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Art. I.—History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. By Washington Irving. In 4 vols. 8vo. London, 1828.
Ftihis, on the whole, is an excellent book; and we venture to -"- anticipate that it will be an enduring one. Neither do we hazard this prediction lightly, or without a full consciousness of all that it implies. We are perfectly aware that there are but few modern works that are likely to verify it; and that it probably could not be extended with safety to so many as one in a hundred even of those which we praise. For we mean, not merely that the book will be familiarly known and referred to some twenty or thirty years hence, and will pass in solid binding into every considerable collection; but that it will supersede all former works on the same subject, and never be itself superseded. The first stage of triumph, indeed, over past or existing competitors, may often be predicted securely of works of no very extraordinary merit, which, treating of a progressive science, merely embody, with some small additions, a judicious digest of all that was formerly known; and are for the time the best works on the subject, merely because they are the last. But the second stage of literary beatitude, in which an author not only eclipses all existing rivals, but obtains an immunity from the effects of all future competition, certainly is not to be so cheaply won; and can seldom, indeed, be secured to any one, unless the intrinsic merit of his production is assisted by the concurrence of some such circumstances as we think now hold out the promise of this felicity to the biographer of Columbus.
Though the event to which his work relates is one which can never sink into insignificance or oblivion, but, on the conVOL. Xlviii. No. 95. A
trary, will probably excite more interest witb every succeeding generation, till the very end of the world, yet its importance has been already long enough apparent to have attracted the most eager attention to every thing connected with its details; and we think we may safely say, that all the documents which relate to it have now been carefully examined, and all the channels explored through which any authentic information was likely to be derived. In addition to the very copious, but rambling and somewhat garrulous and extravagant accounts which were published soon after the discovery, and have since been methodised and arranged, Don F. M. Navarette, a Spanish gentleman of great learning and industry, and secretary to the Royal Academy of History at Madrid, has lately given to the world a very extensive collection of papers, relating to the history and voyages of Columbus; a very considerable portion of which appears not to have been known to any of those who had formerly written on the subject. Mr Irving's first design was merely to publish a translation of this collection, with occasional remarks ; but having, during his residence at Madrid, had access, by the kindness of the Duke of Veraguas, the descendant of the great admiral, to the archives of his family, and to various other documents, still remaining in manuscript, which had escaped the research even of Navarette, he fortunately turned his thoughts to the compilation of the more comprehensive and original work now before us—in which, by those great helps, he has been enabled, not only to supply many defects, but to correct many errors, and reconcile some apparent contradictions in the earlier accounts.
It was evidently very desirable that such a work should at length be completed; and we think it peculiarly fortunate that the means of completing it should have fallen into such hands as Mr Irving's. The materials, it was obvious, were only to be found in Spain, and were not perhaps very likely to be intrusted without reserve to a stranger; while there was reason to fear that a Spaniard might not have courage to speak of the errors and crimes of his countrymen in the tone which the truth of history might require, or might not think it safe, even yet, to expose the impolicy, or canvass the pretensions, of the government. By a happy concurrence of circumstances, an elegant writer, altogether unconnected either with Spain or her rivals and enemies, and known all over the civilized world as a man of intelligence and principle, of sound judgment, and a calm and indulgent temper, repaired to Madrid at a time when the publication of Navarette had turned the public attention, in an extraordinary degree, to the memorable era of Columbus; and, by the Force of his literary and personal character, obtained the fullest disclosure of every thing that bore upon his history that was ever made, to native or foreigner,—at the same time that he had the means of discussing personally, with the best informed individuals of the nation, all the points on which the written documents might seem to leave room for doubt or explanation.
Of these rare advantages Mr Irving has availed himself, we think, with singular judgment and ability. He has written the liistory of the greatest event in the annals of mankind, with the fulness and the feeling it deserved ; and has presented us with a flowing and continuous narrative of the events he had to record, far more luminous and comprehensive than any which previously existed, and yet much less diffuse and discursive than the earlier accounts, from which it is mainly derived; while, without sacrificing in any degree the intense interest of personal adventure and individual sympathy, he has brought the lights of a more cultivated age to bear on the obscure places of the story; and touched skilfully on the errors and prejudices of the times— at once to enliven his picture by their singularity, and to instruct us by their explanation or apology. Above all, he has composed the whole work in a temper that is beyond all praise. It breathes throughout a genuine spirit of humanity; and, embellished as it is with beautiful descriptions and wonderful tales, its principal attraction in our eyes consists in its soft-hearted sympathy with suffering, its fearless reprobation of injustice and oppression, and the magnanimous candour of its judgments, even on the delinquent.
