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THE RECREATIONS OF CHRISTOPHER NORTH.
CHRISTOPHER NORTH belongs to a class of authors of whom a few are to be found in the literatures of other nations, but our own are by far the most numerous, original, and delightful. He is a lineal descendant of the NESTOR IRONSIDES, ISAAC BICKERSTAFFS, and anonymous SPECS. of the reign of Queen ANNE; and he is allowed by all who know him to be the most distinguished member of the living representatives of the family. He is, like his great prede- cessors, at once a reality and a nonentity. His sayings and doings are familiar to all; and as for himself, though but a creature of the author's brain, we have as distinct and palpable a vision of him in our mind's eye as if we were in the habit of meeting and con- versing with him daily : we know a great deal more about his tastes and habits than about those of our own more distant cousins. • The character of CHRISTOPHER NORTH is a happy conception : a high Tory gentleman of the old school, entertaining as much dis- taste to the Liberalism of' CANNING, and the yielding to the time of PEEL and WELLINGTON, as to the Whigs or Radicals—with re- spect to whom he realizes Dr. JOHNSON'S favourite character, " a good hater." This is the mould in which CHRISTOPHER'S acquired feelings and opinions are supposed to have been cast : his natural dis- position is ardent, impetuous, bristling with antipathies, warm- hearted and kindly, and with a dash of imaginative sentiment strangely blended with a hankering after the grotesque, which all his familiarity with the world has not been able to tame down. The ex- ecution is as successful as the conception is happy ; and not the less so that the old gentleman's peculiarities are not continually perked in our faces. The most arrant humourist talks more frequently like other people than with a view to preserve the consistency of his affectations : and this is the distinguishing characteristic of genius in an author or actor, that he is not always straining to make the peculiarities of his assumed part prominent.
In reading Christopher North's Recreations, our attention is much more taken up with what he says than with what he is. his remarks will commonly be found in strict keeping with his cha- racter, but they do not often remind us of it. We take them at their own worth. These essays would puzzle a critic of the BLAIR school to bring them into his categories. They avail themselves to the utmost of the licence conceded since the days of MONTAIGNE to this class of writers. They indulge in the vein imaginative till it borders on the extravagant. From a lofty, indignant, or intensely pathetic tone, they will break off into a strain of wilful fooling that might make Sir Toby Belch envious, to say nothing of Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Criticism and description—sentiment and joking— poetry and gormandizing—relieve each other incessantly. The whole is an overflow of buoyant, genial self-will, to which our me- mory furnishes only one parallel: CHRISTOPHER NORTH often strikes us as being what RABELAIS might have been, had RABELAIS had a little more sentiment, some imagination, and been born and bred in a more delicate and moral age. The characteristic of the lucubrations we are now adverting to Is that which constitutes their distinctive difference from all their predecessors in the collected British essayists : it is their fulness of animal spirits, carrying the reader onward with a buoyant and al- most tipsy jollity. The Spectator rode quietly out to look at old Sir Roger de Coverley soberly cantering after a hare; but CHRISTOPHER NORTH carries you into the middle of a fox-chace, and makes you feel all the intoxicating exhilarations of the multitudinous scamper. Our limits oblige us only to refer to the stirring picture. (Vol. I. p. 38 et seq.) The finishing-touch has a dash of that love of the grotesque, in which, as well as in his headlong animal spirits, the author reminds us of RABELAIS. To this inclination he gives full scope—lays the rein on its neck as it were—in his briefer and even more graphic description of cat-hunting. " Bunting, in this country, unquestionably commences with cats. Few cot- tages without a cat. If you do not find her on the mouse-watch at the gable- end of the house just at the corner, take a solar observation, and by it look for her on bank or brae, somewhere about the premises : if unsuccessful, peep into the byre, and up through a bole among the dusty divots of the roof, and chance 1$ ou see her eyes glittering far-ben in the gloom ; but if she be not there either, into the barn and up on the mow, and surely she is on the straw or on the, baulks below the 'tipples. No. Well, then, let your eye travel along the edge of that little wood behind the cottage—ay, yonder she isl—but she sees both you and your two terriers, one rough and the other smooth ; and, slink- log away through a gap in the old hawthorn hedge in among the hazels, she other lies perdu, or is up a fir-tree almost as high as the magpie's or corby's nest. " Now, observe, shooting cats is one thing, and hunting them is another— and shooting and hunting, though they may be united, are here treated sepa- rately: so, in the present case, the cat makes her escape. But get her watch • log binls,—young larks, perhaps, walking on the lea, or young linnets banging GB the broom,—down by yonder in the holm-lands, where there are no trees, except, indeed, that one glorious single tree, the Golden Oak, and he is guarded by Glowrer ; and then what a most capital chace ! Stretching herself up with crooked back, as if taking a yawn, off she jumps with tremendous ,pangs, and tail thickened with fear and anger, pereendicular. Youf, youf, youf, go the terners—head over heels perhaps in their fury—and are not long in turning her, and bringing her to bay at the hedge-root, all ablaze and abristle. A she- devil incarnate! Bark! all at once now strikes up a trio; Catalani caterwaul- ing the treble, Glowrer taking the bass, and Tearer the tenor ; a cruel correct cut short by a squalling throttler. Away, away, along the holm, and over the knowe, and into the wood; for lo! the gudewife, brandishing a besom, comes flying demented without her match, down to the murder of her tabby: her son, a stout stripling, is seen skirting the potato-field to intercept our flight ; and, most formidable of all foes, the man of the house himself, in his shirt- sleeves and flail in his hand, bolts from the barn, down the croft, across the burn, and up the brae, to cut us off from the manse. The hunt 's up, and 'tie a capital steeple-chase. Disperse, disperse! Down the hill, Jack—up the hill, Gill—dive the dell, Kit—thread the wood, Pat—a hundred yards' start is a great matter—a stern chace is always a long chace—schoolboys are generally in prime wind—the old man begins to pug; and blow, and snort, and put his paws to his paunch; the son is thrown out by a double of dainty Davy's; and the lair begritten mitber' is gathering up the torn and tattered remains of Tor- toise-shell Tabby, and invoking the vengeance of heaven and earth on her piti- less murderers. Some slight relief to her bursting and breaking heart to vow that she will make the minister hear of it on the deafest aide of his bead—ay, even if she have to break in upon him sitting on Saturday night, getting aff by rote his fushionless sermon, in his sin study.'
The reader is not to look into these essays for the quiet piquant pictures of manners which are the charm of the essayists of Queen ANNE'S age. The fervour of the temperament which hurries the author onward, and his readers along with him, is seldom tranquilly open to those minute impressions from external objects which gave birth to ADDISON'S cabinet-paintings after the fashion of the school of the Netherlands. The mind of CHRISTOPHER NORTH is too much engrossed with strong passion to be much alive to conven- tional forms. The workings of his own busy mind engage him, not the characteristic features of social life. And yet his quick sense of the ludicrous has enabled him at times in a few words to read lessons upon the "minor morals," (taking the words in their English sense, not as Dr. BOWEING has used them, to mean morals of children or minors,) somewhat after the fashion of Swirl. Apropos of a cool suggestion of the late Dr. KITCII1NEE, he gives a valuable hint to all lion-hunters- " We had almost forgot to take the deceased Doctor to task for one of the most free-and-easy suggestions ever made to the ill-disposed, how to disturb and destroy the domestic happiness of eminent literary characters. An in- troduction to eminent authors may be obtained,' quoth he slyly, ' from the booksellers who publish their works.'
" The booksellers who publish the works of eminent authors have rather more common sense and feeling, it is to be hoped, than this comes to, and know better what is the province of their profession. Any one man may, if he chooses, give any other man an introduction to any third man in this world. Thus the tailor of any eminent author, or his bookseller, or his parish minister, or his butcher, or his baker, or his ' man of business,' or his house-builder, may, one and all, give such travellers as Dr. Kitchiner and others, letters of introduction to the said eminent author in prose or verse. This, we have heard, is sometimes done; but fortunately we cannot speak from expe- rience, not being ourselves an eminent author. The more general the intercourse between men of taste, feeling, cultivation, learning, genius, the better; but that intercourse should be brought about freely and of its own accord, as fortunate circumstances permit ; and there should be no im- pertinent interference of selfish or benevolent go-betweens. It would seem that Dr. Kitchiner thought the commonest traveller, one who was almost, as it were, bordering on a bagman, had nothing to do but call on the pub- lisher of any great writer, and get a free admission into his house. lied the Doctor not been dead, we should have given him a severe rowing and blowing-up for this vulgar folly ; but as he is dead, we have only to hope that the readers of the Oracle who intend to travel will not degrade themselves, and disgust ' authors of eminence,' by thrusting their ugly or comely faces— both are equally odious—into the privacy of gentlemen who have done nothing to exclude themselves from the protection of the laws of civilized society, or subject their firesides to be infested by one-half of the curious men of the country, two-thirds of the clever, and all the blockheads."
And thus delicately does he insinuate the bad effect, artistically speaking, of an author making himself too much his own hero-
" Some people have a trick of describing incidents as having happened within their own observation, when in fact they were at the time lying asleep in bed, and disturbing the whole house with the snore of their dormitory. Such is too often the character of the eye-witnesses of the present age. Now, we would not claim personal acquaintance with an incident we had not seen—no, not for a hundred guineas per sheet; and, therefore, we warn the reader not to believe the following little story about an eagle and child (by the way, that is the Derby crest, and a favourite sign of inns in the North of England) on our au- thority. ' I tell the tale as 'twas told to me,' by the schoolmaster of Nee- manslaws in the shire of Ayr ; and if the incident never occurred, then must he have been one of the greatest liars that ever taught the young idea how to shoot. For our single selves, we are by nature credulous. Many extraordinary things happen in this life; and though 'seeing is believing,' so likewise ' be- lieving is seeing,' as every one must allow who reads these our Recreations."
Another feature in which these essays differ from all others of their class, is the intense and prolonged delight with which theauthordwelli upon the beauties of landscape. The forms and colours of the lace scenery of Westmoreland, of the moors of the Scottish Lowlands, and of the rocks and lochs of the Scottish Highlands, are expressed with a force and fidelity that bring them visibly before the reader. There is a power in these descriptive passages which can only be possessed by one who has found pleasure in gazing upon the objects till his very mind has taken a colouring from them. It is in this more than in any thing else that we seem to recognize the pen of a poet, and what is more, of a poet of the" Lake school." It is the freshness about such pictures that is felt to constitute the highest charm of these pages : but it is impossible to convey a notion of them by a quotation, for they defy extract. In them more than in any other parts of the book are we sensible of that tendency to diffuseness, that want of precision and condensation, in which the facilities and necessities of periodical writing have equally con- tributed to confirm the gifted author. Such readers as cannot entirely enter into the author's enthu- siastic love of nature may be apt to complain of a monotony arising from his predilection for dwelling upon it. They should remember that these three volumes do not form one work, but that each essay is in itself a whole, and must be taken as such. The essays ought to be read as they were originally intended to be, one at a
To the necessities of periodical writing, above alluded to, must be attributed the sketchy and indicative character of the criticism which occurs in the Recreations. The judgments passed upon poets fre- quently tell home ; they express the intuitive sense of genius ; but many of them are loosely and hastily thrown out—no care has been taken to bestow upcn them the distinctness, precision, and con- sistency derived from careful elaboration. There are passages scat- tered here and there which tempt us to regret this indulgence in off-hand writing—passages which indicate a power of detecting general principles, and expressing them in terse and weighty lan- guage. The grave expression of the Scottish peasant's countenance has often been remarked : it is the consequence not of a gloomy disposition, but of an energetic will. This cause of his almost stern look is indicated in these two pregnant sentences.
" To have seen Adam Morrison the elder, sitting with his solemn, his aus- tere Sabbath-face beneath the pulpit, with his eyes fixed on the preacher, you could not but have judged him to be a man of stern character and austere de- meanour. To have seen him at labour on the working-days, you might almost have thought him the serfofsome tyrant lord, for into all the toils of the field he carried the force of a mind that would suffer nothing to be undone that strength and skill could achieve : but within the humble porch of his own house, beside his own board and his own fireside, he was a man to be kindly esteemed by his guests, by his own family tenderly and reverently beloved."
As a contrast to the terseness of this passage, we are tempted to give the author's elucidation of his position that age and not youth is the season of imagination.
" Age is the season of Imagination, youth of Passion : and having been long young, shall we repine that we are now old ? They alone are rich who are full of years—the lords of Time's treasury are all on the staff of Wisdom - their commissions are enclosed in furrows on their foreheads, and secured to them for life. Fearless of fate, and far above fortune, they hold their heritage by the great charter of nature for behoof of all her children, who have not, like impa- tient heirs, to wait for their decease; for every hour dispenses their wealth, and their bounty is not a late bequest but a perpetual benefaction. Death but sanctifies their gifts to gratitude ; and their worth is more clearly seen and pro- foundly felt within the solemn gloom of the grave. " And said we truly that age is the season of Imagination ? That youth is the season of Passion your own beating and bounding hearts now tell you— your own boiling blood. Intensity is Its characteristic; and it burns like a flame of fire, too often bat to consume. Expansion of the soul is ours, with all its feelings, and all its ' thoughts, that wander through eternity ;' nor needeth then the spirit to have wings, for power is given her beyond the dove's or the eagle's, and no weariness can touch her on that heavenward flight. " Yet we are all of the earth earthy,' and, young and old alike, must we love and honour our home. Your eyes are bright—ours are dim ; but ' it is the Foul that la es,' and this diurnal sphere' is visible through the mist of tears. In that light how more than beautiful, how holy, appears even this world ! All sadness, save of sin, is then most sacred ; and sin itself loses its terrors in repentance, which, alas ! is seldom perfect but in the near prospect of dissolution. For temptation may intercept her within a few feet of her ex- pected rest, nay, dash the dust from her hand that she has gathered from the burial-place to strew on her head : but youth sees flowery fields and shining rivers tar-stretching before her path, and cannot imagine for a moment that among life's golden mountains there is many a Place of Tombs. "But let us speak only of this earth—this world—this life; and is not age the season of Imagination ? Imagination is Memory imbued by joy or sorrow with creative power over the past, till it becomes the present ; and then on that vision far off the coming shines' of the future, till all the spiritual realm overflows with light. Therefore was it that in illumined Greece Memory was called the Mother of Muses; and how divinely indeed they sang around her as she lay in the pensive shade ! " You know the words of Milton- " You know the words of Milton- ' Till old Experience doth attain To something like prophetic strain;' and you know, while reading them, that Experience is consummate Memory; Imagination, wide as the world, another name for wisdom, all one with Genius, and in its ' prophetic strain '—Inspiration.
" We would fain lower our tone, and on this theme speak like what we are—
one of the humblest children of Mother Earth. We cannot leap now twenty- three feet on level ground, (our utmost might be twenty-three inches,) never- theless, we could ' put a girdle round the globe in forty minutes,' ay, in half- an-hour, were we not unwilling to dispirit Ariel. What are feats done in the flesh and by the muscle ? At first, worms though we be, we cannot even crawl ; disdainful next of that acquirement, we creep, and are distanced by the earwig; pretty lambs, we then totter to the terror of our deep-bosomed dames, till the welkin rings with admiration to behold, sans leading-strings, the weanlings walk ; like wildfire then we run, for we have found the use of our feet; like wild-geese then we fly, for we may not doubt we have wings; in car, ship, balloon, the lords of earth, sea, and sky, and universal nature. The car runs on a post—the ship on a rock—the air bath bubbles as the water bath'— the balloon is one of them, and bursts like a bladder—and we become the prey of sharks, surgeons, or sextons. Where, pray, in all this is there a single symp- tom or particle of Imagination ? It is of Passion ' all compact' "True, this is not a finished picture—'tis but a slight sketch of the season of youth ; but paint it as you will, and if faithful to nature you will find Pas- sion in plenty and a dearth of Imagination. Nor is the season of youth therefore to be pitied ; for Passion respires and expires in bliss ineffable, and so far from being eloquent as the unwise lecture, it is mute as a fish, and merely paps. In youth we are the creatures—the slaves of the senses. But the bondage is borne exultingly in spite of its severity ; for ere long we come to discern, through the dust of our own raising, the pinnacles of towers and temples serenely ascending into the skies—high and holy places forrule, for rest, or for religion, where as kings we may reign, as priests minister, as saints adore. "We do not deny, excellent youth, that to your eyes and ears beautiful and sublime are the sights and sounds of Nature, and of Art her angel. Enjoy thy pupilage, as we enjoyed ours, and deliver thyself up withouten dread, or with a holy dread, to the gloom of woods where night for ever dwells—to the glory of skies where morn seems enthroned for ever. Coming and going a thousand and a thousand times, yet in its familiar beauty ever new ass dream, let thy soul span the heavens with the rainbow. Ask thy heart in the wilder- ness, if that 'thunder, heard remote,' be from cloud or cataract ; and en it can reply, it may shudder at the shuddering moor, and your flesh creep upon your bones, as the heather seems to creep on the bent, with the awe of a passing earthquake. Let the sea-mew be thy guide up the glen, if thy delight be in peace profounder than ever sat with her on the lull of summer-waves For the inland loch seems but a vale overflowing with wondrous light—and realities they all look—these trees and pastures, and rocks an hills, and clouds—not softened images, as they are, of realities that are almost stern even in their beauty, and in their sublimity overawing; look at yon precipice that dwindles into pebbles the granite blocks that choke up the shore!
