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who used to write letters all the while. Horace Walpole takes the palm; and has been styled the prince of letterwriters, a title well-earned by the continuity of his labours, or rather his pleasures, in this department of composition during a long life. His letters cover a period of more than threescore years, beginning in 1735, and ending in 1797, a few weeks before his death; thus touching at one end the times of George the Second, and the Pretenders, and Maria Theresa, and at the other the French Revolution and Republic. With Walpole's large political and social opportunities, his letters are full of the history, and fuller of the gossip, of sixty years—pleasant reading, but uncertain authority. A shrewd, but sometimes malevolent commentator on his fellow-men, a witty observer of manners, he sought amusement in the fopperies of a fantastic country mansion and the luxury of a private printing-press, but his happiness, rather, I think, in the luxu
I rious indulgence of perpetual letter-writing to correspondents of both sexes and various ages; and twelve octavo volumes, with an indefinite series in prospect, are the record of this indulgence. An elegant sefishness, tempered with much kindly feeling for his friends, is undisguised in his letters; and a self-indulgent frivolity deepens into earnestness only in a fervid indignation, which he was one of the first to utter against the African slavetrade, and when, near the close of life, his imperturbable voluptuousness was startled by the atrocities of the French Revolution. The letters, faithful to the last, bring their story very near to the old man's death-the melancholy conclusion of eighty years of worldliness. It is in his last letter but one to Lady Ossory, that he describes himself as a sort of Methuselah, whom fourscore nephews and nieces were annually brought to stare at. The title of Earl of Orford came too late to be welcome; he never took his place in the House of Lords, and even evaded the dignity by either signing himself “uncle of the late Earl of Orford," or simply with a capital O, almost as if, with something of bitter self-satire, he meant by the cipher to symbolize the nothingness of his state of being *
To turn from Walpole's letters to those of his once friend and travelling companion, the poet Gray, is like passing from the throng of the world of politics or fashion into the calm and cloistered seclusion of a college. That seclusion was connected with both the virtues and the weaknesses of Gray's character, his purity, his gentleness, his studious love of books, and with his dainty and almost effeminate shrinking, not only from active life, but even from the publicity of authorship, and social intercourse with mankind or womankind. Cowper said, “I once thought Swift's letters the best that could be written, but I like Gray's better. His humour, or his wit, or whatever it is to be called, is never ill-natured or offensive, and yet, I think, equally poignant with the Dean's.”+
* The letters to Lady Ossory are certainly marked by a superior tono of seriousness and dignity, and no solemn moralist can write more genuine words of honest self-reproach, than Walpole did when he said, “When young, I wished for fame, not examining whether I was capablo of attaining it, nor considering in what light fame was desirable. There are two parts of honest fame; that attendant on the truly great, and that better sort which is due to the good. I fear I did not aim at the latter, nor discover, till too late, that I could not compass the former. Having neglected the best road, and having, instead of the other, strolled into a narrow path that led to no goal worth seek. ing, I see the idleness of my journey." W. B. R.
† Southey's Cowper, vol. iv. p. 15.
The letters on which I should have been glad to have dwelt the most I must dispose of briefly-Cowper's own; and I can do so the more safely, in speaking of them as the purest and most perfect specimens of familiar letters in the language. Considering the secluded, uneventful course of Cowper's life, the charm in his letters is wonderful; and is to be explained, I believe, chiefly by the exquisite light of poetic truth which his imagination shed upon daily life, whether his theme was man, himself or a fellow-being, or books, or the mute creation which be loved to handle with such thoughtful tenderness. His seclusion did not separate him from sympathy with the stirring events of his time; and, alike in seasons of sunshine or of gloom, there is in his letters an ever-present beauty of quiet wisdom, and a gentle but fervid spirit. There is, I believe, no long collection of letters which can be continuously read with the same sustained interest, following the writer through cheerfulness and despondency into the cloud, from which he sent forth some words of sadness as it mysteriously closed over him.
The letters of Sir Walter Scott, in Mr. Lockhart's inimitable biography, claim the same high praise. There is the same excellent adaptation of the letter to the occasion and to the party addressed, which is essential in a true letter. There is also the same power of so expressing the writer's feelings as to move in sympathy with the correspondent, and for the correspondent's pleasure, without ever sinking into egotism or vanity. It is this—the mastery of the subjective character of the composition, which is at once the difficulty and virtue of the real familiar letter. A child, in its innocence and unreflectiveness, toils at so putting its heart into words; and there
are those who carry into mature life so much of childlike simplicity of character as to be unfit for letterwriting. The more common fault is, however, in the other direction--a gross or insidious egotism. Scott's style of correspondence has a very high merit in combining a frank expression of his own feelings along with a perpetual mindfulness of the feelings of those to whom he writes.
The letters of Lord Byron displaying, even more than his poems, his command of vigorous English speechmake a perilous display of a morbid egotism, redeemed, indeed, at times, by flashes of kindly feeling, of generous impulse, and healthy opinion, so as to perplex the reader's judgment, or, at least, to plead for his pity to the misery of a soul distempered by nature, and far worse by a life of moral lawlessness; and by that pride which, tempting him often to brave the world's opinion by even affecting worse thoughts and worse deeds than were imputed to him, was fatal to the truthfulness of his character and of his writings.
Of Southey's letters, interwoven with his biography, just completed, it is too soon to speak otherwise than with a general allusion to the interest of them, without attempting to measure their merits and their faults.
Charles Lamb's letters resemble his inimitable essaysa quaint wisdom, a fine literary taste, and a loving and a brave heart dwelling together in that humour which was his peculiar gift.
Letters of dedication may be merely mentioned in connection with this general subject. The early dedications abound in noble feeling, fitly expressed, with an eloquence that is midway between oratory and the
familiarity of a letter. There followed a long period during which they were vitiated by fulsome and servile flattery. Of late years, truth has been restored on the dedication page; and many a one, in verse as well as prose, is a record of a genuine feeling of reverence, of admiration, and of love. Let me refer to one for the sake of a thought I wish (in conclusion) to leave in your minds. Charles Lamb dedicated his earliest volume to his sister-that afflicted sister to whom he devoted all his days. He consulted Coleridge in a letter in which he said, “I have another sort of dedication in
my few things, which I want to know if you approve of. I mean to inscribe them to my sister. It will be unexpected, and it will give her pleasure; or do you think it will look whimsical at all ? ... There is a monotony in the affections, which people living together (or, as we do now, very frequently seeing each other) are apt to give into; a sort of indifference in the expression of kindness for each other, which demands that we should sometimes call to our aid the trickery of surprise.”*
* These last words have suggested to me a dedication of this volume which I had not before designed. In parting with it, it seemed natural and congenial with my feelings to the dead to add a tribute, most deserved and unexpected, to the living. W. B. R.
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