« AnteriorContinuar »
SOME PASSAGES ON THE WRITINGS OF THE AUTHOR OF GILBERT EARLE.
The author of Gilbert Earle, and Mr. Blount's MSS. is unquestionably one of the most powerful prose writers of the day. We-do not here apply the term 'powerful in the sense in which it is now so frequently employed; for in this age of critical and political liberality, when every thing is dubbed superlative, writers and orators are eulogised as powerful, in exact proportion to the extravagance of their conceptions, and the unintelligibilityof the language in which they unfold, or rather we should say, obscure them. It is not in this sense that we adopt the term upon the present occasion; very far from it. Tie power of Mr. St. Leger, consists in the simple, yet forceful energy of his language; the clearness and beauty of his general conceptions ; and the 'resolute deliberation of judgment,' as Johnson has it, with which he introduces them to his readers. The chief attraction of his style, has its origin not so much in the tasteful selection of his language, for to use honest Sancho's mode of expression, he rarely seeks for better bread than is made of wheat, as in the current of vigorous thought, of which it is the vehicle. He does not, with certain modern pretenders to energy of style, wrap up the insignificant carcase of some paltry idea, like the mummy of an Egyptian king, in apparel the splendour and costliness of which is exactly proportioned to the worthlessness of the object it enshrines. If he clothes his thoughts in the 'purple and fine linen' of poetical diction, he does not smother them in 'cloth of gold,' or those tinsel and trumpery adornments which are so often made use of to hide the poverty of an author's fancy. There is, too, that easy and natural flow in his narrative, which Cicero was wont to define as the criterion of good writing; that gentlemanlike facility which is of all things the most difficult to imitate with success; and these qualities are more or less obvious in the slightest ebauche he dismisses from his prolific pen. As a romancer too, he is eminently successful in the choice, not so much of his leading incidents, as of the thousand little accessorial circumstances by which he contrives to stimulate the sympathy and curiosity of his readers. Thus, in his return from India, in Gilbert Earle, (one of the most touching and beautiful scenes, in the whole compass of modern fictitious literature,) the exile's minor, and, as would appearto the superficial observer, most insignificant reminiscences, are precisely those which stamp the deepest tragic interest and reality on the picture. The following specimen of the kind of power to which we allude, is unrivalled by any similar attempt with which we are acquainted;
I knew that my father had sunk almost into second childhood; but I had no expec- , tation of finding his imbecility so complete. He was seated in an easy chair near the window, which reached to the ground, that he might enjoy the mild and grateful warmth of a July sun-set. His limbs were wrapped in flannels, and he was supported by pillows on either Bide. His head shook tremulously—his eye was vacantly fixed—and his jaw drooped in the extremity of dotage. This miserable wreck, which humanity could scarcely look upon without a feeling of degradation, was all that remained of the hale and handsome man whom I had quitted—it was all that time and sorrow had spared of my father !—Our entrance attracted his attention, and he looked with surprise on the stranger .'—' Set a chair for the gentleman,' he muttered, almost mechanically; 'perhaps he would like to take something after his journey.' My heart swelled almost to bursting at this completion of my return home. This was what I had looked to so fondly and so long; and now, what was it but bitterness and sorrow? My sister saw my distress; and, going to my father, tried to make him comprehend who I was. 'I am glad to see him,' was the only answer which could be got from him. He made it mechanically—evidently totally unconscious of all which passed before him—his eye unmeaning—his words dreamingly spoken—and his whole aspect that of the lastflickerings of the flame of life before it sank out for ever.
My father was shortly removed to his own room, and my sister and I were left to talk over old times together. The room in which we sat was the library, and had undergone scarcely any change since I had last seen it. My eye could recognise the books in the very places in which 1 had left them :—the heavily bound, red-edged folios were ranged along the ground-row, untouched, most probably, since my early thirst for books had led me to explore them j—and, in one corner of the highest shelf, I saws white-backed copy of Gulliver's Travels, which I had nearly broken my neck in clambering to reach. Most of the furniture was new; but there was still an old blue «nd white china jar, which I had got into disgrace for cracking—and on which, was still to be seen the rivet which the house-keeper had placed upon it at my entreaty. A large old-fashioned back-gammon table, also, stood in one corner, which I well recollected as having been one of the delights of my boyhood :—and the picture which hung over the chimney—the only one in the room—was, as it had always been, the portrait of an ancient worthy of our race, arrayed in the angular stiffness—the large ruff—clocked stockings, and be-rosed shoes,—of the court dress of James the First's time. These circumstances may appear trifling;—but I recollect they made a strong impression upon me at the time,—and the task I have undertaken of writing the narrative of my life is naturally more a record of feelings than of events.