" Now all this, and a million times more than all this, have we too done in oar Youth ; andyet 'tis all nothing to what we do whenever we .111 it in our Age. For almost all that is Passion—spiritual passion indeed ; and as all emotions
are akin, they all work with and into one another's bands, and, however
remotely related, recognize and welcome one another like Highland cousins, whenever they meet. Imagination is not the faculty to stand aloof from the rest, but gives the one hand to Fancy and the other to Feeling, and sets to Passion, who is often so swallowed up in himself as to seem blind to their vis-a-vis, till all at once he hugs all the three, as if be were demented, and as suddenly sporting dos-a- deli, is off on a gallopade by himself right slick away over the mountain-tops.
" To the senses of a schoolboy a green sour crab is as a golden pippen, more delicious than any pine-apple ; the tree which he climbs to pluck it seems to grow in the garden of Eden ; and the parish—moorland though it be—over which he is let loose to play, Paradise. It is barely possible there may he such a substance as matter, but all its qualities worth having are given it by mind. By a necessity of nature, then, we are all poets. We all make the food we feed on ; nor is Jealousy, the green-eyed monster, the only wretch who discolours and deforms. Every evil thought does so; every good 'bought gives fresh lustre to the grass—to the flowers—to the stars. And as the facul-
ties of sense' after becoming finer and more fine, do then, because that they are earthly, gradually lose their power, the faculties of the soul, because that
they are heavenly, become then more and more and more independent of such ministrations, and continue to deal with images, and with ideas which are diviner than images, nor care for either partial or total eclipse of the daylight, conversant as they are and familiar with a more resplendent —a spiritual universe."
This brilliant passage is an epitome of the beauties and blemishes of its author. The fact enunciated is deeply, truly, and finely felt.
The writer, like a man of genius, is tremblingly alive to the value
and beauty of the truth to which he gives utterance. But, instead of taking time to bring it out distinctly in its own imposing symme- try by a few master-touches, he endeavours to indicate it by a repe-
tition of imperfect sketches. He feels that he has failed to impress his reader with a due sense of the beauty that has inspired himself; and endeavours to compensate for his failure by pouring out all the associated images—beautiful, fantastic, or pathetic—that rise, in quick succession, in his suggestive imagination. It is impossible to read the passage we have quoted without being frequently delighted, and equally impossible to read it without feeling that on the whole it is a failure.
This passage recals what is not the least charm these volumes possess for those who read their contents as old acquaintances.
Youth takes pleasure in aping the gravity of age, and age loves to
dwell upon the recollected emotions of youth. In the hot heyday of youth, the writers of Blackwoods Magazine assumed the airs of antiquity : it is curious to trace in the paragraphs we have been quoting, and in some others, the feelings of the man becoming con- scious that the part he has been acting is about to be his real cha- racter. CHRISTOPHER NORTH reminds us, playfully yet feelingly, how, - - - " by the gradual subsiding of all impetuous impulses in the frames
of all mortal men beyond perhaps threescore, the blackest head will he becoming gray, the most nervous knee less firmly knit, the most steelly.springed instep less elastic, the keenest eye less of a far-keeker, and, above all, the most boiling heart less of a caldron or a crater—yea, the whole man subject to sore dimness or decay, and, consequently, the whole duty of man, like the new edi- tion of a book from which many passages that formed the chief glory of the editio princeps have been expunged : the whole character of the style corrected without being thereby improved—just like the later editions of the Pleasures of Imagination, which were written by Akenside when be was about twenty-one, and altered by him at forty—to the exclusion or destruction of many most splendida vitia ' • by which process the poem, in our humble opinion, was shorn of its brightest beams, and suffered disastrous twilight and eclipse—perplexing critics."
We know not whether this is meant as a monody over some excisions which have struck us in turning over the pages of the Recreations. The omissions bespeak a kind and conciliatory feeling on the part of the author, and yet we are more than half-inclined to regret them. Many of them had lost their original sting from sheer lapse of time ; and they were ch. racteristic. After all, however, as sonic people have an un- dying sorenesss, it is perhaps better as it is ; though, a half- century hence, this expurgated edition may be superseded by a reprint of the original articles. We have but a slender chance of surviving to witness this ; and yet we would give a trifle to know how the Edinburgh Whigs of that day will receive it ! The whole race are so thin-skinned, that ten to one they revive the cackling that their ancestors set up when Blackwood first exploded among them; and, without taking upon us to apologize for every thing " Old Ebony" might do or say while sowing his wild oats, never were denunciations more ludicrously disproportioned to the real amount of offence. A reperusal of some of the Noctes would go far to bear out this opinion ; and we should welcome a republication of a volume of the best of them.