Diary of a Lover of Literature - 1796.

1796.


SEPTEMBER the 12th

            ON this day, the twenty-seventh anniversary (as Gibbon, in stately language, would describe it) of my birth, I begin a register of my observations and reflections:—a task which I deeply lament has been so long deferred, but which I am resolved to prosecute with vigour, now it is begun; anticipating much delight from the review it will enable me to take of my occupations and pursuits, and of the feelings and opinions with which they were accompanied.

            Read, in the evening, "Temple on the Origin of Government:" in which the source of political power is justly traced; and the doctrine of an original compact, as an historical fact, successfully exploded. He plainly states, what, though very obvious, is often overlooked, that all government is a restraint upon liberty; and, in all modes of it, the dominion over individuals equally absolute. Pope probably borrowed, from a part of this essay, his thought-

 

"For forms of government let fools contest;
"Whate'er is best administered, is best".—
Essay on Man, Epistle 3, v. 303.

 

A position, however, not defensible, since the form may influence the administration.—The whole essay is extremely judicious and unreserved. Temple is a very sensible writer; and draws more from his own stock of observation and reflection, than is usual with the writers of the present day.

            Finished, afterwards, Gulliver's Travels. Could this severe satire on poor human nature, be designed to reform it; or was it the overflowing merely of that "saeva indignatio,"<1> which in Swift, it is to be suspected, sprung less from a strong abhorrence of vice, than the exacerbations of mortified ambition? I am afraid we cannot hesitate in adopting the latter alternative.—Nothing can transcend the felicity of his contrivance for exposing our follies and our frailties, nor the consummate skill with which he has availed himself of it.

 

SEPT. the 14th

            Looked into the New Annual Register for 1795. The tone of politics in the History of Literature, and in the British and Foreign History, materially differ: but the wonder is, how so much consistency is preserved in works of this nature; and, instead of marvelling, with Johnson, how anything but profit should incite men to literary labour, I am rather surprised that mere emolument should induce them to labour so well.—To review, in a connected series, those events which we caught only by detached snatches as they passed, is very amusing. Even an old newspaper, in a moment of listlesness, has, with me, its charms. It puts one into something like the condition of a prescient being, perusing the journals of the day: we see passions agitating, which are now extinct; reports affirmed, which we know to be false; alarms sounded, which we, are sure had no foundation; and expectation all alive—upon projects which have ended in nothing.

 

SEPT. the 19th

            Met Mr. E—n at Mr. R.'s. The conversation (in which I took no part) turned, after dinner, on the prophecies applicable to the present period. Both Mr. E. and Mr. R. think there are such. Mr. E. is convinced, from a passage in the Apocalypse, that monarchy and hierarchy will be restored in France for three years. Appearances indicating so little the completion of this event, he was tauntingly asked, what he would think of the prophecies, if it did not take place? I see, said he, so manifestly that many parts of them have been fulfilled, that I should only conclude my application of this part was erroneous, and that it still remained to be accomplished. I should, of course, be disposed to examine very seriously, and to adopt if it was plausible,.any other interpretation which might be offered; but my assurance of the truth of the prophecies at large, would not be in the least impaired.—Though, to a profane eye, the Book of Revelations may seem like the wild rhapsody of an euthanasic and distempered mind, mistaking dreams for visions, and reveries for inspiration, I was not the less pleased with this temperate and ingenuous reply of one of its warmest devotees. Yet I marvel at his confidence. If prophecy is designed to convince, (and of the force of the proof which it is capable of rendering, no one can be more fully sensible than myself), why is it not clear? To me it seems evident, that unless the event is so distinctly and circumstantially foretold, that it might be distinctly and circumstantially foreseen, we can never have satisfactory assurance that a prediction has been fulfilled. Obscurity is so readily accommodated, by a willing mind, to any contingency; an ardent fancy, bent on the discovery, can so easily find whatever forms it pleases, in the clouds, that any supposed completion must otherwise be received with considerable distrust. What shall we say, then, when there are scarcely two commentators, of any note, on the Revelations, who are agreed in the application of its prophecies to events allowed, on all hands, to be past.—I am aware of the old excuse, that if prophecy were so clear that the.event could be foreseen, we should be induced to ascribe its accomplishment to art—to conclude that the prediction led to its completion. Such an argument, so far as it applied, would merely go to show the incompetency of any such species of proof: but surely it is easy to imagine events foretold, which, as no human sagacity could foresee, so, from the opposite interests or utter ignorance; of the parties concerned in bringing them to pass, we might be morally assured no human agency designedly promoted.—The most politic defence of the obscurity of prophecy,,would be, to regard it as an exercise for our diligence and faith.

 

SEPT. the 22nd

            Finished the New Annual Register for 1795. The account of the religion and government of the Japanese, is highly curious; and exhibits that people, of whom we have known little but through defamatory channels, as considerably more advanced in all the refinements of civilization, than we had hitherto supposed. But has not the passion for the marvellous, which luxuriates equally in an excess of chiaro as oscuro,<2> a little overcharged the picture?—The Review of Literature, is not enlivened by much critical discernment: the praise is far too indiscriminate, and the censures too feeble.

