Isaac Disraeli.

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Death was a nonenity to the ancient artist Could he ex-
hibit what represents nothing ? Could he animate into action
what lies in a state of eternal tranquillity? Elegant imagiss
of repose and tender sorrow were all he could invent to indi-
cate the state of death. Even the terms which different
nations have bestowed on a burial-place are not associated
with emotions of horror. The Greeks called a burying-
ground by the soothing term of Ccemeteriony or, " the sleep-
ing-place ; " the Jews, who had no horrors of the grave, by
Beth-haim, or, "the house of the living;" the Germans,
with religious simplicity, " Grod's-field." The Scriptures had
only noticed that celestial being " the Angel of Death," —
graceful, solemn, and sacred !

Whence, then, originated that stalking skeleton, suggesting
80 many false and sepulchral ideas, and which for us has so
long served as the image of death ?

When the Christian rehgion spread over Europe, the
world changed ! the certainty of a future state of existence,
by the artifices of wicked worldly men, terrified instead of

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consoling human nature ; and in the resurrection the ignorant
multitude seemed rather to have dreaded retribution, than to
have hoped for remuneration. The Founder of Christianity
everywhere breathes the blessedness of social feelings. It is
**Our Father!" whom he addresses. The horrors with
which Christianity was afterwards disguised arose in the
corruptions of Christianity among those insane ascetics, who,
misinterpreting "the Word of Life," trampled on nature;
and imagined that to secure an existence in the other world
it was necessary not to exist in the one in which Grod had
placed them. The dominion of mankind fell into the usurp-
ing hands of those imperious monks whose artifices traflficked
with the terrors of ignorant and hypochondriac " Kaisers and
kings." The scene was darkened by penances and by pil-
grimages, by midnight vigils, by miraculous shrines, and
bloody flagellations; spectres started up amidst their tene-
bres ; millions of masses increased their supernatural influ-
ence. Amidst this general gloom of Europe, their troubled
imaginations were frequently predicting the end of the world.
It was at this period that they first beheld the grave yawn,
and Death, in the Gothic form of a gaunt anatomy, parading
through the universe ! The people were frightened, as they
viewed everywhere hung before their eyes, in the twilight of
their cathedrals, and their " pale cloisters," the most revolting
emblems of death. They startled the traveller on the bridge ;
they stared on the sinner in the carvings of his table and
chair ; the spectre moved in the hangings of the apartment ;
it stood in the niche, and was the picture of their sitting-
room ; it was worn in their rings, while the illuminator
shaded the bony phantom in the margins of their " Horse,"
their primers, and their breviaries. Their barbarous taste
perceived no absurdity in giving action to a heap of dry
bones, which could only keep together in a state of immova-
bility and repose ; nor that it was burlesquing the awful idea
of the resurrection, by exhibiting the incorruptible spirit
under the unnatural and ludicrous figure of mortality drawn
out of the corruption of the grave.

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An anecdote of these monkish times has been preserved
by old Gerard Leigh ; and as old stories are best set off by
old words, Grerard speaketh! "The great Maximilian the
emperor came to a monastery in High Almaine, (Germany,)
the monks whereof had caused to be curiously painted the
charnel of a man, which they termed — Death ! When that
well-learned emperor had beholden it awhile, he called unto
him his painter, commanding to blot the skeleton out, and to
paint therein the image of — a fool. Wherewith the abbot,
humbly beseeching him to the contrary, said * It was a good
remembrance ! ' — * Nay,* quoth the emperor, * as vermin that
annoyeth man's body cometh unlooked for, so doth death,
which here is but a fained image, and life is a certain thing,
if we know to deserve it.' " * The ori^nal mind of Maxi-
milian the Great is characterized by this curious story of con-
verting our emblem of death into a parti-coloured fool ; and
such satirical allusions to the folly of those who persisted in
their notion of the skeleton were not unusual with the
artists of those times ; we find the figure of a fool sitting
with some drollery between the legs of one of these skele-
tons, f

This story is associated with an important fact. After
they had successfully terrified the people with their charnel-
house figure, a reaction in the public feelings occurred, for
the skeleton was now employed as a medium to convey the
most Sections, satirical, and burlesque notions of human life.
Death, which had so long harassed their imaginations, sud-
denly changed into a theme fertile in coarse humour. The
Italians were too long accustomed to the study of the beau-
tiful to allow their pencil to sport with deformity ; but the
Gothic taste of the German artists, who could only copy their
own homely nature, delighted to give human passions to the
hideous physiognomy of a noseless skull ; to put an eye of
mockery or malignity into its hollow socket, and to stretch

♦ The Accidence of Armorie, p. 199.

t A woodcut preserved in Mr. Dibdin's Bib. Dec. i. 86.

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out the gaunt anatomy into the postures of a Hogarth ; and
that the ludicrous might be carried to its extreme, this imag-
inary being, taken from the bone-house, was viewed in the
action of dancing ! This blending of the grotesque with the
most disgusting image of mortality, is the more singular part
of this history of the skeleton, and indeed of human nature
itself !

" The Dance of Death," erroneously considered as Hol-
bein's, with other similar Dances, however differently treated,
have one common subject which was painted in the arcades
of burying-grounds, or on town-halls, and in market-places.
The subject is usually " The Skeleton " in the act of leading
all ranks and conditions to the grave, personated after na-
ture, and in the strict costume of the times. This invention
opened a new field for genius ; and when we can for a mo-
ment forget their luckless choice of their bony and bloodless
hero, who to amuse us by a variety of action becomes a sort
of horrid Harlequin in these pantomimical scenes, we may be
delighted by the numerous human characters, which are so
vividly presented to us. The origin of this extraordinary
invention is supposed to be a favourite pageant, or religious
mummery, invented by the clergy, who in these ages of bar-
barous Christianity always found it necessary to amuse, as
well as to frighten the populace ; a circumstance well known
to have occurred in so many other grotesque and Hcentious
festivals they allowed the people. The practice of dancing
in churches and churchyards was interdicted by several
councils ; but it was found convenient in those rude times.
It seems probable that the clergy contrived the present
dance, as more decorous and not without moral and religious
emotions. This pageant was performed in churches, in which
the chief characters in society were supported in a sort of
masquerade, mixing together in a general dance, in the course
of which every one in his turn vanished from the scene, to
show how one after the other died off. The subject was at
once poetical and ethical ; and the poets and painters of Ger-

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many adopting the skeleton, sent forth this chimerical Ulysses
of another world to roEim among the men and manners of
their own. A popular poem was composed, said to be by
one Macaber, which name seems to be a corruption of St
Macaire ; the old Gaulish version, reformed, is still printed
at Troyes, in France, with the ancient blocks of woodcuts,
under the title of " La grande Danse Macabre des Hommes
et des Femmes." Merian's " Todten Tanz," or the " Dance
of the Dead,'' is a curious set of prints of a Dance of Death
from an ancient painting, I think not entirely defaced, in a
cemetery at Basle, in Switzerland. It was ordered to be
painted by a council held there during many years, to com-
memorate the mortality occasioned by a plague in 1439.
The prevailing character of all these works is unquestionably
grotesque and ludicrous ; not, however, that genius, however
barbarous, could refrain in this large subject of human life
from inventing scenes often imagined with great delicacy of
conception, and even great pathos. Such is the new-married
couple, whom Death is leading, beating a drum ; and in the
rapture of the hour, the bride seems, with a melancholy look,
not insensible of his presence ; or Death is seen issuing from
the cottage of the poor widow with her youngest child, who
waves his hand sorrowfully, while the mother and the sister
vainly answer ; or the old man, to whom Death is playing on
a psaltery, seems anxious that his withered fingers should
once more touch the strings, while he is carried off in calm
tranquillity. The greater part of these subjects of death are,
however, ludicrous ; and it may be a question, whether the
spectators of these Dances of Death did not find their mirth
more excited than their religious emotions. Ignorant and
terrified as the people were at the view of the skeleton, even
the grossest simplicity could not fail to laugh at some of those
domestic scenes and familiar persons drawn from among
themselves. The skeleton, skeleton as it is, in the creation
of genius, gesticulates and mimics, while even its hideous
?kull is made to express every diversified character, and

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the result is hard to describe ; for we are at once amused
and disgusted with so much^ genius founded on so much

When the artist succeeded in conveying to the eye the
most ludicrous notions of death, the poets also discovered in
it a fertile source of the burlesque. The curious collector is
acquainted with many volumes where the most extraordinary
topics have been combined with this subject They made
the body and the soul debate together, and ridicule the com-
plaints of a damned soul ! The greater part of the poets of
the time were always composing on the subject of Death
in their humorous pieces.f Such historical records of the
public mind, historians, intent on political events, have rarely

Of a work of this nature, a popular favourite was long the
one entitled " Le faut mourir, et les Excuses Inutiles qu'on
apporte d cette Necessiti ; Le tout en vers burlesquesy 1658 : "
Jacques Jacques, a canon of Ambrun, was the writer, who
humorously says of himself, that he gives his thoughts just as
they lie on his heart, without dissimulation ; ^ for I have
nothing double about me except my name I I tell thee some
of the most important truths in laughing ; it is for thee d'y
penser tout a ban.'' This little volume was procured for me
with some difficulty in France ; and it is considered as one
of the happiest of this class of death-poems, of which I know
not of any in our literature.

Our canon of Ambrun, in facetious rhymes, and with
the naivete of expression which belongs to his age, and an
idiomatic turn fatal to a translator, excels in pleasantry ; his
haughty hero condescends to hold very amusing dialogues

* My greatly-lamented friend, the late Mr. Donee, has poured forth the
most curious knowledge on this singular subject, of " The Dance of Death.**
This learned investigator has reduced Macaber to a nonentity, but not ^ The
Macaber Dance,** which has been frequently painted. Mr. Douce*s edition
Is accompanied by a set of woodcuts, which have not unsuccessfully cop-
ied the exquisite originals of the Lyons woodcutter.

t Goiyet, Bib. Fraii9oise, vol. x. 186.

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with all classes of societj, and delights to confound their
" excuses inutiles." The most miserable of men, the galley-
slave, the mendicant, alike would escape when he appears to
them. " Were I not absolute over them,'* Death exclaims,
" they would confound me with their long speeches ; but I
have business, and must gallop on ! " His geographical
rhymes are dl'oU.

" Ce que j'ai fait dans 1* Afriqne
Je le fais bien dans rAm^rique;
On I'appelle monde nouveau
> Mais ce sont des brides k vean;

Nulle terre h moy n*est nouvelle
Je vay partout sans qu'on m'appelle;
Mon bras de tout temps conunanda
Dans le pays da Canada;
J'ai tenu de tout temps en bride
La Virginie et la Floride,
Et j'ai bien donn6 sur le bee
Aux Fran^ais du fort de Kebec.
Lorsque je veux je fais la nique
Aux hicas, aux rois de Mexique;
Et montre aux Nouveaux Gr^nadins
Qu*ils sont des foux et des badins.
Chacun sait bien comme je matte
Geux du Br^sil et de la Plate,
Ainsi que les Taupinembous —
En un mot, je fais voir k tout
Que ce que nait dans la nature,
Doit prendre de moy tablature I *' *

The perpetual employments of Death display copious
invention with a facility of humour.

" Egalement je vay rangeant,
Le conseiller et le serjent,
Le gentilhomme et le berger,
Le bourgeois et le boulanger,
Et la maistresse et la servante,
Et la ni^ce comme la tante;
Monsieur Tabb^, monsieur son moine,
Le petit clerc et le chanoine;

* Tablature cfun lutky Cotgrave says, is the belly of a lute, meaning " all
In nature must dance to my music ! "

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Sans choix je mets dans mon butin

Maistre Claude, maistre Martin,

Dame Luce, dame Perrette, ^c.

J'en prends un dans le temps qu*a pleure

A quelque autre, au contraire k Theure

Qui d^m^sur^ment il rit;

Je donne le coup qui le frit.

J'en prends un, pendant qu'U se 16 ve;

En se couchant I'autre j'enl6ve.

Je prends le malade et le sain

L'un aujourd'hui, 1' autre le demain.

J'en surprends im dedans son lit,

L'autre k Testude quand il lit.

J'en surprends un le ventre plain

Je mene I'autre par la faim.

J'attrape I'un pendant qu'il prie,

Et Fautre pendant qu'il renie;

J'en saisis un au cabaret

Entre le blanc et le clairet,

L'autre qui dans son oratoire

A son Dieu rend honneur et gloire:

J'en surprends un lorsqu'il se psame

Le jour qu'il Spouse sa femme,

L'autre le jour que plein de deuil

La sienne il voit dans le cercueil;

Un k pied et l'autre a cheval,

Dans le jeu I'un, et l'autre au bal;

Un qui mange et l'autre qui boit,

Un qui paye et l'autre qui doit,

L'un en ^t^ lorsqu'il moissonne,

L'autre en vendanges dans I'automne,

L'lm criant almanachs nouveaux —

Un qui demande son aumosne

L'autre dans le temps qu'il la donne,

Je prends le bon maistre Clement,

Au temps qu'il prend un lavement,

Et prends la dame Catherine

Le jour qu'elle prend m^decine."

