Изображения страниц

and what Dr. Johnson calls genuine Anglicism,* in order to secure correctness and purity; and hence, the difficulties with which those of our countrymen have had to struggle, who have aimed at the freedom of the epistolary style, or who have attempted to catch the shadowy and fleeting forms of comic dialogue. The peculiarity in the manner of Livy, censured by Asinius Pollio, was probably of a similar description ; arising less from an admixture of Paduan idioms than from the absence of such as marked the dialect of Rome. “ In Tito Livio," says Quinctilian, “miræ facundiæ viro, putat inesse Pollio Asinius quandam Patavinitatem. Quare, si fieri potest, et verba omnia, et vox, hujus alumnum Urbis oleant; ut oratio Romana planè videatur, non civitate donata.”

t If, however, in these and a few other respects, important advantages are possessed by those whose standard of propriety is always before them in their ordinary habits of conversation and of business, it must perhaps be granted, on the other hand, that an ear thus familiarized from infancy to phrases which it has been accustomed to retain, without any selection, or any reference to general principles, can scarcely fail to have some effect in blunting an author's discrimination between the established modes of classical expression and the accidental jargon of the day. Illustrations of this remark might be easily collected from writers of the highest and most deserved reputation ; more particularly from some who have cultivated, with the greatest success, the appropriate graces of the English tongue. Even the works of Dr. Middleton, which have been often recommended to Scotchmen as the safest models for their imitation, abound with instances of colloquial language, sanctioned probably by the authority of the fashionable speakers of his time, but which, I should suppose, would now be considered as vulgarisms, by such of his countrymen as have formed their taste on the compositions either of an earlier or of a later period.

[ocr errors]

*“ If Addison's language had been less idiomatical, it would have lost something of its genuine Anglicism." Lives of the Poets. + Quinctil. I. viii. c. 1. VOL. VII.



In guarding against these temporary modes of speech, the provincial residence of a Scotchman may sometimes have its use, by teaching him to distrust his ear as an arbiter of elegance, and to appeal on every questionable point to the practice of those whose established reputation gives the stamp of propriety to the phraseology they have employed. If his composition be deficient in ease, it may be expected not to fall under the ordinary standard in point of purity; nay, it is not impossible, that in his solicitude to avoid idiomatical phrases, he may be occasionally led to animate and ennoble his diction; or, by uncommon and fortunate combinations of words, to give to familiar ideas the charm of novelty.

The species of composition to which Dr. Robertson directed his studies, was peculiarly adapted to his local situation, by affording him an opportunity of displaying all the talents he possessed, without imposing on him a trial of his powers in those kinds of writing where a Scotchman is most likely to fail. In delineating the characters of princes, statesmen, and warriors, or in recording events that have happened on the great theatre of public affairs, a certain elevation of language is naturally inspired by the magnitude of the subject. The engaging and pathetic details of domestic life vanish before the eye which contemplates the fortunes of nations, and the revolutions of empire; and there is even a gravity of manner, exclusive of every thing familiar or flippant, which accords with our idea of him who sits in judgment on the generations that are past. It may, perhaps, be questioned by some whether" Dr. Robertson has not carried to an extreme, his idea of what he has himself called the dignity of history; but, whatever opinion we form on this point, it cannot be disputed, that his plan of separating the materials of historical composition from those which fall under the provinces of the antiquary, and of the writer of memoirs, was on the whole happily conceived; and that one great charm of his works arises from the taste and judgment with which he has carried it into execution. Nor has he suffered this scrupulous regard to the unity of historical style to exclude that variety which was necessary for keeping alive the reader's attention. Whenever his subject admits of being enriched or adorned by political or philosophical disquisition, by picturesque description, or by the interesting details of a romantic episode, he scruples not to try his strength with those who have excelled the most in these different departments of literature ; uniformly, however, avoiding to mingle in the humble scenes of ordinary life, or to meet his rivals on any ground where he did not feel himself completely their equal.

To this systematical selection of the more regular and analogical forms of construction, is to be ascribed, in a considerable degree, his popularity among foreigners, who unite in esteeming him, not only as one of the most eloquent, but as one of the most intelligible of our writers. And it is presumable that the same circumstance will secure in his favor the suffrages of posterity, when the passing idioms generated by the capricious modes of our own times, shall be antiquated or forgotten.*

* Since these remarks on Dr. Robertson's style were written, I have met with some critical reflections on the same subject by Mr. Burke, too honorable for Dr. Robertson to be suppressed here, although in some particulars, they do not coincide with the opinion I have presumed to state.*

“ There is a style,” says Mr. Burke, in a letter addressed to Mr. Murphy on his translation of Tacitus, " which daily gains ground amongst us, which I should be sorry to see further advanced by a writer of your just reputation. The tendency of the mode to which I allude is, to establish two very different idioms amongst us, and to introduce a marked distinction between the English that is written and the English that is spoken. This practice, if grown a little more general, would confirm this distemper, such I must think it, in our language, and perhaps render it incurable.

