Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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particular kind of excellence, they naturally become good
5 judges of it, and account certain considerable degrees of
it indispensable, — while they are comparatively blind to
the merit of other good qualities to which they had been
less habituated, and are neither offended by their absence,
nor at all skilful in their estimation. Thus those nations

lo who, like the English and the Dutch, have been long
accustomed to great cleanliness and order in their persons
and dwellings, naturally look with admiration on the
higher displays of those qualities, and are proportionately
disgusted by their neglect ; while they are apt to under-

15 value mere pomp and stateliness, when destitute of these
recommendations : and thus also the Italians and
Sicilians, bred in the midst of dirt and magnificence,
are curiously alive to the beauties of architecture and
sculpture, and make but little account of the more homely

20 comforts which are so highly prized by the others. In
the same way, if a few of the first successful adventurers
in art should have excelled in any particular qualities, the
taste of their nation will naturally be moulded on that
standard — will regard those qualities almost exclusively

25 as entitled to admiration, and will not only consider the
want of them as fatal to all pretentions to excellence, but
will unduly despise and undervalue other qualities, in
themselves not less valuable, but with which their national
models had not happened to make them timeously

30 familiar. If, for example, the first great writers in any
country should have distinguished themselves by a
pompous and severe regularity, and a certain elaborate
simplicity of design and execution, it will naturally follow,
that the national taste will not only become critical and


rigorous as to those particulars, but will be proportionally
deadened to the merit of vivacity, nature, and invention,
when combined with irregularity, homeliness, or confusion.
While, if the great patriarchs of letters had excelled in
variety and rapidity of invention, and boldness and truth 5
of sentiment, though poured out with considerable
disorder and incongruity of manner, those qualities would
come to be the national criterion of merit, and the
correctness and decorum of the other school be despised,
as mere recipes for monotony and tameness. 10

These, we think, are the plain and certain effects of
the peculiar character of the first great popular writers of
all countries. But still we do not conceive that they
depend altogether^ on any thing so purely accidental as
the temperament or early history of a few individuals. 15
No doubt the national taste of France and of England
would at this moment have been different, had Shakespeare
been a Frenchman, and Boileau and Racine written in
English. But then, we do not think that Shakespeare
could have been a Frenchman ; and we conceive that his 20
character, and that of other original writers, though no
doubt to be considered on the whole as casual, must yet
have been modified to a great extent by the circumstances
of the countries in which they were bred. It is plain
that no original force of genius could have enabled 25
Shakespeare to write as he had done, if he had been
born and bred among the Chinese or the Peruvians.
Neither do we think that he could have done so, in any
other country but England — free, sociable, discursive,
reformed, familiar England — whose motley and mingling 30
population not only presented " every change of many-
coloured life " to his eye, but taught and permitted every
class, from the highest to the lowest, to know and to
estimate the feehngs and the habits of all the others — and


thus enabled the gifted observer not only to deduce the
true character of human nature from this infinite variety
of experiments and examples, but to speak to the sense
and the hearts of each, with that truly universal tongue,
5 which every one feels to be peculiar, and all enjoy as

We have said enough, however, or rather too much, on
these general views of the subject — which in truth is
sufficiently clear in those extreme cases, where the

10 contrariety is great and universal, and is only perplexing
when there is a pretty general conformity both in the
causes which influence taste and in the results. Thus,
we are not at all surprised to find the taste of the
Japanese or the Iroquois very different* from our own —

15 and have no difficulty in both admitting that our human
nature and human capacities are substantially the same,
and in referring this discrepancy to the contrast that
exists in the whole state of society, and the knowledge,
and the opposite qualities of the objects to which we

20 have been respectively accustomed to give our admiration.
That nations living in times or places altogether remote,
should disagree in taste, as in every thing else, seems to
us quite natural. They are only the nearer cases that
puzzle. And, that great European countries, peopled by

25 the same mixed races, educated in the admiration of the
same classical models — venerating the same remains of
antiquity — engaged substantially in the same occupations
— communicating every day, on business, letters, and
society — bound up in short in one great commonwealth,

30 as against the inferior and barbarous parts of the
world, should yet differ so widely — not only as to the
comparative excellence of their respective productions,
but as to the constituents of excellence in all works of
genius or skill, does indeed sound like a paradox, the


solution of which every one may not be able to deduce
from the preceding observations.