This veil of gaiety in the old canon of Ambrun covers
deeper and more philosophical thoughts than the singular
mode of treating so solemn a theme. He has introduced
many scenes of human life, which still interest, and he ad-
dresses the " teste k triple couronne," as well as the " forpat
de galere," who exclaims, "Laissez-moi vivre dans mes

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fers," "le gueux," the "bourgeois,** the "chanoine," the
" pauvre soldat," the " medecin ; " in a word, all ranks in
life are exhibited, as in all the "Dances of Death." But
our object in noticing these burlesque paintings and poems is
to show, that after the monkish Groths had opened one gen-
eral scene of melancholy and tribulation over Europe, and
given birth to that dismal skeleton of deaths which still terri-
fies the imagination of many, a reaction of feeling was
experienced by the populace, who at length came to laugh at
the gloomy spectre which had so long terrified them !


Peter Hetlin was one of the popular writers of his
times, like Fuller and Howell, who devoting their amusing
pens to subjects which deeply interested their own busy age,
will not be slighted by the curious. We have nearly outlived
their divinity, but not their politics. Metaphysical absurdi-
ties are luxuriant weeds which must be cut down by the
scythe of Time ; but the great passions branching from the
tree of life are still " growing with our growth."

There are two biographies of our Heylin, which led to a
literary quarrel of an extraordinary nature ; and, in the pro-
gress of its secret history, all the feelings of rival authorship
were called out.

Heylin died in 1662. Dr. Barnard, his son-in-law, and a
scholar, communicated a sketch of the author's life to be pre-
fixed to a posthumous folio, of which Heylin's son was the
editor. This life was given by the son, but anonymously,
which may not have gratified the author, the son-in-law.

Twenty years had elapsed when, in 1682, appeared "The
Life of Dr. Peter Heylin, by George Vernon." The writer,
alluding to the prior life prefixed to the posthumous folio,
asserts, that in borrowing something from Barnard, Barnard

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had also " Excerpted passages out of my papers, the very
words as well as matter, when he had them in his custody,
as any reader may discern who will be at the pains of com-
paring the life now published with what is extant before the
Keimdlea JEJcclesiastica ; " the quaint, pedantic title, after the
fashion of the day, of the posthumous folio.

This strong accusation seemed countenanced by a dedica-
tion to the son and the nephew of Heylin. Boused now into
action, the indignant Barnard soon produced a more com-
plete Life, to which he prefixed "A necessary Vindication."
This is an unsparing castigation of Vernon, the literary pet
whom the Heylins had fondled in preference to their learned
relative. The long smothered family grudge, the suppressed
mortifications of literary pride, after the subterraneous grum-
blings of twenty years, now burst out, and the volcanic par-
ticles flew about in caustic pleasantries and sharp invectives ;
all the lava of an author's vengeance, mortified by the choice
of an inferior rival.

It appears that Vernon had been selected by the son of
HeyHn, in preference to his brother-in-law. Dr. Barnard,
from some family disagreement. Barnard tells us, in de-
scribing Vernon, that " No man, except himself, who was
totally ignorant of the Doctor, and all the circumstances of
his life, would have engaged in such a work, which was
never primarily laid out for him, but by reason of some un-
happy differences, as usually fall out in families ; and he,
who loves to put his oar in troubled waters, instead of closing
them up, hath made them wider."

Barnard tells his story plainly. Heylin, the son, intending
to have a more elaborate life of his father prefixed to his
works. Dr. Barnard, from the high reverence in which he
held the memory of his father-in-law, offered to contribute it.
Many conferences were held, and the son intrusted him with
several papers. But suddenly his caprice, more than his
judgment, fancied that George Vernon was worth John
Barnard. The doctor affects to describe his rejection with

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the most stoical indifference. He tells us, ^ I was satisfied,
and did patiently expect the coming forth of the work, not
only term after term, but year after year, a very considerable
time for such a tract But at last, instead of the life, came a
letter to me &om a bookseller in London, who lived at the
sign of the Black Boy, in Fleet Street."

