« السابقةمتابعة »
Queen Mary's comb, Wolsey's red hat, the pipe which Van
Tromp smoked during his last sea-fight, and the spur which King William struck into the flank of Sorrel.
In everything in which Walpole busied himself, in the fine arts, in literature, in public affairs, he was drawn by some strange attraction from the great to the little, and from the useful to the odd. The politics in which he took the keenest interest, were politics scarcely deserving of the name. The growlings of George the Second, the flirtations of Princess Emily with the Duke of Grafton, the amours of Prince Frederick and Lady Middlesex, the squabbles between Gold Stick in waiting and the Master of the Buckhounds, the disagreements between the tutors of Prince George, these matters engaged almost all the attention which Walpole could spare from matters more important still, from bidding for Zinckes and Petitots, from cheapening fragments of tapestry and handles of old lances, from joining bits of painted glass, and from setting up men of departed cats and dogs. While he was fetching and carrying the gossip of Kensington Palace and Carlton House, he fancied that he was engaged in politics, and when he recorded that gossip, he fancied that he was writing history.
He was, as he has himself told us, fond of faction as an amusement. He loved mischief: but he loved quiet; and he was constantly on the watch for opportunities of gratifying both his tastes at once. He sometimes contrived, without showing himself, to disturb the course of ministerial negotiations and to spread confusion through the political circles. He does not himself pretend that, on these occasions, he was actuated by public spirit; nor does he appear to have had any private advantage in view. He thought it a good practical joke to set public men together by the ears; and be enjoyed their perplexities, their accusations, and their recriminations, as a malicious boy enjoys the embarrassment of a misdirected traveller.
About politics, in the high sense of the word, he knew nothing, and cared nothing. Ile called himself a Whig. His father's son could scarcely assume any other name. pleased him also to affect a foolish dislike of kings, as kings, and a foolish love and admiration of rebels as rebels; and perhaps, while kings were not in danger, and while rebels were not in being, he really believed that he held the doctrines which he professed. To yo no further than the letters now before
us, he is perpetually boasting to his friend Mann of his aversion to royalty and to royal persons. He calls the crime of Damien “that least bad of murders, the murder of a king.” He hung up in his villa an engraving of the death-warrant of Charles, with the inscription" Major Charta." Yet the most superficial knowledge of history might have taught him that the Restoration,
and the crimes and follies of the twenty-eight years which followed the Restoration, were the effects of this Great Charter. Nor was there much in the means by which that instrument was obtained that could gratify a judicious lover of liberty. A man must hate kings very bitterly, before he can think it desirable that the representatives of the people should be turned out of doors by dragoons, in order to get at a king's head. Walpole's Whiggism, however, was of a very harmless kind. He kept it, as he kept the old spears and helmets at Strawberry Hill, merely for show. He would just as soon have thought of taking down the arms of the ancient Templars and Hospitallers from the walls of his hall, and setting off on a crusade to the Holy Land, as of acting in the spirit of those daring warriors and statesmen, great even in their errors, whose names and seals were affixed to the warrant which he prized so highly. He liked revolution and regicide only when they were a hundred years old. His republicanism, like the courage of a bully, or the love of a fribble, was strong and ardent when there was no occasion for it, and subsided when he had an opportunity of bringing it to the proof. As soon as the revolutionary spirit really began to stir in Europe, as soon as the hatred of kings became something more than a sonorous phrase, he was frightened into a fanatical royalist, and became one of the most extravagant alarmists of those wretched times. In truth, his talk about liberty, whether he knew it or not, was from the beginning a mere cant, the remains of a phraseology which had meant something in the mouths of those from whom he had learned it, but which, in his mouth, meant about as much as the oath by which the Knights of some modern orders bind thenselves to redress the wrongs of all injured ladies. He had been fed in his boyhood with Whig speculations on government. He must often have seen, at Houghton or in Downing Street, men who had been Whigs when it was as dangerous to be a Whig as to be a highwayman, men who had voted for the Exclusion Bill, who had been concealed in garrets and cellars after the battle of Sedgemoor, and who had set their names to the declaration that they would live and die with the Prince of Orange. He had acquired the language of these men, and he repeated it by rote, though it was at variance with all his tastes and feelings ; just as some old Jacobite families persisted in praying for the Pretender, and in passing their glasses over the water decanter, when they drink the King's health, long after they had become loyal supporters of the government of George the Third. He was a Whig by the accident of hereditary connection; but he was essentially a courtier; and not less a courtier because he pretended to sneer at the objects which excited his admiration and envy. His real tastes perpetually show themselves through the thin disguise. While professing all the contempt of Bradshaw or Ludlow for crowned heads, he took the trouble to write a book concerning Royal Authors. He pryed with the utmost anxiety into the most minute particulars relating to the Royal family. When he was a child, he was haunted with a longing to see George the First, and gave his mother no peace till she had found a way of gratifying his curiosity. The same feeling, covered with a thousand disguises, attended him to the grave. No observation that dropped from the lips of Majesty seemed to him too trifling to be recorded. The French songs of Prince Frederic, compositions certainly not deserving of preservation on account of their intrinsic merit, have been carefully preserved for us by this contemner of royalty. In truth, every page of Walpole's works bewrays him. This Diogenes, who would be thought to prefer his tub to a palace, and who has nothing to ask of the masters of Windsor and Versailles but that they will stand out of his light, is a gentleman-usher at heart.
