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The monument or pyramid that seemed
Have sunk beneath the tide that ever flows
It would be difficult, in the catalogue of human instincts, to put the finger upon one of stronger power or more universal prevalence, than the love of fiction; or, more correctly expressed, perhaps, the love of narrative. Not an exotic, the seedling of a cultivated nursery, the product of a luxurious hot-bed, not the peculiar growth of this country, or of that zone, or of either hemisphere, can this hardy instinct be considered ; but a plant that springs up alike beside the lichen of Lapland, or under the bread-fruit of Tonga, indigenous in every climate, a native of the world.
When was the age, what the nation, that might claim exemption from its power ? How far back must we trace man's history, to find the time when national and domestic traditions ceased to exist, or failed to interest ? Whither must we travel in search of that nation, degraded even below curiosity, where the rude legend kindles not the eye, arrests not the breath, of the listener ? We must forget the fables and tragedies of Greece, the parables of Judea, the romances of chivalry, the mysteries and pageants of the dark ages, no less than the fashionable tales and modern novels of our own time, if we deny, that it always has been, as still it is, natural for mankind to
desire and delight in that which presents to their senses successive images of events, be they true or false, faithfully related, or fancifully imagined.
And Fancy wins the day against Truth. While her severer sister is besieging, by gradual approaches, the reason, Fancy has already enlisted the feelings, and subdued the soul. "Give me but the writing of the national ballads' so exclaimed the shrewdest statesman England ever saw — "give me but the writing of the national ballads, and I care not who has the framing of the laws.'
Let us allow something for the point of the apothegm, and in substance it is not without truth. His power who legislates for the fancy, is greater than his who enacts statutes for the conduct; as much greater as the warm impulses of the heart are stronger than the cold dictates of the understanding. * These things ought not so to be,' will some one say. They are
More in our day and generation at the least, they will be so. No man, not even he who so long regulated the lever that now-adays decides the march of armies and the motions of the political world not Rothschild himself exerted, during the last twenty years, as home-felt an influence over civilized Europe as did Walter Scott.
In the propensity, then, which lies at the root of the Great No. velist's sway, we recognise an instinct, powerful beyond law or statute, universal without limit of race or clime. It is injurious, illegitimate. Is it? The proof. It may be perverted. And what human instinct cannot? It has been notoriously perverted. True. A parent may as innocently permit his child to swallow an intoxicating draught of ardent spirits, as suffer its mind to be poisoned, and its nerves unstrung, by drinking in the panic terrors that breathe from Mrs. Radcliffe's foolishly-horrible pages.
But it is peculiarly liable to perversion. Perhaps it is. The sharpest tool inflicts the deepest wound; yet that is a poor argument in favor of using a dull one.
All this is aside from what, in this utilitarian age of ours, will be admitted as the main question. Is the medium of imaginative narration a legitimate, as it is a powerful, instrument in the formation of character ?
Of the influence of Moral Fictions, it is not within my present purpose to speak. If it were, might I not safely challenge the production of a homily, or a code of maxims, or a set of moral precepts, to match, in influence, the noble lessons taught in ‘Helen ? But I leave to others the task of inquiring whether Seneca or Maria Edgeworth has the more effectually acted on the morals of our age ; and restrict myself at present to the inquiry, as it regards the historical branch of imaginative narration.
No one can, for a moment, so far misconceive what has been said, as to imagine that I purpose the absurd inquiry, whether authentic history can be beneficially superseded by apocryphal romance. All will perceive that the only debatable question is, whether fanciful narration may be safely and usefully admitted in aid of historical research.
What is the chief advantage to be derived from the study of history?
Assuredly not, a dry recollection of mere names and dates. We study, or ought to study history, as we study living man in the world around us. In history exists the whole by-gone world. By history, we live among our ancestors. By history, we come into contact with the mankind of former ages. By history, we travel among ancient nations, visit tribes long since extinct, and are introduced to manners that have yielded, centuries ago, to the innovating influence of time. Travel, society, show us men and things as they are ; history shows us men and things as they have been. The one opens to us the past, as the other the present, world.