But though we think all this of Mr Irving's work, we suspect it may not be altogether unnecessary to caution our more sensitive and sanguine readers against giving way to certain feelings of disappointment, which it is not impossible they may encounter at the outset of their task; and to which two or three very innocent causes are likely enough to expose them. In the first place, many great admirers of Mr Irving's former works will probably miss the brilliant, highly finished, and rythmical style, which attracted them so much in those performances; and may find the less artificial and elaborate diction of this history comparatively weak and careless. In this judgment, however, we can by no means agree. Mr Irving's former style, though unquestionably very elegant and harmonious, always struck us as somewhat too laboured and exquisite—and, at all events, but ill fitted for an extensive work, where the interest turned too much on the weight of the matter, to be safely divided with the mere polish of the diction, or the balance of the periods. He has done well, therefore, we think, to discard it on this occasion, for the more varied, careless, and natural style, which distinguishes the volumes before us—a style not only without sententious pretension, or antithetical prettiness, but even in some degree loose and unequal—flowing easily on, with something of the fulness and clearness of Herodotus or Boccaccio—sometimes languid, and often inexact, but furnishing in its very freshness and variety, the very best mirror, perhaps, in which the romantic adventures, the sweet descriptions, or the soft humanities, with which the author had to deal, could have been displayed.
Another, and perhaps a more general source of disappointment to impatient readers, is likely to be found in the extent and minuteness of the prefatory details, with which Mr Irving has crowded the foreground of his picture, and detained us, apparently without necessity, from its principal features. The genealogy and education of Columbus—his early love of adventure—his long and vain solicitations at the different European courts—the intrigues and jealousies by which he was baffled—the prejudices against which he had to contend, and the lofty spirit and doubtful logic by which they were opposed,—are all given with a fulness for which, however instructive it may be, the reader, who knows already what it is to end in, feels any thing but grateful. His mind, from the very title-page, is among the billows of the Atlantic and the islands of the Caribs; and he docs not submit without impatience to be informed of all the energy that was to be exerted, and all the obstacles to be overcome, before he can get there. It is only after we have perused the whole work that we perceive the fitness of the introductory chapters; and then, when the whole grand series of sufferings and exploits has been unfolded, and the greatness of the event, and of the character with which it is inseparably blended, have been impressed on our minds, we feel how necessary it was to tell, and how grateful it is to know, all that can now be known of the causes by which both were prepared; and instead of murmuring at the length of these precious details, feel nothing but regret that time should have so grievously abridged them.
The last disappointment, for which the reader should be prepared, will probably fall upon those who expect much new information as to the first great voyage of discovery, or suppose that the chief interest of the work must be exhausted by its completion. That portion of the story of Columbus has always, from obvious causes, been given with more amplitude and fidelity than any other; and Mr Irving, accordingly, has been able to add but few additional traits of any considerable importance. But it is not there, we think, that the great interest or the true character of the work is to be found. The mere geographical discovery, sublime as it undoubtedly is, is far less impressive, to our minds, than the moral emotions to which it opens the scene. The whole history of the settlement of Hispaniola, and the sufferings of its gentle people—the daring progress of the great discoverer, through unheard-of forms of peril, and the overwhelming disasters that seem at last to weigh him down, constitute the real business of the piece, and are what truly bring out, not only the character of the man, but that of the events with which his memory is identified. It is here, too, that both the power and the beauty of the author's style chiefly display themselves—in his account of the innocence and gentleness of the simple races that were then first introduced to their elder brethren of Europe, and his glowing pictures of the lovely land, which ministered to their primitive luxury—or in his many sketches of the great commander himself, now towering in paternal majesty in the midst of his newly-found children—now invested with the dark gorgeousness of deep and superstitious devotion, and burning thirst of fame—or, still more sublime, in his silent struggles with malevolence and misfortune, and his steadfast reliance on the justice of posterity.
The work before us embodies all these, and many other touching representations; and in the vivacity of its colouring, and the novelty of its scene, possesses all the interest of a novel of invention, with the startling and thrilling assurance of its actual truth and exactness—a sentiment which enhances and every moment presses home to our hearts the deep pity and resentment inspired by the sufferings of the confiding beings it introduces to our knowledge—mingled with a feeling of something like envy and delighted wonder, at the story of their child-like innocence, and humble apparatus of enjoyment. No savages certainly ever were so engaging and loveable as those savages. Affectionate, sociable, and without cunning, sullenness, inconstancy, or any of the savage vices, but an aversion from toil, which their happy climate at once inspired and rendered in noxious, they seem to have passed their days in a blissful ignorance of all that human intellect has contrived for human misery, and almost to have enjoyed an exemption from the doom that followed man's first unhallowed appetite for knowledge of good and evil. It is appalling to think with what tremendous rapidity the whole of these happy races were swept away! How soon, after the feet of civilized Christians had touched their shores, those shores were desolate, or filled only with mourning! How soon, how frightfully soon, the swarming myriads of idle and light-hearted creatures, who came trooping from their fragrant woods to receive them with smiles of wcl