Page images
PDF
EPUB

a slave-market, to see one child torn from them I constructed theories as rapidly and as slightly to dig in the quarries of Sicily, and another to as card-houses--no sooner projected than com. guard the harems of Persepolis; those were pleted-no sooner completed than blown away the frequent and probable consequences of na--no sooner blown away than forgotten. Ma. tional calamities. Hence, among the Greeks, chiavelli errs only because his experience, ac. patriotism became a governing principle, or quired in a very peculiar state of society, could rather an ungovernable passion. Both their not always enable him to calculate the effect legislators and their philosophers took it for of institutions differing from those of which he granted thai, in providing for the strength and bad observed the operation. Montesquieu errs greatness of the state, they sufficiently provid-because he has a fine thing to say and is reed for the happiness of the people. The writ- solved to say it. If the phenomena which lie ers of the Roman empire lived under despots before him will not suit his purpose, all history into whose dominion a hundred nations were must be ransacked. If nothing established by melted down, and whose gardens would have authentic testimony can be raked or chipped covered the little commonwealths of Phlius to suit his Procrustean hypothesis, he puis up and Platæa. Yet they continued to employ the with some monstrous fable about Siam, or same language, and to cant about the duty of Bantam, or Japan, told by writers compared sacrificing every thing to a country to which with whorn Lucian and Gulliver were vera. they owed nothing.

cious-liars by a double right, as travellers Causes similar to those which had influ- and as Jesuits. enced the disposition of the Greeks, operated Propriety of thought and propriety of diction powerfully on the less vigorous and daring are commonly found together. Obscurity and character of the Italians. They, too, were affectation are the two greatest faults of style. members of small communities. Every man Obscurity of expression generally spring from was deeply interested in the welfare of the so- confusion of ideas; and the same wish to dazciety to which he belonged--a partaker in its zle, at any cost, which produces affectation in wealth and its poverty, in its glory and its the manner of a writer, is likely to produce shame. In the age of Machiavelli this was pe sophistry in his reasonings. The judicious culiarly the case. Public events had produced and candid mind of Machiavelli shows itself an immense sum of money to private citizens. in his luminous. manly, and polished language. The northern invaders had brought want to The style of Montesquieu, on the other hand, their boards, infamy to their beds, fire to their indicates in every page a lively and ingenious, roofs, and the knife to their throats. It was but an unsound mind. Every trick of expres. natural that a man who lived in times like sion, from the mysterious conciseness of an these should overrate the importance of those oracle to the flippancy of a Parisian coxcomb, measures by which a nation is rendered formi-l is employed to disguise the fallacy of some dable to its neighbours, and undervalue those positions, and the triteness of others. Absurdi. which make it prospervus within itself. ties are brightened into epigrams; truisms are

Nothing is more remarkable in the political darkened into enigmas. It is with difficulty trea'ises of Machiavelli than the fairness of that the strongest eye can sustain the glare mind which they indicate. It appears where with which some parts are illuminated, or the author is in the wrong almost as strongly penetrate the shade in which others are conas where he is in the right. He never ad- cealed. vances a false opinion because it is new or The political works of Machiavelli derive a splendid, because he can clothe it in a happy peculiar interest from the mournful earnestness phrase or defend it by an ingenious sophism. which he manifests, whenever he touches on His errors are at ouce explained by a reference topics connected with the calamities of his na. to the circumstances in which he was placed. tive land. It is difficult to conceive any situaThey evidently were not sought out; they lay lion more painful than that of a great man, con. in his way and could scarcely be avoided. demned to watch the lingering agony of an ex. Such mistakes must necessarily be committed hausted country, to tend it during the alternate by early speculators in every science.

fits of stupefaction and raving which precede In this respect it is amusing to compare the its dissolution, to see the symptoms of vitality Prince and the Discourses with the Spirit of dissappear one by one, till nothing is left but Laws. Montesquieu enjoys, perhaps, a wider coldness, darkness, and corruption. To this celebrity than any political writer of modern 1 joyless and thankless duty was Machiavelli Europe. Something he doubtless owes to his called. In the energetic language of the pro. merit, but much more to his fortune. He had phet, he was “mad for the sight of his eyes the good luck of a valentine. He caught the which he saw,"-disunion in the council, effeeye of the French nation at the moment when minacy in the camp, liberty extinguished. com. it was waking from the long sleep of political | merce decaying, national honour sullied, an and religious bigutry, and in consequence he enlightened and flourishing people given rver became a favourite. The English at that time to the ferocity of ignorant savages. Though considered a Frenchman who talked about his opinions had not escaped the contagion of constitutional checks and fundamental laws, that political immorality which was comni a as a prodigy not less astonishing than the among his countrymen, his natural dispositiou learned pig or the musical infant. Specious seems to have been rather stern and imperii. but shallow, studious of effeci, indifferent to lous than pliant and artful. When the misery truth, eager to build a system, but careless of and degradation of Florence, and the foul oul. collecting those materials out of which alone rage which he had himself sustained roused a sound and durable system can be built, he his mind, the smooth craft of his profession and

VOL.I.-5

[graphic]
[graphic]
[graphic]
[graphic]

his nation is exchanged for the honest bitterness of scorn and anger. He speaks like one sick of the calamitous times and abject people among whom his lot is cast. He pines for the strength and glory of ancient Rome, for the fasces of Brutus and the sword of Scipio, the gravity of the curule chair, and the bloody pomp of the triumphal sacrifice. e seems to be transported back to the days, when eight hundred thousand Italian warriors sprung to arms at the rumour of a Gallic invasion. He breathes all the spirit of those intrepid and haughty patricians, who forgot the dearest ties of nature in the claims of public duty, who looked with disdain on the elephants and on the gold of Pyrrhus, and listened with unaltered composure to the tremendous tidings of Cannae. Like an ancient temple deformed by the barbarous architecture of a later age, his character acquires an interest from the very circumstances which debase it. The original proportions are rendered more striking, by the contrast which they present to the mean and incongruous additions. The influence of the sentiments which we have described was not apparent in his writings alone. His enthusiasm, barred from the career which it would have selected for itself, seems to have found a vent in desperate levity. He enjoyed a vindictive pleasure in outraging the opinions of a society which he despised. He became careless of those decencies which were expected from a man so highly distinguished in the literary and political world. The sarcastic bitterness of his conversation disgusted those who were more inclined to accuse his licentiousness than their own degeneracy, and

who were unable to conceive the strength of

those emotions which are concealed by the jests of the wretched, and by the follies of the wise. The historical works of Machiavelli still remain to be considered. The life of Castruccio Castracani will occupy us for a very short time, and would scarcely have demanded our notice, had it not attracted a much greater share of public attention than it deserves. Few books, indeed, could be more interesting than a careful and judicious account, from such a pen, of the illustrious Prince of Lucca, the most eminent of those Italian chiefs, who, like Pisistratus and Gelon, acquired a power felt rather than seen, and resting, not on law or on prescription, but on the public favour and on their great personal qualities. Such a work would exhibit to us the real nature of that species of sovereignty, so singular and so often misunderstood, which the Greeks denominated tyranny, and which modified in some degree by the feudal system, re-appeared in the commonwealths of Lombardy and Tuscany. But this little composition of Machiavelli is in no sense a history. It has no pretensions to fidelity. It is a trifle, and not a very successful trifle. It is scarcely more authentic than the novel of Belphegor, and is very much duller. The last great work of this illustrious man was the history of his native city. It was written by the command of the Pope, who, as chief of the house of Medici, was at that time sovereign of Florence. The characters of Cosmo,

