Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB

of some political Ithuriel. Absolute unqualified distrust of the monarch is the characteristic of the new constitution of France.'

It is also a just remark that, in her general plan of govern. ment, England adapts her political provisions to the nature and passions of men as they actually are, while France appears to censider them only, or chiefly, as they ought to be. Many of the observations on Mr. Burke's work are judicious; they are sometimes, we have faid, the subsequent information acquired at a future period by men who have learned to correct their errors: they are, in a few instances, a little too eager; and, like the observations of Mr. Burke, occasionally intemperate.

The last Eflay is on the telt laws, a subject allo which has occurred to us so repeatedly, that arguments or language can scarcely any longer supply novelty. The principal part of this Essay consists in an answer to a pamphlet entitled a Review of the Case of the Protestant Dissenters,' ascribed to the bishop of St. David's, and a short account of the fate of the different applications to parliament for a repeal of the test acts. Many of Mr. Belfham's observations are undoubtedly shrewd and correct; but, on the whole, he has not greatly altered the state of the question. If we admit, for a moment, that the test laws were originally designed to preclude the papists only, and involved the difíenters by accilent, it does not follow that, when the fears of popery are abolished, the test acts are unnecessary. During the whole of this conteft, the violence of innovation, the eagerness of zealots in pursuit of visionary improvements and democratical equality, have appeared in the works of the diflenters. We frould not, indeed be afraid of trusting to the cool decisions of the more moderate and enlightened of this class, for we know that many of them poflefs much temper, moderation, and knowledge; but in former times the eager crowd has repressed the calmer attempts of men of this description, and against their wild attempts we will the present barrier to remain. It would not be difficult to reply to many of our author's arguments; but it would often be to repeat what has been already said, and would extend our account of this excellent volume, which we need not stay again to commend, to an inconvenient bulk.

Gibbon's Hisory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in Vols. 1.' v. and VI. Quarto, revicted. By the Rev.

John II hilaker, B. D. 8vo. 4s. Boards. Murray. 1791. WE

E are placed in a new as well as a peculiarly nice and

delicate situation ;-to give our opinion on the work of a Reviewer, who has trodden the same path with ourselves, who has surveyed the same objects, in a difierent light, or de

corated

LA

corated with an adventitious colouring. If there articles had continued in their first situation ; if the author had been still the phantom, the unembodied form, which at its stated period starts forth to utter his literary decrees, we ought not to have interfered, even with the minuteit hint, When he comes forward as an individual, he is amenable to the laws by which his own decisions have been dictated : the judge desçends from the bench, and becomes in turn the culprit. ! Our author begins with an elegant, picturesque description of the progress of history, tracing its fkeleton-like appearance, in the meagre chronicles, to the skeleton filled with muscles in their fucceffors, who seize the most interesting and animated scenes for their more particular narratives; and to this muscular body, actuated with nerves, animated with blood, and bearing the bloom cf health on its cheek.'—Such, he tells, are some of the best histories written by the last generation.'

• Here had hißorical composition relled, it would have answered all the useful, and all the elegant, purposes of life. But the activity of the human mind, is always on the wing. The spirit of improvement is ever puhing forward. And there is a degree of improvement beyond this, which may shed a greater warmth of colouring over the piece, give it a deeper interest with the affections of the surveyor, and to reach the full point of historical perfection. But alas! man can eafly imagine, what he can never

The fancy can see a perfection, and the judgment can recommend it; but the hand cannot altain to it. Whether this be the case with the present idea of historical perfection, I know not; but it is certain, I think, that it has never been attained hitherto. History, indeed, having once advanced to the third stage of improvement, cannot but strain to reach the fourth and laft. Then it lays itself out in a splendour of imagery, a frequency of reflections, and a refinement of language ; and thus makes the narrative more striking, by its additional vivacity and vigour. But it is melancholy to observe, that in proportion as we thuş advance in the ornamental parts of historical writing, we are receding from the solid and the necesary ; we lose in veracity what we gain in embellijnments; and the authenticiry of the narra, tion fades and sinks away, inine lustre of the philosophy surrounding it.

The mind of the writ:r, hent upon the beautiful and sublime in history, does not condecend to perform the task of accuracy, and to foop to the drud cry of faithfulness. The mirror is finely polished and elegantly dicorated; but it no longer reflects The reat features of the times. The sun shines ou!, indeed, with a striking effulgence ; but it is an e.Fulgence of glare, and not a jadiation of usefulness. Such biliorians as these, we may venture to pronounce, are Tacitus among the ancients, most of our best

historians

execute.

It was

hiforians in the prefent generation, and Mr. Gibbon at the head of them. And these present us with the skeleton of history, not merely clothed with muscles, animated with life, and bearing the bloom of health upon its cheek; but, instead of carrying a higher Auth of health upon its cheek, and shewing a brighter beam of life in its eyes, rubbed with Spanish wool, painted with French fard, and exhibiting the fire of falsehood and wantonness in its eyes.'

In fhort, to Livy and the more modern historians of the last century' are Tacitus and Gibbon offered up as an expiatory facrifice : all these ornaments are designed only to decorate the victims, and to conclude this piacular ceremony with due decorum. But they are facrificed without a proper trial, and condemned without fufficient evidence. Tacitus is unfaithful, because the speech of Tiberius is different from that found at Lyons, engraved on two brass plates, discovered in 1528. We believe no reader of history ever considered the speeches inserted by historians as authentic: it was known that they were usually the compositions of the author, and that recorded by Tacitus was not calculated to deceive. wholly in the style of the history. The speech found engraved on the brass plates is a great curiosity; but its æra should first be fixed, its authenticity ascertained, and the certainty that Tacitus might have had it before him, established, before the historian can be accused of unfaithfulness. These are circumstances too trifling for our author: the brass plates are the caftus of Entellus, and the historian is laid in the dust.

That in the progressive improvement of the human mind, each science and every kind of composition should be also improved, will not appear surprising. It is only necessary to enquire, whether the superadded ornaments of history are unsuitable to the subject; whether the capital is improperly adapted to the shaft, or its minuter decorations inconsistent with the use for which the column is designed, If examined in this way, our author's cenfure will appear to be misapplied, In relating the actions of men, the philosophy of the human mind is no unsuitable assistant; in tracing events to their causes, actions to motives, or estimating, by the ļätter, the degree of credibility due to accounts of events in the works of former authors, philosophy is a neceffary guide. In an investigatton of the nature and power of the machine, would an artist disregard all knowledge of the mechanical powers? But to this philosophy, unfaithfulness has been added : is there then any neceffary connection between them? Is it not more pro. bable, that the philosophical historian will be accurate than one unable to examine the subject in the nicer scale of metaphysical investigation ? Or will an author of this class have more temptations to corrupt a record, or misquote from the annalist? If we examine, however, the proofs of unfaithfulness, they are so trivial as to raise a smile. Tacitus did not know probably of the existence of the recorded speech, and, in the Ityle of his æra, has framed one, confessedly better than Tiberius could have made : in reality he has acted injudiciously by attributing a well-connected, judicious, and apposite speech, to a man whom he describes as of now understanding. The speech he knew would be considered as his own, and he was not bound by the stricter rules of the drama. The particular accusation here adduced against Mr. Gibbon is more trivial. He had described, in chap. v. note 5, p. xvii. the Prætorian camp on the broad summit of the Quirinal and Viminal hills. But it was not, our author tells us, on reviewing his authorities; it was not on the broad summit, but on a projecting point of the Viminal hill. Philosophical historians, who think they reft on a broad simmit, should be cautious, for the projecting point is not suficient: the anti-philosophers will hurl them from the rock, and they will raise their heads no more. This, however, is not the whole : all Mr. Travis', all Mr. Davis' detections are brought in to swell the list of offences, without one hint to tell the reader, that these authors, equally violent against the modern Tacitus, have looked through microscopes, and swelled errors to faults, seen spots scarcely vilible, and imagined errors which would not even fully the brilliancy of the most attentive historian. We must, indeed, admit that Mr. Gibbon has sometimes erred in his quotations, and has occasionally misrepresented his originals; but these are the unavoidable incuriæ in a long work; and we believe the instances to be very few, for we have followed him minutely through many a weary and tedious path, with scarcely any disappointment. We can, however, inform fome critics, that the substance of the observation will not always appear in the isolated paffage; but the context, the spirit, and the design of the original must be considered. This was the source of fome of Mr. Davis' errors, and we have some reason to think it has occasioned mistakes in other annotators.

temptations prefied

One great objection which Mr. Whitaker makes to the hiftory of Mr. Gibbon is, that having undertaken to write the

History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,' many parts of his narrative describe the empire in a state of sufficient vigour and permanency; fome even speak of it as flourishing, and progreslive in fame and in power; besides, that the adventitious histories of different nations are scarcely, if at all, cono nected with the principal story. This objection appears in many different pages, expanded in different forms, and exr 5

preffed in the varied tones of remark, animadversion, censure, and reproof. We may admit, that the narrative is too often broken, that the episodes are not always in due subordination to the chief design, and that, for a time, every thing, except the fate of Rome, is apparently in the historian's eye. So far as this conduct militates against the rules of taste, and of the arrangement of historical composition, we deem it an error; but few readers, we believe, would object to sacrificing the affected refinement of critic rules, to the extensive and varied entertainment which these adventitious histories afford. They are perhaps too copious, but are they unnecessary? Is it not of importance how each petty barbarous state acquired consequence enough to undermine the fabric of ages, a power for a time invincible, the sole undisputed monarch of the world? Even those which could not succeed wasted the vital energy in resistance, carried the force of the empire to the extremities, and left the center a prey to faction, the contests for power, or for the imperial throne. While these causes contributed to the fall of Rome, the history of the contending states was not unsuitable.

What shall we say to the former part of the objection? It appears at first formidable, but, in the lapse of time, which has intervened between the first crude publication and the present corrected one, it is a little surprising that our author should not have found it less stable than it at first appeared. An empire cannot fall like a heavy body, with an uniform or an aceelerated velocity. In a series of ages, a warlike general, or an able monarch, will for a time preserve it; but is not this æra to be included in its fall, or must the history be mutilated by selecting the flourishing reign from the rest, in order to bring the fall within the calculation of a mathematical prob\em, and to ascertain its ratio ? "Might not various instances illustrate the futility of this observation? Do we not call it an ebbing tide, though a solitary wave may occasionally rise far above its preceffor? Is not the sap said to be ascending in the vine, though in many fucceeding days it does not reach the height to which, in a favourable moment, it before attained? We know not what kind of a history would have resulted from fuch a rigorous adherence to rules; but we have little reason to think that the author would have attained the eminence of Mr. Gibbon.

In the more particular objections, Mr. Whitaker is fometimes correct; but more often petulant, captious, and unrean. sonable: we fhall select a few instances.

• The history in this chapter (the third of the new volumes) carries a peculiar ais of obfcurity with it. It is very frequently

unintelligible,

« AnteriorContinua »