In Whitman's Hand


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Title: The Vanity and the Glory of Literature

Creators: Walt Whitman, Henry Rogers

Annotation Date: After April 1, 1849

Base Document Citation: Henry Rogers, "The Vanity and the Glory of Literature," The Edinburgh Review 89 (April 1849), 149–168.

Source: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Transcribed from digital images of the original item.

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00248

Contributors to digital file: Lauren Grewe, Nicole Gray, Ty Alyea, and Matt Cohen


Whitman's Hand | Highlighting | Paste-on | Erasure | Overwrite

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Walter Whitman


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—The muses are described in Mythology as daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne. They are believed to preside over poetry, music, and all the liberal arts and sciences, and were generally allowed to be nine in number. Calliope presided over epic poetry and eloquence, and is represented as holding a close rolled parchment, and sometimes a trumpet. Clio, who was the goddess of history, is represented as holding a half-open scroll. Melpomene, the inventress and goddess of tragedy, is represented as holding a tragic mask, or bowl and dagger. Erato presided over lyric, tender and amorous poetry. She is always represented as crowned with roses and myrtles, holding a lyre in her hand. Terpsichore was the goddess of dancing, and is represented as crowned with laurel, and holding a musical instrument. Urania, the muse of astronomy, is represented as holding a globe and a rod with which to point out objects. Thalia was the patroness of comedy. She was called "The Blooming One," with fair flowing hair, and generally holds a comic mask. Polymnia, the ninth muse, presided over singing and rhetoric. She was represented veiled in white, holding a sceptre in her left hand, and with her right raised, as if ready to harangue.

1854 10,000 new books were
published in Germany
—2025 journals, of which
403 political


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ART. I.—The London Catalogue of Books published in Great Britain, with their Sizes, Prices, and Publishers' Names, from 1814 to 1846. London: 8vo. pp. 542.

'WHEN a man has once resolved upon a subject,—then, for a text,' says Sterne, 'Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, is as good as any in the Bible.' Without pretending to be so easily satisfied as that very accommodating divine, we shall choose, for our present text, the London Catalogue; nor shall we be without grave precedents, both in his discourses and in those of much better theologians, if we should ultimately allow the text to play but an insignificant part in the sermon.

Our readers will readily surmise that it is not our intention to criticise this curious volume, or to trouble them with any specimens of its contents. But though we have little to say of it, it has a great deal to say to us; and, in truth, we apprehend there are few productions of the press more suggestive of instructive and profitable reflection. Still, as it only conveys wisdom in broken and stammering accents, we must endeavour, according to our ability, to give clearer utterance to some of the lessons it teaches.

This closely printed book contains 542 pages; and, after all, comprises a catalogue of but a small fraction of the literature of the time; in fact, only the titles of the new works, and new editions of old works, which have issued from the British press between the years 1814 and 1846; and not all of these. To this prodigious mass each day is added fresh accumulations; and it is impossible not to speculate a little on the probable consequences.

Some may perhaps, at first, be inclined to predict that mankind will in time be oppressed by the excess of their intellectual wealth; and that, operating like the gold of Villa Rica (to which it would seem that we might soon have to add that of California), the superabundance of the precious metal may lead to the impoverishment and ruin of the countries so equivocally blessed. It may be feared that a superficial and flimsy knowledge, gained by reading a very little on an infinity of subjects, without prolonged and systematic attention to any, will be the result; and such knowledge, it can hardly be disputed, will be in effect much the same as ignorance. Singular, if the very means by which we take security against a second invasion of barbarism, should, by its excess of activity, bring about a condition not very much better! 'A mill will not go,' such reasoners will say, 'if there be no water; but it will be as effectually stopped if there be too much.' In brief, it may seem to be one of those cases, if ever there was one, in which old Hesiod's paradoxical maxim applies—that 'the half is more than the whole;' or, for that matter, a much smaller fraction.

And this dreaded result would certainly be realised if men were to attempt to make their studies at all commensurate with the increase of books around them. Compelled to read something of every thing, it is certain they would know nothing of any thing. And, in fact, we see this tendency more or less exemplified in the case of vast numbers, who, without definite purpose or selection VOL. LXXXIX. 11

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1849. The Vanity and the Glory of Literature.

the books he borrowed—an event which, we fear, does not always happen.

It is probable, indeed, that a comparatively small number of well selected books,—even when our own,—would, generally, be likely to form a sounder and more serviceable knowledge than the unlimited range of a large library. Most readers must have been aware of the fastidious mood with which, in moments of leisure, they have stood before a goodly assortment of attractive writers, and instead of making a substantial repast, as they would have done with less to distract their choice, have humored the vagaries of a delicate appetite—toyed with this rich dainty and that—and after all have felt like a school-boy who has dined upon tarts—that they have spoiled their digestion without satisfying their hunger!

But without stopping any longer to examine this paradox,—whether the multiplication of books is to produce a diminution of knowledge or not,—there are other consequences of the prodigious activity of the modern press far more certain to arise, and which well deserve a little consideration.

One of the most obvious of these consequences will be the disappearance from the world of that always rare animal, the so- called 'universal scholar.' Even of that ill- defined creature called 'a well-informed man' and 'general student,' it will be perpetually harder to find exemplars; while assuredly the Huets, the Scaligers, the Leibnitzes, must become as extinct as the ichthyosaurus or the megatherium. It is true that, in the strict sense of the word, such a creature as 'the universal scholar' does not, and never did exist. But there as certainly have been men who have traversed a sufficiently large segment of the entire circumference of existing science and literature, to render the name something more than a ridiculous hyperbole. It is commonly indeed, and truly said, to be impossible for the human mind to prosecute researches with accuracy in all, or even many different branches of knowledge; that what is gained in surface is lost in depth; that the principle of the 'division of labor' strictly applies here as in arts and manufactures, and that each mind must restrict itself to a very few limited subjects, if any are to be really mastered. All this is most true. Yet it is equally true that in the pursuit of knowledge the principle of the 'division of labor' finds limits to its application much sooner than in handicrafts. The voracious 'helluo librorum' is not more to be suspected of ill- digested and superficial knowledge, than he whom the proverb tells us to avoid, (though for a very different, and as we suspect, less valid reason), the man 'unius libri.'* A certain amount of knowledge of several subjects, often of many, is necessary to render the knowledge of any one of these serviceable; and without it, the most minute knowledge of any one alone would be like half a pair of scissors, or a hand with but one finger. What is that amount must be determined by the circumstances of the individual, and the object for which he wants it; the safe maximum will vary in different cases.

There are opposite dangers. The knowledge of each particular thing that a man can study will always be imperfect. The most 'minute philosopher' cannot pretend perfection of knowledge even in his little domain; and if it were perfect to-day, the leakage of memory would make it imperfect by to-morrow. No subject can be named, which is not inexhaustible to the spirit of man. Whether he looks at nature through the microscope or the telescope, he sees wonders disclosed on either side which extend into infinity,—the infinitely great or the infinitely little,—and can set no limits to the approximate perfection with which he may study them. It is the same also with languages and with any branch of moral or metaphysical science. A man may, if he will, be all his life long employed upon a single language, and never absolutely master its vocabulary, much less its idioms; but, like the ancient, after many years of solitary application, have still to proclaim himself a foreigner to the first apple-woman he meets, by some solecism too subtle for any but a native ear to detect it.

The limits with which any subject is to be pursued must therefore be determined by utility; meantime, it is certain that one cannot be profitably pursued alone. Such, it has been well observed, is the strict connexion and interdependence of all branches of science, that the best way of obtaining a useful knowledge of any one, is to combine it with more. The true limit between too minute and too wide a survey may be often difficult to find; nevertheless such a limit always exists; and he who should pause over any one subject, however minute, till he had absolutely mastered it, would be as far from that limit with regard to all the practical ends of knowledge, as if he had suffered


*For what can be suggested in favor of the 'Man of One Book,' the reader may profitably consult the observations of Mr. D'Israeli on that subject in his 'Curiosities of Literature.' There is truth in what he says; but if the proverb is to be taken at all literally, we are convinced that it has less than the usual average of proverbial wisdom, and that the 'man of one book' will prove but a shallow fellow.


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152 The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. April,

his mind to dissipate itself in a vague attempt at encyclopædic attainments. The statement of Maclaurin on this point, expressed in a characteristically mathematical form, is well worthy of attention. 'Our knowledge,' says he, 'is vastly greater than the sum of what all its objects separately could afford; and when a new object comes within our reach, the addition to our knowledge is the greater, the more we already know; so that it increases not as the new objects increase, but in a much higher proportion.'*

At all events, it ill becomes us to speak slightingly of the various, and for all practical purposes, solid attainments of superior minds. There is a piece of self-flattery by which little minds often try to reduce great minds to their own level. 'True,' it is said, 'such men have very various knowledge, but it is all superficial; they have not surrendered themselves to any one branch sufficiently;' and all this, perhaps, because they have not cultivated with the most elaborate industry every little corner of it, and because they have had some conception of the relative value of the parts of a large subject! The minute antiquary (if he be nothing more) talks in this style if he finds you ignorant of the shape of an old buckle of such a date!— 'You know nothing of antiquities.' The minute geographer, if he discovers that you have never heard of some obscure town at the antipodes, will tell you,—you know nothing of geography. The minute historian, if he finds that you never knew, or perhaps have known twenty times, and never cared to remember, some event utterly insignificant to all real or imaginable purposes of history,—will tell you that you know nothing of history. And yet, discerning the limits within which the several branches of knowledge should be pursued, you may after all, for all important objects, have attained a more serviceable and prompt command over those very branches in which your complacent censor flatters himself that he excels.

But to return to the prospects of the so called 'universal scholar.' There have been in every age men who, gifted with gigantic powers, prodigious memory, and peculiar modes of arranging and retaining knowledge, have aspired to a comprehensive acquaintance with all the chief productions of the human intellect in all time; who have made extensive incursions into every branch of human learning; and whose knowledge has borne something like an appreciable


*Maclaurin's Account of Newton's Discoveries, p. 392.

ratio to the sum total of literature and science; who, as Fontenelle expressively says of Leibnitz, have managed 'to drive all the sciences abreast.' Such minds have always been rare; but, as we have observed, they must soon become extinct. For what is to become of them, in after ages, as the domain of human knowledge indefinitely widens, and the creations of human genius indefinitely multiply? Not that there will not be men who will then know absolutely more, and with far greater accuracy, than their less favoured predecessors; nevertheless, their knowledge must bear a continually diminishing ratio to the sum of human science and literature; they must traverse a smaller and smaller segment of the ever widening circle! Nay, it may well be, that the accumulations of even one science (chemistry, or astronomy for instance,) may be too vast, for one brief life to master.* Or, since that thought is really too immense to be other than vague, let us confine ourselves to some very slender additions to the task of the future 'universal scholar,' imposed during the last few years. Let us think only of some few of those voluminous authors who have appeared, in our own country alone, and in the single departments of history and polite letters, within the last century, or even within two generations, and with whom not only all who pretend to profound scholarship, but all 'well informed men,' are presumed to have some acquaintance;—to say nothing of living writers and the vast mass of excellent literature which they are every year pouring into the world! Let us think only of the voluminous remains of Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Crabbe, Byron, Walter Scott (with his


*'In Germany alone,' says Menzel, 'according to a moderate calculation, ten millions (?) of volumes are annually printed. As the catalogue of every Leipsig half-yearly book-fair contains the names of more than a thousand German authors, we may compute that at the present moment there are living in Germany about fifty thousand men who have written one or more books. Should that number increase at the same rate that it has hitherto done, the time will soon come when a catalogue of ancient and modern German authors will contain more names than there are living readers....In the year 1816 there were published for the first time more than three thousand books; in 1822, for the first time, above four thousand; in 1827, for the first time, above five thousand; and in 1832, for the first time, above six thousand: the numbers thus increasing one thousand every five years.' (Gordon's 'Translation of Menzel's German Literature.') The translator adds, from the Conversations- Lexicon, the numbers published annually to 1837, in which year they were nearly eight thousand. The literary activity of France and England, though not so great, has been prodigious.

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hundred volumes), and some scores of other great names. Now as human life, it has been justly said, remains brief as ever, while its task is daily enlarging, there is no alternative but that the 'general scholar' of each succeeding age must be content with possessing a less and less fraction of the entire products of the human mind. 'Happy men,' we are half inclined ungratefully to say, 'who lived when a library consisted, like that of a mediæval monastery, of some thirty or forty volumes, and who thought they knew everything when they had read these! Happy our fathers, who were not tormented with the sight of unnumbered creations of genius which we must sigh to think we can never make our own!'

The final disposal of all this mass of literature is with some easily managed. The bad will perish, it is said, and the good remain. The former statement is true enough; the latter not so clear. 'Bad books,' says Menzel, 'have their season just as vermin have. They come in swarms, and perish before we are aware. . . . How many thousand books have gone the way of all paper, or are now mouldering in our libraries? Many of our books, however, will not last even so long, for the paper itself is as bad as its contents.' All this may be true; but we cannot disguise from ourselves, that not the bad writer alone is forgotten. It is but too evident that immense treasures of thought,—of beautiful poetry, vivacious wit, ingenious argument,—which men would not suffer to die if they could help it, must perish too; the great spoiler here acts with his accustomed partiality,—

'Æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas Regumque turres.' . . . .

For the truth is, that the creations of the human mind transcend its capacity to collect and preserve them; and, like the seeds of life in the vegetable world, the intellectual powers of man are so prolific that they run to waste. Some readers, perhaps, as a bright company of splendid names rushes on their recollection, may be disposed to say 'avaunt' to these melancholy forebodings. (Surely, it can be only necessary to remind them of the votive tablets in the Temple of Neptune recording escape from shipwreck. How many men have suffered shipwreck, and whose tablets therefore are not to be found! Others may think it impossible that great writers, with whom their own generation has been so familiar, and who occupy such a space in its eye, can ever dwindle into insignificance. The illusion vanishes the moment we take them to catalogues and indexes, and show them names of authors who once made as loud a noise in the world, of whom they never read a line. We should be too happy to believe the statement of Menzel correct: 'Of three good authors one at least will be remembered by posterity; while of a hundred bad ones, who are distinguished at present, not above one will hand down his evil example.'*

It is with no cynical, but with simply mournful, feelings that we thus dwell on the mortality of the productions even of genius. We would be just, both to the living and the dead, by admitting that thousands of the latter who are forgotten, deserved to be remembered, and that the former would remember them if they could. Most pleasant it would be, no doubt, in case human life were prolonged in some proportion with the augmented sum of human knowledge,— to lay out our studies on a corresponding scale. Possessed of antediluvian longevity, we might devote some twenty years or so (a year or two more or less would be of no consequence) to purely elementary studies and discipline; the 'promising lad' of fifty might commence his more serious school studies, under judicious masters, in their full vigour and prime of three or four centuries; and at the age of ninety or a hundred, the young student, just entering upon life (though as yet raw and inexperienced), might be supposed to have laid a tolerably solid foundation, whereon in the course of his progress towards manhood through the next two centuries, he might, by due diligence and perseverance, build such a superstructure as should justify some pretensions to accurate and sound scholarship. But alas! we forget that, even then, the old obstructions to universal knowledge would soon be reproduced in a new form. The same insatiable curiosity, and the same restless activity, operating through longer periods, would rapidly extend the circle of science and literature beyond the reach of even such a student. The tremendous authors who enjoyed a career of five centuries of popularity, would be voluminous in proportion; Jeremy Taylor and Baxter, Voltaire and Walter Scott would appear but pamphleteers in comparison. Their


*'Die Gegenwart duldet keinen Richter, aber die Vergangenheit findet immer den gerechtesten.' Menzel, th. i. s. 95. But our author forgets that it is possible for the courts of criticism, like those of law, to be overdone with business; that the list may contain more causes than industry and skill can get through—except by a process which leaves justice out of the question, and dares to decide without a hearing.

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154 The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. April,

'opera omnia' would extend to libraries. Novels would be written to which the Great Cyrus and Clelia would be mere novellettes; wherein the heroes and heroines would be married, hanged, or drowned, after a courtship and adventures of two or three centuries. The biographies of the long-lived worthies of such an age would be composed in forty folios, or more; and the history of nations projected on a scale which would render De Thou's huge seven tomes a mere sketch or abstract. The author who began the history of Athens by a dissertation on the geological formation of the Acropolis, or the work of Leibnitz on the house of Brunswick, in which he commences with his 'Protogæa,' would be but a type of the prodigious gyrations of such writers; so that the hopeless student, 'toiling after them in vain,' would be obliged to exclaim with Voltaire's 'little man of Saturn,' who only lived during five hundred revolutions (or fifteen thousand of our years), that scarcely had he begun to pick up a little knowledge, when he was summoned to depart; and that to live only for such a span, is, as one may say, to die as soon as one is born.

