« PreviousContinue »
was abating, and then suffered him to be hurried by it to perdition. MM. Buchez and Roux have limited the period of his omnipotence in the executive government to the space between the beginning of May 1794, and the latter end of June, when he left the committees; and they endeavour to show, that less blood was shed during that interval than either before or after-a futile attempt, as any one who will examine the records of the revolutionary tribunal may satisfy himself. They have succeded somewhat better in exculpating him from personal responsibility for the crimes of the bloody proconsuls, Carrier, Lebon, Fréron, Tallien, and the like: none of the more notorious ones appear to have been creatures of his, except that precious pair of citizens, Brutus Maignet, and Agricola Moureau, the tyrants of Vaucluse.
On these facts the man himself must be estimated, when he has ceased to be named as a mere bugbear. His own outward manifestations are of little assistance. Unlike other revolutionary orators, he never wore his heart upon his sleeve, or opened himself sincerely to his audience. He resembled Cromwell, as Madame de Staël has observed, in no respect so much as in this. Filled as his speeches are with cant, jargon, and egotism the most intolerable, there are two characteristics which can hardly fail to strike the reader;-the one, the most jealous art in avoiding any precise definition of the speaker's meaning on the immediate question; the other, an intimate belief at the bottom in the reality of his own mission, in the greatness of the objects. which he conceived himself called to accomplish, in the heroism of self-sacrifice, in the prevailing and final victory of virtue. Our sense of eloquence is not unfrequently heightened by accessaries; and the voice of a man who is actually struggling in the death-grapple for life itself, with resolute and ferocious adversaries, crowns beneath his feet, the ruins of an empire around him, the consciousness of an imperishable fame or infamy present to his memory, the sceptre almost within his grasp, the flash from the steel of the guillotine almost dazzling his eyes,— possibly acquires in our ears an impressiveness which, in the cold judgment of criticism, does not belong to it. At all events, we confess that there is some sound of eloquence, to our perception, in that last speech of Robespierre, which Mr Carlyle calls his screech-owl oration,' delivered first at the Convention and then at the Jacobins ; of which the original, corrected and interlined with almost convulsive eagerness, is still in existence.
The next characteristic of Mr Carlyle's historical style, and that which after all proves its greatest attraction to the majority of readers, is its picturesqueness. Detached scenes are often admirably drawn, and always with spirit and vivacity,
rather to the prejudice of the connecting parts. It is this which renders it so agreeable a book to read in fragments, and so difficult to read through. Truth, that is, accuracy of detail, is hardly to be looked for in them. Verisimilitude his recitals frequently have; and it is surprising to perceive the life-like reality which is communicated to stories so familiar as those of the chief events of the Revolution, by the mere art of the word-painter. The insurrection of the 5th October 1789, the flight to Varennes, the mutiny at Nancy, are admirable specimens of almost epic energy. Others, and among the most elaborate of these pictures, please us less-probably from the sense of exaggeration which they convey.
Mr Carlyle has attained his success in this particular (his own peculiar genius apart,) in some measure through his method of taking his colours and perspectives invariably from cotemporary narratives analysed by himself, and never at second-hand. The advantage which such a process gives, in point of fire and force, may easily be conjectured: whether it is equally advantageous for the purpose of truth, admits of some doubt. Cotemporary relations of occurrences so strange and so rapidly following each other as the principal events of the Revolution, are useful in one respect; they give us the immediate view of them, before the partisans of opposite leaders and opposite principles have made up their mind in what way to manufacture them for their own several purposes. As corrections of received stories, therefore, no historian will deny their importance; but they will seldom afford sufficiently solid footing for independent narratives; not even when we have the advantage of comparing the impressions made on several observers by the very same incident. Each sees rarely more than a part; and each combines the impressions of the little he has actually seen with the vague notions he has collected at second-hand; or from preconceived opinions only, as to the greater portion which he did not see. The result is a confused grouping of objects, which it requires a clear head and, if we may use the expression, something of a military eye to disentangle; and these are no qualities of Mr Carlyle. His account of the Bastile affair, for example, abstracted as it is from the pages of Besenval, Dussaulx, Fauchet, and we know not how many pamphleteers and news-writers more, is full of warlike clamour and riotous hubbub, just about as like the real event as the sieges in Ivanhoe' and 'Old Mortality. After reading it through, the student would be quite as much puzzled as at the beginning, to know who took the Bastile, and why it surrendered; for the eloquent narrator has all but missed the one military point of the story, namely, that
In this sentence we read the condensed argument of the Jerusalem Delivered. For the task which he had thus early undertaken, Tasso prepared himself with all the resources which an earnest study of philosophy, poetry, and criticism could supply. He had Milton's feeling of the sacredness of the task wherewith all Europe was to ring from side to side.' He had his conviction, too, that by labour and intense study, joined with the strong propensity of nature, he might leave something so written to after times that they should not willingly let it die.' With such views and feelings, Tasso proceeded, in 1565, to the composition of his work, on which ten years of labour were bestowed.
It is a remarkable proof of Tasso's poetical insight, that while the subject of his poem is historical-more so, indeed, than the Trojan War or the arrival of Æneas in Italy-it is so closely allied, at the same time, to the very theme which had been the favourite subject of the romancers-the Conquest of Jerusalem; that event, from the influence of which those romantic poems had chiefly arisen, and with which even the fable of Orlando is connected. A renewed impulse had recently been given to such recollections by the appearance of the Turks in arms under the walls of Vienna; by the expedition of Charles V. against Barbarossa, and the liberation of more than twenty thousand Christian slaves from the prisons of the Goletta or the galleys of Algiers. Tasso's object (and a most judicious one) seems to have been to vary no further from the romantic than was absolutely necessary for its combination with the classic taste. While he gives up the fables of chivalry, therefore, he reverts to that event which has given to these fables their first significance and importance, and he retains their essential elements-the propagation of Christianity by the sword, and its contest with Mahometanism. His poem is at once historical, romantic, and Christian.
Nay, in one point, the closeness with which he has adhered to the romantic model, has perhaps been carried too far; we mean in the prodigal use of his fairy machinery, and in the repetition of the old part of Angelica-the enchantress by whose wiles division is to be spread among the chiefs of the Christian camp-in that of Armida.
It was perhaps fortunate for Tasso, that the recollections of the age of chivalry still ministered to visible representation in his time. Public displays of knightly exercises were not uncommon. In 1562, for example, a bridge was erected on the Largo de S. Dominico, in imitation of the bridge of Rodomont in Ariosto, on which Vincenzo and Carlo Spinello maintained a combat against fifty Neapolitan and Spanish cavaliers. When Tasso arrived at
their whole thoughts were expended on speaking and writing. The historians whom we have just cited, descending perhaps into rather too curious an observation of particulars, remark that partizan writers never learned how to spell the names of their opponents; that Marat, after having devoted several 'bottles of ink' to the daily abuse of the Girondin minister of the interior, calls him Rolland' to the last; that Péthion is constantly written for Pétion, Roberspierre for Robespierre, and so forth. Life, in fact, was to most of such men nothing but the delirious dream of a monomaniac; and Mr Carlyle's peculiar success is rather in reproducing the wild phantoms such as they appeared to each, than the realities which they were unable to see and estimate. Thus, in describing the massacres of September 1792, he has simply taken the three well-known narratives of Jourgniac de St Méard, the Abbé Sicard, and Maton de la Varenne, just as they are printed, one after the other, by the editors of the Histoire Parlementaire. If his only object was to produce a dramatic effect, this was right enough; for neither schylus nor Dante could have added a shade to the horrors of those revelations of living men escaped from the slaughter-house. But in a history we surely require something more; something that will give us an idea of the ensemble of that tragical catastrophe; its connexion with the movement then in progress, and with the plans and views of the men who then governed the nation at the point of the pike. As it is, these mangled excerpts of separate stories leave nothing but a dull impression of horror;-confused noise, and garments rolled in blood. And the inaccuracies of these hasty fragments are left uncorrected; in some instances, even rendered more erroneous in the transcription. The priests massacred on their way to the Abbaye on the 2d, were not thirty in number; nor was Sicard the only one saved; three were rescued out of twenty-one. The man whom Jourgniac de St Méard saw dragged out to massacre from the tribunal at the Abbaye, was," says Mr Carlyle, old 'Marshal Maillé of the Tuileries and August tenth.' It could not have been Mailly, whom we presume Mr Carlyle to mean, for he escaped the massacre, and was guillotined long afterwards at Arras. St Méard may be excused for such a mistake as this, made when his own turn was coming next. But his whole narrative bears marks of exaggeration. There scarcely could have been that prolonged three-days' massacre at the Abbaye, which he describes. The register of that prison still exists, spotted with the stains of wine, and with some, it is thought, of a darker hue, just as it lay open before Maillard and his fellow-murderers. It shows, after the execution of the priests and Swiss, who were
slaughtered en masse, the names of no more than thirty-two put to death, and about forty released; a few of whom, it is thought, were afterwards slain in the street. It is also merely a dramatic artifice in Mr Carlyle, to preserve the mysterious fashion in which the actors in these massacres were spoken of in the contemporary narratives, when their persons were not as yet publicly known. There is no obscurity about them now. The Man in grey,' thus vaguely spoken of, was no other than the wretch Maillard himself, who is mentioned just before. The names of the very executioners are preserved; and, strange to say, they seem chiefly to have belonged not quite to the lowest class, but to that of the smaller tradesmen and their apprentices.
An odd instance of recantation on the part of a historian, deceived by similar cotemporary rubbish, occurs in the narrative of the famous destruction of the Vengeur, in Lord Howe's battle of the first of June. Mr Carlyle, in his first edition, copied Barrère's report, in which her crew are described as sinking amidst shouts of Vive la République-which, to do him justice, most other historians have done with as little scruple; and being an incident after his own heart, he has made the most of it. Unluckily, these pages happened to meet the eyes of a gallant British admiral, who, according to his own account, having done his duty for the day, was quietly eating his mutton-chop in his cabin, when the Vengeur went down right opposite; and after forty years' repetition of the old romance, he comes forward to assure the public that the crew of the Vengeur behaved neither better nor worse than other crews in similar circumstances—that, instead of perishing amidst shouts of defiance, they called lustily for assistance, and escaped, as many as could, in British boats. Mr Carlyle, despite of much criticism in the French journals, subjoins, in his second edition, a most characteristic palinode, in which he styles the whole story Barrère's masterpiece; the largest, most inspiring piece of blague manufactured, for some centuries, by any man or nation.'-(Vol. iii. p. 301.)
Much of Mr Carlyle's history, and other histories, requires to be re-written upon similar principles. What, for instance, if the whole memorable campaign of September 1792, such as it has been described and sung a thousand times in history and poetry, were to turn out a mere blague or yarn, as palpable as the triumphal exit of the Vengeur? The reader will seek in vain, we need scarcely say, for any elucidation of the mystery which hangs over this event in the pages of Mr Carlyle. He has dashed at this part of his history with the same gallantry with which he has solved various other knotty historical points;-with utter disregard of all insinuations of plots and