the annalist to record. They lived and died servants of God in spirit and truth, but, for the most part, disinclined to meddle in worldly concerns, and certainly quite indifferent to celebrity. Their kingdom, their hope, their prize, their glory, was that inheritance which fades not away, reserved for them in Heaven. We need not therefore be surprised to find strange corruptions early over-running the church; shocking acts of violence committed under the cover of religion; and even some of the best characters, whose actions are preserved, tarnished with great faults. All these things were so; and the wisdom of God, I doubt not, permitted them so to be, that those only who seek the truth m humbleness and sincerity may find it. Yet there were undoubtedly in every age many, whose very names are forgotten, that sustained in their principles and exhibited in their lives the purity of the Christian faith, following the steps of their blessed Master, trusting in His merits, and conforming to His example. To many I believe ecclesiastical history is full of snares; to the humble'conscientious Christian it is full of instruction. He who first published the glad tidings of salvation to man, has ever watched over his servants with the tenderest love. His eye is now on me who write, and on you who read. I pray God, we, and all who are dear to us, may continually become more and more sensible of this.'—vol. i. pp. 102, 3.
The series is almost progressively improving: it is not possible
H 1 to