            Attended a concert, in the evening; at which Hague, of Cambridge, led the band. His taste is refined, his tones sweet and rich, and his execution easy and correct: but, if I may judge from the concluding piece, he wants force to transfuse, and possibly genius to catch, the fire of Handel. It is a lamentable drawback on musical composition, that the author cannot exhibit his conceptions directly to the public; but must trust, for this purpose, to the agency of others. The painter, the architect, the poet, address themselves at once, and without any intervention, to the senses and feelings of mankind:—an inestimable advantage!

 

SEPT. the 23rd

            Began with eagerness, and read, with increasing avidity, the first four chapters of Roscoe's Life of Lorenzo de Medici. The style is luminous and flowing: not curiously elaborated, perhaps, into exquisite precision; but utterly free from all affectation. The subject itself is ably treated: the thread of the narrative is steadily pursued; the collateral and explanatory matter, judiciously interwoven; and the images by which particular sentiments are enforced, are generally just, and sometimes original and happy.—His strained comparison, however, (C. 3), between the disciples of Plato and of Wesley, I either do not comprehend, or do not feel.—In the atrocious conspiracy of the Pope, the Cardinal, the Archbishop, and the Ecclesiastics, (C. 4), against the lives of Lorenzo and his brother, a real philosopher, perhaps, might see nothing peculiarly repugnant to the superstition of the times. Our deep abhorrence of the crime of murder, is the offspring, not of devotion, but of a cultivated and refined humanity—of a heart revolting at blood, the shrieks of terror, the convulsive agonies, the ghastliness, and all the horrors of sudden and violent death. The soldier, who undertook the assassination with readiness, yet shrunk back from performing it in church, displayed the genuine feelings of a layman; but the Priests were Lords of the Sanctuary, and might surely apply it to any pious purpose. They probably would have shuddered with horror, at the proposal of throwing the consecrated wafer to the dogs.

            Gibbon has touched the interesting period which Mr. Roscoe treats, with the hand of a master. I am surprised that in Mr. Roscoe's notice of him-for he does refer to him—he did not bestow an ampler measure of applause. Robertson, on a similar occasion, in his Disquisition upon Ancient India, paid a just and noble tribute to the comprehensive erudition of this accomplished writer. Certainly in his qualifications as an historian and a critic, he is above all praise: but my opinion of him as a man and as a genius, has rather been diminished by the perusal of his Miscellaneous Works; and I heartily acquiesce in the very sensible judgment pronounced upon them, and upon the author, in the last Monthly Review.—Of Robertson himself, it is remarkable, that he has written nothing but History.

 

SEPT. the 24th

            Read the 5th Chapter of Roscoe's Life: consisting chiefly of a critical disquisition on the poetical character of Lorenzo de Medici; injudiciously introduced in the midst of an interesting narrative, and by no means executed with the skill and taste which I expected. His exposition of the great end and object of Poetry—"to communicate a clear and perfect idea of the proposed subject," affords, at the outset, a very unfavourable prognostic; though I admit a man may understand well, what he defines absurdly.—Much of the matter which loads the Appendix, might surely have been spared.

 

SEPT. the 26th

            Pursued Roscoe's Work. The petty squabbles of the Italian States, detailed in the 6th Chapter, are much too minute and insignificant to interest attention; nor can I think that they are related in the most clear and lively manner. Of Lorenzo's abilities as a statesman, but little is made out; and I begin to question the historical powers of his biographer.-In treating, however, his favourite theme—the rise and progress of Italian Literature—in the two succeeding Chapters, the spirit of the narrative revives: yet an incident is now and then very awkwardly lugged in, under an apparent impression of the necessity of telling whatever has been told, however trivial and uninteresting, of the domestic life of Lorenzo. Distinguishing traits of character and incident, are what we require from the biographer. In the great mass of human actions and occurrences. all mankind so nearly resemble each other, that there can be nothing worth recording.

 

SEPT. the 29th

            Read the 9th Chapter of Roscoe's Lorenzo de Medici; in which the rise (or renovation) and progress of the arts of painting, statuary, engraving, and sculpture upon gems, with the merits of the respective artists in each department, are happily delineated. The account of Michael Angelo—his giant powers—and the concussion with which his advent shook the world of genius and taste—is even sublime.—Roscoe is not always exact in the choice of his expressions: for instance, he uses "instigate" in a good sense; which, where we have another appropriate term, is unpardonable: "compromise", which properly means, the adjustment of differences by reciprocal concession, he employs, by what authority I know not, to express, the putting to hazard by implication. A catalogue of synonyms, executed with philological skill and philosophical discrimination, would be a valuable accession to English Literature.

            Read, after a long interval, with much delight, the first two Books of Caesar's Commentaries. The States of Gaul are represented as far more advanced in government and manners, than I should have expected him to find them; and it would puzzle the Directory of France, at this moment, to frame a manifesto, so neatly conceived, and so forcibly yet chastely expressed, as the reply of Ariovistus, a barbaric chief from the wilds of Germany, to the embassy of Caesar.—It is interesting to trace the route of this great commander (and the similitude of names will sometimes fix it with precision) on a modern map.-Nothing can exceed the ease, perspicuity, and spirit, with which this incomparable narrative is conducted.