Grant, as methinks we must, that here is justly defined the province of history, and it follows directly, that that history is the most valuable, which the best supplies, for the past, what contact with society affords, for the present.
And what does contact with society afford us ? A living, vivid picture of men and women, their sayings, their doings, their appearance, their manners; an intimate acquaintance with their thoughts, wishes, peculiarities, plans, objects of desire, modes of conduct. In a word, it places man before us, and we learn what he is.
Does Hume, does Gibbon, thus teach us, what men and women have been ? Are we, even in their luminous pages, introduced, in verity, to the society of days that are past? They narrate to us many and valuable truths. They exhibit the great features of human progress. They expound to us difficult and important lessons. But do they tell us all ? Do we enter the chamber, penetrate to the closet ? Or are we not, rather, stopped in the ante-chamber, nay, on the very threshold of the entrance-door ? They have faithfully and with infinite labor conducted us — they only could have done it to the vestibule. But if we are to enter the ancient edifice, if we are to be introduced to its inhabitants, to watch their doings, to learn their manners, to read their hearts, to feel with them and for them, we must have a guide other than the scrupulous historiographer. Fancy, unaided, could never have found her way thither; but, once there, she alone is privileged to enter; and, once beyond the threshold, she is at home.
Whence have ve derived our most lively and lasting impressions of chivalry and the feudal rule ? From Hallam or from Walter Scott ? Who that recollects his impressions, as he first turned over the pages of ‘Ivanboe,' and sat down in imagination, among tl e stalworth barons of the twelfth century, to witness the 'Gentle and Free Passage of Arms of Ashby-de-la-Zouche' - who, with such recollections fresh upon him, will hesitate a moment for the answer ?
But the author of the Middle Ages,' is more trustworthy than the author of · Ivanhoe. Is he so ? It follows not, as a matter of course, merely because the one is called a historian and the other a novelist. Both
may be accurate, or both may be inaccurate. Which has the most thoroughly imbibed the genuine spirit of the olden time? That is the first question. And the second is, which has succeeded in conveying to us the more correct, ay, and the more vivid and attractive picture, of that which both seek to place before us ?
The more attractive! There are those who will put in a demurrer VOL. IX.
here. The more correct, that is well; but the more attractive ! Ought not every thing that is true and useful to be attractive - is it not always attractive — to a justly-balanced mind? Even if it be, how many justly-balanced minds does this motley world contain ? And is it certain that the most faithfully cultivated intellect will find the same interest in a cold and abstract dissertation, or a severe narrative of general facts, as in a picture that starts from the canvass, and speaks direct to the heart, glowing with the brightest colors of fanciful reality? Is it natural that it should ?
Be this as it may, the world may be led, it cannot be driven. While it is a prostitution of talent to pander to men's prejudices, it is a waste of talent to disregard them. When the Grecian orator declared that manner was the first, the last, the sole requisite of his art, he uttered, with exaggerated extravagance indeed, a wholesome truth. To what purpose shall we speak, to those who will not listen; or write, for those who refuse to read ? A book unread is but a bundle of waste paper; and he who publishes useful truths, or conveys moral lessons, in a form that shall attract thousands, justly merits the praise of tenfold success, compared to him who puts forth the same in a form that shall command the attention of hundreds only. If, through the attractive pages of 'Jacqueline of Holland,' ten persons have acquired a just idea of the feuds, so characteristic of these rude times, which, originating in a frivolous argument over a cup of wine, continued for more than a century to nourish the bitterest enmity, and kindle the deadliest wars, throughout the Low Countries — if ten persons are now acquainted with this, for one who wonl have learnt, from more sober history, even the names of the Hoëks and the Kabblejaws, has not Grattan rendered, in aid of history, a valuable service ? And to those whom, as the world now is, the novelist only can reach.
The value of the service, it will be replied, depends upon the accuracy of the portraiture. Most true. And it is no easy task, and no small merit, to attain to this species of accuracy. The bistorian, often doubtless at expense of much labor and perplexity, must make himself master of facts. The Historical Novelist must do more. He must search the records of former times for something beyond mere narrative details; for the unrecorded spirit of the age. He must train his imagination to sojourn in the past, gradually to drink in the impressions that made men what we read that, centuries ago, they were ; until the fancy becomes imbued -saturated — with the influences of other times and climes. Then only may the novelist or the dramatist proceed, safely and successfully, to summon before us, in attractive succession, images of the past. Without such preparation the literary Glendowers of the age may call spirits from the vasty deep' of the olden time for ever, and they will come not; or, if they come, it will be a dwarfish, a spurious, and a short-lived race. Such failures indicate the difficulty, not the inutility, of the attempt.
That which has been said applies, in one sense, with even greater force to the historical drama than to the romance. The one speaks to the ear, the other to the eye; the one is but the text to the painting, the other is the painting itself. The drama, then, with all the drawbacks incidental to its peculiar structure, is yet one step nearer to reality, than the novel.
And when the dramatist is fortunate enough to obtain the aid of some of the master-spirits of the stage, how important is that one step nearer! Nearer, shall we say? Who, when SIDDONS stood before him, the living type- more than Imagination's type of the regal Catherine what charmed spectator, when her searching tones startled the very depths of his soul, ever paused to remember, that it was not the Queen of England, but only the daughter of Roger Kemble who spoke? If the boards of old Drury had actually been Blackfriars Hall ; if she who thus embodied every thing we ever dreamed of majesty, had, in truth, been the unfortunate consort of the fickle Henry; if the chariot wheels of Old Time, had, in very deed, been rolled back some three centuries, and the whole pageant, in its sad reality, been rëenacted before our eyes - even then, should we have felt it more, in the actual review, than in the scenic representation ? No. More than of any reality of common life, was, for the time, the effect, when Shakspeare and Siddons combined to enchain and enchant us.
Had the same prolific talents, which, in modern days, have enriched the sister department of literature, reached the dramatic branch had we Scotts and Edgeworths of the stage the benefit, as well as the power, of the histrionic art would to-day have been unquestioned. Its influences would have been confessed as important as they are fascinating. Invidious as commonplace is it, for him who enters the arena to speak slightingly of his competitors : yet is the decline of the modern theatre, and the paucity of dramatic talent among us, a matter of complaint so notorious, that it were affectation to overlook the facts.
The best talents of our own country — talents that are gradually establishing for America a respectable literary rank among her elder sisters — have been diverted to other channels. The genius that sparkles from the • Sketch Book,' and tinges with romance the adventures of Columbus — the skill that invests with living interest the humble doings of the rude Pioneer, and stirs the pulse and wins the tear for the fate of the Last of the Mohicans'—the graphic pen that charms us in ‘Hope Leslie,' or that which domesticates us by the ‘ Dutchman's Fireside'-well may the lover of the drama regret that these and other kindred spirits should have passed by the neglected entrance, perchance shrunk from the technical trammels, of a department of literature, which, had they attempted, they could scarcely have failed to enrich.
So also, as a general rule, has it been in England. The dramas of Byron and Baillie, indeed, are distinguished exceptions. Nor are others, on either side the Atlantic, wholly wanting. Yet, even while we admire the spirit and nature of · Tell' or the Hunchback,' the bold vigor of the Gladiator,' the classic elegance of. Ion,' and the deep pathos of 'Fazio,' we are reluctantly constrained to the confession, that these and a few other efforts worthy to be named beside them, cannot redeem from merited reproach or obscurity, the general character of the dramatic effusions of the age. Will the romanticists of the modern French school claim, for their drama, a reserving exception? If they do, can we admit their claim? On the score of talent, yes. On that of good taste or useful influence, alas, no ! Dumas and Hugo have an excuse for the extravagancies that dis