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PROPOSALS FOR SETTING FIRE TO PATERNOSTER ROW.
Quag tu dizisti nngas, non esse putasti;
"Young folks talk of what they are doing, old ones of what they have done, fools of what they wish to do ;"—it's unfortunately true, and still more unfortunate that I must include myself in the latter class; for here have I been wishing, during a whole rainy morning, to write a paper for the New Monthly, and threatening most fiercely to perform it the moment I could hit upon a subject. With this, however, I still remain as unprovided as the ex-Emperor Iturbidu, or any of the ejected majesties of Napoleon's family, most of whom have nevertheless been recently writing and publishing, and I begin to think it perfectly unnecessary to make any such provision before one sits down to compose either an essay or a book. Committing one's thoughts to paper is a favourite phrase with many writers, who are merely transcribing the thoughts of others, or evincing the total want of any such progeny of the brain in their own persons. Literary highwaymen of the former class sometimes wear a crape to prevent detection; sometimes, as Sheridan says, they alter and disfigure their plagiarisms to avoid discovery, like gipsies who disguise their stolen children to make them pass for their own; and he might have added that when they take hold of them by the wrong end, and drag them willy-nilly into the empty chambers of their brain, they are like Cacus who served the herd of Hercules in the same way, that they might appear to have issued from his den, instead of having been purloined and forced into it. Every body knows that extempores require a good deal of deliberation, but it is not so generally understood that the most profound writing is best executed when it is entirely unpremeditated. There are shoals of thoughts, as of fish, which lie upon the surface ready to fill our nets at the first hawl; while, if we sink our tackle deeper we shall probably bring up nothing but sand, and sea-weed, or something even "vilior alga." Besides, we cannot plunge them so low without a good many leaden weights, dangerous accessories to a writer, who may be carried by them down to the waters of oblivion, which, as every body knows who has read Sadak and Kalasrade, are not to be tasted without death.
If one's own nonsense be not better than another man's sense, it is at least more original—no mean praise in this golden age of plagiarism. If Horace could exclaim against the servile crew of imitators—Heavens! how would he now ejaculate and apostrophise, when the human faculties remaining the same, and the field in which they are to be exercised unenlarged, the number of competitors is increased a thousand-fold, until the writers threaten to exceed the readers! Well might Champfort assert that the greater portion of modern books have the air of being written in the morning, with the assistance of those read on the previous afternoon. What are termed original communications are the last new combination from old materials, and our profound writers are like mirrors which merely reflect the images of others. A pond is not the less shallow because a mountain seems to be inverted in its bosom, nor is the page the deeper or the more powerful, because the literary giants of antiquity may be made to figure upon its surface.
206 Proposals for setting Fire to Paternoster Row.
Our present enormous mass of publication could never exist but tbat one half generates and supports the other, throwing out fresh props as it enlarges itself, like the sacred tree of India. One book affords nourishment to fifty, or five hundred magazines and reviews, from which, in due time, some diligent gleaner collects materials for a new work and a new host of reviewers; so that we keep fulfilling the squirrers circle, always going on and making a mighty clatter in our little cage, but never advancing. It is so much easier to review books than to write them, to detect faults than to avoid them, to compare than to" invent, that it is probable the critical system will continue expanding until it becomes a disease, a monstrous wen, which the body of our literature may for a certain term nourish and enlarge, but which ultimately will, in the intellectual, as in the human subject, finish by destroying its supporter.
It is ridiculous to expect originality; presumptuous to claim it. What! lias the world existed for six thousand years, and are Simpkins or Jinkins to hit upon a bright thought which escaped the penetration of Socrates and Plato, and every individual of those innumerable generations, whose wits have been fermenting and cogitating since the days of Adam! Now and then, indeed, we may recover something that has been long lost, and of which we cannot ascertain the original owner, but we are no more its authors than we are the coiners of the shilling which we may accidentally pick up at Charing-cross. Like old-clothes-men our minds can only dabble in what our predecessors have worn and thrown away; our rarest originalities have once been common-places, our novelties were antiquities to our ancestors. We learn something that time has forgotten, and then demand a patent of invention and discovery. The world is a round robin ending where it begins. Cities are built of the ruins of cities, one generation of human bodies fattens the earth for the sustenance of the next, and their minds follow the same course; yet cities, bodies, and minds, are pretty much what they were three thousand years ago. Our mental stature is as unchangeable as our corporeal. In the early ages there were Titans in both, for men were measured after death by their exploits when living; and when the sun of history and literature was only rising, a little hero or a diminutive mind might cast a very long shadow, and of course afford a very fallacious standard. In our present meridian days we are reduced to our proper level, and it is nearly a permanent one. Time must laugh in his sleeve when he sees us strutting in our borrowed plumes, piquing ourselves upon our stale originalities, and fancying ourselves very bright-eyed, because we have lost sight of old knowledge so long, that when we stumble upon it we mistake it for new.
