« AnteriorContinuar »
by which the reason, fancy, and feeling, could be worked upon, bad all been developed with skill: a metaphysical school of great compass had grown up; and, though of no value in its distinct results, yet such as to contribute a powerful addition to the force and resources of human reason, it increased intellectual expertness, and gave precision to moral and critical thought and language. A reading public rose into existence, not contemptibly furnished in any of the ordinary attainments of human cultivation. Of this the consequences were various and extensive. New and comprehensive experiments in poetry were made, by the adoption of new styles and new elements; and all the varied resources of constructive art were happily combined with the most daring efforts of conception, by the genius of Scott, in a series of fictions in prose and verse, which have stamped the literary character of his time, while their success affords the best illustration of our theory. It demanded a large market and a wide extension of the reading classes, to pay the £120,000, or more, which was the total purchase of his labour. But these considerations are only here brought forward to illustrate our sense-they belong to a future statement.
Literature, Arts, &c., in Ireland.— The state of Ireland, in respect to its intellectual condition, during the same interval, is not such as to demand much separate remark. We cannot immediately trace it into a connexion with the general advance of society, with the same evidence and simplicity as in our previous observations. Though analytically viewed, the same elements must always tend to the same results; yet it is only when the operation is considered in its extent, and in some measure disengaged from the action and interruption of other active social processes, that it can be followed out, without diffusive, tedious, and minute refinements. Such we are anxious to avoid.
In Ireland, the state of society, with respect to manners, morals, and education, was such as must be difficult to convey briefly to any but an Irishman whose memory can recur to a state of things now nearly, if not wholly, passed away. It was not such as may be summarily referred to any point in the scale of human progress; though, were such a comparative estimate demanded, we should, upon the whole, be rather inclined to assign a low degree of civilization. The widely desolating waste of the great rebellion, may, in a manner, be said to have swept away the moral and intellectual germination of the previous period of quiet and progressive advance; nor was there any interval of steady progress to repair the broken and suppressed processes of human advance, till the revolution of 1688 came on, introduced by a sanguinary struggle, and succeeded by the ponderous and spiritcrushing policy of government, which was the sure and hapless consequence of such a previous succession of events. The population was scanty and barbarous; nor were the gentry much above them in the higher and more important respects. Their highest accomplishments were but the refinements of barbarism or of vice. The point of honour was, generally speaking, their only characteristic and distinguishing virtue. Their tastes were gambling, drinking, and a profuse hospitality, crowned and adorned with these prominent qualifications; their main pursuits, cattle-farming and field-sports. The most absolute potentate in any civilized state had less power than the country gentleman exercised over his tenantry: these, in many parts of the country, where the Celtic character chiefly prevailed, looked up to their lord with a veneration which even much injustice could not destroy. It was augmented in those cases where the master chanced to be of the old stock, and of the same church with themselves, but extended to all cases with the universality of national habit. It was, however, combined with some moral features, now, in a great measure, corrected by the effects of subsequent changes. The affection of the cottar was largely tempered by dissimulation: while his fears, hopes, and natural sense of his own interest, compelled him to flatter and crouch to his tyrant, he was not insensible to his degradation, and still less so to the insults with which kindness itself was but too often qualified. From this strange and unhappy combination of conditions was tempered a national spirit, which, having been unfairly interpreted without regard to its causes, has grown into a national reproach against the race. Much of this reproach must be also qualified by other considerations, of which the chief was the absence of instruction and example. The peasant's knowledge of right and wrong was defective in an extreme degree, and the manners and conduct of the gentry were such as to throw no light on the surrounding obscurity. The noble sentiments of truth, honesty, and honour, in the more civilized sense of the term, are not the spontaneous produce of uncultivated human nature. The state of things, thus summarily described, was variously modified by a species of intercourse which subsisted between the peasant and his master, which was much calculated to counteract those repulsive influences which we have mentioned.
