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Constantius Afer was a philosopher and physician. We have remaining but two volumes folio of his philological performances. However, the historian who prefixes the life of the author to his works, says, that he wrote many more, as he kept on writing during the course of a long life.*
Lambertus published a universal history about this time, which has been printed at Frankfort, in folio. A universal history in one folio! If he had consulted with his bookseller, he would have spun it out to ten at least; but Lambertus might have had too much modesty.
By this time the reader perceives the spirit of learning which at that time prevailed. The ignorance of the age was not owing to a dislike of knowledge; but a false standard of taste erected, and a wrong direction given to philosophical inquiry. It was the fashion of the day to write dictionaries, commentaries, and compilations, and to evaporate in a folio the spirit that could scarcely have sufficed for an epigram. The most barbarous times had men of learning, if commentators, compilers, polemic divines, and intricate metaphysicians deserved the title.
I have mentioned but a very inconsiderable number of the writers in this age of obscurity. The multiplicity of their publications will at least equal those of any similar period of the most polite antiquity. As, therefore, the writers of those times are almost entirely forgotten, we may infer that the number of publications alone will never secure any age whatsoever from oblivion. Nor can printing, contrary to what M. Beaumellet has remarked,
[“And when he had thus compiled more than any man that ever went pefore him, he fell asleep: In domino obdormivit.”—First edit.]
+ [A French writer of some note, born in Languedoc 1727, died at Paris in 1773. See his “ Mes Pensées, ou Le Qu'en dira-t-on.” His principal work was “ Mémoires de Madame Maintenon,” 4 vols. 12mo. 1756.)
prevent literary decline for the future, since it only increases the number of books, without advancing their intrinsic merit.*
OF THE PRESENT STATE OF POLITE LEARNING IN ITALY.
From ancient we are now come to modern times, and in running over Europe, we shall find, that wherever learning has been cultivated, it has flourished by the same advantages as in Greece and Rome; and that, wherever it has declined, it sinks by the same causes of decay.
* (Here followed, in the first edition
" A PARALLEL BETWEEN THE RISE AND DECLINE OF ANCIENT AND
MODERN LEARNING. “ Few subjects have been more frequently and warmly debated, than the comparative superiority of the ancients and moderns. It is unaccountable how a dispute so trifling, could be contested with so much virulence. A dispute of this nature could have no other consequences, if decided, but to teach young writers to despise the one side or the other. A dispute, therefore, which, if determined, might tend rather to prejudice our taste than improve it, should have been argued with good-nature, as it could not with success.
For mere critics to be guilty of such scholastic rage, is not uncommon; but for men of the first rank of fame to be delinquent also, is, I own, surprising.
“ The reflecting reader need scarcely be informed, that this contested excellence can be decided in favor of neither. They have both copied from different originals, described the manners of different ages; have exhibited nature as they found her, and both are excellent in separate imitations. Homer describes his gods as his countrymen believed them. Virgil, in a more enlightened age, describes his with a greater degree of respect; and Milton still rises infinitely above either. The machinery of Homer is best adapted to an unenlightened idolater ; that of the Roman poet, to a more refined heathen; and that of Milton, to a reader illuminated by revelation. Had Homer wrote like Milton, his countrymen would have despised him ; had Milton adopted the theology of the ancient bard, he had been truly ridiculous. Again, should I depreciate Plautus for not enlivening his pieces with the characters of a Dante, the poet of Italy, who wrote in the thirteenth century, was the first who attempted to bring learning from the cloister into the community, and paint human nature in a language adapted to modern manners. He addressed a barbarous people in a method suited to their apprehensions; united purgatory and the river Styx, St. Peter and Virgil, heaven and hell together and shows a strange mixture of good sense and absurdity. The truth is, he owes most of his reputation to the obscurity of the times in which he lived. As in the land of Benin a man may pass for a prodigy of parts who can read, so in an age of barbarity, a small degree of excellence insures success. But it was great merit in him to have lifted up the standard of nature, in spite of all the opposition and the persecution he received from contemporary criticism.
To this standard every succeeding genius resorted ;* the germ of every art and science began to unfold; and to imitate nature was found to be the surest way of imitating antiquity. In a century or two after, modern Italy might justly boast of rivalling ancient Rome; equal in some branches of polite learning, and not far surpassed in others.
coquette, or a marquis, so humorous in modern comedy? or Molière, for not introducing a legal bawd, or a parasitical boaster, so highly finished in the Roman poet? My censure, in either case, would be as absurd as his, who should dislike a geographer for not introducing more rivers or promontories into a country, than nature had given it; or the natural historian for not enlivening his description of a dead landscape with a torrent, a cataract, or 8 volcano.
“ The parallel between antiquity and ourselves can therefore be managed to advantage only by comparing the rise and progress of ancient and modern learning together, so that being apprized of the causes of corruption in one, we may be upon our guard against any similar depravations in the other.”)
* [It is obvious, throughout Michael Angelo's works, that the poetical mind of Dante influenced his feelings. “I have read somewhere,” says Lord Byron, “ that Dante was so great a favorite of Michael Angelo's, that he had designed the whole of the Divina Commedia, but that the volumes containing those studies were lost by sea."-Works, vol. xi. p. 297.]
They soon, however, fell from emulating the wonders of antiquity into simple admiration. As if the word had been given when Vida and Tasso wrote on the arts of poetry, the whole swarm of critics was up. The Speronis* of the age attempted to be awkwardly merry; and the Virtuosi and the Nascotti sat upon the merits of every contemporary performance. After the age of Clement VII. the Italians seemed to think that there was more merit in praising or censuring well, than in writing well; almost every subsequent performance since their time being designed rather to show the excellence of the critic's taste than his genius. One or two poets, indeed, seem at present born to redeem the honor of their country. Metastasiot has restored nature in all her simplicity, and Maffei is the first that has introduced a tragedy among his countrymen without a love-plot. Perhaps the Samson of Milton, and the Athalia of Racine, might have been his guides in such an attempt. But two poets in an age are not sufficient to revive the splendor of decaying genius ; nor should we consider them as the standard by which to characterize a nation. Our measures of literary reputation must be taken rather from that numerous class of men, who, placed above the vulgar, are yet beneath the great, and who confer fame on others without receiving any portion of it themselves.
(Speroni was born at Padua in 1500, and died there in 1588. His writings, consisting of orations, dissertations, dialogues, letters, and a tragedy, were published in five volumes quarto.)
+(Metastasio was born in 1698, and died at Vienna in 1782, having completed his eighty-fourth year. Dr. Burney describes him, at the age of seventytwo, “as looking like one of fifty, and the handsomest man of his time of life he had ever beheld.”—“ This enchanting writer," says Dr. Wharton, “has been excelled by few moderns in genius and in learning. Hear a very serious philosopher asserting, that nothing can be more deeply affecting than the interesting scenes of the serious opera ; when to the poetry of Metastasio, and the music of Pergolesi, is added the execution of a good actor.'”_See Adam Smith's Essays, p. 159.]
1 (Maffei was born at Verona in 1675, and died there in 1755. « The glory of the tragic muse in this age is the • Merope' of the Marquis Scipione Maffei; ‘une tragédie,' says Voltaire, digne des beaux jours d'Athènes, dans laquelle l'amour d'une mère fait toute l'intrigue, et où le plus tendre intérêt nait de la vertu la plus pure.' But the praise of Voltaire is cold when compared with that of a living English writer of great literary eminence, who, struck with the classical charms of this drama, pronounces it, the most finished tragedy in the world." "-- Walker on Italian Tragedy, p. 232.]
In Italy, then, we shall nowhere find a stronger passion for the arts of taste, yet no country making more feeble efforts to promote either. The Virtuosi and Filosofi seem to have divided the Encyclopædia between each other: both inviolably attached to their respective pursuits; and, from an opposition of character, each holding the other in the most sovereign contempt. The Virtuosi, professed critics of beauty in the works of art, judge of medals by the smell, and pictures by feeling : in statuary, hang over a fragment with the most ardent gaze of admiration ; though wanting the head and the other extremities, if dug from a ruin, the Torso becomes inestimable. An unintelligible monument of Etruscan barbarity cannot be sufficiently prized; and any thing from Herculaneum excites rapture. When the intellectual taste is thus decayed, its relishes become false, and, like that of sense, nothing will satisfy but what is best suited to feed the disease.
Poetry is no longer among them an imitation of what we see, but of what a visionary might wish. The zephyr breathes the most exquisite perfume, the trees wear eternal verdure; fawns, and dryads, and hamadryads, stand ready to fan the sultry shepherdess, who has forgot indeed the prettinesses with which Guarini's shepherdesses have been reproached, but is so simple and innocent as often to have no meaning. Happy country, where the pastoral age begins to revive ! where the wits even of Rome are united into a rural group of nymphs and swains, under the appellation of modern Arcadians! where, in the midst of porticos,