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CHAPTER VII.

Character of the works on History and Biography, and the Voyages and

Travels, of the present age.

H

ITHERTO we have passed and penetration by means of which

in review works in the dif- they trace events to their causes, ferent departments of literature, and point out the consequences of which certainly do high credit to those events :—but in what histhe present state of genius and in- torian since Hume, Robertson, and formation among us.

There may

Gibbon, are these qualifications be a want of those master-in- combined, in any high degree? and tellects which distinguished and what historian, since them, joins adorned some of the previous pe- to these qualifications the dignity, riods of our Literary history : but the grace, or the eloquence of style, on the other hand, the present age by which these historians are discan boast of a great number and tinguished. variety of authors who, though not It is foreign to our purpose fully of the highest rank or the rarest to inquire into the circumstances talents, may justly lay claim to a which may have produced this large portion of genius and in- dearth of historians in the present formation.

age: but some of them may be But it is otherwise with History: very briefly suggested. The want if a Briton were called upon by a of proper subjects may perhaps be foreigner to enter the lists with him,

It is true, the history with respect to Historical writing of Rome, up to the period when it of the present age, of classical receives such ample and eloquent reputation, we are much afraid he illustratiou from Gibbon, is still would be obliged to decline the untouched, in our language, by any challenge. After Hume, Robert- historian worthy of such a rich and son, and Gibbon, whom have we grand subject : and even the bisthat we can bring forth as classical tory of Greece, though it has occuhistorians ? There are, indeed, his- pied the pens of Gillies and Mitford, torians highly respectable for their cannot be deemed to have occupied diligent and laborious research ; a historian worthy of it. And to for the cool and unimpassioned im- come nearer home: the history of partiality that they display, even our own Country, since the Revowhen engaged in relating events lution, certainly affords a subject within the circle over which pre- capable and worthy of exercising judice exerts her most powerful the highest historical talents, withinfluence; and for their wise and out passing beyond the line when judicious reflectiors, or the skill the recentness of the events might

render

one cause.

:

render it difficult for the historian those authors who dignify and adorn to write with impartiality, and at the present age of British literature the same time with full and ac- in the highest degree, what class curate information.

of authors can we name, except While, therefore, these subjects poets, or those who are allied to remain untouched by historians poets by their most exquisite taste, worthy of them, it cannot be said impassioned eloquence, or high that our Country at present is with- powers of invention ? Genius, it out a classical historian, because appears to us, possesses but a small subjects are wanting. Other causes share of the domain of literature ; must be sought: and we should be there are but few parts of it, over disposed to say, that the genius of which she can exert her power, or the present age (we do not mean the shed the magic of her influence. peculiar turn or fashion of the History, in the highest acceptation literature, but the talents, in the of the word, is certainly one of highest acceptation of the word) them: in proof of this, need we are not adapted to History. They refer to the finest passages in Livy, are almost exclusively devoted to Tacitus, Hume, Robertson, and poetry : in no other department of Gibbon? But to repeat what we literature shall we find them of a have already said, the genius of the very high order. There is, as we present age in this country is have before observed, in some of almost monopolized by poetry : our present historians, an ample though, therefore, we have histoshare of laborious research, -of rians highly respectable for most of acute and judicious sitting of facts, the other qualifications necessary to —and even of profound insight constitute this class of authors, yet into the characters of inen, and the we have none who can rank in the causes and consequences of events, highest order, because to these qua—and we may add, no great Jack lifications they do not add a suf. of that united penetration and com- ficient portion of genius. prehension of mind which enables But there is another circumstance a historian'to draw from the cir. which may account for the fact : cumstances and events he relates, within these very few years, investi. or to confirm by them, principles gation into the various branches of of the highest importance, and of political economy, statistics, and the closest application to all the the principles of general politics, branches of politics, in their most have deservedly assumed such a extended sense. But, to render high degree of interest, that we them classical historians, worthy of doubt, whether any historian who being ranked with Hume, Robert- did not satisfy the public expectason, and Gibbon, they ought to be tion and wants in these respects, embued with some of that exquisite would become popular, or rank genius which they possessed, and high, even if he endeavoured to which, in the present age, seems compensate for their absence by the so completely to have assumed the most splendid genius. Besides, form of poetical genius as to leave more minute and scrupulous accu. a great deficiency in all other racy than Hume, or Robertson, and branches of literature.