Thrice happy the author who lived soon after the Caliph Omar, when books were scarce, and nearly all that existed were destroyed in the Alexandrian library! If any critic presumed to twit him with plagiarism, he would dare him to prove his assertion, and in the impossibility of compliance insist upon his recalling it. Commentators have remarked that the reviewers of this period were more than usually foulmouthed, arising probably from the great number who had been thus compelled to eat their own words. Like the Gentilhomme Bourgeois of Moliere, who had been speaking prose all his life without dreaming of his cleverness, every writer of this enviable period became suddenly Proposals for setting fire to Paternoster Row. 207
original without even suspecting the fact. To whom was he to be traced? The books that might convict him had warmed the Turkish baths, been converted into smoke and vapour, and ascended into the skies to rejoin their authors. No fear of his suffering the fate of the modern, who pathetically complained that Shakspeare had said all his good things before him. He stepped down into a field of literature, unplucked, unploughed, untrodden; and whether he collected weeds, thistles, or flowers, every body was ready to exclaim, "O what a rare posy!" Authors at that fortunate epoch were, like the followers of Columbus, invading the New World, who hail nothing to do but to pick up the treasures beneath their feet, until the poorest soldier became suddenly enriched. The first literary foragers soon robbed nature of every thing she had to offer, and we must either pilfer from them or pluck one another, unless we embrace the easy alternative which some have chosen—that of being unnatural. Though reason is exhausted, folly may still be original—a hint which we moderns should most seriously perpend. He who wishes to confer a benefit upon the existing generation should discover some process for accelerating oblivion. Instead of writing that they may be read, men read that they may write; and as the perusers have all access to the same fountains, they seem to be perpetually drinking the same beverage through different diluters. Folks now-a-days write faster than we can forget, nay, there are some who even scribble more rapidly than we can read. To him who is fond of books a good memory is the wand of Sancho Panza's physician, which whisked away the taste of every thing that might have been most grateful to his palate. Who has not often wished to forget some former feast of reason that he might enjoy a new banquet? Who has not often envied youth, or even mature ignorance, when he sees them devouring for the first time Don Quixote or Gil Bias? Magliabechi was not only conversant with the contents of every volume in the immense library of which he was the guardian, but could indicate its exact position amid the numerous shelves. Reading was his sole delight, and yet he was obliged to abandon it because he could meet with nothing new, and could no longer interest his head in that which he knew by heart. Could he have decompounded this immense mass of literature, and condensed it into its first elements, it is possible that all the generations of human minds as well as of their bodies might be traced back and limited to one original man and one original volume.
To a certain extent we are all in the melancholy situation of Magliabechi. We have arrived at a crisis from which we can only escape by some desperate expedient, and as none seems more effectual or practicable than that adopted by the provident Caliph Omar, I would respectfully submit to the public the propriety of calling a general meeting—" To consider the wisdom, in the present alarming state of our literature, of a general book-combustion, to be commenced by setting fire to Paternoster Row.":—This would be attacking the enemy in his head-quarters: the public and private libraries might subsequently be piled up in Smithfield or other appointed ustrinae, and a day be proclaimed for their indiscriminate cremation. Heavy fines should be imposed for secreting a single volume, but as no evil could result from the conservation of such'books as are never read, it may be right to make a special exception in favour of the Roxburgh Club, the reprints of the Archaica, Heliconia, and other collections of scarce rubbish. The author Of this proposition, who knows the exact value of his productions, would willingly throw himself into the fire, (in print,) like a second Curtius, for the good of his country, an example which he trusts would not be lost upon his brethren. After having suffered our minds to lie fallow for a reasonable time, we should then all start fait, readers as well as writers, to enjoy a new youth of intellect, and luxuriate in the fresh bloom and May-day blossoming of an untrodden Parnassus. We should be like the Argonauts of the early world, who encountered some enchanting vision or supernatural beauty at every step they took. Unhaunted by literary reminiscences, we should realise the averment that " men are but children of a larger growth," and plunge into the pages of the poet with all the raciness and enthusiasm of our boyhood.