“ From this feigned manner of falsetto, as I think the musicians call something of the same sort in singing, no one modern historian, Robertson only excepted, is perfectly free. It is assumed, I know, to give dignity and variety to the style. But whatever success the attempt may sometimes have, it is always obtained at the expense of purity, and of the graces that are natural and appropriate to our language. It is true that when the exigence calls for auxiliaries of all sorts, and common language becomes unequal to the demands of extraordinary thoughts, something ought to be conceded to the necessities which make 'ambition virtue. But the allowances to necessities ought not to grow into a practice. Those portents and prodigies ought not to grow too common. If you have, here and there, (much more rarely, however, than others of great and not unmerited fame) fallen into an error, which is not that of the dull or careless, you have an author who is himself guilty, in his own tongue, of the same fault, in a very high degree. No author thinks more deeply, or paints more strongly; but he seldom or ever expresses himself naturally. It is plain, that comparing him with Plautus and Terence, or the beautiful fragments of Publius

* It is proper for me to mention, that I have no authority for the authenticity of the following passage but that of a London newspaper, in which it appeared some years ago. I do not find, however, that it has been ever called in question. .

[ocr errors]

I have only to add, that some of the foregoing observations apply more strongly to Dr. Robertson's earlier than to his later publications. In the History of Charles V., and still more in that of America, he ventures on expressions which he would not have hazarded before the establishment of his literary name; and accordingly,

: it may be doubted, whether, in consequence of this circumstance, he did not lose in purity of diction what he gained in ease and freedom. Perhaps, on the whole, it will be found, that of all his performances, Charles V. is that which unites the various requisites of good writing in the greatest degree. The style is more natural and flowing than that of the History of Scotland; while, at the same time, idiomatical phrases are introduced with so sparing and timid a hand, that it is easy to perceive the author's attention to correctness was not sensibly diminished. In the History of America, although it


Syrus, he did not write the language of good conversation. Cicero is much nearer to it. Tacitus, and the writers of his time, have fallen into that vice, by aiming at a poetical style. It is true, that eloquence in both modes of rhetoric is fundamentally the same ; but the manner of handling it is totally different, even where words and phrases may be transferred from the one of these departments of writing to the other.”

For this encomium on Dr. Robertson's style when considered in contrast with that of Mr. Gibbon (to whom it is presumable that Mr. Burke's strictures more particularly refer) there is unquestionably a very solid foundation; but in estimating the merits of the former as an English writer, I must acknowledge that I should never have thought of singling out among his characteristical excellences, an approach to the language of good conversation. It is indeed surprising, when we attend to the elevation of that tone which he uniformly sustains, how very seldom his turn of expression can be censured as unnatural or affected. The graces of his composition, however, although great and various, are by no means those which are appropriate to our language ; and, in fact, he knew too well the extent and the limits of his own powers to attempt them. Accordingly he has aimed at perfections of a still higher order, the effect of which is scarcely diminished, when we contemplate them through the medium of a foreign translation.

Lord Chesterfield's judgment with respect to Dr. Robertson, while it is equally flattering with that of Mr. Burke, appears to me more precise and just." There is a history lately come out, of the reign of Mary, queen of Scots, and her son, king James, written by one Robertson, a Scotchman, which, for clearness, purity, and dignity, I will not scruple to compare with the best historians extant, not excepting Davila, Guicciardini, and perhaps Livy..

May I be permitted to remark, that in the opposite extreme to that fault which Mr. Burke has here so justly censured, there is another originating in too close an adherence to what he recommends as the model of good writing, the ease and fa. miliarity of colloquial discourse.. In the productions of his more advanced years, he has occasionally fallen into it himself, and has sanctioned it by his example, in the numerous herd of his imitators, who are incapable of atoning for it, by copying the exquisite and inimitable beauties which abound in his compositions. For my own part, I can much more easily reconcile myself, in a grave and dignified argument, to the dulcia vitia of Tacitus and of Gibbon, than to that affection of cant words and allusions which so often debases Mr. Burke's eloquence, and which was long ago stigmatized by Swift as “the most ruinous of all the corruptions of a language."

[ocr errors]

contains many passages, equal if not superior to any thing else in his writings, the composition does not seem to me to be so uniformly polished as that of his former works ; nor does it always possess, in the same degree, the recommendations of concisenesss and simplicity.


Review of the more active Occupations of Dr. Robertson's Life

Conclusion of the Narrative-Sketch of his Character.

In reviewing the History of Dr. Robertson's Life, our attention has hitherto been confined to those pursuits which formed the habitual occupation of his mind; and which have left behind them unperishable monuments. His life, however, was not devoted wholly to the cultivation of letters. His talents fitted him in an eminent degree for the business of the world; and the station in which Providence placed him opened to him a field, which, however unequal to his ambition or to his genius, afforded him the means of evincing what he might have accomplished, if his sphere of exertion had been more extensive and brilliant.

Among the active scenes in which he had an opportunity to engage, the most conspicuous was presented to him by the supreme ecclesiastical court in Scotland. Of the constitution of this court, accordingly, which differs in some remarkable particulars from the clerical convocations in other Christian countries, a general outline is necessary, in order to convey a just idea of the abilities which secured to him, for a long course of years, an unrivalled influence in guiding its deliberations.*

* For the materials both of this outline and of the subsequent view of Dr. Robertson's system of ecclesiastical policy, I am indebted to a paper drawn up (at the request of Dr. Robertson's son) by the Rev. George Hill, D. D. principal of St. Mary's college in the university of St. Andrew's; a gentleman intimately connected with Dr. Robertson by friendship, and highly respected by him for the talents and

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »