« ForrigeFortsæt »
know, therefore, but little of his policy in regard to such opinions or feelings as tended to dissociate him from the mass of his coevals. This only I know, that he lived as it were in public; and must, therefore, I presume, have practised a studied reserve as to his deepest admirations ; and, perhaps, at that day (1803-8) the occasions would be rare in which much dissimulation would be needed. Until Lord Byron had begun to pilfer from Wordsworth and to abuse him, allusions to Wordsworth were not frequent in conversation; and it was chiefly on occasion of some question arising about poetry in general, or about the poets of the day, that it became difficult to dissemble. For my part, hating the necessity for dissimulation as much as the dissimulation itself, I drew from this peculiarity also of my own mind, a fresh reinforcement of my other motives for sequestering myself; and, for the first two years of my residence in Oxford, I compute that I did not utter one hundred words.
I remember distinctly the first (which happened also to be the last) conversation that I ever held with my tutor. It consisted of three sentences, two of which fell to his share, one to mine. On a fine morning, he met me in the Quadrangle, and having then no guess of the nature of my pretensions, he determined (I suppose) to probe them. Accordingly, he asked me, What I had been lately reading?' Now, the fact was, that I, at that time immersed in metaphysics, had really been reading and studying very closely the Parmenides, of which obscure work some Oxford men, early in the last century, published a separate edition. Yet, so profound was the benignity of my nature, that, in those days, I could not bear to witness, far less to cause, the least pain or mortification to any human being. I recoiled, indeed, from the society of most men, but not with any feelings of dislike. On the
contrary, in order that I might like all men, I wished to associate with none. Now, then, to have mentioned the Parmenides to one who, fifty thousand to one, was a perfect stranger to its whole drift and purpose, looked too méchant, too like a trick of malice in an age when such reading was so very unusual. I felt that it would be taken for an express stratagem for stopping my tutor's mouth. All this passing rapidly through my mind, I replied without hesitation, that I had been reading Paley. My tutor's rejoinder I have never forgotten: Ah! an excellent author; excellent for his matter; only you must be on your guard as to his style; he is very vicious there.' Such was the colloquy; we bowed, parted, and never more (I apprehend) exchanged one word. Now, trivial. and trite as this comment on Paley may appear to the reader, it struck me forcibly that more falsehood, or more absolute falsehood, or more direct inversion of the truth, could not, by any artifice of ingenuity, have been crowded into one short sentence. Paley, as a philosopher, is a jest, the disgrace of the age; and, as regards the two' Universities and the enormous responsibility they under take for the books which they sanction by their official examinations for degrees, the name of Paley is their great opprobrium. But, on the other hand, for style, Paley is a master. Homely, racy, vernacular English, the rustic vigor of a style which intentionally foregoes the graces of polish on the one hand, and of scholastic precision on the other, that quality of merit has never been attained in a degree so eminent. This first interchange of thought upon a topic of literature did not tend to slacken my previous disposition to retreat into solitude; a solitude, however, which at no time was tainted with either the moroseness or the pride of a cynic.
Neither must the reader suppose, that, even in that day,
I belonged to the party who disparage the classical writers, or the classical training of the great English schools. The Greek drama I loved and revered. But, to deal frankly - because it is a subject which I shall hereafter bring before the public-I made great distinctions. I was not that indiscriminate admirer of Greek and Roman literature, which those too generally are who admire it at all. This protesting spirit, against a false and blind idolatry, was with me, at that time, a matter of enthusiasm almost of bigotry. I was a bigot against bigots. Let us take the Greek oratory, for example:- What section of the Greek literature is more fanatically exalted, and studiously in depreciation of our own? Let us judge of the sincerity at the base of these hollow affectations, by the downright facts and the producible records. To admire, in any sense which can give weight and value to your admiration, presupposes, I presume, some acquaint'ance with its object. As the earliest title to an opinion, one way or other, of the Greek eloquence, we ought to have studied some of its most distinguished artists; or, say one, at least; and this one, we may be sure, will be, as it ought to be, Demosthenes. Now, it is a fact, that all the copies of Demosthenes sold within the last hundred years would not meet the demand of one considerable town, were that orator a subject of study amongst even classical scholars. I doubt whether, at this day, there exist twenty men in Europe who can be said to have even once read Demosthenes; and therefore it was that, when Mr. Mitford, in his History of Greece,' took a new view of this orator's political administration a view which
lowered his character for integrity. he found an unresisting acceder to his doctrines in a public having no previous opinion upon the subject, and, therefore, open to any casual impression of malice or rash judgment. Had
there been any acquaintance with the large remains which we still possess of this famous orator, no such wrong could have been done. I, from my childhood, had been a reader, nay, a student of Demosthenes; and, simply, for this reason, that, having meditated profoundly on the true laws and philosophy of diction, and of what is vaguely denominated style, and finding nothing of any value in modern writers upon this subject, and not much as regards the grounds and ultimate principles even in the ancient rhetoricians, I have been reduced to collect my opinions from the great artists and practitioners, rather than from the theorists; and, among those artists, in the most plastic of languages, I hold Demosthenes to have been the greatest.
The Greek is, beyond comparison, the most plastic of languages. It was a material which bent to the purposes of him who used it beyond the material of other languages; it was an instrument for a larger compass of modulations; and it happens that the peculiar theme of an orator imposes the very largest which is consistent with a prose diction. One step farther in passion, and the orator would become a poet. An orator can exhaust the capacities of a language - an historian never. More. over, the age of Demosthenes was, in my judgment, the age of highest development for arts dependent upon social refinement. That generation had fixed and ascertained the use of words; whereas, the previous generation of Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, &c., was a transitional period: the language was still moving and tending to a meridian not yet attained; and the public eye had been directed consciously upon language, as in and for itself an organ of intellectual delight, for too short a time, to have mastered the whole art of managing its resources. All these were reasons for studying Demosthenes, as
the one great model and standard of Attic prose; and, studied him I had, more than any other prose writer whatPari passu, I had become sensible that others had not studied him. One monotonous song of applause I found raised on every side; something about being like a torrent, that carries everything before it.' This original image is all we get in the shape of criticism; and never any attempt even at illustrating what is greatest in him, or characterizing what is most peculiar. The same persons who discovered that Lord Brougham was the modern Bacon, have also complimented him with the title of the English Demosthenes. Upon this hint, Lord Brougham, in his address to the Glasgow students, has deluged the great Athenian with wordy admiration. There is an obvious prudence in lodging your praise upon an object from which you count upon a rebound to yourself. But here, as everywhere else, you look in vain for any marks or indications of a personal and direct acquaintance with the original orations. The praise is built rather upon the popular idea of Demosthenes, than upon the real Demosthenes. And not only so, but even upon style itself, and upon the art of composition in abstracto, Lord Brougham does not seem to have formed any clear conceptions → principles he has none. Now, it is useless to judge of an artist until you have some principles on the art. The two capital secrets in the art of prose composition are these:- 1st, The philosophy of transition and connection, or the art by which one step in an evolution of thought is made to arise out of another: all fluent and effective composition depends on the connections; — 2dly, The way in which sentences are made to modify each other; for, the most powerful effects in written eloquence arise out of this reverberation, as it were, from each other in a rapid succession of sentences: and, because some limitation is