But let us not be dismayed. The difference in the position of the 'general scholar' of earlier as compared with one of later times, is not so vast as might at first be imagined. Even the former, with all his advantages, had far more books before him than he could digest. We have but to look at the index of their collected works, and to mark the limited class of authors with whom they were familiar, to be convinced that each, after all, had travelled over but a small portion of the entire ground. We have stated that of the literature which chiefly occupies each generation, the bulk, even of its treasures, perishes; and as time makes fresh accumulations, those of preceding ages pass for the most part into quiet oblivion. The process which has taken effect on the past will be repeated on the present age and on every subsequent one; so that the period will assuredly come when even the great writers of our days, who seem to have such enduring claims upon our gratitude and admiration, will be as little remembered as others of equal genius who have gone before them; when, if not wholly forgotten or superseded, they will exist only in fragments or specimens—these fragments and specimens themselves shrinking into narrower compass as time advances. In this way time is perpetually compiling a vast index expurgatorius; and though the press more than repairs his ravages on the mere matter of books, the immense masses he heaps up insure the purpose of oblivion just as effectually. Not that his contemporary waste has ceased, or become very moderate. ( Probably scarcely a day now passes but sees the last leaf, the last tattered remnant of the last copy of some work (great or small) of some author or other perish by violence or accident,—by fire, flood, or the crumbling of mere decay. It is surely an impressive thought—this silent unnoticed extinction of another product of some once busy and aspiring mind!)

Paradoxical as it may seem, the chief cause of the virtual oblivion of books is no longer their extinction, but the fond care with which they are preserved, and their immensely rapid multiplication. The press is more than a match for the moth and the worm, or the mouldering hand of time; yet the great destroyer equally fulfils his commission, by burying books under the pyramid which is formed by their accumulation. It is a striking example of the impotence with which man struggles against the destiny which awaits him and his works,—that the very means he takes to insure immortality, destroy it; that the very activity of the press —of the instrument by which he seemed to have taken pledges against time and fortune —is that which will make him the spoil of both. The books themselves may no longer die; but their spirit does: and they become like old men whose bodies have outlived their minds,—a spectacle more piteous than death itself. It is really curious to look into the index of such learned writers as Jeremy Taylor, Cudworth, or Leibnitz, and to see the havoc which has been made on the memory of the greater part of the writers they cite, and who still exist, though no longer to be cited; of men who were their great contemporaries or immediate predecessors, and who are quoted by them just as Locke or Burke is quoted by us. Of scarcely one in ten of these grave authorities has the best informed student of our day read ten pages. The very names of vast numbers have all but perished; at all events have died out of familiar remembrance. Let the student who flatters himself that he is not ill informed, glance over the index of even such a work as Hallam's 'History of European Literature,' —designed only to record the more memorable names,—and ask himself of how many of the authors there mentioned he has read so much as even five pages? It will be enough to chastise all ordinary conceit of extensive attainments, and, perhaps as effectually as any thing, teach a man that truest kind of knowledge—the knowledge of his own ignorance.

But while thus administering consolation to the 'general scholar,' by showing that

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☞ a good word "scantlings"

1849. The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. 155

time has been certainly limiting as well as extending his task, there is another class who will find no consolation in the thought, —and that is the class of authors. There is no help, however: humbling as it may seem, to represent the higher products of man's mind as destined to decay, like his body—and the thoughts and interests which he knows must perish with it—it is the truth nevertheless, in the vast majority of instances. And in by far the greater number of the seeming instances to the contrary, authors still do not live; they are merely embalmed, and made mummies of. The works of the great mass of extant authors are deposited in libraries and museums, like the bodies of Egyptian kings in their pyramids—retaining only a grim semblance of life, amidst neglect, darkness, and decay.

To Mr. D'Israeli's enthusiastic gaze, the sight of the rows of goodly volumes in their rich bindings, gleaming behind the glittering trellis-work of their carved cases, suggested the idea of 'eastern beauties peering through their jalousies!' To the eye of a severe philosopher they might more naturally suggest the idea of the aforesaid mummies.

It has been often affirmed—and there is some truth in it—that of all the forms of celebrity which promise to gratify man's natural longing for immortality, there is none which looks so plausible as that of literary glory. The great statesman and warrior, it is said, are known only by report, and for even that are indebted to the poet and historian. Sir Walter Scott (a man by no means disposed to over estimate the importance of a literary as compared with a practical life), after looking at certain drawings of some splendid architectural monuments of ancient India, the names of whose founders have perished, justly remarks in his diary, 'Fame depends on literature, not on architecture.' But even where a Pindar or a Tacitus undertakes the task of celebrating munificence or greatness, we are compelled to feel that after all it is but the conqueror's or statesman's portrait rather than the conqueror or stateman himself that is presented to us. On the other hand, a book is fondly presumed to be an author's second self; by it he comes as it were into contact—into personal communion—with the minds of his readers. It is a pleasant illusion no doubt; and in the very few instances in which the author does attain this permanent popularity, and becomes a 'household word' with posterity, the illusion ceases to be such, and the hopes of ambition are indeed splendidly realised. But it is not only most true that very few can attain this eminence; it has not been sufficiently observed, that as the world grows older, a still smaller and smaller portion of those who seem to have attained it will retain their position. A minute fraction of even these will be consigned to the future, and fractions even of these fractions will gradually drop away in the long march of time. The great mass of the writers whom 'posterity would not willingly let die,' if there were a possibility of escape, must share the fate of those other great men over whom the author is supposed to have an advantage; they themselves will live only by the historian's pen. The empty titles of their books will be recorded in catalogues; and a few lines be granted to them in biographical dictionaries, —with what may be truly called a post mortem examination of criticism; a space which, as those churchyards of intellect become more and more crowded, necessarily also becomes smaller and smaller, till for thousands, not even room for a sepulchral stone will be found.

Nor is it easy to say how far this oblivion will go, or what luminaries will be in time eclipsed. Suppposing only a scantling of the products of the genius of each age—its richest and ripest fruits—handed down to posterity, (for there is already gathered into the garner, far more than any one man has read, or can read,) the collection of these scantlings gradually rise into a prodigious pile. The time must come when not only mediocrity, which has been always the case; not only excellence, which has been long the case, will stand a chance of being rejected, but when even gold and diamonds will be cast into the sieve! Hardy must those be who shall then venture to hope for the permanent attention of mankind! for it

will be found that the greater part of authors have bought, not, as they fondly imagined, a copyhold of inheritance. Their interest for life or years soon runs out, and every year rapidly diminishes the value of the estate.

We already see this mournfully realised in relation to a thousand bright names of the

last two centuries. How much beautiful poetry, scarcely second in merit to any, is all but forgotten in the crowd, and reduced to a single fragment or two in some book of specimens or 'elegant extracts;' hardly more than sufficient to serve for an epitaph! A future, however, is approaching, when even volumes of specimens (to be complete) must be in folios, and the very abstracts of excellence voluminous; or, rather, when, if men would read only one page of each great genius, they must be content to construct a spicilegium something like that of the desultory student mentioned by Steele in one of the Guardians; who had such an

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inordinate habit of skipping from book to book, that, to gratify this taste, he fabricated a volume in which each page was from a different author, torn out at random, and bound up together!

With the exception, then, of the very few who shine on from age to age, like lights in the firmament, with undiminished lustre—the Homers, the Shakspeares, the Miltons, the Bacons, enshrined, like the heroes of old, among the constellations—the great bulk of writers must be contented, after having shone for a while, to be wholly or nearly lost to the world. Entering our system like comets which move in hyperbolic orbits, they may strike their immediate generation with a sudden splendour; but receding gradually into the depths of space, they will twinkle with a fainter and a fainter lustre, till they fade away for ever.

Not the least instructive of the essays of Lord Jeffrey, reprinted from this journal, is that suggested by Campbell's specimens of the British Poets. After remarking that many authors of no trivial popularity in their day, occupy the smallest possible amount of space in such a collection, he proceeds most strikingly, but sadly, to predict the possible condition of famous contemporaries a century hence. 'Of near two hundred and fifty authors whose works are cited in these volumes, by far the greater part of whom were celebrated in their generation, there are not thirty who now enjoy any thing that can be called popularity— whose works are to be found in the hands of ordinary readers—in the shops of ordinary booksellers—or in the press for republication. About fifty more may be tolerably familiar to men of taste or literature: the rest slumber on the shelves of collectors, and are partially known to a few antiquarians and scholars.' . . . . 'The last ten years have produced, we think, an annual supply of about ten thousand lines of good staple poetry—poetry from the very first hands that we can boast of—that runs quickly to three or four large editions—and is as likely to be permanent as present success can make it. Now, if this goes on for a hundred years longer, what a task will await the poetical readers of 1919! . . . . Then, if the future editor have any thing like the indulgence and veneration for antiquity of his predecessors—then shall posterity hang with rapture on the half of Campbell—and the fourth of Byron—and the sixth of Scott —and the scattered tithes of Crabbe—and the three per cents. of Southey,—while some good-natured critic shall sit in our mouldering chair, and more than half prefer them to those by whom they have been superseded!' Thus does the fame which looks most like immortality, resemble every other form of that painted shadow; in most instances it dwindles into a name; and that name not always legible. 'Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity!'*

