Page images
PDF
EPUB

lecting and collating their evidence. The observations of each are corrected, enlarged, illustrated, by those of the others; and the narrative compiled from their combined statements is more accurate and complete than the separate recollections of him who saw the most and observed the best of them all. Again, the evidence by which events and characters are illustrated is brought out, not wholly at one time, but item by item, in the long lapse of years and ages. The farther they recede in time, the more is known about them. The work to be performed by history extends through all past ages, and its greatest achievements have been accomplished by the most modern writers revealing in a new light the most ancient epochs. The French Revolution is not yet ready to be recorded. In the mean time, contributions are continually flowing in, and the materials requisite to present it in a just and full light will at last be provided. Innumerable writers, occupying various points of observation, and enjoying different degrees of advantage, are collecting and exhibiting, each in his sphere, what they can. They are all to be heard and considered, and from the whole a final result will be inscribed, in letters of truth and justice, on the permanent page of history.

The work before us, as the previous writings of the author would lead us to expect, is an extremely interesting, and may in some respects be considered as quite a valuable, addition to the means of attaining a correct knowledge of the French Revolutionary events and characters.

In the strictest sense, history wears the form of annals, and is a continuous relation of events, sustained by such official or documentary evidence, or monumental records, as render it certain and unquestionable. In this form it conveys to the mind all the satisfaction - and perhaps there is none that ought to be greater- of assurance, of feeling the solid ground of fact and truth beneath us. But the narrative of what is thus absolutely sure and certain is often too dry, meagre, and fragmentary, to suggest lively emotions to the mind. Fable and fancy have been called in to supply the deficiency. The imagination is a faculty whose sphere is of far higher utility and importance than is commonly allowed. It is needed, and unconsciously exercised actively and potently, even in the most sluggish minds, in the daily experience of life. Language does not so much convey as suggest ideas. In every

application, it seeks and needs the coöperation of the imagination. Language presents the skeleton; imagination clothes it with flesh, and bloom, and life. Language, as used to recall the past to the knowledge of the present and the future, that is, in the form of history, can offer but a few detached facts and features ; the mind of the reader must supply, by its faculty of imagination, much that is requisite in order to answer the

purpose,

which is for the moment to bring the past and the dead into an ideal presence and life. And this is done by all who read with attention. When a Moses, a David, a Cæsar, is the theme of ancient scripture, whether sacred or profane, the reader creates in his own mind some sort of image or picture of his person or aspect; and so of all characters or scenes. The accuracy, the completeness, and the interest of such ideal creations, on the part of the reader, depend of course upon his knowledge of the manners, institutions, domestic and private life, costume, and general conditions of the time and place. The child always does this, and derives from it the highest delight ; and the most mature mind does it too, although not so evidently to others, or consciously to itself. A discerning analysis would always reveal such a process in the mind of a reader or hearer; and not in historical matters only, but in all things. Indeed, this complement supplied by the imagination is necessary, and occurs in the use of all general, or as they are called, abstract terms. Unless this is done, such terms become mere words ; they can only thus be rendered the vehicles of any sense or meaning whatever. The word white can answer its purpose only by recalling to the mind some image or object of which it is a quality. Indeed, the creative process of the imagination, in thus calling up images in the mind to complete the picture, of which language presents the suggestive elements, takes place in all minds, and at all times.

In reverting from these general reflections to the consideration of history, we would observe, that, in respect of the records which have come down to us from a remote antiquity, our knowledge of the interior scenes and familiar experience of private and social life is so limited, that the mind cannot fill up the outlines and supply the details to complete the brief records of history to any considerable extent.

But in respect of recent eras and transactions in modern history, there promises to be an abundant supply of materials. The diffi

culty is rather in selecting than in collecting them. Memoirs, and other forms of historical literature, in our day, give us an abundance of details of private and, in themselves separately considered, trivial circumstances, from which the imagination of the reader, if guided by a discriminating judgment, may cull the elements by whose combination the actors and the scenes can be reproduced, as in real life and visible motion. The great danger is, that, instead of leaving this task, or rather gratification, to the reader, the writer himself will undertake to draw upon his imagination. If he will confine himself to truth and fact, the more minute and full he is in his details, the better ; if, like the work before us, his history is gathered from unpublished sources, if it relates matters so private and interior as to be beyond the reach of official or public records, such as familiar conversations, domestic incidents, minutiæ of dress, fashion, or person, all that we ask is, that he present nothing which has not been ascertained, to his own conviction, by the requisite and appropriate evidence. With such grounds of general confidence in the accuracy and truthfulness of a writer, the more details he gives us ; the better for the better he enables us, while we read his pages, to construct a perfect and life-like moving panorama of the scenes and characters he describes.

