Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

nay silver clasps, against the assaults of worm and weather.' * The bibliomaniac is a character, for whom our young and bustling nation scarcely affords a place; and the shafts of satire, which have so often been aimed at his pursuits in the mother country, would here be wasted on the empty air. The joy of possessing the only known copy of a volume, in pursuit of which the anxious diligence of all other antiquarians has been at fault, and which would lose its value if its fellow could be found, is a pleasure we have not learned to taste or reverence. Engrossed, as we are, in the topics of the day or the year, and devoted to the useful and the practical, we read with a smile of contempt, or with a look of wonder, the accounts of book sales in the English metropolis, at which noblemen and scholars, in the eager competition of the auction-room, add guineas to guineas and pounds to pounds for some antique poem of a few leaves, or some thin duodecimo extremely rare, as the catalogues say; nor is it for us to understand the heartach of unsuccessful rivals, when the fall of the fate-deciding hammer shuts out hope, and appropriates irrecoverably the coveted treasure.

With trifling such as this we may well be content to dispense; though it would not be difficult to show, that this literary extravagance, like some other forms of extravagance, has its uses, and that while the waste labors of such enthusiasm are harmless, and soon forgotten, there may be circumstances under which its services are not unimportant to the interests of letters. But we would protest against the follies of the literary antiquarian being permitted to bring discredit on a good cause. There is a manly, healthful, and invigorating taste for the old masters of English literature and theology, which we deem valuable as a source of mental discipline and power, and which we think has not been sufficiently cultivated among us. They should be loved and studied, not merely because they belong to past generations, but on account of real excellencies, not because time has cast a reverend appearance over their large volumes, but because these volumes contain a great deal to enrich, strengthen, and kindle the mind. In England this venerable class of writers seem to have grown into much favor within a few years, if we may judge from the new editions of their works, or the reprints of separate portions of them, which have frequently appeared, and from the comments, illustrations, and critical notices, to which they have given occasion. This, we are aware, is no unerring index of the public taste; for it doubtless happens to these authors, as it has to many others, to be more praised than read. The commendation bestowed on the illustrious dead is not always a proof, that their spirit has been sought or imbibed. Probably the cases are not few in literature like that of Reynolds in his art, who, we are told, exhorted his pupils with unceasing earnestness, as his first and last charge to them, to study and imitate the works of the old masters of painting continually, while he himself devoted his great powers to a more gainful and an easier department of the art, in which, it is thought, few traces are to be found of any important influence derived from his admiration of the antique school. But whether the love of ancient English literature has become, or will become, a popular taste or not, it is nevertheless true, that some of the best British writers of modern times have drunk deeply from these fountains. It has been common to ascribe some of the vices of Johnson's style to his partiality for the works of Sir Thomas Browne but, if the charge be not without foundation, may we not also trace to the same source some of the better qualities in his manner of writing, his energy and completeness of expression, his forceful words, and strong though stately sentences ? Malone affirms that the works of Burke bear testimony to the good influence derived from the very high admiration, which he always avowed for the prose writings of Dryden, who, though he does not, strictly speaking, belong to the class of old English authors, may be regarded as nearly the last, who caught their spirit and power, before the altered tone which literature received from the wits of Anne's reign.

* Nichols's Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, Vol. iv.

P. 108.

If it were only for the assistance rendered by the old writers in enabling us to fill up the outline of the picture of their times, we should regard them as amply worthy of a familiar acquaintance on the part of the curious inquirer. It is surely no small help to the diligent observer of man, to have the features of any period preserved, not in set descriptions, for these may be liable to suspicion, — but in the undesigned developements, which occur in the lines traced by the busy and strong minds of the time. The narrative of the historian, even in its most interesting and faithful form, affords but an imperfect, and comparatively faint conception of the peculiarities of an age. We are placed at a distance from the scene, and look on with somewhat of the coldness of a remote spectator. The historian seems to stand between us and what he describes, acting the part of a third person, who gives us the forms of things in the shape and color they have taken in passing through his own mind, perhaps in obedience to some favorite theory. It is better than a gratification of curiosity, — it is one of the best aids to the philosophical study of man, - to be able by any means to transplant ourselves into the midst of a past age, so as to have a fresh and distinct apprehension of the interests and characters belonging to it, a feeling of reality and acquaintance with regard to its pursuits and predominant traits. This desirable sort of knowledge is to be acquired mainly by the study of those authors who wrote, as it were, on the spot, and in the quaint but interesting style of familiarity with the events and the men of their day. They give us the fashions of thought and the forms of speculation, the prejudices and improvements, the weaknesses and the strong points, the intellectual, moral, and religious advancement or backsliding of their period, in short, the form and pressure' of the times; and we thence learn more satisfactorily, than from any other source, the place and value which are to be assigned to their century in a philosophical survey of man's progress. The volumes of ancient date help us to recover and to keep bright those impressions, which in the course of time were fading away in the indistinctness of general views. By means of them we preserve the animating touches of reality, which imagination tells us we should find, if we could summon the men of those days from the slumber of the tomb, and by personal acquaintance gather their opinions and treasure up the information they would have to bestow. History dwells so much, sometimes so exclusively, on the outward and showy doings of a community; it describes a battle so much more frequently and better, than an intellectual movement, that we feel the want of some insight deeper and more true to reality, than it commonly undertakes to afford; and this want will doubtless be best supplied from the sources we have indicated.

But a large proportion of these writers have a strong claim upon our attention for other reasons. We think that in their volumes are to be found some of the richest treasures of

thought and wisdom, some of the most beautiful and splendid imagery, some of the happiest illustrations, and some of the most acute and profound exhibitions of argumentative power, which our language affords. They wrote with a fulness of intellect, a complete mastery of their subject, not often found in modern literature. They seem to have grown up under a discipline adapted to make their minds large and robust; and they unburthened them on whatever topic with a prodigal abundance, which is frequently indeed wearisome, and sometimes runs riot in repulsive extravagance, but which is the source of a power and excellence scarcely witnessed since their day.

When they address the reader, they seem to take the chair of instruction like those, who feel that they are worthy to sit there; and we are at once conscious of being in the presence of minds, that are to be treated with no common reverence. Their plentiful stores of learning were not accumulated in vain ; and, if not poured forth with sufficient moderation and good judgment, were used with effect when they had a speculation to pursue, a duty to enforce, a truth to teach, or a point to illustrate. They were not, as we are apt to suppose, a tribe of heavy scholars, “ dreaming away their years in the arms of studious retirement, like Endymion with the moon, as the tale of Latmus goes,” but for the most part, if not personally actors in busy or agitating scenes, they stood in no idle connexion with such scenes; and amidst the trials and exigencies of their time, they held not their scholarship as lazy possessors, but as efficient workmen. We know that in stating their merits, there has been occasionally a species of heedless exaggeration. It was once said, and has been often repeated, with regard to the old writers, especially the old divines, that there were giants on the earth in those days,' — intellectual heroes of large forms and noble bearing, who have passed away from the world, — that such men are now no more, and that they have left their productions to be the study of a degenerate race, who must regard them as the naturalist regards the discovered remains of a class of animals now extinct. In all this there is unquestionably much extravagance, much of that silly affectation, which thinks it looks like wisdom to disparage the present or the near, and to observe no measure in extolling the past or the distant. Still we maintain, that in ranging over the literary and intellectual efforts of man, we shall not often find in the whole compass of the survey better stores of well ripened wisdom, nor strike upon more precious veins of manly, nervous, farreaching thought, than among the English ancients. Their labors have certainly furnished to many of a later day ample materials or helps; their gold has been beaten out into less ponderous forms; the treasure, which they cast forth, has been taken up, and moulded into diverse shapes according to the wants or the fashion of the times, or analyzed that the art of producing new treasures may be learned. Can any one read the Defence of Poesy,' in which imagination, fine thought, and learning are wrought into such beautiful and chivalrous forms by Sidney, “warbler of poetic prose,' as Cowper calls him, or the · Hydriotaphia,' the Religio Medici, or the Christian Morals' of Sir Thomas Browne, over whose wisdom a rich and mellow coloring is spread, imparting to it an effect like that of fine old paintings; or the Essays' of Lord Bacon, whose marvellous genius has left the print of its mighty grasp in practical morals, as well as in the new creation of science; or the 'Areopagitica' of Milton, that noble production of a lofty and most affluent mind; can any one, we ask, read such works as these not to mention a long list of others which might be adduced, - and then say, that there is not a spirit there, with which it is worth while to go apart and hold communion ? Is there not something there, with which our minds may be nourished and built up ? Is the voice, which sounds forth from these distant places of English intellect, to be unheeded, because it speaks in a tone different from any we hear among our contemporaries ? Shall the forms of departed great ones be despised, because their garb is in a fashion different from our own ? While we are busy with picking up such treasures, as may be had on the surface of the ground, shall we not do well to remember, that there are mines beneath, the ore of which, if it should cost us some labor, will richly repay us for our trouble? We cannot but think, that the lover of English literature and of mental greatness should regard these old masters, as the ancient Romans are said to have regarded the family images of their distinguished fathers, arranged in the order of time around the halls of their dwellings, presenting at once venerable memorials and stimulating examples.

We rate the value of these authors high on another account. They present an exhibition of one of the forms, through which

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »