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entitled “Familiar Letters, domestic and foreign, partly historical, political, and philosophical, by James Howell,” in the times of Charles the First, and published during the Protectorate. It is the case of a writer setting such esteem upon his own letters as to collect and give them to the world; and although the volume is now a neglected and rather rare one,
the welcome it had is proved by the fact that it went through eleven editions in a century. Howell was a traveller, on the continent and in England was in intercourse with men of various celebrity : while his letters show much curious matter, one cannot help thinking how high a value such a correspondence might have had, if it had given the thoughts of a stronger mind in that momentous period. The Paston Letters, though of much earlier date, were not published until the latter part of the eighteenth century, about three hundred years after they were written. It is the correspondence of the Paston family during the era of the wars of York and Lancaster, comprehending a curious variety of epistles, from the note of an Eton scholar, with thanks for a box of raisins and figs, to letters following the sad fortunes of that simple and saintly sovereign, Henry the Sixth, and his heroic queen.
When these letters were brought to light, after their long sleep, they had a congenial welcome from Horace Walpole, who said, “The letters of Henry the Sixth's reign are come out, and to me make all other letters not worth reading. I have gone through above one volume, and cannot bear to be writing when I am so eager to be reading."*
A very pathetic interest attaches to the collection of
* Letters to Lady Ossory, vol, ii. p. 297.
the Letters of Lady Russel, the
of her husband's tragic death on the scaffold casting a solemn light over the whole correspondence during a widowhood protracted to extreme old age, and distinguished no less by profound affection to her departed husband than by a widowed mother's untiring duty to her children. Her's was a life of genuine womanly heroism, a life with one awful sorrow in its centre, sustained, if not cheered, by thoughtful Christian piety. The correspondence is the unconscious portraiture of such a character, in which were combined the spirit of submission to affliction and an energetic fortitude that shrank from no duty. There is, perhaps, no more touching incident in British annals than that one so well-known on the trial of her husband for treason, when Lord Russel asked, “May I have somebody to write to help my memory?” The attorney-general answered, “Yes, a servant." The noble prisoner said, “My wife is here." The harshness of the chief justice (Pember
" ton) was softened, when, recognising Lady Russel's presence, he added, “If my lady please to give herself the
It is a transition from letters of the most intense and serious reality to a correspondence the most superficial in feeling and the most artificial in expression, to pass to the letters of Pope; another instance, like Howell's, of the letter-writer making of his letters to his intimates a book for everybody. They were modelled after the French epistolary school of Balzac and Voiture, (before the talent of Madame de Sevigné had given an attractive gracefulness to French letters,) and vitiated by the ambition, bad enough in any use of speech or writing, but odious, in a familiar letter—the ambition of fine thoughts in fine words.
Even Mr. Hallam's calm judgment stops not at calling Pope “ the
of Voiture” in his letters to ladies.* And one who so admirably conceived and executed the true idea of a familiar letter, as Cowper did, in shrinking from that applause of his correspondence which Pope was ever coveting, said a “foolish vanity would have spoiled me quite, and made me as disgusting a letter-writer as Pope, who seems to have thought that unless a sentence was well turned, and every period pointed with some conceit, it was not worth the carriage. Accordingly, he is to me, except in very few instances, the most disagreeable maker of epistles that ever I met with. I was willing, therefore, to wait till the impression your commendation had made upon the foolish part of me was worn off, that I might scribble away as usual, and write my uppermost thoughts and those only.”+
Of that society identified with Pope's letters, it was well said by the late Hartley Coleridge, “Never was literary band so closely united by harmonious dissimilitude as that which comprised Swift, Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot, and Parnell : they were a perfect co-operative Bociety, and might be said, almost without a metaphor, to feel for each other. But Swift thought for them all: his was the informing mind, and exercised over his associates that supremacy which philosophic power, however perverted, will always maintain over mere genius, though elegant as Pope's-over simple erudition, though extensive as Arbuthnot’s. Moreover, whenever a limited number of men form a league or union, it is ten to one that the least amiable will be the most influential."* Swift's masculine power is manifest in his letters, for affectation, unless the affectation of rudeness, came not nigh him. there is, too, in his letters, a sad reality, from the connection with that strange control which his stern nature gained over the affections of two women at the same time; his mysterious marriage with one, and the final heartbreaking of them both. Whenever a letter of Bishop Berkeley's appears, it shows him always the pure, the gentle, and the virtuous, the gentleman and the divine, the most beautiful character of that generation, the moral footprints of whose life are to this day visible on American soil. †
* Literature of Europe, vol. iii. p. 641. † Southey's Cowper, vol. iv. p. 15.
The letters of Lord Chesterfield are a remarkable instance of celebrity gained unintentionally, and super. seding, in a great measure, other grounds of reputation. For one person acquainted with his character as a statesman, at home and in diplomacy, the rare ability displayed as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the administration of that most unmanageable section of the British empire, and the tradition of his oratory, twenty know of his letters to his son, written in perfect parental confidence, and published years afterwards surreptitiously. I cannot better or more briefly characterize the letters, than by saying that they make a book of the minor moralities and the major immoralities of life. They profess to deal with nothing higher than those secondary motives which,
* Hartley Coleridge's Biographia Borealis, p. 115. Note to Life of Bentley.
† No one that heard them will ever forget Mr. Thackeray's brillian: criticism on Pope's letters, and his sketches of the society, heartless may bo, but very fascinating, which they illustrate. W. B. R.
though poor and even dangerous substitutes for moral principle, are yet not to be despised in the formation of character-considerations of expediency, reputation, persodal advantage; and being addressed to a youth of uncouth manners, they laid that stress upon grace of deportment which has given to the name of Chesterfield a proverbial use.
The letters embody a great deal of sound advice, the result of the large worldly experience of an acute and cultivated nobleman, too acute not to know at least the impolicy of much of the world's wickedness. When they were published, Dr. Johnson pronounced a pithy and coarse sentence of condemnation, which may recur to the minds of some of my hearers, who will recog. nise my restraint in not repeating it. He afterwards modified his censure, and said, “ Take out the immorality, and the book ought to be in the hands of every young gentleman."'*
It is to another man of the world of Chesterfield's times, and the times of a great many other people, that English literature owes its most voluminous, and, in some respects, most remarkable collection of letters—I need hardly say, I refer to Horace Walpole. His letters count by thousands: about three thousand are in print, and the publication of more is looked for. In one of Scribe's vaudevilles, Madame de Sevigné is described as the lady
* The notes to this lecture have been too far multiplied to allow me room for admiration, as a matter of rhetoric, of Lord Chesterfield. I have often thought that a biography of British statesmen by an American, and from an American point of view, would be a most useful and delightful book, and on its pages no one would appear more brightly than Lord Chesterfield. The English of his letters, not written for pablication, but in the strictest confidence, is watchless. W. B. R.