Page images

would be as difficult to supersede Cowper by Pope, as it is now to supersede Pope by Cowper.

Few of the merely English readers alluded to above can patiently peruse, and not one in a hundred of them fervently admire, the Virgil of Dryden; much less that of Pitt and Warton, though far more faithful to the text of the author. In both they look in vain for that perfection of thought and expression, that fulness without overflowing, ease without negligence, strength without harshness, which scholars have persuaded them are to be found in the original. A careless writer can never do justice to a laborious one. Dryden was careless, Virgil was laborious, in composition; neither the faults nor the merits of the English poem can be charged to the account of the Latin. On the other hand, neither Warton nor Pitt had breath to keep pace with Virgil, even when he walks ; still less had they spirit to mount with him when he flies. Excellent critics are often indifferent poets. None, indeed, more learnedly than Warton could point out, in a commentary, the grace and grandeur of the Roman eagle's course ; but he and Pitt, in verse, could do no more than mimic with their hands the action of his wings, and follow on earth his shadow, along the ground, as he sailed through the heavens. The fact is, that no man can think another man's thoughts, or so identically communicate his own, as to make another think them precisely as he himself does. How much more imperfectly, then, must they be transmitted through the medium of a second mind, in a new language, to a distant age, and among a strange people! Pitt and Warton hunted Virgil by the scent, and therefore were always behind him. Dryden might perhaps have matched his master by deviating from his track, yet preserving the same direction; hut he often loitered, generally hurried, by any means and by every means, endeavouring to get to his journey's

end ; and rather measuring the given distance than choosing the right course

“through straight, rough, dense, or rare, With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursued his way.”


Similar strictures might be passed upon all the translations in our language, whether of ancient or modern poems. Of such, however, no country can boast a larger number, possessing high intrinsic as well as great comparative merit.




The Desire of Fame. THERE is nothing so difficult to obtain as an earthly immortality. Dr. Young calls “the love of fame” “the universal passion;" and he has written a series of satires to exemplify it. It is probably true that every man living covets distinction, and in some point or other so far excels his neighbours as to imagine himself entitled, in that respect at least, to pre-eminence among them. This passion differs rather in degree than in kind from that "longing after immortality” which is almost peculiar to heroes and authors—the greatest actors and the greatest thinkers-the greatest realists and the greatest imaginarians, if I may coin a barbarous word for a special occasion. Heroes and authors, however, do not aspire to precisely the same species of immor,

tality; the former seeking to be remembered for, the latter by, their performances; the first expect to live in the writings of other men, the second in their own.

Fev Universal Reputations. Of all these candidates for posthumous renown, the poets, it may be supposed (without any disparagement to them, or to the rest, for this equivocal precedence), are the most sanguine and romantic in their desires, and in their hopes. Two hundred thousand millions of human beings may have lived and died in this world since the creation. It would be idle to conjecture how many of these have been poets in their day, and intended within themselves to be poets till the consummation of all things. It is certain, however, that there is but one Homer, one Pindar, one Virgil, one Horace, and some twenty other names of secondary note, even including the three great Greek tragedians, who had outlived in song the mortality of five thousand years, before the restoration of learning ; and who, from peculiar circumstances, cannot now be expected to perish while man himself endures. Add to these from two to three hundred more, of comparatively modern date, and that number will comprehend all the poets, of all ages and countries, who are still locally, extensively, or universally admired.

Among the latter there are ten or twelve names (and it would not be easy to add as many more), so familiarly associated with the revival and the early progress of letters in Europe, that they instantly recur to recollection when the subject, in reference to their several countries, is brought under consideration. These, by a prescription which cannot now be set aside, and which it would be vain to dispute, have obtained such universality, as well as Řrm footing of fame, that they may be already


ranked with the ancients afore-mentioned. Partly by primogeniture, but principally by uninherited and intransmissible nobility of genius, born with them in times peculiarly favourable to its fullest development, these few illustrious fathers, founders, and exemplars of the intellectual character of their respective nations, have acquired that supremacy, which, whatever be their comparative merits or faults,—and whatever the abstract clainis of contemporaries or successors,—it becomes more and more difficult, through every improving age, for later aspirants to attain.

Of this small number of patrician names Italy has had the glory of producing four-Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso ; Spain and Portugal one each,

-Cervantes and Camoens; France two (of very late growth)-Corneille and Racine; Holland might have furnished one,-Erasmus, but he chose rather to embalm his thoughts in a dead language, than keep them alive in his own; England adds two to the honourable list, --Shakspeare and Milton; Spenser (whom none but himself could have excluded by his perverse affectation of a style never spoken by man) ought to have been a third ; and Chaucer might have been a fourth (the first, indeed, in date), but time has dealt hardly with him, and almost forgotten the rugged tongue in which the merry bard delighted him of old, with many a tale of men and manners seen no more on earth. For the rest of Europe, it will require a pause to think of another name to represent the literature of any one, or all its populous provinces ; though the very circumstance of an effort being necessary, in such a case, to single out an individual, " Whose soul was like a star and dwelt apart.”

WORDSWORTH. among the hundreds recorded in biographical dictionaries, is sufficient proof that not one is to be

found of the class to which allusion is now made; not one whose rank is so conspicuous, and his celebrity so unequivocal, that his existence, and the primal literature of his native soil being identified, a casual recurrence to either will bring to remembrance the other.

No stress is here laid upon any thing but the bare fact, that, among the multitude of eminent writers in Italy, Spain, France, England, and the rest of Christendom, between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries (I purposely exclude all later born, as not having yet passed their full ordeal),there are scarcely so many as twenty of whom it can be unhesitatingly assumed, that, whatever be the future multiplication and extinction of books, their names and their works must last till a revolution in society, equal, but not similar (for it is unimaginable that barbarism should ever again prevail), to that which overthrew the empire and the arts of Greece and Rome,-shall utterly change the whole character of literary taste throughout the civilized world; or a scattering abroad of its people, like that after the confusion of tongues at the building of Babel, shall dissipate the languages in which they have apparently immortalized their thoughts, or which have been immortalized by being made the vehicle of the same.

It is not questioned here that many others may possibly survive as long as these, but it is not in the nature of things that many more, like them, should be men of all ages and all countries. The productions of those who shall most slowly descend from contemporary splendour into gradual obscurity and final oblivion, will necessarily be reduced, in the course of two centuries, to rarities in literature, seldom consulted, and read never, though from courtesy enumerated with honour in the catalogues of collectors; while a few of their more precious fragments may, perhaps, be preserved and quoted in popular selections for the use of schools, or the

« PreviousContinue »