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Hervey seemed to sink under the first remarks of his contemporaries ;1 his gaudy hexameters were no sooner pointed out than they palled upon the taste of even the vulgar reader. Most of us remember the severe Article in the Edinburgh Review on James Montgomery; it hardly impeded, for a moment, his reputation. The poet will live, when the critic is forgotten. Here, too, is a law too obvious for us to state.
Eighthly, when an author is generally accepted, there is generally a great change in the progress of his reputation. We fancy that the rhapsodist that fortunately got the name of Homer,2 had not the least foretaste of his future reputation. The progress to immortality is commonly this: a poor shack is found to have some pleasing qualities; he has a brave invention and a spontaneous wit; nobody thinks of making a prodigy of him. He lays indeed strong hold of
1 It is more remarkable that Hervey should sink under criticism, inasmuch as some of the strictures on him are obviously unjust. For example, the following passage wo remember to have scon subjected to the caustic knife. It is from his Meditations Among The Tombs, page 38: "Not long ago, I happened to spy a thoughtless Jay. The poor bird was idly busied in dressing her pretty plumes, or hopping carelessly from spray to spray. A sportsman, coming by, observed the feathered rover. Immediately he lifts his tube and levels bis blow, Swifter than a whirlwind flics the leaden death; and in a moment lays the silly creature breathless on the ground." What labor! What circumlocution, said the critic, to say that " a gunner shot a bird!" But the object of the author is not merely to say that a gunner shot a bird. The author is musing — meditating— detaining the idea. It is a picture of a meditating mind. We might as well laugh at Pope, who uses the same circumlocution to exhibit the same picture.
He lifts his tube, he levels with his eyo;
Windsor Forest, lines 128, 129.
2 Professor Tyler has somewhat weakened his argument for an individual Homer (in the Bibliotheca Sacra, Oct 1857) by making it too strong. He overlooks the fact, which must be true, that if there be one Homer, he must have availed himself of the collected inventions and even songs of all the bards that preceded him. It is contrary to all analogy, for the perfection of the Iliad and Odyssey to be the sole production of one mind. Even Shakspeare, to whom he compares Homer, if he was the greatest inventor, was likewise the greatest thief that ever existed. Perhaps we may compromise the dispute by saying there might be one Homer, but the effects of thousands of intellects appear in his works. It must be so, unless be was a miracle.
the public attention, he is regarded very much as a dancing dog or a climbing monkey. The rich look on him with a kind of protecting, patronizing eye, and learning and reputation stand aloof from his fate. But he delights every one; and finally dies, and the world at last finds, when it has lost, that it once possessed, a Shakspeare, a Cervantes, a Defoe. There is a little poem now known as a specimen of solitary excellence (we allude to Blair's Grave), a poem original in its design, happy in its execution, and restoring the language of elder poetry to an artificial age. It forced its way up from stalls and peddlers' packs to the attention of poets and critics, and utters sentiments which found an echo in the universal heart. That poem has passed as severe a test to prove its merits as the works of any primitive genius. It has commanded the unconscious suffrage of mankind.
Ninthly, the best poets are not always most read. Genius often moves in a line not pleasing, and lavishes its power on subjects not attractive. Yet they stir the memory by a recondite attraction. Dante, Chaucer, Spencer, are poets which one would be content to praise, if he might only be excused from reading them.
Tenthly, there is a law behind caprice illustrated in the fate of the ballad poetry of almost all nations. The ballads of the English went into obscurity and were restored to attention, partly by the criticism of Addison, but surely by a deeper law, by their intrinsic power of forcing their impression on the minds of the common people. Some critics have complained that the Romans suffered their extravagant admiration of Greek models to supersede and destroy their own racy literature. The fact was, it was a necessary law that Greek perfection should crowd out the barren, dry efforts of their own rude and unenlightened countrymen. A cedar on Lebanon is a much more conspicuous object than a shrub in a hole of the rock. This law is very extensive. Whatever has great interest is apt to live. This, to be sure, is limited by the fact that we cannot remember everything, and that sometimes an accidental interest is found in the subject and comes not from the genius of the author. Thus Homer seized on a splendid theme. War was the passion of the age. The fall of Troy was a blazing event and deeply interesting. His genius, though great, was helped by his subject; his earnestness, his simplicity, his touching a congenial chord, his narrative clearness (that is, it is real poetry, and yet the narrative is so clear that his ornaments flow over events as the lucid waters of the brook flow over the pebbles at the bottom, to shed on them a soft, watery light, and yet by refraction to make them more clearly defined, than if placed in the air itself and sparkling in the light of the sun), the rhapsodist that repeated his battles and the sensitiveness of those that heard them, his good fortune, his real merit, all conspired to make his poem live. We attribute too much to the burning of the Alexandrian library. A library is often a splendid sepulchre. There is a living law which transcends all libraries.
