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works ; equally discreditable, whether regarded in an historical light, or as a sample of literary criticism. What shall we say of the biographer, who, in allusion to that affecting passage, where the blind old bard talks of himself as " in darkness, and with dangers compast round,” can coolly remark, that “this darkness, had his eyes been better employed, might undoubtedly have deserved compassion” ? Or what of the critic, who can say of the most exquisite effusion of Doric minstrelsy that our language boasts, “ Surely, no man could have fancied, that he read • Lycidas' with pleasure, had he not known the author” ; and of “ Paradise Lost” itself, that sits perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure"? Could a more exact measure be afforded than by this single line, of the poetic sensibility of the critic, and his unsuitableness for the office he had here assumed ? His “ Life of Milton” is a humiliating testimony of the power of political and religious prejudices to warp a great and good mind from the standard of truth, in his estimation, not merely of contemporary excellence, but of the great of other years, over whose frailties Time inight be supposed to have drawn his friendly mantle.
Another half century has elapsed, and ample justice has been rendered to the fame of the poet, by two elaborate criticisms, the one in the Edinburgh Review, from the pen of Mr. Macauley ; the other by Dr. Channing, in the “ Christian Examiner,” since republished in his own works ; remarkable performances, each in the manner highly characteristic of its author, and which have contributed, doubtless, to draw attention to the prose compositions of their subject, as the criticism of Addison did to his poetry. There is something gratifying in the circumstance, that this great advocate of intellectual liberty should have found his most able and eloquent expositor among us, whose position qualifies us, in a peculiar manner, for profiting by the rich legacy of his genius. It was but discharging a debt of gratitude.
Chateaubriand has much to say about Milton, for whose writings, both prose and poetry, notwithstanding the difference of their sentiments on almost all points of politics and religion, he appears to entertain the most sincere reverence. His criticisms are liberal and just. They show a thorough study of his author ; but neither the historical facts nor the reflections will suggest much that is new, on a subject now become trite to the English reader.
We may pass over a good deal of skimble-skamble stuff about men and things, which our author may have cut out of his commonplace-book, to come to his remarks on Sir Walter Scott, whom he does not rate so highly as most critics.
" The illustrious painter of Scotland,” he says, “ seems to me to have created a false class ; he has, in my opinion, confounded history and romance ; the novelist has set about writing historical romances, and the historian romantic histories.” – Vol. 11. p. 306.
We should have said, on the contrary, that he had improved the character of both ; that he had given new value to romance, by building it on history, and new charms to history, by embellishing it with the graces of romance.
To be more explicit. The principal historical work of Scott is the “ Life of Napoleon.” It has doubtless many of the faults incident to a dashing style of composition, which precluded the possibility of compression and arrangement in the best form of which the subject was capable. This, in the end, may be fatal to the perpetuity of the work ; for posterity will be much less patient than our own age. He will have a much heavier load to carry, inasmuch as he is to bear up under all of his own time, and ours too. It is very certain, then, some must go by the board ; and nine sturdy volumes, which is the amount of Sir Walter's English edition, will be somewhat alarming. Had he confined himself to half the quantity, there would have been no ground for distrust. Every day, nay hour, we see, ay, and feel, the ill effects of this rapid style of composition, so usual with the best writers of our day. The immediate profits which such writers are pretty sure to get, notwithstanding the example of M. Chateaubriand, operate like the dressing improvidently laid on a naturally good soil, forcing out noxious weeds in such luxuriance, as to check, if not absolutely to kill, the more healthful vegetation. Quantities of trivial detail find their way into the page, mixed up with graver matters. Instead of that skilful preparation, by which all the avenues can verge at last to one point, so as to leave a distinct impression, an impression of unity, on the reader, he is hurried along zig-zag, in a thousand directions, or round and round, but never, in the cant of the times, 6 going ahead” an inch. He leaves off pretty much where he set out, except that his memory may be tolerably well stuffed with facts, which, from want of some principle of cohesion, will soon drop out of it. He will find himself like a traveller, who has been riding through a fine country, it may be, by moonlight, getting glimpses of every thing, but no complete, well-illurinated view of the whole (" quale per incertam lunam” &c.); or rather, like the same traveller, whizzing along in a locomotive so rapidly, as to get even a glimpse fairly of nothing, instead of making his tour in such a manner as would enable him to pause at what was worth his attention, to pass by night over the barren and uninteresting, and occasionally to rise to such elevations as would afford the best points of view for commanding the various prospect.
The romance-writer labors under no such embarrassments. He may, indeed, precipitate his work, so that it may lack proportion, and the nice arrangement required by the rules, which, fifty years ago, would have condemned it as a work of art. But the criticism of the present day is not so squeamish, or, to say truth, pedantic. It is enough for the writer of fiction, if he give pleasure ; and this, everybody knows, is not effected by the strict observance of artificial rules. It is of little consequence how the plot is snarled up, or whether it be untied or cut, in order to extricate the dramatis personæ. At least, it is of little consequence, compared with the true delineation of character. The story is serviceable only as it affords a means for the display of this ; and if the novelist but keeps up the interest of his story and the truth of his characters, we easily forgive any dislocations which his light vehicle may encounter from too heedless motion. Indeed, rapidity of motion may in some sort favor him, keeping up the glow of his invention, and striking out, as he dashes along, sparks of wit and fancy, that give a brilliant illumination to his track. But in history there must be another kind of process; a process at once slow and laborious. Old parchments are to be ransacked, charters and musty records to be deciphered, and stupid, worm-eaten chroniclers, who had much more of passion, frequently, to blind, than good sense to guide them, must be sifted and compared. In short, a sort of Medea-like process is to be gone through, and many an old bone is to be boiled over in the caldron, before it can come out again clothed in the elements of beauty. The dreams of the novelist, — the poet of prose, - on the other hand, are beyond the reach of art; and the magician calls up the most brilliant forms of fancy by a single stroke of his wand.
Scott, in his History, was relieved, in some degree, from this necessity of studious research, by borrowing his theme from contemporary events. It was his duty, indeed, to examine evidence carefully, and sift out contradictions and errors. This demanded shrewdness and caution, but not much previous preparation and study. It demanded, above all, candor; for it was his business, not to make out a case for a client, but to weigh both sides, like an impartial judge, before summing up the evidence, and delivering his conscientious. opinion. We believe there is no good ground for charging Scott with having swerved from this part of his duty. Those, indeed, who expected to see him deify his hero, and raise altars to his memory, were disappointed ; and so were those also, who demanded, that the tail and cloven hoof should be made to peep out beneath the imperial robe. But this proves his impartiality. It would be unfair, however, to require the degree of impartiality which is to be expected from one removed to a distance from the theatre of strife, from those national interests and feelings, which are so often the disturbing causes of historic fairness. An American, no doubt, would have been, in this respect, in a more favorable point of view for contemplating the European drama. The ocean, stretched between us and the Old World, has the effect of time, and extinguishes, or, at least, cools, the hot and angry feelings, which find their way into every man's bosom within the atmosphere of the contest. Scott was a Briton, with all the peculiarities of one, — at least, of a North Briton ; and the future historian, who gathers materials from his labors, will throw these national predilections into the scale in determining the probable accuracy of his statements. These are not greater, however, than might occur to any man, and allowance will always be made for them, on the ground of a general presumption ; so that a greater degree of impartiality, indeed, by leading to false conclusions in this respect, would scarcely have served the cause of truth better with posterity. An individual, who felt his reputation compromised, may have made fight, indeed, on this or that charge of inaccuracy. But no such charge has come from any of the leading journals in the country, which, however, would VOL. XLIX. — No. 105.
not have been slow to expose it, and which would not, considering the great popularity, and, consequently, influence of the work, have omitted, as they did, to notice it at all, had it afforded any obvious ground of exception on this score. Where, then, is the romance, which our author accuses Sir Walter of blending with history?
He did, indeed, possess the power of giving a sort of dramatic interest to every thing he handled, whether true or fictitious, by his faithful portraiture of character, and his lively delineations of events. We shall look in vain, among the multitudinous records of the French Revolution, for a more exact, as well as comprehensive, view of its strange, checkered transactions and complicated causes. What a contrast does it present to that harlequin compound, which passes under the name of History, by Carlyle ; in which the author founders on, amid a sort of "crude consistence," half prose, half poetry, like Milton's Devil, working his way through Chaos,
" A boggy Syrtis, neither sea
Nor good dry land."" Scott had too masculine a spirit to condescend to such affectations ; and too sound a taste, to attempt to produce effect by overcoloring what Nature may be said to have colored too highly before. He knew that a simple statement of the extraordinary events of the time, was all that was demanded for effect.
Scott was, in truth, master of the picturesque. He understood, better than any historian since the iime of Liry, how to dispose his lights and shades so as to produce the most striking result. This property of romance he had a right to borrow. This talent is particularly observable in the animated parts of his story, — in his battles, for example. No man ever painted those terrible scenes with greater effect. He had a natural relish for gunpowder; and his mettle roused, like that of the war-horse, at the sound of the trumpet. His acquaintance with military science enabled him to employ a technical phraseology, just technical enough to give a knowing air to his descriptions, without embarrassing the reader by a pedantic display of unintelligible jargon. This is a talent rare in a civilian. Nothing can be finer than many of his battle-pieces in his “Life of Bonaparte," unless, indeed, we except one or two.in his “ History of Scotland”; as