In one point we can hardly concur with Lord Jeffrey. He seems to think that the lot of the poet, in relation to fame, is yet more infelicitous than that of the man of science. He says, 'The fame of a poet is popular or nothing. He does not address himself, like the man of science, to the learned or those who desire to learn, but to all mankind; and his purpose being to delight and be praised, necessarily extends to all who can receive pleasure or join in applause.' Now we think it certain, that if the poet and the man of science are relatively of equal merit, the chances of being remembered are far more favourable to the former than to the latter. As we had occasion to remark some time back, in a case of no less a genius than Leibnitz: 'The condition of great philosophers is far less enviable than that of great poets. The former can never possess so large a circle of readers under any circumstances; but that number is still further abridged by the fact, that even the truths the philosopher has taught or discovered form but stepping- stones in the progress of science, and are afterwards digested, systematised, and better expounded in other works composed by smaller men. The creations of poetry, on the contrary, remain ever beautiful as long as the language in which they are embodied shall endure: even to translate is to injure them. Thus it is, that for one reader of Archimedes (even amongst those who know just what Archimedes achieved,) there are ^ a hundred thousands of readers of Homer; and of Newton it may be truly said, that nine- tenths of those who are familiar with his doctrines have never studied him, except at second-hand. Far more intimate, no doubt, is that sympathy which Shakspeare and Milton inspire; "being dead they yet speak," and may even be said to form a part of the very minds of their readers.' If comparative


* After penning the above words, we were reminded of another of the maxims of the same inspired writer, that there is 'nothing new under the sun;' for, in turning over old Morhof's Polyhistor for another purpose, we stumbled on the following sentence:—'Scribendorum librorum nullum esse finem jam tum sapientissimus Salomon dicebat; ac est revera res infinita; ut enim cogitationibus hominum nullus statui finis potest, ita nec libris, qui cogitationum partus sunt; quibus lectores tandem deerunt! redeuntibus semper novis qui ad temporis sui genium accommodatiores sunt, et antiquorum luminibus officiunt.'

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My own opinion guess is that myriads of superior works have been lost—superior to existing works in every department, except law, physics, and the exact sciences.— 1856

1849. The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. 157

neglect be the lot of the writings even of Newton, what must be naturally and universally the fate of inferior men? Of that treatise of Descartes, in which he lays the foundation of analytical geometry, how few of those who have pursued that science to heights and depths of which Descartes never dreamed, ever perused a syllable! The case of the cultivators of chemistry, and of many other modern sciences, is still more desperate. A few years obliterate all traces of their works; the fortune of which it is, to become antiquated while their authors yet survive—virtually obsolete, while the type is still fresh and the date recent. Their names will soon be known only in the page of the historian of science, who will duly record in a few brief lines the discoveries their authors made, and the still greater blunders they committed; will tell us that they were strenuous men in their day, and for their day did well; and that they are now gathered to their fathers!—Such is often the caput mortuum of a life of experiments!

In that deluge of books with which the world is inundated, the lamentations, with which the bibliomaniac bemoans the waste of time and the barbarous ravages of bigotry and ignorance, appear at first sight somewhat fantastical. Yet it is not without reason that we mourn over many of those losses, especially in reference to history; and this, not merely as they have involved in obscurity some important truths, but for a reason more nearly related to our present subject, and which has seldom suggested itself. Paradoxical as it may seem, it may probably be said with truth, that the very multiplicity of books with which we are now perplexed, is in part owing to the loss of some; and that if we had a few volumes more, we should probably have had many less. The countless multitudes of speculations, conjectures, and criticisms on those ample fields of doubt, which the ravages of time have left open to interminable discussion, would then have been spared to us. An 'hiatus valde deflendus' too often leads to conjectures still more 'lamentable;' and a moderate 'lacuna' becomes the text of an immoderate disquisition.

On the other hand it is doubtful whether, —except in the case of history,—the treasures of literature, of which time has deprived us, and the loss of which literary enthusiasts so bitterly regret, have been so inestimable. We are disposed to think with Gibbon, in his remarks on the burning of the Alexandrian library, that by far the greater part of the masterpieces of antiquity have been secured to us; and that though some few have assuredly been lost, there is no reason to believe that they have been numerous. The lost works, even of the greatest masters, were most probably inferior to those which have come down to us. Their best must have been those most admired, most frequently copied, most faithfully preserved; and therefore on all these accounts, the most likely to elude the hand of violence and the casualties of time. 'I sincerely regret,' says the historian, 'the more valuable libraries which have been involved in the ruin of the Roman empire: but when I seriously compute the lapse of ages, the waste of ignorance, and the calamities of war, our treasures rather than our losses are the object of my surprise. . . . We should gratefully remember, that the mischances of time and accident have spared the classic works to which the suffrage of antiquity has adjudged the first place of genius and glory; the teachers of ancient knowledge who are still extant, had perused and compared the writings of their predecessors; nor can it fairly be presumed that any important truth, any useful discovery in art or nature, has been snatched away from the curiosity of modern ages.'

We have but to glance at our own great writers, to see how wide is the interval between their best and their worst productions. Is there one, at all voluminous, of whom it can be said that all he has left is

worthy of being transmitted to posterity? It is true, indeed, that once possessed of anything of theirs, we are naturally reluctant to lose it; and should even consider it a species of sacrilege to destroy it. Yet, in effect, very much they have left is as if it were lost—for it is never read. As in other cases, we neglect what we have, and pine for what we have not, though if we had it we could not use it. Are there of the thousands most familiar with their chief writings, fifty who have read all Bacon, all Milton, all Locke?

We therefore acquiesce in the judgment of Gibbon, not only as the best consolation under our inevitable losses, but, as in all probability, the true estimate of it; not, however, intending thereby any apology for the acts which reduce us to this exercise of faith: neither does Gibbon. On the contrary, as Mr. D'Israeli says, 'he pathetically describes the empty library of Alexandria after the Christians had destroyed it;' while he does not in that place suggest any of the alleviations to which we have just adverted; but reserves them for the time when he has to describe the second and greater desolation on the same spot by

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158 The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. April,

the Mahometans! On this last occasion, he softens somewhat of his pathos, perhaps of his indignation, and makes the philosophic estimate which we have cited. Without abating any of the indignation and contempt due to such fanatical ignorance, whether Christian or Mahometan,—it is impossible, we think, to deny the sound sense and discrimination of the great historian's observations.*

Then poets must arise to make future D'Israelis unable to say this.


*'I believe that a philosopher,' says Mr. D'Israeli, 'would consent to lose any poet to regain an historian.' Perhaps so; if the exchange were always between a Claudian and a Tacitus. But the latter must be great, indeed, to outweigh a Homer, a Shakspeare, or a Milton. 'Fancy may be supplied,' he remarks, 'but truth once lost in the annals of mankind, leaves a chasm never to be filled.' We fear that the fancy of the highest poetry is not quite so promptly made to order; while, on the other hand, Niebuhr has pretty clearly shown that history is far from being always truth; not to mention that, if it were so, the highest creations of poetry—those of a Homer or a Shakspeare—embody truth yet more comprehensive and universal than any consigned to the page of history. Montaigne remarks in one of his essays, that the value of history does not consist in the bare facts it records, but in the instruction the facts are capable of conveying; and this is so true, that the parts of history which are positively fabulous are often more full of significance, and have really had more influence than the most accurate recital of the bare facts. Plutarch has, we suspect, with all his credulity and love of fable, really exerted more power over the minds of men than any of the more authentic historians of antiquity. The graphic account which Livy has left of the discordant counsels given to the Samnites by Herennius Pontius respecting the disposal of the Romans taken at the pass of Caudium, has, perhaps, about as much historic truth in it as any other of the 'thousand and one' legends which his historic muse (rightly so called) has seized and adorned; but the whole is infinitely more instructive and more impressive than any narrative of the negotiations for a surrender of prisoners of war, with which tame history has supplied us. That the fox spoke to the crane what is attributed to him in the fable, is very doubtful; and that some 'nobody' killed some other 'nobody' may be very certain; but the fable, in the one case, is full of meaning, and the fact of history may be wholly insignificant. In our own age, honourably distinguished as one of severe historic research, and which has produced more than one historic work, and one very recently, which posterity will reckon among its treasures, it is well that historians, while accurately distinguishing truth from fable, should neither forget the beauties nor the uses of the latter; nor, on the other hand, overwhelm us with facts, which no one cares for, and which it does not matter whether they happened in this way or that, or not at all. In the department of history there is no more frequent cause of that plethora of books under which the world is groaning. Walter Scott's remarks on his own Life of Napoleon are true in their principle, whatever we may think of the application of them:—'Superficial it must be, but I do not care for the charge. Better a superficial book, which brings well and strikingly together

——— Why the best poets are the real history.

Large as may be the waste of time, and still larger the virtual extinction of books by a silent process of oblivion, each generation far more than makes up the loss; and though suffering from a glut, the world goes on adding to their number, as if in fear of an intellectual famine. One might imagine that in some departments of literature there would necessarily come a pause: for instance, considering there is already more of first-rate poetry and fiction than anybody can pretend to find time to read, that none would be found to venture into these fields, unless persuaded that he had something to offer better than Homer, Shakspeare, or Scott! Equally prolific is the literature of memoirs and biography. There is a little better reason for this; yet the rage for it, it must be confessed, is often carried to a ludicrous extent. No sooner does any man of mark or likelihood die, than in addition to his life, whole volumes of his letters and journals are thrust upon the world.* But of all this it would be as unreasonable as ungrateful to complain. Fugitive as the interest of such literature must be, each generation naturally wishes to know more of its contemporaries than a future age will condescend to learn: And from almost the worst of such works some casual gleam of light may illumine the


the known and acknowledged facts, than a dull boring narrative, pausing to see farther into a mill-stone every moment than the nature of the mill-stone admits Nothing is so tiresome as walking through some beautiful scene with a minute philosopher, a botanist, or a pebble-gatherer, who is eternally calling your attention from the grand features of the natural picture, to look at grasses and chucky-stones.' If Niebuhr had given us, by his matchless acuteness of investigation and boundless learning, nothing more than the correction of minute dates and the true version of petty events, his powers would have been sadly wasted.

*It is the same in France, in Germany, everywhere. 'Scarce has an invitation, note, or washing-bill of the happy Matthison remained unprinted; of Jean Paul we know on what day he got his first braces; of Voss, what he spent in every inn during his little journey; of Schiller, in what coach he drove to visit Goethe. With such like trash, in short, are the many hundred volumes of biography and correspondence filled.'—Menzel. Yet even such absurdities are but the abuse of a reasonable wish—that of knowing celebrated men in their retirement and natural character. The details of their private life are perused, we suspect with greater eagerness than those of their public career, however splendid. It is true that the 'hero in these cases is as apt to vanish to the eyes of the reader as to the 'valet-de-chambre;' but the reader recognises what he likes better than a 'hero'—a man.—Still, to see great men in their undress, it certainly is not necessary to strip them stark naked. The inventory of their linen and their washerwoman's bills might be left sacred.

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page of the future historian; some fact be rescued which will enable him to adjust more accurately the transactions, and estimate more truly the characters of the time. The only doubt is whether here, as elsewhere, the very copiousness of the materials will not produce the same effect as the dearth of them; whether the judicial sentence of an historian who shall write three hundred years hence, and who shall honestly examine and sift his materials, will not be as little to be hoped for as that of some profound judges,—delayed, and still delayed, till death has overtaken them amidst their unresolved doubts.

While the past is receiving into its tranquil depths such huge masses of literature, by a contrary process it is perpetually yielding us, perhaps nearly bulk for bulk, materials which it had long concealed. While work after work of science and history is daily passing away, pushed aside beyond all chance of republication by superior works of a similar kind, containing the last discoveries and most accurate results, it is curious to see with what eagerness the literary antiquary, in all departments, is ransacking the past for every fragment of unprinted manuscript. Many of these, if they had ben published when they were written, would have been perfectly worthless. They derive their sole value from the rust of age, just as other things derive theirs from the gloss of novelty. It may with truth be said of them, Periissent, ni periissent; unless they have been buried they would never have lived. How many societies have been recently formed with the laudable object of giving to the world what no private enterprise would venture to put to press. It is true that, judging from many of the works thus published, one might be inclined to say that some of our literary treasure-finders were too strongly of Justice Shallow's opinion, that 'things that are mouldy lack use.' 'It was with difficulty,' says Geoffrey Crayon, after describing his little antiquarian parson's raptures over the old drinking song, 'It was with difficulty the squire was made to comprehend that though a jovial song of the present day was but a foolish sound in the ears of wisdom, and beneath the notice of a learned man, yet a trowl written by a toss-pot several hundred years since was a matter worthy of the gravest research, and enough to set whole colleges by the ears.'

But neither do we complain of all this. As in the case of memoirs and biographies, the laborious trifling of the merest drudge in antiquities may supply the historian with some collateral lights, and furnish materials for more vivid descriptions of the past; or, coming into contact with highly creative minds, like that of Walter Scott, may contribute the rude elements of hte sublimest or most beautiful novelties of fiction. None can read his novels and despise the study of the most trivial details of local antiquities, when it is seen for what beautiful textures they may supply the threads. It is the privilege of genius such as his to extract their gold dust out of hte most worthless books,— books which to others would be to the last degree tedious and unattractive,—and the felicity with which he did this was one of his most striking characteristics. In hundreds of cases it is wonderful to see how a snatch of an old border song, an antique phrase, used as he uses it, a story or fragment of a story from some obscure authors, shall suddenly be invested with an intrinsic force or beauty, which the original would never have suggested to an ordinary reader, and which in fact they derive, in nine instances out of ten, from the light of genius which he brought to play upon them. In those bright morning or evening tints even the barren heath or the rugged mass of grey stone looks picturesque; or such uses of antiquity remind us of the gate of the old Tolbooth, or fragments of the ruines of Melrose, incorporated with Abbotsford. The quality, above referred to, Mr. Lockhart has happily characterised. 'The lamp of his zeal burnt on brighter and brighter amidst the dust of parchments; his love and pride vivified whatever he hung over in these dim records, and patient antiquarianism, long brooding and meditating, became gloriously transmuted into the winged spirit of national poetry.'

In this way minute portions of the past are constantly entering by new combinations into fresh forms of life, and out of these old materials, continually decomposed but continually recombined, scope is afforded for an everlasting succession of imaginative literature. In the same way every work of genius, by coming, as it were, into mesmeric rapport with the affinities of kindred

genius, and stimulating its latent energies, is itself the parent of many others, and furnishes the materials and rudiments of ever new combinations.* Of more than one

* The greater part of those resemblances in thoughts and images which a carping criticism sets down as plagiarisms are, we are persuaded, nothing more than such combinations: and even of plagiarism, properly so called, we have as little doubt that the instances are far fewer than has generally been supposed. Many so named have been simply coincidences of thought, the result of similarly constituted minds revolving the

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"books made out of books"

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of their hopes, it is well for genius to recollect that the doom may be indefinitely delayed by due care on its own part; just as, though nothing can avert death, a wise and prudent regard to health may secure a late termination and a green old age. Or its case may be compared to that of men who labour under some incurable chronic malady; it must be fatal at last—but by a due regimen and self-control the patient may outlive many of more robust health, who are madly negligent of the boon. It is astonishing what signal genius will sometimes effect to give permanent popularity to books, even in those departments in which the progress of knowledge soon renders them very imperfect. They maintain their supremacy notwithstanding; and their successors prolong their influence by means of note and supplement. Such will probably be the case with Paley's works on Natural Theology and the Evidences of Christianity. 'Hume's History of England,' promises to be a still stronger instance, in spite not only of its many deficiencies, but of its enormous errors.

It is, indeed, a great triumph of genius when it is capable of so impressing itself upon its productions, so moulding and shaping them to beauty, as to make men unwilling to return the gold into the melting pot, and work it up afresh; when it is felt that from the less accurate work, we after all learn more, and receive more vivid impressions than from the more correct, but less effective productions of an inferior artist. To attain this species of longevity, genius must not be content with being a mere mason, but must aspire to be an architect; it must seek to give preciousness to the gold and silver by the beauty of the cup or vase into which they are moulded, and to make them as valuable for their form as for their matter.

The French were formerly very sensitive to our want of artistic skill in our literary composition. Indeed, Laharpe presumed to assert that 'Tom Jones' was the only book in the English language! But we may take comfort on comparing ourselves with the Germans. There is no country in Europe in which the mortality even of valuable works is so frequently the result of a neglect of this sort as Germany; none in which critics, historians, theologians, are so content to give to the world their crude and imperfect thoughts; marked indeed by a prodigality, but as often by an abuse of learning; by a command of ample materials, but employed without judgment, taste, or method. Their books in consequence soon give way to another fleeting generation, manufactured in the same way, and with as little hope of permanent popularity.

