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ENGLISH WRITERS AND FOREIGN CRITICISM.
NATIONAL partialities and national prejudices in the human mind, are, perhaps, among the most amiable weaknesses of our nature. We term the feeling to which we allude, a weakness, because it establishes, or eodeavours to establish, exclusively, a species of favoritism among particular portions of the human race.--a sentiment which, if it be traced bome, consists in little else than a bias of preference which is in its turn founded on early and arbitrary feeling, perhaps more than on an abstract principle of justice,---by which we mean, that justice is not exactly awarded, when judgment is somewhat inclined to view with favoritism those productions of the intellect wbich emanate respectively fron the soil on which we have our birth. That we are accustomed, however, to look with a sort of kindred fondness upon our native literature, is, as premised, so far from calling forth vituperation, or the language of censure, that it forms not even the subject of regret. The disposition (and most civilized nations who have a literature, possess it) is essentially connected with sentiments which rank high in moral character ;---it imparts worth to the individual, and bespeaks a mind from which flows much that we admire in the kinder sympatbies of the human heart. But, although originating in the enthusiasm of a national preference, and often fostered by a patriotic warmth of feeling, it is apt to run into an excess which cannot so well be justified in the more sober judgment of an intelligent foreigner. The English have much of this feeling,---that is, their nationality of character pervades their literature ; and that warmth of feeling with which they are disposed to applaud things which essentially emanate from their own soil, easily disposes them to a bias which partakes more of enthusiasm, than a cool judgment, founded in the abstract nature of things, would perhaps always warrant. The Scotch and the Irish bave their local prejudices; but the grand complexionality of their style and sentiment is so blended and amalgamated with our own, that the distinctive cast of this literary feeling is scarcely visible. In Spain and Italy this feeling of preference is frequently manifested. Their Lope de Vega and Calderon, their Dante and Tasso, and Ariosto, (all doubtless powerful writers in their respective walks of literature) with them, receive their apothesis before the Milton and Shakspeare of a more northern climate. In Germany, if we may believe their native critics, sentiment and pathos bave received an impress of sublimity and intenseness not to be found elsewhere,---their Schiller, their Goethe, and their Klopstock, (if indeed it be permitted to name the last with the two former) are eulogized as models in their styles of writing. The French are in no degree behind their neighbours, but their constitutional egotism, if we may so call it, is perhaps mixed up with a greater portion of vanity than is apparent in any nation around them. The universality of their language, and indeed of their literature, give them a priority throughout the continent of modern Europe, and in the estimation of foreigners, place France high in the scale of general importance. This circumstance naturally combines with their proverbial self-complacency in producing a conviction, that theirs, beyond every other, is the language of sentiment and the graces ; and that the stars which have brightened in the galaxy of their literary hemisphere, have exceeded in brilliance those which have illumined all foreign soils. Thus, Des Cartes for a long period took precedency of all other philosophers,---his sagacity in discovering, his fertility of genius, and his profoundness and ingenuity
in explaining truths before unknown, caused him to be ranked at the head of those philosophers, who first elicited light in Europe, and imparted a new impulse to the human mind. Thus, Corneille and Racine are vaunted as the highest geniuses, who, in modern times, have thrown open the secret receptacles of the human heart, and exhibited Passion in her bighest characters of dignity and pathos. We, however, on this side of the water, have perpetually combatted these pretensions to precedency. Rivals in arts and in intellect, as in most other matters connected with life, we contest with them the empire of letters and philosophy. Bacon, our countrymen allege, anticipated Des Cartes in the accelerated impulse which he gave to human discovery; while Locke and Newton established and explained the principles by which Matter and Mind are regulated on a grander and more accurate scale than either the founder of the Cartesian School, or Father Malebranche.
It must be owned, however, that Voltaire, whose reputation in almost all the avenues of polite literature has exceeded, perhaps, that of every other individual who has adventured on so many different subjects, and whose critical award was long viewed as oracular amongst his own countrymen, has, in his celebrated work on the English Nation, often evinced an impartiality of judgment, and an intelligence of thinking, which are at once worthy of remark and eulogium. Amongst many impertinences, and some exceptionable morality, he has, in this work, perhaps above all his other prose compositions, given more than singular instances of a depth of thought and accuracy of sentiment, which we little expect to find in the productions of Ferney. Concerning his superficiality of judgment, and illiberal attacks upon Shakspeare, whose genius he wanted taste and discernment to appreciate, much has already been said ;---bis feeble and pointless thrusts have been sufficiently parried by the very accomplished Mrs. Montague. But if the patriarch of French literature has merely exposed his own superficiality of taste, even in the eyes of intelligent foreigners, by endeavouring to shake the unmoveable basis upon which the fame of Shakspeare stands, it must be owned that, on most other occasions, wbere works of genius matured on his own soil, are brought into juxta-position with the prominent stars which glitter in profusion above the English hemisphere, he shews an impartial wish to do justice to our native talent. On one occasion, he gratuitously concedes more than a fair and liberal individual of another nation would even have asked, when he denounced Rabelais with a severity which certainly ill comports with the extravagant plaudits which the French sometimes bestow on him, doprecating him as one whose ribaldry is far more conspicuous than his wit. He remarks, “Whoever sets up for a commentator of smart sayings and repartees, is himself a blockhead." “This is the reason," proceeds Voltaire, “ why the work of the ingenious
Dean Swift, who has been called the English Rabelais, will never be ..well understood in France." This gentleman, in common with Rabelais,
laughs at every thing ; but in my opinion, the title of “The English Rabelais,” which is given to the Dean, is highly derogatory to his genius. The former has interspersed his unaccountably fantastic and unintelligible book with the most gay strokes of humour; but there is in it, at the same time, a greater proportion of impertinence. The smut and insipid raillery to be found in his book, is vastly disproportioned to his erudition. An agreeable tale of two pages is purchased at the expense of whole volumes of nonsense. Indeed, there are but few persons, and those of a grotesque taste, who pretend to understand and to esteem this work; for as to the rest of the nation, they laugh at his pleasantries, and despise his book.” Voltaire, however, agrees with all other critics in French litera
ture, in endeavouring to place the Tragedians of France before all others.