The gentry, and especially the younger sons of their families, entered largely into the sports of the peasantry, and excited among them feelings of good-will, and often of enthusiastic partisanship, by superior prowess and dexterity in the field,—the more so that, in the Celtic districts, the gentry belong to a more robust and muscular race than the peasantry. It was then an object of no secondary importance in the estimation of a district which lay under the shadow of a noble house, how far its members could jump or cast the halfhundred weight; and if any one was endowed with any extraordinary gift of agility or strength, it was enough to ensure universal reverence. Such instances were talked of with enthusiasm in the traditions of the third or fourth generation. The fame of Rory More, one of the O'Connors of the county of Roscommon, is yet flourishing in his native county; and, in our younger days, we can recollect the almost Homeric style in which old men, then living in our own immediate district of that county, used to speak of the heroic recollections of their youth, and the degeneracy of the existing time.
The gentry, in like manner, in their own peculiar customs, were largely associated with a clan-like following of their tenantry and cottars; and this gave something of a primitive character to the feuds and animosities which prevailed among the principal families in most of the counties of Ireland. Of this description were the sanguinary quarrels between the Brownes and Fitzgeralds of the west, and numerous others whom we could name. The despotic squire, no longer in. vested by lawful right with the privileges of a chieftain, to some extent retained them by influence, and by the tenure of popular prejudice, and was tempted to exercise them on a scale too narrow to come distinctly within the notice of a lax administration, mostly exercised in a spirit of connivance. The exercise and the redress of private wrong were frequently pursued by measures equally violent and illegal, and it was no uncommon incident to see gentlemen invade each other's houses at the head of a tumultuary force.
This state of society, more barbarous than the primitive clanship from which it had degenerated, was also curiously characterized by a spirit of aristocratic pride, in which even the peasantry participated, after a peculiar manner,—the lowliest cottar seeming to feel himself exalted in the house of the great family which his father and grandfather had followed. The “rale sort” was an emphatic phrase to express the distinction due to a gentleman of ancient and honourable descent; and the utmost contempt which the peasant's heart could feel, or tongue express, was his scorn for the upstart gentility of low degree. This spirit may, in part, be resolved into the love of grandeur and majesty which has often been attributed to the Irish, but there is here a more distinct and intelligible reason, the entire absence of the commercial spirit, with its consequences. There was no class of wealthy traders to offer an independent front against the feeling here described, and to present a different standard of popular estimation. There was no degree between the peasant and the aristocratic gentleman, unless that which was held by the tenure of those low accommodating vices and meannesses which could secure the confidence and favour of the lord, or by some small official elevation, of which arrogance and oppression were the most important distinctions. Thus arose an impression of dislike and scorn among the people, for all the pretensions which were unstamped by the sanction of aristocratic birth. An exaltation consequent on acquired wealth, referred to this peculiar scale, was the spurious gentility of the upstart-for there was in the popular mind no other category to which it could be referred.
Such was the state of the popular spirit which must perhaps be regarded as indicative of the real internal advance of Ireland, towards the end of the 18th century.
But a country, fastened by many links to the march of another more advanced, and moving by a different rate of progress, must necessarily offer many remarkable irregularities. The highest tone of refinement, generated by the wealth of England, and the standard of politeness by which its highest classes were regulated, was infused by numerous channels of communication, into the aristocratic circles of this country; in which, taking a higher tone from the national influences heretofore described, they were augmented and set off by numerous native characteristic peculiarities. With us, the pride of aristocracy was not counterchecked by the rivalry of independent industry, learning and genius, or by the useful acquirements and strong cultivated common sense of a wealthy commercial people, but towered freely over the surrounding level, and threw out absurdities and graces of its own. · The first remarkable condition of our Irish intellectual state at that time, is in a high degree characteristic of the very peculiar state of the country. Its knowledge, manners and literature, like its laws and institutions, were substantially English. The perpetual oscillations of a lingering revolution of eight centuriesma disease of infancy kept alive till old age—had circumscribed to a narrow circle the progress of humanity. The prejudices and animosities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, loaded the very atmosphere of the eighteenth, and sequestered the lower ranks of Irish from all other people. The upper classes were at the same period moving side by side with England, though perhaps with many disadvantages. They had also some advantages not so easily explained, in the very extraordinary prevalence of those peculiar talents, by means of which, intellectual cultivation imparts à tone to social intercourse. Boundless wit, and a sparkling and profuse facility of diction; great vivacity of temperament, and facile affections—these were perhaps the indigenous growth of the land. The long combination of two distinct races, oppositely characterized, had blended into a happy combination the prominent qualifications of both; this too imparted a distinction-they met in the thorough Irish gentleman.
