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“ Sententious Sallust leads the lofty train,
The history of Livy is certainly a most magnificent work. It is written in a style of grand and flowing, perhaps unequal eloquence. His descriptions, that of the battle of Cannæ for instance, are bold and striking. Yet I confess Livy, with all these excellencies, is no favourite of mine. His gross and glaring partiality disgusts; and his long and complex periods, and his tedious and declamatory orations tire. General Andreossi holds in little estimation his military knowledge; indeed accuses him of such gross ignorance, that he says, “ He even forgets that military tactics had undergone a revolution, and most awkwardly confounds the practice of his own time with that of the Scipio's.”
As you have seen the dark side of the question, however, it is but just to lay before you the opinion of a critic more favourable to Livy....
“ In bright pre-eminence that Greece might own,
Delighted Rome beheld, with proud esteem,
From what I have said, you will perceive that the Roman historians have furnished us with examples of two very different forms of style in narrative composition; of the concise, compressed and sententious in Sallust; and afterwards in a still superior writer, Tacitus ; and of the flowing and rhetorical in Livy. Which of these ought to be pursued must depend on the genius and disposition of the writer, and in part on the nature of the subject. Every writer ought however to adopt a uniform style, which, after some practice, will almost come of course, if he writes from himself, and is not content to be a servile imitator of others. I once knew a person who, from habits of imitation, could not avoid at length writing, in some degree, in the style of the author he read last. One ill effect, however, attends the tribe of imitators, that they generally copy the faults, and not the excellencies of their models.
Though a part of the great work of Tacitus bears the modest name of annals, yet it is properly history; for it has not the character of annals. That part which he calls his history was written first, though there is every reason to believe that he meant the whole to form a connected chain, comprehending the history of the Roman empire from the age of Augustus to his own time. There never was a genius more happily adapted to the writing of history than that of Tacitus. He was a statesman and an orator, and master of all the learning of his age. His discernment and knowledge of human nature are unrivalled. He draws a picture with more ani. mation than, I think, any other writer; of this a fine instance will be found in the latter part of the second, and beginning of the third book, which describes the latter moments of Germanicus, and the events which immediately succeeded his death. His remarks are keen and profound. General Andreossi says of him...." The man who is called upon to defend his fellow soldiers, whose conduct is to influence the fate of his country, will acquire every information by studying Tacitus." Like his master Sallust, who is evidently in a great degree his model, Tacitus is eminent for his skill in drawing character's.
With Tacitus I may safely close my view of the eminent historians of antiquity, for it is only necessary in such a sketch to notice those who particularly excelled. With the writers of the middle ages I am little ac
quainted. You will find in Mr. Hayley some very pretty lines on the Princess Anna Comnena, and on De Thou, as well as on Guicciardini and Davila. De Thou I have read in part, but found him dry and tedious, though he occasionally draws a character in a striking manner. It was however not my intention in this letter to run through the whole catalogue of historical writers, but to point your attention to a few who ought to be studied as models; to give a sort of history of history. I shall therefore pass to those of our own country, for I cannot help subscribing to the honest and impartial testimony of General Andreossi.... That “ the best historians, at least for the last century, have been English.”
In the rapid survey which I am compelled to make of British historians, I shall pass over such works as Raleigh's History of the World, and Knolles's History of the Turks, as productions long since consigned to the libraries of the curious, and little attractive to the eye of taste, though neither of those which I have mentioned are destitute of merit. Burnet, Ludlow, &c. will be noticed under another head. But I cannot overlook the excellence of one of our early writers, I mean the learned, the manly, the much injured Buchanan. Whether we regard his clearness, his spirit, his love of freedom, or his pure latinity, his history will deserve to rank with some of the best that issued from the ancient schools. There is much good painting in Buchanan; and I particularly recomiend to your perusal the interesting scene between Malcolm and Macduff
, previous to the fall of the usurper. In the latter periods of his history he has been charged with partiality, but that charge has never been proved. He lived in times when party regarded calumny as a duty, and he embraced the thankless side, the side of liberty.
Clarendon is not to be considered as a general historian, since his subject is confined to the civil wars in the reign of Charles I. and II. Clarendon's history is, however, in all senses of the word, a great work. In style and conduct it comes nearer Livy than any modern performance. He excels in drawing characters,
though his portraits are occasionally darkened by the black tinge of party spirit. The style of English composition had not arrived at perfection in his time; and his periods are justly censured as long, embarrassed, and sometimes ambiguous. Yet he was perhaps the first writer in prose who shewed the powers of the English language, and laid the foundation of those beauties which the succeeding age displayed.
It is somewhat singular that the first who composed a good general history of our country should be a Frenchman. To Rapin every successive generation has assigned the praise of industry, accuracy, and impartiality....no slight commendation of an historian. I never read his history in the original, it being superseded in this country by the very slovenly translation of Tindal. General Andreossi, however, who ought to be a judge of the language, denies that he possesses any taste. He is too fond of inserting the whole of documents, of which he should only have given abstracts. Yet whoever would look for truth, the great object in reading history, must still, I fear, have recourse to the ponderous volumes of Rapin. He was greatly assisted by that invaluable collection of records, Rymer's Fædera, which continued to be published while he was writing his history. Mr. Hayley denominates him the British Polibius, and adds....
Thy sword, thy pen, hare both thy name endeard;
Unsway'd by party, and to freedom just.”
We had, however, scarcely any work of the historical kind in our language, which deserves the name of elegant, till the present times. Lord Littleton's Henry is a fine and chaste composition, but is rather prolix. It would be unfair, though I dislike his principles both political and religious, to deny Mr. Hume the praise of a chaste, correct, and pleasing writer. I have been told by some who knew him, that he composed with great difficulty, and even with painful feelings; yet his genius seems to me happily calculated for narration. He is clear and spirited ; and though he can 'rarely reach either the sublime or the pathetic, he always interests. Some of his dissertations, as that on the consequences of the invention of gunpowder, &c. might have been omitted; they remind us of scholastic disputations, and have no connection with a recital of facts. He is not copious; his vocabulary is remarkably limited, but it is well chosen. I wish, however, he possessed more honesty, more industry, and less of that rancorous spirit so peculiarly characteristic of infidels, that even Mr. Gibbon terms Voltaire “ a bigot, an intolerant bigot.” He frequently misrepresents when party or prejudice offers a temptation ; as is particularly evinced in his account of Barebone's parliament, and the character of Milton,* and his negligence is very reprehensible. I have been told that he has copied pages, I might almost say volumes, from Carte, with only slight alterations in language. All these circunstances render his history of little value as an authentic record.
If I stand in fear of offending our northern countrymen by this qualified censure on Mr. Hume, I hope I shall amply compensate by declaring my unbiassed opi. nion, that the most accomplished historian of ancient or modern times, is Dr. Robertson. His style is rich and copious, and he may be said to wield with ease all the powers and the treasures of the English language. Few provincial or idiomatic phrases appear in his classical pages. He is sufficiently florid and fanciful to interest continually, and yet not so much as to tire or disgust. His arrangement is always luminous, his incidents well selected, and his story well told. The History of Scotland is extremely engaging, and not the least interesting is the detail of domestic and private transactions, which display the respective characters in
*“ When giddy and fantastic dreams abuse
“ A Hampden's virtue and a Shakspeare's muse."