Imagens da página

of the life and opinions of this remarkable man as presented in his letters and biography. In life and character he was most lovely, and original in his simplicity and loveliness; and this, with his grand superiority of thought and style to almost the whole range of modern English literature, makes his whole genius and moral excellence so striking, that it seems an ungrateful task to dwell even upon speculative defects. In this mine of precious metal, the discovery of a vein of very different and contradictory material compels us to a close examination of it, and of the hidden causes that might have produced it. Many are the laborers that have been working in this mine, and bringing out whole ingots of gold for the manufacture of their own pots, and cups, and vessels, who never dreamed, till recently, that there was anything but gold in its deep, curious, far-reaching seams of treasure. We shall find that “an enemy hath done this,” and that it is one of the most memorable examples of his infernal and partially success

ful enginery.

Mr. Foster was born in 1770. His father was a substantial farmer and weaver, a strong-minded man and Christian. early childhood John Foster

was reserved and thoughtful, constitutionally pensive, full of emotion and sentiment, but of “an infinite shyness” in the revelation of his feelings. As early as the age of twelve years he expresses himself as having had “ a painful sense of an awkward but entire individuality.' » He possessed by nature an intensely vivid power of association, combined with great strength and vividness of imagination. He was endowed with an exquisite sensibility to the loveliness and meaning of the world of external scenery. There was indeed in him such a remarkable combination of all the requisites for a great poet, that it seems almost strange that the qualities of his being had not run in that mould. He would have made the most thoughtful poet that ever lived.

No man that has ever read it can have forgotten the exquisitely beautiful passage on the influence of nature over the sensibility and imagination in the Essay on a man's writing Memoirs of himself. There are similar passages in Mr. Foster's Review of the Philosophy of Nature. His own mind was developed under the power of deep impulses from the richness, grandeur and beauty of the creation, and there was within him "an internal economy of ideas and sentiments, of a character and a color correspondent to the beauty, vicissitude and grandeur, which continually press upon the senses. “ Sweet Nature !” exclaims he in one of his letters, “ I have conversed with her with inexpressible luxury; I have almost worshipped her. A flower, a tree, a bird, a fly, has been enough to kindle a delightful train of ideas and emotions, and sometimes to elevate the mind to sublime conceptions. When the Autumn stole on, I observed it with the most vigilant attention, and felt a pensive regret to see those forms of beauty, which tell that all the beauty is going soon to depart.” For this reason he would sometimes come back from his walks, after witnessing in the fields some of the flowers, with which Nature prophesies the closing season of their loveliness, and say in a tone of sadness, “I have seen a fearful sight to-day ; I've seen a buttercup !" Though he took great delight in flowers, he would not often gather them, because he would not shorten their existence; he loved to see them live out their little day.

The youth of this being of such exquisite and original genius was spent mainly in weaving. Till his fourteenth year he worked at spinning wool to a thread by the hand-wheel, and for three years afterwards he wove double stuffs and lastings. Strange indeed ! for meanwhile his passion for learning was such, that he would sometimes shut himself up in the barn for hours, and study what books he could get hold of, and then was tied to the loom again. Thus he was self-educated, sparingly, and not very favorably, until his seventeenth year, when he became a member of the Baptist Church under the pastorship of the venerable Dr. Fawcett, under whose directions he prosecuted his theological studies for a season at Brearly Hall.

In his Essay on a man's writing memoirs of himself, Mr. Foster has remarked, in reference to the effect of much and various reading on the mind in its development, that “it is probable that a very small number of books will have the pre-eminence in our mental history. Perhaps your memory will recur promptly to six or ten that have contributed more to your present habit of feeling and thought, than all the rest together. And here it may be observed that when a few books of the same kind have pleased us emphatically, they too often form an almost exclusive taste, which is carried through all future reading, and is pleased only with books of that kind." His own taste in reading carried him much into the region of the romantic, the imaginative and the wonderful, in history and character. He loved to read books of travels, and always drew illustrations with great force and beauty from his excursions through this kind of literature. On a comparison of his correspondence with the volume of his Essays a most striking resemblance will be found between the habits of mind, the trains of thinking, reading and observation, and the prevailing character of the feelings, developed in the one and in the other. No man ever drew more from himself, in the composition of a great work, or turned more directly into illustration of his subjects the influences that had formed his own being and opinions, or more truly, though perhaps unintentionally, set down the great features of his own nature, than Mr. Foster in the writing of his Essays. Milton's Paradise Lost is not more stamped with the grandeur of his own mind and feelings, and the sublimity of his imagination, than Foster's Essays with his. Indeed the Essays

For no

occupy a place in that department of English Literature almost as separate and supreme as the Paradise Lost does in the department of its poetry. In power of thought and style they are unrivalled, unequalled.

Young's Night Thoughts occupied a conspicuous place among the books which attracted Foster's early notice, and under the influence of which the characteristics of his mind were much formed and developed. The strain of gloomy and profound sublimity in that poem suited perfectly the original bent of his intellect, the character of his imagination, and his tendencies of feeling, so that it wrought upon him with a powerful effect. It even had much to do with the moulding of his style, as well as the sustaining and enriching of his native sublimity of sentiment. Almost all Foster's pages are tinged with the sombre, thoughtful grandeur of the night-watcher; they reflect the lonely magnificence of midnight and the stars. And there are images in Young, which describe the tenor of Foster's meditative life, occupied, so much of it, with intense contemplations on the future life, in pacing to and fro upon the beach of that immortal sea which brought us hither. one ever saw him but he seemed to

“Walk thoughtful on the solemn, silent shore

Of that vast ocean we must sail so soon.” His love and admiration of Young's Night Thoughts he carried with him through life. Of Milton he remarked that “ Milton's genius might harmoniously have mingled with the angels that announced the Messiah to be come, or that on the spot and at the moment of his departure predicted his coming again.” He held in great admiration the powerful mind of Johnson. His Essays, as well as some of his Reviews, are such a proof of the discriminating power, taste and admirable thought and illustration with which he would pass through the range of English and Classical literature, especially as a Christian critic, that they make one wish that he had given to the world a volume on the principles of criticism.