Now it seems that he who lived at the Black Boy had
combined with another who lived at the Fleur de Luce, and
that the Fleur de Luce had assured the Black Boy that Dr.
Barnard was concerned in writing the Life of Heylin, — this
was a strong recommendation. But lo! it appeared that
" one Mr. Vernon, of Gloucester," was to be the man ! a
gentle, thin-skinned authorling, who bleated like a lamb, and
was so fearful to trip out of its shelter, that it allows the
Black Boy and the Fleur de Luce to communicate its papers
to any one they choose, and erase or add at their pleasure.

It occurred to the Black Boy, on this proposed arith-
metical criticism, that the work required addition, subtraction,
and division ; that the fittest critic, on whose name, indeed^
he had originally engaged in the work, was our Dr. Barnard;
and he sent the package to the doctor, who resided near

The doctor, it appears, had no appetite for a dish dressed
by another, while he himself was in the very act of the
cookery ; and it was suffered to lie cold for three weeks at
the carrier's.

But intreated and overcome, the good doctor at length
sent to the carrier's for the life of his father-in-law. " I found
it, according to the bookseller's description, most lame and im-
perfect ; ill begun, worse carried on, and abruptly concluded."
The learned doctor exercised that plenitude of power with
which the Black Boy had invested him ; — ^he very obligingly
showed the author in what a confused state his materials lay
together, and how to put them in order ;

" Nee faotmdia deseret hunc, nee lucidus ordo."
If his rejections were copious, to show his good will as well as

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his severity, his additions were generous, though he used the
precaution of carefully distinguishing by "distinct para-
graphs" his own insertions amidst Vernon's mass, with a
gentle hint that " He knew more of Heylin than any man
now living, and ought therefore to have been the biographer."
He returned the MS. to the gentleman with great civility,
but none he received back ! When Vernon pretended to ask
for improvements, he did not imagine that the work was to
be improved by being nearly destroyed ; and when he asked
for correction, he probably expected all might end in a com-

The narrative may now proceed in Vernon's details of his
doleful mortifications, in being "altered and mangled" by
Dr. Barnard.

" Instead of thanks from him (Dr. Barnard), and the re-
turn of common civility, he disfigured my papers, that no
sooner came into his hands, but he fell upon them as a lion
rampant, or the cat upon the poor cock in the fable, sa3dng,
Tu hodie mihi discerperis — so my papers came home miser-
ably clawed, blotted, and blurred ; whole sentences dismem-
bered, and pages scratched out ; several leaves omitted which
ought to be printed, — shamefully he used my copy ; so that
before it was carried to the press, he swooped away the
second part of the Life wholly from it — ^in the room of which
he shuffled in a preposterous conclusion at the last page,
which he printed in a different character, yet could not keep
himself honest, as the poet saith,

^DicUgue tuapagina^ fur esJ*


For he took out of my copy Dr. Heylin's dream, his sick-
ness, his last words before his death, and left out the burning
of his surplice. He so mangled and metamorphosed the
whole Life I composed, that I may say as Sosia did, Egomet
mihi non credo, iUe alter Sosia me malis mvlcavit modis. —

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Dr. Barnard would have " patiently endured these wrongs ; "
but the accusation Vernon ventured on, that Barnard was the
plagiary, required the doctor " to return the poisoned chalice
to his own lips," that "himself was the plagiary both of
words and matter." The fact is, that this reciprocal accusa-
tion was owing to Barnard having had a prior perusal of
Heylin*s papers, which afterwards came into the hands of
Vernon : they both drew their waters from the same source.
These papers Heylin himself had left for " a rule to guide the
writer of his life."

Barnard keenly retorts on Vernon for his surreptitious use
of whole pages from Heylin's works, which he has appropri-
ated to himself without any marks of quotation. " I am no
such excerptor (as he calls me) ; he is of the humour of the
man who took all the ships in the Attic haven for his own,
and yet was himself not master of any one vessel."

Again : —

" But all this while I misunderstand him, for possibly he
meaneth his own dear words I have excerpted. Why doth
he not speak in plain downright English, that the world may
see my faults ? For every one does not know what is ex-
cerpting. If I have been so bold to pick or snap a word

Online LibraryIsaac DisraeliCuriosities of literature → online text (page 9 of 43)