Imagens da página
PDF
ePub

great distinction, which really occasions the to the dead. Contemporary jealousy, literary phenomenon. Strange as it may appear, it is envy, general timidity, the dread of ridicule, the a fact abundantly proved by literary history, confusion of rival works, form so many obstaand which may be verified by every day's ex- cles to the speedy acquisition of a great living perience, that men are in general insensible to reputation. To the illustrious of past ages, the highest class of intellectual merit when it however, we pay a universal and willing first appears, and that it is by slow degrees homage. Contemporary genius appears with and the opinion oft repeated, of the really su- a twinkling and uncertain glow, like the shiftperior in successive generations, that it is at ing and confused lights of a great city seen at length raised to its deserved and lasting pedes- night from a distance: while the spirits of the tal. There are instances to the contrary, such dead shine with an imperishable lustre, far reas Scott and Byron: but they are the excep-moved in the upper firmament from the distion, not the rule. We seldom do justice but tractions of the rivalry of a lower world.

THE COPYRIGHT QUESTION.*

WHOEVER has contemplated of late years the dent, from the very different character and state of British literature, and compared it with price of the editions of the older works which the works of other countries who have preceded have been published of late years, that the deEngland in the career of arts or of arms, must sire to possess these standard works, and this have become sensible that some very power- thirst for solid information, is not confined to ful cause has, for a long period, been at work any one class of society; but that it embraces in producing the ephemeral character by which all ranks, and promises, before a long period it is at present distinguished. It is a matter has elapsed, to extend through the middle and of common complaint, that every thing is now even the working classes in the state a mass sacrificed to the desires or the gratification of of useful and valuable information to which the moment; that philosophy, descending from they have hitherto, in great part at least, been its high station as the instructor of men, has strangers. Not to mention the great extent to degenerated into the mere handmaid of art; which extracts from these more valuable works that literature is devoted rather to afford amuse- have appeared in Chambers' Journal, the Penny ment for a passing hour, than furnish improve- Magazines, and other similar publications of ment to a long life; and that poetry itself has the day, it is sufficient to mention two facts, become rather the reflection of the fleeting which show at once what a thirst for valuable fervour of the public mind, than the well from information exists among the middle classes which noble and elevated sentiments are to be of society. Regularly every two years, there derived. We have only to take up the columns issues from the press a new edition of Gibbon's of a newspaper, to see how varied and endless Rome; and Burke's Works are now published, are the efforts made to amuse the public, and one year, in sixteen handsome volumes octavo, how few the attempts to instruct or improve for the peer and the legislator, and next year them; and if we examine the books which lie in two volumes royal octavo, in double coupon every drawing-room table, or the cata- lumns, for the tradesman and the shopkeeper. logues which show the purchases that have

As little is the false and vitiated taste of our been made by any of the numerous book-clubs general literature the result of any want of or circulating libraries which have sprung up ability which is now directed to its prosecution. in the country, we shall feel no surprise at the We have only to examine the periodical literaephemeral nature of the literature which ture, or criticism of the day, to be convinced abounds, from the evidence there afforded of that the talent which is now devoted to literathe transitory character of the public wishes ture is incomparably greater than it ever was which require to be gratified.

in any former period of our history; and that It is not to be supposed, however, from this ample genius exists in Great Britain, to render circumstance, which is so well known as to this age as distinguished in philosophy and the have attracted universal observation, that the higher branches of knowledge, as the last was taste for standard or more solid literature has in military prowess and martial, renown. If either materially declined, or is in any danger any one doubts this, let him compare the milkof becoming extinct. Decisive evidence to the and-water pages of the Monthly Review forty contrary is to be found in the fact, that a years ago, with the brilliant criticisms of greater number of reprints of standard works, Lockhart and Macaulay in the Quarterly or Edboth on theology, history, and philosophy, have inburgh Review at this time; or the periodical issued from the press within the last ten years, literature at the close of the war, with that than in any former corresponding period of which is now to be seen in the standard maBritish history. And what is still more re- gazines of the present day. To a person markable, and not a little gratifying, it is evi- habituated to the dazzling conceptions of the

periodical writers in these times, the corre * Blackwood's Magazine, January, 1842. Written sponding literature in the eighteenth century when Lord Mahon's Copyright Bill, since passed into a law, was before Parliament.

appears insupportably pedantic and tedious

Nobody now reads the Rambler or the Idler ; | close. Short and fleeting indeed is the period and the colossal reputation of Johnson rests of transcendant greatness allotted to any naalmost entirely upon his profound and caustic tion in any branch of thought. The moment sayings recorded in Boswell. Even the Spec- it stops, it begins to recede; and to every em tator itself, though universally praised, is by pire which has made intellectual triumphs, is no means now generally read; and nothing prescribed the same law which was felt by but the exquisite beauty of some of Addison's Napoleon in Europe and the British in India papers, prevents the Delias and Lucindas, who that conquest is essential to existence. figure in its pages, from sinking them into But if the danger to our national literature. irrecoverable obscurity.

is great, if the intellect and genius of Britain Here then is the marvel of the present time. do not keep pace with the high destinies to We have a population, in which, from the which she is called, and the unbounded menrapid extent of knowledge among 'all classes, a tal activity with which she is surrounded, more extended class of readers desiring in- much more serious is the peril thence inevitformation is daily arising; in which the great ably accruing to the national character and and standard works of literature in theology, the public fortunes. Whence is it that the philosophy, and history, are constantly issuing noble and generous feelings are derived, which in every varied form from the press; in which in time past have animated the breasts of our unparalleled talent of every description is con- patriots, our heroes, and our legislators ? stantly devoted to the prosecution of literature; Where, but in the immortal pages of our but in which the new works given forth from poets, our orators, and historians ? What the press are, with very few exceptions, fri-noble sentiments has the air of “Rule Britanvolous or ephemeral, and the greater part of nia” awakened; how many future Nelsons the serious talents of the nation is turned into may the “Mariners of England,” or Southey's the perishable channels of the daily, weekly, inimitable “Lives of our Naval Heroes” promonthly, or the quarterly press. That such a duce? Sentiments such as these immortal state of things is anomalous and extraordinary, works imbody, “thoughts that breathe, and few probably will doubt; but that it is alarm- words that burn," are the true national inheing and prejudicial in a national point of view, ritance; they constitute the most powerful and may, if it continues unabated, produce both elements of national strength, for they form the a degradation of the national character, and, in character, without which all others are unathe end, danger or ruin to the national fortunes, vailing; they belong alike to the rich and to though not so generally admitted, is not the the poor, to the prince and to the peasant; less true, nor the less capable of demonstra- they form the unseen bond which links totion.

