Imágenes de páginas

seeing this magnificent work cut down to a thick, dumpy volume, seven inches by five; except, perhaps, when I happened to light upon another pet bookDrinkwater's “Siege of Gibraltar," where I had first learned to tremble at the grim realities of war, had watched day by day the firing of the red-hot balls, had groped my way through the galleries, and taken refuge in the casemates, degraded from the fair

proportions of a goodly quarto into the thin and meagre pamphlet of a lending library, losing a portion of its life-like truth with every page that was cut away.

Besides books long in themselves, I love large collections of works of the same class. Shakspeare I had always known, of course. But what joy it was to wander at will through the vellum-bound folio of Beaumont and Fletcher, and then to diverge to Ben Jonson, to Massinger, to Ford, to Webster, to the countless riches of Dodsley's Old Plays! How pleasant to get together books united only by a common subject, collections of English ballads, Percy, Weber, Heber, Ritson, Scott, the Chronicles of Froissart and de Joinville, of Hollinshed and of Hall, the endless Memoirs of Louis the Fourteenth's day, or the still more endless Journals and Diaries, whether by prince or valet, whether false or true, that show us vividly as in life him whom Beranger has called “the great poet of modern times, the marvellous Napoleon !

Or again, books by the same author : the novels of Richardson; the letters of Walpole—will they ever come to an end? I hope not. The majestic verse and graceful prose of Dryden, whose prefaces contain some of our earliest criticism and some of

our best

; the wisdom of Bacon; the wit of Swift; the easy truth of Jane Austen; the matchless charm of Scott. I have read of Prynne and Defoe more than would break down a writing-table, and about the French Revolution as much as would fill a room.

Nor do I perceive much change in this devouring passion. Nearly forty years ago I had occasion to acquire as much knowledge as I could on the subject of the Commonwealth, and it was a labour of love. From the lives of Hutchinson and Fairfax, so charmingly told by their loving wives, and the exciting histories of Burnet and Clarendon to the dullest State Papers of the Record Office, my ravenous appetite “ had stomach for them all.” Four winters since I was reading for my own pleasure Lucas Monsigny's “Life of Mirabeau.” It was a hired book, a Brussels edition, in ten volumes, from Mr. Rolandi's excellent Foreign Library in Berners Street, and I had only the first four. Full of Mirabeau, of that strange creature his father, and that little less remarkable personage the Bailli, his uncle, worse than the vain, tyrannical father in my mind, because he had a perception of the stupendous intellect and noble nature with which they were dealing, and yet submitted in all things to that heartless coxcomb, the Marquis ; full of these people, I could not think of waiting until I had written to London, I should never have closed my eyes ; so I ran off to a most kind neighbour, whose rich library and constant indulgence afforded me some chance of supplying this pressing want.

“ Vie de Mirabeau, par son fils adoptif ?" said the fair daughter; whom I encountered in the park. “Yes," answered I, with a thousand thanks : "that life of Mirabeau, if Sir Henry happen to have it. If not, any life, any book, by or about him, to serve until I can get the true thing !” And so I went my way! In a few hours a horse and cart arrived at my door, containing a great trunk, and a note with a key enclosed. And this precious trunk was full of Mirabeau : orations, letters, lives-all of his own writing, that a woman might fitly read, and almost all that had been written about him, from Dumont's cold unworthy book to the fine étude of Victor Hugo. I do not think I even opened a newspaper until I had gone through the whole collection. One winter I revelled in all the lore I could

procure regarding beasts, and birds, and insects, and reptiles; another I solaced myself by a course of topography, ponderous county histories which are called so dull and are often so amusing, full of odd bits of legend and story and traits of manners that one finds nowhere else ; and once I beguiled the long Christmas evenings by looking through the whole series of the “ Monthly Review," reading the contemporary judgments on Hume and Robertson, on Gibbon and Johnson, on Fielding and Smollett, on Gray and Mason, on Goldsmith and Sterne, and comparing the criticism of the day with the abiding verdict of posterity. Anybody not willing to encounter the trouble of turning over above a hundred heavy volumes may procure for himself a recreation nearly analogous by reading the correspondence which Mr. Mitford has just so ably edited between the before-mentioned Horace Walpole and Mason ; and yet that is hardly a fair example. Prince of letter-writers as Walpole was, created as it seems for nothing else but to chronicle with the adroitest of touches the gossip of the day, it is something wonderful how seldom even by accident he shows the slightest perception of the high, the good, or the true. There is hardly a great name of his own time at which he does not sneer. In one passage he ignores them in a body, and says, “ Dr. Johnson and the crew whose names I forget, or words to that effect. He classes Garth as a poet with Milton; chooses Goldsmith as the object of his supreme contempt, and even amongst his own correspondents he had quarrelled with Gray, and was about to quarrel with Mason. He can hardly be said to reflect contemporary opinion. Perhaps we of the last generation have seen something more nearly approaching it in the judgment of the “Quarterly' upon Keats, and of the “Edinburgh Review” upon Wordsworth. Time is the one great critic.

Of all collected works those that I liked best, better than the poets from Chaucer to Tennyson, better than the dramatists from Shakspeare to Talfourd, were those most real and most exciting of all dramas called trials. I began with the French collections, collections consisting of very many small volumes, Lilliputian duodecimos, some of which are so infinitely curious ; and having fairly exhausted them, I betook myself to the Brobdignagian folios of “Hargrave's State Trials.” What between the size of the books and my own short-sightedness, I well remember that I was compelled to move the reading-desk twice in the course of every double-columned page. Little did I care for that, enchanted as I was by the development, now of story, now of character, now of eloquence, and always of form--the question and answer so well calculated to convey narrative and to elicit truth.

With two or three obvious exceptions, I went through the whole collection, most interested perhaps by those contained in the long reign of Charles II., a time when the prisons, the courts of justice, and the scaffolds were hardly ever free from illustrious victims, martyrs to liberty as in the case of the regicides and of Russell and his companions, or for their ancient faith as in the equally iniquitous condemnations of the so-called Popish Plot.

Amongst these trials of the days of Charles II., two have always seemed to me the perfection of judicial comedy and tragedy.

The former relates to a man about whom much has been written lately; and who certainly, although no doubt he had faults in plenty, was puffed up with vanity as your professors of humanity seldom fail to be, and took no small delight in courts and princes as was to be expected from the leader of a sect whose chief tenet was an ostentatious renunciation of the pomps and vanities of the world--must be admitted to have had his merits also-amongst which I shall always include the manner in which he turned the Mayor and Mr. Recorder round his fingers. I am talking of William Penn, and the process in question is the trial of William Penn and William Mead for a tumultous assembly, 22nd Charles II. (1670), before the Mayor, Recorder, and divers Aldermen at the Old Bailey.

I do not know any cause pleasanter to read than this, because from first to last the parties with whom our sympathies go have the best not only of the reasoning but of the result; such arrant blunderers were the whole of the court. To begin at the beginning :

« AnteriorContinuar »