Imágenes de páginas

state of Europe. About this time the belligerent powers had made and accepted overtures of peace; our English plenipotentiaries were named to assist at the congress of Augsburg, which never met: I wished to attend them as a gentleman or a secretary ; and my father fondly believed that the proof of some literary talents might introduce me to public notice, and second the recommendations of my friends. After a last revisal, I consulted with Mr Mallet and Dr Maty, who approved the design and promoted the execution. Mr Mallet, after hearing me read my manuscript, received it from my hands, and delivered it into those of Becket, with whom he made an agreement in my name an easy agreement: I required only a certain number of copies; and, without transferring my property, I devolved on the bookseller the charges and profits of the edition. Dr Maty undertook, in my absence, to correct the sheets: he inserted, without my knowledge, an elegant and flattering epistle to the author, which is composed however with so much art, that, in case of a defeat, his favourable report might have been ascribed to the indulgence of a friend for the rash' attempt of a young English gentleman. The work was printed and published, under the title of “Essai sur l'Etude de la Littérature, à Londres, chez T. Becket et P. A. de Hondt, 1761,” in a small volume in duodecimo: my dedication to my father, a proper and pious address, was com

June 10th, 1761. Finding the printing of my book proceeded but slowly, I went up to town, where I found the whole was finished. I gave Becket orders for the presents : 20 foi Lausanne; copies for the duke of Richmond, marquis of Carnarvon, lords Waldegrave, Litchfield, Bath, Granville, Bute, Shelbourn, Chesterfield, Hardwicke, lady Hervey, sir Joseph Yorke, sir Matthew Featherstone, MM. Mallet, Maty, Scott, Wray, lord Egremont, M. de Bussy, mademoiselle la duchesse d’Aiguillon, and M. le comte de Caylus :-great part of these were only my father's or Mal. et's acquaintance.

posed the twenty-eighth of May: Dr Maty's letter is dated the 16th of June ; and I received the first copy (June 23d) at Alresford, two days before I marched with the Hampshire militia. Some weeks afterwards, on the same ground, I presented my book to the late duke of York, who breakfasted in colonel Pitt's tent. By my father's direction, and Mallet's advice, many literary gifts were distributed to several eminent cha. racters in England and France ; two books were sent to the count de Caylus, and the duchesse d’Aiguillon, at Paris : I had reserved twenty copies for my friends at Lausanne, as the first fruits of my education, and a grateful token of my remembrance: and on all these persons I levied an unavoidable tax of civility and compliment. It is not surprising that a work, of which the style and sentiments were so totally foreign, should have been more successful abroad than at home. I was delighted by the copious extracts, the warm commendations, and the flattering predictions, of the journals of France and Holland : and the next year (1762) a new edition (I believe at Geneva) extended the fame, or at least the circulation, of the work. In England it was received with cold indiffe. rence, little read, and speedily forgotten : a small impression was slowly dispersed; the bookseller murmured, and the author (had his feelings been more exquisite) might have wept over the blundere and baldness of the English translation. The publication of my History fifteen years afterwards revived the memory of my first performance, and the Essay was eagerly sought in the shops. But I refused the permission which Becket solicited of reprinting it : the public curiosity was imperfectly satisfied by a pirated copy of the booksellers of Dublin; and when a copy of the original edition has been discovered in a sale, the primitive value of half-a-crown has risen to the fanciful price of a guinea or thirty shillings.

I have expatiated on the petty circumstances and period of my first publication, a memorable era in

