Page images

ignorance, and are feldom willing to allow any excellence beyond the limits of our own attainments: like the favages, who thought that the fun rose and set for them alone, and could not imagine that the waves, which furrounded their ifland, left coral and pearls upon any other shore.

Another obvious reafon for the neglect of the Perfian language is the great scarcity of books, which are neceffary to be read before it can be perfectly learned, the greater part of them are preserved in the different museums and libraries of Europe, where they are shewn more as objects of curiofity than as fources of information; and are admired, like the characters on a Chinese screen, more for their gay colours than for their meaning.

Thus, while the excellent writings of Greece and Rome are studied by every man of a liberal education, and diffufe a general refinement through our part of the world, the works of the Perfians, a nation equally distinguished in ancient hiftory, are either wholly unknown to us, or confidered as entirely deftitute of tafte and invention.

But if this branch of literature has met with fo many obftructions from the ignorant, it has, certainly, been checked in it progrefs by the learned themselves; most of whom have confined their study to the minute researches of verbal criticism; like men who discover a precious mine, but instead of fearching for the rich ore, or for gems, amuse themselves with collecting fmooth pebbles and pieces of crystal. Others mistook reading for learning, which ought to be carefully distinguished by every man of fenfe, and were fatisfied with running over a great number of manufcripts in a fuperficial manner, without condescending to be stopped by their difficulty, or to dwell upon their beauty and elegance. The reft have left nothing more behind them than

than grammars and dictionaries; and though they deferve the praises due to unwearied pains and induftry, yet they would, perhaps, have gained a more shining reputation, if they had contributed to beautify and enlighten the vast temple of learning, instead of spending their lives in adorning only its porticos and avenues.

There is nothing which has tended more to bring polite letters into difcredit, than the total infenfibility of commentators and criticks to the beauties of the authors whom they profess to illuftrate: few of them seem to have received the smallest pleasure from the most elegant compofitions, unless they found some mistake of a transcriber to be corrected, or some established reading to be changed, fome obfcure expreffion to be explained, or fome clear paffage to be made obfcure by their


It is a circumstance equally unfortunate, that men of the moft refined taste and the brightest parts are apt to look upon a close application to the study of languages as inconfiftent with their spirit and genius: fo that the state of letters feems to be divided into two claffes, men of learning who have no taste, and men of taste who have no learning.

M. de Voltaire, who excels all writers of his age and country in the elegance of his style, and the wonderful variety of his talents, acknowledges the beauty of the Perfian images and fentiments, and has verfified a very fine passage from Sadi, whom he compares to Petrarch: if that extraordinary man had added a knowledge of the Afiatick languages to his other acquifitions, we fhould by this time have seen the poems and histories of Persia in an European dress, and any other recommendation of them would have been unnecessary.


But there is yet another cause which has operated more strongly than any before mentioned towards preventing the rife of oriental literature; I mean the small encouragement which the princes and nobles of Europe have given to men of letters. It is an indifputable truth, that learning will always flourish most where the ampleft rewards are proposed to the industry of the learned; and that the most shining periods in the annals of literature are the reigns of wife and liberal princes, who know that fine writers are the oracles of the world, from whose testimony every king, statesman, and hero must expect the cenfure or approbation of pofterity. In the old ftates of Greece the highest honours were given to poets, philofophers, and orators; and a single city (as an eminent writer observes) in the memory of one man, produced more numerous and fplendid monuments of human genius than most other nations have afforded in a course of ages.

The liberality of the Ptolemies in Egypt drew a number of learned men and poets to their court, whose works remain to the present age the models of taste and elegance; and the writers, whom Auguftus protected, brought their compofition to a degree of perfection, which the language of mortals cannot surpass. Whilft all the nations of Europe were covered with the deepest shade of ignorance, the Califs in Afia encouraged the Mahomedans to improve their talents, and cultivate the fine arts; and even the Turkish Sultan, who drove the Greeks from Constantinople, was a patron of literary merit, and was himself an elegant poet. The illustrious family of Medici invited to Florence the learned men whom the Turks had driven from their country, and a general light fucceeded the gloom which ignorance and fuperftition had spread through the western world. But that light has not continued to shine with equal splendour; and though some flight efforts have been made to

* Afcham.


[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors]

reftore it, yet it seems to have been gradually decaying for the last century it grows very faint in Italy; it feems wholly extinguished in France; and whatever sparks of it remain in other countries are confined to the closets of humble and modeft men, and are not general enough to have their proper influence.

The nobles of our days confider learning as a fubordinate acquifition, which would not be confiftent with the dignity of their fortunes, and should be left to those who toil in a lower fphere of life: but they do not reflect on the many advantages which the ftudy of polite letters would give, peculiarly to perfons of eminent rank and high employments; who, instead of relieving their fatigues by a series of unmanly pleasures, or useless diverfions, might spend their leisure in improving their knowledge, and in converfing with the great statesmen, orators, and philofophers of antiquity.

If learning in general has met with fo little encouragement, ftill lefs can be expected for that branch of it, which lies fo far removed from the common path, and which the greater part of mankind have hitherto confidered as incapable of yielding either entertainment or inftruction: if pains and want be the lot of a scholar, the life of an orientalist must certainly be attended with peculiar hardships. Gentius, who published a beautiful Perfian work called The Bed of Rofes, with an ufeful but inelegant tranflation, lived obfcurely in Holland, and died in mifery. Hyde, who might have contributed greatly towards the progrefs of eastern learning, formed a number of expenfive projects with that view, but had not the support and affiftance which they deserved and required. The labours of Meninski immortalized and ruined him: his dictionary of the Afiatick languages is, perhaps, the most laborious compilation that was ever undertaken by any fingle man; but he complains in his preface that his patrimony was exhausted by the great expence of em


ploying and fupporting a number of writers and printers, and of raifing a new press for the oriental characters. M. d'Herbelot, indeed, received the most splendid reward of his industry: he was invited to Italy by Ferdinand II. duke of Tuscany, who entertained him with that ftriking munificence which always diftinguished the race of the Medici: after the death of Ferdinand, the illuftrious Colbert recalled him to Paris, where he enjoyed the fruits of his labour, and spent the remainder of his days in an honourable and easy retirement. But this is a rare example: the other princes of Europe have not imitated the duke of Tuscany; and Christian VII. was referved to be the protector of the eastern mufes in the prefent age.

Since the literature of Asia was so much neglected, and the causes of that neglect were so various, we could not have expected that any flight power would rouze the nations of Europe from their inattention to it; and they would, perhaps, have perfisted in despifing it, if they had not been animated by the most powerful incentive that can influence the mind of man: intereft was the magick wand which brought them all within one circle; intereft was the charm which gave the languages of the Eaft a real and folid importance. By one of those revolutions, which no human prudence could have foreseen, the Perfian language found its way into India; that rich and celebrated empire, which, by the flourishing state of our commerce, has been the fource of incredible wealth to the merchants of Europe. A variety of caufes, which need not be mentioned here, gave the English nation a most extenfive power in that kingdom: our India company began to take under their protection the princes of the country, by whose protection they gained their first settlement; a number of important affairs were to be transacted in peace and war between nations equally jealous of one another, who had not the common inftrument of conveying their fentiments'; the fervants of the company received letters which they could not read,


[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »