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The true historical genius, to our thinking, is that which can see the nobler meaning of events that are near him, as the true poet is he who detects the divine in the casual; and we somewhat suspect the depth of his insight into the past, who cannot recognize the godlike of to-day under that disguise in which it always visits us. Shall we hint to Mr. Carlyle that a man may look on an heroic age, as well as an heroic master, with the eyes of a valet, as misappreciative certainly, though not so ignoble ?
What Goethe says of a great poet, that he must be a citizen of his age as well as of his country, may be said inversely of a great king. He should be a citizen of his country as well as of his age. Friedrich was certainly the latter in its fullest sense; whether he was, or could have been, the former, in any sense, may be doubted. The man who spoke and wrote French in preference to his mother-tongue, who, dying when Goethe was already drawing toward his fortieth year, Schiller toward his thirtieth, and Lessing had been already five years in his grave, could yet see nothing but barbarism in German literature, had little of the old Teutonic fibre in his nature. The man who pronounced the Nibelungen Lied not worth a pinch of priming, had little conception of the power of heroic traditions in making heroic men, and especially in strengthening that instinct made up of so many indistinguishable associations which we call love of country. Charlemagne, when he caused the old songs of his people to be gathered and written down, showed a truer sense of the sources of national feeling and a deeper political insight. This want of sympathy points to the somewhat narrow limits of Friedrich's nature. In spite of Mr. Carlyle's adroit statement of the case, and the whole book has an air of being the plea of a masterly advocate in mitigation of sentence, we feel that his hero was essentially hard, narrow, and selfish. His popularity will go for little with any one who has studied the trifling and often fabulous elements that make up that singular compound. A bluntness of speech, a shabby uniform, a frugal camp equipage, a timely familiarity, may make a man the favorite of an army or a nation, - above all, if he have the knack of success. Moreover, popularity is much more easily won from above downward, and is bought at a better bargain by kings and generals than by other men. We doubt if Friedrich would have been liked as a private person, or even as an unsuccessful king. He apparently attached very few people to himself, fewer even than his brutal old Squire Western of a father. His sister Wilhelmina is perhaps an exception. We say perhaps, for we do not know how much the heroic part he was called on to play had to do with the matter, and whether sisterly pride did not pass even with herself for sisterly affection. Moreover she was far from him; and Mr. Carlyle waves aside, in his generous fashion, some rather keen comments of hers on her brother's character when she visited Berlin after he had become king. Indeed, he is apt to deal rather contemptuously with all adverse criticism of his hero. We sympathize with his impulse in this respect, agreeing heartily as we do in Chaucer's scorn of those who "gladlie demen to the baser end” in such matters. But we are not quite sure if this be a safe method with the historian. He must doubtless be the friend of his hero if he would understand him, but he must be more the friend of truth if he would understand history. Mr. Carlyle's passion for truth is intense, as befits his temper, but it is that of a lover for his mistress. He would have her all to himself, and has a lover's conviction that no one is able, or even fit, to appreciate her but himself. He does well to despise the tittle-tattle of vulgar minds, but surely should not ignore all testimony on the other side. For ourselves, we think it not unimportant that Goethe's friend Knebel, a man not incapable of admiration, and who had served a dozen years or so as an officer of Friedrich's guard, should have bluntly called him “ the tyrant.”
Mr. Carlyle's history traces the family of his hero down from its beginnings in the picturesque chiaro-scuro of the Middle Ages. It was an able and above all a canny house, a Scotch version of the word able, which implies thrift and an eye to the main chance, the said main chance or chief end of man being altogether of this world. Friedrich, inheriting this family faculty in full measure, was driven, partly by ambition, partly by necessity, to apply it to war. He did so, with the success to be expected where a man of many expedients has the good luck to be opposed by men with few. He adds another to the many proofs that it is possible to be a great general without a spark of that divine fire which we call genius, and that good fortune in war results from the same prompt talent and unbending temper which lead to the same result in the peaceful professions. Friedrich had certainly more of the temperament of genius than Marlborough or Wellington ; but not to go beyond modern instances, he does not impress us with the massive breadth of Napoleon, nor attract us with the climbing ardor of Turenne. To compare him with Alexander or Cæsar were absurd. The kingship that was in him, and which won Mr. Carlyle to be his biographer, is that of will merely, of rapid and relentless command. For organization he had a masterly talent; but he could not apply it to the arts of peace, both because he wanted experience and because the rash decision of the battle-field will not serve in matters which are governed by natural laws of growth. He seems, indeed, to have had a coarse, soldier's contempt for all civil distinction, altogether unworthy of a wise king, or even of a prudent one. He confers the title of Hofrath on the husband of a woman with whom his General Walrave is living in what Mr. Carlyle justly calls “brutish polygamy,” and this at Walrave's request, on the ground that
a general's drab ought to have a handle to her name.” Mr. Carlyle murmurs in a mild parenthesis that “we rather regret this”! (Vol. III. p. 559.) This is his usual way of treating unpleasant matters, sidling by with a deprecating shrug of the shoulders. Not that he ever wilfully suppresses anything. On the contrary, there is no greater proof of his genius than the way in which, while he seems to paint a character with all its disagreeable traits, he contrives to win our sympathy for it, nay, almost our liking. This is conspicuously true of his portrait of Friedrich's father; and that he does not succeed in making Friedrich himself attractive is a strong argument with us that the fault is in the subject and not the artist.
The book, we believe, has been comparatively unsuccessful as a literary venture. Nor do we wonder at it. It is disproportionately long, and too much made up of those descriptions of battles to read which seems even more difficult than to have won the victory itself, more disheartening than to have suffered the defeat. To an American, also, the warfare seemed Liliputian in the presence of a conflict so much larger in its proportions and significant in its results. The interest, moreover, flags decidedly toward the close, where the reader cannot help feeling that the author loses breath somewhat painfully under the effort of so prolonged a course. Mr. Carlyle has evidently devoted to his task a labor that may be justly called prodigious. Not only has he sifted all the German histories and memoirs, but has visited every battle-field, and describes them with an eye for country that is without rival among historians. The book is evidently an abridgment of even more abundant collections, and yet as it stands the matter overburdens the work. It is a bundle of lively episodes rather than a continuous narrative. In this respect it contrasts oddly with the concinnity of his own earlier Life of Schiller. But the episodes are lively, the humor and pathos spring from a profound nature, the sketches of character are masterly, the seizure of every picturesque incident infallible, and the literary judgments those of a thorough scholar and critic. There is, of course, the usual amusing objurgation of Dryasdust and his rubbish-heaps, the usual assumption of omniscience, and the usual certainty of the lively French lady of being always in the right; yet we cannot help thinking that a little of Dryasdust's plodding exactness would have saved Fouquet eleven years of the imprisonment to which Mr. Carlyle condemns him, would have referred us to St. Simon rather than to Voltaire for the character of the brothers Belle-Ile, and would have kept clear of a certain ludicrous etymology of the name Antwerp, not to mention some other trifling slips of the like nature. In conclusion, after saying, as honest critics must, that “The History of Friedrich II. called Frederick the Great” is a book to be read in with more satisfaction than to be read through, after declaring that it is open to all manner of criticism, especially in point of moral purpose and tendency, we must admit with thankfulness, that it has the one prime merit of being the work of a man who has every quality of a great poet except that supreme one of rhythm which shapes both matter and manner to harmonious proportion, and that where it is good, it is good as only genius knows how to be.
ART. VI. - 1. Diplomatic Correspondence for the Years 1861,
1862, 1863, and 1864. Washington. 9 vols. 8vo. 2. Documents relating to Mexican Affairs. 1862, 1863, and
1865. Washington. 3 vols. 8vo.
It is now more than fifteen years since Secretary Seward, then a United States Senator, in a speech which deserves to be remembered for its masterly grasp of the slavery problem, met the threats of Southern disunionists with the warning, that, if they should bring on civil war, a violent but complete emancipation of the negro race would follow, and that the day when the fountains of popular contentment should be broken up would bring forth the highest illustration of the excellence of our system of government. “ Then it will be seen,” said he, " how calmly, how firmly, how nobly a great people can act in preserving their constitution, — whom love of country moveth, example teacheth, company comforteth, emulation quickeneth, and glory exalteth."
In the revolution through which we have lately passed, — wherein Mr. Seward himself has borne no light part, — these words have proved prophetic; and not only is the land freed from a social curse, but popular institutions have endured the severest test, and come forth from the contest strong and vigorous, without the loss of a single prerogative. De Tocqueville's theory that democracy is incapable of sustained effort stands controverted by an historical fact; and while similar struggles to our own have generally resulted in anarchy or military despotism, the singular spectacle of a law-loving people growing wiser as the strife grows hotter, becoming revolutionists in self-defence, drawing upon their resources with care and moderation, now following up an advantage, now retrieving an error, patient in tribulation and magnanimous in the flush of victory, — all this has been reserved for America and for these latter days.
The foreign no less than the domestic policy of President Lincoln was marked by certain leading traits, - patience, good judgment, forbearance almost unparalleled, and a faith in the final triumph of republican principles which could not be