No one has written so much about authors, and so well
he traditionary notion that the life of a man of letters is necessarily deficient in incident, appears to have originated in a misconception of the essential nature of human action. The life of every man is full of incidents, but the incidents are insignificant, because they do not affect his species; and in general the importance of every occurrence is to be measured by the degree with which it is recognised by mankind. An author may influence the fortunes of the world to as great an extent as a statesman or a warrior; and the deeds and performances by which this influence is created and exercised, may rank in their interest and importance with the decisions of great Congresses, or the skilful valour of a memorable field. M. de Voltaire was certainly a greater Frenchman than Cardinal Fleury, the Prime Minister of France in his time. His actions were more important; and it is certainly not too much to maintain that the exploits of Homer, Aristotle, Dante, or my Lord Bacon, were as considerable events as anything that occurred at Actium, Lepanto, or Blenheim. A Book may be as great a thing as a battle, and there are systems of philosophy that have produced as great revolutions as any that have disturbed even the social and political existence of our centuries.
The life of the author, whose character and career we are venturing to review, extended far beyond the allotted term of man: and, perhaps, no existence of equal duration ever exhibited an uniformity more sustained. The strong bent of his infancy was pursued through youth, matured in manhood, and maintained without decay to an advanced old age. In the biographic spell, no ingredient is more magical than predisposition. How pure, and native, and indigenous it was in the character of this writer, can only be properly appreciated by an acquaintance with the circumstances amid which he was born, and by being able to estimate how far they could have directed or developed his earliest inclinations.
My grandfather, who became an English Denizen in 1748, was an Italian descendant from one of those Hebrew families whom the Inquisition forced to emigrate from the Spanish Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, and who found a refuge in the more tolerant territories of the Venetian Republic. His ancestors had dropped their Gothic surname on their settlement in the Terra Firma, and grateful to the God of Jacob who had sustained them through unprecedented trials and guarded them through unheard-of perils, they assumed the name of DISRAELI, a name never borne before or since by any other family, in order that their race might be for ever recognised. Undisturbed and unmolested, they flourished as merchants for more than two centuries under the protection of the lion of St. Mark, which was but just, as the patron saint of the Republic was himself a child of Israel. But towards the middle of the eighteenth century, the altered circumstances of England, favourable, as it was then supposed, to commerce and religious liberty, attracted the attention of my great-grandfather to this island, and he resolved that the youngest of his two sons, Benjamin, the "son of his right hand," should settle in a country where the dynasty seemed at length established, through the recent failure of Prince Charles Edward, and where public opinion appeared definitively adverse to persecution on matters of creed and conscience.
The Jewish families who were then settled in England were few, though, from their wealth and other circumstances, they were far from unimportant. They were all of them Sephardim, that is to say, children of Israel, who had never quitted the shores of the Midland Ocean, until Torquamada had driven them from their pleasant residences and rich estates in Arragon, and Andalusia, and Portugal, to seek greater blessings, even than a clear atmosphere and a glowing sun, amid the marshes of Holland and the fogs of Britain. Most of these families, who held themselves aloof from the Hebrews of Northern Europe, then only occasionally stealing into England, as from an inferior caste, and whose synagogue was reserved only for Sephardim, are now extinct; while the branch of the great family, which, notwithstanding their own sufferings from prejudice, they had the hardihood to look down upon, have achieved an amount of wealth and consideration which the Sephardim, even with the patronage of Mr. Pelham, never could have contemplated. Nevertheless, at the time when my grandfather settled in England, and when Mr. Pelham, who was very favourable to the Jews, was Prime Minister, there might be found, among other Jewish families flourishing in this country, the Villa Reals, who brought wealth to these shores almost as great as their name, though that is the second in Portugal, and who have twice allied themselves with the English aristocracy, the Medinas—the Laras, who were our kinsmen—and the Mendez da Costas, who, I believe, still exist.
Whether it were that my grandfather, on his arrival, was not encouraged by those to whom he had a right to look up, — which is often our hard case in the outset of life, — or whether he was alarmed at the unexpected consequences of Mr. Pelham's favourable disposition to his countrymen in the disgraceful repeal of the Jew Bill, which occurred a very few years after his arrival in this country, I know not; but certainly he appears never to have cordially or intimately mixed with his community. This tendency to alienation was, no doubt, subsequently encouraged by his marriage, which took place in 1765. My grandmother, the beautiful daughter of a family who had suffered much from persecution, had imbibed that dislike for her race which the vain are too apt to adopt when they find that they are born to public contempt. The indignant feeling that should be reserved for the persecutor, in the mortification of their disturbed sensibility, is too often visited on the victim; and the cause of annoyance is recognised not in the ignorant malevolence of the powerful, but in the conscientious conviction of the innocent sufferer. Seventeen years, however, elapsed before my grandfather entered into this union, and during that interval he had not been idle. He was only eighteen when he commenced his career, and when a great responsibility devolved upon him. He was not unequal to it. He was a man of ardent character; sanguine, courageous, speculative, and fortunate; with a temper which no disappointment could disturb, and a brain, amid reverses, full of resource. He made his fortune in the midway of life, and settled near Enfield, where he formed an Italian garden, entertained his friends, played whist with Sir Horace Mann, who was his great acquaintance, and who had known his brother at Venice as a banker, eat macaroni which was dressed by the Venetian Consul, sang canzonettas, and notwithstanding a wife who never pardoned him for his name, and a son who disappointed all his plans, and who to the last hour of his life was an enigma to him, lived till he was nearly ninety, and then died in 1817, in the full enjoyment of prolonged existence.
My grandfather retired from active business on the eve of that great financial epoch, to grapple with which his talents were well adapted; and when the wars and loans of the Revolution were about to create those families of millionaires, in which he might probably have enrolled his own. That, however, was not our destiny. My grandfather had only one child, and nature had disqualified him, from his cradle, for the busy pursuits of men.
