Billeder på siden



descriptions chaste and correct, and this work should be by every narrator of battles or of travels.

The form of commentaries was adopted by several of the historians of the Greek empire, and even the Alexiad of the accomplished Princess Anna Comnena may be ranged in the same class. I cannot resist the pleasure of transcribing Mr. Hayley's lines on this elegant female....

"For in the lovely charms of female youth,
"A second Pallas guards the throne of truth!
"And with Comnena's royal name imprest,
"The zone of beauty binds her Attic vest.
"Fair star of wisdom, whose unrivalled light
"Breaks through the stormy cloud of thickest night;
"Though in the purple of proud misery nurst,
"From those oppressive bands thy spirit burst ;
"Pleas'd, in thy public labours, to forget
"The keen domestic pangs of fond regret;
"Pleas'd to preserve from time's destructive rage,
"A father's virtues in thy faithful page!
"Too pure of soul to violate, or hide
"Th' historian's duty in the daughter's pride."

The son of the great Alberquerque adopted also the same title for the historical detail of his father's exploits and conquests in India. It is the best written prose composition in the Portuguese language.

The Latin title commentaries was succeeded by the French word memoirs; and more works of this kind have been published in France than in any other country, many of them under the title "Memoirs pour servir a l'Histoire," &c. Among a vast class of publications of this description, the Memoirs of de Retz, and of the Duc de Sully, stand pre-eminent. The latter is one of the most interesting books I ever read.

In our language we have some excellent historical records under this title, among which I particularly recommend "Ludlow's Memoirs" of the civil war, and Cromwell's usurpation. He is a most honest, clear, and interesting writer. It is astonishing that the failure of that great and unfortunate experiment should not

have convinced him of the total impracticability of a form of government truly republic. Like all other speculatists, he dreams upon the subject, and retains his prejudices to the last: but we must take the man as he is, and upon other subjects he is on the whole liberal and candid. Whitlock, who records the same transactions, has entitled his work "Memorials," but this is only to be regarded as a different orthography.

Bishop Burnet's "history of his own times" would have been properly termed memoirs. The composition is so loose, and occasionally so unconnected, and so many private transactions and conversations are recorded, that the work does not properly fall under the denomination of history. I do not mean by this to detract from its merit. As an original and authentic record, it is more valuable than if it had been studied. Whatever he gives upon his own knowledge bears the stamp of truth; but it is not surprising that a writer who narrates all he hears should be sometimes deceived. Mr. Hayley's character of him seems very just.....

"Yet Burnet's page may lasting glory hope,
"Howe'er insulted by the spleen of Pope.

"Though his rough language haste and warmth denote,
"With ardent honesty of soul he wrote;

Though critic censures on his work may shower, "Like faith his freedom has a saving power."


It is a proof indeed of merit, when even Pope could not write him down, though he has classed the good bishop with some very inferior writers in one invidious couplet.....

"From these the world will judge of men and books, "Not from the Burnets, Oldmixons and Cooks."

It is impossible however to read Burnet's history, and not to be involuntarily reminded of the arch ridicule upon it conveyed in the "Memoirs of P. P., clerk of this parish."

If Burnet with some arrogance entitled his memoirs a history, Sir John Dalrymple has, with a modesty

scarcely less culpable, entitled his history "Memoirs." This is an excellent, and on the whole a well written work. It contains some of the best and most judicious political observations that are any where to be found. Though I am an infidel with respect to the charges against those distinguished patriots Russel, Sydney, the Duke of Shrewsbury, &c. yet I believe that Sir John's authorities are fairly quoted; but let us remember on what evidence the charges ultimately rest, on that of a - depraved and intriguing Frenchman.

Biography is a species of narrative nearly connected with history, and is of ancient date, though evidently not so old as history; for we have nothing that can properly be termed biography in the writing of the Hebrews. The book of Joshua is obviously a continuation of the history from the Pentateuch; and the book of Job is evidently a poem.* The same may be said of the books of Samuel as of Joshua. The Cyropædia of Xenophon is evidently a work of imagination.

For a specimen of regular biography we can therefore extend our views no further back than the work of Cornelius Nepos, who was contemporary with Cicero and Cæsar. Yet from the style in which these lives are composed, and the author omitting to mention them as a new undertaking, we are authorized in supposing that he was not the first in that line of composition. The lives of Cornelius Nepos are dry and methodical, and the style not elegant. Plutarch is a far better writer, though we cannot even compliment him much upon his style. For his labour and research, however, we cannot be too liberal in our commendations. If we consider that he flourished in the time of Trajan, it is impossible not to wonder where he could find his materials for so many ages back. His first remark, in which he draws the line between the age of fable and that of history, made an impression on me when a boy, and has been useful to me ever since. In one opinion respect

* See Lowth's Lectures on the Sacred Poetry.

ing Plutarch I suppose I stand alone. I shall have, I dare say, your dissent to encounter, as well as that of all young people, who are generally charmed with them; and perhaps may incur the censure even of the learned. I do not relish his parallels. The lives of no two people can be so much alike as to admit of a close comparison, and Plutarch's are often fanciful and vague; besides that, I cannot see the utility of 'them. When I first read them they appeared tedious and without an end; and I have not since learned to like them better. The following lines of Mr. Hayley are not uncharacteristic....

"Enchanting sage! whose living lessons teach,
"What heights of virtue human efforts reach.
"Though oft thy pen, eccentrically wild,
"Rambles, in learning's various maze beguil'd;
"Though in thy style no brilliant graces shine,
"Nor the clear conduct of correct design,

Thy every page is uniformly bright
"With mild philanthropy's diviner light," &c.

[ocr errors]

It is no small praise to say that no author, not even of the higher classics, has been so generally read as Plutarch, or has retained his popularity so long.

Though I cannot recommend it as a model of fine writing, I know few books from which, in the early part of my life, I received more solid and useful information than from Diogenes Laertius. Had it not been for his Lives of the Sages of ancient Greece, we could have known very little about them, except Solon and Socrates. His account of their doctrines is impartial, for he seems to have been strictly.....

"Nullius addictus in verba jurare magistri."
"Sworn to no master, of no sect am I."

His record of their sayings is lively and pleasant, and may be considered as a repository of the serious wit of Greece. How he was able to collect those aphorisms is matter of wonder; and I can only suppose that he

[ocr errors]

extracted them from some older collection of lives and chronicles, now probably lost. He is rather defective in method; and, as far as we are judges of a dead language, very deficient in style.

Suetonius, in his lives of the first twelve emperors of Rome, may be considered either as an historian or biographer. Properly I think the latter, for he relates much of their private lives and transactions. His work is a most valuable collection of facts, and bears the evidence of truth and honesty; but whoever reads it can scarcely suspect the author to have been a professed rhetorician. The style is homely and abrupt, almost destitute of harmony, and deformed by Greek quotations. For his facts he should be read by all; for his manner of relating them he will be admired by no person of true taste. Tacitus's Life of Agricola cannot be raised by any commendation.

The moderns have excelled the ancients in biography. There are many excellent pieces of biography in French among these I do not class the Dictionary of Bayle; for though it is a vast treasure of ancient and modern learning, I think there never was a work composed with so little either of judgment or of taste. The text is a mere Old Bailey record; indeed it is scarcely "the life, character, and behaviour." All that is valuable is contained in the notes, and these are often ill selected, and not less frequently tedious and trifling. Moreri's, in point of utility, is far superior to Bayle; it is indeed a most useful, and on the whole a judicious work.

Our language abounds with excellent biography. The best I ever read is Johnson's Life of Savage. He wrote it con amore, if you can excuse this vulgar barbarism. The following sentence I might have cited as a very fine example of climax. After relating that Savage in his distress "walked about the streets till he was weary, and lay down in summer upon a bulk, or in the winter with his associates in poverty, among the ashes of a glass-house," he resumes....


« ForrigeFortsæt »