But it should have been in the shape of original investigations ; for Mr. Foster's Reviews, though full of profound thought and fine illustrations, are not, on the whole, equal to his Essays. He was limited by the stuff. Nothing imposed upon him as a task, by a subject presented from abroad, was equal to what grew out of his own mind. That was a region of thought ; affluence and originality of thought ; but it was spontaneous, and the forms it must take should be so, too, if they would exhibit the whole power and originality of the author. Besides, his subjects were often not congenial, and this was a circumstance which made a great difference in the workings of his genius, and of course in its productions. The mind may have vast original stores and capacities ; but every talismanic inscription is not the one that can open or command them. The silk-worm weaves from itself, but it feeds

[ocr errors]

on mulberries; it could not produce silk from rose leaves or the oak. The aliments of genius are almost as important as its elements.

The range of Mr. Foster's theological studies does not seem to have been comprehensive, nor does he seem to have cared to have it such ; hating party systems to such a degree as to be carried almost into the opposite extreme. Some instructive hints as to unfavorable early associations connecting themselves with the system of Evangelical truth are to be found in the second and third of his letters on the aversion of men of taste to Evangelical religion, from which one may conjecture similar unfortunate influences to have operated on Mr. Foster's mind early in life. After he had finished his course under Dr. Fawcett at Brearly Hall, he came under the tutorship of Mr. Hughes, the founder and Secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, in the Baptist Seminary at Bristol. Mr. Hughes's

mental vigor was of such a nature,' to use the expression of Foster himself, “as to communicate a kind of contagion," while his piety was deep and fervent.

Foster early speaks in several of his letters of an "excessive constitutional indolence, which is unwilling to purchase even the highest satisfaction at the price of little mental labor.” He sometimes wished himself “engaged in some difficult undertaking, which he must absolutely accomplish, or die in the attempt.” It was not an aversion to the labor of hard thinking, but of writing. It cost him severe self-denial and effort to put pen to paper.

Dr. Johnson used to say, a man can write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it. All that a mind like Johnson's or Foster's needed was the first dogged effort, and then the intellectual machinery would move from mere excitement.

Mr. Foster's first regular engagement as a preacher was with a small auditory at Newcastle-on-Tyne. There were some ten or twelve individuals, who listened to his original discourses with breathless interest, but he remained here little more than three months, and in 1793 went to preach to a Baptist society in Dublin. It was an uncongenial situation, and he abandoned it in little more than a year, having found his greatest enjoyment while there in attending to the children of a charity school, to whom he would talk familiarly, and read amusing and instructive books. He made an experiment on a classical and mathematical school in Dublin, and gave it up after eight or nine months. His opinions on religious subjects were as fluctuating as his employments, and at one time he saw no possibility of coming to any satisfactory conclusions. He would have liked some Arian congregation in want of a preacher, and with as little fixedness of opinion and as much uncertainty, as existed in his own mind, to employ him while he was halting. Had he found such a place, we might have had in his life a counterpart to the early history of Coleridge. What would have exactly gratified him, would have been “the power


of building a meeting of his own, and, without being controlled by any man, and without even the existence of what is called a church, of preaching gratis to all that chose to hear.' In this state of mind he had o discarded the doctrine of eternal punish

Here is something to be marked. We have before us a period of some three or four years, from the age of twenty-two to twentysix, during which the opinions, the employments, the expectations and intentions of Mr. Foster were utterly unsettled. His course of reading was vague, his course of study was rambling and not disciplinary; it was neither theological nor literary, but embraced projections for both. Sometimes for a year he did not preach at all. Sometimes he taught the classics and mathematics. Sometimes he preached in cleric cloth, sometimes in “ tail and colored clothes," sometimes of a Saturday evening perused Dr. Moore's Journal of a residence in France, and adjusted some of t exteriors for the morrow," and on Sabbath morning made his sermon in bed, “ caught some considerable ideas," and ascended the pulpit. “Í seem nearly at a stand with respect to the adjustment of plans for futurity. Whether I am to be a preacher or not, I cannot tell.”— “ At some moments of life, the world, mankind, religion, and eternity, appear to me like one vast scene of tremendous confusion, stretching before me far away, and closed in shades of the most awful darkness ;-a darkness which only the most powerful splendors of Deity can illumine, and which appears as if they never yet had illumined it.” Now it is during these three or four years,

not so much of the transition, as of the chaotic state, in Mr. Foster's life, that we find, amidst all his uncertainties, one sudden and positive declaration, I have discarded the doctrine of eternal punishments." He adds, “I can avow no opinion on the peculiar points of Calvinism, for I have none, nor see the possibility of forming a satisfac

The discarded doctrine seems to have been cashiered by Mr. Foster with about as little thoughtful investigation, as if he had been laying aside an old coat. "The sudden announcement of this negative position is almost the only positive thing to be found in these three or four years of his experience. He was some twenty-four years of age. If this was the manner in which he decided upon the fundamental articles of that Christian System which he was preaching, it is manifest that his theological views could have been but little worth. This announcement of opinion has an abruptness, an isolation, a dislocation from every train of association and employment, which intimates a hasty prejudice, rather than a deliberately formed conviction. He seems to have discarded the clerical dress and the clerical doctrine with about the same independence and indifference; but in neither case as an absolute conviction. If, however, his denial of this grand promi

tory one."

« AnteriorContinuar »