JANUARY 2, 1858.
BAYLE ST. JOHN'S MONTAIGNE TICE ESSAYIST.* As it is not always the most meritorious men, morally and intel- lectually speaking, who are most successful in life, so it is not always the best authors, critically speaking, who achieve the greatest fame. Other things than goodness or even merit contri- bute to worldly success. Industry, energy, dexterity, bonhomie, impudence, with feelings not too sensitive and may be a conscience not over nice, all aid the worldly aspirant, in addition to a turn for practical affairs. In like manner, mere genius—even poetical genius in poetry—will not alone suffice to make a house- hold book, or its author's name a household word. Originality of subject or a class of literature has a good deal to do with popular fame : and rightly—" the first hound catches the hare." Human interests, another term for worldly knowledge, is a feature of greater importance than originality itself; because there is not only substantial reality but solid advantage to be gained from the page. An author who so penetrates or partakes of the worldly spirit about him as to- head, perhaps unconsciously to himself, a coming movement invisible to others, also stands a good chance of maintaining the popularity of his name, though the readers of his work may drop away with time. Montaigne probably illustrates these positions better than any other man. In a mere literary point of view, neither his ac- quirements nor his skill were so great as to preserve his celebrity ; , for although he learned Latin as his mother tongue and had a collegiate education, he can by no means be considered a man of learning or of reading ; and although a species of charm belongs to his style the charm, depending upon a half-obsolete quaint- ness, is only appreciable by some previous study. The Essays, with nothing save their literary merit to depend upon, had long since been forgotten. They have preserved themselves and their author by a variety of extraneous characteristics. Montaigne was himself a character, and of a nature which attracts mankind. There was no impracticable virtue about him, nothing of the saint or the stoic. He may rather be considered a type of the good- natured, tolerant, pleasant old gentleman, who had seen a great deal of life, who knew that the practice of men could not be brought to square with doctrinal theories, and had formed a some- what low opinion of women. The difference between Montaigne and his class in general is, that the old Frenchman wrote down what he thought, while the mass confine themselves to conver- sation. In this frankness a great charm of his writings consists- " I love to pour out all myself as plain
As downright Shippen, or as old Montaigne'
and the frankness, properly considered, tells in favour of the man. When we consider the atrocious cruelty under form of law that was practised in France and especially in his own province, and the state of morals under the house of Valois, his tolerance argues kindness if it be indifference, and his laxities might have been much greater.
Character and style alone will not permanently preserve works ; preservation must rest in a great degree upon matter and spirit. In Montaigne's case, both of these existed, and were of the world, worldly. Of his life not much is known in particulars ; but we know that he was bred to the law, and acted as a provincial ma- gistrate. He was a courtier from his youth ; and if not a pro- fessional soldier, he had lived in camps and seen war ; he had the management of a large household and an extensive property, when the seigneur had a good deal more to do than the country gentle- man of the nineteenth century ; he was a. bereat traveller, not only in his own country but in Switzerland and Italy, at an advanced time of life,—and we need not say that travel in the latter half of the fifteenth century was a very different thing from what it was even in the days of slow coaches. The pedantic fashion of his age, which dealt so much in classical quotation, may seem to diminish Montaigne's originality ; but in reality he tested what he took and stamped it with his own impress. Montaigne's celebrity, however, rests upon something larger than the merit of his works even if measured by other than a literary standard. He cannot be called the first popular prose writer, for Boccaccio had forestalled him, even had there been no such thing as popular tales • but he was the first who introduced that easy kind. of writing both in form and spirit which enables a person to throw off what he knows, be it much or little, with the very least of trouble or effort, and which bids fair to swal- low up almost every other class of composition. As Mr. Buckle observes in his History of Civilization, Montaigne followed Rabelais as a shaker of authority, if in one sense he was not really the first who would substitute freedom of inquiry for blind submission to spiritual and temporal power. Perhaps, ' Montaigne tie Essayist: 11 Biography. By Bayle St. John. With Illustra- tions. la two volumes. Published by. Chapman and Hall.