That such awriter should become popular is by no means remarkable; but that a man capable of such genuine pathos as this, should have been seduced into a Frenchness of sentiment altogether inconsistent with the down-right manly English simplicity of feeling which his genius would seem so especially adapted to delineate, is indeed calculated to excite very considerable surprise and regret among all who know how to appreciate his talents. Yet that this is really the case is no less true than strange. In regard to women, there is a vein of feeling running through some of his writings, which is no great way removed from positive libertinism. He cannot for the life of him interest himself in the fate of a lovely girl, unless she is married to some brute of a husband, and on the eve of committing a.faux-pas. It is notuntil a crisis like this approaches, that he begins to grow really fervent in her praise; and then, and not till then, does he describe her as a paragon of all that is lovely and estimable in woman. Thus, his heroines are for the most part endowed with every virtue which can fall to the lot of the sex—save one. They are gentle and beautiful as doves; they are in possession of every good quality under the sun, except that which is of the most vital importance to the female character,—chastity! They remind one of what has been wittily said of Lord Byron's Corsair; he wants but common honesty to render him one of the most gentlemanlike and agreeable personages in the whole range of fictitious writing. To point directly at examples of this lamentable perversion of ethical taste, Gilbert Earle's first love is a lady of precisely this character. Whilst her husband, whom she married of her own free will, but when she was so very young that ' she knew not what she did,' is described as 'one of those men who take a sullen and obstinate pride in stupidity and ignorance,'—' a morose savage,' 'a Caliban,' she is of course, his 'opposite in every quality;' full of genius, loveliness, and feeling; as kind as Charity, and almost as liberal in the distribution of her favours. In short, our author's anxiety to render the husband as degrading a personage as possible, is only equalled by the earnestness of his attempts to persuade us that the wife is all a woman need or ought to be. She married him, forsooth, when ' she knew not what she did:' when she was 'scarcely half taught in any thing!' The circumstance of her being a married woman, seems to have invested her with strong additional attractions for Gilbert Earle, and he accordingly falls most devoutly in love with her; blindly so indeed; for at the moment she was about to dishonour her wedded husband, and desert her child (she who could not look atabarefooted beggar's brat without tears!) he does notscruple to talk of her purity! And what is Mr. St. Leger's poetical justice for conduct like this? He puts the poor, morose devil of a husband out of the way shortly after his wife's elopement; and the only punishment awarded to the frail pair, is the reflection that had they waited a little longer, they might have gratified their illicit desires without drawing down upon them the condemnation of the world. Finally, she dies, and as our author seems to fancy, passes St. Peter with very little difficulty! What think our readers of such a morale as this? In another part of the same volume, Mr. Earle (who is withal a very charming man) countenanceshis friend in the seduction of the pretty daughter of a petty farmer on his domain; visits her in her state of open and shameless profligacy, and, having, aided in the destruction of her immortal soul, finally saves her when she has descended to the last stage of human degradation, from perishing' in the streets of London! And all this execrable taste occurs in one little book, which, for passionate earnestness of style, vividness of description, and pathos of the deepest and most overwhelming character, is not surpassed by any single volume of the same description in modern literature. Within the last few days, another work, from Mr. St. Leger's pen, entitled ' Mr. Blount's MSS.' being sketches of the life of a man of the world, has issued from the press ; evincing much of the genius of his first attempt, with not a little of the unhappy taste we have just taken occasion to reprobate.
Mr. Philip Blount is, at the commencement of these volumes, a gay, accomplished, warm, though fickle hearted young man of fashion; who, tired of the round of London dissipations, sets out on his travels abroad, with apparently two or three such laudable objects as that of dissipating ennui, by looking at the pretty grisettes of France, and the more bewitching blondes of Italy; and of writing long and very interesting letters and diaries concerning his proceedings, for the use of his ostensible biographer. Throughout the narrative given in these uncomfortably disjointed letters and fragments, there is, however, we rejoice to say, less of French and German sentimentality than is to be met with in Gilbert Earle; and, as the overwhelming grief of Mr. Blount's life is referred to the falseness of his taste, and his libertine apprehension of the shackles of matrimony in youth, we have no right to attribute the laxity of morals obvious in some of what profess to be his confidential .communications, to the author of the book. But to the story. During a short sojourn at Tours (while you live never send your hero to any part of France save the South) Mr. Blountbecomes acquainted with a young Italian girl of gentle birth, peerless beauty, universal accomplishments, and, of course superlative amiability of character. She had lost her mother some six years before, and was then residing with her aunt, although (having completed her education) on the eve of returning with her only survivingparent, an Italian, to his native land.
