Page images

interests, considered in itself, is no better worth knowing than another fact. The fact that there is a snake in a pyramid, or the fact that Hannibal crossed the Alps by the Great St Bernard, are in themselves as unprofitable to us as the fact that there is a green blind in a particular house in Threadneedle street, or the fact that a Mr Smith comes into the city every morning on the top of one of the Blackwall stages. But it is certain that those who will not crack the shell of history, will never get at the kernel. Johnson, with hasty arrogance, pronounced the kernel worthless, because he saw no value in the shell. The real use of travelling to distant countries, and of studying the annals of past times, is to preserve men from the contraction of mind which those can hardly escape whose whole communion is with one generation and one neighbourhood, who arrive at conclusions by means of an induction not sufficiently copious, and who therefore constantly confound exceptions with rules, and accidents with essential properties. In short, the real use of travelling, and of studying history, is to keep men from being what Tom Dawson was in fiction, and Samuel Johnson in reality.

Johnson, as Mr Burke most justly observed, appears far greater in Boswell's books than in his own. His conversation appears to have been quite equal to his writings in matter, and far superior to them in manner. When he talked, he clothed his wit and his sense in forcible and natural expressions. As soon as he took his pen in his hand to write for the public, his style became systematically vicious. All his books are written in a learned language,-in a language which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse,-in a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or drives bargains, or makes love,-in a language in which nobody ever thinks. It is clear, that Johnson himself did not think in the dialect in which he wrote. The expressions which came first to his tongue were simple, energetic, and picturesque. When he wrote for publication, he did his sentences out of English into Johnsonese. His letters from the Hebrides to Mrs Thrale, are the original of that work of which the Journey to the Hebrides is the translation; and it is amusing to compare the two versions. When we were taken up stairs,' says he in one of his letters, a dirty fellow bounced out of the bed on which one of us was to lie.' This incident is recorded in the Journey as follows:- Out of one of the beds on which we were to repose, started up, at our entrance, a man black as a Cyclops from the forge. Sometimes Johnson translated aloud. The Rehearsal,' he said, very unjustly, has not wit ' enough to keep it sweet;' then, after a pause, it has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction.'

Mannerism is pardonable, and is sometimes even agreeable, when the manner, though vicious, is natural. Few readers, for example, would be willing to part with the mannerism of Milton or of Burke. But a mannerism which does not sit easy on the mannerist, which has been adopted on principle, and which can be sustained only by constant effort, is always offensive. And such is the mannerism of Johnson.

The characteristic faults of his style are so familiar to all our readers, and have been so often burlesqued, that it is almost superfluous to point them out. It is well known that he made less use than any other eminent writer of those strong plain words, Anglo-Saxon or Norman-French, of which the roots lie in the inmost depths of our language; and that he felt a vicious partiality for terms which, long after our own speech had been fixed, were borrowed from the Greek and Latin, and which, therefore, even when lawfully naturalized, must be considered as born aliens, not entitled to rank with the king's English. His constant practice of padding out a sentence with useless epithets, till it became as stiff as the bust of an exquisite,—his antithetical forms of expression, constantly employed even where there is no opposition in the ideas expressed,-his big words wasted on little things,-his harsh inversions, so widely different from those graceful and easy inversions which give variety, spirit, and sweetness to the expression of our great old writers,

all these peculiarities have been imitated by his admirers, and parodied by his assailants, till the public has become sick of the subject.

Goldsmith said to him, very wittily and very justly, If you 'were to write a fable about little fishes, doctor, you would ❝ make the little fishes talk like whales.' No man surely ever had so little talent for personation as Johnson. Whether he wrote in the character of a disappointed legacy-hunter, or an empty town fop, of a crazy virtuoso, or a flippant coquette, he wrote in the same pompous and unbending style. His speech, like Sir Piercy Shafton's Euphuistic eloquence, bewrayed him under every disguise. Euphelia and Rhodoclea talk as finely as Imlac the poet, or Seged, Emperor of Ethiopia. The gay Cornelia describes her reception at the country-house of her relations, in such terms as these: I was surprised, after the civilities of my first reception, to find, instead of the leisure and tranquillity which a rural life always promises, and, if well conducted, might always afford, a confused wildness of care, and a 'tumultuous hurry of diligence, by which every face was clouded, and every motion agitated.' The gentle Tranquilla informs us, that she had not passed the earlier part of life

[ocr errors]

without the flattery of courtship, and the joys of triumph; but had danced the round of gaiety amidst the murmurs of envy and the gratulations of applause,-had been attended 'from pleasure to pleasure by the great, the sprightly, and the vain, and had seen her regard solicited by the obsequiousness of gallantry, the gaiety of wit, and the timidity of love.' Surely Sir John Falstaff himself did not wear his petticoats with a worse grace. The reader may well cry out, with honest Sir Hugh Evans, I like not when a 'oman has a great peard: I spy a great peard under her muffler.'


