Page images
PDF
EPUB
[graphic][ocr errors][merged small]
[graphic]

HE study of poetry maketh a man witty ;

and the study of history maketh a man wise.' Thus, or to this effect, speaks the

wisest of the Elizabethan wise men. The epigrammatic sentences are familiar to us all. For my own part, I have admired them from the days of my boyhood ; but it was only a few weeks ago that, on selecting them as my text for the following remarks, I discovered to my surprise that I either differed with the great philosopher in opinion : a circumstance that made me apprehensive on the score of modesty; or elsewhat was very probable, indeed,—that I had failed to gather the true and full purport of his words.

It would seem to me that we may gather wit and brilliancy from the elaborated, brief, condensed, and easily-remembered utterances of the lesser poets ; that we may store up knowledge from the works of historians by gathering up the facts they record, and that not seldom we may save our judgment by throwing their inferences away ; but that practical sagacity, while to a very great extent a matter of temperament

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

and inheritance, is a quality of mind improvable now, as in the days of Ulysses, by personal intercourse with other and varied minds, and actual observation of the ways and manners, and habits of other men; and that charitable wisdom, or a sense of human brotherhood, is to be drawn chiefly from works of cosmopolitan sentiment, humour, and observation ; such as Don Quixote; Gil Blas; the Essays of Montaigne ; the comedies of Shakespeare and Molière; the Vicar of Wakefield ; the Essays of Charles Lamb; and the novels of Thackeray and Dickens; that intellectual wisdom is to be derived from the study of the varied works of such philosophers as, from the days of Aristotle to those of our own Mill, eschewing the glittering field of moonshine-speculation, and the Will-o'-the-wisp occupation of leading others into intellectual morasses, have condescended to be useful, and practicable, and reasonable, and intelligible; and that wisdom, in a higher, more comprehensive, human, and catholic sense of the word, is mainly to be drawn from the biographies of great jurists, statesmen, warriors, artists, and men of letters, and chiefly from the reverent and diligent perusal of those few renowned poets that seem to have drawn into their own brains the concentrated wisdom of their respective epochs, and to have risen, either partially or entirely, above the prejudices of their time and country, under the workings of generous and broad and world-embracing sympathies.

History would be almost a substitute for travel, observation, and experience; would be, in fact, a trainingschool for practical sagacity; if historians from time

а

immemorial had been more careful to accumulate knowledge and record simply, accurately, and without inference, men's dealings with one another, than to generalize upon scanty data, and to interpret, by the dim light of human intelligence, or the dark lantern of local prejudice, the mysterious but impartial dealings of Providence with man; in other words, the teachings of historians would be infinitely more valuable as a source of mental training, had they chosen to a greater extent the part

of a judge rather than that of an advocate, the business of a messenger rather than that of an interpreter.

It would perhaps be impossible to define with exactitude how much, or how little of history is embalmed in the poetry of the Iliad. There is, however, in this ocean-poem a confluence of streams; and one of these merged streams is that of history. In one of the latter books you may remember how Achilles pursues Hector round the walls of Troy, while the Gods above and the great Father of Gods and Men are looking anxiously on; how that the prize for which these runners are a-running is great Hector's life; and how with Hector's death is linked the ruin of a great empire, the death of many valiant men, and the slavery of innumerable mothers and maidens and little children. The Father holds the balance in an impartial hand, with the fate of either hero in a separate scale; and, beneath the pressure of inexorable Destiny, the fate of Hector sinks down, to the sorrow of the common Father. There is a breadth of charity in this splendid allegory, which we but seldom, if ever, see exemplified in the pages

of a prose

historian.

The ostensible subject of the great work of Herodotus is the Persian invasion of Greece, and round the main subject he' groups the varied knowledge accumulated during a lifetime of multiform experience. We have a brilliant, but not very valuable stone, a species of mock diamond, set in most rare filigree and purest gold. We have the entertaining works of a curious and observant traveller, rendered unnecessarily complete and uniform by the introduction of a great historical event, picturesquely and dramatically represented. We pick up ever and anon scraps of wisdom from quaint and subtle observations of the old gossip, or from sententious epigrams assigned to king, or priest, or courtier. We smile at the credulity of this guest and questioner of Egyptian savants; but very possibly this historical dramatist would smile at the credulity of his annotators, and the pains needlessly expended in defending or attacking the details of that impossible host of five million men, with women, and horses, and camels, that drank the rivers dry as they marched across the world, or rather across the parchment of the writer, for the conquest of a not very productive earth-corner, about twice the size of Yorkshire. The attention of heaven and earth is riveted to the singular and uneven game of military chess. Prophets prophesy, and monarchs dream dreams. Omens are misunderstood by wise men, though a child might run and read destruction in their significance. Mares give birth to leverets in vain. The stars in their courses fight, obviously to after-wit, against a judicially blinded Sisera. The might of old historic Asia bursts upon the shores of Greece, and

breaks into harmless foam. We remarked that it would be impossible to define how much of history was contained in the poem of Homer; it were almost as difficult, and perhaps as useless a task, to eliminate imagination from fact in the treatment by Herodotus of the great Persian invasion of Greece.

Thucydides occupied years of banishment in detailing the incidents of the Peloponnesian war,--the first writer of history, first in point of time; and, to this very day, the first in point of quality. We have now and then a prophecy, referred to in a spirit of ill-concealed derision. Perhaps the fashion of hot-meat suppers was going out of vogue; for neither Pericles, nor Brasidas, nor Alcibiades, nor Cleon dream a single dream. Degenerate days! How they used to eat and drink at any hour of the night, those old heroes round Ilium! They would come in from a night-surprise, and wake up Nestor, and a few other choice and everhungry spirits, and fall-to like men. What wonder if a monarch, with half a chine within him, awoke before the dim dawn with the dream-god Oneirus at his side ?

The history of Thucydides, so far as it goes, is perhaps the most perfect and reliable of all historical works, ancient and modern. The dry record of facts is relieved from time to time by brief but philosophical speculation, and the chief actors in the scene are made dramatically to express the motives and aspirations of their respective states. But the speeches, put into the mouths of envoys, Athenian, Lacedæmonian, Corinthian, or Corcyræan, are never given as the ipsissima verba of the speakers. We are expressly warned that

a

a

« PreviousContinue »