صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

muned with the spirits of the dead, than have spread out his understanding to catch the poor jingle of words, and exercise his genius in manufacturing a pun.

Art. VII.— The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a

Cornish Man. Taken from his own mouth, in his passage to England, from of Cape Horn, in America, in the ship Hector. By R. S. a passenger in the Hector. 1784.

In this brief title is comprised all that is known-all that the curiosity of this inquisitive age can discover of the history of the work, and name and lineage of its author. There is not a circumstance with which we are acquainted, connected with our literature, that is more strange in itself, or more melancholy in the thoughts it gives rise to. When we consider the high value deservedly attached to works of imagination, and, at the same time, the rare beauty of the fiction developed in the romance before us, it strikes us as incredible, that one, so calculated to please the fancy and beguile the attention, should have failed even to obtain notoriety enough to convey down to us, so much as the name of its author. For that we are right in ascribing this singular omission to the obscurity of the work itself, and not to any intention of concealment on the part of its author, may be fairly presumed, from the absence of any thing in the nature and contents of the book, which could furnish a reasonable cause for such a resolute withdrawing from the notice of the world. The incognito of the author of Waverley, besides being little better than a mere masquerader's disguise, which gives opportunity to a little harmless merriment, and enables persons, perfectly well known to each other, to discourse with a little more than their usual freedom, may also serve a more serious end, in acting as a provocative to the curiosity of the age; or having been originally assumed from a modest self-distrust, may have been involuntarily retained, for want of an opportunity of laying it gracefully aside. The shade too, which, under the name of Junius, has baffled the million attempts that have been made, by prying investigators, to detect the body from which it proceeded, had doubtless potent and weighty reasons for not making itself visible. We know indeed of no motive on earth that should have prevented the writer of those celebrated letters from stepping from behind his curtain to claim the applauses due to the exercise of mighty talents, but the portentous disclosure which such a step

might have occasioned of friendships violated, confidence betrayed, patrons abused, and principles, perhaps, strangely abandoned. What if this world of wonders had been alarmed by the apparition of some celebrated Tory chief, masquerading in the dress of Junius ; and the rough old Roman had turned out a smooth, sleek, and supple courtier, with a back somewhat curved, by being too much in the sun, and an oily and adulatory tongue ? At all events, the writer must be acknowledged to have had a sufficient motive for concealment, if it were only from the reflection, that as, like the original Arab, his hand and pen had been against every man, so every man's hand might be against him. That the “chield,” whoever he was, had closed his " note” book on earth, and resumed his speculations on another stage, even before the storm he had raised on this had entirely subsided, there seem many reasons for concluding; but that he should have carried his secret with him to the safe depository of the grave, is to be attributed only to one or the other of these two causes : either his death was so sudden as to have left no room for the operation of human vanity and weakness, or he had been himself too notorious a fisher in the troubled waters of a political life, to care little about catching any such addition of fame or infamy as might have accrued to him from the dubious reputation of having been the author of Junius.

Similar to neither of these cases is the one, which is the subject of our present consideration. In the work before us, affording, as it does, numerous indications of a fine imagination, native elegance of mind, simpleness of heart, and purity of life and conversation, there are most of the qualities of which a man is deservedly proud, and nothing of which to be ashamed. To suppose the unknown author to have been insensible to, or careless about the fair fame, to which a work, original in its conception, and almost unique, we are sorry to say, in purity, did justly entitle him, is to suppose him to have been exempt from the influence of that universal feeling, which is ever deepest in the noblest bosoms ;-the ardent desire of being long remembered after death--of shining bright in the eyes of their contemporaries, and, when their sun is set, of leaving behind a train of glory in the heavens, for posterity to contemplate with love and veneration. What, then, should have prevented him from being so known, so admired, and so remembered, but that the approbation of his contemporaries was wanting to set that seal upon his fair page, which was to give it currency with succeeding generations :--but that its modest author was reluctant to come forward, and claim a work the world had not deigned to notice, and that the world itself felt no curiosity about the anonymous writer of a book, in which

it had taken no interest. Obscure no doubt, and as poor, it may be, in the wealth of this world, as he was rich in that of an imaginary one, with a timid and hesitating hand he may have “ cast it on the waters,” to be at the mercy of the wind and tide. Its vein," indeed, was “ good," and the world has “ found it after many days," and the stream of time, we will venture to predict, will carry it down to that ocean, destined to ingulph alike the whole of our literature; yet, at first, no favouring gale wafted it on its way, but, thrown out of the current, it had stuck fast among the reeds and shallows, till a good-natured poet kindly took it in tow, and set it once more fairly before the breeze. May he have his reward and when his own bark shall be dropping behind, or drifting aside among those dangerous shoals, where so many a goodly vessel has been wrecked, may its stouter companion return the kindness it before received, and draw it along even unto the end of the voyage. Something there is singularly mournful in the strange and wayward fate of many a bright genius, whose name is fraught to us with recollections of varied and distinguished excellence. Neglected by the world, an Otway dies of want, and five, or more, successive generations store their memories with the beauties of his verse, or their pockets with the profits of new editions of his works. And here a story of infinite merit, which has supplied the poet to whom we alluded, one certainly of no mean celebrity in his day, with the most elegant of his fictions, and from which, as from an unexpected mine, we mean to make large extracts to enrich our own pages, might possibly have originally brought enough of fame to raise a sigh over the vanity of human hopes, and enough of profit to suffice for the purchase of six deal boards, and the loan of a spade and pick-axe, to dig its author's grave.

