« PreviousContinue »
THE LANDING PLACE:
OR ESSAYS INTERPOSED FOR AMUSEMENT, RETROSPECT,
MISCELLANY THE FIRST.
Etiam a Musis si quando animum paulisper abducamus, apud Musas nihilominus feriamur: at reclines quidem, at otiosas, at de his et illis inter se libere colloquentes.
THE LANDING PLACE.
O blessed letters ! that combine in one
Since writings are the veins, the arteries,
The intelligence, which produces or controls human actions and occurrences, is often represented by the Mystics under the name and notion of the supreme harmonist. I do not myself approve 'of these metaphors: they seem to imply a restlessness to understand that which is not among the appointed objects of our comprehension or discursive faculty. But certainly there is one excellence in good music, to which, without mysticism, we may find or make an analogy in the records of history. I allude to that sense of recognition, which accompanies our sense of novelty in the most original passages of a great composer. If we listen to a symphony of Cimarosa, the present strain still seems not only to recall, but almost to renew, some past movement, another and yet the same! Each present movement bringing back as it were, and embodying the spirit of some melody that had gone before, anticipates and seems trying to overtake something that is to come: and the musician has reached the summit of his art,
when having thus modified the present by the past, he at the same time weds the past in the present to some prepared and corresponsive future. The auditor's thoughts and feelings move under the same influence : retrospection blends with anticipation, and hope and memory, a female Janus, become one power with a double aspect. A similar effect the "reader may produce for himself in the pages of history, if he will be content to substitute an intellectual complacency for pleasurable sensation. The events and characters of one age, like the strains in music, recall those of another, and the variety by which each is individualized, not only gives a charm and poignancy to the resemblance, but likewise renders the whole more intelligible. Meantime ample room is afforded for the exercise both of the judgment and the fancy, in distinguishing cases of real resemblance from those of intentional imitation, the analogies of nature, revolving upon herself, from the masquerade figures of cunning and vanity.
It is not from identity of opinions, or from similarity of events and outward actions, that a real resemblance in the radical character can be deduced. On the contrary, men of great and stirring powers, who are destined to mould the age in which they are born, must first mould themselves upon it. Mohammed born twelve centuries later, and in the heart of Europe, would not have been a false prophet; nor would a false prophet of the present generation have been a Mohammed in the seventh century. I have myself, therefore, derived the deepest interest from the comparison of men, whose characters at first view appear widely dissimilar, who yet have produced similar effects on their different ages, and this by the exertion of powers which on examination will be found far more alike, than the altered drapery and costume would have led us to suspect. Of the heirs of fame few are more respected by me, though for very different qualities, than Erasmus and Luther ; scarcely any one has a larger share of my aversion than Voltaire ; and even of the better-hearted Rousseau I was never more than a very lukewarm admirer. I should perhaps too rudely affront the general opinion, if I avowed my whole creed concerning the proportions of real talent between the two purifiers of revealed religion, now neglected as obsolete, and the two modern conspirators against its authority, who are still the Alpha and Omega of continental genius. Yet when I abstract the questions of evil and good, and measure only the effects pro
duced and the mode of producing them, I have repeatedly found the names of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Robespierre, recall in a similar cluster and connection those of Erasmus, Luther, and Muncer.
Those who are familiar with the works of Erasmus, and who know the influence of his wit, as the pioneer of the Reformation; and who likewise know, that by his wit, added to the vast variety of knowledge communicated in his works, he had won over by anticipation so large a part of the polite and lettered world to the Protestant party ; will be at no loss in discovering the intended counterpart in the life and writings of the veteran Frenchman. They will see, indeed, that the knowledge of the one was solid through its whole extent, and that of the other extensive at a cheap rate, by its superficiality; that the wit of the one is always hottomed on sound sense, peoples and enriches the mind of the reader with an endless variety of distinct images and living interests; and that his broadest laughter is everywhere translatable into grave and weighty truth : while the wit of the Frenchman, without imagery, without character, and without that pathos which gives the magic charm to genuine humor, consists, when it is most perfect, in happy turns of phrase, but far too often in fantastic incidents, outrages of the pure imagination, and the poor low trick of combining the ridiculous with the venerable, where he, who does not laugh, abhors. Neither will they have forgotten that the object of the one was to drive the thieves and mummers out of the temple, while the other was propelling a worse banditti, first to profane and pillage, and ultimately to raze it. Yet not the less will they perceive, that the effects remain parallel, the circumstances analogous, and the instruments the same. In each case the effects extended over Europe, were attested and augmented by the praise and patronage of thrones and dignities, and are not to be explained but by extraordinary industry and a life of literature ; in both instances the circumstances were supplied by an age of hopes and promises—the age of Erasmus restless from the first vernal influences of real knowledge, that of Voltaire from the hectic of imagined superiority. In the voluminous works of both, the instruments employed are chiefly those of wit and amusing erudition, and alike in both the errors and evils, real or imputed, in religion and politics are the objects of the battery. And here we must stop. The two men were es