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"If every idle word shall be accounted for, and if one corrupt communication should proceed out of our mouths, how desperate (I beseech you) is their condition, who all their life-time, and out of mere design, study lascivious fictions: then carefully record and publish them, that instead of grace and life, they may minister sin and death unto their readers! It was wisely considered, and piously said by one, that he would read no idle books; both in regard of love to his own soul, and pity unto his that made them, for (said he) if I be corrupted by them, their composer is immediately a cause of my ill; and at the day of reckoning (though now dead) must give an account for it, because I am corrupted by his bad example, which he left behind him. I will write none, lest I hurt them that come after me; I will read none, lest I augment his punishment that is gone before me. I will neither write, nor read, lest I prove a foe to my own soul: while I live, I sin too much; let me not continue longer in wickedness, than I do in life. It is a sentence of sacred authority, that he that is dead, is freed from sin, because he cannot, in that state, which is without the body, sin any more; but he that writes idle books, makes for himself another body, in which he always lives, and sins (after death) as fast and as foul as ever he did in his life; which very consideration deserves to be a sufficient antidote against this evil disease."
We shall close our article with this additional extract, in which our poet speaks of his own writings, and ends with one of the rarest requests we remember to have been made by an author.
"And here, because I would prevent a just censure by my free confession, I must remember, that I myself have, for many years together, languished of this very sickness; and it is no long time since I have recovered. But (blessed be God for it!) I have by his saving assistance suppressed my greatest follies, and those which escaped from me are (I think) as innoxious, as most of that vein use to be; besides, they are interlined with many virtuous, and some pious mixtures. What I speak of them is truth, but let no man mistake it for an extenuation of faults, as if I intended an apology for them, or myself, who am conscious of so much guilt in both, as can never be expiated without special sorrows, and that cleansing and precious effusion of my Almighty Redeemer; and if the world will be. so charitable as to grant my request, / do here most humbly and earnestly beg that none would read them."
How innocently have we been sinning against this pious petition, in thus recalling to light the verses which the author fondly hoped (after his conversion,) would meet with that neglect from the public, which by others is so industriously deprecated! Hitherto, in the weariness and fatigue necessarily attendant upon the nature of our task, in our frequent disappointments in exploring the spots where we had expected concealed treasure, and in our laborious sifting and separating of the good from the bad, the obsolete from the fresh and enduring, the dead branch from the vivacious sprout, our consolation has always been, that we were performing a kindly and grateful office to the neglected author, could he but look down upon us and behold the sacrifice we were celebrating to his memory. This gratification is here denied us: we have in this instance disobeyed the solemn injunctions of a dead poet; our labour is unhallowed; and we lay down the pen with the mortifying belief of having earned nothing from the manes of Henry Vaughan, save a parting malediction.
Art. IX. Memoirs of the Honourable Col. Andrew Newport, a Shropshire Gentleman, who served as a Cavalier in the army of Gustavus Adolphus in Germany, and in that of Charles the First in England; containing Anecdotes and Characters of the principal Persons of that time: the whole forming a complete Military History of Germany and England towards the middle of the seventeenth century. A new edition, with additions, fyc. London, 1792.
We avail ourselves with some satisfaction of an opportunity of introducing to our readers an old and valued acquaintance, as one, whom they may have had the misfortune to lose sight of, amidst the perplexities of life, and the competition of more obtrusive candidates for their notice. For our own part, surrounded as we are by the bustle and cares of middle age, the mere mention of our author's name falls upon us, as cool and refreshing as a drop of rain in the hot and parched midday; for it never fails to bring along with it the recollection of the morning of our life—those green and pleasant years, when the solitary inhabitant of the desert island was perpetually mingling with the day-dreams of our imagination. In general, however, we are obliged to confess, that the admirers of De Foe have too much reason to complain, that one so highly prized should be so early and so entirely neglected. Though, perhaps, we ought not to wonder, yet we must be allowed to regret, that a charm, once so powerful, should be so speedily dissolved, and that the spell-bound captives are so completely disenchanted, as even to forget that they have ever been enthralled. The taste soon begins to reject, as insipid, the simple sentiment on which its vigorous youth was fed, and the dulled palate is to be excited only by that, to which humour has given a zest, and wit lent its poignancy. Perhaps it were unreasonable to expect, that, when sated with the banquet, and cloyed with the too frequent repetition of over-seasoned viands, it should recur to the simple fare of its infancy, and find relief in contrasted insipidity. The present, indeed, in particular, seems an inauspicious moment for making the experiment; when the imagination is daily fed by the genius of the Great Unknown, with the most glorious visions that the fancy of man ever created; when there is nature, fresh and vigorous, as in a morning in spring, enlivened by a perpetual sun-shine of wit and humour; when the passions, gentle as well as fierce, breathe along the pages, now melting with their tenderness, and now scorching with their fervour; where hope and fear, and joy and sorrow, are blended together, as in a face of more than mortal beauty. It is not without a fear of being laughed at for our pains, that we venture to invite our readers to leave this sumptuous banquet for awhile, and to partake of a homelier repast, where nothing is served up but the naked realities of life; where there is nature, indeed, but nature in her simplest and coarsest garb; where wit and humour lend no seasoning, and the fancy communicates no ideal charms; where fiction belies its birth, and is, in spite of itself, cold and sober reality. Should our "Spartan broth" be not suited to their luxurious tastes, they will at least find their account in this temporary mortification of the palate, when they return to their former delicacies with a renovated appetite.
