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Stands in the centre, eager to invade
Mid wounds, and clinging darts, and lances brast,
ROBINSON CRUSOE. We are glad to learn from a reprint of Robinson Crusoe, that notwithstanding the enormous multiplication of new novels, that most popular and most wholesome of books still holds its ground. The very pleasure of reading it once more is not to be despised, for hardly any other book bears repeated perusal so well. In boyhood, the mere charm of the story, and the strangeness of the adventures, make it the most delightful of books; and when the critical faculties have been formed, and some experience acquired, the marvellous art, vigour, and healthiness of the work give it an interest which is constantly renewed, and which never exhausts itself. Robinson Crusoe has a better claim to be considered an English classic than almost any other book whatever ; and though the phrase is so hackneyed as to have almost entirely lost all definite meaning, there is a meaning, and an important one, which it ought to have.
One or two of the points in Robinson Crusoe's character
have escaped the notice which they deserve, though they appear to us to be exactly those which put the book into a class altogether different from mere children's stories upon the same text, which have become so common of late years. There is extraordinary art in the manner in which the fundamental point in Crusoe's character is kept in view through every part of his life, notwithstanding his own lamentations over it. He recognises, on all occasions, the duty and wisdom of pursuing a sort of solid comfort as the ideal of life. His father gives him solemn advice to do so in his early youth, and to the very end of the book he continually points out how much happierand better he should have been if he had followed his advice; and yet he never does follow it, and never even seriously tries to follow it. He laments over his adventures ; he is keenly sensible of the poignancy of the miseries in which they involve him ; and yet as soon as he is out of one difficulty he takes the readiest means to get into another. Nothing can exemplify more perfectly the workings of an enthusiastic, adventurous temperament, and few things are more worthy of the observation of those who study the causes of human actions. Why do men travel-why do they write booksor study art or science-or plan great works in the face of difficulties, troubles, and perplexities to which they are far more keenly alive than people of a more phlegmatic temperature? The cause is a certain overmastering impulse, which cannot be classed under any one of the fifteen heads into which Bentham divides the pleasures that, in his view, were the only springs of human action. It is true that this impulse forms the text of a large proportion of novels ; but to recognise its force in connection with a view of life so pre-eminently literal, prosaic, and sensible as that which pervades Robinson Crusoe was a very great proof of the real genius which Defoe possessed.
Another feature of a similar kind is the union which exists in Crusoe of a thoroughly common-place understanding with a very rare temperament. His courage, perseverance, and general strength of character are almost heroic, but he is far from being a particularly brilliant or ingenious man. As Coleridge very justly observes, great judgment is shown in making him unable to contrive so simple a matter as the manufacture of ink—a difficulty which it was not absolutely essential for him to overcome, but which would have been far less formidable for a really ingenious man than the manufacture of baskets or tobacco-pipes. What is absolutely necessary he can invent, but invention in itself gives him hardly any artistic satisfaction. The same union appears in his conduct as well as in his contrivances. Nothing can exceed the calmness and gravity of the conclusions which he draws from the various strange events of his life ; and yet, calm and considerate as his reasonings are, he fires up at the slightest provocation with an ardour which would appear to belong to quite another man. Thus when, on leaving the island after his second visit, his ship is surrounded by a fleet of savages, he bears their attack, in the first instance, in the most philosophic spirit. Though one of the men, in a boat alongside, was “ very much wounded, I called out to them not to fire by any means ; but we handed down some deal boards into the boat, and the carpenter presently set up a kind of a fence to cover them from the arrows." Afterwards, however, when they fired again, and shot Friday, he fires a broadside, which upsets thirteen or fourteen of their canoes, and kills and wounds an indefinite number of the savages; and his only observation is, “I thought myself not only justified before God and man, but would have been very glad if I could have upset every canoe there, and drowned every one of them.” Nothing is more common in ordinary life than a contrast between natural temper and acquired convictions, and hardly anything is so difficult to represent in fiction with any approach to fidelity.
The impossibilities in Crusoe's story are both of the moral kind. No man could live twenty-eight years in a desert island, and not go mad. Selkirk passed a far shorter period in solitude, and he could hardly speak when he was rescued ; nor is it conceivable that a man in such a condition should have sufficient self-control to admit to himself the certainty that he would never be able to leave the island, and to regulate all his conduct accordingly.
The psychological side of the story is never suggested to the reader; and the elaborate care with which his attention is diverted to a number of small mechanical details prevents him from seeing that there is any psychological side to it at all. An equal or greater difficulty exists in the account of Friday. He is utterly unlike a real savage. He is simply a well-conditioned but very ignorant Englishman with a tawny skin. It is unquestionably true that both Crusoe and Friday are merely ideal characters, and that their respective lives are fundamentally impossible; but it is a truth that would hardly suggest itself to any reader who did not look into the matter with a good deal of curiosity. That this should be so is a great proof of Defoe's peculiar gifts. No one ever had such an instinct for the detection of the poetical side of common life, and hardly any one can be mentioned whose career so fully embodied the matter-of-fact and solid enthusiasm which is the soul of his writings.
When I go musing all alone,
All my joys to this are folly:
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
All my griefs to this are jolly: