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NEW SERIES - No. XVI.
Art. I. — The Library of the Old English Prose Writers.
Vol. I. Containing The Holy and Profane States, by Thomas FULLER; with some Account of the Author and his Writings. 16mo. Cambridge. Hilliard & Brown. 1831.
It has been the fate of old books, like most other old things, to be the subjects of unreasonable extremes of opinion. The judgments passed on times long since gone by appear, for the most part, to have leaned strongly either to indiscriminate and weak admiration, or to flippant contempt without examination. On the one hand, antiquity has been exalted at the expense of truth and justice. Many will allow nothing to be good, unless it be old; no modes of thinking to be sound, but such as have the sanction of more than one century at least ; and no virtues to be of very high desert, but those which have been practised by the men of other days. Even truth, it has been thought, is to be decided by the authority of dates; and those, who cannot plead for their opinions the defence of times grown grey with age, have been told that their cause is not worthy to be heard. On the other hand, partly from disgust at these absurdities, partly from habits of hasty and superficial thinking, some have resorted to the opposite extreme.
Considering antiquity as synonymous with error and weakness, they are disposed utterly to disparage the characters and the doings of the fathers. They look back upon their records
as the memorials of a generation, which we have left far behind in the career of excellence. Something like the condescension of pity is mingled with every view of their moral and intellectual qualities; their faults are exaggerated, or placed in strong lights; their virtues are depreciated, or overlooked; their views on all great subjects are described in the mass as encumbered with the narrowness and imperfection of their age; and their customs are mentioned only to excite the smile of self-complacent superiority, as if all that differs from present habits must of course be irrational or ludicrous. Thus, by ever running wide of the mark of impartiality, we neutralize or render useless whatever degree of justness our opinions may chance to possess.
To find a similar want of fairness and sobriety in estimating the literature of different periods, we need not take up the comparison between the times of classic antiquity and the present day. It may be seen in the treatment, which the productions of the fathers of English literature have received at the hands of their successors. If their station be computed according to the large scale of the world's ages, they are moderns. But they are in some sense ancients to us; for so rapidly do the generations of men pass away, and with them their tastes and forms of mental developement, that even two or three hundred years constitute what may be called antiquity, and give us occasion to speak of modes of writing and of thought extremely diverse from our own. That excessive admiration of the old writers, as such, which is sometimes carried to a degree of superstition scarcely inferior to the respect paid by the pagans to their deified heroes, is almost wholly confined to England. The black-letter mania is a passion, which, in its highest and most amusing forms at least, may be said to be quite unknown in this country. Even if we had the means of stimulating and gratifying it, — as we have not, yet
such are the character and circumstances of our community, that it would be long before such men as Ritson, Sir Egerton Brydges, and Dibdin would be produced among us,
long before we should have that class of fantastic devotees to time-hallowed paper and print, who will talk with all the fondness of true lovers of the good old books descended to us, whose backs and sides our careful grandsires buffed, and bossed, and boarded against the teeth of time, or more devouring ignorance, and whose leaves they guarded with brass,