in conjunction with his father, he represented the modern world in another and less creditable trait, its love of laziness—its un- willingness to labour unless it is paid. In any pursuit by which money can be made, men will work as hard as ever, perhaps harder ; but they will not labour for love. We exercise the "most exalted virtue," charity, by means of a guinea-subscrip- tion; a man who risks his life in the discharge of what he thinks a duty is sneered at as a fool if neither money nor money's worth is to be got by the risk ; an individual who spends his time and perhaps his means on some special object of study is deemed not even worth the notice of a sneer ; many would discourage the highest investigations of science as "abstract," and the more knowing only tolerate them because what seems at first a barren truth often admits of some useful application. Our very study of accomplishments is less perhaps for the pleasure they furnish than as a means of display. And when Pierre Eyquem (the family name—Montaigne was de terre) hired a German tutor to teach his infant son Latin by conversation, he struck the key-note of the modern world. At all events, since his son's celebrated ac- count of the easy way in which he learned the language of old Rome, without trouble or flagellation, without "infant's blood or mother's tears," almost every age has had its projects for Greek and Latin made easy to the meanest capacity. The quackery of the "Hamiltonian system" actually imposed upon the shrewd and practical sagacity of Sydney Smith; yet the scheme had come to nothing in the case of the original. " We may easily believe, that by the means They° described the little Michel soon obtained a remarkable proficiency in the Latin language : nor need we be surprised that a modern pedant, the Abbe Mangin, forgetting all disadvantages in the consideration of one advantage, should have written a book called 'The Education of Montaigne, or Art of Teaching Latin ac- cording to the Method of Roman Mothers,' in which he recommends the establishment of schools, whither infants as soon as weaned, should be taken to learn the spirit of the as in preset:6. Previously some solemn pro- fessor had recommended to a mighty monarch—also, perhaps, on the hint of Montaigne—the founding of a city, isolated from the world, in which no- thing but Latin should be spoken. The learned Buchanan was more in ac- cordance with the spirit of his age, however, when he promised Montaigne to recommend his father's system in a forthcoming Essay on Education. "It was not the fault of the system, but of its discontinuance, that Mon- taigne so easily forgot a language in which he became early so proficient. When he wrote his Essays he could still speak Latin, as could all men of letters in those days, but with difficulty ; and had lost even the habit of writing it, in which he once was a complete master. Like his father, he used, when young, to compose Latin verses, but noticed that he always imi- tated the last poet he had read, and so abandoned that exercise. By aegrees he seems to have had no more ordinary command over Latin than if he had been merely grounded in it at school : and this, no doubt, would always be the result of any such experiment, unless sufficiently well carried out to leave a boy ignorant of his own language."
It may be suspected that the proficiency which Montaigne allots to himself was somewhat exaggerated, and that the system is more to blame than Mr. Bayle St. John supposes. A deeply- inflected language can only be thoroughly mastered by the mas- tery of grammar. A dead language cannot be acquired by con- versation, because there is nothing to talk about. The common things, the common thoughts, and almost the common feelings of daily life, are so different in modern and Christian Europe from what they were in ancient and Pagan Rome, that the Latin words used to represent a French or English thing or custom will gene- rally convey a false idea. The pupil taught in this way may acquire doctor's Latin, or law Latin, or low Latin, or modernized Latin, but most assuredly not classical Latin. Such a plan un- less combined with the study of grammar, would fail in teaching the niceties of the inflections. In the easier authors, it may be doubted whether language is the real obstacle to classical reading —whether the matter, the thoughts and images, are not equal stumblingblocks. We suspect it is often as difficult to get at the meaning of the ideas as at the mere sense of the words. Many English works of great and even original genius are neglected— as Hudibras, not that there is any difficulty in the language, but the subject and matter cannot be understood without acquired knowledge. Such works can be read easily enough, but they cannot be relished. Though Montaigne afterwards went to col- lege, he was not in any strict sense a scholar ; nor could he have become one by the method of teaching which he promulgated, and which has perhaps had more disciples than any other system whatever, though, to say the truth, it has been reduced to prac- tice as little as any. Mr. Bayle St. john calls this book on Montaigne "a biogra- phy" ; though it has no resemblance to the continuous narrative of a life, even upon the imaginative system of Charles Knight's Shakspere. The leading incidents of Montaigne's career are pretty well ascertained, and his own pen has intimated an ac- count of his traits and habits ; vet notwithstanding reoords, his half-autobiography, and the lab-ours of French savants, the out- line is not always complete, and many particulars remain to be filled up. A great part of Mr. Bayle St. john's book is disquisi- tional. For instance, the status of the family is not demonstra-
