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ON THE OLD FABLES.
The most delightful of moralists are the old Fables. Compared with these simple instructors, the theses of the early philosophers, later schoolmen, and modern theologians, are but subtle webs to entangle speculative and curious fies. Of all my young enjoyments, reading these fables with their picturesque interpretations of wooden cuts was one of the most precious; old, but always new and pleasant. I doubted the truth of my elder friends' observation, when they told me that the moral was the kernel of the fabulous shell: how sweet were the husks of the (oftentimes) bitter kernels. I needed no invitation to travel over this world of histories—this ever fresh gallery of pictures. A fable is Æsop's other name; hence more recent fabulists have been neglected; perhaps because they only re-told what had been more sententiously related before ; or, perhaps, their refinements were not so honest as the pithy aphorisms of the Grecian slave. We cannot think of Gay as we do of the aboriginal Æsop: he is the text-book of morality; his brutes are Pythagorean animals, in whom dwell the souls of a generation of men. Fables are moral parables: parables, divine fables. When reading the beautiful parables in the New Testament, our fancy supplies the scene of the divine discourses — the corn-fields, the highway, the vineyard : our imagination becomes pristine ; coeval with the unsophisticated state of mankind in that age of mighty events: we are passive beholders : we can even conjure up the persons in the great drama—all but the divine presence ; which is only visible to our mind's eye, through the voice of truth. Our impressions on reading the inventions of human wisdom, are less real, as they are more enigmatical ; and, of necessity, lack the exalted humanity and sentiment of the inspired narratives.-But to descend from the unequal comparison. The refinements of learning and science, are to these everlasting stories, but the pride and vanity of man ; the superficial pomp of words; the mere straining of the wits; perplexing the reader, and puffing up the inventor. They have all “faded into the light of common day.” The maximum of an age has been displaced and annihilated by another set of “crabbed rules of dull philosophy," produced by a generation of more enlightened theorists; who are now fast decaying before the practical (and real, they would have you believe) schemes of modern systematizers. Yet still we have the parables fresh as from the lips of their holy author : still we have the fables bred from the experience of their in
There is nothing in them but is applicable to all mankind at every period; and when applied, but gives birth to, or nourishes the first tender growth of neighbourly feeling and manly wisdom. Truth lies in a nut-shell: fallacy must be built up, a superstructure of folly and deceit; upon the foundation of pride : a huge glittering lie: an un. substantial dream : itself a moral lesson to its fabricators.
The Egyptians were a nation of riddle-makers. Their most simple hieroglyphics are the finest, and most symbolical ; and we may justly suppose they were among the earliest: as thus—a circle, eternity ; a bull, agriculture; a horse, liberty; a lion, power, &c. These are some of the primogenitive parts of speech in their silent language. The extent of their hieroglyphics is unknown to us; but though they might have been multiplied to infinity, there could have been none more
beautiful or expressive than the first few begotten. Indeed, the idea is more grand than the reality.
The worthy successor of the ancient Egyptians, the Professor of the University of Lagado, mentioned by Gulliver, who proposed to converse by means of substances representing things, instead of by words, was a more substantial improver upon the ideal language; in as much as a bond fide image cannot but convey its impression to the mind, without the chance of its miscarrying in a hieroglyphic, or evaporating in a word. What a realm of solids would this world have then become, and mankind a nation of breathing puppets! What an assemblage of pedlars, each with his cosmographical wallet of signs, chests of conversation, waggons of debate, and warehouses of argument! Then should we have stood in need of rail-roads to lead to our senses, and tunnels to reach our understandings!
But to return to the Fables. We can never look at the pictures at the head of each, without being transported to the modern antiquity of time and scene: the cold vacuity of the long wainscotted rooms, with their solid oaken furniture, and large barred windows; the bygone look of the houses; the quaint and uncouth dress of the figures; the terraced gardens, in all the square magnificence of geometrical proportion; the bright inland landscape; mingling a heap of distant and pleasing recollections drawn from their faithful
portraitures. This should apply more especially to Gay; but the artist, scorning to be any thing but English, has transferred the scenes of Æsop to our own country: it is as honest an anachronism as the unsuspected mistakes of the old masters in this way: it makes us believe Æsop to be an old countryman of ours, who lived a long while ago; and with a harmless deceit we recognize the lion as having some other relation to our desert-less island, than as the typical supporter of our national badge of heraldry.
