Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors][merged small]

But by

at some length, either at the end of each reign, or in a separate chapter, he observed, with much commendation of the execution of it, that such a contrivance might be a good mode of writing critical essays, but that it was in his opinion incompatible with the nature of his undertaking, which, if it ceased to be a narration, ceased to be a history. Such restraints assuredly operated as taxes upon his ingenuity, and added to that labour, which the observance of his general laws of composition rendered sufficiently great. On the rules of writing he had reflected much and deeply. His own habits naturally led him to compare them with those of public speaking, and the different and even opposite principles upon which excellence is to be attained in these two great arts, were no unusual topics of his conversation.”—Preface, pp. 35–38.

The obvious question hereis, how history could ever come to have such a specific nature. According to this representation, history might be a thing as defined as a species of animal or vegetable, which must absolutely have always a certain number of precise attributes, and could not have more or less without becoming a monster. what sovereign authority was its organization thus definitively fixed, and where are we to look for its pure original type? And even if there were such an original definition and type, and if according to that authority nothing but a continuous narration should be intitled to the denomination of history; of what trifling consequence it would be that this name should be refused to a work, that luminously narrated events, that made intervals in this narration, and filled them with eloquent appropriate reflections and profound reasonings, adapted to make the narration of facts both more striking and more instructive. The writer of such a work might say, I do not care whether you allow my work to be called a history or not; even keep the insignificant term, if sacred to the dry narrator, who has not understanding enough to make important reflections as he goes on; it is on account of the eloquence and reasoning in my work that the name of history is denied it, I have only to say, that I have then written something better than history.

History, as an art, is no more bound up by technical and exclusive laws than oratory or poetry. It is just any mode of narration in which any man chooses to relate to other men a series of facts. It may be written as a mere

you will,

chronicle, or in a continuous and artfully arranged relation without reflections, or in a narration moderately interspersed with short observations, which cause but a momentary interruption of the story, or in a form admitting such frequent and large dissertations, as to become, in some sense, a course of historical lectures. These various methods of bringing back the past to view, are adapted to the various kinds of inquisitiveness with which men seek a knowledge of the past. A few may be content with the bare knowledge that certain things happened at certain times : many wish to have the events adjusted into an order which shall exhibit their connexion from the beginning to the end; some wish to comprehend the causes and tendencies of events, as well as to be apprised of any remarkable contemporary circumstances, or distinguished men, that without being directly involved in the train of events, had any relation with any stage of them; and a few are even desirous of formal deductions of moral and political doctrines. Excepting perhaps the first of these modes, it would be idle exclusively to appropriate or refuse the denomination of history to any one of them; and especially to refuse the title, if it is deemed a title of dignified import, to such a mode of recording the events of past ages as should tend to explain the causes and various relations, and to enforce whatever important instructions they are capable of being made to yield to the readers; for surely the highest office that history can pretend to execute, is that of raising on ages of the dead a tribute of instruction for the living. We have already said that the wisdom derivable from history is not very copious; but as far as may be, it should seem to be the business of history, to collect all the little streams of valuable instruction in the distant regions of time (as the rills and rivulets among the remote mountains of Africa are drawn by successive confluence to form the Nile), and bring them down in one fertilizing current on the lower ages. To say

that the ancient historians confined themselves to a straight forward unbroken course of narration, is just the same thing, with respect to its authority in directing general

our practice, as to say they built their houses, or shaped their clothes, in this or that particular way; we have always an appeal to the nature and reason of the thing. And we have also an appeal to universal colloquial practice, which may be assumed to be substantially the model for all communications that are to be made from one human being to another by written words. If a man were relating to us any interesting train of actions or events, of which he had been a witness, or had received his information from witnesses, we should expect him often to interrupt his narration with explanatory remarks at least; and if he were a very intelligent man, we should be delighted to hear him make observations, tending to establish important general truths from the facts related. We should positively compel him to do something of this; for we should just as much think of giving the lie to all he said, as of suffering him to go on an hour without raising some questions, both of fact and of speculation. And we do not comprehend how written history can be under any law, unless some dictum of pedantry, to forbid it to imitate, in a moderate degree, what is so natural and so rational in a narration made personally by a judicious man to intelligent companions.