Whenever a new work makes its appearance, of sufficient interest to attract the notice of the public, and of any considerable intrinsic value, it is one part of the office of the critic to help the reader perforin a task, which must always be accomplished before we can derive the proper benefit from books, but which, to the great discredit of the prevalent literature, is a peculiarly necessary and onerous task, at the present time. A large quantity of rubbish is to be cleared away. The reigning fashion encumbers literature with an overshadowing, but very superficial, growth of irrelevant conceits, which obscure much that deserves a better fate than to be hidden and lost. In the days of the schoolmen, there was not a greater proclivity to indulge in certain mystic combinations of terms, which then, as well as now, men were deluded enough to call philosophy. What is really no more than a play upon abstract and general terms is thought to give an air of profoundness to style, and admits a writer to the favor and privileges of a select circle of mutual admirers. To obtain the fame of a philosopher or a profound thinker, little more is needed than to become familiar, adept, and flippant in the use of a limited number of expressions applied on all occasions and to all topics alike. Such peculiarities are to be thrown aside, as he advances, by a sensible reader, and utterly disregarded as an unfortunate superfluity and incumbrance, with which the writer has diluted his pages, and interrupted the current, and darkened the import of his narrative, his reasoning, or his reflections. Our author belongs to this school of writers, and, mistaking the nature of abstract terms, is much inclined to strain after singular collocations of them, and often appears to imagine that he has said something very deep and very bright, because, in this talismanic use of particular words and phrases, he has arranged them in strange and bold juxtaposition. We will select some instances of this kind of boy's play, but would observe by the way, that, as with other writers of real force of mind, who have fallen into this conceited and unhappy style, the commencement of his work is much more disfigured by it than the advanced portions. As Lamartine's mind becomes warm and earnest in the narrative of facts and the description of men and events, it loses sight of artificial frivolities of manner, and insensibly redeems itself from trifles.

The fact, that peculiarities of talent, taste, and genius sometimes appear to be hereditary, is stated in the following inflated and oracular style.

“The ancestors of Mirabeau speak of their domestic affairs as Plutarch of the quarrels of Marius and Sylla, of Cæsar and Pompey. We perceive the great men descending to trifling matters. Mirabeau inspired this domestic majesty and virility in his very cradle. I dwell on these details, which may seem foreign to this history, but explain it. The source of genius is often in ancestry, and the blood of descent is sometimes the prophecy of destiny." Vol. 1. p. 3.

Again, a plain and simple thought is thus expressed :

“ His youth was passed in the prisons of the state ; his passions becoming envenomed by solitude, and his intellect being rendered more acute by contact with the irons of his dungeon, where his mind lost that modesty which rarely survives the infamy of precocious punishments.” – Vol. 1. p. 4.

It would be no slight task to reduce into intelligible, manly common sense the purport of the following clauses.

“His faith was posterity; his conscience existed but in his thought; the fanaticism of his idea was quite human; the chilling materialism of his age had crushed in his heart the expansion, force, and craving for imperishable things. His dying words were, 'Sprinkle me with perfumes, crown me with flowers, that I may thus enter upon eternal sleep.' He was especially of his time, and his course bears no impress of infinity. Neither his character, his acts, nor his thoughts have the brand of immortality. If he had believed in God, he might have died a martyr, but he would have left behind him the religion of reason and the reign of democracy. Mirabeau, in a word, was the reason of the people; and that is not yet the faith of humanity !” – Vol.

1. p. 7.

Of Rousseau Lamartine thus lucidly expresses himself :

“He had been the tribune of nature, the Gracchus of philosophy — he had not produced the history of institutions, only its vision but that vision descended from heaven and returned thither."

Vol. 1. p. 15. But it will suffice to indicate the character of the extraneous matter with which he has encumbered and obscured his work, to quote the following, which constitutes an entire section of the First Book. The reader who demands that language shall have some meaning in it will find bimself unable to interpret this oracular passage, and whenever he encounters similar effusions, will pass over and set them aside, just as he would brush from the page any foreign substance that might be thrown upon it.

“ Human thought, like God, makes the world in its own image. “ Thought was revived by a philosophical age. " It had to transform the social world.

“ The French Revolution was therefore in its essence a sublime and impassioned spirituality. It had a divine and universal ideal. This is the reason why its passion spread beyond the frontiers of France. Those who limit mutilate it. It was the accession of three moral sovereignties:

“ The sovereignty of right over force ;
“ The sovereignty of intelligence over prejudices;
“ The sovereignty of people over governments.
“ Revolution in rights ; equality.
" Revolution in ideas ; reasoning substituted for authority.
“ Revolution in facts; the reign of the people.
“ A Gospel of social rights.
A Gospel of duties, a charter of humanity.

« PreviousContinue »