صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني
[ocr errors]

fectly as they have been transmitted to us, should be studied day and night by every man who wishes to learn the science of logical defence. We find in several parts of the History of James the Second fine specimens of that which we conceive to have been the great characteristic of Demosthenes among the Greeks, and of Fox among the orators of England, reason penetrated, and, if we may venture on the expression, made red hot by passion. But this is not the kind of excellence proper to history; and it is hardly too much to say that whatever is strikingly good in Mr. Fox's Fragment is out of place.

With Sir James Mackintosh the case was reversed. His proper place was his library, a circle of men of letters, or a chair of moral and political philosophy. He distinguished himself highly in Parliament. But nevertheless Parliament was not exactly the sphere for him. The effect of his most successful speeches was small when compared with the quantity of ability and learning which was expended on them. We could easily name men who, not possessing a tenth part of his intellectual powers, hardly ever address the House of Commons without producing a greater impression than was produced by his most splendid and elaborate orations. His luminous and philosophical disquisition on the Reform Bill was spoken to empty benches. Those, indeed, who had the wit to keep their seats picked up hints which, skilfully used, made the fortune of more than one speech. But “it was caviare to the general.” And even those who listened to Sir James with pleasure and admiration could not but acknowledge that he rather lectured than debated. An artist who should waste on a panorama, on a scene, or on a transparency, the exquisite finishing which we admire in some of the small Dutch interiors, would not squander his powers more than this eminent man too often did. His

audience resembled the boy in the Heart of MidLothian, who pushes away the lady's guineas with contempt, and insists on having the white money. They preferred the silver with which they were familiar, and which they were constantly passing about from hand to hand, to the gold which they had never before seen, and with the value of which they were unacquainted.

It is much to be regretted, we think, that Sir James Mackintosh did not wholly devote his later years to philosophy and literature. His talents were not those which enable a speaker to produce with rapidity a series of striking but transitory impressions, and to excite the minds of five hundred gentlemen at midnight without saying any thing that any one of them will be able to remember in the morning. His arguments were of a very different texture from those which are produced in Parliament at a moment's notice, which puzzle a plain man who, if he had them before him in writing, would soon detect their fallacy, and which the great debater who employs them forgets within half an hour, and never thinks of again. Whatever was valuable in the compositions of Sir James Mackintosh was the ripe fruit of study and of meditation. It was the same with his conversation. In his most familiar talk there was no wildness, no inconsistency, no amusing nonsense, no exaggeration for the sake of momentary effect.

His mind was a vast magazine admirably arranged. Every thing was there; and every thing was in its place. His judgments on men, on sects, on books, had been often and carefully tested and weighed, and had then been committed, each to its proper receptacle, in the most capacious and accurately constructed memory that any human being ever possessed. It would have been strange indeed if you had asked for any thing that was not to be found in that immense storehouse. The article which you required was not only there. It was ready. It was in its own proper compartment. In a moment it was brought down, unpacked, and displayed. If those who enjoyed the privilege, — for a privilege indeed it was, — of listening to Sir James Mackintosh, had been disposed to find some fault in his conversation, they might perhaps have observed, that he yielded too little to the impulse of the moment. He seemed to be recollecting, not creating. He never appeared to catch a sudden glimpse of a subject in a new light. You never saw his opinions in the making, still rude, still inconsistent, and requiring to be fashioned by thought and discussion. They came forth, like the pillars of that temple in which no sound of axes or hammers was heard, finished, rounded, and exactly suited to their places. What Mr. Charles Lamb has said, with much humour and some truth, of the conversation of Scotchmen in general, was certainly true of this eminent Scotchman. He did not find, but bring. You could not cry halves to any thing that turned up while

you were in his company.

The intellectual and moral qualities which are most important in a historian, he possessed in a very high degree. He was singularly mild, calm, and impartial in his judgments of men and of parties. Almost all the distinguished writers who have treated of English history are advocates. Mr. Hallam and Sir James Mackintosh alone are entitled to be called judges. But the extreme austerity of Mr. Hallam takes away something from the pleasure of reading his learned, eloquent, and judicious writings. He is a judge, but a hanging judge, the Page or Buller of the High Court of Literary Justice. His black cap is in constant requisition. In the long calendar of those whom he has tried, there is hardly one who has not, in spite of evidence to character and recommendations to mercy,

been sentenced and left for execution. Sir James, perhaps, erred a little on the other side. He liked a maiden assize, and came away with white gloves, after sitting in judgment on batches of the most notorious offenders. He had a quick eye for the redeeming parts of a character, and a large toleration for the infirmities of men exposed to strong temptations. But this lenity did not arise from ignorance or neglect of moral distinctions. Though he allowed perhaps too much weight to every extenuating circumstance that could be urged in favour of the transgressor, he never disputed the authority of the law, or showed his ingenuity by refining away its enactments. On every occasion he showed himself firm where principles were in question, but full of charity towards individuals.

We have no hesitation in pronouncing this Fragment decidedly the best history now extant of the reign of James the Second. It contains much new and curious information, of which excellent use has been made. But we are not sure that the book is not in some degree open to the charge which the idle citizen in the Spectator brought against his pudding; “Mem. too many plumbs, and no suet.” There is perhaps too much disquisition and too little narrative; and indeed this is the fault into which, judging from the habits of Sir James's mind, we should have thought him most likely to fall. What we assuredly did not anticipate was, that the narrative would be better executed than the disquisitions. We expected to find, and we have found, many just delineations of character, and many digressions full of interest, such as the account of the order of Jesuits, and of the state of prison discipline in England a hundred and fifty years ago. We expected to find, and we have found, many reflections breathing the spirit of a calm and benignant philosophy.

But we did not, we own,

But no

expect to find that Sir James could tell a story as well as Voltaire or Hume. Yet such is the fact ; and if any person doubts it, we would advise him to read the account of the events which followed the issuing of King James's declaration, the meeting of the clergy, the violent scene at the privy council, the commitment, trial, and acquittal of the bishops. The most superficial reader must be charmed, we think, by the liveliness of the narrative. person who is not acquainted with that vast mass of intractable materials of which the valuable and interesting part has been extracted and condensed can fully appreciate the skill of the writer. Here, and indeed throughout the book, we find many harsh and careless expressions which the author would probably have removed if he had lived to complete his work. But, in spite of these blemishes, we must say that we should find it difficult to point out, in any modern history, any passage of equal length, and at the same time of equal merit. We find in it the diligence, the accuracy, and the judgment of Hallam, united to the vivacity and the colouring of Southey. A history of England, written throughout in this manner, would be the most fascinating book in the language. It would be more in request at the circulating libraries than the last novel.

Sir James was not, we think, gifted with poetical imagination. But that lower kind of imagination which is necessary to the historian he had in large measure.

It is not the business of the historian to create new worlds and to people them with new races of beings. He is to Homer and Shakspeare, to Dante and Milton, what Nollekens was to Canova, or Lawrence to Michael Angelo. The object of the historian's imitation is not within him; it is furnished from without. It is not a vision of beauty and grandeur discernible only by the eye of his own mind, but a

[blocks in formation]
« السابقةمتابعة »