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“The question of greatest external or internal decoration depends entirely on the condition of probable repose. It was a wise feeling which made the streets of Venice so rich in external ornament, for there is no couch of rest like the gondola. So, again, there is no subject of street ornament so wisely chosen as the fountain, where it is a fountain of use; for it is just there that perhaps the happiest pause takes place in the labour of the day, when the pitcher is rested on the edge of it, and the breath of the bearer is drawn deeply, and the hair swept from the fore head, and the uprightness of the form declined against the marble ledge, and the sound of the kind word or light laugh mixes with the trickle of the falling water, heard shriller and shriller as the pitcher fills. What pause
is sweet as that—so full of the depth of ancient days, so softened with the calm of pastoral solitude ?”
The Literature of Letter-Writing.
Characteristics of a true letter-Historical and familiar letters-Lord
Bacon--Dr. Arnold's remarks-Despatches of Marlborough-Nelson-Franklin-John Adams-Reception by George III.-Washington's correspondence-Bishop White's anecdote of Washington
- American diplomatic correspondence-Lord Chatham's LettersDuke of Wellington's–Archdeacon Hare's remarks on-General Taylor's official letters—Familiar letters—Cowley—Impropriety of publishing private correspondence-Arbuthnot and Johnson's remarks on-Burns's Letters—Tennyson-Howell's Letters—The Paston Letters—Lady Russell's—Pope's—Hartley Coleridge's remark -Chesterfield—Horace Walpolo-Swift and Gray's--Cowper'sScott's—Byron's--Southey's, and Lamb's Letters of Dedication Lamb's to his sister.
In devoting a lecture to what I have entitled “The Literature of Letter-Writing," I had less hope of being able to make the treatment of such a subject interesting than of pointing out some of the uses of this department, and suggesting the agreeable and instructive reading which is to be found in collections of letters. It is a department which may be viewed in several aspects, either as tributary to history, political or literary, or as a form of biography-thus helping us to a knowledge of the movements of mankind, or of individual character, by its written disclosures. Our English literature is enriched with collections of remarkable and very various interest: so varied as to furnish an abundant adaptation to different
* March 20, 1851. Had I no other reason for publishing this, the last of this series of lectures, I could find one in the familiarity it shows with American history and its original materials. Thorougnly imbued as was the writer with the spirit and sentiment of English literature, he was as well-informed in all that related to his own coun. try, its men, and its republican institutions. W. B. R.
In treating this subject, my aim will be to endeavour not to wander off into either history or biography, but, as far as possible, to confine my attention to the epistolary literature in itself, making some comments on the principal collections, and incidentally considering the character of a true letter. It happens not unfrequently that the form of the letter is assumed for the sake of convenience, when neither the writer nor the hearer is at all deluded in the belief that the production is what is usually understood by the term “a letter," or epistle. Essays, disquisitions, satires, wear the epistolary name and garb, fulfilling a not unreasonable fancy of the writer that such a medium interposes less of formality between him and his readers, and, indeed, brings them into closer and more life-like relations—the letter being somehow more of a reality between the writer and the recipient, than a book is between the author and the reader. The “ Drapier's Letters” of Swift, Bolingbroke's Letter to Wyndham, the “ Letters of Junius," Burke's “ Reflections on the French Revolution," and other similar productions, of which there are many with an epistolary designation, do not belong to the proper class of “Letters ;" to which class I propose to confine my attention--at the outset simply suggesting to your minds that it is a subject which does not admit of convenient illustration in a Lecture.
I have arranged this subject under the two general di
visions “historical letters” and “ familiar letters”-an arrangement which may be found convenient in the general consideration of it, but which makes no pretension to any thing of logical precision. Under the first head, I do not propose to limit the class to public or official correspondence, but rather to comprehend such letters, whether public or private, which subserve a knowledge of history, and are thus valuable in the study of it: while the second class, being under a more exact principle of classification, is intended to include those private letters, the nature of which is readily understood by the title “ Familiar Letters;” and the true aim and character of which I will endeavour to explain, when I come to that division of my subject.
Lord Bacon, in his treatise on the Advancement of Learning--that great legacy, so rich in counsel for the guidance of inquiry in various departments of human knowledge, that treasury of sagacious sentences of advice-has specially referred to letters among what he calls the "Appendices” to history. "Letters,” he says, "are according to all the variety of occasions, advertisements, advices, directions, propositions, petitions, commendatory, expostulatory, satisfactory; of compliment, of pleasure, of discourse, and all other passages of action. And such as are written from wise men are, of all the words of
man, in my judgment, the best; for they are more natural than orations and public speeches, and more advised than conferences or private ones. So, again, letters of affairs from such as manage them, or are privy to them, are, of all others, the best instructions for history, and, to a diligent reader, the best histories in themselves.”
Another wise counsellor, in a later day, the late Dr. Arnold, speaking words of special advice to the student of history, after noticing that "alchemy which can change apparently dull (historical) materials into bright gold," adds, “some of the great men of our age have, in all probability, left some memorials of their minds behind them-speeches, it may be, or letters, or a journal; or, possibly, works of a deeper character, in which they have handled, expressly and deliberately, some of the questions which most interested their generation. Now, if our former researches have enabled us to people our view of the past with many images of events, institutions, usages, titles, etc., to make up with some completeness what
may be called the still life of the picture, we shall next be anxious to people it also with the images of its great individual men, to change it, as it were, from a landscape or a view of buildings, to what may truly be called an historical picture. Whoever has made himself famous by his actions, or even by his rank or position in society, so that his name is at once familiar to our ears, such a man's writings have an interest for us even before we begin to read them; the instant that he gets up, as it were, to address us, we are hushed into the deepest attention. These works give us an insight not only into the spirit of an age, as exemplified in the minds of its greatest men, but they multiply, in some sort, the number of those with whom we are personally and individually in sympathy; they enable us to recognise, amid the dimness of remote and uncongenial ages, the features of friends and of brethren."
Of the many indications of the great activity and zeal of historical research and study, which distinguishes the present times, none is more remarkable than the care