« PreviousContinue »
physics which were taught in the decline of the Roman empire. It was somewhat unfortunate that the infancy of English learning was supported by the dotage of the Roman, and that even the spring head whence they drew their instructions was itself corrupted. However, the works of the great masters of the ancient science still remained; but in natural philosophy the worst was the most fashionable. The Epicurean physics, the most approaching to rational, had long lost all credit, by being made the support of an impious theology and a loose morality. The fine visions of Plato fell into some discredit, by the abuse which heretics had made of them; and the writings of Aristotle seem to have been then the only ones much regarded, even in natural philosophy, in which branch of science alone they are unworthy of him. Beda entirely follows his system. The appearances of Nature are explained by matter and form, and by the four vulgar elements; acted upon by the four supposed qualities of hot, dry, moist, and cold. His astronomy is on the common system of the ancients; sufficient for the few purposes to which they applied it; but otherwise imperfect and grossly erroneous. He makes the moon larger than the earth; though a reflection on the nature of eclipses, which he understood, might have satisfied him of the contrary. But he had so much to copy that he had little time to examine. These speculations, however erroneous, were still useful; for though men err in assigning the causes of natural operations, the works of nature are by this means brought under their consideration; which cannot be done without enlarging the mind. The science may be false, or frivolous; the improvement will be real. It may be here remarked, that soon afterwards the monks began to apply themselves to astronomy and chronology, from the disputes which were carried on with so much heat, and so little effect, concerning the proper time of celebrating Easter; and the English owed the cultivation of these noble sciences to one of the most trivial controversies of ecclesiastic discipline. Beda did not confine his attention to those superior sciences. He treated of music, of rhetoric, of grammar, and the art of versification, and of arithmetic, both by letters and on the fingers: and his work on this last subject is the only one in which that antique piece of curiosity has been preserved to us. All these are short pieces; some of them are in the catechetical method, and seemed designed for the immediate use of the pupils in his monastery, in order to furnish them with some leading ideas in the rudiments of these arts, then newly introduced into this country. He likewise made, and probably for the same purpose, a very ample and valuable collection of short philosophical, political, and moral maxims from Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, and other sages of heathen antiquity. He made a separate book of shining commonplaces and remarkable passages, extracted from the works of Cicero; of whom he was a great admirer, though he seems not to have been a happy or diligent imitator of his style. From a view of these pieces we may form an idea of what stock in the sciences the English at that time possessed; and what advances they had
made. That work of Beda, which is the best known and most esteemed, is the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Disgraced by a want of choice, and frequently by a confused ill disposition of his matter, and blemished with a degree of credulity next to infantine, it is still a valuable, and for the time a surprising, performance. The book opens with a description of this island, which would not have disgraced a classical author; and he has prefixed to it a chronological abridgment of sacred and profane history, connected from the beginning of the world; which, though not critically adapted to his main design, is of far more intrinsic value, and indeed displays a vast fund of historical erudition. On the whole, though this father of the English learning seems to have been but a genius of the middle class, neither elevated nor subtil, and one who wrote in a low style, simple, but not elegant, yet when we reflect upon the time in which he lived, the place in which he spent his whole life, within the walls of a monastery, in so remote and wild a country, it is impossible to refuse him the praise of an incredible industry, and a generous thirst of knowledge.
That a nation who, not fifty years before, had but just begun to emerge from a barbarism so perfect, that they were unfurnished even with an alphabet, should, in so short a time, have established so flourishing a seminary of learning, and have produced so eminent a teacher, is a circumstance which I imagine no other nation besides England can boast. Burke.
He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily: when he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is every where alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of the poets,—
Quantum tenta solent inter vibnrna capitis.
The consideration of this made Mr. Hales, of Eton, say, that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare. Dryden.
• * • «
If ever any author deserved the name of an original, it was Shakspeare: Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of nature; it proceeded through Egyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models of those before him. The poetry of Shakspeare was inspiration indeed: he is not so much an imitator as an instrument of nature; and it is not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him.
His characters are so much nature herself, that it is a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, which shows that they received them from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image; each picture, like a mock rainbow, is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every single character in Shakspeare is as much an individual, as those in life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation and affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will, upon comparison, be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays, that had all the speeches been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.
The power over our passions was never possessed in a more eminent degree, or displayed in so different instances. Yet all along, there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide or guess to the effect, or be perceived to lead toward it: but the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places: