Page images
[ocr errors]

me half ashamed of my morbid sensibility, and I became reconciled to the study of anatomy, on the head of a woman whom a few weeks before I had seen in the bloom of youthful health and beauty. Although my face glows, and my heart sickens, at the recollection, the fidelity with which I write compels me to state, that Hector, by a chemical operation, cleansed the skull, and one night before the rising of the session, with a party of licentious companions, of which I was one-as has since been done by a late celebrated poetdecanted a bottle of wine into this horrid receptacle, lifted it to his lips, toasting the health of a favourite fair, and, passing the cup, it went round, till he was pledged by every one in the company.

The associate of one who could induce me to such voluntary degradation of all that exalts man above the brute creation, it will be supposed that I soon forgot Ellen Gray. Ah no! I did not-could not forget her; but I too often thought of her in a way for which my own heart, depraved as it was, bitterly reproached me. Never was there one retaining the use of his reason more at war with himself than I was at this period; my life was one continued series of alternate wild dissipation and repentance, producing tears and sleepless nights. At one time I would think of Ellen merely as a woman, an object of sensual pleasure; then she would appear to my imagination as a being so pure and sublime, that I loathed myself for having associated her with one impure thought. Ah! little did I anticipate how much greater cause I should in a few months have to deplore my existence.

One day a servant of my father's arrived at my lodgings with a letter, merely requesting me to accompany the bearer home, who had brought a horse for my accommodation: upon being informed that all were well, I was much surprised, but obeyed. On

my arrival, I found a stranger, whom my father introduced to me as Captain Sydney, of the Calypso East Indiaman, and immediately, in rather a blunt style, reminded me of being a younger brother; but added, that the Captain had agreed to carry me out to India, where he had influence to get me introduced to the Governor of Calcutta, whose patronage would soon enable me to acquire a handsome fortune. He was to depart for London in a few days, and I was ordered to be ready to accompany him. Although I did not altogether relish the peremptory style in which this mandate was delivered, allowing me no vote in the matter, yet, leaving Ellen Gray was the principal, indeed the only objection I felt to the proposal. As I passed out of the parlour door, my sister, whom I had hitherto neglected, pushed the following note into my hand, and instantly left me:

[blocks in formation]

Your affectionate Sister.

These three lines were sufficient to keep me awake for the night; and before I had an opportunity of seeing my sister in the morning, my father presented an agreement for my signature, in which I bound myself to serve as surgeon on board the Calypso, to India.

A long and warm dispute ensued, in which both parties forgot their relation to each other. My father's angry threats were received with haughty defiance, and an indignant refusal to sign the agreement, which I tore in pieces before him. His rage now rose to frenzy, and he literally kicked me out of doors, which I have never since entered. But I must pause, before entering on still more important events.



I HAVE frequently thought that the distinguishing features of modern English literature present many inducements to investigate the nature and consequences of its connection with our political situation. The mighty revolution which, thirty years ago, distracted France, and spread its agitating influence over our own land, has now in a great measure subsided; and we begin to speculate coolly on the astonishing events which marked its progress, and upon the results which these events have produced, and are still producing, on the social condition of nations within the sphere of their influence.

of regard. In vulgar soils, this contaminated seed produced fruits still more rank and disgusting, and these fruits ripened into revolution.

So often, and by so many able writers, has this view of the causes of the French Revolution been exhibited, that it has ceased to be enforced by argument; and he who doubts its accuracy, may perhaps be stigmatised as a man exceedingly ignorant of the history of the latter half of the eighteenth century. Yet, with all deference to higher names, it does appear to me that this doctrine is quite fallacious. It is true, the literature of France co-operated with other causes in accelerating the Revolution; but it was neither the first nor most powerful cause of that event. A long course of bad government, of positive oppression, of disgusting favouritism, of marked and open injustice, aggravated by the weakness and vices of the governors, and the progressive increase of suffering of the governed, led the people to desire a change. They never thought what that change should be;

It has been customary to assign to the literati of France the chief agency in the production of the French Revolution. They have always been talked of as an associated band, small, indeed, in number, but whose extraordinary genius, under a fatal misdirection, hurried the government to destruction, and the people into anarchy and ruin. Their philosophy, as they vainly termed it, was certainly sufficiently daring and extravagant; and the powerful elo-to them, indeed, any change could quence by which it was enforced concealed its fallacy, and opened a wide field for the dissemination of its tenets. These, indeed, were few, and to the weakness of humanity exceedingly captivating; for they almost altogether merged in the impious principle, that man is of himself sufficient to discover what is right and advantageous for him in this world, and that, if there be a future state of existence, there also he would be able to act for himself. This shallow doctrine-the offspring of minds alike wicked and vain-the speculative plaything of men resolved, at all hazards, to dazzle, and therefore often ready to seize on impossibilities for the exercise of their mental energies-was calculated to make a strong impression on a people naturally frivolous and vain-glorious, and reduced, by the long-continued vices of their governors, and by other causes, to that state of depravity in which morality had become antiquated and unfashionable, and virtue unworthy


