Abbildungen der Seite


least amiable will be the most influential."* 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 warm 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.†

The letters of Lord Chesterfield are a remarkable instance of celebrity gained unintentionally, and superseding, 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 afterward 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 brilliant criticism on Pope's letters, and his sketches of the society, heartless it may be, but very fascinating, which they illustrate. W. B. R.

though poor and even dangerous substitutes for moral principles, are yet not to be despised in the formation of character-considerations of expediency, reputation, personal 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 recognise 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 publication, but in the strictest confidence, is matchless. W. B. R.

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 luxurious 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 his 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 weakness 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 tone 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 capable 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 seeking, 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 he 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

« ZurückWeiter »