صور الصفحة
النشر الإلكتروني



[This journal, the earliest of English critical reviews, was founded by the bookseller Ralph Griffiths, who conducted it till his death, in 1803. It was Whig and nonconformist in attitude; see Dr. Johnson's remark comparing it and its Tory rival (founded 1756) The Critical Review, quoted by Boswell, page 650, below. The present extract is reproduced both for its interest as exemplifying the attitude of the Monthly toward a new poet, and its connection with the earliest volume of Burns's poems.]

Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. By Robert Burns. 8vo. Kilmarnock. 1786.

Poeta nascitur non fit is an old maxim, the truth of which has been generally admitted; and although it be certain that in modern times many verses are manufactured from the brain of their authors with as much labor as the iron is drawn into form under the hammer of the smith, and require to be afterwards smoothed by the file with as much care as the burnishers of Sheffield employ to give the last finish to their wares, yet after all these verses, though ever so smooth, are nothing but verses, and have no geniune title to the name of Poems. The humble bard whose work now demands our attention cannot claim a place among these polished versifiers. His simple strains, artless and unadorned, seem to flow without effort from the native feelings of the heart. They are always nervous, sometimes inelegant, often natural, simple, and sublime. The objects that have obtained the attention of the author are humble; for he himself, born in a low station, and following a laborious employment, has had no opportunity of observing scenes in the higher walks of life. Yet his verses are sometimes struck off with a delicacy and artless simplicity that charms like the bewitching though irregular touches of a Shakespeare.

We much regret that these poems are written in some measure in an unknown tongue, which must deprive most of our readers of the pleasure they would otherwise naturally create, being composed in the Scottish dialect, which contains many words that are altogether unknown to an English reader. Be

side, they abound with allusions to the modes of life, opinions, and ideas of the people in a remote corner of the country, which would render many passages obscure, and consequently uninteresting, to those who perceive not the forcible accuracy of the picture of the objects to which they allude. This work, therefore, can only be fully relished by the natives of the part of the country where it was produced; but by such of them as have a taste sufficiently refined to be able to relish the beauties of nature, it cannot fail to be highly prized.

By what we can collect from the poems themselves, and the short preface to them, the author seems to be struggling with poverty, though cheerfully supporting the fatigues of a laborious employment. He thus speaks of himself in one of the poems:

[ocr errors]

The star that rules my luckless lot
Has fated me the russet coat,

And damn'd my fortune to the groat;
But, in requite,

Has blessed me with a random shot
Of country wit.

"None of the following works" (we are told in the Preface) 'were ever composed with a view to the press. To amuse himself with the little creations of his own fancy, amid the toil and fatigues of a laborious life; to transcribe the various feelings, the loves, the griefs, the hopes, the fears in his own breast; to find some kind of counterpoise to the struggles of a world, always an alien scene, a task uncouth to the poetical mind these were his motives for courting the Muses, and in these he found poetry its own reward."

These poems are chiefly in the comic strain. Some are of the descriptive cast, particularly Hallow-e'en, which contains a lively picture of the magical tricks that still are practiced in the country at that season. It is a valuable relic which, like Virgil's eighth Eclogue, will preserve the memory of these simple incantations long after they would otherwise have been lost. It is very properly accompanied with notes explaining the circumstances to which the poem alludes. Sometimes the poems are in the elegiac strain, among which class the reader will find much of nature in the lines to a Mouse, on turning up her nest with the plough, in November, 1785, and those to a Moun

tain Daisy, on turning one down with the plough, in April, 1786....

The modern ear will be somewhat disgusted with the measure of many of these pieces, which is faithfully copied from that which was most in fashion among the ancient Scottish bards, but hath been-we think with good reason — laid aside by later poets. The versification is, in general, easy, and it seems to have been a matter of indifference to our author in what measure he wrote. But if ever he should think of offering anything more to the public, we are of opinion his performances would be more highly valued were they written in measures less antiquated.

The few songs, odes, dirges, etc., in this collection are very poor in comparison of the other pieces. The author's mind is not sufficiently stored with brilliant ideas to succeed in that line.

In justice to the reader, however, as well as the author, we must observe that this collection may be compared to a heap of wheat carelessly winnowed. Some grain of a most excellent quality is mixed with a little chaff and half-ripened corn. How many splendid volumes of poems come under our review, in which, though the mere chaff be carefully separated, not a single atom of perfect grain can be found, all being light and insipid! We never reckon our task fatiguing when we can find, even among a great heap, a single pearl of price; but how pitiable is our lot when we must toil and toil, and can find nothing but tiresome uniformity, with neither fault to rouse nor beauty to animate the jaded spirits!




[This work, the chief history of the century, whether regarded as a work of learning or of literature, began to appear in 1776, and the sixth and last volume was published on the author's fifty-first birthday, April 27, 1788. For his own account of the inception and completion of the History, see the extracts from the Memoirs, pages 545-6, below. The present extract is from the opening of Volume V; in presenting a sketch of the contents of that and the final volume, it well exemplifies Gibbon's panoramic method.]


I HAVE now deduced from Trajan to Constantine, from Constantine to Heraclius, the regular series of the Roman emperors; and faithfully exposed the prosperous and adverse fortunes of their reigns. Five centuries of the decline and fall of the empire have already elapsed; but a period of more than eight hundred years still separates me from the term of my labors, the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. Should I persevere in the same course, should I observe the same measure, a prolix and slender thread would be spun through many a volume, nor would the patient reader find an adequate reward of instruction or amusement. At every step, as we sink deeper in the decline and fall of the Eastern Empire, the annals of each succeeding reign would impose a more ungrateful and melancholy task. These annals must continue to repeat a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery; the natural connection of causes and events would be broken by frequent and hasty transitions, and a minute accumulation of circumstances must destroy the light and effect of those general pictures which compose the use and ornament of a remote history. From the time of Heraclius the Byzantine theatre is contracted and darkened: the line of empire, which had been defined by the laws of Justinian and the arms of Belisarius, recedes on all sides from our view; the Roman name, the proper subject of

our inquiries, is reduced to a narrow corner of Europe, to the lonely suburbs of Constantinople; and the fate of the Greek empire has been compared to that of the Rhine, which loses itself in the sands before its waters can mingle in the ocean The scale of dominion is diminished to our view by the distance of time and place; nor is the loss of external splendor compensated by the nobler gifts of virtue and genius. In the last moments of her decay Constantinople was doubtless more opulent and prosperous than Athens at her most flourishing era, when a scanty sum of six thousand talents, or twelve hundred thousand pounds sterling, was possessed by twenty-one thousand male citizens of an adult age. But each of these citizens was a freeman who dared to assert the liberty of his thoughts, words, and actions; whose person and property were guarded by equal law; and who exercised his independent vote in the government of the republic. Their numbers seem to be multiplied by the strong and various discriminations of character; under the shield of freedom, on the wings of emulation and vanity, each Athenian aspired to the level of the national dignity; from this commanding eminence some chosen spirits soared beyond the reach of a vulgar eye; and the chances of superior merit in a great and populous kingdom, as they are proved by experience, would excuse the computation of imaginary millions. The territories of Athens, Sparta, and their allies do not exceed a moderate province of France or England; but after the trophies of Salamis and Platæa, they expand in our fancy to the gigantic size of Asia, which had been trampled under the feet of the victorious Greeks. But the subjects of the Byzantine empire, who assume and dishonor the names both of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity nor animated by the vigor of memorable crimes. The freemen of antiquity might repeat with generous enthusiasm the sentence of Homer, "that on the first day of his servitude the captive is deprived of one half of his manly virtue." But the poet had only seen the effects of civil or domestic slavery, nor could he foretell that the second moiety of manhood must be annihilated by the spiritual despotism, which shackles not only the actions but even the thoughts of the prostrate votary. By this double yoke the Greeks were oppressed under the successors of

« السابقةمتابعة »