Athalie," the “ Cid," and their Cinna," are, we are told, at the head of human compositions for the stage ; but Moliere, bowever excellent in his walk, has had his rivals; whilst in considering our drama, several of the most licentious of our Dramatists in Comedy, have had Javished upon them encomiums which no critic of intelligence on this side the water would be willing to confirm. To say nothing of Congreve, the brilliancy of whose wit as far transcends almost every competitor in the language, as the melancholy fact of the general profligacy of his characters and dialogue does the golden rule in morals of propriety and decency--what can we think when we find the compositions of Wycherly and Vanbrugh lauded as models of wit, taste, and sentiment?---Verily, if the dramatic delineations of both these gentlemen are, in truth, faithful copies of the manners of their period, we are constrained to think the records not worth perpetuating; whereas, if they are chiefly the imaginative dress of their author's fancy, posterity might with advantage have been
spared the painful picture. But, in parting with Voltaire's book on the English Nation, it must in candour be admitted to that gentleman, that, on the one hand, his criticisms, in the main, betray a moderation and temper, and, on the other, a judgment and intelligence, not always found in a foreigner whilst reviewing our manners and literature. We may even, perhaps, find an excuse for the terms in which he has noticed Wycherly and Vanbrugli, from his imperfect idea of the allusions with which their dialogue is constantly besprinkled. He himself adds on this subject, “ in Tragedy, the subject of which is only cxalted passion, (Edipus and Electra may with as much propriety be treated of by the Spaniards, the English, or Us, as by the Greeks; but in the other department of the drama, the delicacy of the humour, the allusion, the à propos, are lost to a foreigner. True Comedy is the speaking picture of the follies and ridiculous foibles of a nation; so that he only is able to judge of the painting, who is perfectly acquainted with the people it represents.”
It was just now said, that the English inherited from nature, kindred sympathies and partialities for the indigenous productions of their own soil. Some color, indeed, may be alleged for this feeling, when it is recollected how many names of great and commanding influence in the realms of literature and of science, men of powerful talent and enlightened views, liave occurred in our annals. But it has often been the fashion to adopt a certain school in speculative science, or a certain peculiar sentiment in morals, poetry, or general literature, and to lavish profuse panegyrics merely upon the writers who favored our own sentiments. However natural and warrantable a feeling it be in each respective nation to dwell with enthusiasm and complacency on the exhibitions of its own native talent, as possessing qualities of a surpassing kind, an excess of this feeling, it is obvious, should be guarded against. It may otherwise chance that common-place sentiments and talent of mere mediocrity, provided they develope features harmonizing and amalgamating with the predilections of the times, are lauded as uncommon productions of genius. It may be said on this subject, that the sententious carpings of critics and moralizers are, in this age of the world, become hackneyed. The triteness of a position in letters, like an axiom in mathematics, cannot render it less true. And if the most eminent philosophers---if the most admired poets of antiquity, wrote and spoke with a prospective regard to the opinions which posterity might probably entertain of their compositions, the feeling was entitled to respect. Anxious that their thoughts should pass current with those who were not of their own age or nation, they aspired after fame amongst those whom distance of time and place was most likely to constitute rigid and impartial judges. Foreigners and remote posterity, divested at once of all prejudices and all interested motives, are, in truth, perhaps the most sober and accurate discerners of real merit,---those who are most calcolated to separate in the crucible of their judgments the sterling ore, which neither age nor circumstance can alloy from the glittering metal, which, although currently received, and even sought for with avidity at certain periods, is not of that permanent standard which will pass sterling in every age. The caprice of fashion and of taste, and the mutability of human opinion, have not unfrequently proved the rocks upon which literary performances, which once enjoyed the sunshine of popular favor, and even no inconsiderable share of encomium from the award of judicious criticism, have suffered shipwreck. “ Nature and Passion," says an eminent critic, (Dr. J. Warton) are eternal ; but the style and dress of language, like the outward costume of promiscuou: society, are mutable and transitory.” It was also remarked by a philosopher of far higher antiquity, (the venerable Theophrastus) that the forms and fashions of this world pass away, and are succeeded by others as fleeting, and as vain, like the restless waves upon the sea-shore, which chase the unnumbered pebbles in endless and evanescent succession.
The man of genius, whose productions will be read and admired in every age, whose panegyric will form the theme of discourse amongst nations who speak a different language, and vegetate under a different climate, must copy nature in the expression of his sentiments, and must speak a language in this expression, whose tone, propriety, and elevation, shall redeem it from mediocrity, and give it the impress of corresponding dignity. His passion and his sentiment must reach the heart, in nations, whose manners, whose language, and whose time of existence, are alike remote from his own; his thoughts must bear the stamp of original and matare reflection, in order successfully to triumph over the idiomatic obscurities of a foreign language through which they may be contemplated.
But in modern times, things are somewhat altered; and these considerations are far from actuating the majority of writers. Emulous of cotemporary fame---aspiring after distinction which is of that tangible and solid kind, which dispenses its gifts while the individual is capable of enjoying them, the great proportion of those who make it a profession, often impart a bue and bias to society, whilst, on the other hand, they may also be said to imbibe its predilections, and echo the tone of its opinions. The admirable art of printing has thrown its myriads into the arena of letters, the tension of whose minds would never, it is probable, in periods that are past, have emboldened them to enter as candidates for public honors. The periodical censors, and the numerous offspring, legitimate and illegitimate, which issue in shoals of quarterly, monthly, weekly, and even daily, (for the daily prints often allege their pretensions in the scale) and which cater to the public appetite, are not always instruments for pruning and guiding it. On the contrary, when the great mass of literary society is nauseated with impertinence or false sentiment, (a circumstance which must be supposed sometimes to happen, where the avenues or the approaches to literature are so immensely facilitated) favoritism, and a thousand nameless and viewless motives, will operate to uphold a system, or a particular school of authorship. Certain individuals have the meed of unsparing eulogium assigned to them, whose performances certainly partake neither of the wisdom of Cicero, the admirable beauty of Virgil, the nervous sublimity of Milton, nor the commanding and lofty eloquence of Burke or of Johnson; but whose rank in society, whose
pre-arranged opinions, whose particular standing in literature, or whose politics, (for, as it has been most pertinently observed by that graceful descendant of the Addisonian school, Washington Irving, ap Englishman never sees any good in a man whose politics hc dislikes) happen to awaken a latent interest in the literary censor,
The names which, of late years, have occupied a prominent and firstrate place of celebrity in English literature, are, as every body knows, those of Byron and Scott. The genius which, in those two gifted individuals, was instrumental in attaining them that eminence which has been contemplated at an enviable distance by the minor stars of our Parnassus, has been always received as an indisputable axiom among their countrymen. The impartial student, whilst he with candour acknowledges, that the various beauties in thought and sentiments, which abundantly characterize the works of the first, entitle him to high estimation, cannot be regardless of the imagination and versatility of talent which play round the name of the second. But there is, besides the adulatory and the just incense offered by the partial and impartial censors who fill the ranks of their own countrymen, a tribunal of Foreign Critieism, which will, in matters of learning and taste, give an award, and their judgment will not pass absolutely unnoticed by a prudent inquirer. In one of the later volumes of Genlis's Memoirs we read, somewhat, it must be owned, with sentiments of surprise, the following critique upon the writings of the two eminent individuals above noticed.
“The literary works that have been most successful in England for the last two or three years, have been the novels of Scott, and the poems of Lord Byron. As to the former,” says this self-constituted successor to Voltaire in the chair of criticism, “I find in them neither imagination, real interest, or eloquent passages; and in other respects, I confess these novels appear to me to be tiresome, With respect to the poems of Lord Byron, they certainly contain some fine poetical passages, but they want plan, and the fictions are more singular than ingenious. We feel that the author reasons without feeling, and speaks of love and friendship without real sensibility. He is almost always false, since he is never religious, moral, or even imbued with the feelings and sentiments of humanity. Ao odious misanthropy reigns in all his poems, which springs not from the vehement indignation of virtue against vice, but from the satiety of a heart corrupted, worn out, withered by debauchery, and a life full of excess and disorder.” “Such at least,” proceeds the Countess of Genlis, “is the idea one forms on reading his works; but by this character I pretend not to impugn the personal character of the author, which it is possible may be free from blame, and that his works are merely the unfortunate fruits of a peevish and morbid disposition. It is certain that no works preserve a lofty and desirable reputation, but those by the perusal of which the heart and mind are elevated; now these produce nothing of the kind, but, on the contrary, leave dark and melancholy ideas behind, and a painful and disagreeable impression. Their reputation," concludes our critic, “ will soon pass away."
Our noticing in detail these opinions, proceeds not from a conviction that Madame de Genlis has, in the present criticism, uttered the language of truth; we are convinced, on the contrary, that several of her positions are false, proceeding, it is probable, from the difliculty a foreigner has in apprehending the beauties of our language. But the passage is worthy of remark, as showing the ideas of certainly an intelligent and a gifted foreigner upon the subject.
The poetical works of Lord Byron, as they stood not much in need of her panegyric, will not, perhaps, on the whole, lose much in reputation