of Piero, and of Lorenzo, are, however, treated with a freedom and impartiality equally honourable to the writer and to the patron. The miseries and humiliations of dependence, the bread which is more bitter than every other food, the stairs which are more painful than every other assent," had not broken the spirit of Machiavelli. The most corrupting post in a corrupt. ing profession had not depraved the generous heart of Clement. The history does not appear to be the fruit of much industry or research. It is unquestionably inaccurate. But it is elegant, lively, and picturesque, beyond any other in the Italian language. The reader, we believe, carries away from it a more vivid and a more faithful impression of the national character and manners, than from more correct accounts. The truth is, that the book belongs rather to ancient than to modern literature. It is in the style, not of Davila and Clarendon, but of Herodotus and Tacitus; and the classical histories may almost be called romances founded in fact. The relation is, no doubt, in all its principal points, strictly true. But the numerous little incidents which heighten the interest, the words, the gestures, the looks, are evidently furnished by the imagination of the author. The fashion of later times is different. A more exact narrative is given by the writer. It may be doubted whether more exact notions are conveyed to the reader. The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature; and we are not aware, that the best histories are not those in which a little of the exaggeration of fictitious narrative is judiciously employed. Something is lost in accuracy; but much is gained in effect. The sainter lines are neglected; but the great characteristic features are imprinted on the mind forever. The history terminates with the death of Lorenzo de Medici. Machiavelli had, it seems, intended to continue it to a later period. But his death prevented the execution of his design; and the melancholy task of recording the desolation and shame of Italy devolved on Guicciardini. Machiavelli lived long enough to see the commencement of the last struggle for Florentine liberty. Soon after his death, monarchy was finally established—not such a monarchy as that of which Cosmo had laid the foundations deep in the constitution and feelings of his countrymen, and which Lorenzo had embellished with the trophies of every science and every art; but a loathsome tyranny, proud and mean, cruel and feeble, bigoted and lascivious. The character of Machiavelli was hateful to the new masters of Italy; and those parts of his theory, which were in strict accordance with their own daily practice, afforded a pretext for blackening his memory. His works were misrepresented by the learned, misconstrued by the ignorant, censured by the church, abused, with all the rancour of simulated virtue, by the minions of a base despotism, and the priests of a baser superstition. The name of the man whose genius had illuminated all the dark places of policy, and to

" * Dante Paradiso, Canto xvii.

whose patriotic wisdom an oppressed people had owed their last chance of emancipation and revenge, passed into a proverb of infany For more than two hundred years his bones lay undistinguished. At length, an English nobleman paid the last honours to the greatest statesman of Florence. In the Church of Santa Croce, a monument was erected to his memory, which is contemplated with reverence by all who can distinguish the virtues

of a great mind through the corruptions of a degenerate age; and which will be approached with still deeper homage, when the object to which his public life was devoted shall be attained, when the foreign yoke shall be broken, when a second Proccita shall avenge the wrongs of Naples, when a happier Rienzi shall restore the good estate of Rome, when the streets of Florence and Bologna shall again resound with their ancient-war cry–Popolo; popolo; muoiano i tirannis

DRYDEN.”

[EDINBURGH Review, 1828.]

The public voice has assigned to Dryden the first place in the second rank of our poets —no mean station in a table of intellectual precedency so rich in illustrious names. It is allowed that, even of the few who were his superiors in genius, none has exercised a more extensive or permanent influence on the national habits of thought and expression. His life was commensurate with the period during which a great revolution in the public taste was effected; and in that revolution he played the part of Cromwell. By unscrupulously taking the lead in its wildest excesses, he obtained the absolute guidance of it. By trampling on laws, he acquired the authority of a legislator. By signalizing himself as the most daring and irreverent of rebels, he raised himself to the dignity of a recognised prince. He commenced his career by the most frantic outrages. He terminated it in the repose of established sovereignty—the author of a new code, the root of a new dynasty. Of Dryden, however, as of almost every man who has been distinguished either in the literary or in the political world, it may be said that the course which he pursued, and the effect which he produced, depended less on his personal qualities than on the circumstances in which he was placed. Those who have read history with discrimination know the fallacy of those panegyrics and invectives, which represent individuals as effecting great moral and intellectual" revolutions, subverting established systems, and imprinting a new character on their age. The difference between one man and another is by no means so great as the superstitious crowd supposes. But the same feelings which, in ancient Rome, produced the apotheosis of a popular emperor, and, in modern Rome, the canonization of a devout prelate, lead men to cherish an illusion which furnishes them with something to adore. By a law of association, from the operation of which even minds the most strictly regulated by reason are not wholly exempt, misery disposes us to hatred, and happiness to love, al

