Billeder på siden


ELIZABETH ROBINSON, daughter of Matthew Robinson, Esq., was born at York, on the 2d of October, 1720. When she was about seven years old, her parents removed to Cambridge, where she derived great advantage in the progress of her education from Dr. Conyers Middleton,1 whom her grandmother had married as her second husband. Her uncommon sensibility and acuteness of understanding, as well as her extraordinary beauty as a child, rendered her an object of great notice and admiration in the society at Cambridge, and Dr. Middleton was in the habit of requiring from her an account of the learned conversations at which in his society she was frequently present; saying that, though she might but imperfectly understand them then, she would in future derive great benefit from the habit of attention inculcated by this practice.

In 1742, she was married to Edward Montagu, Esq., member of Parliament for Huntingdon. In three years, however, he died, leaving her the whole of his estate (for she had no children), and thus she was enabled to gratify her taste for study and literary society to the fullest extent. In 1769, she published her "Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakspeare, compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets; with some Remarks upon the Misrepresentations of Voltaire." This work soon passed through many editions, and gave her a high rank in the literary world. The praise which Cowper and Warton have bestowed upon it is decisive as to its merits. "The learning," says Cowper, "the good sense, the sound judgment, and the wit displayed in it, fully justify not only my compliment, but all compliments that either have been already paid to her talents, or shall be paid hereafter." Soon after the publication of this essay, she opened her house, Portman-square, in London, to the "Blue Stocking Club,"2 and was intimate with the most eminent literary men of her day. In private life she was an example of liberality and benevolence. It was at her house that an annual entertainment was given, on May-day, to all the climbing-boys and chimney sweepers' apprentices in the metropolis. She died August 25, 1800.

The works of Mrs. Montagu consist of the Essay on Shakspeare, before mentioned, and four volumes of epistolary correspondence held with most of the eminent literary men of the day. These letters do great credit both to her head and heart: they are written in an easy and perspicuous style; are filled with judicious and pertinent reflections upon the passing events and the great men of the times; and, with her Essay on Shakspeare, give her no mean rank among English authors. If not a profound critic, she was certainly an acute and ingenious one, possessing judgment and taste

See his life in "Compendium of English Literature," p. 489.

So called from the "blue stockings" worn by a Mr. Stillingfleet, a member of this literary club. Such were the charms of his conversation, that when he was absent, it used to be said, "We can do nothing without the blue stockings," and thus by degrees the name was given to the society. See Croker's Boswell's Johnson, vol. viii. pp. 85 and 86.

as well as learning; and if not of such versatile talents as her namesake, Lady Mary Wortley,' she is an example of moral purity both in her writings and character.2


To the Rev. W. Freind.s

SIR-I had the pleasure of your letter on Saturday, and I was glad to see the evening of a day spent in diversion improve into friendship. The various pleasures the general world can give us are nothing in comparison of the collected comforts of friendship. The first play round the head, but come not to the heart; the last are intensely felt; however, both these kinds of pleasures are necessary to our satisfaction. If we would be more merry than wise, we may be imprudent; but to increase the critical knowledge that increases sorrow is not the desire or boast, but the misfortune and complaint, of the truly wise. It is really a misfortune to be above the bagatelle; a scorn of trifles may make us despise gray heads, mitred heads, nay, perhaps, crowned heads; it may teach us to take a little man from his great estate; a lord mayor from his great coach; a judge out of his long wig; a chief justice from his chair; it may even penetrate a crowd of courtiers till we reach the very heart of the prime minister. It is best to admire, and not to understand the world. Like a riddle, by its mystery rather than by its meaning, it affords a great deal of amusement till understood, and then but a very poor and scanty satisfaction. To the farmer every ear of wheat is bread; the thresher, by dint of labor, finds out it is half chaff; the miller, a man of still nicer inquiry, discovers that not a quarter of it will bear the sifting; the baker knows it is liable to a thousand accidents before it can be made into bread. Thus it is in the great harvest of life; reckon that lofty stem on which greatness grows, and all that envelop it, as a part of the golden grain, and it makes a good figure; and thus sees the common eye. The nicer inquirer discerns how much of the fair appearance wants intrinsic value, and that when it is sifted there remains but little of real worth, and even that little is with difficulty moulded to good use. Do not let you and I encourage

1 See "Compendium of English Literature," p. 532.

See an article on Mrs. Montagu's Letters, in the "Edinburgh Review," vol. xv. p. 75, and in the "Quarterly," vol. x. p. 15; also, some selected letters in Sir Egerton Brydges, "Censura Literaria," vol. ix. p. 48.

Afterwards Dean of Canterbury, son of Dr. Robert Freind, head-master of Westminster School.

this sharpness of sight; let the vision come to us through the grossest medium, and every little object borrow bulk and color: let all be magnified, multiplied, varied, and beautified by opinion, and the mistaken eye of prejudice: thus will the world appear a gay scene: as indulgent spectators we will call every trick a scheme, and every little wish ambition.


To the Duchess of Portland.