We had something more to say. But our article is already too long; and we must close it. We would fain part in good humour from the hero, from the biographer, and even from the editor, who, il as he has performed his task, has at least this claim to our gratitude, that he has induced us to read Boswell's book again. As we close it, the club-room is before us, and the table on which stands the omelet for Nugent, and the lemons for Johnson. There are assembled those heads which live for ever on the canvass of Reynolds. There are the spectacles of Burke, and the tall thin form of Langton; the courtly sneer of Beauclerk, and the beaming smile of Garrick; Gibbon tapping his snuffbox, and Sir Joshua with his trumpet in his ear. In the foreground is that strange figure which is as familiar to us as the figures of those among whom we have been brought up,the gigantic body, the huge massy face, seamed with the scars of disease; the brown coat, the black worsted stockings, the grey wig with the scorched foretop; the dirty hands, the nails bitten and pared to the quick. We see the eyes and mouth moving with convulsive twitches; we see the heavy form rolling; we hear it puffing; and then comes the Why, sir!' and the What then, sir?" and the No, sir!' and the You don't 'see your way through the question, sir!'

[ocr errors]

What a singular destiny has been that of this remarkable man! To be regarded in his own age as a classic, and in ours as a companion,-to receive from his contemporaries that full homage which men of genius have in general received only from posterity, to be more intimately known to posterity than other men are known to their contemporaries! That kind of fame which is commonly the most transient, is, in his case, the most durable. The reputation of those writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading; while those peculiarities of manner, and that careless table-talk, the memory of which, he probably thought, would die with him, are likely to be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe.

ART. II-Remarks on the supposed Dionysius Longinus; with an Attempt to restore the Treatise on Sublimity to its Original State. 8vo. London: 1827.

THE HE bold flights, the brilliant style, and the ample range, of modern criticism, have thrown into the shade the less dazzling and diffuse productions of the classical schools. And more especially the Greek philosophers of Taste, have not received their share of that attention so liberally lavished on the orators and poets; of whose excellence, if they did not supply the inspiration, they at least most usefully examine and exhibit the secret and the source. This complaint is not the vague ejaculation of pedantry, but rests upon positive evidence of the neglect with which the treasures of Grecian criticism have been treated even by those who affect to appeal to its authority. Men talk and write of Longinus, or the Stagyrite, upon the strength of some indistinct apprehension that the latter was a kind of critical Draco, and that the former was himself the great sublime he drew.' Yet nothing can be more tender to genius than the spirit of the Aristotelian precepts, and Longinus is far more favourably distinguished by the vigour of his understanding, and the clearness of his views, than by the loftiness and grandeur of a style, which sometimes offends against propriety of thought, and often against purity of diction. To take a single direct proof of the ignorance alluded to: Every one has heard of the senseless clamour raised by certain modern critics about the dramatie unities of place and time. Aristotle to the rescue! was the battle-cry of the combatants upon the strict, and what assumed to be the classical, side of the controversy: Aristotle was boldly asserted, and carelessly believed, to have confined dramatic action to one place, and to the portion of time which the events represented would occupy in their real occurrence; and yet Aristotle, while he enforces the observance of the important unity of plot, says not one word as to place, and but once notices the subject of time, in a passage utterly hostile to those who argue for its inviolable unity.

Notwithstanding, however, this too common neglect, or ignorance, the principles developed, and the rules prescribed by the great masters of Grecian criticism, have had a mighty influence upon modern systems of taste. Transmitted as traditional knowledge, or blended to a large extent with the general mass of enlightened opinions, these principles have swayed many beyond the number of those who have studied the original pre

cepts; and, sometimes unperceived, sometimes unconfessed by the disciple, their spirit has spoken through the lips of the most popular critics of modern times. If there have been, in every age, some heresies in taste, yet there always has been one ancient, true, and indestructible religion. The more shameful, then, is any contempt of those foundations on which the creed of orthodoxy rests. We would make an effort to do away with the reproach to disclose or decorate the springs of that little marked, but pure and salutary stream, that has flowed through the expanse of a later philosophy, and that still, by its noiseless operation, diffuses freshness and fertility over every tract which it pervades.

The Grecian philosophy of taste has naturally been presented under certain varieties of aspect, according to the style, the temper, and the intellectual powers of the writers in whose works it is comprised. But these variations of appearance are nothing to the identity of character, which an acute perception of natural principles, a common method of induction, and a careful practice of analysis, have conspired to impress upon it. Let us speak of it in general terms, before proceeding to a more minute description of the chief masters, which we intend to close with some remarks upon the claims and merits of Longinus, the latest of the band.

We have already hinted, that the best modern critics do not greatly differ in matter from their classic predecessors; but they differ very widely in manner. There is an aim and method about the critical speculations of the ancients, that forms at once a striking characteristic and a conspicuous merit. They are really teachers of the mind; more clear and copious in the didactic portion of their labours, than diffuse in reasoning or ambitious in theory. The modern critic, without more fundamental principles, makes a greater parade of metaphysics; his speculations have too often no object beyond themselves, and are then useful only because they tend to augment, by exercising, the powers of thought. The ancient thinks more of his readers, the modern of himself; the ancient wishes to make you shine, the modern to shine; the ancient is simple, the modern is sublime. There are exceptions to both sides of this delineation; there are specimens of ancient criticism-reviews by Dionysius, diatribes by Plutarch, contrasts by Longinus-that breathe the air and manner of a modern critique, and there are productions of modern pens, conceived in the happiest vein of classical antiquity. But its general correctness is indisputable. Give us Burke or Schlegel to amuse, but Aristotle or Longinus to instruct us. The writings of Schlegel may supply an illustṛa

« PreviousContinue »