            Dipped into Boswell's Life of Johnson. Boswell, from his open, communicative, good-humoured vanity, which leads him to display events and feelings that other men, of more judgment, though slighter pretensions, would have studiously concealed, has depressed himself below his just level in public estimation. His information is extensive; his talents far from despicable; and he seems so exactly adapted, even by his very foibles, that we might almost suppose him purposely, created, to be the chronicler of Johnson. A pleasing and instructive pocket-companion might be formed, by a judicious selection from his copious repertory of Johnson's talk.

 

SEPT. the 30th

            Read the 10th, and concluding, Chapter of Roscoe's Lorenzo de Medici. The last moments of the hero, whom we have so long accompanied, are always interesting: they are here related, with a due attention to this feeling, minutely and affectingly; and the subsequent fortunes of his family are pursued, in a masterly sketch, till they cease to interest. Finis coronat opus<3>—a work, not only highly creditable to the erudition, the taste, and the judgment of its author; but which even bids fair, in a national point of view, very powerfully to advance our literary reputation on the Continent.

 

OCTOBER the 1st

            Began, with a view of comparing notes, Macchiavel's Historie Fiorentine. Macchiavel, under the persuasion, or pretext, of maintaining the liberties of his country, was a determined enemy to the family of the Medicis: he was twice concerned in a conspiracy against them; and was once consigned to the torture, but had nerves sufficient to refuse a confession;-his fortunes, however, were not spared. Such a writer may be presumed to be prejudiced: yet, as he dedicates his work to Clement the 7th, the last representative of the Lorenzo branch of the Medicis, there can scarcely be any violent misrepresentation.—His first Book contains a masterly outline of a long series of history, from the first irruption of Alaric, to the final emergence of the Italian States as they presented themselves at the point of time where his immediate narrative commences period nearly commensurate to the three last vols. of Gibbon's History: and the materials for which, must have lain, at his time, very widely scattered. Considering when, and where, he wrote, I am amazed at the freedom with which he treats the successors of St. Peter:—he does not even cast a veil of gauze over their follies or iniquities.

 

OCT. the 3rd

            Pursued Macchiavel's History of Florence. His talents, and the reader's patience, languish at the recital of the petty factions which convulsed the infancy of the Florentine Republic. Davila, I think, has evidently studied his manner, in the direct narrative: but in the general management of his matter, he is as far superior, as the subject which he treats, nor do I know a more pure and perfect historical composition, than the Historia delle Guerre Civili di Francia. What would we give, for such an account of ours!

            Read the 4th Book of Caesar's Commentaries. There is nothing to determine the point at which Caesar embarked from Gaul, on his first expedition; but there appear sufficient indications to afford a probable conjecture of the spot where he landed in Old England, were the coast examined for the purpose. Curiosity seems to have been his leading motive in the adventure.

            Looked over the last Monthly Magazine. Though conducted with considerable ability, this miscellany declines in general interest. The medical, mathematical, and agricultural departments, encroach; and there is little of literary anecdote or disquisition, the most tempting bait to such sort of reading. It is tainted, too, with the bigotry of party; so far as to induce (what is unpardonable) a misrepresentation, by. heightenings and softenings, even in the narrative department.—A narrow, virulent, heady zeal, usually infests the underlings, it rarely pervades the chiefs and leaders, of any respectable party: they see too much on both sides; and are often compelled, I believe, to affect greater acrimony than they feel.-The European Magazine, though less ably conducted, and not without its bigotry of an opposite cast, has considerable attractions from its literary anecdote; with which it is principally supplied by Mr. Read, whose mind is a rich quarry of such matter.

 

OCT. the 4th

            Read the 5th Book of Caesar's Commentaries. He names the port from which he sailed on his second expedition to England—Itius—: probably, as affording the shortest passage, Ambleteuse; which, though now choked up, might then have furnished shelter to his galleys. Nothing can be determined from the distance, which he loosely guesses at "30 millia passuum"<4>, but that it was somewhere between Gravelines and Boulogne. From Calais to Dover Pier-Head is 23 miles; from Boulogne to Folkstone 29; and, midway between these ports, the two coasts approach within less than 20 miles of each other.—As Caesar was carried by the tide in the night, till he found, in the morning, Britain left, sub sinistra,<5> he must have drifted beyond the South Foreland.—Where did Caesar ford the Thames in pursuit of Cassivellaunus? Stukely, I think, but on slender documents, fixes the place to Chertsey-Bridge.—I am glad he found our predecessors so impatient of submission; and could well wish to mortify his insatiable ambition, by exhibiting to him Rome and London in their present condition.

            Finished the 2nd Book of Macchiavel's History of Florence. The account of the adoption and expulsion of the Duke of Calabria, is admirably given; and seasonably enlivens the dull variety of his narrative.