tively settled : was the house, like Talleyrand's, as old a& thus hills of Perigord? was his grandfather a aovus homo ? or was.- his father, as Scaliger assertsy, a hereing-dealer fouldaglak
for which statement probably is, that the old gentleman was en.- gaged in the shipping interest of Bordeaux and in the sea-fish- eries, as it is known he was magisterially connected with the city. And these points are proper topics for discussion, but the bio- grapher pursues them in a wearisome manner, if not at too great length, and lands at last in nothing conclusive. Montaigne en- tertained a friendship for La Boetie, a celebrated writer of those days, whose work against monarchy or more properly against au- tocratical government still survives in party reading. Mr. St. John therefore gives a life of La Boetie, a notice or abstract of his principal work, and some sketches of his and Montaigne's learned friends or contemporaries. It is not clear whether Mon- taigne at a certain period of his youth went to Paris ; but the biographer infers it, and thereupon gives a description of Paris, with the kind of impression it possibly made upon his hero's mind. The particulars of Montaigne's position at Court are not clearly ascertained ; but Mr. St. John fancies what is needful, and is also persuaded that his subject was engaged in public affairs more extensively than is supposed. As boy and man, Montaigne was an actor, a spectator, or at least a contemporary, in sundry re- ligious and political outbreaks at Bordeaux and its neighbour- hood; so there is an historical sketch of sundry public proceedings under the successors of Francis the First, with an occasional no- tice of Court life and morality. Some of these things were good enough topics for separate articles, had they been better done ; one or two are of interest,—as the coup d'oeil of La Boetie's treatise ; but introduced as they are, and treated as they are, they seem to have less relation to Montaigne's biography than to Mr. St. John's bookmaking.
About half of the work has a more direct bearing on the pro- fessed subject, but this half often consists of illustrative articles on Montaigne. In fact, the essays and the travels furnish the topics and the materials for the greater part of the last volume,— as Montaigne's marriage, his wife, his neighbours, his household, what books were contained in his library, the origin of the Essays, the Essays themselves, and so on. In these things, as indeed throughout, Mr. Sayle St. John is more successful in critical discussion or fancy sketches thaii where he is coining close to biographical particulars, when precision is required both in facts and their narration. Of brief precision, indeed, there is little. Mr. St. John seems to think that it is incumbent on him to discuss. This peculiarity renders some of the extrinsic pictures of more interest considered separately than the matter that bears closer upon Montaigne,—as, for example, this powerful picture of Italy about the beginning of the sixteenth century.
"During the reigns of Charles the Eighth, Louis the Twelfth, and Francis the First, the French spirit of adventure set in a strong current towards Italy. Those kings warred for family and personal objects, and were ac- companied and imitated by a vast mass of the ambitious nobility of the country. Every Royal army was swelled by a number of volunteers—young entlemen of family, who left their homes partly from mere love of fight- ing, partly impelled by that vague desire of experience which France has so seldom yielded to, but which in this case so marvellously influenced its fortunes.
"A recent historian picturesquely calls this movement the Discovery of Italy. And it was, morally and intellectually, a discovery. Without adopt- ing the exaggerated language it is the custom to use with respect to the Benruss' ance,—which was a stride in civilization following on many good steps, but falling far short of its aim,—we must admit the peculiar import- ance of that period in the history of France. The French adventurers in Italy were more simple-minded and susceptible of impression than their heirs ; quite as corrupt in manners, but less egotistical ; astute and able, but not so aware of their defects and their virtues ; more disposed to fraternal intercourse even with enemies. Europe at that time was laying open new empires East and West. The world was growing under men's feet as the heavens were deepening to their gaze. France shared little in this grand labour. It had remained shut up in its almost provincial indifference—de- veloping moderate talents in literature and art, small poets and estimable ornamentists, but no men of science of note ; great only in bigots, wranglers, and formal philosophers. Italy was a revelation to the nobility and fighting men, though not quite a revelation to the artisan, not at all to the trader. Even now Italy is a revelation to poets and moralists who come down the Southern slope of the Alps for the first time. We advance under the blue sky dim with light, or beneath an awning of brightly-tinted clouds. White cottages, villas, clustered villages, and steepled cities—though often found silent and weed-grown when we draw nigh—expand, look beautiful, and shine in that , brilliant atmosphere, which exaggerates everything. The dusty plain of stubble, with its undergrowth of pale wild flowers, seems like a garden; the expanse of corn, shot with variegated green as the breeze trembles over it, seems like a water-meadow. All the women are waiting by the wayside to be hallowed into Madonnas by some Raphael. Bring with us what prejudice, we may, we feel wafted into another world—a world of stronger passions, brighter impressions, warmer and more glittering than our imagination has dared to picture. But what is this to the Italy of the sixteenth century ? The severe manners of the Republics—severe compa- ratively—had given place to a portentous luxury, never surpassed in modern times, save in some Eastern despotism. Poison and the dagger were often at work, it is true, in gloomy alcoves or dreary porticoes, at night; but these were episodes recorded by the whisper of fear, or rolled along the lower levels of society by the echoing voice of popular rumour. The outside aspect was marvellously gay, and bright, and fascinating. Palaces-of marble were de- corated with all the luxury of the goldsmith's, art—which exhausted its re- sources, and then made way for costlier ornaments dug out of the deepest mines of genius. Swarms of princes, and dignitaries, and chiefs, from the Pape- gaut of the Vatican down to the Gran' Diavolo, who patronized Aretino and m- trocluced him to Francis the First, glittered or rioted amidst brocaded and silken courts—where merriment and music, and dance and song, and compassionate beauty, and more refined sources of pleasure, slaked all the senses and stimulated all the faculties of man. There was nothing wanting in that resplendent civili-
zation, which put on more gorgeous colours at the approach of death—' the last still loveliest '—nothing, save morality. The intellect and the hand
alike created miracles ; but no high purpose actuated man or society. Italy was a brilliant and cultivated libertine, too old to begin-a new career; too
hardened to repent ; ,sinking amidst sweet sounda. Enul perfumes, and down, and gold, and caresses, and the last thrills of pleasure, always so fondly sa- voured, to- a clisitonovredi grays."
The book eakibits a good deal of reaffin&' connected with Mon- taigne and his age, but we suspect of a hasty and superficial kind. The commentary, of which tile volumes mainly consist, has some of that independence which distinguishes men of extreme opinions especially in politics mixed up with a good deal of the violence, self-sufficiency, and exaggeration, that as often ac- company this independence. The merits of Francis the First have been exaggerated, whether as a monarch, a soldier, & pa- tron, or a man ; but the following judgment of him is extreme, whether in conclusion or tone.
"Francis came, perfectly uncultivated, in contact with a very brilliant civilization ; and being possessed of unusual love of praise and fondness for display, with sufficient observation to see whence the brilliance of the Italian courts was derived, determined by an exertion of power, and without any personal sacrifices, to be surrounded, when the society of panders and har- lots palled, by artists and men of letters. How much pleasure he found in their works we cannot determine. Probably his vanity only was appealed to : for we are unable to see what place for the pure delights that are derived from art and poetry could be found in the mind of one who was ever in al- ternate fits of licentiousness and superstition, when he did not combine the two ; who has the especial honour of having revived the. punishment of heresy by fire ; the great proof of whose ingenuity was the invention of the estrapade—a machine for ducking heretics into the flames and lifting them out again, so that the tortures of martyrdom might be prolonged ; whose jaded senses derived but a moderate excitement when he went to a burning, as an English mob goes to a hanging, from the shrieks and struggles of suffering saints. Verily this bosom-friend of Cmsar Borgia, whose gallantry was that of the mastiff—for instead of courting ladies, he forced his way sword in hand into their chambers, brutally driving the husband away,—this smirking, rawboned, apoplectic hero of a country fair, whose portrait dis- figures the gallery of the Louvre—this blusterer, half whose phrases flattery effaces to convert him into a hero—' all is lost except honour . . . and life, which is safe,'—this savage persecutor, without the excuse of faith, exactly comes up to the idea of a patron of letters, who forbids the exercise of the art of printing in his dominions."
This is all positive enough ; but a person disposed to be hyper- critical might affirm that Mr. Bayle St. John did not know who Francis the First was ; for he actually represents him as the son of Louis the Twelfth : "We may accept his father's estimate of him; Louis the Twelfth used to say, All my labour will be spoiled by that groa gar con,'—as who should say a booby, a sort of qubberly boy, mysteriously, destined to occupy the throne." (Vol. I. pp. 21, 22.) The relationship between them was no closer than that the grandfather of Louis was the great-grandfather of Francis; and this is not a barren genealogical fact, but a preg- nant circumstance, which had Mr. St. John been so deep in French history as he professes to be, he could not have avoided knowing. For instance, the celebrated mother of Francis the First left her impress upon a considerable portion of his reign. Her slighted passion caused the defection of Bourbon, the defeat of Pavia, and. the captivity of Madrid. Yet any common history would tell that Louis the Twelfth must have committed bigamy had he married Mary Tudor with a Queen living.