LETTER-WRriERS AND AUTOBIOGRAPHERS.*
WE cannot see that any distinct principle has guided Mr. Charles Knight in making this selection. His object has apparently been to make a selection. Some of the letters in the volume have been • !lours with the Bat Letter-Writers and ziutetdogrophers. By Charles Knight. Second Series. London: Itoutledge.
happily chosen, and bear not only on the characters of their writers, but on the epistolary art. So much cannot be said of the autobiographical fragments, unless they are accepted as private letters written to a friendly posterity. We do not mean that they are devoid of interest. De Quincey's sad memorials of himself, I Gibbon's stately History of the Rise and Progress of the Gibbonian Empire, Cowper's memoirs, which, as is well pointed out in this book, present a marked contrast to his letters, afford Mr.
Knight many valuable extracts. But except as being readable in themselves, and completing our knowledge of their authors, these sketches have no peculiar claim on our consideration.
They are not representative, as they ought to be, and as some of the letters are. When once a selection is made without any thread ' of unity running through its component parts, when anything that looks attractive is made use of, and much that does not even hold out such a hope is quoted for the sake of quotation, the effect pro- duced is that of paste and scissors, what might seem catholicity of taste is regarded as smattering, and the panegyrics of the com- piler on his favourite pieces are taken for puffery of the wares which he has to offer. Mr. Charles Knight will hardly be exposed to such suspicions, but he will not have to thank his present book for his escape. If he had not been an old and faithful servant of literature, we might either have passed over this work as a mere compilation, or have dealt severely with its shortcomings. As it is, we think Mr. Charles Knight has taken one of those small liberties which old servants will take occasionally, has made too much of a good idea, and smothered what were promising materials under an inordinate bulk of needless extract.
Such a title as Half-Hours with the Best Letter-Writers and Auto- biographers of course prepares us for an introduction to those who excelled in either department. Mr. Knight has not even attempted
this in the present series. He seems to think that any letter, so I long as it contains interesting matter, or bears a name which is known to the public, comes within his province. This may be a comfortable theory, and it is certainly prolific. It enables Mr.
Knight to insert letters from great men, to great men, and about great men. He can carry autobiography so far as to quote a description of George III. from one of Galt's novels, though it is not even suggested that George III. wrote under the
alias of Galt, or that Galt drew on his own character for Sir Andrew Wylie. But though Mr. Knight may quote he
cannot force the public to read, and he will hardly persuade critics to form an estimate of the worth of his collection. We may avail ourselves of it to point out some of the leading character- istics of the letters it contains, and we must remark that many of these letters are too good for the company in which they are placed. One of the striking, though purely accidental, features of Mr. Knight's work is the publication of some new letters of Southey and Canning. Another interesting feature is the repro- duction of the private letters of Junius to Woodfall. But it is difficult to see why these letters of Southey and Canning should be considered epistolary models simply because they are unpublished, or why short notes which are made memorable by the mystery that surrounds their writer should rank with the delicate art of Cowper, the impulsive friendliness of Burke, and the stiff ease of Gibbon. The following passage is indeed characteristic of Southey :—
1 II I Among my employments I must not forget the most important— Coke. I am obediently diligent in reading this man's commentaries— but I am not obedient enough to think it a good book for the young student. It is so completely unmethodical that I think it should only be read after a man was a tolerable lawyer. For my own part, I find I know something of everything, but have no arranged knowledge. It is like reading Wanley's Wonders or Seward's Anecdotes to learn history. I envy you who have done with these things, and often wish myself again at Barton. Certainly, I deem some regular employment neces- sary for most men—some professional study to fix them. But for myself, I am so thoroughly fond of literary pursuits, that it is not by this principle I can reconcile myself to law. Luckily there is a stronger motive, and unluckily that motive applies to me.'"
It serves, too, for a link of connection between Southey's letters and those of Canning, when we have Southey writing, "The Aristocrats have found out that such poems are very Jacobinical, and Canning and Nares have given me the title of the Jacobine Poet, and regularly abused me once a week since the
Anti-Jacobine made its appearance. They are the best advertise- menta in the world, and will soon ridicule any book into a third edition." Moreover, any of Canning's early letters, and notably the one in which he speaks of his Eton life, would be valuable to the son of the publisher of the Microcosm. We are willing to
allow for such motives, and it is hard not to respect them even more than they deserve. Besides, a name is so large an element in the popularity of a letter that it often seems to supply the want of all that should accompany it. When once we have a characterbefore us, everything connected with it seems characteristic. The distinc-
tion between features and peculiarities, between what makes up,
the character and what happens to be attached to it, between what is public and general and what is local and personal, is constantly overlooked. A man's features may he marked, and yet may be- wholly exceptional. The private letters of Junius, for instance, are- most significant so far as the private character of their writer is
concerned. In his Popular History of England Mr. Knight could comment appropriately on the audacity which would have weaker
letters disowned, the self-importance which looked forward to attainder, the assumption which called Garrick a vagabond and told him to keep to his pantomimes. But here such comments are out of place. One does not select letters in order to show that their writer was a "worthless scoundrel." Even if the value of these letters was greater than it is, it would be purely individual. And this alone ought to exclude them from a representative collection.
