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"of our language." * Few, if any critics, I apprehend, would now deny that the preference is due far rather to the Saxon roots. "He," says a great writer of our own day, second to none in the mastery of English composition; "he, who uses a Latin or a French phrase where a pure "old English word does as well, ought to be hung, drawn, "and quartered for high treason against his mother "tongue." f The principle of Hume might seem to lead almost unavoidably to a choice of words, elegant perhaps, and expressive, but in a high degree artificial and elaborate — a choice of words like that of Dr. Johnson, or at best like that of Gibbon. Yet, strange to say, in the case of Hume himself, it led to what Gibbon most justly terms the "careless inimitable beauties" of his style.
But the superiority of Hume does not rest on style alone. The late Mr. John Allen, an acute and learned critic, wholly opposed in politics to that historian, nevertheless observes of him: "In vain shall we look elsewhere for "those general and comprehensive views, — that sagacity "and judgment,—those masterly lessons of political "wisdom, — that profound knowledge of human nature,— "that calm philosophy and dispassionate balancing of "human opinions, which delight and instruct us in the "pages of Hume."J Such praise, though not without some considerable drawbacks and exceptions, is confirmed by the voice of an enlightened people during a long period of years. The perusal of his narrative, upon the whole, is found to afford so much both of pleasure and instruction, that, in all probability, it will never cease to be the common guide and hand-book of our history until the Revolution; the student, however, not neglecting those invaluable lights which later writers, and none more than Mr. Hallam, have collaterally brought to bear upon the subject.
The attacks upon Revealed Religion in the Essays of Hume, and in the History of Gibbon, were, it is well
* Chapter iv. William the Conqueror.
'f Letter of Mr. Southey to Mr. William Taylor of Norwich, February 14. 1803.
t Edinburgh Review, No. lxxxiii. p. 3. See nearly to the same effect a passage in the Fifth Lecture of Professor Smyth, vol. i. p. 126.
known, only parts of one great plan, — only branches of that evil tree which at this period overshadowed the whole Northern Continent of Europe. A sect — if so it can be called where every thing was doubted and nothing taught—arrogating to itself the title of Philosophy, and, with Voltaire for its patriarch, or high-priest, at Ferney, numbered proselytes at every Court from Petersburg to Paris. With very few and not very distinguished exceptions, the whole Literature of those countries was in its hands or under its control. At Berlin, the King himself was among its most zealous votaries, and employed some of those hours of leisure which were left him by the cares of war or sovereignty, in aping the style of the annotators upon Holy Writ, and composing, after the manner of Dom Calmet, some mock comments upon the nursery-tale of Blue Beard! In the Southern states of Europe, the progress of that sect was arrested, not by argument and reason, but rather through the authority of the governments and the ignorance of the governed. There the most sacred truths came to be classed with despotism and misrule, because they were maintained by the same means. There the grossest impostures continued to be practised on the people. Of these one remarkable instance, touching the King of Prussia, may be given. The priests in Italy regarded with much displeasure the career of Frederick; his example might be dangerous if it could be thought that so many victories and conquests had been gained by an unbeliever, or even by a heretic . Accordingly they devised a tale explaining his successes entirely to their own satisfaction. Goethe in his youthful wanderings relates how on one occasion he travelled from Bologna through the Apennines in company with a Captain of the Papal army. "Tell me," asked this officer, "may we "trust what we hear from our priests respecting your "Frederick the Great? Is it true that he holds the Ca"tholic faith, but has obtained from the Pope a dispensa"tion to conceal it? We know that he never visits any "of your Protestant Churches, but we are further told "that he has a subterranean chapel beneath his palace, "where he offers up his devotions day by day, with a "heart full of anguish, grieving that he cannot venture "to avow in public our holy religion ; for doubtless if he "did, his Prussians, who are all furious heretics, would "strike him dead upon the spot. Tell me, is all this really "true?" Goethe answered only as became a prudent traveller in the Pope's dominions, that since these were deep mysteries of state, no one was precisely informed respecting them.*
Looking then to the intellectual condition of Europe at this time, we find a melancholy scene — scepticism on the one side, and superstition on the other. In England the taint of the new philosophers was far less than in France or Germany, yet still their influence may be traced to no small extent, both on its literature and on its society. So early as 1753, the veteran patriot Sir John Barnard could exclaim in the House of Commons : "At present it really "seems to be the fashion for a man to declare himself of "no religion."f We may observe in Lord Chesterfield's Letters to his Son, that even where the recommendations are most laudable, they are seldom, if ever, urged on lofty grounds. So great was the vogue of precepts delivered in that tone, that these Letters passed through no less than four editions in one year. In the case of Hume's Essays, or of Gibbon's History, we may view with some surprise not merely the boldness of their attacks, but how little that boldness appears to have affected their fame or fortunes. Even where they did provoke disapprobation, it was sometimes far more timidly and faintly than might have been supposed. Take the instance of Dr. Robertson. He was a leading Divine of the Scottish Church. He was the Principal of an important University. He was, there is no reason to doubt, a conscientious and religious man. He had no such familiar friendship with Gibbon as to warp his judgment. Yet when Gibbon's first volume appeared, we find Dr. Robertson write of it in such terms as these: "I hope the book will be as successful "as it deserves to be. I have not yet read the two last "chapters (on the Progress of Christianity), but am sorry, "from what I have heard of them, that he has taken such
* See Goethe's Travels in Italy in 1786. (Werke, p. 180. ed. 1S30.)
f Parl. Hist. vol. xiv. p. 1389.
a tone in them as will give great offence and hurt the "sale of the book." *
If then it be asked, who first in England at this period breasted the waves and stemmed the tide of infidelity— who, enlisting wit and eloquence together with argument and learning on the side of Revealed Religion, first turned the literary current in its favour, and mainly prepared the reaction which succeeded: that praise seems most justly to belong to Dr. Samuel Johnson. Religion was to him no mere lip-service nor cold formality: he was mindful of it in his social hours as much as in his graver lucubrations : and he brought to it, not merely erudition such as few indeed possessed, but the weight of the highest character and the respect which even his enemies could not deny him. It may be said of him, that, though not in Orders, he did the Church of England better service than most of those who at that listless era ate her bread.
The sayings of Dr. Johnson in his social hours have become familiar to us from his Life by Boswell—certainly by common consent, one of the most delightful books in our language. In that book the folly of the author forms a constant foil to the wit and wisdom which he records, and greatly adds to their effect. It was an acute remark of Mr. Burke — a remark which the public opinion has since confirmed, but which most assuredly the author of Rasselas little dreamed of—that Johnson appears far greater in Boswell's pages than in his own. The reason is that in the accounts of his private converse we have his admirable sense and shrewdness expressed in clear, plain terms, whilst in his prose writings we find him too often adopt on system a style artificially and elaborately bad—a style far more Latin than English — a style that easily may be, and that often has been, mimicked—a style that, according to his own favourite choice of words, would be called tumid, grandiloquent, and sesquipedalian.
Besides, the gratitude due to Dr. Johnson as the steadfast and able champion of the Christian Church, there is another point of view in which his character most justly
* Letter to Mr. Strahan, dated Edinburgh College, March 15. 1776, and published in Gibbon's Correspondence.
claims respect. No man at any period has more worthily upheld the dignity of Literature. When first he began to write, he had to struggle with all the bitterness of poverty. There were nights when he had no resting-place to lay his head. There were days when he had no money to buy food. Several of his early notes to Mr. Cave, the bookseller, bear appended to his name the mournful word Impransus. Once when Mr. Harte, the biographer of Gustavus Adolphus, was the guest of Mr. Cave, he observed that a plateful of the dinner was sent behind a screen; this, it seems, was for Johnson, who had been ashamed to join the company in his threadbare clothes. Yet through all these difficulties the "retired and uncourtly "scholar," — for thus he describes himself*,—never swerved from the path of principle, nor was once betrayed into any mean or dishonourable action. Still did he hold fast his Opposition politics. Still did he assert his manly independence. His worst enemies might accuse him of churlishness and rudeness, but certainly never of flattery or fawning. His letter to Lord Chesterfield, in 1755, proves how sternly, upon the smallest provocation, real or imagined, he would thrust aside the hand of patronage. When at last, by no hand besides his own, he had secured both bread and fame—when he found his society courted, and his ascendency acknowledged—when the bounty of the Crown, unsought and unexpected, had raised him into affluence — he showed the remembrance of his past condition by the most generous relief of other men's distress. "He loved the poor," says his friend Mrs. Thrale, "as I "never yet saw any one else love them, with an earnest "desire to make them happy. In pursuance of these prin"ciples," continues the same lady, "he nursed whole "nests of people in his house, where the lame, the blind, "the sick, and the sorrowful, found a sure retreat." And when in those days Johnson communed with the great, he did not indeed omit that civil deference of manner which he deemed their due, but he felt that now he met them at least on equal if not on superior terms; and made them respect in him both the inborn pride of genius, and the well-earned dignity of learning.
Letter to Lord Chesterfield, February 7. 1755.