though there may be no person to whom our misery or our happiness can be ascribed. The peevishness of an invalid vents itself even on those who alleviate his pain. The good-humour of a man elated by success often displays itself towards enemies. In the same manner, the feelings of pleasure and admiration, to which the contemplation of great events gives birth, make an object where they do not find it. Thus, nations descend to the absurdities of Egyptian idolatry, and worship stocks and reptiles — Sacheverells and Wilkeses. They even fall prostrate before a deity to which they have themselves given the form which commands their veneration, and which, unless fashioned by then, would have remained' a shapeless block. They persuade themselves that they are the creatures of what they have themselves created. For, in fact, it is the age that forms the man, not the man that forms the age. Great minds do indeed react on the society which has made them what they are; but they only pay with interest what they have received. We extol Bacon, and sneer at Aquinas. But if their situations had been changed, Bacon might have been the Angelical Doctor, the most subtle Aristotelian of the schools; the Dominican might have led forth the sciences from their house of bondage. If Luther had been born in the tenth century, he would have effected no reformation. If he had never been born at all, it is evident that the sixteenth century could not have elapsed without a great schism in the church. Voltaire, in the days of Lewis the Fourteenth, would probably have been, like most of the literary men of that

time, a zealous Jansenist, eminent among the defenders of efficacious grace, a bitter assail

ant of the lax morality of the Jesuits and the unreasonable decisions of the Sorbonne. If Pascal had entered on his literary career, when intelligence was more general, and abuses at the same time more flagrant, when the church was polluted by the Iscariot Dubois, the court disgraced by the orgies of Canillae. and the nation sacrificed to the juggles of Law; if he had lived to see a dynasty of har

* The Poetical Works of Joux Day DEN. In two volumea University Edwion, London, 1826.

lots, an empty treasury and a crowded harem, an army formidable only to those whom *

*

shod have protected, a priesthood just reli- It is true that the man who is best able to gious enough to be intolerant, he might possi-jtake a machine to pieces, and who most clear

bly, like every man of genius in France, have imbibed extravagant prejudices against monarchy and Christianity. The wit which blasted the sophisms of Escobar, the impassioned eloquence which defended the sisters of Port Royal, the intellectual hardihood which was not beaten down even by Papal authority, might have raised him to the Patriarchate of the Philosophical Church. It was long disputed whether the honour of inventing the method of Fluxions belonged to Newton or to Leibnitz. It is now generally allowed that these great men made the same discovery at the same time. Mathematical science, indeed, had then reached such a point, that if neither of them had ever existed, the principle must inevitably have occurred to some person within a few years. So in our own time the doctrine of rent now universally received by political economists, was propounded almost at the same moment, by two writers unconnected with each other. Preceding speculators had long been blundering round about it; and it could not possibly have been missed much longer by the most heedless inquirer. We are inclined to think that, with respect to every great addition which has been made to the stock of human knowledge, the case has been similar; that without Copernicus we should have been Copernicans, that without Columbus America would have been discovered, that without Locke we should have possessed a just theory of the origin of human ideas. Society indeed has its great men and its little men, as the earth has its mountains and its valleys. But the inequalities of intellect, like the inequalities of the surface of our globe, bear so small a proportion to the mass, that, in calculating its great revoJutions, they may safely be neglected. The sun illuminates the hills, while it is still below the horizon; and truth is discovered by the highest minds a little before it becomes manifest to the multitude. This is the extent of their superiority. They are the first to catch and reflect a light, which, without their assistance, must, in a short time, be visible to those who lie far beneath them. The same remark will apply equally to the fine arts. The laws on which depend the progress and decline of poetry, painting, and sculpture, operate with little less certainty than those which regulate the periodical returns of heat and cold, of fertility and barrenness. Those who seem to lead the public taste, are, in general, merely outrunning it in the direction which it is spontaneously pursuing. Without a just apprehension of the laws to which we have alluded, the merits and defects of Dryden can be but imperfectly understood. We will, therefore, state what we conceive them to be The ages in which the masterpieces of imagination have been produced, have by no means been those in which taste has been most correct. It seems that the creative faculty and the critical faculty cannot exist together in their highest persection. The causes of this phenomenon it is not difficult to assign.