A pale, pensive child, with large dark brown eyes, and flowing hair, such as may be beheld in one of the portraits annexed to these volumes, had grown up beneath this roof of worldly energy and enjoyment, indicating even in his infancy, by the whole carriage of his life, that he was of a different order from those among whom he lived. Timid, susceptible, lost in reverie, fond of solitude, or seeking no better company than a book, the years had stolen on, till he had arrived at that mournful period of boyhood when eccentricities excite attention and command no sympathy. In the chapter on Predisposition, in the most delightful of his works, my father has drawn from his own, though his unacknowledged feelings, immortal truths. Then commenced the age of domestic criticism. His mother, not incapable of deep affections, but so mortified by her social position that she lived until eighty without indulging in a tender expression, did not recognise in her only offspring a being qualified to control or vanquish his impending fate. His existence only served to swell the aggregate of many humiliating particulars. It was not to her a source of joy, or sympathy, or solace. She foresaw for her child only a future of degradation. Having a strong, clear mind, without any imagination, she believed that she beheld an inevitable doom. The tart remark and the contemptuous comment on her part, elicited, on the other, all the irritability of the poetic idiosyncrasy. After frantic ebullitions, for which, when the circumstances were analysed by an ordinary mind, there seemed no sufficient cause, my grandfather always interfered to soothe with good-tempered commonplaces, and promote peace. He was a man who thought that the only way to make people happy was to make them a present. He took it for granted that a boy in a passion wanted a toy or a guinea. At a later date, when my father ran away from home, and after some wanderings was brought back, found lying on a tombstone in Hackney churchyard, he embraced him, and gave him a pony.
In this state of affairs, being sent to school in the neighbourhood, was a rather agreeable incident. The school was kept by a Scotchman, one Morison, a good man, and not untinctured with scholarship, and it is possible that my father might have reaped some advantage from this change; but the school was too near home, and his mother, though she tormented his existence, was never content if he were out of her sight. His delicate health was an excuse for converting him, after a short interval, into a day scholar; then many days of attendance were omitted; finally, the solitary walk home through Mr. Mellish's park was dangerous to the sensibilities that too often exploded when they encountered on the arrival at the domestic hearth a scene which did not harmonise with the fairy-land of reverie.
The crisis arrived, when, after months of unusual abstraction and irritability, my father produced a poem. For the first time, my grandfather was seriously alarmed. The loss of one of his argosies, uninsured, could not have filled him with more blank dismay. His idea of a poet was formed from one of the prints of Hogarth hanging in his room, where an unfortunate wight in a garret was inditing an ode to riches, while dunned for his milk-score. Decisive measures were required to eradicate this evil, and to prevent future disgrace—so, as seems the custom when a person is in a scrape, it was resolved that my father should be sent abroad, where a new scene and a new language might divert his mind from the ignominious pursuit which so fatally attracted him. The unhappy poet was consigned like a bale of goods to my grandfather's correspondent at Amsterdam, who had instructions to place him at some collegium of repute in that city. Here were passed some years not without profit, though his tutor was a great impostor, very neglectful of his pupils, and both unable and disinclined to guide them in severe studies. This preceptor was a man of letters, though a wretched writer, with a good library, and a spirit inflamed with all the philosophy of the eighteenth century, then (1780-1) about to bring forth and bear its long-matured fruits. The intelligence and disposition of my father attracted his attention, and rather interested him. He taught his charge little, for he was himself generally occupied in writing bad odes, but he gave him free warren in his library, and before his pupil was fifteen, he had read the works of Voltaire and had dipped into Bayle. Strange that the characteristics of a writer so born and brought up should have been so essentially English; not merely from his mastery over our language, but from his keen and profound sympathy with all that concerned the literary and political history of our country at its most important epoch.
When he was eighteen, he returned to England a disciple of Rousseau. He had exercised his imagination during the voyage in idealizing the interview with his mother, which was to be conducted on both sides with sublime pathos. His other parent had frequently visited him during his absence. He was prepared to throw himself on his mother's bosom, to bedew her hands with his tears, and to stop her own with his lips; but, when he entered, his strange appearance, his gaunt figure, his excited manners, his long hair, and his unfashionable costume, only filled her with a sentiment of tender aversion; she broke into derisive laughter, and noticing his intolerable garments, she reluctantly lent him her cheek. Whereupon Emile, of course, went into heroics, wept, sobbed, and finally, shut up in his chamber, composed an impassioned epistle. My grandfather, to soothe him, dwelt on the united solicitude of his parents for his welfare, and broke to him their intention, if it were agreeable to him, to place him in the establishment of a great merchant at Bordeaux. My father replied that he had written a poem of considerable length, which he wished to publish, against Commerce, which was the corrupter of man. In eight-and-forty hours confusion again reigned in this household, and all from a want of psychological perception in its master and mistress.
My father, who had lost the timidity of his childhood, who, by nature, was very impulsive, and indeed endowed with a degree of volatility which is only witnessed in the south of France, and which never deserted him to his last hour, was no longer to be controlled. His conduct was decisive. He enclosed his poem to Dr. Johnson, with an impassioned statement of his case, complaining, which he ever did, that he had never found a counsellor or literary friend. He left his packet himself at Bolt Court, where he was received by Mr. Francis Barber, the doctor's well-known black servant, and told to call again in a week. Be sure that he was very punctual; but the packet was returned to him unopened, with a message that the illustrious doctor was too ill to read anything. The unhappy and obscure aspirant, who received this disheartening message, accepted it, in his utter despondency, as a mechanical excuse. But, alas! the cause was too true; and, a few weeks after, on that bed, beside which the voice of Mr. Burke faltered, and the tender spirit of Benett Langton was ever vigilant, the great soul of Johnson quitted earth.
But the spirit of self-confidence, the resolution to struggle against his fate, the paramount desire to find some sympathising sage—some guide, philosopher, and friend—was so strong and rooted in my father, that I observed, a few weeks ago, in a magazine, an original letter, written by him about this time to Dr. Vicesimus Knox, full of high-flown sentiments, reading indeed like a romance of Scudery, and entreating the learned critic to receive him in his family, and give him the advantage of his wisdom, his taste, and his erudition.
With a home that ought to have been happy, surrounded with more than comfort, with the most good-natured father in the world, and an agreeable man; and with a mother whose strong intellect, under ordinary circumstances, might have been of great importance to him; my father, though himself of a very sweet disposition, was most unhappy. His parents looked upon him as moonstruck, while he himself, whatever his aspirations, was conscious that he had done nothing to justify the eccentricity of his course, or the violation of all prudential considerations in which he daily indulged. In these perplexities, the usual alternative was again had recourse to—absence; he was sent abroad, to travel in France, which the peace then permitted, visit some friends, see Paris, and then proceed to Bordeaux if he felt inclined. My father travelled in France, and then proceeded to Paris, where he remained till the eve of great events in that capital. This was a visit recollected with satisfaction. He lived with learned men and moved in vast libraries, and returned in the earlier part of 1788, with some little knowledge of life, and with a considerable quantity of books.
At this time Peter Pindar flourished in all the wantonness of literary riot. He was at the height of his flagrant notoriety. The novelty and the boldness of his style carried the million with him. The most exalted station was not exempt from his audacious criticism, and learned institutions trembled at the sallies whose ribaldry often cloaked taste, intelligence, and good sense. His "Odes to the Academicians," which first secured him the ear of the town, were written by one who could himself guide the pencil with skill and feeling, and who, in the form of a mechanic's son, had even the felicity to discover the vigorous genius of Opie. The mock-heroic which invaded with success the sacred recesses of the palace, and which was fruitlessly menaced by Secretaries of State, proved a reckless intrepidity, which is apt to be popular with "the general." The powerful and the learned quailed beneath the lash with an affected contempt which scarcely veiled their tremor. In the meantime, as in the latter days of the Empire, the barbarian ravaged the country, while the pale-faced patricians were inactive within the walls. No one offered resistance.
There appeared about this time a satire "On the Abuse of Satire." The verses were polished and pointed; a happy echo of that style of Mr. Pope which still lingered in the spell-bound ear of the public. Peculiarly they offered a contrast to the irregular effusions of the popular assailant whom they in turn assailed, for the object of their indignant invective was the bard of the "Lousiad." The poem was anonymous, and was addressed to Dr. Warton in lines of even classic grace. Its publication was appropriate. There are moments when every one is inclined to praise, especially when the praise of a new pen may at the same time revenge the insults of an old one.
But if there could be any doubt of the success of this new hand, it was quickly removed by the conduct of Peter Pindar himself. As is not unusual with persons of his habits, Wolcot was extremely sensitive, and, brandishing a tomahawk, always himself shrank from a scratch. This was shown some years afterwards by his violent assault on Mr. Gifford, with a bludgeon, in a bookseller's shop, because the author of the "Baviad and Mæviad" had presumed to castigate the great lampooner of the age. In the present instance, the furious Wolcot leapt to the rash conclusion, that the author of the satire was no less a personage than Mr. Hayley, and he assailed the elegant author of the "Triumphs of Temper" in a virulent pasquinade. This ill-considered movement of his adversary of course achieved the complete success of the anonymous writer.
My father, who came up to town to read the newspapers at the St. James's Coffee-house, found their columns filled with extracts from the fortunate effusion of the hour, conjectures as to its writer, and much gossip respecting Wolcot and Hayley. He returned to Enfield laden with the journals, and, presenting them to his parents, broke to them the intelligence, that at length he was not only an author, but a successful one.
He was indebted to this slight effort for something almost as agreeable as the public recognition of his ability, and that was the acquaintance, and almost immediately the warm personal friendship, of Mr. Pye. Mr. Pye was the head of an ancient English family that figured in the Parliaments and struggles of the Stuarts; he was member for the County of Berkshire, where his ancestral seat of Faringdon was situate, and at a later period (1790) became Poet Laureat. In those days, when literary clubs did not exist, and when even political ones were extremely limited and exclusive in their character, the booksellers' shops were social rendezvous. Debrett's was the chief haunt of the Whigs; Hatchard's, I believe, of the Tories. It was at the latter house that my father made the acquaintance of Mr. Pye, then publishing his translation of Aristotle's Poetics, and so strong was party feeling at that period, that one day, walking together down Piccadilly, Mr. Pye, stopping at the door of Debrett, requested his companion to go in and purchase a particular pamphlet for him, adding that if he had the audacity to enter, more than one person would tread upon his toes.
My father at last had a friend. Mr. Pye, though double his age, was still a young man, and the literary sympathy between them was complete. Unfortunately, the member for Berkshire was a man rather of an elegant turn of mind, than one of that energy and vigour which a youth required for a companion at that moment. Their tastes and pursuits were perhaps a little too similar. They addressed poetical epistles to each other, and were, reciprocally, too gentle critics. But Mr. Pye was a most amiable and accomplished man, a fine classical scholar, and a master of correct versification. He paid a visit to Enfield, and by his influence hastened a conclusion at which my grandfather was just arriving, to wit, that he would no longer persist in the fruitless effort of converting a poet into a merchant, and that content with the independence he had realised, he would abandon his dreams of founding a dynasty of financiers. From this moment all disquietude ceased beneath this always well-meaning, though often perplexed, roof, while my father, enabled amply to gratify his darling passion of book-collecting, passed his days in tranquil study, and in the society of congenial spirits.