gether the high and the low, the rich and the In the first place, this state of things, when poor; and which, penetrating and pervading the whole talent of the nation is directed to every class of society, tend both to perpetuate periodical literature, or works of evanescent the virtues which have brought us to our preinterest, has a tendency to degrade the national sent greatness, and arrest the decline, which character, because it taints the fountains from the influx of wealth, and the prevalence of which the national thought is derived. We commercial ideas, might otherwise have a possess, indeed, in the standard literature of tendency to produce. What would be the Great Britain, a mass of thoughts and ideas effect upon the fortunes of the nation, if this which may well make the nation immortal, pure and elevated species of literature were to and which, to the end of time, will constitute cease amongst us; if every thing were to be the fountains from which grand and generous brought down to the cheapest market, and thoughts will be drawn by all future races of adapted to the most ordinary capacity; if cutmen. But the existence of these standard works ting articles for reviews, or dashing stories is not enough; still less is it enough in an age for magazines, were henceforth to form our of rapid progress and evident transition, such staple literature; and the race of the Miltons, as the present, when new interests are every- the Shakspeares, the Grays, and the Campwhere arising, new social and political com- bells, was to perish under the cravings of an binations emerging, new national dangers to utilitarian age? We may safely say that the be guarded against, new national virtues to be national character would decline, the national required. For a nation in such a state of spirit become enfeebled; that generous sentisociety to remain satisfied with its old standardments would be dried up under the influence literature, and not to aspire to produce any of transient excitement, and permanent resolve thing which is at once durable and new, is the be extinguished by the necessity of present same solecism as it would be for a man to re- gain; and that the days of Clive and Wellesley main content with a wardrobe of fifty years' in India, and of Nelson and Wellington in standing, and resolutely to resist the introduc- Europe, would be numbered among the things tion of any of the fashions or improvements that have been. of later times. A nation which aspires to But if such dangers await us from the retain its eminence either in arts or in arms, gradual extinction of the higher and nobler must keep abreast of its neighbours; if it does branches of our literature, still more serious not advance, it will speedily fall behind, be are the evils which are likely to arise from the thrown into the shade, and decline. It is not termination of the more elevated class of works sufficient for England to refer to the works of in history, philosophy, and theology, which are Milton, Shakspeare, Johnson, or Scott; she calculated and are fitted to guide and direct the must prolong the race of these great men, or national thought. The dangers of such a ca bet intellectual career will speedily come to a lamity, though not so apparent at first sight

are, in reality, still more serious. For whence which, veiled in philanthropy, redolent of be is the thought derived which governs the world; nevolence, was so soon to be extinguished in the spirit which guides its movements; the the blood of the French Revolution ? Rous. rashness which mars its fortunes; the wisdom seau and Voltaire. Who discovered the mirawhich guards against its dangers ? Whence cle of steam, and impelled civilization, as by but from the great fountains of original thought, the force of central heat, to the desert places which are never unlocked in any age but to the of the earth? James Watt. What unheeded few master-spirits thrown at distant intervals power shook even the solid fabric of the by God among mankind. The press, usually British constitution, and all but destroyed, by and justly deemed so powerful; the public seeking unduly to extend, the liberties of Eng. voice, whose thunders shake the land; the le- land ? Lord Brougham, and the Edinburgh gislature, which imbodies and perpetuates, by Reviewers. Whose policy has ruled the comlegal force, its cravings, are themselves but the mercial system of England for twenty years, reverberation of the thought of the great of the and by the false application of just abstract prinpreceding age. The tempests sweep round ciples overthrew the Whig ministry? Adam and agitate the globe; but it is to the wisdom Smith. Whose spirit arrested the devastation of Juno alone that Æolus opens the cavern of of the French Revolution, and checked the the winds.

madness of the English reformers? Edmund This truth is unpalatable to the masses; it Burke. Who is the real parent of the blind is distasteful to legislators; it is irksome to and heartless delusion of the New Poor-Law statesmen, who conceive they enjoy, and appear Bill? Malthus. Who have elevated men from to have, the direction of affairs; but it is illus- the baseness of utilitarian worship to the grantrated by every page of history, and a clear deur of mental elevation? Coleridge and perception of its truth constitutes one of the Wordsworth. All these master-spirits, for most essential requisites of wise government. good or for evil, communicated their own imIn vain does the ruling power, whether mo- press to the generation which succeeded them; narchical, aristocratic, or republican, seek to the seed sown took often many years to come escape from the government of thought: it is to maturity, and many different hands, often a itself under the direction of the great intellects new generation, were required to reap it; but of the preceding age. When it thinks it is when the harvest appeared, it at once was original, when it is most fearlessly asserting manifest whose hand had sown the seed. . its boasted inherent power of self-government, “Show me what one or two great men, deit is itself obeying the impulse communicated tached from public life, but with minds full

, to the human mind by the departed great. All which must be disburdened, are thinking in the marked movements of mankind, all the their closets in this age, and I will tell you evident turns or wrenches communicated to what will be the theme of the orator, the study the current of general opinion, have, arisen of the philosopher, the staple of the press, the from the efforts of individual genius. The guide of the statesman, in the next. age must have been prepared for them, or Observe, too-and this is a most essential their effect would have been small; but the point in the present argument--that all these age without them would never have disco- great efforts of thought which have thus given vered the light: the reflected sunbeams must a mighty heave to human affairs, and, in the have been descending on the mountains, but end, have fairly turned aside into a new his earliest rays strike first on the summit. channel even the broad and varied stream of

Who turned mankind from the abuses of the general thought, have been in direct contradicRoman Catholic church, and preserved the tion to the spirit of the age by which they primeval simplicity of Christianity from the were surrounded, and which swayed alike the pernicious indulgences of the Church of Rome, communities, the press, and the goyernment, and opened a new era of religious light to both under the influence of which they were placed. hemispheres ? Martin Luther. Who fearlessly Action and reaction appear to be the great led his trembling mariners across the seem- law, not less of the moral than the material ingly interminable deserts of the Atlantic wave, world; the counteracting principles, which, and discovered at length the new world, which like the centripetal and centrifugal force in had haunted even his infant dreams ? Chris- physics, maintain, amid its perpetual oscillatopher Columbus. Who turned mankind aside tion, the general equilibrium of the universe. from the returning circle of syllogistic argu- But whence is to come the reaction, if the ment to the true method of philosophic inves- human mind, influenced by the press, is itself ligation ? Lord Bacon. Who introduced a retained in a self-revolving circle? if reviews, new code into the contests of nations, and sub- magazines, and journals, all yielding to, or jected even the savage passions of war to a falling in with, the taste of the majority, direct human code? Grotius. The influence of Mon- and form public opinion: if individual thought tesquieu has been felt for above a century in is nothing but the perpetual re-echo of what it every country of Europe, in social philosophy. hears around it? It is in the solitary thought Who discovered the mechanism of the uni- of individual greatness that this is found. ! verse, and traced the same law in the fall of is there that the fountains are unlocked which an apple as the giant orbit of the comets? Sir let in a new stream on human affairs--which Isaac Newton. Who carried the torch of communicate a fresh and a purer element ti severe and sagacious inquiry into recesses of the flood charged with the selfishness and vices the human mind, and weaned men from the of the world; it is there that the counteracting endless maze of metaphysical scepticism? force is found, which, springing from small Dr. Reid. Who produced the fervent spirit | beginnings, at length converts a world in error

Archimedes was physically wrong, but he was tendency in the public mind, which evidently morally right, when he said, “Give me a ful- tend to express, and may, ere long, altogether crum, and I will move the whole earth.” Give extinguish these great and creative concepme the fulcrum of a great mind, and I will turn tions? Yet, that such is the evident tendency aside the world.

of society and public opinion around us, is obIt is always in resisting, never by yielding vious, and universally observed. 6 The time to public opinion, that these great master- has come,” says Sir Edward Bulwer,* one ox spirits exert their power. The conqueror, in- the brightest ornaments of the liberal schoe. deed, who is to act by the present arms of " when nobody will fit out a ship for the intel: men; the statesman who is to sway by present lectual Columbus to discover new worlds, be measures the agitated masses of society, have when everybody will subscribe for his settim? need of general support. Napoleon said truly up a steamboat between Dover and Calais. that he was so long successful, because he The immense superficies of the public, as it always marched with the opinions of five mil- has now become, operates two ways in de lions of men. But the great intellects which tracting from the profundity of writers--it are destined to give a permanent change to renders it no longer necessary for an author thought-which are destined to act generally, to make himself profound before he writes; not upon the present but the next generation and it encourages those writers who are proare almost invariably in direct opposition to found, by every inducement, not of lucre meregeneral opinion. In truth, it is the resistance ly, but of fame, to exchange deep writing for of a powerful mind to the flood of error by agreeable writing. The voice which animates which it is surrounded, which, like the com- the man ambitious of wide fame, does not, acpression that elicits the power of steam, creates cording to the beautiful line in Rogers, whis, the moving power which alters the moral des- per to him, “Aspire, but descend. He must tiny of mankind.

stoop to conquer. Thus, if we look abroad Was it by yielding to public opinion that in France, where the reading public is much Bacon emancipated mankind from the fetters less numerous than in England, a more subtle of the Aristotelian philosophy? Was it by and refined tone is prevalent in literature; yielding to the Ptolemaic cycles that Coperni- while in America, where it is infinitely larger, cus unfolded the true mechanism of the hea- the literature is incomparably more superfivens? Was it by yielding to the dogmas of cial. Some high-souled literary men, indeed, the church that Galileo established the earth's desirous rather of truth than of fame, are acmotions? Was it by yielding to the Romish tuated unconsciously by the spirit of the times; corruptions that Luther established the Re- but actuated they necessarily are, just as the formation? Was it by concession that Lati- wisest orator who uttered only philosophy to mer and Ridley “ lighted a flame which, by a thin audience of Sages, and mechanically the grace of God, shall never be extinguished ?" abandons his refinements and his reasonings, Was it by conceding to the long-established and expands into a louder tone and more famisystem of commercial restriction, that Smith liar manner as the assembly increases, and unfolded the truths of the wealth of nations ? the temper of the popular mind is insensibly -or by chiming in with the deluge of infideli- communicated to the mind that addresses it. ty and democracy, with which he was sur-" There is in great crowds,” says Cousin," an rounded, that Burke arrested the devastation ascendant which is almost magical, which of the French Revolution? What were the subdues at once the strongest minds; and the eloquence of Pitt, the arms of Nelson and same man who had been a serious and inWellington, but the ministers of those princi-structive professor to a hundred thoughtful ples which, in opposition to general opinion, students, soon becomes light and superficial he struck out at once, and with a giant's arm? where he is called to address a more extended “Genius creates by a single conception; in a and superficial audience." single principle, opening, as it were, on a There can be no doubt of the justice of sudden to genius, a great and new system of the principles advanced by these profound things is discovered. The statuary conceives writers : in truth, they are not new; they a statue at once, which is afterwards slowly have been known and acted upon in every executed by the hands of many.

age of mankind.—“You are wrong to pride If such be the vast and unbounded influence yourself,” said the Grecian sage to an Atheof original thought on human affairs, national nian orator, who first delivered a speech character, public policy, and national fortunes, amidst the thundering acclamations of his what must be the effect of that state of things audience; "if you had spoken truly, these which goes to check such original concep- men would have given no signs of approbation ?-to vulgarize and debase genius, and tion.” It is in the extension of the power of turn aside the streams of first conception into judging of literary compositions--of conferthe old and polluted channels? If the reac- ring wealth and bestowing fame on their aution of originality against common-place-of thors--to the vast and excitable, but superficial freedom against servility-of truth against mass of mankind, that the true cause of the falsehood-of experience against speculation ephemeral and yet entrancing and exciting -is the great steadying power in human af character of the literature of the present age fairs, and the only safe regulator of the oscil is to be found. Some superficial observers ations of public thought, what are we to say imagine that the taste for novels and romances to that direction of literary effort, and that will wear itsell out, and an appreciation of a

"*

*D'Israeli's Essay on Lit. Char.

* England and English, p. 446.

higher class of literature spread generally expect that the patronage or support of the among the middle classes. They might as middle or working classes is ever to afford a well suppose that all men are to become Ho- sufficient inducement to secure works either mers, and all women Sapphos.

of profound or elevated thought, or of the It is in this fact, the immense number of highest excellence in any branch either of mankind in every age who are influenced by poetry, philosophy, history, or economics. their passions or their feelings, compared with The reason is, that it is only by appealing to the small portion who are under the influence principles or ideas already in some degree famiof their reason, that the true cause and extra- liar to the great body of the people, that you can ordinary multitude of a certain class of novels ever succeed in making any impression upon in the present day is to be found. Without de- them. Truth, if altogether new, is, in the first preciating the talent of many of these writers instance at least

