Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

sickens or maddens him ; that water quenches his thirst, while fire heats and burns. But the circumstances which determine whether man shall be a blessing or a curse to his neighbour are more recondite and variable. Who can enunciate any rule of conduct universally observed? No human being is either fixed or unmixed good or evil. Here is a host of men, each ready to die for his brother,—there, a crowd panting for each other's blood.

Such contrarieties are of no rare occurrence even in the same individual; for the man who burdens you the one hour with favours often loads you the next with infamy

“Friendly at Hackney, faithless at Whitehall.”

To discover that mysterious fountain-head, which thus gives forth both sweet water and bitter, and to track the wondrous maze of their meanderings require a research deeper and minuter than do the laws of irrational creation. The investigation, however, is not dependent on the mere pressure of the great motive of self-preservation. The most prevalent and powerful of human passions instigate to it. Each new man is a marvel of novelty which excites and gratifies curiosity, induces comparison with oneself favourable or adverse, and thereby rouses self-complacency or remorse, envy, love, or hate. The intellect cannot avoid a study to which the inclination so powerfully impels it. It is said that the proper study of mankind is man; and the record of their intellectual activity, preserved in the world's literature, amply proves that it has been their favourite pursuit. Omit a few of the more abstruse sciences, and mankind's study of man occupies nearly the whole field of literature. The burden of History is what man has been, -of Law, what he does, of Physiology, what he is,-of Ethics, what he ought to be,-of Revelation, what he shall be.

The works which have for their exclusive subject the analysis or delineation of human character are very few. Among the ancients, although there are many writers on morals, Theophrastus is the only writer on character. This author was the friend and literary executor of Aristotle, and possessed great talent and extensive acquirement. His thirty characters furnish much minute and interesting information regarding the private life of Athens, which would be sought for in vain in the pages of Thucydides, and found only grotesquely distorted in the plays of Aristophanes.

In 1687 La Bruyère translated into French the characters of Theophrastus, by way of introduction to a similar work of his own,-a piece of literary strategy this, which Hallam characterises as “a step not impolitic for his own glory, since the Greek writer, with no contemptible degree of merit, has

been incomparably surpassed by his imitator." The "Caractères” of La Bruyère gained an immediate and permanent place among French classics. They are essentially a Frenchman's views of French mankind, witty, piquant, satiric, often venemous, sometimes benignant. They are to be regarded rather as caricatures than “caractères."

The principal representatives of this phase of literature to be found in the roll of English authors are the three writers, selections from whose works compose this volume.

Within a wider range, however, may be included all dramatists, many poets, and the legion of modern novelists; for the main object of all these is to ex

hibit the play of human passions—character not in | the abstract but concrete ; not by descriptions but

specimens. This, undoubtedly, is a higher style of writing, requiring a greater variety and superior quality of talent to reach the higher standard of excellence. To succeed in these walks of literature there is required not only analytical acumen to delineate, but synthetical ability to construct. The relation between the writer of characters and the dramatist or novelist corresponds soniewhat in point of merit to that between the colourman and the painter of portrait or landscape. What the colourmen of Antwerp were in comparison to Vandyke or Rubens, such was Theophrastus to Æschylus, Butler

[ocr errors]

to Shakspeare. Thus, by combining the lover, and the too suspicious and jealous man into one, then taking along with him a good honest fellow, an envious villain, an honest wife, and one or two minor characters, you have the components of “Othello, the Moor of Venice;" as similarly a piece of canvas and a few pigments were the raw material of Rubens's “ Descent from the Cross."

If it be thought that too little honour and too humble a place are thus awarded to the writers of character, let it be remembered that the nature of the task is only one item in estimating a claim to literary fame. The manner of execution must also be regarded; and as pure paints are more valuable than many a daubed canvas, so the writers of these brief sketches are worthier of remembrance, and surer of it, than many an old dramatist whose name is forgotten, or modern novelist who is only saved the disgrace of being speedily forgotten by the fortune of never being known.

When we call to mind the intellectual giants who were our authors' contemporaries, our wonder is that the colossal statues of Spencer, Shakspeare, Hooker, Raleigh, Bacon, and Milton, which crowd the front row in the Temple of Fame, have not entirely concealed the minor writers who occupy niches in the

Such was by no means the case in their own day; for the “Characters of Overbury' went through fourteen editions before his death, and six editions of the “Microcosmography" were called for between the years 1628 and 1633. Regarding the comparative merits of these two writers our highest authority says, “They both belong to the favourite style of apophthegm, in which every sentence is a point or a witticism. Yet the entire character so delineated produces a certain effect; it is a Dutch picture, a Gerard Dow, somewhat too elaborate. Earle has more natural humour than Overbury, and hits his mark more neatly; the other is more satirical, but often abusive and vulgar.

rear.

Earle is as clearly the better, as Overbury is the more original, writer.” - Hallam's Literature, vol. iii., p. 664.

The “Characters" of Butler were not given to the world till eighty years after his death. They compose the second volume of his “Genuine Remains, in Prose and Verse," edited by Mr Thyer of Manchester in 1759; and, so far as we aware, this is the only edition. The contrast between his reception and that which Overbury and Earle experienced, is to be attributed rather to the circumstances and tastes of society than to the merits or demerits of the writers; for in every respect Butler is superior to the other two. He is free from that stiff quaintness which imparts a rigidity to their liveliest writings. In clearness of insight, in power of expression, in all the forms of wit, humour, satire, and sar

are

« AnteriorContinuar »