He had, it is plain, an uneasy consciousness of the frivolity of his favorite pursuits; and this consciousness produced one of the most diverting of his ten thousand affectations. His busy idleness, his indifference to matters which the world generally regards as important, his passion for trifles, he thought fit to dignify with the name of philosophy. lle spoke of himself as of a man whose equanimity was proof to ambitious hopes and fears, who had learned to rate power, wealth, and fame at their true value, and whom the conflict of parties, the rise and fall of statesmen, the ebb and flow of public opinion, moved only to a smile of mingled compassion and disdain. It was owing to the peculiar elevation of his character that he cared about a pinnacle of lath and plaster more than about the Middlesex election, and about a miniature of Grammont more than about the American Revolution. Pitt and Murray might talk themselves hoarse about trifles. But questions of government and war were too insignificant to detain a mind which was occupied in recording the scandal of club-rooms and the whispers of the back-stairs, and which was even capable of selecting and disposing chairs of ebony and shields of rhinoceros-skin.
One of his innumerable whims was an extreme unwillingness to be considered a man of letters. Not that he was indifferent to literary fame. Far from it. Scarcely any writer has ever troubled himself so much about the appearance which his works were to make before posterity. But he had set his heart on incompatible objects. He wished to be a celebrated author, and yet to be a mere idle gentleman, one of those Epicurean gods of the earth who do nothing at all, and who pass their existence in the contemplation of their own perfections. He did not like to have anything in common with the wretches who lodged in the little courts behind St. Martin's Church, and stole out on Sundays to dine with their bookseller. He avoided the society of authors. He spoke with lordly contempt of the most distinguished among them. Iłe tried to find out some way of writing books, as M. Jourdain's father sold cloth, without derogating from his character of Gentilhomme. “ Lui, marchand ? C'est pure médisance: il ne l'a jamais été. Tout ce qu'il faisait, c'est qu'il était fort obligeant, fort officieux ; et comme il se connaissait fort bien en étoffes, il en allait choisir de tous les côtés, les faisait apporter chez lui, et en donnait à ses amis pour de l'argent.” There are several amusing instances of Walpole's feeling on this subject in the letters now before us. Mann had complimented him on the learning which appeared in the “ Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors ;” and it is curious to see how impatiently Walpole bore the imputation of having attended to anything so unfashionable as the improvement of his mind. “I know nothing. How should I? I who have always lived in the big busy world; who lie a-bed all the morning, calling it morning as long as you please ; who sup in company; who have played at faro half my life, and now at loo 'till two and three in the morning; who have always loved pleasure; haunted auctions.
* How I have laughed when some of the Magazines have called me the learned gentleman. Pray don't be like the Magazines.” This folly might be pardoned in a boy. Bat a man between forty and fifty years old, as Walpole then was, ought to be quite as much ashamed of playing at loo till three every morning as of being that vulgar thing, a learned gentleman.
The literary character has undoubtedly its full share of faults, and of very serious and offensive faults. If Walpole had avoided those faults, we could have pardoned the fastidiousness with which he declined all fellowship with men of learning. But from those faults Walpole was not one jot more free than the garreteers from whose contact he shrank. Of literary meannesses and literary vices, his life and his works contain as many instances as the life and the works of any member of Johnson's club. The fact is, that Walpole had the faults of Grub Street, with a large addition from St. James's Street, the vanity, the jealousy, the irritability of a man of letters, the affected superciliousness and apathy of a man of ton.
His judgment of literature, of contemporary literature especially, was altogether perverted by his aristocratical feelings. No writer surely was ever guilty of so much false and absurd criticism. He almost invariably speaks with contempt of those books which are now universally allowed to be the best that appeared in his time; and, on the other hand, he speaks of writers of rank and fashion as if they were entitled to the same precedence in literature which would have been allowed to them in a drawing-room. In these letters, for example, he says that he would rather have written the most absurd lines in Lee than Thomson's Seasons. The periodical paper called “ The World,” on the other hand, was by "our first writers.” Who, then, were the first writers of England in the year 1753? Walpole has told us in a note. Our readers will probably guess that Hume, Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, Johnson, Warburton, Collins, Akenside, Gray, Dyer, Young, Warton, Mason, or some of those distinguished men, were in the list. Not one of them. Our first writers, it seems, were Lord Chesterfield, Lord Bath, Mr. W. Whithed, Sir Charles Williams, Mr. Snime Jenyns, Mr. Cambridge, Mr. Coventry. Of these seven personages, Whithed was the lowest in station, but was the most accomplished tuft-hunter of his time. Coventry was of a noble family. The other five had among them two seats in the House of Lords, two seats in the House of Commons, three seats in the Privy Council, a baronetcy, a blue riband, a red riband, about a hundred thousand pounds a