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I have published nothing of any size but the pieces you mention, and one or two small tracts, now out of print and forgotten. The rest have been prefaces to some of my Strawberry editions, and to a few other publications, and some fugitive pieces which I reprinted some years ago in a small volume, and which shall be at your service, with the catalogue of noble authors.
With regard to the bookseller who has taken the pains of collecting my writings for an edition, (amongst which I do not doubt he will generously bestow on me many that I did not write, according to the liberal practice of such compilers,) and who also intends to write my life, to which (as I never did any thing worthy of the notice of the public, he must likewise be a volunteer contributor,) it would be vain for me to endeavor to prevent such a design. Whoever has been so unadvised as to throw himself on the public, must pay such a tax in a pamphlet or magazine when he dies; but, happily, the insects that prey on carrion are still more short-lived than the carcases were, from which they draw their nutriment. Those momentary abortions live but a day, and are thrust aside by like embrios. Literary characters, when not illustrious, are known only to a few literary men; and, amidst the world of books, few readers can come to my share. Printing that
existence (in libraries) to indifferent authors of any bulk, is like those cases of Egyptian mummies which in catacombs preserve bodies of one knows not whom, and which are scribbled over with characters that nobody attempts to
read, till nobody understands the language in which they were written.
I believe therefore it will be most wise to swim for a moment on the passing current, secure that it will soon hurry me into the ocean where all things are forgotten. To appoint a biographer is to bespeak a panegyric; and I doubt whether they who collect their works for the public, and, like me, are conscious of no intrinsic worth, do but beg mankind to accept of talents (whatever they were) in lieu of virtues. To anticipate spurious publications by a comprehensive and authentic one, is almost as great an evil; it is giving a body to scattered atoms; and such an act in one's old age is declaring a fondness for the indiscretions of youth, or for the trifles of an age, which, though more mature, is only the less excusable. It is most true, Sir, that, so far from being prejudiced in favor of my own writings, I am persuaded that, had I thought early as I think now, I should never have appeared as an author. Age, frequent illness and pain, have given me as many hours of reflection in the intervals of the two latter, as the two latter have disabled from reflection; and, besides their showing me the inutility of all our little views, they have suggested an observation that I love to encourage in myself from the rationality of it. I have learnt and have practised the humiliating task of comparing myself with great authors; and that comparison has annihilated all the flattery that self-love could suggest. I know how trifling my own writings are, and how far below the standard that constitutes excellence: as for
the shades that distinguish the degrees of mediocrity, they are not worth discrimination ; and he must be very modest, or easily satisfied, who can be content to glimmer for an instant a little more than his brethren glow-worms. Mine therefore, you find, Sir, is not humility, but pride. When young, I wished for fame, not examining whether I was capable of attaining it, nor considering in what lights fame was desirable. There are two sorts of honest fame, that attendant on the truly great, and that better sort that is due to the good. I fear I did not aim at the latter, nor discovered, till too late, that I could not compass the former. Having neglected the best road, and having, instead of the other, strolled into a narrow path that led to no good worth seeking, I see the idleness of my journey, and hold it more graceful to abandon my wanderings to chance or oblivion, than to mark solicitude for trifles, which I think so myself.
I beg your pardon for talking so much of myself; but an answer was due to the unmerited attention which you have paid to my writings. I turn with more pleasure to speak on yours. Forgive me if I shall blame you, whether you either abandon your intention,* or are too impatient to execute it. Your preface proves that you are capable of treating the subject ably; but allow me to repeat, that it is a work that ought not to be performed impetuously. A mere recapitulation of authenticated facts would be dry; a more
* Of writing a history of the reign of George II.
enlarged plan would demand much acquaintance with the characters of the actors, and with the probable sources of measures. The present time is accustomed to details and anecdotes; and the age immediately preceding one's own is less known to any man than the history of any other period. You are young enough, Sir, to collect information on many particulars that will occur in your progress, from living actors, at least from their cotemporaries; and great as your ardor may be, you will find yourself delayed by the want of materials, and by farther necessary inquiries. As you have variety of talents, why should not you exercise them on works that will admit of more rapidity; and at the same time, in leisure moments, commence, digest, and enrich your plan by collecting new matter for it? In one word, I have too much zeal for
your credit, not to dissuade you from precipitation in a work of the kind you meditate. That I speak sincerely you are sure, as accident, not design, made you acquainted with my admiration of your tract on medals. If I wish to delay your history, it must be from wishing that it may appear with more advantages; and I must speak disinterestedly, as my age will not allow me to hope to see it, if not finished soon. I should not forgive myself if I turned you from prosecution of your work ; but, as I am certain that my writings can have given you no opinion of my having sound and deep judgment, pray follow your own.
Magdalen College, Cambridge, Nov. 10th, 1784.
I arrived here a few days since, and being immediately elected into the office of Vice Chancellor, was thrown into such a hurry of public business, for which I was not prepared, that I had not time to look out and provide a proper place where you might make your extracts from Maitland's manuscript. The first moment I could command, I did this, and now inform you that I have procured a room with good light, near the library, where you may have a fire.
My being put into this office has made a necessary alteration in my domestic economy; so that I could not give you a room in my lodge, as I at first intended. The librarian was going to write to you some time since, but I prevented him, and took that office upon myself, and therefore hope you will excuse in him the appearance of negligence, which I have occasioned. Whenever it suits your convenience to come, the room and the manuscript will be ready; but we desire you will be so good as to give notice a day or two before, by a line directed to the Rev. Mr. Bywater, Magdalen College, Cambridge.