, thrown away upon them; --without undervaluing the touching scenes it is of exceeding slow descent, even through of pathos, and admirable pictures of humour the most elevated intellects of the middle which they present-it may safely be affirmed, classes ; upon the working it produces at first that they exhibit a melancholy proof of the no effect whatever. The reason is, that the tendency of our lighter literature, and that if great majority of them have not intellects sufsuch works were to become as general in ficiently strong to make at once the transition every succeeding age as they have been in from long cherished error to truth, unless the the present, a ruinous degradation both to our evils of their former opinions have been long literary and national character would ensue. and forcibly brought before their senses. If The cause which has led to their rapid rise that be the case, indeed, the humblest classes and unprecedented success, is obvious. It is, are the very first to see the light. Witness that the middle classes have become the most the Reformation in Germany, or the Revolunumerous body of readers; and therefore, the tion in France. They are so, because they humour, the incidents, the pathos, which are are less interested than their superiors in the familiar to them, or excite either amusement maintenance of error. But if the new discoor sympathy in their breasts, constitute the veries of thought relate not to present but re. surest passports to popularity. It was the mote evils, and do not appeal to what is same cause which produced the_boors of universally known to the senses, but only to Ostade, or the village wakes of Teniers in what may with difficulty be gathered from republican Holland, and the stately declama- study or reflection, nothing is more certain tions of Racine and Corneille in monarchical than that the progress even of truth is exceed. France.

ingly slow—that the human mind is to the It is nevertheless perfectly true, as has been last degree reluctant to admit any great change well remarked hy Lord Brougham, that there of opinion; and that, in general, at least one never was such a mistake as to imagine that generation must descend to their graves before mob oratory consists only in low buffoonery, truths, ultimately deemed the most obvious, quick repartee, or happy personal hits. On are gradually forced upon the reluctant consome occasions, and certainly on the hustings, sent of mankind. Mr. Burke's speeches never it generally does. But there are other occa- were popular in the House of Commons, and sions on which the middle and even the work- his rising up acted like a dinner-bell in thining classes are accessible to the most noble ning the benches. Now his words are dwelt and elevated sentiments; and exhibit an apti- on by the wise, quoted by the eloquent, diftude both for the quick apprehension of an fused among the many. Oratory, to be popu. argument, and the due appreciation of a gene- lar, must be in advance of the audience, and rous sentiment, which could not be surpassed but a little in advance; profound thought may in any assembly in the kingdom. The higher rule mankind in future, but unless stimulated class of operatives, moreover, especially in by causes obvious to all, will do little for prethe manufacturing districts, are so constantly sent reputation. Hence it was that Bacon in contact with each other, and are so much bequeathed his reputation to the generation habituated to the periodical press, that they after the next. nave acquired an extraordinary quickness of As little is there any reason to hope that the perception in matters which fall within their obvious and gratifying return to serious and jbservation; while the numerous vicissitudes standard publications, evinced by the numero which they are exposed by commercial dis- ous reprints of our classical writers that issue oress, have, in many places, given a serious from the press, can be taken as any sufficient and reflecting turn to their minds, which will indication that there exists in the public mind rarely be met with amidst the frivolities of the an adequate antidote to these evils. The fact higher, or the selfish pursuits of the middle of these reprints of standard works issuing ranks. In assemblies of the working classes, from the press, certainly proves sufficiently brought together by the call for some social, that there is a class, and a numerous one too, and not political object, as the promotion of of persons who, however much they may like emigration, the extension of education, or the superficial literature as an amusement for the arresting the evils of pauperism, no one can hour, yet look to our standard works for the have addressed them without observing that volumes which are to fill their libraries. But he cannot state his argument too closely, en- that by no means affords a sufficient guarantee force it with facts too forcibly, or attend to that the public will give any encouragement the graces of composition with too sedulous to the composition or publication of standard

works at the present time, and with the present But all this notwithstanding, it is in yo n to temper of the national mind. There is a most

care.

« AnteriorContinuar »