Nor is there any country, though all are chargeable with the fault, to which Menzel's scornful remarks on 'books made out of books,' so strongly apply. 'Germany,' says he, 'is thronged with multitudes who, in want of any fixed employment, immediately begin to write books; thus reaping, as soon as possible, the fruits of what they have learned at the universities, and inundating the world with an immense number of crude and boyish works.' It is necessary only to inspect many German volumes to see that they are just the produce of a—note book; that the task has begun and ended in the carting of so much rubbish, and shooting it out into a bookseller's shop—where at the best, it may serve as a collection of materials for an edifice which somebody else is to build. Profuse reading is often their only characteristic; and not always is there any sure sign of this: for the prodigal references with which each page after page in many such works is half filled, are often slavishly copied from other writers, and the parade of learning is as empty as it is superfluous. Niebuhr bitterly complains of this practice; and justly stigmatises it as one of the dishonest tricks of literature. He himself

tells us, and we doubt not with perfect truth, that he was in the habit of distinctly specifying all those citations which, though employed by him, had not occurred in the course of his own independent study of his authorities; and contends, that wherever a reference has been suggested by another, the secondary as well as the primary authority should be given, accompanied by the statement of obligation. We fear, with Dr. Arnold, that this remedy would not cure the evil; or rather that it would increase it. The pages of these merciless writers would be twice as dull from this double 'bestowment of their tediousness;' they would delight in troubling the reader with the whole history of each long literary chase; and consider a double, or, still better, a quadruple, array of references (though only a series of transcriptions), as a prouder proof of their erudition. What is really required is, that the writer should honestly endeavour to make his citations as few, not as many, as possible; and confine himself to the most decisive, brief, and accessible. As it is, the references are often such that scarcely three readers in ten could consult them, if they would—and scarcely one out of the three would if he could; while perhaps, nearly as often, the very point thus formidably supported, is a fact for which no

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ad cuptandum, "to attract, or captivate"

162 The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. April,

references are wanted at all; in which the authorities are the only things that require to be confirmed, and the proofs the only things that need verification. Doubtless, this parade of references is often employed for what Whately calls the 'fallacy of references;' —that is, in support of some questionable point, and in the hope 'that not one reader out of twenty will be at the pains' to verify their relevancy, or rather to detect their impertinence. But quite as often, they are used for mere ostentation.

Those authors, whose subjects require them to be voluminous, will do well, if they would be remembered as long as possible, not to omit a duty, which authors in general, but especially modern authors, are too apt to neglect—that of appending to their works a good index. For their deplorable deficiencies in this respect, Professor De Morgan, speaking of historians, assigns the curious reason, 'that they think to oblige their readers to go through with them from beginning to end, by making this the only way of coming at the contents of their volumes. They are much mistaken; and they might learn from their own mode of dealing with the writings of others, how their own will be used in turn.'* We think

that the unwise indolence of authors has probably had much more to do with the matter, than the reasons thus humorously assigned; but the fact which he proceeds to mention is incontestably true. 'No writer' [of this class], says he, 'is so much read as the one who makes a good index—or so much cited.'

Johnson, in commenting on the fate of books in one of the papers of the Idler, speaks of the necessity of an author's choosing a theme of enduring interest, if he would be remembered; and contrasts the once enormous popularlity of 'Hudibras' with its present comparative neglect. Alas! we fear that this is but an insufficient antiseptic. Though it is generally necessary, if an author would have even a chance of living, that he should take no temporary topic, he may choose the most enduring—and be ephemeral notwithstanding; and what we cannot conceal from ourselves is, that he may even treat his subject well, and yet be forgotten. But we suspect that this caution is of little importance. Such is the vigour of great genius— and without it nothing will be remembered —that where there is that, it will triumph over all the disadvantages of a topic of evanescent

*References for the History of the Mathematical Sciences in the Companion to the British Almanac, 1843, p. 42.

interest. Pascal's 'Provincial Letters' are still read, we apprehend, quite as frequently as Bossuet's 'Discourse on Universal History,' and even 'Hudibras' a good deal more than Johnson's own 'Irene;' while the obscurities of some celebrated satire,— the very name of a Bufo or a Bavius,—shall for ages continue to provoke and baffle the ingenuity of the stolid commentator, who might just as profitably be engaged, with Addison's virtuoso, in the chase of butterflies or the collection of cockle-shells.

If genius would attain its uttermost longevity, another condition it must submit to is, that of despising an ad captandum compliance with transient tastes, and the affectation of peculiarities for the purpose and in the hope of forming, as it were, a school. It is not to be denied that literary fashions, like others, may be extensive and prevalent for a time—but they expire with the age. Great genius for awhile will consecrate almost any eccentricities, and even acquire for them great temporary popularity. But it may well be questioned whether, where there is great genius and where it has succeeded by such artifices, it might not, even among its contemporaries, have gained equal applause at a less cost than that of simplicity and nature But, at all events, let the writer who attempts to attain fame by any such fantastic methods, recollect how ridiculous a reigning fashion looks a century afterwards; for not less ridiculous will then appear every thing that bears the mark of affectation and mannerism, however successful for a time. The Euphuism of Elizabeth's day is now viewed only with contemptuous wonder: and even Dr. Johnson, though he still retains a large measure of popularity, would have retained far more had it not been for his antitheses and his Latinisms. Addison, though nearly a century earlier, is still more admired, and without any deductions.

It may be said, perhaps, that if in so vast a majority of cases the hope of immortality is a dream, it does not much matter how men write. Success, though ephemeral, is the great point.— To this we have, of course, nothing to say, except that we trust, many would rather not gain reputation at all, durable or brief, by a departure from simplicity and nature; and that, though immortality be out of the case, a gentle decay and serene old age have always been thought desirable things, rather than a sudden and violent dissolution. Immortality is not to be thought of—but euthanasia "euthanasia" an easy death is not to be despised.

In turning over the pages of such a book as the London Catalogue, one is struck,

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The religion of the Bible ^ or rather of the New Testament, is a beautiful advanced stage in the endless ^ never ending humanitarianism of the world— but as it the Bible admits of exhaustion like the rest and is now exhausted it may be left to its fate on these terms: As long as it stands it is worthy of standing.—These are perhaps the true terms of all religions
perhaps the true terms for all religions.

1849. The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. 163

amidst the apparent mutations in literature, with the seemingly fixed and unchanging influence of two portion of it—the Greek and Roman Classics and the BIBLE. Much of the literature produced by both partakes, no doubt, of the fate which attends other kinds; the books they severally elicit, whether critical or theological, pass away; but they themselves retain their hold on the human mind, become engrafted into the literature of every civilised nation, and continue to evoke a never ending series of volumes in their defence, illustration, or explication. On a very moderate computation we think it may be affirmed, from an inspection of this catalogue, that at least one third of the works it contains are the consequence, more or less direct, of the two portions of literature to which we here refer; in the shape of new editions, translations, commentaries, grammars, dictionaries, or historical, chronological, and geographical illustrations.

The old Greek and Roman Classics have indeed a paradoxical destiny. They cannot, it seems, grow old; and time, which 'antiquates antiquity itself,' to use an expression of Sir Thomas Browne, still leaves them untouched. The ancients alone


possessed in perfection the art of embalming thought. The severe taste which surrounds them, has operated like the pure air of Egypt in preserving the sculptures and paintings of that country; where travellers tell us that the traces of the chisel are often as sharp, and the colours of the paintings as bright, as if the artists had quitted their work but yesterday.

There is one aspect in which even the most utilitarian despiser of the classics can hardly sneer at them. From being selected by the unanimous suffrage of all civilised nations, (the moment they become worthy of the name,) as an integral element in all liberal education, as the masters of language and models of taste, these venerable authors play, as this catalogue shows, a very important part even in the commercial transactions of mankind. It is curious to think of these ancient spirits furnishing no inconsiderable portion of the modern world with their daily bread; and in the employment they give to so many thousands of schoolmasters, editors, commentators, authors, printers and publishers, constituting a very positive item in the industrial activity of nations. A political economist, thinking only of his own science, should look with respect on the strains of Homer and Virgil; when he considers that, directly or indirectly, they have probably produced more material wealth than half the mines which

human cupidity has opened, or half the inventions of the most mechanical age,— if we except the loom, the steam engine, and a few score more. It is very foolish of mankind, some may say, to allow them this varied and permanent influence. But into that question we need not enter. We are speaking as to the fact only; and shall leave mankind to defend themselves.

The Bible, supposing it other than it pretends to be, presents us with a still more singular phænomenon in the space which it occupies throughout the continued history of literature. We see nothing like it; and it may well perplex the infidel to account for it. Nor need his sagacity disdain to enter a little more deeply into its possible causes, than he is usually inclined to do. It has not been given to any other book of religion, thus to triumph over national prejudices, and lodge itself securely in the heart of great communities,—varying by every conceivable diversity of language, race, manners, customs, and indeed agreeing in nothing but a veneration for itself. It adapts itself with facility to the revolutions of thought and feeling which shake to pieces all things else; and flexibly accommodates itself to the progress of society and the changes of civilisation. Even conquests— the disorganisation of old nations—the formation of new—do not affect the continuity of its empire. It lays hold of the new as of the old, and transmigrates with the spirit of humanity; attracting to itself, by its own moral power, in all the communities it enters, a ceaseless intensity of effort for its propagation, illustration, and defence. Other systems of religion are usually delicate exotics, and will not bear transplanting. The gods of the nations are local deities, and reluctantly quit their native soil; at all events they patronise only their favourite races, and perish at once when the tribe or nation of their worshippers becomes extinct, often long before. Nothing, indeed, is more difficult than to make foreigners feel any thing but the utmost indifference (except as an object of philosophic curiosity) about the religion of other nations; and no portion of their national literature is regarded as more tedious or unattractive than that which treats of their theology. The elegant mythologies of Greece and Rome made no proselytes among other nations, and fell hopelessly the moment they fell. The Koran of Mahomet has, it is true, been propagated by the sword; but it has been propagated by not[cut away]ing else; and its dominion has been limited to those nations who could not reply to that logic. If the Bible be false, the facility with which it

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The classic models, long lost or buried, then, after the "dark ages," fished up again and made presidential.

