Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

and was thus among the most influential instruments in that change by which the nation was transformed. As soon as he had received new convictions, he devoted his chastened pencil solely to paintings in harmony with the thoughts of a Christian, and gave to groups of children represented as blessed by the Saviour that peculiar grace with which he had previously invested legendary saints. Albert Durer was one of those who were attracted by the Word of Truth, and from that time, a new impulse was given to his genius. His master-pieces were produced subsequently to conversion. It might have been discerned, from the style in which he thenceforward depicted the Evangelists and Apostles, that the Bible had been restored to the people, and that the painter derived thence a depth, power, life, and dignity, which he never would have found within himself. It must, however, be admitted, that of all the arts, painting is that one whose influence upon religion is most open to well-founded and strong objection. We see it continually connected with grievous immorality or pernicious error; and those who have studied history, or visited Italy, will look for nothing in this art of benefit to human-kind.”

Art. VI.-The Amenities of Literature; consisting of Sketches and Cha

racters of English Literature. By J. D'ISRAELI. 3 vols. London:

Moxon, “It was my design,” says Mr. D’Israeli, "not to furnish an arid narrative of books or of authors, but, following the steps of the human mind through the wide track of time, to trace from their beginnings the rise, the progress, and the decline of public opinions, and to illustrate, as the objects presented themselves, the great incidents in our national annals." Therefore the volumes before us contain only a portion of an intended history of our vernacular literature, and of an exhibition of its fortunes as blending with and inseparable from those of the people, socially, civilly, and religious. But alas ! the great design has been interrupted by a severe visitation, which finally and for ever closes the writer's literary labours; for in the rear and in company of bad health total blindness has struck him ; so that he is “ denied the satisfaction of reading a single line” of the work. Thus we have one illustration more of the Calamities of Authors, with which Mr. D’Israeli has made himself so fully acquainted. We must not, however, set down the loss of sight at his age, and especially after the straining to which his eye-balls have been so long subjected, as one of the Curiosities of Literature ; for about fifty years have sped over him since he commenced, with remarkable literary and antiquarian zeal, to be a pioneer in a new field of letters ; never relaxing, but adding volume to volume, the anecdotes and other information within them being collected from innumerable sources, and all kinds of books. Our author has therefore done his duty in his particular walk; his visual organs have done him good service ; so that we must not place him among the exceptions to the ordinary decay and losses which humanity is heir to.

We have said that Mr. D’Israeli's field was peculiarly his own fifty years ago. And very pleasant and popular reading he supplied; gossip and anecdote relative to the learned authors of all sorts, and bookcraft being the staple of his volumes. These materials, besides, which must ever be agreeable, were delivered with a considerable show of erudition, but a still larger display of authority in a rhetorical style; and the consequence was, that while general readers were satisfied and amused, taking every thing as told by our author, men of learning, clear judgment, and indefatigable energies, took to the field of literary antiquities, frequently going deeper in their researches than Mr. D’Israeli had or has done, and frequently, also, convicting bim of error, of hasty conclusions, and also of superficiality. Some writers have, indeed, taken a kind of wicked pleasure in ferreting out his mistakes. But the disadvantages he had at first to contend with should be allowed for, as well as the amazing number and the extremely miscellaneous character of his subjects, the facts to be dealt with, and the articles to be entered. The manuscripts that have been consulted by him, must have interposed difficulties, owing to their imperfect, their corrupt, or their obscure character. On the other hand, he enjoyed peculiar advantages; for the walk was open to him, and he could also range whither he chose, without crossing the path of others, or following a guide. He was not incommoded, and had no occasion to incommode any one else.

With regard to the present volumes, as compared with Mr. D'Israeli's former works, we think they are fully as carefully written; but the following faults will probably be by many found with these Amenities,--a title not at all applicable or descriptive, according to our thinking :--first, we have a mere collection of papers, which look like separate contributions, among and between which there is frequently no obvious connexion-over which there appears no combining or harmonizing mind. It will be answered that we have only a portion, the separate members of an unfinished work of great scope. But then, secondly, we object that Mr. D'Israeli has never exhibited a philosophic power over his materials, so as to educe manifest and important ideas. His digestion is not quick and sound. On the other hand, he is rather notorious for vapid speculation and dogmatic vapouring when he intends to philosophize or to sentimentalize; so that we question much, had he been in a condition to fulfil his design, whether it would not have subjected him to still more critical severity. In the third place, we have in these volumes a vast number of things that are now hackneyed and known on the part even of every reader of the periodicals of the day; and although the author has corrected or modified some of

VOL. III. (1811.) NO. I.

his former hasty opinions, the work looks very much like what he might have produced twenty-five years earlier. We suspect that it contains a considerable portion of the sweepings of his study, or the stray leaves of his portfolio; otherwise, we think, there would have been tokens of judicious editorship, more skilful apportioning of space to things that are new as compared with those that are old—to what is important with the unimportant.

But after all that we have, or that can be said, the work is sure to attract much attention, to find many purchasers, and to be placed on the shelves where D'Israeli's former publications have obtained a prominent abode.

These "'Sketches and Characters " extend over a large space, commencing with the Druidical Institutions, and thence traversing the Saxon, the Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Anglo-Norman, and old English eras down to Henry the Seventh. Thus far does the first volume reach. In the second we are brought to the Elizabethan period. The third is concerned with the drama-Shakspere and his contemporaries,--and passes on along with the course of time until we are landed in the seventeenth century.

The mode of treatment, and the subjects handled, may be thus summarily indicated :—by means of about sixty papers, each era is designed to be illustrated, characters and literary productions being introduced for this purpose; or, at other times, an essay is given upon some general subject and natural phasis; while, at others, again, an institution or a peculiar form of life is taken for the index. Thus we have Chaucer and his works-early libraries-ancient minstrels—the psychological history of Raleigh, &c., the picture being sometimes faint as well as conjectural; but at others evincing much research and acute suggestions. The following are some of the topics, besides those already named:-origin of the English language, sources of history, travels of Mandevelle, orthography and orthoepy. But we go forward to extract, and our first specimen concerns the ancient Britons, their internal wars, their subjugation, and extirpation or disappearance.

“ The tale of these ancient Britons, who should have been our ancestors, is told by the philosophical historian of antiquity. Under successive Roman governors they still remained, divided by native factions : « A circumstance,' observes Tacitus, 'most useful for us, among such a powerful people, where each combating singly, all are subdued.' A century, as we have said, had not elapsed from the landing of Cæsar to the administration of Agricola. That enlightened general changed the policy of former governors; he allured the Britons from their forest-retreats and reedy roofs to partake of the pleasures of a Roman city-to dwell in houses, to ereot lofty temples, and to indulge in dissolving baths. The barbarian who had scorned the Roman tongue now felt the ambition of Roman eloquence ; and the painted Briton of Cæsar was enveloped in the Roman toga.

Severus, in another century after Agricola, as an extraordinary evidence of his successful government, appealed to Britain, — Even the Britons are quiet!' exclaimed the emperor. The tutelary genius of Rome through four centuries preserved Britain—even from the Britons themselves; but the Roman policy was fatal to the national character, and when the day arrived that their protector forsook them, the Britons were left among their ancient discords : for provincial jealousies, however concealed by circumstances, are never suppressed; the fire lives in its embers ready to be kindled. The island of Britain, itself not extensive, was broken into petty principalities : we are told that there were nearly two hundred kinglings, the greater part of whom did not presume to wear crowns. Sometimes they united in their jealousies of some paramount tyrant; but they raged among themselves ; and the passion of Gildas has figured them as 'the Lioness of Devonshire' encountering a Lion's Whelp' in Dorsetshire, and

the Bear-Baiter' trembling before his regal brother the Great Bull-dog.' * These kings were not appointed by God, exclaims the British Jeremiah ; he who wrote under the name of Gildas. Thus, the Britons formed a powerless aggregate, and never a nation. The naked Irish haunted their shores, covering their sea with piracy; and the Picts rushed from their forests,-giants of the North, who, if Gildas does not exaggerate, even dragged down from their walls the amazed Britons. Such a people in their terrified councils were to be suppliants to the valour of foreigners ; from that hour they were doomed to be chased from their natal soil. They invited, or they encouraged, another race to become their mercenaries or their allies. The small and the great from other shores hastened to a new dominion. Britain then became a field of fortune to every adventurer when nothing less than king loms were the prize of every fortunate commander.' We have now the history of a people whose enemies inhabited their ancient land: the flame and the sword ceaselessly devouring the soil ; the dominion shrinking in space, and the people diminishing in number; victory for them was fatal as defeat. The disasters of the Britons pursued them through the despair of almost two centuries; it would have been the history of a whole people ever retreating, yet hardly in flight, had it been written. Shall we refuse on the score of their disputed antiquity the evidence of the Welsh bards? The wild grandeur of the melancholy poetry of those ancient Britons attests the reality of their story and the depth of their emotions. We have spun the last thread of our cobweb, and we know not on what point it hangs, such irreconcilable hypotheses are offered to us by our learned antiquaries, whenever they would account for the origin or the disappearance of a whole people. The mystery deepens and the confusion darkens amid contradictions and incredibilities, when the British historian contemplates in the perspective the Fata Morgana of another Britain on the opposite shores of the ancient Armorica-another Britain in La Brétagne.”

The religion and the literature of the Britons were alike destroyed by the Romans; but if vestiges of their stories had reached us, we might have had another version than even Tacitus has bequeathed to the world. However, when we find that the Anglo-Saxon manu

scripts are in a most corrupt state, occasioned by the inattention or the unskilfulness of the calligrapher, whose task must have required a learned pen, as Mr. D’Israeli's experience has sufficiently impressed upon his mind, we can hardly suppose that any clearly decipherable literary relics of an earlier people could descend to us, not only after Roman invasion, and Pictish devastation, but Saxon usurpation. We must therefore remain content with the testimony of the Welsh Bards, or be lost in mystery. We now come to a subject for delightful description, and which our author has treated with warmth and ability,--we mean that of the ancient minstrels :

“ There were minstrels who held honourable offices in the great households, sometimes chosen for their skill and elocution to perform the dignified service of heralds, and were in the secret confidence of their lord ; these were those favourites of the castle, whose guerdon was sometimes as romantic as any incident in their own romance. No festival, public or private, but there the minstrel poet was its crowning ornament. They awakened national themes in the presence of assembled thousands at the installation of an abbot, or the reception of a bishop. Often, in the Gothic hall, *they resounded some lofty ‘Geste,' or some old 'Breton'lay, or with some gayer Fabliau, indulging the vein of an improvvisatore, altering the old story when wanting a new one. Delightful rhapsodists, or amusing taletellers, combining the poetic with the musical character, they displayed the influence of the imagination over a rude and unlettered race :

They tellen Tales,

Both of weepying and of game.' Chaucer has portrayed the rapture of a minstrel excited by his harp, a portrait evidently after the life,

• Somewhat he lisped for his wantonness

To make the English swete upon his tonge ;
And in his Harping when that he had songe,
His Eyen twinkled in his Hed aright,

As don the Sterrés on a frosty night.' The minstrel more particularly delighted the Lewed,' or the people, when, sitting in their fellowship, the harper stilled their attention by some fragment of a chronicle of their fathers and their father-land. The family harper touched more personal sympathies; the ancestral honours of the baron made even the vassal proud-domestic traditions and local incidents deepened their emotions—the moralising ditty softened their mind with thought, and every county had its legend at which the heart of the native beat. Of this minstrelsy little was written down, but tradition lives through a hundred echoes, and the 'Reliques of ancient English poetry,' and the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,' and some other remains, for the greater part, have been formed by so many metrical narratives and fugitive effusions. There were periods in which the minstrels were so highly favoured that they were more amply rewarded than the clergy ;-a circumstance which induced Warton to observe with more truth than acuteness,

[ocr errors]
« ForrigeFortsæt »