 

OCT. the 5th

            Pursued Boswell's Life of Johnson. Johnson's coarse censure of Lord Chesterfield, "that he taught the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master", is as unjust as it is harsh. Indeed I have always thought the noble author of Lord Chesterfield's Letters to his Son, hardly dealt with by the public; though to public opinion I have the highest deference. How stands the case? Having bred up his son to a youth of learning and virtue, and consigned him to a tutor well adapted to cultivate these qualities, he naturally wishes to render him an accomplished gentleman; and, for this purpose, undertakes, in person, a task for which none surely was so well qualified as himself.—I follow the order he assigns (L. 168), and that which his Letters testify he pursued. Well! but he insists eternally on such frivolous points—the graces—the graces!—Because they were wanting, and the only thing wanting. Other qualities were attained, or presumed to be attained: to correct those slovenly, shy, reserved, and uncouth habits in the son, which as he advanced in life grew more conspicuous, and threatened to thwart all the parent's fondest prospects in his child, was felt, and justly felt, by the father, to have become an imperious and urgent duty; and he accordingly labours at it with parental assiduity—an assiduity, which none but a father would have bestowed upon the subject. Had his Lordship published these Letters as a regular System of Education, the common objection to their contents would have had unanswerable force: viewing them however in their true light, as written privately and confidentially by a parent to his child—inculcating, as he naturally would, with the greatest earnestness, not what was the most important, but most requisite—it must surely be confessed, there never was a popular exception more unfounded. But he—I admit it: he touches upon certain topics, which, a sentiment of delicacy suggests, between a a father and son had better been forborne: yet those who might hesitate to give the advice, if they are conversant with the world, and advert to circumstances, will not be disposed to think the advice itself injudicious.

            If the 26th Letter there is a very remarkable prediction, which, as we have lived to see it fully accomplished, is worth curtailing and transcribing. "The affairs of France grow more and more serious every day. The King is irresolute, despised, and hated; the ministers, disunited and incapable; the people, poor and discontented; the army, though always the supporters and tools of absolute power, are always the destroyers of it too; the nation reasons freely on matters of religion and government;—in short, all the symptoms which I have ever met with in history, previous to great changes and revolutions in government, now exist, and daily increase, in France." This was written. Dec. 25th, 1753; and, considering the clearness with which the causes are unfolded, and the consequence foretold, I ant surprised that it has not been noticed.

            Regarding Lord Chesterfield's Letters as not intended for the public eye, they are probably the most pregnant and finished compositions that ever were written.

 

OCT. the 6th

            Pursued Boswell's Life of Johnson. The distinguishing excellence of Johnson's manner, both in speaking and writing, consists in the apt and lively illustrations by example, with which, in his vigorous sallies, he enforces his just and acute remarks on human life and manners, in all their modes and representations: the character and charm of his style, in a happy choice of dignified and appropriate expressions, and that masterly involution of phrase, by which he contrives to bolt the prominent idea strongly on the mind: Burke's felicity is in a different sphere: it lies in the diversified allusions to all arts and to all sciences, by which, as he pours along his redundant tide of eloquence and reason, he reflects a light and interest on every topic which he treats; in a promptitude to catch the language and transfuse the feelings of passion; and in the unrestrained and ready use of a style, the most flexible, and the most accommodating to all topics, "from grave to gay, from lively to severe," that perhaps any writer, in any language, ever attained.—"Ipsae res verba rapiunt."<6> As opposed to each other, condensation might perhaps be regarded as the distinguishing characteristic of the former, and expansion of the letter.

 

OCT. the 7th

            Read the 6th Book of Caesar's Commentaries. His account of the religion and manners of the Gauls and Germans, is the succinct, but masterly, sketch of a well-informed spectator: his persuasion, however, that the former worshipped many of the same Gods as the Romans, is surely fanciful. That, in many of their attributes, the divinities of each might bear some resemblance, is so probable, that I take it to be true; but their denominations could scarcely be alike; and what identity has a God, but his name?

 

OCT. the 8th

            Read the 7th and last Book of Caesar's Commentaries. The warrior warms, for once, at the recital of the affair before Alesia: he kindles at portraying the hot assault upon his camp, by the multitudinous forces of congregated Gaul; he paints; in glowing colours, the perils of that decisive day; he even recounts his personal achievements; and triumphantly exults at the total rout and irredeemable dispersion of the assailants, with the ardour of a veteran. After having shone with a clear and steady lustre through a long succession of adventures, he expires at last in a blaze of glory.

 

OCT. the 9th

            Read the 3rd and 4th Books of Macchiavel's History of Florence, which deduce the account to the period, when Giuliano, and afterwards Cosmo De Medeci, silently grew, by their wealth, their wisdom, and their moderation, into considerable influence in the Republic. The current of his narrative grows clearer, and deeper, and more diffusive, as it flows.

            Lord C. looked in. Adverting to a late event, I remarked, that Earl Fitzwilliam was at least consistent; that he pursued the same steps I should myself have taken, had I originally encouraged the war on its only defensible ground; and that he had put administration in a much more awkward situation than it was now possible for opposition to place them-but that I feared his motives were disappointment and chagrin. Burke and the Earl, his Lordship said, had deserted their political principles entirely. This may, or may not, be true. The principles on which they profess to have seceded from their party, are so distinct from those which originally bound that party together, that the mere act of separation can furnish no conclusion on the subject. To be sure, if they have done it on corrupt motives, they have abandoned all principle; but they may have separated, and retain the common principles which once held them together, still.—Roscoe, his Lordship remarked, was timid, and therefore probably deficient, in Greek; and perhaps not quite stable, in Latin, literature. He had been struck with the unusual sense in which R. employs the word "compromise." This term seems to have undergone a singular revolution. "Compromissum," which could have meant, originally, only a mutual engagement, appears to have been restricted in Roman jurisprudence, to a "mutual engagement to refer to arbitration:"—to refer to the judgment of a third person, in such a way, is "to submit to hazard in conjunction with another;" and in both these senses the derivative word, in French and Italian, seems to have been commonly and respectably employed: in English, at least in the most accepted use of the term, we seem to have dropped both the "reference" and the "jeopardy," and to have applied it to that "reciprocal concession" which either led to admit such an appeal, or which it is probable an umpire would award.—The conversation then turned on Burke; against whom, for his late conduct, his Lordship bears an enmity approaching almost to rancour. I ventured, notwithstanding, to remark, that I saw so distinctly the principles of his present opinions scattered through his former works, that could the case of the French revolution have been hypothetically put to me eight years ago, I should have predicted that he would take precisely the course he has pursued. The care, indeed, with which this wonderful man, during a long series of strenuous opposition to the measures of government, uniformly occupied his ground, and the caution with which he qualified his reasonings—a care and caution which really seemed superfluous on the occasion—-might almost indicate, that he foresaw the time would come, when he should be led to urge a very different strain of argument: as we can scarcely, however, give him credit for such foresight, it unquestionably affords a most extraordinary example, in a mind so vehement and impassioned, of the predominance of philosophical over party spirit.—It would be difficult to find in the English language, of equal variety and length, four such compositions, as Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol; Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare; Parr's Dedication to Hurd; and Lowth's Letter to Warburton.

 

OCT. the 11th

            Read Hawkesworth's Life of Swift; of whose character and conduct but an imperfect idea is given by the narrative of Johnson. Hawkesworth is much more communicative and interesting; and the minuteness and simplicity with which he details the few, but deplorable, incidents of the four last years of Swift's life, are highly affecting. The circumstance of his struggling to express himself, after a silence broken but once for more than a year; and, finding all his efforts ineffectual, heaving a deep sigh, quite cleaves the heart.

 

OCT. the 13th

            Finished Sheridan's Life of Swift. Every anecdote of Swift is necessarily interesting; but such matter could scarcely be put in a more uninteresting form. The beginning and end of Swift's life are borrowed from Hawkesworth: the intermediate materials are capriciously divided and perplexedly arranged; tales are tediously told and tiresomely repeated; the same extracts are three times quoted; and much time is wasted in needless disputation. Sheridan appears rather a weak man; yet he clearly convicts Johnson of misrepresentation: indeed the many facts misstated through negligence, or distorted through prejudice, in several of Johnson's lives, is a circumstance which considerably deducts from their value. I was rather surprized to hear of Swift's fervent piety, and secret devotion; but Sheridan's defence against the crimination grounded on his Yahoos, I can by no means admit: that this odious animal was designed as a bitter satire upon man as he is, I cannot bring myself for one moment to doubt.

 

OCT. the 14th

            Read the 5th and 6th Books of Macchiavel's History of Florence. A native of Florence, or an adjoining state, might possibly be interested with the details of the former: but I confess myself heartily wearied with the puny contests of these Lilliputian republics; whose very warfare is insipid mockery, and yields, in heroic pathos, to the battles of the pigmies and the cranes. What can we think, at this day, of a combat raging between two adverse hosts, with various success, "dalle 20, alle 24 ore"<7> and terminating, at last, in the utter rout of one of them, in which only a single warrior perishes; and he, unhappy wight! not by the ennobling sword, but an unlucky tumble from his horse! The fall from power, however, and the feelings on that fall, are finely depicted, towards the close, in the person of Francesco.—In the latter book, Florence, indeed, disappears; but the immediate object of my search approximates and expands.

 

OCT. the 16th

            Read the 7th and 8th (the two last) Books of Macchiavel's unfinished History of Florence; and found that here, for my purpose, I ought to have begun. Roscoe, I am afraid, makes fewer.acknowledgements to Macchiavel, than he ought. Almost all the historical narrative with which he accompanies the life of Lorenzo, is comprised in these two Books; the general arrangement and texture are frequently the same; and the two relations sometimes bear a striking resemblance in minute coincidencies. Macchiavel, on the whole, is fair and impartial; though it is possible, I think, to discover some lurking propensities, with which, if they were really patriotic, I can well sympathise. The atrocious conspiracy against Lorenzo and Giuliano, he relates in his usual cold manner; not sparing, indeed, the conspirators, by any mutilation or softening of facts, but not expressing a proper and natural indignation at the attempt; nor warmly exulting at its failure in the preservation of Lorenzo, to whose character, however, at the close, he pays a most respectable homage. I should conjecture, that Roscoe took Macchiavel as his ground work in the historical department of his work; and afterwards wrought out the prominent parts from more circumstantial documents.