Perhaps we have not made our meaning clear. If so, the fault has been rather with Mr. Knight than with us. So few, compara- tively, of the letters in this series come up to the true standard, that in dwelling on those which have fallen short of it we have forgotten to define it. The reader has, however, examples of per- fect art in Cowper's letters, from which Mr. Knight has drawn both wisely and liberally. In all Cowper's letters there is that amount of freedom which marks the distinction between familiar correspondence and the set tasks of authorship. "Now, upon. the word of a poor creature," Cowper remarks in one place, "I have said all that I have said without the least intention to say one word of it wheri I began." There is a very similar confession in Madame de Sevigne, and Burke, as quoted by Mr. Knight, tells one of his correspondents, "I do not know to whom I could write with greater freedom and less regularity than to you ; for as the thoughts come crowding into my head, cannot forbear putting 'em down, be they in what order or disorder they will." Of course this freedom may be carried to such an extent as to become carelessness, but good writers know when to unbend and when to stop short. That they should be- able to unbend appears not only from Cowper's example, but from the severe judgment he passes on the affected smartness of Pope. "This foolish vanity," he says, "would have spoiled me quite, and would have made me as disgusting a letter-writer as Pope, who seems to have thought that unless a sentence was well turned, and every period pointed with some con-
ceit, it was not worth the carriage. Accordingly, he is to me, except in very few instances, the most disagreeable
maker of epistles that ever I met with." Even Gibbon relaxes
now and then,—neque semper arcum tendit. The account of the Decline and Fall, given to his stepmother, may be usefully con- trasted with the more youthful letter to his aunt, which we quote below. "I am just at present engaged in a great historical work —no less than a History of the Decline and Fall of the Boman Empire; with the first volume of which I may very possibly
oppress the public next winter. It would require some pages to give a more particular idea of it ; but I shall only say in general
that the subject is curious, and never yet treated as it deserves ; and that during some years it has been in my thoughts, and even under my pen." The letter to his aunt dates from his nineteenth year, and is far more of a precursor of the Decline and Fall than- the one which announces its approaching publication :— "Dear Madam,—Fear no reproaches for your negligence, however great ; for your silence, however long. I love you too well to make you any. Nothing, in my opinion, is so ridiculous as some kind of friends, wives, and lovers, who look on no crime as so heinous as the letting slip a post without writing. The charm of friendship is liberty ; and he that would destroy the one, destroys, without designing it, the better half of the other. I compare friendship to charity, and letters to alms ; the last signifies nothing without the first, and very often the first is very strong, although it does not show itself by the other. It is not good-will which is wanting, it is only opportunities or means. How-. over, one month—two months—three months—four months I began not to be angry, but to be uneasy, for fear some accident had happened to you. I was often on the point of writing, but was always stopped by the hopes of hearing from you the next post. Besides, not to flatter you, your excuse is a very bad one. You cannot entertain me by your letters. I think I ought to know that better than you ; and I assure you that one of your plain sincere letters entertains me more than the most polished one of Pliny or Cicero. 'Tis your heart speaks, and I look on your heart as much better in its way than either of their heads."
There is something in the suggestion as to oppressing the public which takes even the first of these letters out of the category in which Cowper's letters would be classed. But what could be more pedantic than the assurance that news from an affectionate rela- tion is weighed in the balance against the works of Pliny and Cicero? Such an allusion shows a mind absorbed in dry studies, and even more proud of them than pleased with them. It is true that in the friendly correspondence of famous people we too often detect those follies of the wise which Johnson assigned to the last scene of life. But, then, these follies may have their charm for us. They may show us that great men are not more than men. They may make us more contented with our own littleness, and more ready to allow the merits of those who are not wholly re- moved from our appreciation. Besides their charm, they have often a valuable lesson. It must strengthen our hopes for the progress of the world to find that the arguments employed fifty years ago by persons to whose judgments some deference must be paid, have now become the undisputed property of men with whom it would be idle to argue. This, at least, is the moral we draw from the following letter of Hannah I■lore's, written in 1823 to William Wilberforce:—
"'Our poor are now to be made scholars and philosophers. I am not the champion of ignorance, but I own I am alarmed at the violence of
the contrast The poor must not only read English, but ancient history, and even the sciences are to be laid open to them. Now, not to inquire where would they gat the money,—I ask, where would a labouring man got the time ? Time is the fortune of a poor man ; and as to what they would gain from Grecian history, why, they would learn that the meanest citizen of Athens could determine on the merits of a tragedy of Euripides; to do which they must always live in a play- house, as, indeed, they almost always did ; they were such critics in language as to detect a foreign accent in a groat philosopher, &c.—and yet history does not speak of a more turbulent, unmanageable, profligate
people If you aro not quite tired of me and my senilitios, I will proceed to a few facts to illustrate my theory. Not only in the great national schools, but in the little paltry cottage seminaries of three- pence a week, I hear of the most ridiculous instances of the affectation of literature. A poor little girl of this stamp was in my room one day when a gentleman was sitting with me. Ho asked her what she was reading at school. "Oh, Sir, the whole circle of the sciences!"—" Indeed !" said he ; "that must be a very large work !"—" No, Sir; it is a very little book, it cost half-a-crown." My friend smiled, and lamented that what was of such easy attainment had cost him so much time and money. I asked a little girl, a servant's child, the other day, what she was reading, and if she could say her Catechism. "Oh no, Madam, I am learning Syntax." What I am going to add, you will think an exaggeration, if not an invention, but it is a literal fact. A girl in the next parish being asked what she learnt, answered, "I learns gogarphy, and the harts and senses." In many schools, I am assured, writing and accounts are taught on Sundays. This is a regular apprenticeship to sin. He who is taught arithmetic when a boy will, when a man, open his shop on a Sunday. Now, in my poor judgment, all this has a revolutionary as well as irreligious tendency; and the misfortune is, that the growing ultra-ism on the side of learning, falsely so called, will irritate and inflame the old bigotry, which hugged absolute ignorance as bidden treasure, not to be parted with ; while that sober measure of Christian instruction which lies between the two extremes will be rejected by both parties.'"