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speeches in the tragedies of Racine and Corneille, or in the serious comedies of Moliere, than we do with the grotesque farces of the latter, with the exaggerated descriptions and humour of Rabelais (whose wit was a madness, a drunkenness), or with the accomplished humanity, the easy style, and gentlemanly and scholar-like sense of Montaigne. But these we consider as in a great measure English, or as what the old French character inclined to, before it was corrupted by courts and academies of criticism. The exquisite graces of La Fontaine, the indif. ferent sarcastic tone of Voltaire and Le Sage, who make light of every thing, and who produce their greatest effects with the most imperceptible and rapid touches, we give wholly to the constitutional genius of the French, and despair of imitating. Perhaps in all this we proceed by guess-work at best. Nations (particularly rival nations) are bad judges of one another's literature or physiognomy. The French certainly do not understand us: it is most probable we do not understand them. How slowly great works, great names make their way across the Channel! M. Tracey's “ Ideologie” has not yet been heard of among us, and a Frenchman who asks if you have read it, almost subjects himself to the suspicion of being the author. They have also
their little sects and parties in literature, and though they do not nickname and vilify their rivals, as is done with us (thanks to the national politeness); yet if you do not belong to the prerailing party, they very civilly suppress all mention of you, your name is not noticed in the Journals, nor your work inquired for at the shops *.
Those who explain every thing by final causes (that is, who deduce causes from effects) might avail themselves of their privilege on this occa. sion. There must be some checks to the excessive increase of literature as of population, or we should be overwhelmed by it; and they are happily found in the envy, dulness, prejudices, and vanity of mankind. While we think we are weighing the merits of an author, we are indulging our own national pride, indolence, or illhumour, by laughing at what we do not understand, or condemning what thwarts our inclinations. The French reduce all philosophy to a
* In Paris, to be popular, you must wear out, they say, twenty pair of pumps and twenty pair of silk stockings, in calls upon the different Newspaper Editors. In England, you have only to give in your resignation at the Treasury, and you receive your passport to the John Bull Parnassus; otherwise you are shut out and made a bye word. Literary jealousy and littleness is still the motive, politics the pretext, and blackguardism the mode.
set of agreeable sensations : the Germans reduce the commonest things to an abstruse metaphysics. The one are a mystical, the other a superficial people.
Both proceed by the severest logic; but the real guide to their conclusions is the proportion of phlegm or mercury in their dispositions. When we appeal to a man's reason against his inclinations, we speak a language without meaning, and which he will not understand. - Different nations have favourite modes of feeling and of accounting for things to please themselves and fall in with their ordinary habits; and our different systems of philosophy, literature, and art meet, contend, and repel one another on the confines of opinion, because their elements will not amalgamate with our several humours, and all the while we fancy we settle the question by an abstract exercise of reason, and by laying down some refined and exclusive standard of taste. There is no great harm in this delusion, nor can there be much in seeing through it; for we shall still go on just as we did before *.
* Buonaparte got a committee of the French Institute to draw up a report of the Kantean Philosophy; he might as well have ordered them to draw up a report of the geography of the moon. It is difficult for an Englishman to understand Kant; for a Frenchman impossible. The latter has a certain routine of phrases into which his ideas run habitually as into a mould, and you cannot get him out of them.