 

OCT. the 24th

            .Finished Jortin's Life of Erasmus. The ease, simplicity, and vigour of this engaging writer (I speak of the biographer), who negligently scatters learning and vivacity on every subject which he treats, are here exercised on a most congenial topic. The chief circumstances of Erasmus' life, are extracted from his letters; and the notices of England in these letters, are peculiarly interesting. I take very kindly to Erasmus: circumstanced as he was, I should have conducted myself just as he did, towards the pope and the reformlsts:—they are only bigots, who will violently condemn his moderation.

 

OCT. the 26th

            Read the first two Books of Livy's History. How infinitely superior, to my taste and feelings, is his clear, free, ample, and nervous style of narrative, to the laboured terseness and condensation of Tacitus; who seems eternally on the stretch to shine, instead of taking his cue from the theme, and contracting and expanding with his subject. The topics pressed by the Tarquins on Porsena (Lib. 2. c. 9) to induce him to assist them in recovering their sovereignty, might neatly be applied to Mr. Burke. "Monebant—ne orientem morem pellendi reges, inultum sineret. Satis libertatem ipsam habere dulcedinis. Nisi quanta vi civitates eam expetant, tanta regna reges defendant, aequari summa infimis; nihil excelsum, nihil quod supra cetera emineat, in civitatibus fore. Adesse finem regnis—rei inter Deos hominesque pulcherrimae."<8>

 

OCT. the 29th

            Read the 3rd Book of Livy. To modern habits it appears amazing, how the Patricians, without the influence of great wealth or extensive patronage, could, by a dexterous availment of conjunctures, and the lucky diversion of wars, maintain themselves for any length of time against the unruly power of the Plebeians, conglomerated in one city, conscious of their physical strength and political authority, and headed by those fearless and turbulent demagogues the Tribunes. The two modern engines of power, the management of the revenue, and the command of the army, could here be of no avail; where the former was too inconsiderable to be named, and the latter was raised merely for the purpose of the moment, by a hasty and promiscuous levy, which it was in the power of any tribune to forbid.—A curious disquisition might be written (and it is much wanted) on the government of Rome, from the expulsion of the Tarquins to the accession of Augustus.

            Looked into Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. The prolific fancy of this wild writer, and his power of ready, various, and apt quotation, are truly wonderful.

 

NOVEMBER the 3rd

            Read Bp. Watson's Apology for the Bible, in reply to Paine. There is an uncharitable and ungracious declaration at the outset, which I could earnestly wish had been suppressed; not for the sake of Paine, whom I loathe, but of Watson, whom I revere. This is certainly a very able defence of Revelation against many old and obvious objections very forcibly urged—(for I set aside the ribaldry, ignorance, and petulant self-sufficiency of the objector, as circumstances which give a manifest advantage to the respondent):—but there runs through the whole reply, what I have often observed and reprobated in defences of this kind,—a remission of orthodoxy for the purpose of removing from view the most obnoxious parts of the cause. The inspiration of the Evangelists, the divinity of Christ, &c. are here kept back; and the case is argued as if the writers of the Gospels were ordinary biographers, Christ a mere mortal inspired, &c.; although the author hints that his belief is different; and from the situation he holds in the Church, we must presume it to be so. There is in this, to my feelings, a sort of temporising spirit, inconsistent with the warmth and earnestness which we should expect in a sincere believer contending for the rock of his Salvation; and peculiarly repugnant to that strain of simple, manly, nervous, eloquence, which distinguishes the writings of this respectable prelate.

 

NOV. the 8th

            I have been for some days attending lectures on chemistry. Specious as the advantages of the new nomenclature appear, they seem counterbalanced by the reflection, that on any revolution in the system, which surely stands on ticklish ground, the denominations deduced from it, must undergo a correspondent disorganization.

            Saw distinctly this evening, through a microscope, the circulation of the white and transparent globules of blood, in the pellucid body and members of a water newt—a spectacle which impressed me with a more awful sense of the mysterious 'operations going on in nature, than the revolution of the planets.