But before we engage in the more immediate consideration of the work of De Foe, the title of which is prefixed to this article, we would willingly bestow a few words on the singular genius of their author, with a view of proposing our own doubts and difficulties on a subject that seems to set criticism at defiance. After a vain attempt to apply those laws which hold in ordinary cases, we are compelled to regard him as a phenomenon; and to consider his genius as something rare and curious, which it is impossible to assign to any class whatever. Throughout the ample stores of fiction, in which our literature abounds more than that of any other people, there are no works which at all resemble his, either in the design or execution. Without any precursor in the strange and unwonted path he chose, and without a follower, he spun his web of coarse but original materials, which no mortal had ever thought of using before; and when he had done, it seems as though he had snapped the thread,
VOL. III. PART II. 2 B
and conveyed it beyond the reach of imitation. To have a numerous train of followers is usually considered as adding to the reputation of a writer: we deem it a circumstance of peculiar honour to De Foe, that he had none. For in general they are the faults of a great author, the parts where he exaggerates truth, or deviates from propriety, that become the prey of the imitator. Wherever he has stolen a grace beyond the reach of art, wherever the vigour and freshness of nature are apparent, there he is inaccessible to imitation. The fugitive charms which are thus imparted, the volatile and subtle spirit which gives life and animation to the work, baffle and elude the grasp of mere imitative genius. In the fictions of De Foe, we meet with nothing that is artificial, or that does not breathe the breath of life. The ingenuity which could counterfeit works of a more elaborate kind, and much more highly as well as curiously wrought, could make nothing of a simplicity so naked, and a manner so perfectly natural. The most consummate art was unable to follow, where no vestiges of art were to be seen; for either none has been employed, or its traces are concealed as carefully as the Indian hides his footsteps from the observation of his pursuers; since to the most critical eye nothing is visible but the easy unconstraint of nature, and the fearlessness of truth. Besides, it must be allowed, that the temptation to imitate was as small, as the difficulties were many and great; for whilst he transcribed from the volume of life with a fidelity and closeness that have never been equalled, with a singularly mortified taste he chose the plainest and least inviting pages of the whole book. Those who would imitate De Foe, must copy from nature herself; and instead of dressing her out to advantage, content themselves with delineating some of her simplest and homeliest features.
In the distribution of talents among men of genius, two or three are generally found united in the same mind, whilst not one of them is possessed in perfection. But nature, when she made De Foe, seems to have forsaken her usual practice, and in a playful mood to have sent him into the world, with one mighty talent for his portion, but destitute of almost every other. Amidst an entire ignorance of the more elevated passions and feelings of mankind, a surprising poverty of imagination, and a total dearth of humour and wit, of fancy and eloquence, our admiration, or rather our wonder, is still taxed to the utmost by a display of invention the most unbounded, and a faculty of imitation the most consummate. His fictions are not so much the counterfeit of something existing, as they are themselves the very originals: the creations of his brain do not wear the semblance only of truth,but are absolutely quickened with its vitality; his phantoms, if such we may call them, steal not forth at even-tide, apparent only when the actual world is obscured; they walk abroad in the open day, and are not to be distinguished from the substantial forms and realities of life. No unlucky mischance or awkward gesture betrays the hand that directs their motions: the real author never, for an instant, obtrudes himself into the presence of his reader; the imaginary hero is the only person who appears upon the stage, and of his existence we are as well convinced, as we are of our own. With a confiding security in the genuineness of his memoirs, we follow him over land and sea, engage with him in adventures sometimes marvellous, always strange; accompany him in travels where human foot had never penetrated—sail with him in latitudes where ship had never been, along coasts that were never laid down in a chart; and all the time have not the least suspicion that our companion is a mere shade, and that the author, who has thus led us, in imagination, round the world, never stirred from the desk at which he wrote. Our fellow traveller is sometimes a soldier, but more frequently a sailor, who is merchant or pirate, as opportunity dictates, and always a rogue. But this is respectable society :—we are sometimes introduced into company, of which an honest man may well be ashamed, and then we take a trip to the plantations, or skulk in holes and corners to avoid the pursuit of justice. But whether soldier or sailor, merchant or pirate, thief, or what not, we, at least, never suspect him of being an impostor, but give him ample credit for having perpetrated all the rogueries which he so deliberately recounts. AH that he does, or says, orthinks, is in the line of his vocation, whatever that may happen to be. His language is always that of the plain and unlettered person he professes himself; homely in phraseology,—in expression rude and inartificial; yet like that of one, who has received a distinct impression of objects which he has seen, it is often forcible, happy, and strongly descriptive. Generally speaking, in other fictitious narratives, a tendency to moralize out of season, or in a vein too elevated for the character assumed, or a continued effort to be uniformly wise or elaborately witty, is almost sure to unmask the impostor, and expose " the dreaming pedant at his desk." Or if these characteristic marks be wanting, either the narrative is inconsistent with itself, or it contradicts some known and established fact, or there is some anachronism, or some other overt act against truth is committed, which critical sagacity seldom fails to detect and punish. But our author is never caught tripping in this way; he moralizes, to be sure, as much or more than most writers, but then his reflections are always in the right vein: he never steps from behind the curtain, to figure away himself upon the stage. Either a vigilance that was perpetually on the watch, preserved him from error,