ly comprehends the manner in which all its wheels and springs conduce to its general ef. fect, will be the man most competent to form another machine of similar power. In all the branches of physical and moral science which admit of perfect analysis, he who can resolve will be able to combine... But the analysis which criticism can effect of poetry is neces. sarily imperfect. - One element must forever elude its researches; and that is the very element by which poetry is poetry. In the description of nature, for example, a judicious reader will easily detect an incongruous image. But he will find it impossible to explain in what consists the art of a writer who, in a few words, brings some spot before him so vividly that he shall know it as if he had lived there from childhood; while another, employing the same materials, the same verdure, the same water, and the same flowers, committing no inaccuracy, introducing nothing which can be positively pronounced superfluous, omitting nothing which can be positively pronounced necessary, shall produce no more effect than an advertisement of a capital residence and a desirable pleasure-ground. To take another example, the great features of the character of Hotspur are obvious to the most superficial reader. We at once perceive that his courage

is splendid, his thirst of glory intense, his ani

mal spirits high, his temper careless, arbitrary, and petulant; that he indulges his own humour without caring whose feelings he may woundor whose enmity he may provoke, by his levity. Thus far criticism will go. But soemthing is still wanting. A man might have all those qualities, and every other quality which the most minute examiner can introduce into his catalogue of the virtues and faults of Hot. spur, and yet he would not be Hotspur. Almost everything that we have said of him applies equally to Falconbridge. Yet in the mouth of Falconbridge, mos. of his speeches would seem out of place. Li real life, this perpetually occurs. We ar. sensible of wide differences between men wbum, if we are required to describe them, we should describe in almost the same terms. If we were attempting to draw elaborate characters of f.em, we should scarcely be able to point out any strong distinction; yet we approach them with feelings altogether dissimilar. We cannot ounceive of them as using the expressions or gestures of each other. Let us suppose that a zoologist should attempt to give an account of some animal, a porcupine for instance, to people who had never seen it. The porcupine, he might say, is of the genus mammalia, and the order gliris. There are whiskers on its face; it is two feet long; it has four toes before, five behind, two foreteeth, and eight grinders. Its body is covered with hair and quills. And when all this had been said, would any one of the auditors have formed a just idea of a porcupine? Would any two of them have formed the same idea! There might exist innumerable races of animals, possessing all the characteristics which have been mentioned, yet altogether unlike to each other. What the description of our natu

ralist is to a real porcupine, the remarks of criticism are to the images of poetry. What it so imperfectly decomposes, it cannot persectly reconstruct. It is evidently as impossible to produce an Othello or a Macbeth by reversing an analytical process so defective as it would be for an anatomist to form a living man out of the fragments of his dissecting room. In both cases, the vital principle eludes the finest instruments, and vanishes in the very instant in which its seat is touched. Hence those who, trusting to their critical skill, attempt to write poems, give us not images of things, but catalogues of qualities. Their characters are allegories; not good men and bad men, but cardinal virtues and deadly sins. We seem to have fallen among the acquaintances of our old friend Christian: sometimes we meet Mistrust and Timorous: sometimes Mr. Hate-good and Mr. Love-lust; and then again Prudence, Piety, and Charity.