His new friend introduced him almost immediately to Mr. James Pettit Andrews, a Berkshire gentleman of literary pursuits, and whose hospitable table at Brompton was the resort of the best literary society of the day. Here my father was a frequent guest, and walking home one night together from this house, where they had both dined, he made the acquaintance of a young poet, which soon ripened into intimacy, and which throughout sixty years, notwithstanding many changes of life, never died away. This youthful poet had already gained laurels, though he was only three or four years older than my father, but I am not at this moment quite aware whether his brow was yet encircled with the amaranthine wreath of the "Pleasures of Memory."
Some years after this, great vicissitudes unhappily occurred in the family of Mr. Pye. He was obliged to retire from Parliament, and to sell his family estate of Faringdon. His Majesty had already, on the death of Thomas Warton, nominated him Poet Laureat, and after his retirement from Parliament, the government which he had supported, appointed him a Commissioner of Police. It was in these days that his friend, Mr. Penn, of Stoke Park, in Buckinghamshire, presented him with a cottage worthy of a poet on his beautiful estate; and it was thus my father became acquainted with the amiable descendant of the most successful of colonisers, and with that classic domain which the genius of Gray, as it were, now haunts, and has for ever hallowed, and from which he beheld with fond and musing eye, those
Distant spires and antique towers,
that no one can now look upon without remembering him. It was amid these rambles in Stoke Park, amid the scenes of Gray's genius, the elegiac churchyard, and the picturesque fragments of the Long Story, talking over the deeds of "Great Rebellion" with the descendants of Cavaliers and Parliament-men, that my father first imbibed that feeling for the county of Buckingham, which induced him occasionally to be a dweller in its limits, and ultimately, more than a quarter of a century afterwards, to establish his household gods in its heart. And here, perhaps, I may be permitted to mention a circumstance, which is indeed trifling, and yet, as a coincidence, not, I think, without interest. Mr. Pye was the great-grandson of Sir Robert Pye, of Bradenham, who married Anne, the eldest daughter of Mr. Hampden. How little could my father dream, sixty years ago, that he would pass the last quarter of his life in the mansion-house of Bradenham; that his name would become intimately connected with the county of Buckingham; and that his own remains would be interred in the vault of the chancel of Bradenham Church, among the coffins of the descendants of the Hampdens and the Pyes. All which should teach us that whatever may be our natural bent, there is a power in the disposal of events greater than human will.
It was about two years after his first acquaintance with Mr. Pye, that my father, being then in his twenty-fifth year, influenced by the circle in which he then lived, gave an anonymous volume to the press, the fate of which he could little have foreseen. The taste for literary history was then of recent date in England. It was developed by Dr. Johnson and the Wartons, who were the true founders of that elegant literature in which France had so richly preceded us. The fashion for literary anecdote prevailed at the end of the last century. Mr. Pettit Andrews, assisted by Mr. Pye and Captain Grose, and shortly afterwards, his friend, Mr. Seward, in his "Anecdotes of Distinguished Persons," had both of them produced ingenious works, which had experienced public favour. But these volumes were rather entertaining than substantial, and their interest in many instances was necessarily fleeting; all which made Mr. Rogers observe, that the world was far gone in its anecdotage.
While Mr. Andrews and his friend were hunting for personal details in the recollections of their contemporaries, my father maintained one day, that the most interesting of miscellanies might be drawn up by a well-read man from the library in which he lived. It was objected, on the other hand, that such a work would be a mere compilation, and could not succeed with its dead matter in interesting the public. To test the truth of this assertion, my father occupied himself in the preparation of an octavo volume, the principal materials of which were found in the diversified collections of the French Ana; but he enriched his subjects with as much of our own literature as his reading afforded, and he conveyed the result in that lively and entertaining style which he from the first commanded. This collection of "Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches, and Observations; Literary, Critical, and Historical," as the title-page of the first edition figures, he invested with the happy baptism of "Curiosities of Literature."
He sought by this publication neither reputation nor a coarser reward, for he published his work anonymously, and avowedly as a compilation; and he not only published the work at his own expense, but in his heedlessness made a present of the copyright to the bookseller, which three or four years afterwards he was fortunate enough to purchase at a public sale. The volume was an experiment whether a taste for literature could not be infused into the multitude. Its success was so decided, that its projector was tempted to add a second volume two years afterward, with a slight attempt at more original research; I observe that there was a second edition of both volumes in 1794. For twenty years the brother volumes remained favourites of the public; when after that long interval their writer, taking advantage of a popular title, poured forth all the riches of his matured intellect, his refined taste, and accumulated knowledge into their pages, and produced what may be fairly described as the most celebrated Miscellany of Modern Literature.
The moment that the name of the youthful author of the "Abuse of Satire" had transpired, Peter Pindar, faithful to the instinct of his nature, wrote a letter of congratulation and compliment to his assailant, and desired to make his acquaintance. The invitation was responded to, and until the death of Wolcot, they were intimate. My father always described Wolcot as a warm-hearted man; coarse in his manners, and rather rough, but eager to serve those whom he liked, of which, indeed, I might appropriately mention an instance.
It so happened, that about the year 1795, when he was in his 29th year there came over my father that mysterious illness to which the youth of men of sensibility, and especially literary men, is frequently subject — a failing of nervous energy, occasioned by study and too sedentary habits, early and habitual reverie, restless and indefinite purpose. The symptoms, physical and moral, are most distressing: lassitude and despondency. And it usually happens, as in the present instance, that the cause of suffering is not recognised; and that medical men, misled by the superficial symptoms, and not seeking to acquaint themselves with the psychology of their patients, arrive at erroneous, often fatal, conclusions. In this case, the most eminent of the faculty gave it as their opinion, that the disease was consumption. Dr. Turton, if I recollect right, was then the most considered physician of the day. An immediate visit to a warmer climate was his specific; and as the Continent was then disturbed and foreign residence out of the question, Dr. Turton recommended that his patient should establish himself without delay in Devonshire.
