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Art. I. Considerations sur les Principaux Evenemens de la Re* volution Francoise. Ouvrage Posthume de Mad. la Baronne de Stael. Public par M. Le Due De Broglie et M. Le BaRon A. De Stael. En Trois Tomes. 8vo. pp. 1285. Londres, 1818.
"VTo Book can possibly possess a higher interest than this which * is now before us. It is the last, dying bequest of the most brilliant writer that has appeared in our days;—and it treats of a period of history which we already know to be the most important that has occurred for centuries; and which those who look back on it, after other centuries have elapsed, will probably consider as still more important.
We cannot stop now to say all that we think of Madame de Stael:—and yet we must say, that we think her the most powerful writer that her country has produced since the time of Voltaire and Rousseau—and the greatest writer, of a woman, that any time or any country has produced. Her taste, perhaps, is not quite pure; and her style is too irregular and ambitious. These faults may even go deeper. Her passion for effect, and the tone of exaggeration which it naturally produces, have probably interfered occasionally with the soundness of her judgment, and given a suspicious colouring to some of her representations of fact. At all events, they have rendered her impatient of the humbler task of completing her explanatory details, or stating in their order all the premises of her reasonings. She gives her history in abstracts, and her theories in aphorisms:—and the greater part of her works, instead of presenting that systematic unity from which the highest degrees of strength and beauty and clearness must ever be derived, may be fairly described as a Vol. xxx. no. 60. T
collection of striking fragments—in which a great deal of repetition does by no means diminish the effect of a good deal of inconsistency. In these same works, however, whether we consider them as fragments or as systems, we do not hesitate to say that there are more original and profound observations—more new images—greater sagacity combined with higher imagination—and more of the true philosophy of the passions, the politics, and the literature of her contemporaries—than in any other author we can now remember. She has great eloquence on all subjects; and a singular pathos in representing those bitterest agonies of the sprit in which wretchedness is aggravated by remorse, or by regrets that partake of its character. Though it is difficult to resist her when she is in earnest, we cannot say that we agree in all her opinions, or approve of all her sentiments. She overrates the importance of Literature, either in determining the character or affecting the happiness of mankind; and she theorizes too confidently on its past and its future history. On subjects like this, we have not yet facts enough for so much philosophy; and must be contented, we fear, for a long time to come, to call many things accidental, which it would be more satisfactory to refer to determinate causes. In her estimate of the happiness, and her notions of the wisdom of private life, we think her both unfortunate and erroneous. She makes passions and high sensibilities a great deal too indispensable; and varnishes over all her pictures too uniformly with the glare of an extravagant or affected enthusiasm. She represents men, in short, as a great deal more unhappy, more depraved and more energetic, than they are—and seems to respect them the more for it.—In her politics she is far more unexceptionable. She is everywhere the warm friend and animated advocate of liberty—and of liberal, practical, and philanthropic principles. On these subjects we cannot blame her enthusiasm, which has nothing in it vindictive or provoking; and are far more inclined to envy than to reprove that sanguine and buoyant temper of mind which, after all she has seen and suffered, still leads her to overrate, in our apprehension, both the merit of past attempts at political amelioration, and the chances of their success hereafter. It is in that futurity, we fear, and in the hopes that make it present, that the lovers of mankind must yet, for a while, console themselves for the disappointments which still seem to beset them. If Mad. de Stael, however, predicts with too much confidence, it must be admitted that her labours have a powerful tendency to realize her predictions. Her writings are all full of the most animating views of the improvement of our social condition, and the means by which it may be effected—the most striking refutations of prevailing errors on these great subjects—and the most persuasive expostulations with those who may think their interest or their honour concerned in maintaining them. Even they who are the least inclined to agree with her, must admit, that there is much to be learned from her writings; and we can give them no higher praise than to say, that their tendency is not only to promote the interests of philanthropy and independence, but to soften, rather than exasperate, the prejudices to which they are opposed.