Make ready then, ye patriotic authors—present your works with alacrity—and hesitate not when the command is given—tojire!
A Pair of Ear-rings.
Happy the man in music nursed!
Toward Phoebus' Temple beckoned;
And takes at sight the second.
Not mine that tuneful height to gain,
And yet, to stem disaster,
Some few duettos master.
Kate, fair preceptress, taught me well,
By dint of toil, to bellow
And Mayer's " Vecchierello."
Push'd on by her assiduous aid,
Through '• Con un Aria" next I strayed,
Thus taught my tuneful part to bear,
To Kate, assiduous girl,
Of ear-rmgs, deck'd with pearl.
My Mercury to Kate's abode
On agile pinions flew,
Brought back this billet-doux :—
"A boon like this, dear Sir, appears
The best you can bestow:
You 've bored them long ago."
CHARACTERISTIC EPISTLKS.— NO. 1£.
Jfvowi the Collection of an Amateur.
As we ventured to express our opinions in regard to letters generally, in the introductory remarks to the first number of these papers, we shall, in this and the subsequent ones, indulge ourselves in little more than a few prefatory words on each specimen, as we present it for perusal; for, if we are for once pretty confident in our expectations of affording amusement to the reader by the matter we shall offer to him, our confidence arises from the certainty that what we are presenting is, in every instance, the genuine and unalloyed effusion of the heart and mind from which it proceeded; that it is always written with perfect good faith—& sentence which can be scarcely pronounced of any thing that was ever yet written expressly for the public eye. We shall venture, also, to linger a little longer among the theatrical letters; because this subject is at all times one of almost universal interest; and because, moreover, it is capable of taking a firmer and more effective hold of the mind, for the time being, than most others, and is consequently calculated to produce more characteristic results.
The first specimen we shall present may be accepted as one of the most compendious examples of amateur criticism that has lately been penned. The critical acumen displayed throughout is scarcely surpassed by that of " my Grandmother's Review" on similar matters; the happiness of the various epithets is perfect; and the modesty of the critic in preserving a strict anonyme, cannot be too much admired!—. What, too, can be more conclusive than the reason he gives why tragedy is sometimes "too deep"—viz. that the heart is seldom sufficiently " loaded with sorrow" to be able to bear so great an additional load? And what, in fine, can be more delicate, and at the same time decisive, than the distinction that he draws between tragedy and comedy—viz. that the one is "quite the reverse" of the other?
To Charles Mathews, Esq.
London, April 18, 1818.
Sir,—I am very sorry to hear that you have been indisposed, but hope it will not be for a long continuance, and hope you will soon be able to honor the public with your company—which has met with unbounded applause. I had rather go three miles out of my way to see you—which I shall do if you appear on Saturday. Not even the stalking Hamlet or the deep and lovmg Romeo and Juliet, or the great Kemble or the mighty Kean, should debar me from a glimpse of yourself Little as you may think of what I write to you in this letter, I can assure you all I write is true even to my very heart. In becoming a spectator of Romeo and Juliet, which I once saw, and in which Miss O'Neil performed Juliet and Mr. C. Kemble Romeo, it appeared a well-written tragedy, but almost too deep unless the heart is naturally loaded with sorrow. Unless a man is a deep studiosum he cannot enjoy such a scene as Romeo and Juliet. The dirge is the mo9t impressive and likewise the most pleasant. Now, on the other hand, a comedy pleases—and not only so, but 'tis quite the reverse to tragedy of course.
Teasing made Easy I thought was very entertaining and at the same time instructing—light and not burthensome—-jocular and witty. The Actor of all Work was well acted—superior to any thmg exhibited at this present time. Mackbcth may be reckoned as being one of the finest and at the same time deepest of Shakespear's tragedys—so likewise Richard 3rd and Coriolanus. 1 have read all these tragedys twice through, to which may be added Julius vOL. XI. NO. Xl.v. P