« AnteriorContinuar »
great orator to the policy of Philip, he represents, as neither more nor less, than deliberate villany. I hold almost the same opinion with Mr. Mitford respecting the character and the views of that great and accomplished prince. But am I, therefore, to pronounce Demosthenes profligate, and insincere? Surely not; do we not perpetually see men of the greatest talents and the purest intentions misled by national or factious prejudices ? The most respectable people in England were, little more than forty years ago, in the habit of uttering the bitterest abuse against Washington and Franklin. It is certainly to be regretted that men should err so grossly in their estimate of character. But no person who knows any thing of human nature will impute such errors to depravity.
Mr. Mitford is not more consistent with himself than with reason. Though he is the advocate of all oligarchies, he is also a warm admirer of all kings, and of all citizens, who raised themselves to that species of sovereignty which the Greeks denominated tyranny. If monarchy, as Mř. Mitford holds, be in itself a blessing, democracy must be a better form of government than aristocracy, which is always opposed to the supremacy, and even to the eminence of individuals. On the other hand, it is but one step that separates the demagogue and the sovereign.
If this article had not extended itself to so great a length, I should offer a few observations on some other peculiarities of this writer,--his general preference of the Barbarians to the Greeks,--his predilection for Persians, Carthaginians, Thracians, for all nations, in short, except that great and enlightened nation of which he is the historian. But I will confine myself to a single topic.
Mr. Mitford has remarked, with truth and spirit, that “ any history perfectly written, but especially a Grecian history, perfectly written, should be a political institute for all nations. It has not occurred to him that a Grecian history, perfectly written, should also be a complete record of the rise and progress of poetry, philosophy, and the arts. Here his work is extremely deficient. Indeed, though it may seem a strange thing to say of a gentleman who has published so many quartos, Mr. Mitford seems to entertain a feeling, bordering on contempt, for literary and speculative pursuits. 'l'he talents of action almost exclusively attract his notice, and he talks with very complacent disdain of « the idle learned.” Homer, indeed, he admires, but principally I am afraid, because he is convinced that Homer could neither read nor write. He could not avoid speaking of Socrates; but he has been far more solicitous to trace his death to political causes, and to deduce from it consequences unfavourable to ages, that
Athens, and to popular governments, than to throw light on the character and doctrines of the wonderful man,
“ From whose mouth issued forth
Epicurean, and the Stoic severe." He does not seem to be aware that Demosthenes was a great orator; he represents him sometimes as an aspiring demagogue, sometimes as an adroit negotiator, and always as a great rogue. But that in which the Athenian excelled all men of all irresistable eloquence, which at the distance of more than two thousand years stirs our blood, and brings tears into our eyes, be passed by with a few phrases of common-place commendation, The origin of the drama, the doctrines of the sophists, the course of Athenian education, the state of the arts and sciences, the whole domestic system of the Greeks, he has almost completely neglected. Yet these things will appear, to a reflecting man, scarcely less worthy of attention, than the taking of Sphacteria, or the discipline of the targeteers of Iphicrates.
This, indeed, is a deficiency by no means peculiar to Mr. Mitford. Most people seem to imagine that a detail of public occurrences the operations of sieges-the changes of administrations the treaties--the conspiracies--the rebellions is a complete history. Differences of definition are logically unimportant, but practically they sometimes produce the most momentous effects a thus it has been in the present case; historians have, almost without exception, confined themselves to the public transactions of states, and have left to the negligent administration of writers of fiction a province at least equally extensive and valuable.
All wise statesmen have agreed to consider the prosperity or adversity of nations as made up of the happiness or misery of individuals, and to reject as chimerical all notions of a public interest of the community, distinct from the interest of the component parts. It is therefore strange that those whose office it is to supply statesmen with examples and warnings, should omit, as too mean for the dignity of history, circumstances which exert the most extensive influence on the state of society. In general, the under current of human life flows steadily on, unruffled by the storms which agitate the surface. The happiness of the many commonly depends on causes independent of victories or defeats, of revolutions or restorations,-causes which can be regulated by no laws, and which are recorded in no archives. These causes are the things which it is of main importance to us to know, not how the Lacedæmonian phalanx was broken at Leuctra---not whether Alexander died of poison or by disease. History, without these, is a shell without a kernel; and such is almost all the history which is extant in the world. Paltry skirmishes and plots are reported with absurd and useless minuteness ; but improvements the most essential to the comfort of human life extend themselves over the world, and introduce themselves into every cottage, before any annalist can condescend from the dignity of writing about generals and ambassadors, to take the least notice of them. Thus the progress of the most salutary inventions and discoveries is buried in impenetrable mystery; mankind are deprived of a most useful species of knowledge, and their benefactors of their honest fame. In the meantime every child knows by heart the dates and adventures of a long line of barbarian kings. The history of nations, in the sense in which I use the word, is often best studied in works not professedly historical. Thucydides, as far as he goes, is an excellent writer, yet he affords us far less knowledge of the most important particulars relating to Athens, than Plato or Aristophanes. The little treatise of Xenophon in Domestic Economy, contains more historical information than all the seven books of his Hellenics. The same may be said of the Satires of Horace, of the Letters of Cicero, of the novels of Le Sage, of the memoirs of Marmontel. Many others might be mentioned, but these sufficiently illustrate my meaning. · I would hope that there may yet appear a writer who may despise the present narrow limits, and assert the rights of history over every part of her natural domain. Should such a writer
engage in that enterprise, in which I cannot but consider Mr. Mitford as having failed, he will record, indeed, all that is interesting and important in military and political transactions; but he will not think any thing too trivial for the gravityof history, which is not too trivial to promote or diminish the happiness of man. He will portray in vivid colours the domestic society, the manners, the amusements, the conversation of the Greeks. He will not disdain to discuss the state of agriculture, of the mechanical arts, and of the conveniences of life. T'he progress of painting, of sculpture, and of architecture, will form an important part of his plan. But above all, his attention will be given to the history of that splendid literature from which has sprung all the strength, the wisdom, the freedom, and the glory, of the western world.
Of the indifference which Mr. Mitford shews on this subject, I will not speak, for I cannot speak with fairness. It is a subject on which I love to forget the accuracy of a judge, in the veneration of a worshipper, and the gratitude of a child. If we consider merely the subtlety of disquisition, the force of imagination, the perfect energy and elegance of expression, which characterize the great works of Athenian genius, we must pronounce
them intrinsically most valuable; but what shall we say when we reflect that from hence have sprung, directly or indirectly, all the noblest creations of the human intellect; that from hence were the vast accomplishments, and the brilliant fancy of Cicero; the withering fire of Juvenal ; the plastic imagination of Dante; the humour of Cervantes; the comprehension of Bacon; the wit of Butler; the supreme and universal excellence of Shakspeare? All the triumphs of truth and genius over prejudice and power, in every country and in every age, have been the triumphs of Athens. Wherever a few great minds have made a stand against violence and fraud, in the cause of liberty and reason, there has been her spirit in the midst of them ; 'inspiring, encouraging, consoling ; -—by the lonely lamp of Erasmus ; by the restless bed of Pascal; in the tribune of Mirabeau ; in the cell of Galileo; on the scaffold of Sidney. But who shall estimate her influence on private happiness? Who shall say how many thousands have been made wiser, happier, and better, by those pursuits in which she has taught mankind to engage; to how many the studies which took their rise from her have been wealth in poverty,—liberty in bondage, -health in sickness,--society in solitude. Her power is indeed manifested at the bar; in the senate; in the field of battle; in the schools of philosophy. But these are not her glory.
Wherever literature consoles sorrow, or assuages paine-wherever it brings gladness to eyes which fail with wakefulness and tears, and ache for the dark house and the long sleep,—there is exhibited, in its noblest form, the immortal influence of Athens.
The dervise, in the Arabian tale, did not hesitate to abandon to his comrade the camels with their load of jewels and gold, while he retained the casket of that mysterious juice, which enabled him to behold at one glance all the hidden riches of the universe. Surely it is no exaggeration to say, that no external advantage is to be compared with that purification of the intellectual eye, which gives us to contemplate the infinite wealth of the mental world; all the hoarded treasures of its primeval dynasties, all the shapeless ore of its yet unexplored mines. This is the gift of -Athens to man. Her freedom and her power have for more than twenty centuries been annihilated; her people have degenerated into timid slaves ; her language into a barbarous jargon; her temples have been given up to the successive depredations of Romans, Turks, and Scotchmen; but her intellectual empire is imperishable. And, when those who have rivalled her greatness shall have shared her fate; when civilization and knowledge shall have fixed their abode in distant continents; when the sceptre shall have passed away from England; when, perhaps, travellers from distant regions shall in vain labour to decipher on some VOL. III. PART II.
mouldering pedestal the name of our proudest chief; shall hear savage hymns chaunted to some mishapen idol over the ruined dome of our proudest temple; and shall see a single naked fisherman wash his nets in the river of the ten thousand masts,-her influence and her glory will still survive,-fresh in eternal youth, exempt from mutability and decay, immortal as the intellectual principle from which they derived their origin, and over which they exercise their control.
ROSCOE'S EDITION OF POPE'S WORKS.
THANKS to the diversity and vigour of our national genius, there is no country which can afford, so well as ours can, to indulge in variety and contrariety of taste, let these be carried to what extent they may by recklessness or caprice. By this we mean to assert not only the number of eminent writers in each established division of poetic merit, in the tragic, the comic, the epic, or satiric vein, for all this variety may exist in a national literature with much monotony, as any reader may convince himself by turning from the satires of Boileau to the tragedy of Racine, and from the tragedy of Racine to the epic of Voltaire. In these the form and subject are but different, whilst the presiding taste is the same; whereas, in our succession of poets, all is not only various but contradictory,—not only the external form, the verse, the prosody, the metre, but the very elements of thought, the very principles of taste. In scarce any instance can one age of our poetry be considered as the parent of another, except so far as perfection, and consequent satiety in it, tended to produce its contrary. Our poetry, like our dynasty, has been perpetuated by frequent violations of hereditary right; and so often has foreign taste been inoculated upon our national stock, that it may be said with truth, we have extended our poetic empire, as the Romans did their political, by adopting the best laws and customs of the conquered for our own. It is thus, by not being over scrupulous as to originality, that we have become truly original ; wuthe nation, like Byron and its other great poets, was above the petty fear of being thought an imitator ;--and whilst France, by à contrary dread, narrowed its circle of poetic taste to the very annihilation of poetic spirit,-England, by extending hers, gave scope to the wonderful creations of our days. By this means, whilst the poetry of other nations resembles a finished temple, an isolated column, a pyramid, beautiful and striking perhaps, but exciting at the best but one sensation, one species of delight-ours