The great practical equation on which we in this
country have been hitherto most frequently employed,
has been between our own standard of taste and that 5
which is recognized among our neighbours of France : —
And certainly, though feelings of rivalry have somewhat
aggravated its apparent, beyond its real amount, there is
a great and substantial difference to be accounted for, —
in the way we have suggested — or in some other way. 10
Stating that difference as generally as possible, we would
say, that the French, compared with ourselves, are more
sensitive to faults, and less transported with beauties —
more enamoured of art, and less indulgent to nature —
more charmed with overcoming difficulties, than with that 15
power which makes us unconscious of their existence —
more averse to strong emotions, or at least less covetous
of them in their intensity — more students of taste, in
short, than adorers of genius — and far more disposed
than any other people, except perhaps the Chinese, to 20
circumscribe the rules of taste to such as they themselves
have been able to practise, and to limit the legitimate
empire of genius to the provinces they have explored.
There has been a good deal of discussion of late
years, in the face of literary Europe, on these debatable 25
grounds ; and we cannot but think that the result has
been favourable, on the whole, to the English, and that
the French have been compelled to recede considerably
from many of their exclusive pretensions — a result which
we are inclined to ascribe, less to the arguments of our 3°
native champions, than to those circumstances in the
recent history of Europe, which have compelled our
ingenious neighbours to mingle more than they had ever
done before with the surrounding nations — and thus to


become better acquainted with the diversified forms which
genius and talent may assume.

But while we are thus fairly in the way of settling our
differences with France, we are little more than beginning
5 them, we fear, with Germany ; and the perusal of the
extraordinary volumes before us, which has suggested all
the preceding reflections, has given us, at the same time,
an impression of such radical, and apparently irrecon-
cilable disagreement as to principles, as we can scarcely

lo hope either to remove by our reasonings, or even very
satisfactorily to account for by our suggestions.

This is allowed, by the general consent of all
Germany, to be the very greatest work of their very
greatest writer. The most original, the most varied and

15 inventive, — the most characteristic, in short, of the
author, and of his country. We receive it as such
accordingly, with implicit faith and suitable respect ; and
have perused it in consequence with very great attention
and no common curiosity. We have perused it, indeed,

20 only in the translation of which we have prefixed the
title : But it is a translation by a professed admirer ;
and by one who is proved by his Preface to be a person
of talents, and by every part of the work to be no
ordinary master, at least of one of the languages with

25 which he has to deal. We need scarcely say, that we
profess to judge of the work only according to our own
principles of judgment and habits of feeling ; and,
meaning nothing less than to dictate to the readers or
the critics of Germany what they should think of their

30 favourite authors, propose only to let them know, in
all plainness and modesty, what we, and we really believe
most of our countrymen, actually think of this chef-d^ oeuvre
of Teutonic genius.

We must say, then, at once, that we cannot enter into


the spirit of this German idolatry ; nor at all comprehend
upon what grounds the work before us could ever be
considered as an admirable, or even a commendable
performance. To us it certainly appears, after the
most deliberate consideration, to be eminently absurd, 5
puerile, incongruous, vulgar, and affected ; — and, though
redeemed by considerable powers of invention, and some
traits of vivacity, to be so far from perfection, as to be,
almost from beginning to end, one flagrant offence
against every principle of taste, and every just rule of 10
composition. Though indicating, in many places, a mind
capable both of acute and profound reflection, it is full
of mere silliness and childish affectation ; — and though
evidently the work of one who had seen and observed
much, it is throughout altogether unnatural, and not so 15
properly improbable, as affectedly fantastic and absurd —
kept, as it were, studiously aloof from general or ordinary
nature — never once bringing us into contact with real
life or genuine character — and, where not occupied with
the professional squabbles, paltry jargon, and scenical 20
profligacy of strolling players, tumblers, and mummers
(which .may be said to form its staple), is conversant only
with incomprehensible mystics and vulgar men of whim,
with whom, if it were at all possible to understand them,
it would be a baseness to be acquainted. Every thing, 25
and every body we meet with, is a riddle and an oddity ;
and though the tissue of the story is sufficiently coarse,
and the manners and sentiments infected with a strong
tinge of vulgarity, it is all kept in the air, like a piece of
machinery at the minor theatres, and never allowed to 30
touch the solid ground, or to give an impression of
reality, by the disclosure of known or living features. In
the midst of all this, however, there are, every now and
then, outbreakings of a fine speculation, and gleams of a


warm and sprightly imagination — an occasional wild and
exotic glow of fancy and poetry — a vigorous heaping
up of incidents, and touches of bright and powerful
5 It is not very easy certainly to account for these
incongruities, or to suggest an intelligible theory for so
strange a practice. But in so far as we can guess, these
peculiarities of German taste are to be referred, in part,
to the comparative newness of original composition

lo among that ingenious people, and to the state of European
literature when they first ventured on the experiment —
and in part to the state of society in that great country
itself, and the comparatively humble condition of the
greater part of those who write, or to whom writing is

15 there addressed.