scarcely be a change for the worse. The time had passed away when the vices of their princes were concealed, or but partially seen, in the magnificence of royalty, the splendour of individual talents, and the pomp and circumstance of war. Their kings had ceased to be warriors, or men of talents,-their noblesse had become the pimps of royalty, or the petty tyrants of hamlets. On every side, corruption forced itself on their attention, insulted their feelings, and wasted even the means of their existence. There is a point in political suffering beyond which a nation cannot be carried, and that point is, when the many are made the slaves of the few, and the few cease to have talents to conceal or virtue to mitigate their tyranny. At this point, suffering becomes general, and the feelings of injus tice and oppression, and the consequent desire of relief, become so powerful, as to form a part (if I may so speak) of the education and mind


of the people. It is now that many men will even hazard their all for a change; and when every man is in his heart an enemy to his government, it requires but the daring of an enthusiast, or the blunders of a ruler, or the intrigue of a talented statesman, to kindle the flame of revolution. The government of France, too, was often changed, and its counsels, therefore, were varying and perplexed. Indeed, with one or two exceptions, the ministers were quite remarkable for incapacity and servility, and, withal, so unable to discern the spirit of the times, that their stupid and vascillating measures precipitated the downfal of the monarchy they attempted to uphold, and led the people to demand and enforce changes of which they had never previously dreamed, and which were not even beneficial to themselves. In one word, the march of human suffering, aggravated by the weakness and wickedness of human tyranny, led to the French Revolu


The philosophers of France saw and participated in the general suffering, and gave vent to their feelings in their writings. In this way, perhaps, they hastened the catastrophe. But they merely joined the stream, though their efforts might increase its force. They echoed the voice of their countrymen, they created not that voice. The political sufferings of the people had, in truth, reached a crisis which roused them to action, and would have roused them to action although the literati of France had never lifted a pen in their favour. Nay, although the spoils of expiring royalty had enlisted the talent of the philosophers on its side, the storm might have been delayed, it could not have been prevented. That storm was the nursling of many years' oppression, and must have broken forth. The dazzling scepticism of the accomplished Voltaire, the powerful declamations of the fickle and eloquent Rousseau, the broad libertinism of Diderot, and the philosophical and political reveries of D'Alembert, Helvetius, Raynal, and all the other members of the phalanx denominated the Philo sophers of France, would have failed in any attempt to avert its rage.

The position I would fain establish on the foregoing observations is, that literature, or its particular character at any given period, is rather the effect than the cause of political movements or changes in the social condition of a nation; and the French Revolution appears to afford the best data for illustrating the position, inasmuch as it seems to be the source to which the leading characteristics of modern literature ought to be traced. I have not considered it necessary to be either very explicit or copious in the preceding statements, because I felt, that, with the origin and progress of this wonderful event, every reader must be pretty well acquainted. But I hope enough has been said to entitle the position already mentioned to some regard; and I trust the remarks now to be submitted, on some of the characteristics of English literature, during the last thirty years, will go far to confirm its accuracy.


The commencement of the Revolution exhibited no other spectacle than that of a people struggling to regain some portion of liberty. The first representatives of the French people, though animated and zealous in the discharge of their duties, were neither violent in their demeanour nor unreasonable in their demands; and even when these demands were reluctantly complied with, or evaded altogether, there was no undue ebullition of popular resentment. fact, the nation seemed only to desire the redress of grievances, the nature of which was as oppressive and disgusting as their existence was palpable. At first, accordingly, the public voice of England was almost unanimous in favour of the Revolution. It was hailed as a mighty political deliverance, as the happy termination of centuries of political slavery. France was believed to be the birth-place of rational liberty, and the time was supposed to be arrived, when a Constitution, combining the excellencies, and avoiding the defects of our own, was to be given to her citizens. For the first time, the political rights of the people, as opposed to those of the Crown, were boldly exhibited, and almost for the first time did the demand, or the exercise of these rights, give rise to

deep and powerful thinking, to vivid declamation, and sometimes to the most extravagant and impracticable schemes.

'Tis true, the prospects of the friends of freedom were quickly blasted; and by a rapid series of events, (to which it is unnecessary more particularly to allude,) the people of France changed an oppressive monarchy for a tyrannical republic, and afterwards submitted to the sway of an individual, the most extraordinary perhaps that ever shone in the pages of history. Their political changes, however great, were followed by changes in the literature of their own country, and of surrounding nations equally striking. In France, the tremendous events of the Revolution produced appeals, which, for eloquence and force, were never surpassed. As might have been expected, too, reason and moderation were often sacrificed to declamation and daring, and doctrines wild and impious were not merely broached, but avowed and acted on with something like reckless ferocity. In fact, the turbulent materials which produced confusion, and havoc, and violence, among the people, seem to have led to the same effects on literature. These, however, are drawbacks which attend all unusual efforts. Similar effects were apparent in the literature of our own country, but in a modified degree. Though not in the midst of the turmoil of opinions, we were too near it to escape its influence. Accordingly, while English literature ranged in its ranks writers of imaginative force and overwhelming eloquence, it also contained writers whose doctrines were frequently carried to absolute wildness, with whom the develope ment of powerful thinking led to the most irrational positions, and many, also, whose bold and daring self-reliance gave a tinge of dogmatism and extravagance to their opinions, which time and experience have not yet completely eradicated. Method was very generally despised; knowledge was attempted to be grasped, and the shadow was often hugged and blazoned forth as the substance; character, too, was no longer sacred; office was stript of its imposing dress; and the errors of superiors were not

