صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

in rhymes of mongrel Saxon.* Even now, many talk of Spenser's 'well of pure English undefiled,' as if the language ever sprang from a well or fountainhead, and was not rather a mere confluence of various tongues, perpetually subject to changes and intermixtures. It is this which has made English literature so extremely mutable, and the reputation built upon it so fleeting. Unless thought can be committed to something more permanent and un. changeable than such a medium, even thought must share the fate of everything else and fall into decay. This should serve as a check upon the vanity and exultation of the most popular writer. He finds the language in which he has embarked his fame gradually altering, and subject to the dilapidations of time and the caprice of fashion. He looks back and beholds the early authors of his country, once the favorites of their day, supplanted by modern writers ? a few short ages have covered them with obscurity, and their merits can only be relished by the quaint taste of the bookworm. And such, he anticipates, will be the fate of his own work, which, however it may be admired in its day, and held up as a model

* Holinshed, in his Chronicle, observes, “Afterwards, also, by diligent travell of Geffry Chaucer and John Gowrie, in the tin e of Richard the Second, and after them of John Scogan and John Lydgate, monke of Berrie, our said toong was brought to an excellent passe, notwithstanding that it never came unto the type of perfection until the time of Queen Elizabeth, wherein John Jewell, Bishop of Sarum, John Fox, and sundrie learned and excellent writers, have fully accom. plished the ornature of the same, to their great praise and immortal commendation."

of purity, will, in the course of years, grow antiquated and obsolete, until it shall become almost as unintelligible in its native land as an Egyptian obelisk, or one of those Runic inscriptions, said to exist in the deserts of Tartary. I declare,” added I, with some emotion, “when I contemplate a modern library, filled with new works in all the bravery of rich gilding and binding, I feel disposed to sit down and weep; like the good Xerxes, when he surveyed his army, pranked out in all the splendor of military array and reflected that in one hundred years not one of them would be in existence!"

“Ah," said the little quarto with a heavy sigh, “I see how it is; these modern scribblers have superseded all the good old authors. I suppose nothing is read now-a-days but Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, Sackville's stately plays and Mirror for Magistrates, or the fine-spun euphuisms of the 'unparalleled John Lyly.'"

“There you are again mistaken,” said I; “the writers whom you suppose in vogue, because they happened to be so when you were last in circulation, have long since had their day. Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, the immortality of which was so fondly predicted by his admirers,* and which, in truth, was

* Live ever sweete booke; the simple image of his gentle witt, and the golden pillar of his noble courage; and ever notify unto the world that thy writer was the secretary of eloquence, the breath of the muses, the honey bee of the daintyest flowers of witt and arte, the pith of morale and the intellectual virtues, the arme of Bellona in the field, the tongue of Suada in the chamber, the spirite of Practice in esse, and the paragon of excellency in print.

HARVEY'S Pierce's Supererogation.

full of poble thoughts, delicate images, and graceful turns of language, is now scarcely ever mentioned. Sackville has strutted into obscurity; and even Lyly, though his writings were once the delight of a court, and apparently perpetuated by a proverb, is now scarcely known even by name. A whole crowd of authors who wrote and wrangled at the time have likewise gone down with all their writings and their controversies. Wave after wave of succeeding literature has 10lled over them, until they are buried so deep that it is only now and then that some industri.. ous diver after fragments of antiquity brings up a specimen for the gratification of the curious.

“For my part,” I continued, “I consider this mutability of language a wise precaution of Provi. dence for the benefit of the world at large, and of authors in particular. To reason from analogy: we daily behold the varied and beautiful tribes of vegetables springing up, flourishing, adorning the fields for a short time, and then fading into dust, to make way for their successors. Were not this the case, the fecundity of nature would be a grievance instead of a blessing: the earth would groan with rank and ex. cessive vegetation, and its surface become a tangled wilderness. In like manner the works of genius and learning decline and make way for subsequent productions. Language gradually varies, and with it fade away the writings of authors who have flour, ished their allotted time; otherwise the creative pow. ers of genius would overstock the world, and the mind would be completely bewildered in the endless mazes of literature. Formerly there were some re

straints on this excessive multiplication: works had to be transcribed by hand, which was a slow and laborious operation; they were written either on parchment, which was expensive, so that one work was often erased to make way for another; or on papyrus, which was fragile and extremely perishable. Authorship was a limited and unprofitable craft, pursued chiefly by monks in the leisure and solitude of their cloisters. The accumulation of manuscripts was slow and costly, and confined almost entirely to monasteries. To these circumstances it may, in some measure, be owing that we have not been inundated by the intellect of antiquity; that the fount. ains of thought have not been broken up and modern genius drowned in the deluge. But the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints: they have made every one a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent-augmented into a riverexpanded into a sea. A few centuries since, five or six hundred manuscripts constituted a great library; but what would you say to libraries, such as actually exist, containing three or four hundred thousand volumes; legions of authors at the same time busy; and a press going on with fearfully increasing activity, to double and quadruple the number? Unless some unforeseen mortality should break out among the progeny of the Muse, now that she has become so prolific, I tremble for posterity. I fear the mere fluctuation of lan. guage will not be sufficient. Criticism may do much;

it increases with the increase of literature, and resembles one of those salutary checks on population spoken of by economists. All possible encouragement, therefore, should be given to the growth of critics, good or bad. But I fear all will be in vain; let criticism do what it may, writers will write, printers will print, and the world will inevitably be overstocked with good books. It will soon be the employment of a life-time merely to learn their names. Many a man of passable information at the present day reads scarcely anything but reviews, and before long a man of erudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue."

“My very good sir," said the little quarto, yawn. ing most drearily in my face,“ excuse my interrupting you, but I perceive you are rather given to prose. I would ask the fate of an author who was making some noise just as I left the world. His reputation, however, was considered quite temporary. The learned shook their heads at him, for he was a poor, half-educated varlet, that knew little of Latin and nothing of Greek, and had been obliged to run the country for deer-stealing. I think his name was Shakespeare. I presume he soon sunk into oblivion.”

On the contrary,” said I, “it is owing to that very man that the literature of his period has ex: perienced a duration beyond the ordinary term of English literature. There arise authors now and then who seem proof against the mutability of language, because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature. They are like gigantic trees that we sometimes see on the banks

« السابقةمتابعة »