They are in due time mutually entranced with each other; she is every thing that the heart of man can imagine of pure and lovely in woman; but our convert to the philosophy of Rousseau is hampered between two alternatives; he does not like to attempt the seduction of such a creature; he has some qualms about him as to that; but be cannot prevail upon himself to talk to her of marriage, (although his fate is, in this respect, at his own disposal), because he is still too much of an Exquisite to care to resign his liberty! And having, like a coxcomb as he is, asked himself the question, of ' what do I intend to do with this love, now that I have excited it,' he resolves, that 'his heart is more interested in the matter than he intended it should be;' takes time for consideration; and at length, after cool and mature deliberation, decides, that ,he will neither 'marry, nor do worse.' He accordingly suffers his adored'Antonia to depart without any explanation, althongh not without a severe struggle with himself to prevent his putting the climax to the injurieshe has inflicted upon her, by urging her to become the partner of his journey. When she is fairly gone, he begins to snivel and whine, and write long epistles full of ' deep regret,' and 'kefii reproach.' In a month or two, however, he goes to Paris, (the year is 1789), whence he dates some interesting but rather long-winded accounts of several important political events, and among others the destruction of the Bastile, (which is in short little more than a version of the most authentic French account of that extraordinay affair). From Paris, Mr. Blount goes to Spa, as we discover from the abruptly introduced ' story of Blanche Delvyn, where it is not his fault that he does not engage in another amour, of a less platonic kind than the one to which we have just alluded. The story of Blanch Delvyn, is beautifully told, but liable to many objections. Its morality has, nevertheless, been greatly improved since its publication in the Album. She too, a self-devoted victim to the demon of matrimony, (for with this author, matrimony can only be personified by a devil), goes to the altar for the purpose of pledging her vows to a man whom she positively abhors. * She held him' (her husband), says her historian, 'lightly, for his want of sense; she laughed at him for his pompous assumption of it; she despised him for his narrow and undignified ways of thinking; she hated him for his morose and cloudy temper;' and yet, in spite of all these ungracious feelings, she married him! Mr. St. Leger would fain persuade us, that she was influenced by her father; but the only influence of this kind we could ever make any allowance for, is that described in the pathetic ballad of Auld Robin Gray, and even there the victim neither despised nor hated her 'gude man.' Was it not the coronet of the Earl of Montore that offered the main inducement? We should rather suspect itwas. In our intercourse with the fair sex, we have commonly remarked, that women who manifest the most unblushing disregard of the opinions of the world, and the bienseance of society, are almost invariably those who pretend that the first cause of their ruin was, their deference to parental influence. We hold the opinion, that a brazen adulteress could never have been a dutiful daughter. But to return to the story of Blanch Delvyn: in about a year and a half after her marriage, she elopes with her cavalier servente, and writes a long sentimental letter from Paris, to a friend in England upon the subject, in which she abuses her husband, in the most approved terms of fashionable censure; adding that she believes that if she had borne him children her hatred for him would have destroyed the strong feeling of maternal love. Well, and what is the nature of the punishment inflicted upon this candid and amiable woman, for her hypocrisy and adultery? Her seducer's coldness. At Spa, Mr. Blount renews his acquaintanceship with Blanch and her protector, and narrowly escapes depriving his old friend ofa companion, forwhose society he seems long to have lost all relish. However, he escapes the snare; consoles himself by translating into English a Legend of the Rhine, and having passed into Italy, learns from his beautiful Italian, that she is on the eve of entering a convent. He attempts to gain an interview with her; but, finding that she has really taken the veil, returns to England. Once more he enters the busy and fashionable world, and discovers that he has wasted both his time and energies, and lost an excellent opportunity of setting down happily for life. Two or three years afterwards, he receives a letter from Antonia, informing him that the events which consequent the French Revolution, have enabled her to obtain a dispensation of her conventual vows, and sounding him in very delicate terms as to the state of his affections towards her He replies by imploring her to come to England and be married. She consents ; but the vessel in which she is passenger, is wrecked off Hastings, and she, and every soul on board, save a little Italian boy, perish.
Here the story should have concluded; for what interest can survive the loss of such a woman as Antonia. However the author seems to have been ofadifferent opinion, and therefore transforms his wretched hero from a man of fortune to a gamester; from a gamester, by a very natural transition, to a beggar; and from a beggar to the despising and contemptuous husband of a woman of wealth and fashion. Here the author again displays his very questionable taste, by making the newly married spouse abuse his wife, as bitterly as. Blanch Delvyn did her husband. Who that knows any thing of the laws which govern decent society and the human heart does not know that a sen se ofa man's own dignity, to say nothing of the feelngs or courtesy which should characterise a gentleman, ought to restrain him from reviling the woman whom he has condescended to honour with his hand. Besides, a man, who like Mr. Blount has the meanness to marry a woman to save himself from a gaol should exhibit a little more gratitude and forbearance than are presented to us in this picture.
We are almost ashamed of having been affected as deeply as we have with these volumes; but with all their faults they are full of literary beauties of the very highest order. If the author will but purify himself from his very apocryphal opinions respecting women and marriage, he may commrfnd any rank in the modern Republic of Letters he chooses to select for himself; for if we except Sir Walter Scott, and his son-in-law, Mr. Lockhart, there is no one who can compete with him on his own ground.
With regard to his passion for the spurious sentimentality of France and Germany, it disfigures even his style, admirable as it is, in all other respects. He cannot write a page without introducing some affected foreign phrase which does not assist his expression one jot; nay, which often gives an artificial appearance to a passage full of passion and nature. Let him but eschew at once these unseemly excrescences of feeling and of taste, and no one will hail his re-appearance before the public with more sincere .pleasure than the author of these hasty and imperfect observation.