Sidor som bilder


that the “kingly commonwealth” of England, that has swayed the happiness of millions of human beings, and from which sprang this vast Republic of the West, was “ built up by accident ;" that there was a little human foresight, and all the rest was chance.

When Arnold was planning his history, he said, "My highest ambition.

is to make my history the very reverse of Gibbon in this respect, that whereas the whole spirit of his work, from its low morality, is hostile to religion, without speaking directly against it; so my greatest desire would be, in my history, by its high morals and its general tone, to be of use to the cause, without actually bringing it forward."*

Besides this high quality, another merit of recent historical literature is, that it has modified what used to be called the "dignity of history," and has blended with it more of the lively interest of biography. An excellent specimen of such historical composition, an accurate, calmly-tempered, and attractive history, will be found in Lord Mahon's History of England during an important part of the last century.t

In this department of literature the greatest power of attraction has been proved in the first volumes of Mr. Macaulay's History of England, for they have won a far larger number of readers, it is believed, than did any one of the Waverley novels in Scott's palmiest day. Such rapid and wide-spread popularity is proof of power, the measure of which will be taken more accurately after the lapse of some years than when it is new to us.

* Life and Correspondence, p. 139, Am. ed.

† There is no work that can be more safely put in the hands of the American historical student than Lord Mahon's, not only for its tolerant and philosophic views of English affairs, but as enabling a reasonable American to feel and understand how his own history appears to a generous and friendly foreign observer. Such a process is very salutary in this self-complacent meridian. W. B. R.

Mr. Macaulay's aim, as an historian, is to bring into history a greater number and variety of the testimonies of the life of the past than history has been in the habit of taking cognizance of. With great powers of accumulating such multifarious memorials of former times, with a dexterous skill in combining them, and with a brilliant, effective style, he has gained such applause as, perhaps, was never given to historian before. It is most attractive and exciting reading—the more delightful, if you can lull to sleep all questioning of truthfulness, and can bring your mind to a passive, submissive recipiency of Mr. Macaulay's absolute and contemptuous condemnation of characters you might otherwise have been inclined to honour or respect. There are few writers who exact from the reader such unquestioning obedience-obedience, too, to sarcasm and scorn. It has been justly said that an historian's first “great qualification is an earnest craving after truth, and utter impatience, not of falsehood merely, but of error. would ask any reader of this work, even with the fresh fascination on him, whether, on closing the volumes, he feels an assurance of the presence there of such an earnest craving after truth. Mr. Macaulay has another ambition, fostered, perhaps, by his habit of writing as a reviewer, and not yet duly disciplined in him—the ambition, or, as it may be more fitly called, the vanity of showy and startling display. Of the majestic beauty of quiet and simple truth he seems to have no conception. His moral and intellectual nature seem not to be justly balanced. This appears in another form of intellectual pride—an absence of all genial appreciation of lofty character-heroic or saintly-an unbelief in high and earnest moods of thought and feeling, and a pride of power in despoiling men of the sentiments of reverence and admiration they had been glad to bestow. The more habitual those sentiments have been, the greater the power displayed in scattering them. If Mr. Macaulay should carry his history on to that period when it will be necessary for him to treat of what he has not as yet thought it worth while to allude to, colonial America, as part of England's history, and when he will have occasion to speak of Washington and Franklin, I venture to predict that the temptation to bid the world abate their admiration will be irresistible; and that then some of Mr. Macaulay's American admirers, who are now rather intolerant of the least dissent, will fain recall some of their present praises.


»* I

* Arnold's Lectures on Modern History, p. 293.

It is an easy transition from the historical literature to another department, scarce separable from it, and in which, also, this century is entitled to a pre-eminence. I refer to the “ historic romance,” especially as developed in the Waverley novels. Scott may be said to have created this new department of English letters. Never has the true idea of historic fiction been more happily seized —the calling up, in a living array, not merely the names, but the character, the manners, the thoughts and passions of past ages.

Two of the finest historical minds of our times, Arnold in England and Thierry in France, have expressed their high admiration of Scott's remarkable historic sagacity. With studious and laborious habits of research, he had large-hearted sympathies, an acute instinct of historic truth, and, above all, the truthful creative power of imagination; which powers combined, enabled him to achieve in prose literature what Shakspeare, with like originality, had accomplished in historical poetry, by his chronicle plays and the tragedies of Greek and Roman story.

Apart from their historical value, the Waverley Series raised a far higher and truer standard of novel writing than had been known before; giving, instead of the vapid sentimentalism and the romantic extravagance and folly which had been in fashion, good sense and genuine feeling, humanity's true character, with its passions, its weaknesses, its virtues, and its heroism, and a company of lifelike impersonations of womanly character, from the throne to the cottage. The services Scott did would be better appreciated by comparison with the common run of novels in vogue some forty or fifty years ago, which Charles Lamb has described as “those scanty intellectual viands of the whole female reading public, till a happier genius arose and expelled forever the innutritious phantoms in which the brain was betossed, the memory puzzled, the sense of when and where confounded among the improbable events, the incoherent incidents, the inconsistent characters, or no characters, of some third-rate love intrigue; ... persons neither of this world nor of any other conceivable one; an endless string of activities without purpose, of purposes destitute of motive."*

This description of novels ceased to be tolerable to the improved taste which Scott created, and the effect of which was immediate and manifest. There is perhaps reason to apprehend that the good influence has begun to wear away, and that another revolution in novel

* Essay on the Sanity of True Genius. Prose Works, vol. iii. p. 81.

literature is going on-an appetite for more stimulant fiction being fostered, partly by corrupt foreign influences, and also by the craving for something more exciting than a just and pure imagination gives. The literature of our times has been


abundant and often excellent in a variety of miscellaneous prose literature. In pulpit oratory, voices have been heard that bring back the sound of the sacred eloquence of England in the age of her great divines.

Looking to our English prose as an instrument of expression, it may be said to have been brought in our times to a high state of excellence, for in our contemporary literature it is possible to find passages-characteristic passages--which bear comparison with the best English prose of any former period, combining indeed with the merits of the earlier prose new powers suited to the new uses that the progress of a people's mind demands. A high order of excellence of English prose, both as to the choice of words, the structure and the rhythm of the sentences, is a much rarer attainment than people are apt to suppose. It is of such high excellence that I speak, when I say that in our contemporary literature it is to be found in the prose of Arnold, of Southey, of Sydney Smith, and of Byron, and Landor, and in the sermons of Manning. A high authority in English philology places the prose of Landor as first among living authors;—the prose in the “Imaginary Conversations,” a work of great but very unequal merit, and also in some smaller productions.

The poetic literature of this half century has displayed an abundance that proves an imaginative activity equal to the intellectual activity of our times. We are apt

« FöregåendeFortsätt »