Of the work before us, we do not know very well what to say. It contains a multitude of admirable remarks—and a still greater number of curious details; for Mad. de S. was not only a contemporary, but an eyewitness of much that she describes, and had the very best access to learn what did not fall under her immediate observation. Few persons certainly could be better qualified to appreciate the relative importance of the subjects that fell under her review; and no one, we really think, so little likely to colour and distort them, from any personal or party feelings. With all those rare qualifications, however, and inestimable advantages for performing the task of an historian, we cannot say that she has made a good history. It is too much broken into fragments. The narrative is too much interrupted by reflections: and the reflections too much subdivided, to suit the subdivisions of the narrative. There are too many events omitted, or but cursorily noticed, to give the work the interest of a full and flowing history; and a great deal too many detailed and analyzed, to let it pass for an essay on the philosophy or greater results of these memorable transactions. We are the most struck with this last fault—which perhaps is inseparable from the condition of a contemporary writer;—for, though the observation may sound at first like a paradox, we are rather inclined to think, that the best historical compositions —not only the most pleasing to read, but the most just and instructive in themselves—must be written at a very considerable distance from the times to which they relate. When we read an eloquent and judicious account of great events transacted in other ages, our first sentiment is that of regret at not being able to learn more of them. We wish anxiously for a fuller detail of particulars—we envy those who had the good fortune to live in the time of such interesting occurrences, and blame them for having left us so brief and imperfect a memorial of them. But the truth is, if we may judge from our own experience* that the. greater part of those who were present to those mighty operations, were but very imperfectly aware of their import* ance, and conjectured but little of the influence they were to exert on future generations. Their attention was successively engaged by each separate act of the great drama that was passing before them; but did not extend to the connected effect of the whole, in which alone posterity was to find the grandeur and interest of the scene. The connexion indeed of those different acts is very often not then discernible. The series often stretches on beyond the reach of the generation which witnessed its beginning; and makes it impossible for them to integrate what had not yet attained its completion; while, from similar causes, many of the terms that at first appeared most important, are unavoidably discarded, to bring the problem within a manageable compass. Time, in short, performs the same services to events, which distance does to visible objects. It obscures and gradually annihilates the small, but renders those that are very great much more distinct and conceivable. If we would know the true form and bearings of a range of Alpine mountains, we must not grovel among the irregularities of its surface, but observe, from the distance of leagues, the direction of its ridges and peaks, and the giant outline which it traces on the sky. —A traveller who wanders through a rugged and picturesque district, though struck with the beauty of every new valley, or the grandeur of every cliffthat he passes, has no notion at all of the general configuration of the country, or even of the relative situation of the objects he has been admiring; and will understand all those things, and his own route among them, a thousand times better from a small map, on a scale of half an inch to a mile, which represents neither thickets nor hamlets, than from the most painful efforts to combine the indications of the strongest memory. The case is the same with those who live through periods of great historical interest. They are too near the scene—too much interested in each successive event—and too much agitated with their rapid succession, to form any just estimate of the character or result of the whole. They are like private soldiers in the middle of a great battle, or rather of a busy and complicated campaign—hardly knowing whether they have lost or won, and having but the most obscure and imperfect conception of the general movements in which their own fate has been involved. The foreigner who reads of them in the Gazette, or the peasant who sees them from the top of a distant hill or a steeple, has in fact a far better idea of them.
Of the thousand or fifteen hundred names that have been connected in contemporary fame with the great events of the last twenty-five years, how many will go down to posterity? In all probability not more than twenty: And who shall yet venture to say which twenty it will be? But it is the same with the events as with the actors. How often, during that period, have we mourned or exulted, with exaggerated emotions, over occurrences that we already discover to have been of no permanent importance!—how certain is it, that the far greater proportion of those to which we still attach an interest, will be viewed with the same indifference by the very next generation !—and how probable, that the whole train and tissue of the history will appear, to a remoter posterity, under a totally different character and colour from any that the most penetrating observer of the present day has thought of ascribing to it! Was there any contemporary, do we think, of Mahomet, of Gregory VII., of Faust, or Columbus, who formed the same estimate of their achievements that we do at this day? Were the great and wise men who brought about the Reformation, as much aware of its importance as the whole world is at present? or does any one imagine, that, even in the later and more domestic events of the establishment of the English Commonwealth in 1648, or the Euglish Revolution in 1688, the large and energetic spirits by whom those great events were conducted, were fully sensible of their true character and bearings, or at all foresaw the mighty consequences of which they have since been prolific?
But though it may thus require the lapse of ages to develop the true character of a great transaction, and though its history may therefore be written with most advantage very long after its occurrence, it does not follow that such a history will not be deficient in many qualities which it would be desirable for it to possess. All we say is, that they are qualities which will generally be found incompatible with those larger and sounder views, which can hardly be matured while the subjects of them are recent. That this is an imperfection in our histories and historians, is sufficiently obvious; but it is an imperfection to which we must patiently resign ourselves, if it appear to be an unavoidable consequence of the limitation of our faculties. We cannot both enjoy the sublime effect of a vast and various landscape, and at the same time discern the form of every leaf in the forest, or the movements of every living creature that breathes within its expanse. Beings of a higher order may be capable of xhiSa—£uad it would be very desirable to be so: But, constituted as we are, it is impossible j and, in our delineation of such a scene, all that is minute and detached, however interesting or important to those who are at hand, must therefore be omitted—while the general effect is entrusted to masses in which nothing but the great outlines of great objects are preserved, and the details left to be inferred from the character of their results^ or the larger features of their usual accompanimeats.