When my father communicated this impending change in his life to Wolcot, the modern Skelton shook his head. He did not believe that his friend was in a consumption, but being a Devonshire man, and loving very much his native province, he highly approved of the remedy. He gave my father several letters of introduction to persons of consideration at Exeter; among others, one whom he justly described as a poet and a physician, and the best of men, the late Dr. Hugh Downman. Provincial cities very often enjoy a transient term of intellectual distinction. An eminent man often collects around him congenial spirits, and the power of association sometimes produces distant effects which even an individual, however gifted, could scarcely have anticipated. A combination of circumstances had made at this time Exeter a literary metropolis. A number of distinguished men flourished there at the same moment: some of their names are even now remembered. Jackson of Exeter still survives as a native composer of original genius. He was also an author of high æsthetical speculation. The heroic poems of Hole are forgotten, but his essay on the Arabian Nights is still a cherished volume of elegant and learned criticism. Hayter was the classic antiquary who first discovered the art of unrolling the MSS. of Herculaneum. There were many others, noisier and more bustling, who are now forgotten, though they in some degree influenced the literary opinion of their time. It was said, and I believe truly, that the two principal, if not sole, organs of periodical criticism at that time, I think the Critical Review and the Monthly Review, were principally supported by Exeter contributions. No doubt this circumstance may account for a great deal of mutual praise and sympathetic opinion on literary subjects, which, by a convenient arrangement, appeared in the pages of publications otherwise professing contrary opinions on all others. Exeter had then even a learned society which published its Transactions.
With such companions, by whom he was received with a kindness and hospitality which to the last he often dwelt on, it may easily be supposed that the banishment of my father from the delights of literary London was not as productive a source of gloom as the exile of Ovid to the savage Pontus, even if it had not been his happy fortune to have been received on terms of intimate friendship by the accomplished family of Mr. Baring, who was then member for Exeter, and beneath whose roof he passed a great portion of the period of nearly three years during which he remained in Devonshire.
The illness of my father was relieved, but not removed, by this change of life. Dr. Downman was his physician, whose only remedies were port wine, horse-exercise, rowing on the neighbouring river, and the distraction of agreeable society. This wise physician recognised the temperament of his patient, and perceived that his physical derangement was an effect instead of a cause. My father instead of being in a consumption, was endowed with a frame of almost super-human strength, and which was destined for half a century of continuous labour and sedentary life. The vital principle in him, indeed, was so strong that when he left us at eighty-two, it was only as the victim of a violent epidemic, against whose virulence he struggled with so much power, that it was clear, but for this casualty, he might have been spared to this world even for several years.
I should think that this illness of his youth, and which, though of a fitful character, was of many years' duration, arose from his inability to direct to a satisfactory end the intellectual power which he was conscious of possessing. He would mention the ten years of his life, from twenty-five to thirty-five years of age, as a period very deficient in self-contentedness. The fact is, with a poetic temperament, he had been born in an age when the poetic faith of which he was a votary had fallen into decrepitude, and had become only a form with the public, not yet gifted with sufficient fervour to discover a new creed. He was a pupil of Pope and Boileau, yet both from his native impulse and from the glowing influence of Rousseau, he felt the necessity and desire of infusing into the verse of the day more passion than might resound from the frigid lyre of Mr. Hayley. My father had fancy, sensibility, and an exquisite taste, but he had not that rare creative power, which the blended and simultaneous influence of the individual organisation and the spirit of the age, reciprocally acting upon each other, can alone, perhaps, perfectly develope; the absence of which, at periods of transition, is so universally recognised and deplored, and yet which always, when it does arrive, captivates us, as it were, by surprise. How much there was of freshness, and fancy, and natural pathos in his mind, may be discerned in his Persian romance of "The Loves of Mejnoon and Leila." We who have been accustomed to the great poets of the nineteenth century seeking their best inspiration in the climate and manners of the East; who are familiar with the land of the Sun from the isles of Ionia to the vales of Cashmere; can scarcely appreciate the literary originality of a writer who, fifty years ago, dared to devise a real Eastern story, and seeking inspiration in the pages of Oriental literature, compose it with reference to the Eastern mind, and customs, and landscape. One must have been familiar with the Almorans and Hamets, the Visions of Mirza and the kings of Ethiopia, and the other dull and monstrous masquerades of Orientalism then prevalent, to estimate such an enterprise, in which, however, one should not forget the author had the advantage of the guiding friendship of that distinguished Orientalist, Sir William Ouseley. The reception of this work by the public, and of other works of fiction which its author gave to them anonymously, was in every respect encouraging, and their success may impartially be registered as fairly proportionate to their merits; but it was not a success, or a proof of power, which, in my father's opinion, compensated for that life of literary research and study which their composition disturbed and enfeebled. It was at the ripe age of five-and-thirty that he renounced his dreams of being an author, and resolved to devote himself for the rest of his life to the acquisition of knowledge.
When my father, many years afterwards, made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, the great poet saluted him by reciting a poem of half-a-dozen stanzas which my father had written in his early youth. Not altogether without agitation, surprise was expressed that these lines should have been known, still more that they should have been remembered. "Ah!" said Sir Walter, "if the writer of these lines had gone on, he would have been an English poet."
It is possible; it is even probable that, if my father had devoted himself to the art, he might have become the author of some elegant and popular didactic poem, on some ordinary subject, which his fancy would have adorned with grace and his sensibility invested with sentiment; some small volume which might have reposed with a classic title upon our library shelves, and served as a prize volume at Ladies' Schools. This celebrity was not reserved for him: instead of this he was destined to give to his country a series of works illustrative of its literary and political history, full of new information and new views, which time and opinion has ratified as just. But the poetical temperament was not thrown away upon him; it never is on any one; it was this great gift which prevented his being a mere literary antiquary; it was this which animated his page with picture and his narrative with interesting vivacity; above all, it was this temperament, which invested him with that sympathy with his subject, which made him the most delightful biographer in our language. In a word, it was because he was a poet, that he was a popular writer, and made belles-lettres charming to the multitude.