Beside the information of the distinguished statesman's opinions on historical composition, the preface contains various interesting particulars of his habits and studies. It appears that his feelings were so far from being totally absorbed by ambition, that his mental resources were so great, and his susceptibility of interest so lively and versatile, that in the intervals of his most vehement public exertions, and during the season in which he seceded in a great measure from the political warfare, he enjoyed exquisitely the pleasures of elegant literature and rural nature. It is no less pleasing than it is unusual and wonderful, to see the simple and cordial feelings of the human being, and the taste of the man of letters, thus preserving their existence amidst the artificial interests and the tumults of a statesman's life, and unfolding themselves with energy in every season of retreat from the political sphere. With a true philanthropist, however, it will be a question of conscience, how far he may innocently surrender himself even to the refined gratifications of imagination and taste, while sensible that very important interests may be depending on his more or less continued prosecution of the rougher exercises of political argument. There is no preserving patience, to hear a man like Mr. Fox, and in such a period as that he lived in, talk of employing himself in preparing an edition of Dryden's works; an occupation in which he might consume, in settling the propriety of some couple of poetical epithets, just as much time as would have sufficed for preparing the outlines of a speech on the subject of parliamentary reform. It would be a fine thing indeed, to see the great statesman solemnly weighing the merits of the meaning of some awkward line, which the poet perhaps wrote half asleep, when driven to finish the “tale” of verses which some Pharaoh of a bookseller had two or three times sent his imps to demand, for money paid, and perhaps spent in the wine that had imparted the cast of somnolency to the verse in question. Nor is it solely on the ground of his possible public usefulness, that we feel some want of complacency in hearing him exclaim, “Oh how I wish that I could make up my mind to think it right, to devote all the remaining part of my life to such subjects, and such only!" It will suggest itself that toward the close of his life, there might be, setting out of the question too any labours due to the public, some other things proper to be thought of, besides the vindication of Racine's poetical merits, and the chastisement of Dryden and others who had not done them justice. Notwithstanding, if all duties and services of stronger claim could have been first discharged, it would have been very gratifying to have received from him that projected treatise on Poetry, History, and Oratory, on the subject of which Lord Holland speaks.

Many persons will be surprised to be informed that Mr. Fox was slow in composition; and this inconvenience was increased by his extreme solicitude to keep his page clear of any trace of his trade, as he should seem to have regarded it, of public speaking. From this solicitude he refused admittance, by Lord Holland's account, to many expressions and sentiments which in a speech would have been eloquent. This will be deemed an unfortunate and injurious fastidiousness in our great orator; for the consequence is, that we by no means find in the writing the whole mental power we know there was in the man. There is a certain bareness, and almost coldness, of style, from which a reader, not otherwise acquainted with the force of his talents, would never learn the irresistible power of his eloquence : in passing along the pages of the work before us, we earnestly, and too often vainly, long for some of those mighty emanations of sentiment which used to set us on fire in hearing him. It were strange indeed, if he considered these living fires as something of too professional and vulgar a kind, to be allowed to impart their animation to history. It were strange if history, because its subjects are chiefly dead men, should be required to preserve a kind of analogy with their skeletons, and be cold, and dry, and still, like them. It is certainly the office of history to show us “ a valley of dry bones;" but it interests us most by the energy which transforms the whole scene into life.

Many pages of Lord Holland's preface are occupied with a very curious account of the fate of King James's manuscripts, deposited in the Scotch College at Paris. Mr. Fox's inquiries fully ascertained that they were destroyed during the late revolution.

The period of our history, selected by Mr. Fox, was evidently adapted for what was of course his purpose, to illustrate the nature and basis, and the whole progress of the attainment, of that political freedom which this country since the Revolution of 1688 has enjoyed, notwithstanding many just causes of complaint, in a higher degree than perhaps any other nation of ancient or modern times. The events of that period were of a kind which, contemplated merely as a dramatic scene, containing a certain portion of incident, show, and action (the only view, unfortunately, in which most of us regard

« ZurückWeiter »