Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

his reputation as a huntsman," he has secretly sent for a number of foxes out of other counties, which he used to turn loose about the country by night, that he might the better signalize himself in their destruction the next day.” Sir Roger was not the man to be up to secret and disingenuous tricks of this nature.

Steele in his first paper on Sir Roger very pleasantly represents the Knight as always talking with the servants as he went up stairs, at whatever house he visited; but Addison improves this trait, by making him not merely gossip with them in a style that might render them a little too familiar with him in return, but speak in a tone that indicates a happy mixture of the father and the master.

Parson Adams*, by Uncle Toby, the Vicar of Wakefield, and Sir Roger de Coverley, are all purely national characters, and a native of England may well be proud that they are by no means exaggerations of English virtue. Proud too may be also be that they are the creations of English genius.

The merit of Addison's humour consists in its utter absence of all caricature. It never borders upon farce. It is often rather hinted than expressed, and more is meant than reaches the ear. He raises a pleasant smile, and conjures up a whole train of characteristic images at a single touch. There is no force of outline -nothing is emphatic or overwrought, and yet all is exquisitely distinct and well defined. He has the art to conceal his art. His happiest strokes appear careless and unpremeditated. Thus vulgar readers are apt to underrate him, because they see no marks of effort. The broad humour of Smollet is more effective with such judges, but if that writer had been called upon for a sketch of Sir Roger, his performance would have resembled the altered picture of the Knight, which an old servant of his had used as the sign-post to an inn. Sir Roger's modesty thought it too great an honor for any man under a duke to have his head swinging in the wind on a country sign-board, and directed that it should be converted into a Saracen's head. Notwithstand. ing the exaggerated features, a distant and ludicrous resemblance still remained. Until Addison appeared, humour had always been associated with some taint of indecency. But he has shown us that it stands in no need of such spurious aid. It is a pity that Smollet, Sterne, and Swift, did not follow his example. Goldsmith alone of Addison's successors has equalled him in purity. Addison could bring Sir Roger into an association with the Gypsies, without staining his moral character, and carefully avoids the indecent insinuations of Steele. As a fine specimen of his humour, we shall extract a portion of the account of the interview with those swarthy vagabonds.

* Fielding is as superior to Smollet as Cervantes is to LeSage. LeSage and Smollet are painters of manners, and not of universal nature. Their merit, however, in their own line is unequalled.

“ Sir Roger observing that I listened with great attention to his account of a people who were so entirely new to me, told me, that, if I would, they should tell us our fortunes. As I was very well pleased with the knight's proposal, we rid up and communicated our hands to them. A Casandra of the crew, after having examined my lines very diligently, told me, that I loved a pretty maid in a corner, that I was a good woman's man, with some other particulars which I do not think proper to relate. My friend Sir Roger alighted from his horse, and exposing his palm to two or three that stood by him, they crumpled it into all shapes, and diligently scanned every wrinkle that could be made in it; when one of them, who was older and more sun-burnt than the rest, told him, that he had a widow in his line of life. Upon which the knight cried, “Go, go, you are an idle baggage;" and at the same time smiled upon me. The gipsy finding he was not displeased in his heart, told him after farther inquiry into his hand, that his true love was constant, and that she should dream of him to-night. My old friend cried pish, and bid her go on. The gipsy told him that he was a bachelor, but would not be so long ; and that he was dearer to somebody than he thought. The knight still repeated, “ She was an idle baggage," and bid her go on. “ Ah, master,” says the gipsy, “ that roguish leer of yours makes a pretty woman's heart ache; you have not that simper about the mouth for nothing.”—The uncouth gibberish with which all this was uttered, like the darkness of an oracle, made us the more attentive to it. To be short, the knight left the money with her that he had crossed her hand with, and got up again on his horse.

As we were riding away, Sir Roger told me, that he knew sereral sensible people who believed these gipsies now and then foretold very strange things; and for half an hour together appeared more jocund than ordinary. In the height of his good-humour, meeting a common beggar upon the road, who was no conjurer, as he went to relieve him he found his pocket was picked ; that being a kind of palmistry at which this race of vermin are very dexterous.”

The characteristic description of Sir Roger's behaviour at the play seems to have given Fielding the hint for the amusing criticisms of Partridge. The Knight is perhaps more at home in the parish church, and is equally entertaining and delightful.

