Page images

plishments and the brilliant fancy of Cicero, the withering fire of Juvenal; the plastic imagination of Dante ; the hu. mour of Cervantes ; the comprehension of Bacon ; the wit of Butler; the supreme and universal excellence of Shak. spoare ? All the triumphs of truth and genius over preju. dice and power, in every country and in every age, have been the triumphs of Athens. Wherever a few great minds have made a stand against violence and fraud, in the cause of liberty and reason, there has been her spirit in the midst of them; inspiring, encouraging, consoling ;

-by the lonely lanıp of Erasmus; by the restless bed of Pascal ; in the tribune of Mirabeau ; in the cell of Galileo ; on the scaffold of Sidney. But who shall estimate her influence on private happiness? Who shall say how many thousands have been made wiser, happier, and better, by those pursuits in which she has taught mankind to engage; to how many the studies which took their rise from her have been wealth in poverty, -liberty in bondage, health in sickness-society in solitude. Her power is indeed manifested at the bar; in the senate; in the field of battle ; in the schools of philosophy. But these are not her glory. Wherever literature consoles sorrow, or assuages pain,--wherever it brings gladness to eyes which fail with wakefulness and tears, and ache for the dark house and the long sleep,— there is exhibited, in its noblest form, the immortal influence of Athens.

The dervise, in the Arabian tale, did not hesitate to abandon to his comrade the camels with their load of jewels and gold, while he retained the casket of that mysterious juice, which enabled him to behold at one glance all the hidden riches of the universe. Surely it is no exaggeration to say, that no external advantage is to be compared with that purification of the intellectual eye, which gives us to contemplate the infinite wealth of the mental world; all the hoarded treasures of the primeval dynasties, all the shapeless ore of its yet unexplored mines. This is the gift of Athens to man. Her frečdom and her power have for more than twenty centuries been anpihilated; her people have degenerated into timid slaves; her language into a barbarous jargon; her temples have been given up to the successive depredations of Romans, Turks, and Scotchmen; but her intellectual empire is imperishable. And, when those who have rivalled her greatness shall have shared her

fate: when civilization and knowledge shall have fixed their abode io distant continents; when the sceptre shall have passed away from England; when, perhaps, travellers from distant regions shall in vain labour to decipher on some mouldering pedestal the name of our proudest chief; shall hear savage hymns chanted to some misshapen idol over the ruined dome of our proudest temple: and shall see a single naked fisherman wash his nets in the river of the ten thousand masts,—her influence and her glory will still survive, --fresh in eternal youth, exempt from mutability and decay, immortal as the intellectual principle from which they derived their origin, and over which they exercise their control



To the famous orators repair,
Those ancient, whose resistless eloquence
Wielded at will that fierce democratie,
Shook the arsenal, and thundered over Greece
To Macedon and Artaxerxes' throne.


Tiis celebrity of the great classical writers is confined withía no limits, except those which separate civilized from savage man.

Their works are the common property of every polished nation. They have furnished subjects for the painter, and models for the poet. In the minds of the educated classes throughout Europe, their names are indissolubly associated with the endearing recollections of childhood, —the old school-room, -the dog-eared grammar,--the first prize,--the tears so often shed and so quickly dried. So great is the veneration with which they are regarded, that even the editors and commentators, who perform the lowest menial offices to their memory, are considered, like the equerries and chamberlains of sovereign princes, as entitled to a high rank in the table of literary precedence. It is, therefore, somewhat singular that their productions should so rarely have been examined on just and philosophical principles of criticism.

The ancient writers themselves afford us but little assistance. When they particularize, they are commonly trivial: when they would generalize, they become indistinct. An exception must, indeed, be made in favour of Aristotle. Both in analysis and in combination, that great man was without a rival. No philosopher has ever possessed, in an equal degree, the talent either of separating established sys

tems into their primary elements, or of connecting detached phenomena in harmonious systems. He was the great fashioner of the intellectual chaos: he changed its darkness into light, and its discord into order. He brought to literary researches the same vigour and amplitude of mind, to which both physical and metaphysical science are so greatly indebted. His fundamental principles of criticism are excellent. To cite only a single instance ;-the doctrine which he established, that poetry is an imitative art, when justly understood is to the critic what the compass is to the navigator. With it he may venture upon the most extensive excursions. Without it' he must creep cautiously along the coast, or lose himself in a trackless expanse, and trust, at best, to the guidance of an occasional star. It is a discovery which changes a caprice into a science.

The general propositions of Aristotle are' valuable. But the merit of the superstructure bears no proportion to that of the foundation. This is partly to be ascribed to the character of the philosopher, who, though qualified to do all that could be done by the resolving and combining powers of the understanding, seems not to have possessed much of sensibility or imagination. Partly, also, it may be attributed to the deficiency of materials. The great works of genius which then existed were not either sufficiently numerous or sufficiently varied to enable any man to form a perfect code of literature. To require that a critic should conceive classes of composition which had never existed, and then investigate their principles, would be as unreasonable as the demand of Nebuchadnezzar, who expected his magicians first to tell him his dream, and then to interpret it.

With all his deficiencies Aristotle was the most enlightened and profound critic of antiquity. | Dionysius was far from possessing the same exquisite

subtlety, or the same vast comprehension. But he had access to a much greater number of specimens, and he had devoted himself, as it appears, more exclusively to the study of elegant literature. His particular judgments are of more value than his general principles. ((He is only the historian of literature. Aristo. ile is its philosopher. 1

Quintilian applied to general literature the same principles by which he had been accustomed to judge of the dec clamations of his pupils. He looks for nothing but rheto

ric, and rhetoric not of the highest order. He speaks coldly of the incoinparable works of Æschylus. He admires, be yond expression, those inexhaustible mines of commonplaces, the plays of Euripides. He bestows a few. vague words on the poetical character of IIomer. He then proceeds to consider him merely as an orator. An orator Homer .doubtless was, and a great orator. But surely nothing is more remarkable, in his admirable works, than an art with which his oratorical powers are made subservient to the purposes of poetry. Nor can I think Quintilian a great critic in his own province. Just as are many of his remarks, beautiful as are many of bis illustrations, we can perpetually detect in his thoughts that flavour which the soil of despotism generally communicates to all the fruits of genius. Eloquence was, in his time, little more than a condiment which served to stimulate in a despot the jaded appetite for panegyric, an amusement for the travelled nobles and the blue-stocking matrons of Rome. It is, therefore, with him, rather a sport than a war: it is a contest of foils, not of swords. He appears to think more of the grace of the attitude than of the direction and vigour of the thrust. It must be acknowledged, in justice to Quintilian, that this is an error to which Cicero has too often given the sanction, both of his precept and his example.

Longinus seems to have had great sensibility but little discrimination. He gives us eloquent sentences, but no principles. It was happily said that Montesquieu ought to have changed the name of his book from L'esprit des Lois to L'esprit sur les Lois. In the same manner the philosopher of Palmyra ought to have entitled his famous work, not “ Longinus on the Sublime,” but “The Sublimities of Longinus. The origin of the sublime is one of the most curious and interesting subjects of inquiry that can occupy the attention of a critic. In our own country it has been discussed with great ability, and, I think, with very little success, by Burke and Dugald Stewart. Longinus dispenses himself from all investigations of this nature, by telling his friend Terentianus that he already knows everything that can be said upon the question. It is to be regretted that Terentianus did not impart some of his knowledge to bis instructor, for from Longinus we learn only that sublimni.

« PreviousContinue »