Within the circle thus marked there was a concentrated effusion of wit, genius, and cultivated manners. The bar, the parliament, and the university, were the luminous centres of all that extensive knowledge, intellectual power, and refined intercourse, could impart to society. The genius and the intellectual attainment of that period are now very much liable to be underrated; the vast expansion of intellectual cultivation in both countries, is apt to impress a fallacious estimate on our conception of the pretensions of the former generation. But, as we have already noticed, the individual development is not enlarged in a concurrent ratio with the progress of society; that · equalizing principle, of which we have said so much, is not restricted to external circumstances which involve wealth and commercial industry; it affects the intellectual constitution by a similar law. The extension of knowledge, like that of art, produces a necessary division of labour; every branch of science, and every department of research, grows by degrees too complex and wide for the grasp of individual capacity on the duration of human life. And thus an enlarged system of intellectual labour grows, and, while it employs a large portion of the public mind, circumscribes individual effort; thus, by an evident process, superseding and in consequence diminishing much of the power of invention and intellectual resource. At the period of which we speak, it was the ambition of a cultivated mind of the highest order, to have made the circuit of the entire or chief realms of the whole compass of human thought; and in the writings and speeches of the greatest men, will be found a range of materials and an accumulation of attainments, to which it would, now, be nearly ridiculous to pretend. Indeed, it is from a similar application of these considerations that we might explain the secret of that uniform adaptation between the period and the man, which has so often been observed. This is a fact which may find considerable illustration in our history; for, as we proceed in the following lives, there will be observed a very remarkable conformity in the genius of our most eminent men, to the national circumstances
which gave occasion to their public career. The characteristic eloquence of the country, may, to some extent, be thus explained in the public transactions of the Irish administration, the perfunctory precision of a more advanced constitutional state did not yet exist to supersede private effort; the range of business was not so great as to prohibit the waste of wit and fancy, which adorned and relaxed the labour of public affairs. These qualifications were perhaps heightened by the intermixture of some slight tinges of the barbaric freedom of the hour; the social circle was not so enlarged and cultivated by refinement as to repress peculiarity. The conventional restrictions of modern taste did not exist to subdue the brilliant ebullition of generous natures. A large affusion of inferior cultivation—if we may so speakthe transition manners of a more popular caste which broke in upon, and in every quarter blended with, those of one more cultivated and refined, gave a singular expression of freedom, spirit, and humour, to the compound. There was an atmosphere of spirit, invention, adventure, and unconstrained fervour, favourable in the highest degree to the growth of man's individual character. It was a time and a state of things in which nature asserted all her rights and all her powers in the formation of men. To men thus nurtured, political affairs offered a boundless supply of stimulus and field of effort. The tone of nationality, inherent in the Irish people, was additionally promoted by its small circle of action-even prejudices were maintained on the simple ground of ancestral and hereditary claim—the ties of kindred were interwoven with transmitted maxims, antipathies, and prepossessions.
The sympathies of life were quick and vivacious, and he must have been a dull rhetorician who could not touch them.
To give its utmost fertility to the soil thus overcharged with the elements of produce, education bore its ample part. The University of Dublin, standing as it did, alone—the sole resource in Ireland for the higher branches of learning-performed the united offices of both English universities. As a school of divinity, classical literature, and science, not inferior to either; in the compass of her acquirements she surpassed both,—evincing the tempered discretion with which she selected the course of her prescribed studies, so as to combine the ancient and modern; preserving the solid and standard writings of antiquity, without being tainted by obsolete prejudices, or the pedantry of erudition; and seizing the real discoveries and improvements of later times, unobscured by the visionary and ephemeral additions of theory. In that time, the university was not more distinguished for the comprehensive adaptation of her system to the state of knowledge and wants of the age, than for the illustrious men whom she produced, the best and surest criterion of her excellence. Of these, many continued, as fellows, to reside within her walls, and formed that profoundly intellectual circle among whom Burke, the noblest of her sons, and the great ornament of the age, was accustomed, during his residence in Dublin, to retire to look for fit intercourse for his higher powers and nobler aspirations, when fretted by the small collisions and petty intrigues of Dublin politics. The general influence, thus produced among the middle classes, was considerable indeed, and it appears in the highly cultivated talent, and the still classical recollections of the