“As Sir Roger is landlord to the whole congregation, he keeps them in very good order, and will suffer nobody to sleep in it besides himself; for if by chance he has been surprised into a short nap at sermon, upon recovering out of it he stands up and looks about him, and if he sees any body else nodding, either wakes them himself, or sends his servants to them. Several other of the old knight's particularities break out upon these occasions. Sometimes he will be lengthening out a verse in the singing of the Psalms, half a minute after the rest of the congregation have done with it; sometimes when he is pleased with the matter of his devotion, he pronounces amen three or four times to the same prayer; and sometimes stands up when every body else is upon their knees, to count the congregation, or see if any of his tenants are missing.

“I was yesterday very much surprised to hear my old friend, in the midst of the service, calling out to one John Matthews to mind what be was about, and not disturb the congregation. This John Matthews it seems is remarkable for being an idle fellow, and at that time was kicking bis heels for his diversion. This authority of the knight, though exerted in that odd manner which accompanies him in all circuinstances of life, has a very good effect upon the parish, who are not polite enough to see any thing ridiculous in his behaviour; besides that the general good sense and worthiness of his character make his friends observe these little singularities as foils that rather set off than blemish his good qualities.”

In Sir Roger's manners and remarks at Westminster Abbey, we observe that Addison allows him just sufficient sense to set off his excessive simplicity. His inviting the interpreter to call upon him at his house, and talk over the subject of his explanations, is an exquisite stroke of humour, and shows at a glance the singleness of heart and ignorance of the world which are amongst his leading characteristics.

“ I must not omit, that the benevolence of my good old friend, which flows out towards every one he converses with, made him very kind to our interpreter, whom he looked upon as an extraordinary man; for which reason he shook him by the hand at parting, telling him, that he should be very glad to see him at his lodgings in Norfolk-buildings, and talk over these matters with him more at leisure.”

Let us turn from Sir Roger de Coverley to a kindred spiritSterne's Uncle Toby, who has as much simplicity as Sancho Panza himself, but with an infinitely finer nature. There seems to be in all humour a principle of strong contrast, which causes a painter of manners to throw in his points of opposition as freely as an artist distributes his light and shade upon

the canvas. The fat and mirthful Falstaff has his foils in Silence and Justice Shal. lows. The spare knight of La Mancha is set off to advantage by the proximity of Sancho. Sir Roger de Coverley's pleasant sense of his own importance in his county, his cheerful garrulity and his busy benevolence are well opposed to the silence and sensitive modesty of his friend the Spectator ; and nothing can be more humorously at variance than the restless and speculative spirit of Mr. Shandy, and the imperturbable temper of my uncle Toby. The calm simplicity with which my uncle confounds his metaphysical brother, with some reply to his fine spun speculations, as far from the point as Falstaff's replies to the Chief Justice, when the knight affected deafness, and which drives the irritable Mr. Shandy into a state of discomfort and confusion that makes him bite his lips with vexation, is inexpressibly diverting. But exquisite as is the humour displayed in the delineation of my uncle Toby's character, it is not the point of the picture that is the most precious. It is his unaffected goodness of nature that leaves the strongest impression on the mind amidst all his amusing eccentricities. His courage and gentleness, his unconscious superiority to all mankind in purity and tenderness of heart, and his unboastful patience under suffering, are the qualities that so endear him to the reader. It has been well said, that his character is a compliment to human nature. Had his head been equal to his heart, he would have been almost like a god; but it is by no means certain that we should have loved him better. He is the very personification of benevolence. He has not the heart to retaliate upon a fly.

· Go,' says he, one day at dinner to an overgrown one which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner time,” (no small trial of the temper!) "and, which, after infinite attempts, he had caught at last ;-_' I'll not hurt a bair of thy head : 'Go,' says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape ;-Go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me.' Undoubtedly, this is in the finest spirit of christianity.

Doctor Johnson used to say, that no one would eat a slice of plumb-pudding the less on account of the death or affliction of his dearest friend. Let us see how my uncle Toby receives the statement of the distress of a perfect stranger. This passage occurs in the most pathetic episode that was ever written, the story of Le Fevre.

[ocr errors]

“Has he a son with him, then ? said my uncle Toby.—A boy, replied the landlord, of about eleven or twelve years of age; but the poor creature has tasted almost as little as his father; he does nothing but mourn and lament for him night and day. He has not stirred from the bed-side these two days.

My uncle Toby laid down his knife and fork, and thrust his plate from before him, as the landlord gave him the account ; and Trim, without being ordered, took away, without saying one word, and, in a few minutes after, brought him his pipe and tobacco.”

So again, when Corporal Trim gives an account of the attention of the poor son of Le Fevre to his dying father, how exquisitely true is the feeling which prompted my uncle Toby with

« ForrigeFortsæt »