1849.The Vanity and the Glory of Literature.165

from which the repining author may derive consolation. One is, that, as the number of readers will be perpetually increased, though it may be true that the knowledge of any one of them will bear an ever-diminishing ratio to the absolute accumulations of human science and literature, far more of both will be preserved in the memories of mankind collectively; and each writer, worthy to live at all, will find,—not indeed temples thronged with admiring worshippers and altars steaming with sacrifices, but at all events a little oratory here and there, where some solitary devotee will be paying his homage. He cannot hope to be a Jupiter Capitolinus; but he may be the household god of some quiet hearth—and receive there his modest oblation and his pinch of daily incense.

A still further consolation remains for even those who dare not hope for so much as this species of obscure fame. If not preserved entire, they will yet be remembered by fragments; in volumes of specimens and extracts, or happier still! embalmed in those vast works which will consign to posterity the history of great nations; with the whole story of their political, social, and intellectual development. How many authors, else utterly forgotten, will leave minute relics of themselves in the notes and citations of such works as those of Gibbon and Macaulay. It is but a plank from the wreck, to be sure; but it is something.

Nor do the fond author's hopes end here. We have compared the vast relics of decayed and mouldering literature to the animal and vegetable remains on which our living world flourishes; in which it fastens its roots, and over which it waves its luxuriance. A fanciful mind might pursue the analogy a little further, and discern some resemblance between the mutations and revolutions of literature and books, and those incomparably greater, and yet, to us, scarcely more interesting changes which have swept over the surface of the material world. Geologists tell us of the successive submersion and elevation of vast tracts of earth,—now rich in animal and vegetable life,—then buried for unnumbered ages in oblivion,—then again reappearing to the light of day, and bearing dank and dripping from the ocean bed, the memorials of their past glories. It is much the same with the treasures of buried literature. Long whelmed beneath the inundations of barbarism, or buried in the volcanic eruptions of war and conquest, we see them, after centuries of 'cold obstruction,' once more coming to light;—the fossil remains of ancient life;—forms of power, of beauty, or deformity;—characterised indeed by many analogies to the present species of organised life, but also by many differences.

The revival of classical literature, after the dark ages, was the greatest and most splendid of these recoveries of the past; and must have awakened in the minds of the generation which witnessed it, emotions very similar to those with which men gazed on the treasures of Herculaneum and Pompeii, when those ancient cities were first opened to the day.

Though this is the grandest of all such restorations, let the author remember for his comfort (if not too bashful), that a similar process is perpetually going on, though on a smaller scale. Discussions and controversies, which had been hushed for ages, break out again, like long silent volcanoes; men turn with renewed energies to the opinions of persons who had been forgotten apparently for ever; and names which had not been heard for centuries, once more fill men's mouths and are trumpeted to the four winds. A pleasantly oracular saying, or a half- anticipation of some newly discovered truth, is found in the voluminous writings of an ancient author—and excites a passing glow of veneration to his name and works. In the indefatigable grubbings and gropings of the literary antiquary again, scarcely any authors need despair of an occasional remembrance; of producing some curiosities for those cabinets where the most precious and most worthless of relics are preserved with impartial veneration. It is hard to say what his spade and mattock may not bring up. What honour to furnish to the Cuviers of critical science, though but in a fossil bone or shell, a theme for their conjectures and learned dissertations; and perhaps be even constructed into a more magnificent creature than nature ever made the original! Who could have hoped, a few years back, to see the re-appearance of so much of our early literature as we have recently witnessed? And who could have anticipated how wild a range the transient, but while they last, most active fashions of literary research would take? Now it is Saxon, Danish, Norman antiquities;—now local traditions, and old songs and ballads;—now the old dramatists have their turn, and now the old divines. Who could have expected to see the venerable Bede's 'opera omnia' in English as well as Latin, published in all the glories of modern typography? 'It is hard to say,' says Sir Thomas Browne, speaking of our bodies, 'how often we are to be buried:' the same may be said of our minds; and though this successive resurrection and entombment is not immortality, it bears a close resemblance to transmigration VOL. LXXXIX. 12

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166 The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. April,

It is true that a malicious wit might hint that not a little of this exhumed literature is immediately re-committed to the dust, and that its resurrection is but for a second celebration of its obsequies. They will be inclined to say what Horace Walpole says of some other antiquarian recoveries, —'What signifies raising the dead so often, when they die the next minute?'

How singular has been the destiny of Aristotle! After having been lost to the world for ages, we see him making a second and wider conquest, and founding the most


durable and absolute despotism of mind the world has ever seen! After a second dethronement, he is now fighting his way back to no mean empire,—an empire promising to be all the more permanent, that it is founded in a juster estimate of his real claims on the gratitude and reverence of mankind, and that he is invited to wield the sceptre, not of a despot, but of a constitutional monarch.

But our author sighs, and says with truth and naïveté, 'there are so few Aristotles!' We reply, with a perseverance in suggesting consolation worthy of Boethius or Mr. Shandy, that, supposing none of these sedatives sufficient to soothe wounded vanity, there are still others. And among them, assuredly not the least, are those least thought of; we mean, the pleasure of composition itself; perhaps, after all, the greatest of an author's rewards: just as in so many other cases, happiness is found, not in the object we professedly seek, but in the efforts to obtain it, and in the energetic employment of our faculties. If, indeed, the experience of Buffon were that of authors in general, none would deny this, and the passion for writing would become a universal madness. Speaking of the hours of composition, he says, 'These are the most luxurious and delightful moments of life; which have often enticed me to pass fourteen hours a day at my desk, in a state of transport; this gratification, more than glory, is my reward.'* But we fear that there are not a few writers, and of no mean fame, who, while conceding that when their minds wrought freely and their faculties lay in sunshine, the moments of composition were among the happiest of their life, would also affirm that those in which they have had to struggle against the vis inertiæ which prevented them from commencing their task, or had to contend with half-formed conceptions and intractable expressions, till the sun broke through the


*Cited in 'Curiosities of Literature.' See the whole of the amusing anecdotes on Literary Composition.

mist, and thought became clear and words obedient, were among the most painful. Well spoke one who has, we apprehend, experienced all the raptures and all the agonies of composition:—

'When happiest Fancy has inspir'd the strains,
How oft the malice of one luckless word
Pursues the enthusiast to the social board,
Haunts him, belated, on the silent plains.
Yet he repines not, if his thought stand clear
At last, of hinderance and obscurity,
Fresh as the star that crowns the brow of morn.'

We are inclined to place the pleasure of writing itself, among the chief incentives of authorship; and the proof is found in this, that so few ever stop when they have once begun,—not even for neglect or poverty. 'There are millions of men,' says Byron, 'who have never written a book, but few who have written only one.' And Walter Scott's testimony to the inveteracy of the cacoethes scribendi is equally strong. Not even the ointment of sarcasm and satire can cure it.

Perhaps even this will not be taken as sufficient compensation: why then let the author remember that in the only intelligible sense, he enjoys almost as extensive a fame as his betters. There is a little circle of which each man is the centre; and this narrow theatre is generally enough for the accommodating vanity of hte human heart. Indeed, it is of that microcosm in which each man dwells, that even the loftiest ambition is really thinking, when it whispers to itself some folly about distant regions and remote ages, whose unheard plaudits will never greet his ear, and which he utterly fails to realise. It is, after all, the applause of the familiar friends, among whom he daily lives, that he craves and loves. It may be doubted whether Musæus was ever so delighted with the thought of posthumous renown, as he was when his little boy, discovering from an upstairs window a fresh troop of visitors coming, as the child supposed, with the usual offering of congratulations on his father's sudden success, cried out, 'Here are more people coming to praise papa!'

Should our friends and family form too small a sphere for the vaulting ambition of self-love, we must needs content ourselves with the questionable comfort suggested in the case of our literal death, not only by Cicero and his imitator Mr. Shandy, but by all other consolers, from the time of Job's comforters downwards;—that it is the 'common lot,' and that 'what is the doom of our betters is good enough for us.' Nor will vanity fail to whisper, 'Not the worthless alone are forgotten,—gold, silver, pearls,

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1849. The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. 167

and jewels strew the bottom of the ocean. It is not the will of man, but the law of nature, that I should die.'