The truth is, the best works are preserved by their own vitality. Before the invention of the art of printing, perhaps the law was still more rigid and self-executing. The best works were oftenest copied and therefore stood the best chance of preservation. History, too, has a similar law. The events that illustrate some Great Principle of civilization happen late and are recorded. They excite general attention and are preserved; whereas the barbarous battles of savage hordes, create by a happy law their own oblivion. Perhaps we may safely conclude that all the best works are preserved, though some meritorious ones are lost. It is a general law, though somewhat disturbed by causes which to our ignorance still remain as accidents. You see it in the individual. When a person repeats a story or poem to yon. the most important points you remember. You remember, too, your own impressions. Some you strongly retain; some you dimly recover. Now the world is a person and has a combinate memory.
It must be conceded that the literary attractions of a piece are not the only cause of its preservation. National pride, national taste, the location of a city, the pride of a peculiar family, the very absurdity of a production, if it is an amus
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iiig absurdity, the vitality of the precepts; various causes may conspire to fix our attention and increase our interest. The wars with the Moors was a perpetual source of interest among the Spaniards; and a wonderful sympathy with robbers and freebooters was a source of perpetual preservation of certain homely narratives among the English.' The laws of comparison often operate. The sparks of genius in the gloomy night of darkness and ignorance would be likely to attract attention. Every nation, in its deepest depression, would have its Best. In a fiat country, a mound passes for a mountain.
Eleventhly, the question may be started whether religion helps or hinders the acceptance of the author who makes it his chosen theme. Was Dr. Watts, for example, helped to reputation by his writing on devotional poetry? Would any other subject have made him more popular? Much may be said both ways. Our own decision would be, that religion helps mediocrity, but is the hardest theme for the highest invention. Dr. Blair did well to write sermons: Dr. Watts, in composing his devotional hymns, conquered great difficulties.
Twelfthly, there are always some that will have a host of imitators; as Cicero says: sic semper fuisse aliquem, cujus se similes plerique esse vellent (De Oratore, Lib. ii. sect. 23). But this imitated object is not always the greatest genius 01 the best pattern. Our Webster was not much imitated. Mr. Everett, on his first appearance, set all Cambridge imitating his tones. Dr. Griffin, when at Andover, was greatly imitated; Professor Stuart, though far more natural, and oi course a better model, was not much imitated. Pope was greatly imitated. "Every warbler," as Cowper says, "has his song by heart." Milton and Shakspeare are not often imitated, nor with much success. For half a century7 Dr.
1 The fact was, the regular form of civil society was so unequal ami oppressive, the yoke was so heavy, and the Barons so hrutal, and some of ibe robkr; Little John and Kobin Hood, were so much more just than the legal robl*.t whom they pilfered, that the sympathy of the common people was with the professional freebooter. A very significant fact!
Johnson was generally imitated by the English nation; and he shall be our exponent. When an author, with a very considerable merit, has a narrow mannerism, which it is easy to copy and which reminds you of something higher which you cannot copy, such a writer will be imitated. They hope to reach his gait by stealing his slippers.
Thirteenthly, our admiration completes what nature begins in the rating of literary excellence. The inequality of talent is great, but not so great as we suppose. There is a tree near Exeter, N. H., which towers above the trees around it, but not so much as it seems to, to the vessels at sea, who use it as a landmark. We are great idolaters. Our admiration turns the great men into giants. I am a great believer in a literary nobility, but have no devotion to pay at the throne of the emperor. He is an usurper. No doubt there are classes of ability, and no doubt the first class is the smallest in number; but out of this class our exaggerating fancy selects one and turns him into a sample of perfection. It is thus in other things. The first man always stands higher than his proper grade. Greece and Persia out of some strong man made a Hercules and Rustan. In such cases, there is always some merit and always some exaggeration. A great ship may loom up as well as a small one, and it is a deception which lasts, because no one wishes to rectify it.
Fourteenthly, it is a law of literature that language, through all its first progressions, tends to a stand-point, though what fixes it at last it may be hard to say; certainly it is not perfection; for all languages have stopped short of even an attainable perfection.' In Dryden's Dialogue on the Drama, "written when he was yet a trembling candidate for reputation," 1668, he says: " Shakspeare's language is a little obsolete." Shakspeare's works were then about half a century old; Dryden's Dialogue, the very dialogue in
1 By a stand-point we of course do not mean a point which admits no additional words. All languages are constantly increasing their vocabularies. A stand-point is that permanency in fundamental structure which, after it is lixed, never afterwards becomes obsolete.