It was during the ten years that now occurred that he mainly acquired that store of facts which were the foundation of his future speculations. His pen was never idle, but it was to note and to register, not to compose. His researches were prosecuted every morning among the MSS. of the British Museum, while his own ample collections permitted him to pursue his investigation in his own library into the night. The materials which he accumulated during this period are only partially exhausted. At the end of ten years, during which, with the exception of one anonymous work, he never indulged in composition, the irresistible desire of communicating his conclusions to the world came over him, and after all his almost childish aspirations, his youth of reverie and hesitating and imperfect effort, he arrived at the mature age of forty-five before his career as a great author, influencing opinion, really commenced.
The next ten years passed entirely in production: from 1812 to 1822 the press abounded with his works. His Calamities of Authors, his Memoirs of Literary Controversy, in the manner of Bayle; his "Essay on the Literary Character," the most perfect of his compositions; were all chapters in that History of English Literature which he then commenced to meditate, and which it was fated should never be completed.
It was during this period also that he published his "Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James the First," in which he first opened those views respecting the times and the conduct of the Stuarts, which were opposed to the long prevalent opinions of this country, but which with him were at least the result of unprejudiced research, and their promulgation, as he himself expressed it, "an affair of literary conscience."
But what retarded his project of a History of our Literature at this time was the almost embarrassing success of his juvenile production, The Curiosities of Literature. These two volumes had already reached five editions, and their author found himself, by the public demand, again called upon to sanction their re-appearance. Recognising in this circumstance some proof of their utility, he resolved to make the work more worthy of the favour which it enjoyed, and more calculated to produce the benefit which he desired. Without attempting materially to alter the character of the first two volumes, he revised and enriched them, while at the same time he added a third volume of a vein far more critical, and conveying the results of much original research. The success of this publication was so great, that its author, after much hesitation, resolved, as he was wont to say, to take advantage of a popular title, and pour forth the treasures of his mind in three additional volumes, which, unlike continuations in general, were at once greeted with the highest degree of popular delight and esteem. And, indeed, whether we consider the choice variety of the subjects, the critical and philosophical speculation which pervades them, the amount of new and interesting information brought to bear, and the animated style in which all is conveyed, it is difficult to conceive miscellaneous literature in a garb more stimulating and attractive. These six volumes, after many editions, are now condensed into the form at present given to the public, and in which the development of the writer's mind for a quarter of a century may be completely traced.
Although my father had on the whole little cause to complain of unfair criticism, especially considering how isolated he always remained, it is not to be supposed that a success so eminent should have been exempt in so long a course from some captious comments. It has been alleged of late years by some critics, that he was in the habit of exaggerating the importance of his researches; that he was too fond of styling every accession to our knowledge, however slight, as a discovery; that there were some inaccuracies in his early volumes (not very wonderful in so multifarious a work), and that the foundation of his "secret history" was often only a single letter, or a passage in a solitary diary.
The sources of secret history at the present day are so rich and various; there is such an eagerness among their possessors to publish family papers, even sometimes in shapes, and at dates so recent, as scarcely to justify their appearance; that modern critics, in their embarrassment of manuscript wealth, are apt to view with too depreciating an eye the more limited resources of men of letters at the commencement of the century. Not five-and-twenty years ago, when preparing his work on King Charles the First, the application of my father to make some researches in the State Paper Office was refused by the Secretary of State of the day. Now, foreign potentates and ministers of State, and public corporations and the heads of great houses, feel honoured by such appeals, and respond to them with cordiality. It is not only the State Paper Office of England, but the Archives of France, that are open to the historical investigator. But what has produced this general and expanding taste for literary research in the world, and especially in England? The labours of our elder authors, whose taste and acuteness taught us the value of the materials which we in our ignorance neglected. When my father first frequented the reading-room of the British Museum at the end of the last century, his companions never numbered half-a-dozen; among them, if I remember rightly, were Mr. Pinkerton and Mr. Douce. Now these daily pilgrims of research may be counted by as many hundreds. Few writers have more contributed to form and diffuse this delightful and profitable taste for research than the author of the "Curiosities of Literature;" few writers have been more successful in inducing us to pause before we accepted without a scruple the traditionary opinion that has distorted a fact or calumniated a character; and independently of every other claim which he possesses to public respect, his literary discoveries, viewed in relation to the age and the means, were considerable. But he had other claims: a vital spirit in his page, kindred with the souls of a Bayle and a Montaigne. His innumerable imitators and their inevitable failure for half a century alone prove this, and might have made them suspect that there were some ingredients in the spell besides the accumulation of facts and a happy title. Many of their publications, perpetually appearing and constantly forgotten, were drawn up by persons of considerable acquirements, and were ludicrously mimetic of their prototype, even as to the size of the volume and the form of the page. What has become of these "Varieties of Literature," and "Delights of Literature," and "Delicacies of Literature," and "Relics of Literature,"—and the other Protean forms of uninspired compilation? Dead as they deserve to be: while the work, the idea of which occurred to its writer in his early youth, and which he lived virtually to execute in all the ripeness of his studious manhood, remains as fresh and popular as ever,—the Literary Miscellany of the English People.