In truth, for an honest man, the single sentence already quoted from Pliny will be consolation enough. LIke every other honest man who does his duty to the present hour, and who dreams not of asking immortality for his merits, it will be sufficient to the writer, to have 'served his generation.' Nor need we say, in how important a degree each individual has done this! It is a topic easily improved upon, by the happy facility of human vanity; for all are ready enough to believe—and certainly authors as much as any—that they have not trifled life away; and to think of their doings much as Uncle Toby did of his mimic fortifications: 'Heaven is my witness, brother Shandy, that the pleasure I have taken in these things, and the infinite delight in particular, which has attended my sieges in my bowling-green, has arose within me, and I hope in the Corporal too, from the consciousness we both had, that in carrying them on we were answering the great ends of our creation.'

But, without a gibe, the destiny of the honest writer, even though but moderately successful, and much more if long and widely popular, is surely glorious and enviable. It may be true that he is to die,—for we do not count the record of a name when the works are no longer read as anything better than an epitaph, and even that may vanish; yet, to come into contact with other minds, even though for limited periods,—to move them by a silent influence—to cooperate in the construction of character—to mould their habits of thought—to promote the dominion of truth and virtue—to exercise a spell over those we have never seen and never can see,—in other climes,—at the extremity of the globe,—and when the hand that wrote is still for ever,—is surely a most wonderful and even awful prerogative. It comes nearer to the idea of the immediate influence of spirit on spirit than anything else which this world presents us. It is of a purely moral nature; it is also silent as the dew—invisible as the wind! We can adequately conceive of such an influence only by imagining ourselves, under the privilege of the ring of Gyges, to gaze, invisible, on the solitary reader as he pores over a favourite author, and watch in his countenance, as in a mirror, the reflection of the page which holds him captive; now knitting his brow over a difficult argument, and deriving at once discipline and knowledge by the effort,—now relaxing his smiles at wit and humour—now dwelling

je jes

with a glistening eye on tenderness and pathos—and in either case the subject of emotions which not only constitute the mood of the moment, but in their measure cooperate to the formation of those habits which issue in character and conduct; now yielding up some fond illusion to the force of truth, and anon betrayed into another by the force of sophistry; now rebuked for some vice or folly, and binding himself with renewed vows to the service of virtue; and now sympathizing with the too faithful delineation of vicious passions and depraved pleasures, and strengthening by one more rivet the dominion of evil over the soul! Surely, to be able to wield such a power as this implies, in any degree and for limited periods, is a stupendous attribute; one which, if more deeply pondered, would frequently cause a writer to pause and tremble, as though his pen had been the rod of an enchanter.

Happy those who have wielded it well, and who 'Dying leave no line they wish to blot.' Happier, far happier such, in the prospect of speedy extinction, than those whose loftier genius promises immortality of fame, and whose abuse of it renders that immortality a curse. Melancholy indeed is the lot of all, whose high endowments have been worse than wasted; who have left to that world which they were born to bless, only a legacy of shame and sorrow; whose vices and follies, unlike those of other men, are not permitted to die with them, but continue active for evil after the men themselves are dust.

It becomes every one who aspires to be a writer to remember this. The ill which other mendo, for the most part dies with them. Not indeed that this is literally true, even of the obscurest of the species. We are all but links in a vast chain which stretches from the dawn of time to the consummation of all things, and unconsciously receive and transmit a subtle influence. As we are, in great measure, what our forefathers made us, so our posterity will be what we make them; and it is a thought which may well make us both proud and afraid of our destiny.

But such truths, though universally applicable, are more worthy of being pondered by great authors than by any other class of men. These outlive their age; and their thoughts continue to operate immediately on the spirit of their race. How sad, to one who feels that he has abused his high trust, to know that he has to perpetuate his vices; that he has spoken a spell for evil, and cannot

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168 The Vanity and the Glory of Literature. April,

unsay it; that the poisoned shaft has left the bow and cannot be recalled. If we might be permitted to imagine for a moment that it is a part of the reward or punishment of departed spirits, to revisit this lower world and to trace the good or evil consequences of their actions, what more deplorable condition can be conceived than that of a great but misguided genius, taught, before he departed, the folly of his course, and condemned to witness its effects without the power of arresting them? How would he sigh for that day which shall cover his fame with a welcome cloud, and bury him in the once dreaded oblivion! How would he covet as the highest boon the loss of that immortality for which he toiled so much and so long! With what feelings would he see the productions of his wit and fancy, proscribed and loathed by every man whose love and veneration are worth possessing. With what anguish would he see the subtle poison he had distilled take hold of innocence; watch the first blushes of still ingenuous shame, see them fade away from the cheek as evil became familiar, triace in his influence the initial movements in that long career of agony and remorse and shame which awaits his victims; and shudder to think that those whose faith he has destroyed, or whose morals he has corrupted, may find him out in the world of spirits, to tax him as their seducer to infamy and crime!*

Even such authors, however, will reach the oblivion they have desired at last; for this must be the ultimate doom (whatever might otherwise have been the case) of all who have set at defiance the maxims of decency, morality, and religion,—however bright their genius, and however vast their powers. As the world grows older, and, we trust, better—as it approximates to that state of religious and moral elevation which Christianity warrants us to anticipate, many


*To see this matter in its true light must, we fear, be left to the more unclouded vision of another world. Literary vanity is almost the last foible that is surrendered in this. There is much knowledge of human nature, as well as keen satire, in the tale which Addison tells of the atheist, who, bewailing on his death-bed the mischief his works would do after he was gone, quickly repented of his repentance, and which his spiritual adviser unhappily sought to alleviate his grief by assuring him that his arguments were so weak, and his writings so little known, that he need not be [illegible] hensions. 'The d[illegible] the frailty of an a[illegible] heart with these[illegible] swering the good[illegible] had picked up s[illegible] they thought him[illegible] his condition.'

Socrates ☞

a production which a licentious age has pardoned for its genius, will be thrown aside in spite of it. In that day, if genius rebelliously refuse, as it assuredly will not—for the highest genius has not even hitherto refused —to consecrate itself to goodness, the world will rather turn to the humblest productions which are instinct with virtue, than to the fairest works of genius when polluted by vice. In a word, the long idolatry of intellect which has enslaved the world will be broken; and that world will perceive that, bright as genius may be, virtue is brighter still.

Happy the writers who, if destined to live so long, have, with souls prophetic of the great change, and true to the dictates of morality and religion, never written a line but what after-ages may gratefully turn to for solid instruction or innocent delight; and happy also all who, though not destined to see those distant times, have in any measure contributed to form and hasten them!

Plato, in a well-known passage of his Phædrus, describes Socrates as contending for the superiority of oral instruction, by representing books as silent. The inferiority of the written word to the living voice is in many respects undeniable; but surely it is more than compensated by the advantage of its diffusive and permanent character. Great as has been the influence of Socrates, he owes it almost entirely to the books he refused to write! and it might have been greater still, had he condescended to write some of his own.

But the chief glory of all human literature —taking it collectively—is, that it is our pledge and security against the retrogradation of humanity; the effectual breakwater against barbarism; the ratchet in the great wheel of the world, which, even if it stands still, prevents it from slipping back. Ephemeral as man's books are, they are at least not so ephemeral as himself; and consign without difficulty to posterity what would otherwise never reach them. A good book is the Methuselah of these latter ages.

We must conclude, however, lest we should have reason to apply to ourselves the words of old Fuller: 'But what do I, speaking against multiplicity of books in this age, who trespass in this nature myself? What was learned man's compliment, may serve for my confession and conclusion. Multi [illegible]rant—ut cùm [illegible]endo temperare [illegible] we fear that [illegible]isposed to say [illegible]anity' without [illegible]re.

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In a more extended sense, it is used to comprehend the whole development of philosophy of Greece from Socrates to the Neo Platonists. The title is so far just, as all the schools of this period, with the single exception of the Epicurean, called themselves by the name of Socrates, and arrogated to themselves the merit of exclusively propagating the true doctrines of Socrates. But in a narrow and more proper signification, it signifies the peculiar direction and method which Socrates gave to philosophical inquiry. The Socratic method of reasoning and instruction was by interrogatories. Instead of laying down a proposition authoritatively, this method led the antagonist or disciple to acknowledge it himself by dint of a series of questions put to him. It was not hte object of Socrates to establish any perfectly evolved system of doctrine, so much as to awaken by his discourses a new and more comprehensive pursuit of science, which should direct itself to all that is knowable. To him is ascribed two of the very first principles of science, namely, the inductive method and the definition of ideas.


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