« PreviousContinue »
Shall all the new agencies which have sprung up be left to the control of bad or reckless men; or shall they be examined, and when they contain an element of good, be improved and wielded in the cause of right? We advocate' most decidedly the latter course. “ Prove all things,” says an apostle," hold fast that which is good.” Let that which has been proved to be evil, and only evil continually, be condemned and exploded, but that which must exist and may be made a blessing, be fostered and improved. On this principle we think the theatre, which is an old sinner, and nothing but a sinner, deserves to rest under the reprobation of the virtuous, while the lyceum, originating in the wants of the age, and capable of much good, may very properly be fostered and used for the best interests of the community.
With these remarks upon the subject of popular lecturing in general, we pass to the particular specimens of lectures contained in the books named at the head of this article. On this part of our subject we must necessarily be brief.
These two volumes are brought together here, not from any particular affinity between them, but rather as indicating a whole class by its extremes; just as throughout life, every whole is made up of an antithesis of opposites, as of good and evil
, light and darkness, summer and winter. They occupy directly opposite poles. Not only are they wide apart, but they are diversely electrified ; and what is more, the one draws its electricity from the earth, and the other from the clouds. The one reflects the wholesome views of literature and life” which are current among men; the other, the mysterious mutterings of spirits of the night and of the air. The one sends up a gentle and healthful light from our hearths and homes; the other darts down fitful flashes and baleful strokes from the regions of darkness and mist.
Mr. WHIPPLE is a gentleman of fine parts and studious habits, who, in connection with the duties of a regular business employment, has attained a high degree of mental cultivation, and an extensive acquaintance with English literature. For several years he has been widely known as an able and brilliant critic and lecturer, and now, we believe, is considered on all hands the most accomplished of American essayists. His Reviews, in two volumes, have been before the public some two or three years, and have been greatly admired and much read; while his Lectures show a most decided public appreciation, in the fact that they have already reached a second edition. Mr. Whipple, as far as we are aware, has never attempted any extended work, but confined himself to
short essays, mostly in the form of reviews and lectures. This may be owing in part to the necessary distractions of a business employment, which allows of short and brilliant efforts, but hardly of continuous and laborious composition. But whatever may be the cause of his devoting himself to this species of literature, we consider the selection fortunate. While he has all the qualities of a critical and pungent essayist,-clear insight, nice discrimination, a playful fancy, and tingling wit,—we doubt if he possesses, in large measure at least, those comprehensive views and large conceptions of nature and of man which are essential to the production of a great work. He has more fancy than imagination, more wit than humor, more critical acumen than intuition, more culture than native power, is more of a lecturer than an orator, more a reviewer than a producer of thought. But perhaps we do Mr. Whipple injustice in thus inferring his inadaptedness to other species of literature from his eminent adaptedness to that which he has cultivated. But few, if any, we know, have the ability to excel in all departments of literature ; still, that a man has succeeded in one department is clearly no proof that he could not succeed in another, but as far as it goes perhaps is evidence to the contrary; since success in one thing gives a presumption at least in favor of success in other things. Of his distinguished success as an essayist there can be no doubt; of this the volume of Lectures before us gives the most convincing evidence. We will briefly indicate and illustrate some of the more prominent of their excellences.
The Lectures, to all intents and purposes, are essays, yet essays admirably adapted to the end and occasions for which they were prepared, -to be heard, not read,—to be spoken before audiences with varying degrees of cultivation, and in most cases assembled with the expectation of being entertained as well as instructed. To meet these demands, the author, while he has held himself to a thorough discussion of his subjects within the bounds proposed, has woven into his discourse apt illustrations and pertinent anecdotes, and sprinkled over the whole texture with wit. Nearly every lecture in the volume is a model in this respect of what a popular literary lecture ought to be. They exhibit the writer as retaining a proper respect for himself and his subject, and yet as anxious to instruct and entertain his audience. Take the following passage in illustration, from the lecture on “ The Ludicrous Side of Life:"
thought by which the mind escapes from a seemingly hopeless dilemma is worth all the vestments of dignity which the world holds. It was this readiness in repartee which continually saved Voltaire from social overturn. He once praised another writer very heartily to a third person. * It is very strange," was the reply, " that you speak so well of him, for he says that you are a charlatan.”—“Oh!" replied Voltaire, “I think it very likely that both of us may be mistaken.'
Robert Hall did not lose his power of retort even in madness. A hypocritical condoler with his misfortunes once visited him in the mad-house, and said, in a whining tone, "What brought you here, Mr. Hall ?” Hall significantly touched his brow with his finger, and replied, “What'll never bring you, sir,—too much brain !"
It was this readiness which made John Randolph so terrible in retort. He was the Thersites of Congress,-a tongue-stabber. No hyperbole of contempt or scorn could be launched against him but he could overtop it with something more scornful and contemptuous. Opposition only maddened him into more brilliant bitterness. " Isn't it a shame, Mr. President,” said he one day in the Senate, “that the noble bull-dogs of the administration should be wasting their precious time in worrying the rats of the opposition ?" Immediately the Senate was in an uproar, and he was clamorously called to order. The presiding officer however sustained him; and pointing his long skinny finger at his opponents, Randolph 'screamed out, " Rats, did I say?-mice, mice.” (Pp. 148, 149.)
Another marked excellence of the Lectures is, the independence and manliness of their tone. Mr. Whipple is a selfeducated and self-made man, from which circumstance he derives some peculiarities and some advantages. Not that it is any advantage either to have educated or made oneself, unless it has been well done. The peculiarity in Mr. Whipple's case is, that he has made and educated himself weil. The advantages which he might have received from birth or fortune or the university he has not despised or despaired of, but put himself resolutely at work to supply from his own resources. And so completely has he supplied them, that a careless eye would hardly detect in his writings any evidence of the want of a scholastic education. Of course you will find in him nothing of that flippant conceit and ludicrous over-estimate of the importance of his opinions and powers so common in self-educated men; and yet there is in some cases a certain air of smartness and positiveness in his views, which we feel persuaded that a wider and deeper culture would somewhat abate. But, perhaps, what is lost in this way is more than made up by the freshness and independence which his views acquire from being worked out and expressed in his own way. His thoughts seem to partake of the elasticity and vigor of a laboring man. Many of them come out with such a jerk that they fairly ring. Every sentence is replete with life and joy. The views of “ literature and life” are always manly and wholesome. There is not
a word of pretending cant, of mawkish sentimentality, or effeminate whining at the hardships of life in the whole book. Milton and Dante and Wordsworth are his greatest literary heroes; and as much as he abhors scamps, he seems to abhor flats more, as in the following passage :
But about the beginning of the present century a new order of fictions came into fashion. As novelties commonly succeed with the public, some enterprising authors tried the speculation of discarding indecency. Sentimentality, the opposite evil
, was substituted, and the dynasty of rakes was succeeded by the dynasty of flats. Lady Jane Brazenface, the former heroine, abdicated in favor of Lady Arabella Dieaway. The bold, free, reckless libertine of the previous romances now gave way to a lavendered young gentleman, the very pink and essence of propriety, faultless in features and in morals, and the undisputed proprietor of crushed affections and two thousand sterling a year. The inspiration of this tribe of novelists was love and weak tea; the soul-shattering period of courtship was their field of action. (P. 50.)
But the most striking feature of these Lectures is the astonishing command of language which they evince. It is so great as to be almost marvellous. Nothing seems to be too subtle, too remote, or too evanescent to be expressed by their copious and pliant dialect. Mr. Whipple has singular ability in tracing out and expressing those hidden connections of things and those slight, ethereal, and fugitive notions, which float as mere glimpses or visions in most men's minds. His keen, delicate, agile, genial, jubilant mind plays around and through his subject, threading its way along every vein of gold, like electricity. It is not the least of the merits of his Lectures that they are nearly all upon subjects which, though of very considerable importance, are so evanescent in their nature, that they are generally overlooked by writers, or treated of in the loosest or meagerest manner possible. There is scarcely one of these subjects on which a writer of no more than ordinary subtlety and ingenuity of thought, and aptness and copiousness of expression, would not say all that he has to say in a very few pages. But under the magic touch of Mr. Whipple, thought rises on thought, and word treads on word, till what in less affluent hands would be poor and unsatisfactory, grows into a rich, instructive, and extended discourse. In addition to those already quoted, we can give but a single short specimen of his light, brisk, exuberant style, and which is scarcely better than forty others that might be selected from the volume :
There is probably no literature equal to the English in the number and variety of its humorous characters, as we find them in Shakspeare, Jon
son, Fletcher, Fielding, Goldsmith, Addison, Scott, and Dickens. There is nothing so well calculated to make us cheerful and charitable, nothing which sinks so liquidly into the mind, and floods it with such a rich sense of mirth and delight, as these comic creations. How they flash upon our inward world of thought, peopling it with forms and faces whose beautiful facetiousness sheds light and warmth over our whole being! How their eyes twinkle and wink with the very unction of mirth! How they roll and tumble about in a sea of delicious fun, unwearied in rogueries, and drolleries, and gamesome absurdities, and wheedling gibes, and loudringing, extravagant laughter,-revelling and rioting in hilarity,—with countless jests and waggeries running and raining from them in a sun-lit stream of jubilant merriment! How they flood life with mirth! How they roll up pomposity and pretense into great balls of caricature, and set them sluggishly in motion before our eyes, to tear the laughter from our lungs ! (P. 115.)
Amid these excellences, and others which might be named, we find some defects also. The style, always neat, graceful, and nimble, rather than condensed and massive, occasionally appears prim and finical ;—witness especially the uncommonly frequent use of the possessive case of a noun, instead of making it dependent upon the preposition of, as in such expressions as, “ earth’s industrial and political sovereigns," “ earth's proudest palaces,” “ the world's fortunes,” which are all found on the first three pages of the first lecture. With much too that is serious, and wholesome, and sound in Mr. Whipple's views and feelings, we must think that the general tone of his mind is too light and gamesome. His wit often runs away with him, and his hatred of canters and flats is too often directed, or at least hits, weak it may be, but benevolent laborers in the holiest of causes,-causes which are of more value to our race than all the wit and witlings in the world. As Christian reviewers, also, we should observe that Mr. Whipple's moral and religious principles, though generally sound, appear to rest too little upon revelation, and are measured too much by worldly standards.
With these remarks we pass from this most agreeable writer and lecturer to another of a very different character.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON has long been known to the public as a propounder of strange doctrines, and a maker of brilliant sentences, both in poetry and prose. He has published several volumes of Essays, Poems, &c., of which the general character may be indicated by saying that the poetry is prosaic, and the prose poetic. Mr. Emerson was educated for the priesthood; but, were we to judge from his writings, we should say, rather for the Mahometan or Brahminical than for the Christian priesthood. He quotes the Koran or the Vedas quite as often as the Bible, and with full as much respect. Be