the life of a student, when he ventures to reveal the measure of his mind : his hopes and fears are multiplied by the idea of self-importance, and he believes for awhile that the eyes of mankind are fixed on his person and performance. Whatever may be my present reputation, it no longer rests on the merit of this first essay; and at the end of twenty-eight years I may appreciate my juvenile work with the impar.tiality, and almost with the indifference, of a stranger. In his answer to lady Hervey, the count de Caylus admires, or affects to admire, “ les livres sans nombre que Mr Gibbon a lus et très bien lus.” But, alas! my stock of erudition at that time was scanty and superficial; and if I allow myself the liberty of naming the Greek masters, my genuine and personal acquaintance was confined to the Latin classics. The most serious defect of my Essay is a kind of obscurity and abruptness which always fatigues, and may often elude, the attention of the reader. Instead of a precise and proper definition of the title itself, the sense of the word Littérature is loosely and variously applied : a number of remarks and examples, historical, critical, philosophical, are heaped on each other without method or connection, and if we except some introductory pages, all the remaining chapters might indifferently be reversed or transposed. The obscurity of many passages is often affected, “ brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio;" the desire of expressing perhaps a common idea with sententious and oracular brevity. Alas! how fatal has been the imitation of Montesquieu ! But this obscurity sometimes proceeds from a mixture of light and darkness in the author's mind; from a partial ray which strikes upon an angle, instead of spreading itself over the surface of an object. After this fair confession, I shall presume to say, that the Essay does credit to a young writer of two and twenty years of age, who had read with taste, who thinks with freedom, and who writes in a foreign language with spirit and elegance. The


defence of the early History of Rome and the new Chronology of sir Isaac Newton form a specious argument. The patriotic and political design of the Georgics is happily conceived; and any probable conjecture, which tends to raise the dignity of the poet and the poem, deserves to be adopted without a rigid scrutiny. Some dawnings of a philosophic spirit enlighten the general remarks on the study of history and of man. I am not displeased with the inquiry into the origin and nature of the gods of polytheism, which might deserve the illustration of a riper judgment. Upon the whole, I may apply to the first labour of my pen the speech of a far superior artist, when he surveyed the first productions of his pencil. After viewing some portraits which he had painted in his youth, my friend sir Joshua Reynolds acknowledged to me, that he was rather humbled than flattered by the comparison with his present works; and that, after so much time and study, he had con-ceived his improvement to be much greater than he found it to have been.

At Lausanne I composed the first chapters of my Essay in French, the familiar language of my conversation and studies, in which it was easier for me to write than in my mother-tongue. After my return to England I continued the same practice, without any affectation, or design, of repudiating (as Dr Bentley would say) my vernacular idiom. But I should have escaped some anti-gallican clamour, had I been content with the more natural character of an English author. I should have been more consistent, had I rejected Mallet's advice of prefixing an English dedication to a French book; a confusion of tongues that seemed to accuse the ignorance of my patron. The use of a foreign dialect might be excused by the hope of being employed as a negociator, by the desire of being generally understood on the continent; but my true motive was doubtless the ambition of new and singular fame an Englishman claiming a place among the writers of France. The Latin tongue had been consecrated by the service of the church ; it was refined by the imitation of the ancients; and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the scholars of Europe enjoyed the advantage, which they have gradually resigned, of conversing and writing in a common and learned idiom. As that idiom was no longer in any country the vulgar speech, they all stood on a level with each other; yet a citizen of old Rome might have smiled at the best Latinity of the Germans and Britons ; and we may learn from the ' Ciceronianus' of Erasmus, how difficult it was found to steer a middle course between pedantry and barbarism. The Romans themselves had sometimes attempted the more perilous task of writing in a living language, and appealing to the taste and judgment of the natives. The vanity of Tully was doubly interested in the Greek memoirs of his own consulship; and if he modestly supposes that some Latinisms might be detected in his style, he is confident of his own skill in the art of Isocrates and Aristotle; and he requests his friend Atticus to disperse the copies of his work at Athens, and in the other cities of Greece (ad Atticum, i. 19. ii. 1.) But it must not be forgotten, that from infancy to manhood Cicero and his contemporaries had read, and declaimed, and composed, with equal diligence in both languages, and that he was not allowed to frequent a Latin school till he had imbibed the lessons of the Greek grammarians and rhetoricians. In modern times the language of France has been diffused by the merit of her writers, the social manners of the natives, the influence of the monarchy, and the exile of the Protestants. Several foreigners have seized the opportunity of speaking to Europe in this common dialect; and Germany may plead the authority of Leibnitz and Frederic, of the first of her philosophers, and the greatest of her kings. The just pride aná laudabie prejudice of England has restrained this communication of idioms; and of all the nations on this

« AnteriorContinuar »