Let any one who despises the snug prospects of hedge-row landscapes, and the quiet retirement of a hamlet in a level country, look at the fresh morning aspect of these little views, and they will shake his high-seated contempt. They are true subjects for an English Teniers. There are the neat farm-houses, with their decorations of clean wooden pails and platters, bright inglenooks, white hearths; and the out-door accompaniments of poultry, pigs, fences, bird-bottles, and hen-coops; and the stacks of hay, granaries, distant fields, with the church spire crowning the landscape; and all this done with a homely faithfulness that charms with the imitation. Even in the print you enjoy the dewy coolness of the grass, the early morning air, the breaking clouds, or the dim twilight. The cuts partake of the raciness of the style, and are mated to the discourse. The only landscapes like them, that I know of, are those in Walton's Angler, one of which I remember-Amwell at sunrise, almost as fine as a painting. In the print at the head of the fable of “The Stag and the Fawn," they are gracefully delineated in the attitude of listening;
“ The stag faint hears the pausing horn;" and the accompanying landscape is, as are all of them, beautiful. In “ The Oak and the Reed,” we fancy that we hear the blast rustling through the weeds on the banks of the stream, and buffeting the oak's rooted strength.
How inviting are the titles of some of the Fables : “ The Lark and her young ones;" “ The Lion in love;" “ The Oak and the Reed;" “ The wanton Calf;" “ The Angler and the little Fish," &c. How productive of deep and serious thought are such as “ The young Man and the Swallow;" “Cupid and Death;" “The old Man and Death." Were we to mention all that are good, we should name them all. The most mysterious to my young mind was “ The Belly and the Members;" and I heartily commiserated the fate of the poor subject of dispute, who, between one and the other, seemed very likely to be forgotten: it remained for my riper experience to comprehend its meaning. One of Gay's, “ The Miser and Plutus,” ever baunted me in stormy nights, when the loud gusts shook the lattices of the old school-house; I thought with fearful iteration on the first line, “ The wind is high, the window shakes," and had the apparition been any one but Plutùs (who, though I knew it not, was not frightful) it would have been a minister of terror. In the “Ass eating thistles," we almost lick our lips at the “ fine large thistle” which he so relishes, rather than at the pack-saddle of capons.
We exult at the old mouse's escape from the wily cat's whiskers, who, being cunning beyond her sphere, must needs hang herself on a peg by the hind legs, to invite the curiosity of her simple enemies, and while they were exulting in her death, thought to spoil their sport by making them her prey.
The pleasant confabulations of the animals are replete with humanity; even the evil speeches have a redeeming quality of ignorance to take off the ugliness of vice. " The Elephant in the Bookseller's shop" is the most congenial of animals, in bulk and sagacity, for such an element; he looks grave and polite,—two especial qualities of wisdom: the bookseller seems conscious of the greatness of his guest (not customer). I mean a compliment when I say it reminds me of Dr. Johnson.
The l'envoy of Gay's political Fables is social: Æsop's are addressed to mankind. Gay's are easy and unassuming; his powers of sense and wit were well adapted to this species of profitable wisdom; and his poetical genius was not too vast. The Fables, and his immortal “ Beggars' Opera,” are a-kin, and are his best works.
The Fables of Æsop and others have been beautifully embellished by the industrious Mr. Bewick, the wood-engraver, in a style not a whit inferior to the old cuts in design, and superior in execution. The same identity of scenery is given with equal effect; and those delicious morçeaur, the tail-pieces, are Hogarthian. “ The History of Birds and Quadrupeds,” by the same artist, (so well known to every admirer of wood-cuts,) must be included in this humble compliment to his ingenuity and perseverance.
MILK AND HONEY, OR THE LAND OF PROMISE.
Miss Lydia BARROW to Miss Kitty Brown.
Reminiscence of White Conduit House.—Islington Wells versus Tunbridge.-Sir
Solomon's Song.–Hugh Middleton and John Gilpin.-Cowper and the New River Company.-Bentham, Bonaparte, and Accum.--Lydia turns Reformer.-American Ladies dancing Moneymusk.-- They mistake James Paine for 'Tom.- Episodical Eulogy of the former.—Ball at City Hotel, New York." All honourable Men.”-Bear and Fiddle.
Dear Kate, you remember Sir Solomon Souse,
This sermon, like most other sermons, dear Kitty,
Popt down in my Album, Sir Solomon's song
I leave hearts and heads to Reformers like those,
And now, my dear Kate, for the best news of all :
dress-but my paper 's scrawl'd through, So no more at present.—Dear Kitty, adieu !