Frange, miser, calamos, vigilataque prælia dele,
Qui facis in parva sublimia carmina cella,
Ut dignus venias hederis, et imagine macra."

We must needs think it somewhat discreditable to the critical discernment of the times, which allowed a book, of such great and peculiar excellence, to fall still-born from the press; if, indeed, it be not more just to regard it as the misfortune of the age, that its taste was so constituted as to disqualify it for appreciating a work of so much imagination, and, at the same time, of a character so simple and unpretending.

Considered as a work of imagination, it appeared at a season, either too late or too early, to captivate the fancies or strike deep root in the minds of men. At that particular period, when the gross realities of life had superseded the

creations of fancy, and the imagination, lying as it were torpid, awaited the moment when it should be again called into life and action, a work, applying itself chiefly to that faculty of the mind, was likely to be coldly received, and unduly appreciated. In the first ages of our literature, when the bright sun was indeed risen, but the shadows of the past long night, rolling themselves slowly away before it, occasioned a sort of imperfect twilight, the imaginations of all men had been strongly excited ; and he who read, had a fancy prepared to kindle at the visions of him who wrote. Then, in the glimmering obscurity of the midsummer's night, the poet's eye beheld shapes unreal; and embodying his waking dreams, he gave to view Titania and her fairies, and all the wonders of the enchanted isle-bright and glorious creations, such as the world may never hope to see again. The refined and cultivated taste of the present day, by leading us back to the study of the olden time, has called forth the powers of the imagination into new being; and the Peris of Moore, and the Glendoveers of Southey, and many a bright vision beside, have been the fruits of this its second and artificial birth. But the intervening period was a dull, matter-offact, and uninventive age, when no creation of the fancy, however beautiful, could any more hope to prolong its existence, than the swallow, which has ventured from its retreat in the month of January, shall live to wheel its airy circles in the calm of the long summer's evening. No wonder, then, that the aërial creature of our author's fancy, his glums and gawreys, chilled by the inclement atmosphere of that untoward season, should have flagged, and drooped their pinions, and sunk again to the earth, there to lie till warmer suns should dispel the vapours, and call them once more on the wing.

Considered merely as an attempt to copy the realities of the world, and to delineate, in a fictitious narrative, the various accidents and adventures of a wandering life, its close resemblance, and, at the same time, sensible inferiority to a work, which had preoccupied all men's hearts and fancies, necessarily precluded, in some degree, the possibility of its being either kindly received, or hospitably entertained. Imitations, however great their merit, rarely meet with extensive or lasting popularity, but those who have attempted to pursue the track of the author of Robinson Crusoe, have been singularly unfortunate ; that celebrated production having, like the unnatural father of heathen mythology, devoured its own progeny, and its brethren to boot, born of the same pen, and conceived in the same brain with itself.

But there was another and more fatal course militating against its popularity, and that was the absolute incapability of the age, to relish any work of that modest and unostentatious beauty

which it exhibits. The merit of ease and simplicity, which at the present day is so much looked for in every species of composition, could not then, as now, in the absence of higher or more showy qualities, recommend a work to popular favour; nor was nature itself, if naked and unadorned, always sure of finding a passport to the reader's heart. It was not that our fathers, in estimating works of taste and genius, referred them to any other, than that universal standard of all ages and nations ; but the nature they sought and worshipped was either raised above, or sunk below the common level ;—they cared little for her in her ordinary dress, simple, plain, and unambitious, but loved to see her tricked out to advantage, and to hear her speak in good set phrase, and measured terms; or they gloried in her eccentricities, and were delighted to view her in situations and habits, grotesque and strange, with features distorted and action caricatured. To the condition of mankind, and the state of manners at the time, must we look for the causes of this prevailing humour. The elements, of which society is composed, were not reduced to that perfect order and complete harmony which the present age exhibits; but still existing in a somewhat chaotic state, produced various jarrings and collisions, such as arrested forcibly the attention of men, and cherished in them a passion for the strange and eccentric. The scale of rank too being not so finely graduated as it now is, nor the various orders and descriptions of men in that perfect keeping which a view of life would at this day discover, opportunity was given for numberless strange and ludicrous conjunctions, in which the peculiarities of character and manner, which men had not yet learnt to modify or disguise, were strikingly displayed, and oddly contrasted. The observation of a people possessing naturally a large fund of humour, was thus taken up with catering for the gratification of its own taste for the ridiculous ; and in detecting and exposing the absurdities, which every turn and change in the fluctuating scene of life so plentifully revealed. The writers of the day, who are the index of the public taste, in whose page the manners of the age may be seen reflected, trimmed their

sails to the popular breeze, and carried to excess the prevailing passion for the ludicrous and eccentric. They did not, it is true, forsake nature altogether, and draw entirely from their own fancy; but they took her in strange attitudes, and singular habits :—they chose for their model every thing that was most outrageous in character, and most oddly combined, or whimsically opposed in situation, and viewing all objects with a desire to extract from them food for the popular appetite, they insensibly exaggerated and embellished, distorted or caricatured, every aspect and feature of common life. The existence, or even the popularity, of one or two great writers, whose genius stooped

[ocr errors]
« السابقةمتابعة »