merely exposed with freedom, but canvassed with a severity which seemed to possess something of the bitterness of revenge. There was, in truth, a total change of thinking and feeling; diffidence and delicacy were thrown aside, and presumption, and carelessness, and arrogance, took their place. Rashly, perhaps, many will think, was the change introduced; and though productive of some advantages, it may not be doubted, whether the literature of the present day can lay claim to any permanent superiority over the literature of former times. To many, its superiority will not be very apparent; for if modern literature displays more force, it also displays less research; if it is more imaginative, it is also more deficient in sound reasoning; if it is more spirited, it is also more superficial and reckless; if it is more easy and dazzling, it is more scurrilous and heartless. In short, for the sparkling novelties of the modern school, it may be thought that we have relinquished the staid philosophy and sound logic of our fa thers.

If there be any truth in the position I have laid down, we must not expect to find the literature of the last thirty years characterised by calm reflection and philosophical investigation. Arts and sciences, and poetry and eloquence, may have flourished; but the events of the times were too rousing, and the minds of men were too much agitated, to produce historical and philosophical works equal to those of previous times. Accordingly, Hume, Gibbon, and Robertson, are still without successors; and, except those of Stewart and Brown, philosophy claims no modern names. The still elegancies of high life have not found their way into a good comedy,—the terrors of the tragic muse alone have been courted by our writers. Even the pulpit has partaken of the general spirit of change; and instead of the smooth morality of Blair, and the poetical devotion of Logan, it now displays the bold imaginative eloquence of Chalmers, and the fervid declamation of Hall.

To produce changes so great and so general, a powerful cause was neces sary, and to me it appears, that the

only adequate cause to which they can be assigned is the French Revolution. It may be proper, however, to investigate the influence of this event, by a more particular survey of some branches of our literature. But before entering on this survey, it is necessary to state, that the remarks which may be ventured on any work are not to be held as altogether critical, but rather as elucidatory of the general spirit which may pervade the writer. With this preliminary stipulation in view, it will not be difficult to hold (what the narrow limits of a letter render it almost necessary to hold) one work as a representative of the greater portion of the class to which it belongs, or at least of the other writings of the same author.

Perhaps political writings do not fairly come under review, in forming an estimate of our modern literature, since they are almost always the fruit, and carry in them much of the bitterness of party feeling. Yet, what English reader can pass over the remarkable productions of Burke and Mackintosh, which distinguished the era of the French Revolution? The two productions alluded to are still regarded as masterpieces of eloquent reasoning, though the controversy which gave them birth is now interesting only in their pages. What glowing development of principle, what striking displays of feeling, what overwhelming powers of argument distinguish both! In the whole range of political writings for the last hundred years, no such works are to be found. They are, even now, not only the masterpieces of their authors, but almost the only modern writings which may fairly be compared with the finest specimens of ancient eloquence.

The field of fiction, however, affords, perhaps, the best data for enabling us to form a true notion of our literature. And here the earliest work which followed the French Revolution still remains a memorable specimen of the effects of those feelings which were generated by this event; I allude to the Caleb Williams of Godwin. In this work, the usual matériel of novels is discarded; love, and its delicate embar

rassments-humour, and its broad extravagances, are nowhere to be found; but, instead of these, a most masterly delineation of human passions, a display of human feeling most intense and terrific, and withal so much of the realities of existence in every page, that we are compelled to avow the whole to be true to nature. So powerful is the pen of this writer, and with such anatomical precision does he lay open the passions and vices of the human heart, that we almost shudder while we admire his genius, and in our feeling of pleasure is mixed much of pain. There is nothing, indeed, to be compared with Caleb Williams among English novels. It stands unique; its claims are all of a peculiar description; it is no more like the writings of Fielding and Smollet, than it is like the periodical trash of the Minerva-press; its character is its own; it has nothing in common with any other novel or romance which had previously appeared in England. It is the offspring of feelings strongly rousedof bold and penetrating views of the human character, as displayed in the various relations of existing society. The author employs no superhuman means; his agents are all men like ourselves-men, too, who, in the eye of kindred and of the world, are fair and honourable men. But he depicts vice with such horrible truth— he detects the secret springs of human action with such convincing accuracy-he exhibits all in colours so vivid and appropriate, that we read with a painful certainty of the existence of his instruments, and yet are still chained to the work.

Godwin, as a writer, is the very child of the French Revolution. As a man, indeed, he is the meek, retiring creature, that shuns observation-a being whose appearance, conduct, and conversation, bespeak the harmlessness of childhood, and the pure and active benevolence of abstract goodness. But his feelings as a writer were certainly roused by the struggles of France. "Twas in these he saw the injustice and oppression which he afterwards embodied in his novel; 'twas in these he studied the mazes of the human heart, and made himself master of

« PreviousContinue »