 

NOV. the 12th

            Read Burke's Letters on a Regicide Peace. I am so satisfied that Burke enters into the true genius and character of the principles which have operated in the French revolution, that I listen with reverence to whatever he advances on the subject. He has here pursued his original sentiments on these principles, with no 'abatement of his original vigour. In his cordial detestation of them, I heartily conspire; but by what measures does he propose to rescue us from their contagion? Were it possible to restore France and Europe to the state they were in before the revolution, or rather to the semblance of that state—(a thing probably impracticable were it ever so earnestly sought; and which the corruption of courts will not allow us to suppose would for any length of time be sincerely, honestly, and steadily pursued)—still the mind could never be restored; pernicious habits could not be effaced; prejudices, however useful, could not be revived; nor could the sacred cause of real liberty be purified from the stains and disgrace of prostitution. We are in the midst of horrible and antagonist disorders; nor, till they reach something like a crisis, is it easy to say, what we ought to think, or how we ought to act. His strictures on the war, which certainly never originated in the views he recommended, and which, prosecuted as it is, can only tend to accelerate the evils which he laboured to avert by it, or sink us still deeper in the bog of corruption, are animated with a just and lively indignation. He certainly places us, by these Letters, in a shocking dilemma: but I wish to believe that his rampant imagination has magnified the peril; and, at worst, have considerable reliance on that nisus<9> towards a healthy state, which, in the body politic, as well as natural, is often our safest and surest ground of hope, under the visitation of disorder.—The passage in which he brings the situation of the emigrants home to our feelings, and recalls us to a sense of our own danger by their example, is sketched with-masterly judgment, and coloured with a glowing pencil.

 

NOV. the 13th

            Read two translations of Burgher's Leonora; one in the Monthly Magazine for March, and one by Mr. Spencer. The latter, I conjecture, more fully conveys the sense; the former more vigorously transfuses the spirit, of the original. ln the latter, many vivid images are sublimed into vapid abstractions, much energy is lost by a fastidious rejection of sonorous echoes to the sense, and the general effect is perhaps weakened by the refinement of the language: in the former, the sense is invigorated by concentration; the character of the piece is sustained by correspondent, popular, appropriate, and forcible expressions; and, by the artificial encrustation of antique phraseology, a congenial gloom is shed over a tale of horror, to which I can allow every merit but retributory justice. I would certainly sooner have written the anonymous translation; but, had I done so, I should have grieved at seeing, in the rival version, many sentiments and images which I had neglected to transplant; and I should have shrunk into myself, when

 

"Full at the portal's massy gate
The plunging steed impetuous dashed."

            Lord C. called in. He believes it to be Earl Fitzwilliam, not Fox, as I conceived, whom Burke's "dim eyes in vain explored" on the side of administration, at this crisis.—Necessity, he thought, a strange doctrine. The most revolting objection to it, I observed, seemed to vanish, with those who regarded the infliction of punishment as only a means of reformation. He urged the influence of punishment, regarded as an example to others: this, I replied, would only be a link in the chain; and he seemed to acquiesce.—His Lordship saw no inconsistency between prescience and freedom. God foresees: how he foresees, I know not—certainly not as man does, by arguing from cause to effect: he foresees; he reveals his foreknowledge to a prophet; how is the event affected?

 

NOV. the 21st

            Read, with much curiosity and interest, Hurd's Life of Warburton. All the offensive characters of Hurd's manner, which Parr has felt with such discernment, and described with such force—the quaint phrase, the cool sarcastic sneer, the flippant stricture, the petulant gibe, the oblique insinuation, the crafty artifice, the mean subterfuge, the fawning suggestion—are here strikingly manifest. In my opinion of Warburton or himself, which Parr had settled and defined, it has not made a shade of difference.—The art with which Hurd has evaded all notice of Jortin and Leland, is very amusing.

 

NOV. the 24th

            Finished Maundrell's Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem: a plain, unaffected narrative; but written with an uncouthness of style, which we should not expect to find in any composition of this century. I can scarcely fancy anything more interesting to a fervent devotee, than such a journey. What emotions must be felt, at beholding Mount Calvary, the Sepulchre of Christ, &c.!

 

NOV. the 28th

            Mr. L. spent the morning with me. I was pleased to find, that though of such opposite political sentiments, he fully acknowledged the integrity of Burke's principles, and the transcendent energies of his mind, which still worked with so much vigour under the most overwhelming depression. He stated that he had pressed Tooke, as I have done, on the ambiguity of his political principles, but without any satisfactory result; and thinks, as I do, that for the attainment of his particular and limited views, whatever they are, he has connected himself with a party whose aim extends much farther, but whom he conceives it will be possible, when his end is answered, to check in their career.

            Looked into Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works. His ingenious Dissertation on "L'Homme au Masque de Fer,"<10> if not quite conclusive with respect to this mysterious personage, exhibits a wonderful convergescence of moral probabilities on—a natural son of Anne of Austria, widow of Louis XIII, by Cardinal Mazarin.

 

DEC. the 6th

            Finished Robertson's History of Scotland. In the 1st and prefaratory Book, he skilfully evades a long tract of obscure and uninteresting narrative, by exhibiting a brief but masterly abstract of Scotch affairs till the period of Mary Queen of Scots.—The History, which properly commences here, and embraces only two reigns, and a term of little more than sixty years, evinces unquestionably very respectable talents in the writer; but when I recollect Gibbon's exquisite taste and critical discernment, can I believe him serious or sincere, in disclaiming the honour of forming a triumvirate of British Historians, with such a colleague?