I have ventured to enter into some details as to the earlier and obscurer years of my father's life, because I thought that they threw light upon human character, and that without them, indeed, a just appreciation of his career could hardly be formed. I am mistaken, if we do not recognise in his instance two very interesting qualities of life: predisposition and self-formation. There was a third, which I think is to be honoured, and that was his sympathy with his order. No one has written so much about authors, and so well. Indeed, before his time, the Literary Character had never been fairly placed before the world. He comprehended its idiosyncrasy: all its strength and all its weakness. He could soften, because he could explain, its infirmities; in the analysis and record of its power, he vindicated the right position of authors in the social scale. They stand between the governors and the governed, he impresses on us in the closing pages of his greatest work. Though he shared none of the calamities, and scarcely any of the controversies, of literature, no one has sympathised so intimately with the sorrows, or so zealously and impartially registered the instructive disputes, of literary men. He loved to celebrate the exploits of great writers, and to show that, in these ages, the pen is a weapon as puissant as the sword. He was also the first writer who vindicated the position of the great artist in the history of genius. His pages are studded with pregnant instances and graceful details, borrowed from the life of Art and its votaries, and which his intimate and curious acquaintance with Italian letters readily and happily supplied. Above all writers, he has maintained the greatness of intellect, and the immortality of thought.
He was himself a complete literary character, a man who really passed his life in his library. Even marriage produced no change in these habits; he rose to enter the chamber where he lived alone with his books, and at night his lamp was ever lit within the same walls. Nothing, indeed, was more remarkable than the isolation of this prolonged existence; and it could only be accounted for by the united influence of three causes: his birth, which brought him no relations or family acquaintance; the bent of his disposition; and the circumstance of his inheriting an independent fortune, which rendered unnecessary those exertions that would have broken up his self-reliance. He disliked business, and he never required relaxation; he was absorbed in his pursuits. In London his only amusement was to ramble among booksellers; if he entered a club, it was only to go into the library. In the country, he scarcely ever left his room but to saunter in abstraction upon a terrace; muse over a chapter, or coin a sentence. He had not a single passion or prejudice: all his convictions were the result of his own studies, and were often opposed to the impressions which he had early imbibed. He not only never entered into the politics of the day, but he could never understand them. He never was connected with any particular body or set of men; comrades of school or college, or confederates in that public life which, in England, is, perhaps, the only foundation of real friendship. In the consideration of a question, his mind was quite undisturbed by traditionary preconceptions; and it was this exemption from passion and prejudice which, although his intelligence was naturally somewhat too ingenious and fanciful for the conduct of close argument, enabled him, in investigation, often to show many of the highest attributes of the judicial mind, and particularly to sum up evidence with singular happiness and ability.
Although in private life he was of a timid nature, his moral courage as a writer was unimpeachable. Most certainly, throughout his long career, he never wrote a sentence which he did not believe was true. He will generally be found to be the advocate of the discomfited and the oppressed. So his conclusions are often opposed to popular impressions. This was from no love of paradox, to which he was quite superior; but because in the conduct of his researches, he too often found that the unfortunate are calumniated. His vindication of King James the First, he has himself described as "an affair of literary conscience:" his greater work on the Life and Times of the son of the first Stuart arose from the same impulse. He had deeply studied our history during the first moiety of the seventeenth century; he looked upon it as a famous age; he was familiar with the works of its great writers, and there was scarcely one of its almost innumerable pamphlets with which he was not acquainted. During the thoughtful investigations of many years, he had arrived at results which were not adapted to please the passing multitude, but which, because he held them to be authentic, he was uneasy lest he should die without recording. Yet strong as were his convictions, although, notwithstanding his education in the revolutionary philosophy of the eighteenth century, his nature and his studies had made him a votary of loyalty and reverence, his pen was always prompt to do justice to those who might be looked upon as the adversaries of his own cause: and this was because his cause was really truth. If he has upheld Laud under unjust aspersions, the last labour of his literary life was to vindicate the character of Hugh Peters. If, from the recollection of the sufferings of his race, and from profound reflection on the principles of the Institution, he was hostile to the Papacy, no writer in our literature has done more complete justice to the conduct of the English Romanists. Who can read his history of Chidiock Titchbourne unmoved? or can refuse to sympathise with his account of the painful difficulties of the English Monarchs with their loyal subjects of the old faith? If in a parliamentary country he has dared to criticise the conduct of Parliaments, it was only because an impartial judgment had taught him, as he himself expresses it, that "Parliaments have their passions as well as individuals."
He was five years in the composition of his work on the Life and Reign of Charles the First, and the five volumes appeared at intervals between 1828 and 1831. It was feared by his publisher, that the distracted epoch at which this work was issued, and the tendency of the times, apparently so adverse to his own views, might prove very injurious to its reception. But the effect of these circumstances was the reverse. The minds of men were inclined to the grave and national considerations that were involved in these investigations. The principles of political institutions, the rival claims of the two Houses of Parliament, the authority of the Established Church, the demands of religious sects, were, after a long lapse of years, anew the theme of public discussion. Men were attracted to a writer who traced the origin of the anti-monarchical principle in modern Europe; treated of the arts of insurgency; gave them, at the same time, a critical history of the Puritans, and a treatise on the genius of the Papacy; scrutinised the conduct of triumphant patriots, and vindicated a decapitated monarch. The success of this work was eminent; and its author appeared for the first and only time of his life in public, when amidst the cheers of under-graduates, and the applause of graver men, the solitary student received an honorary degree from the University of Oxford, a fitting homage, in the language of the great University, "OPTIMI REGIS OPTIMO VINDICI."
I cannot but recall a trait that happened on this occasion. After my father returned to his hotel from the theatre, a stranger requested an interview with him. A Swiss gentleman, travelling in England at the time, who had witnessed the scene just closed, begged to express the reason why he presumed thus personally and cordially to congratulate the new Doctor of Civil Law. He was the son of my grandfather's chief clerk, and remembered his parent's employer; whom he regretted did not survive to be aware of this honourable day. Thus, amid all the strange vicissitudes of life, we are ever, as it were, moving in a circle.