That critical discernment is not sufficient to make men poets is generally allowed. Why it should keep them from becoming poets, is not perhaps equally evident. But the fact is, that poetry requires not an examining, but a believing frame of mind. Those feel it most, and write it best, who forget that it is a work of art; to whom its imitations, like the realities from which they are taken, are subjects not for connoisseurship, but for tears and laughter, resentment and affection, who are too much under the influence of the illusion to admile the genius which has produced it; who are too much frightened for Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus, to care whether the pun about Outis be good or bad; who forget that such a person as Shakspeare ever existed, while they weep and curse with Lear. It is by giving faith to the creations of the imagination that a man becomes a poet. It is by treating those creations as deceptions, and by resolving them, as nearly as possible, into their elements, that he becomes a critic. In the moment in which the skill of the artist is perceived, the spell of the art is broken.

These considerations account for the absurdities into which the greatest writers have fallen, when they have attempted to give general rules for composition, or to pronounce judgment on the works of others. They are unaccustomed to analyze what they feel; they, therefore, perpetually refer their emotions to causes which have not in the slightest degree tended to produce them. They feel pleasure in reading a book. They never consider that this pleasure may be the effect of ideas, which some unmeaning expression, striking on the first link or a chain of associations, may have called up in their own minds—that they have themselves furnished to the author the beauties which they admire.

Cervantes is the delight of all classes of readers. Every schoolboy thumbs to pieces the most wretched translations of his romance, and knows the lantern jaws of the Knighterrant, and the broad cheeks of the Squire, as well as the faces of his own playfellows. The most experienced and fastidious judges are amazed at the perfection of that art which extracts inextinguishable laughter from the

greatest of human calamities, without oncevio lating the reverence due to it; at that discriminating delicacy of touch which makes a character exquisitely ridiculous without impairing its worth, its grace, or its dignity. In Don Quixote are several dissertations on the principles of poetic and dramatic writing. No passages in the whole workezhibitstronger marks of labour and attention; and no passages in any work with which we are acquainted are more worthless and puerile. Inourtime they would scarcely obtain admittance into the literary department of the Morning Post. Every reader of the Divine Comedy must be struck by the veneration: which Dante expresses for writers far inferior to himself. He will not list up his eyes from the ground in the presence of Brunetto, all whose works are not worth the worst of his own hundred cantos. He does not venture to walk in the same line with the bombastic Statius. His admiration of Virgil is absolute idolatry. If indeed it had been excited by the elegant, splendid and harmonious diction of the Roman poet, it would not have been altogether unreasonable; but it is rather as an authority on all points of philosophy, than as a work of imagination, that he values the Æneid. The most trivial passages he regards as oracles of the highest authority, and of the most recondite meaning. He describes his conductor as the sea of all wisdom, the sun which heals every disordered sight. As he judged of Virgil, the Italians of the fourteenth century judged of him; they were proud of him; they praised him; they struck medals bearing his head; they quarrelled for the honour of possessing his remains; they maintained professors to expound his writings. But what they admired was not that mighty imagination which called a new world into existence, and made all its sights and sounds familiar to the eye and ear of the mind. They said little of those awful and lovely creations on which later critics delight to dwell–Farinata lifting his haughty and tranquil brow from his couch of everlasting fire—the lion-like repose of Sordello—or the light which shone from the celestial smile of Beatrice. They extolled their great poet for his smattering of ancient literature and history; for his logic and his divinity; for his absurd physics, and his more absurd metaphysics; for everything but that in which he pre-eminently excelled. Like the fool in the story, who ruined his dwelling by digging for gold, which, as he had dreamed, was concealed under its foundations, they laid waste one of the noblest works of human genius, by seeking in it for buried treasures of wisdom, which existed only in their own wild reveries. The finest passages were little valued till they had been debased into some monstrous allegory. Louder applause was given to the lecture on fate and free-will, or to the ridiculous astronomical theories, than to those cremendous lines which disclose the secrets of the tower of hunger; or to that half-told tale ct guilty love, so passionate and so full of tears. We do not mean to say that the contempo: raries of Dante read, with less emotion than their descendants, of Ugolino groping among the wasted corpses “,his children, or of Fran

« PreviousContinue »