 

DEC. the 11th

            Finished the 1st Vol. of Robertson's Charles the V., obeying the references to proofs and illustrations. I am confounded at the immense researches which furnished materials for this preliminary volume: and if Robertson is surpassed, as he politely confesses himself to have been, in diligence, by Gibbon, it must be acknowledged, at least, that his industry has been directed to enquiries more immediately interesting to a modern European. The notice of Voltaire at the conclusion, is liberal and handsome; and, (so little are we in the habit of seeing justice done to this extraordinary man in this country,) was, to me, I confess, quite unexpected.

 

DEC. the 15th

            Le Marquis D' A. dined with me. Had much chat on our different modes of society. At Paris, in dinner parties, each gentleman brings his servant; calls for what wine he chooses, at and between the courses: liqueurs are introduced with the desert; and when the lady of the house says, "je suis a vos ordres,"<11> all withdraw together to coffee and cards, or disperse to the opera: after which the same, or some other house, is found open for supper; which is usually composed of as great a variety of dishes as the dinner. Young fellows drink only "dans les debauches" with their mistresses, or in set parties; and to appear drunk in mixed company, would be an unpardonable offence. Except in an hour (could it be restricted to an hour) of separation after dinner, the French have clearly the advantage of us.—He thought people of condition in France, in general, far more affable to the lower orders they appeared to be with us. I believe he is right; but then it must be recollected that French are, constitutionally or by habit, a far more sociable and affable race than ourselves.

 

DEC. the 17th

            Read the 1st Book of Macchiavel's Discorsi sopra Livio. Is it possible Macchiavel could seriously believe (c. 56) that great political revolutions were usually ushered in by great natural portents, as earthquakes, meteors, &c.? In the 58th chapter, he declares himself very decidedly in favour of Republics over Monarchies, as possessing greater wisdom and steadiness in the administration of affairs, stronger attachments to rectitude, and more constancy in adhering to engagements; and professes a manly sentiment, which would form a good motto, "Io non giudico, ne giudichero mai, essere difetto difendere alcune opinioni con le ragioni, senza volervi ware o Pautorita o la forza."<12> Who would not think he was reading a sentence of Beccaria?

            Attended, in the evening, the representation of Holcroft's "Deserted Daughter." H. is here very busy at his purpose: his aim, to those who are conversant with the tenets of his sect, is sufficiently manifest; but he manages and conceals it with a discretion not very consistent, surely, with his principles.

 

DEC. the 19th

            Finished Robertson's Charles the V.; a sound and able exposition of an interesting period, which finely opens the state of Modern Europe: I cannot think, however, that an an historical composition, it emulates the lively ease, acuteness, and penetration of Heine; or the exquisite skill, poignant taste, and profound audition of Gibbon. Though. Robertson's style appears quite unexceptionable, and perfectly well adapted for grave communication, there is an artificiality and want of raciness in it, which disappoints expectation, and ultimately tires: it seems defecated and refined, till it has lost all flavour.—The preliminary Vol. forms a most useful dissertation of itself: it contains much matter not immediately connected with the subsequent History, which might well be read without it.

 

DEC. the 20th

            Read the preliminary Book to Robertson's History of America, comprising a history of navigation and cosmography, from the first migrations of mankind to the period of Columbus. R. seems to delight and luxuriate in these prefaratory openings; which, however, furnish a very tempting precedent for literary ostentation. The present is executed in a perspicuous, masterly, and pleasing manner.

            Finished the 2nd Book of Macchiavel's Discourse on Livy. He shows a considerable insight into human nature, as acting on, and acted upon by, political institutions; and where he does not push the refinements of speculation too far, his remarks are generally just. What he observes on the impolicy of trusting emigrants compelled to fly their country, might have read a lesson to the present administration. It is not often that history furnishes instruction of such sure and obvious application.

 

DEC. the 24th

            Finished the first three Books of Robertson's America, collating it, as I went along, with Burke's "European Settlements;" a work which has never been estimated by the public as it ought to be. Burke's is the hasty, but free and spirited, sketch of a master-artist; Robertson's the elaborate composition of a very eminent proficient: the one writer, we perceive, by a thousand careless strokes, is capable of more; the other has done the best he can.

 

DEC. the 27th

            Read the 4th Book of Robertson's America; containing an elaborate description of the country and its inhabitants, delivered in too much state and pomp, and upon which, much redundant thought and matter seems disgorged, for fear it should be lost to the world. Burke has treated the same subject, in the four short chapters which form the Second Part of his work, with infinite spirit; and, contrasted with his lively strokes and glowing touches, the laboured perfection of Robertson is heavy.—Compare their descriptions of the torture inflicted upon captives: Robertson, B. 4. c. 5; Burke, P. 2. c. 4.

 

DEC. the 29th

            Read the 9th Book of Livy and was most powerfully struck with the uncommon public spirit displayed by the army and the state, in the affair of the Caudian defiles: from such men we could expect nothing less than the conquest of the world, which they alone seem fit to govern. Livy's digression on the probable consequences of Alexander's having turned his conquests towards Rome, from an estimate of the respective resources of each party, is highly interesting; and, from Livy, quite unexpected.

 

Prev Next

Back to Introduction