perhaps even Gibbon, exercised, are If we are called upon to name now required of an historian, in

consequence consequence of the very laborious displaying his talents, but he will attention and research, with which not delight so much ; he will not be Antiquarian studies have latterly even so useful and instructive. been carried on. Hence demands The writers of Biography of the from a historian of the present age, present age, seem to bave been on the part of the public, repel the aware of this ; for, with a few exman of genius from nearly all ceptions, they have discarded the Historical topics.-We have thus formal style of Biography, and endeavoured to account for an un- been anxious rather to exhibit their disputed fact, viz.; that in the subject than themselves. When Historical department of literature, this is done with even a very moBritain at present ranks very low; derate share of talent, but with a and though we are not perfectly full command of materials (which satisfied, that the explanation we in this species of writing, are much have given will be deemed perfect, more useful than talents) Biography yet we certainly are of opinion, is indeed a high treat to all kind of that it contains, at least, part of the readers ; to those who take it up, as cause of our present inferiority. they would do a novel, merely to

Biography requires very different be amused ; to those who wish to talents from those which History study human character ; to those demands. Indeed the most inter- who are anxious to trace the earliest esting and instructive species of years, and become familiar with Biography requires little of those the every.day behaviour and actions who undertake to write it, but of him, whose works, or whose minute, full, and accurate informa- public conduct they have long retion with respect to the person garded with high interest; and to whose life is to be written. If a those whose aim and object is still Historian is very minute, unless higher, who are desirous of inves. he can give to his minuteness that tigating the causes and circumcharm of the older Chronicles, with stances which create character, which Froissart, for example, bas form genius, or give to it that direcinvested all he has recorded, he tion, in which it afterwards apmust be very tiresome; and even peared to delight and instruct manwith that charm, he will be much kind. more interesting and instructive to

It is fortunate that Biography those who study individual charac- may be so written, without any ters, or the manners of the age, great demands upon talent : hence than to those who are desirous of it is of frequent occurrence among drawing from History an insight us, especially within the last half into the causes which accelerate or century. What a delightful book retard the advancement of nations is Boswell's Life of Johnson; with to power and happiness. But it is how much ease and familiarity does far otherwise with the Biographer; it introduce us to his acquaintance : he cannot be too minute; if he we enjoy it, we hear his conversaindulges in general reflections, or tion, without being annoyed or contents himself with making his disgusted by the savageness of his own sketch of the character of the manners, or repelled by his illiberal object of his Biography, he may and virulent attacks. Who, that is thus bare greater opportunities of fainiliar with the writing of that

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great master of the human mind, with in Boswell; and therefore we must not be highly delighted, as need not be surprised that we well as instructed, by tracing all possess no work, in this species of the steps by which his character writing, to be compared with his. was formed; by watching the gra- There are however other sources, dual developement of his genius; from which those who are disposed and by having unfolded to him, to write Biography in its most inthat man among his familiar friends, teresting form, may draw ample whom he had before only viewed materials for this purpose; and at a distance, or in his garb and these sources have been more manners of ceremony as an author. opened up during the present than We are willing to allow, that Bos. any former age. We allude to the well himself was a very weak and letters of the person whose life is to silly man ; that from his life of be written ; Mason in his Life of Johnson, he can derive no praise or Gray, and Hayley in his Life of merit, but that of the lowest and Cowper, were among the first most servile industry: all this we who drew their principal materials allow; but in reading his life of from these sources; and what most Johnson, we think not of Boswell, interesting Biographies of these ceor if we do, it is not as the author, lebrated poets have they thus but only as one of the companions formed! In his familiar letters, those of Johnson. Other subjects occupy in which, without effort, or other our minds : we are introduced into purpose in view than what the the company of Johnson, Burke, object and purport of the letter Goldsmith, Fox, Sheridan, and the unfolds, a man unconsciously disother luminaries of the age : our plays his character ; his feelings, his attention is taken up with listening tone of thought are exposed to view; to what they say, with observing he gives full play to many of those what they do; all the genius and features of his mind, heart, and