The Germans, though undoubtedly an imaginative
and even enthusiastic race, had neglected their native
literature for two hundred years — and were chiefly
known for their learning and industry. They wrote huge

20 Latin treatises on Law and Theology — and put forth
bulky editions and great tomes of annotations on the
classics. At last, however, they grew tired o£ being
respected as the learned drudges of Europe, and
reproached with their consonants and commentators ; and

25 determined, about fifty years ago, to show what metal
they were made of, and to give the world a taste of their
quality, as men of genius and invention. In this attempt
the first thing to be effected was at all events to avoid the
imputation of being scholastic imitators of the classics.

30 That would have smelt too much, they thought, of the
old shop ; and in order to prove their claims to originality,
it was necessary to go a little into the opposite extreme, —
to venture on something decidedly modern, and to show
at once their independence on their old masters, and


their superiority to the pedantic rules of antiquity. With
this view some of them betook themselves to the French
models — set seriously to study how to be gay — apprendre
a etre vif — and composed a variety of petites pieces and
novels of polite gallantry, in a style — of which we shall 5
at present say nothing. This manner, however, ran too
much counter to the general character of the nation to
be very much followed — and undoubtedly the greater
and better part of their writers turned rather to us, for
hints and lessons to guide them in their ambitious career. 10
There was a greater original affinity in the temper and
genius of the two nations — and, in addition to that
consideration, our great authors were indisputably at once
more original and less classical than those of France.
England, however, we are sorry to say, could furnish 15
abundance of bad as well as of good models — and even
the best were perilous enough for rash imitators. As
it happened, however, the worst were most generally
selected — and the worst parts of the good. Shakespeare
was admired — but more for his flights of fancy, his daring 20
improprieties, his trespasses on the borders of absurdity,
than for the infinite sagacity and rectifying good sense
by which he redeemed those extravagancies, or even the
profound tenderness and simple pathos which alternated
with the lofty soaring or dazzling imagery of his style. 25
Altogether, however, Shakespeare was beyond their
rivalry ; and although Schiller has dared, and not inglori-
ously, to em.ulate his miracles, it was plainly to other
merits and other rivalries that the body of his ingenious
countrymen aspired. The ostentatious absurdity — the 30
affected oddity — the pert familiarity — ^ the broken style,
and exaggerated sentiment of Tristram Shandy — the
mawkish morality, dawdling details, and interminable
agonies of Richardson — the vulgar adventures, and


homely, though, at the same time, fantastical speculations
of John Buncle and others of his forgotten class, found
far more favour in their eyes. They were original,
startling, unclassical, and puzzling. They excited curiosity
5 by not being altogether intelligible — effectually excluded,
monotony by the rapidity and violence of their transitions,
and promised to rouse the most torpid sensibility, by the
violence and perseverance with which they thundered at
the heart. They were the very things, in short, which

10 the German originals were in search of ; — and they were
not slow, therefore, in adopting and improving on them.
In order to make them thoroughly their own, they had
only to exaggerate their peculiarities — to mix up with
them a certain allowance of their old visionary philosophy,

15 misty metaphysics, and superstitious visions — and to
introduce a few crazy sententious theorists, to sprinkle
over the whole a seasoning of rash speculation on morality
and the fine arts. ,^

The style was also to be relieved by a variety of odd

20 comparisons and unaccountable similes — borrowed, for
the most part, from low and revolting objects, and all the
better if they did not exactly fit the subject, or even
introduced new perplexity into that which they professed
to illustrate.

25 This goes far, we think, to explain the absurdity,
incongruity, and affectation of the works of which we are
speaking. But there is yet another distinguishing quality
for which we have not accounted — and that is a peculiar
kind of vulgarity which pervades all their varieties, and

30 constitutes, perhaps, their most repulsive characteristic.
We do not know very well how to describe this unfortu-
nate peculiarity, except by saying that it is the vulgarity
of pacific, comfortable burghers, occupied with stuffing,
cooking, and providing for their coarse personal accommo-


dations. There certainly never were any men of genius
who condescended to attend so minutely to the 7ion-
7iaturals of their heroes and heroines as the novelists of
modern Germany. Their works smell, as it were, of
groceries — of brown papers filled with greasy cakes and 5
slices of bacon, — and fryings in frowsy back parlours.
All the interesting recollections of childhood turn on
remembered tidbits and plunderings of savoury store-
rooms. In the midst of their most passionate scenes
there is always a serious and affectionate notice of 10
the substantial pleasures of eating and drinking. The
raptures of a tete-a-tete are not complete without a bottle
of nice wine and a "trim collation." Their very sages
deliver their oracles over a glass of punch ; and the
enchanted lover finds new apologies for his idolatry in 15
taking a survey of his mistress's "combs, soap, and
towels, with the traces of their use." These baser
necessities of our nature, in short, which all other writers
who have aimed at raising the imagination or touching
the heart have kept studiously out of view, are osten- 20
tatiously brought forward, and fondly dwelt on by the
pathetic authors of Germany.

We really cannot well account for this extraordinary
taste. But we suspect it is owing to the importance that
is really attached to those solid comforts and supplies of 25
necessaries, by the greater part of the readers and writers
of that country. Though there is a great deal of freedom
in Germany, it operates less by raising the mass of the
people to a potential equality with the nobles, than by
securing to them their inferior and plebeian privileges ; 30
and consists rather in the immunities of their incor-
porated tradesmen, which may enable them to become
rich as such, than in any general participation of national
rights, by which they may aspire to dignity and elegance,


as well as opulence and comfort. Now, the writers, as
well as the readers in that country, belong almost entirely
to the plebeian and vulgar class. Their learned men are
almost all wofully poor and dependent ; and the com-
5 fortable burghers who buy entertaining books by the
thousand at the Frankfort fair, probably agree with
their authors in nothing so much as the value they
set on those homely comforts to which their ambition
is mutually limited by their condition ; and enter into no
10 part of them so heartily as those which set forth their
paramount and continual importance.

It is time, however, that we should proceed to give
some more particular account of the work which has
given occasion to all these observations.


Written by hi??iself, in the Jaghatai Ttirki, and translated, partly by the
late John Ley den, Esq., M.D., partly by William Erskine, Esq.

This is a very curious, and admirably edited work.
But the strongest impression which the perusal of it has
left on our minds is the boundlessness of authentic
history ; and, if we might venture to say it, the useless-
ness of all history which does not relate to our own 5
fraternity of nations, or even bear, in some way or other,
on our own present or future condition.

We have here a distinct and faithful account of some
hundreds of battles, sieges and great military expeditions,
and a character of a prodigious number of eminent indi- 10
viduals, — men famous in their day, over wide regions,
for genius or fortune — poets, conquerers, martyrs —
founders of cities and dynasties — authors of immortal
works — ravagers of vast districts abounding in wealth
and population. Of all these great personages and 15
events, nobody in Europe, if we except a score or two
of studious Orientalists, has ever heard before ; and it
would not, we imagine, be very easy to show that we are
any better for hearing of them now. A few curious
traits, that happened to be strikingly in contrast with our 20
own manners and habits, may remain on the memory of
a reflecting reader — with a general confused recollection
of the dark and gorgeous phantasm^agoria. But no one,


we may fairly say, will think it worth while to digest or
develope the details of the history ; or be at the pains to
become acquainted with the leading individuals, and fix
in his memory the series and connection of events. Yet
5 the effusion of human blood was as copious — the display
of talent and courage as imposing — the perversion of
high moral qualities, and the waste of the means of
enjoyment as unsparing, as in other long-past battles
and intrigues and revolutions, over the details of which

lo we still pore with the most unwearied attention ; and to
verify the dates or minute circumstances of which, is still
regarded as a great exploit in historical research, and
among the noblest employments of human learning and

15 It is not perhaps very easy to account for the eager-
ness with which we still follow the fortunes of Miltiades,
Alexander, or Caesar — of the Bruce and the Black Prince,
and the interest which yet belongs to the fields of Mara-
thon and Pharsalia, of Crecy and Bannockburn, compared

20 with the indifference, or rather reluctance, with which we
listen to the details of Asiatic warfare — the conquests
that transferred to the Moguls the vast sovereignties of
India, or raised a dynasty of Manchew Tartars to the
Celestial Empire of China. It will not do to say, that

25 we want something nobler in character, and more exalted
in intellect, than is to be met with among those murderous
Orientals — that there is nothing to interest in the con-
tentions of mere force and violence ; and that it requires
no very fine-drawn reasoning to explain why we should

30 turn with disgust from the story, if it had been preserved,
of the savage affrays which have drenched the sands of
Africa or the rocks of New Zealand — through long
generations of murder — with the blood of their brutish
population. This may be true enough of Madagascar


or Dahomy ; but it does not apply to the case before us.
The nations of Asia generally — at least those composing
its great states — were undoubtedly more polished than
those of Europe, during all the period that preceded their
recent connexion. Their warriors w^ere as brave in the 5
field, their statesmen more subtle and politic in the
cabinet : In the arts of luxury, and all the elegancies of
civil life, they were immeasurably superior ; in ingenuity
of speculation — in literature — in social politeness — the
comparison is still in their favour. 10

It has often occurred to us, indeed, to consider what
the effect would have been on the fate and fortunes of
the world, if, in the fourteenth, or fifteenth century,
when the germs of their present civilisation were first
disclosed, the nations of Europe had been introduced 15
to an intimate and friendly acquaintance with the great
polished communities of the East, and had been thus led
to take them for their masters in intellectual cultivation,
and their models in all the higher pursuits of genius,
polity, and art. The difference in our social and moral 20
condition, it would not perhaps be easy to estimate :
But one result, we conceive, would unquestionably have

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 16 of 21)