MADAM AS your grace tenders my peace of mind, you will be glad to hear I am not so angry as I was. I own I was much moved in spirit at hearing you neglected your health, but since you have had advice, there is one safe step taken. As for me, I have swallowed the weight of an apothecary in medicine, and what I am the better, except more patient and less credulous, I know not. I have learnt to bear my infirmities, and not to trust to the skill of physicians for curing them. I endeavor to drink deep of philosophy, and be wise when I cannot be merry, easy when I cannot be glad, content with what cannot be mended, and patient where there is no redress. The mighty can do no more, and the wise seldom do as much. You see I am in the main content with myself, though many would quarrel with such an insignificant, idle, inconsistent person; but I am resolved to make the best of all circumstances around me, that this short life may not be half lost in pains, "well remembering and applying, the necessity of dying." Between the periods of birth and burial I would fain insert a little happiness, a little pleasure, a little peace: to-day is ours, yesterday is past, and to-morrow may never come. I wonder people can so much forget death, when all we see before us is but succession; minute succeeds to minute, season to season, summer dies as winter comes. The dial marks the change of hour, every night brings. death-like sleep, and morning seems a resurrection; yet while all changes and decays, we expect no alteration; unapt to live, unready to die, we lose the present and seek the future, ask much for what we have not, thank Providence but little for what we have; our youth has no joy, our middle age no quiet, our old age no ease, no indulgence; ceremony is the tyrant of this day, fashion of the other, business of the next: little is allowed to freedom, happiness, and contemplation, the adoration of our Creator, the admiration of his works, and the inspection of ourselves. But why should I trouble your grace with these reflections? What my

little knowledge can suggest you must know better: what my short experience has shown, you must have better observed. I am sure anything is more acceptable to you than news and compliments; so I always give your grace the present thoughts of my heart.


HAYTON, April 20, 1741.

To Mrs. Donnellan.

DEAR MADAM-I had the pleasure of your letter yesterday; it made me very happy. If my friends at a distance did not keep my affections awake, I should be lulled into a state of insensibility, divided as I am from all I love. Not a countenance I delight in to joy me, nor any conversation I like to entertain me, I am left wholly to myself and my books, and both, I own, too little to possess me entirely. What's Cicero to me, or I to Cicero? as Hamlet would say; and for myself, though this same little insignificant self be very dear unto me, yet I have not used to make it my sole object of love and delight. Indeed I find my understanding so poor, it cannot live without borrowing. I mistrust my opinion, doubt my judgment, but have no one to set me right in them. I want just such a companion as you would be, and how happy would your kind compliance with that wish make me, if the good old folks here could accommodate you; but they are so fearful of strangers I know it impossible to persuade them to it. They are not very fine people; they have a small estate, and help it out with a little farming; are very busy and careful, and the old man's cautiousness has dwindled into penuriousness, so that he eats in fear of waste and riot, sleeps with the dread of thieves, denies himself everything, for fear of wanting anything. Riches give him no plenty, increase no joy, prosperity no ease; he has the curse of covetousness-to want the property of his neighbors while he dare not touch his own; the harpy Avarice drives him from his own meat; the sum of his wisdom and his gains will be by living poor to die rich. To want what one has not, is a necessity must be submitted to; but to want what one has, is strange policy. I would fain write the history of a miser upon his monument, as: "Here lies one who lived unloved, died unlamented, denied plenty to himself, assistance to his friends, and relief to the poor; starved his family, oppressed his neighbors, plagued himself to gain what he could not enjoy; at last, Death, more merciful to him than he to himself, released him from care, and his family from want; and here he lies with the muckworm he imitated, and the dirt he loved,

in fear of a resurrection, lest his heirs should have spent the money he left behind, having laid up no 'treasure where moth and rust do not corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal.'"


Shakspeare wrote at a time when learning was tinctured with pedantry, wit was unpolished, and mirth ill-bred. The court of Elizabeth spoke a scientific jargon, and a certain obscurity of style was universally affected. James brought an addition of pedantry, accompanied by indecent and indelicate manners and language. By contagion, or from complaisance to the taste of the public, Shakspeare falls sometimes into the fashionable mode of writing: but this is only by fits; for many parts of all his plays are written with the most noble, elegant, and uncorrupted simplicity. Such is his merit, that the more just and refined the taste of the nation is become, the more he has increased in reputation. He was approved by his own age, admired by the next, and is revered and almost adored by the present. His merit is disputed by little wits, and his errors are the jests of little critics; but there has not been a great poet, or great critic, since his time, who has not spoken of him with the highest veneration, Mr. Voltaire alone excepted; whose translations often, whose criticisms still oftener, prove he did not perfectly understand the words of the author; and therefore it is certain he could not enter into his meaning. He comprehended enough to perceive that Shakspeare was unobservant of some established rules of composition; the felicity with which he performs what no rules can teach escapes him. Will not an intelligent spectator admire the prodigious structures of Stonehenge, because he does not know by what laws of mechanics they were raised? Like them, our author's works will remain for ever the greatest monuments of the amazing force of nature, which we ought to view, as we do other prodigies, with an attention to and admiration of their stupendous parts, and proud irregularity of greatness.

Essay on Shakspeare.


If the mind is to be medicated by the operations of pity and terror, surely no means are so well adapted to that end as a strong and lively representation of the agonizing struggles that

« ForrigeFortsæt »