Notwithstanding he was now approaching his seventieth year, his health being unbroken and his constitution very robust, my father resolved vigorously to devote himself to the composition of the history of our vernacular Literature. He hesitated for a moment, whether he should at once address himself to this greater task, or whether he should first complete a Life of Pope, for which he had made great preparations, and which had long occupied his thoughts. His review of "Spence's Anecdotes" in the Quarterly, so far back as 1820, which gave rise to the celebrated Pope Controversy, in which Mr. Campbell, Lord Byron, Mr. Bowles, Mr. Roscoe, and others less eminent broke lances, would prove how well qualified, even at that distant date, the critic was to become the biographer of the great writer, whose literary excellency and moral conduct he, on that occasion, alike vindicated. But, unfortunately as it turned out, my father was persuaded to address himself to the weightier task. Hitherto, in his publications, he had always felt an extreme reluctance to travel over ground which others had previously visited. He liked to give new matter, and devote himself to detached points, on which he entertained different opinions from those prevalent. Thus his works are generally of a supplementary character, and assume in their readers a certain degree of preliminary knowledge. In the present instance he was induced to frame his undertaking on a different scale, and to prepare a history which should be complete in itself, and supply the reader with a perfect view of the gradual formation of our language and literature. He proposed to effect this in six volumes; though, I apprehend, he would not have succeeded in fulfilling his intentions within that limit. His treatment of the period of Queen Anne would have been very ample, and he would also have accomplished in this general work a purpose which he had also long contemplated, and for which he had made curious and extensive collections, namely, a History of the English Freethinkers.
But all these great plans were destined to a terrible defeat. Towards the end of the year 1839, still in the full vigour of his health and intellect, he suffered a paralysis of the optic nerve; and that eye, which for so long a term had kindled with critical interest over the volumes of so many literatures and so many languages, was doomed to pursue its animated course no more. Considering the bitterness of such a calamity to one whose powers were otherwise not in the least impaired, he bore on the whole his fate with magnanimity, even with cheerfulness. Unhappily, his previous habits of study and composition rendered the habit of dictation intolerable, even impossible to him. But with the assistance of his daughter, whose intelligent solicitude he has commemorated in more than one grateful passage, he selected from his manuscripts three volumes, which he wished to have published under the becoming title of "A Fragment of a History of English Literature," but which were eventually given to the public under that of Amenities of Literature.
He was also enabled during these last years of physical, though not of moral, gloom, to prepare a new edition of his work on the Life and Times of Charles the First, which had been for some time out of print. He contrived, though slowly, and with great labour, very carefully to revise, and improve, and enrich these volumes. He was wont to say that the best monument to an author was a good edition of his works: it is my purpose that he should possess this memorial. He has been described by a great authority as a writer sui generis; and indeed had he never written, it appears to me, that there would have been a gap in our libraries, which it would have been difficult to supply. Of him it might be added that, for an author, his end was an euthanasia, for on the day before he was seized by that fatal epidemic, of the danger of which, to the last moment, he was unconscious, he was apprised by his publishers, that all his works were out of print, and that their re-publication could no longer be delayed.
In this notice of the career of my father, I have ventured to draw attention to three circumstances which I thought would be esteemed interesting; namely, predisposition, self-formation, and sympathy with his order. There is yet another which completes and crowns the character,—constancy of purpose; and it is only in considering his course as a whole, that we see how harmonious and consistent have been that life and its labours, which, in a partial and brief view, might be supposed to have been somewhat desultory and fragmentary.
On his moral character I shall scarcely presume to dwell. The philosophic sweetness of his disposition, the serenity of his lot, and the elevating nature of his pursuits, combined to enable him to pass through life without an evil act, almost without an evil thought. As the world has always been fond of personal details respecting men who have been celebrated, I will mention that he was fair, with a Bourbon nose, and brown eyes of extraordinary beauty and lustre. He wore a small black velvet cap, but his white hair latterly touched his shoulders in curls almost as flowing as in his boyhood. His extremities were delicate and well-formed, and his leg, at his last hour, as shapely as in his youth, which showed the vigour of his frame. Latterly he had become corpulent. He did not excel in conversation, though in his domestic circle he was garrulous. Everything interested him; and blind, and eighty-two, he was still as susceptible as a child. One of his last acts was to compose some verses of gay gratitude to his daughter-in-law, who was his London correspondent, and to whose lively pen his last years were indebted for constant amusement. He had by nature a singular volatility which never deserted him. His feelings, though always amiable, were not painfully deep, and amid joy or sorrow, the philosophic vein was ever evident. He more resembled Goldsmith than any man that I can compare him to: in his conversation, his apparent confusion of ideas ending with some felicitous phrase of genius, his naïveté, his simplicity not untouched with a dash of sarcasm affecting innocence—one was often reminded of the gifted and interesting friend of Burke and Johnson. There was, however, one trait in which my father did not resemble Goldsmith: he had no vanity. Indeed, one of his few infirmities was rather a deficiency of self-esteem.
On the whole, I hope—nay I believe—that taking all into consideration—the integrity and completeness of his existence, the fact that, for sixty years, he largely contributed to form the taste, charm the leisure, and direct the studious dispositions, of the great body of the public, and that his works have extensively and curiously illustrated the literary and political history of our country, it will be conceded, that in his life and labours, he repaid England for the protection and the hospitality which this country accorded to his father a century ago.
D’Israeli, Isaac. Curiosities of Literature. Vol 1 (or 3). Ed. The Earl Of Beaconsfield [Benjamin Disraeli]. London: Frederick Warne and Co. and Bradbury, Agnew, & Co., 1881. Project Gutenberg web version [EBook #21615]. First released May 26, 2007; revised January 16, 2009. Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Janet Blenkinship and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, 1 December 2016.
Last modified 2 December 2016