literature of the age is displayed temper, (if the expression may be ... before us; and we have no time, allowed) which on all other occa

no inclination, we are not even sions he keeps in a fixed and formal able to attend to any thing else. attitude. The materials drawn from As in reading the most exquisite these sources are much more vapoetry, the poet is forgotten ; the luable in the present age than they world in which we are is forgotten; could have been (generally speakand we see, and hear, and feel, onlying) in any preceding age, because as the poet moulds us, and live at present there is much less study only in a world, and among beings and design in writing letters than of his creation; so in reading Bos- there was then. We have already well's Life of Johnson, we are remarked, that there is at present a transported from our actual state greater and more ready and easy and place of existence, and become command of language and style for a time, the contemporaries and than were possessed in any previous the companions of Johnson and his period of our literary history. Hence high associates.

There is less occasion for study and But it can seldom happen, that effort in writing letters; and consecelebrated men will meet with such quently flowing more directly, as a Biographer as Johnson has met well as easily, from the impressions

and

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and feelings and thoughts of the There is still another species of moment, they must bear a more Biography, on which we must say accurate and deep stamp of the words: we allude to Self. character.

Biography. In some respects, this The lives and characters of many is even more interesting and inillustrious men, who fourished in structive than the Biography which former periods of our history, have is drawn from, or principally illuslately been amply illustrated by the trated by the letters of the subject labours of the present age; we of it. For, in the latter case, our allude to that strong tendency, we information must necessarily be inhad almost said rage, which exists complete, even though the defi. for searching out and publishing ciencies and the connexions and every little memorial, whether in objects of the letters are supplied the form of diary or correspon. by the Biographer. So much as dence, that relates to any person of letters embrace of the events of a the least note. The consequence man's life, so far as they go in has been, that in many instances setting before us his feelings and the lives and characters of men, character, they cannot be surpassed who have little to recommend them in interest or instruction, by any to our notice, except that they are other species of Biography; but not of the present age, have been they cannot take in much that we illustrated in a most tedious manner, must be desirous of knowing. Selfby the publication of materials as Biography on the other hand, by obscure and uninteresting as them. its very nature, must introduce us selves; and in other cases, the rage to the whole man ; whether he will for publishing every thing that pro- not prepare himself for the interceeded from a man of repute, or view, whether he will not conceal that touched, as it were, even the some part of his real character, and bem of his garment, has brought to assume, for the time and occasion, light the most frivolous facts, or a character that does not belong to correspondence. But so impossible him, is another question. He is is it for a man of genius to say, or certainly much more likely to do do, or write any thing, that will so when he sits formally down for not in some degree, or in some the express purpose of telling us respect, display his character, that what sort of a man he was, and even from the most worthless of how he acted and thought and felt these materials the future Biogra- on the most important occasions of pher may glean something to his his life, than when he sits down purpose. It would however be to write free and familiar letters dealing unfairly and unjustly with to bis friends, warm from the imthese laborious pioneers of literature, pulse of the moment, without any if we did not admit, that in a great check or guard on his thoughts. many instances they have been And yet, after all, he must be a highly useful ; they have dragged most cool and cautious man, as forth many letters and facts, bighly well as better acquainted with his and expressively illustrative, not real character than most men are, only of individual characters, but who can write his own life, without also of the manners and events of giving a tolerably clear and fair past ages.

insight into that character.

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