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There is no such thing as Antiquity in the ordinary acceptation we affix to the term. Whatever is or has been, while it is passing, must be modern. The early ages may have been barbarous in themselves; but they have become ancient with the slow and silent lapse of successive generations. The “olden times are only such in reference to us. The past is rendered strange, mysterious, visionary, awful, from the great gap in time that parts us from it, and the long perspective of waning years. Things gone by and almost forgotten, look dim and dull, uncouth and quaint, from our ignorance of them, and the mutability of customs. But in their day—they were fresh, unimpaired, in full vigour, familiar, and glossy. The Children in the Wood, and Percy's Relics, were once recent productions; and Auld Robin Gray was, in his time, a very common-place old fellow! The wars of York and Lancaster, while they lasted, were “lively, audible, and full of vent,” as fresh and lusty as the white and red roses that distinguished their different banners, though they have since become a bye-word and a solecism in history.
The sun shone in Julius Cæsar's time just as it does now. On the road-side between Winchester and Salisbury are some remains of old Roman encampments, with their double lines of circumvallation (now turned into pasturage for sheep), which answer exactly to the descriptions of this kind in Cæsar's Commentaries. In a dull and cloudy atmosphere, I can conceive that this is the identical spot, that the first Cæsar trod,—and figure to myself the deliberate movements and scarce perceptible march of closeembodied legions. But if the sun breaks out, making its way though dazzling, fleecy clouds, lights up the blue serene, and gilds the sombre earth, I can no long persuade myself that it is the same scene as formerly, or transfer the actual image before me so far back. The brightness of nature is not easily reduced to the low, twilight tone of history; and the impressions of sense defeat and dissipate the faint traces of learning and tradition. It is only by an effort of reason, to which fancy is averse,
that I bring myself to believe that the sun shone as bright, that the sky was as blue, and the earth as green, two thousand years ago as it is at present. How ridiculous this seems; yet so it is!
The dark or middle ages, when every thing was hid in the fog and haze of confusion and ignorance, seem, to the same involuntary kind of prejudice, older and farther off, and more inaccessible to the imagination, than the brilliant and well-defined periods of Greece and Rome. A Gothic ruin appears buried in a greater depth of obscurity, to be weighed down and rendered venerable with the hoar of more distant ages, to have been longer mouldering into neglect and oblivion, to be a record and memento of events more wild and alien to our own times, than a Grecian temple.* Amadis de Gaul, and the seven Champions of Christendom, with me (honestly speaking) rank as contemporaries with Theseus, Pirithous, and the heroes of the fabulous ages. My imagination will stretch no farther back into the commencement of time than the first traces and rude dawn of civilization and mighty enterprise, in either case; and in attempting to force it upwards by the scale of chronology, it only recoils upon itself, and dwindles from a lofty survey of “ the dark rearward and abyss of time,” into a poor and puny calculation of insignificant cyphers. In like manner, I cannot go back to any time more remote and dreary than that recorded in Stow's and Holingshed's Chronicles, unless I turn to “ the wars of old Assaracus and Inachus divine," and the gorgeous events of Eastern history, where the distance of place may be said to add to the length of time and weight of thought. That is old (in sentiment and poetry) which is decayed, shadowy, imperfect, out of date, and changed from what it was. That of which we have a distinct idea, which comes before us entire and made out in all its parts, will have a novel appearance, however old in reality,—and cannot be impressed with the romantic and superstitious character of antiquity. Those times that we can parallel with our own in civilization and knowledge, seem
* « The Gothic architecture, though not so ancient as the Grecian, is more so to our imagination, with which the artist is more concerned than with absolute truth."-Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses, vol. ii. p. 138.
Till I met with this remark in so circumspect and guarded a writer as Sir Joshua, I was afraid of being charged with extravagance in some of the above assertions. Pereant isti qui ante nos nostra dixerunt. It is thus that our favourite speculations are often accounted paradoxes by the ignorant, while by the learned reader they are set down as plagiarisms.