Puslapio vaizdai
PDF
„ePub“

6

following sentences, which we consider to be almost unique. The first contains a simile which to us is utterly unintelligible—the other an elaborate confusion of metaphor, which nothing but the most patient ingenuity can unravel." In 1787,' says Mr Alison, Goethe, profound and imaginative, was reflecting on the destiny of man on earth, like a cloud which turns up its silver lining to the inoon."'-(vii. 103.) . In Linnæus she (Sweden) has for ever unfolded the hidden key by which the endless variety of floral beauty is to be classified, and the mysterious link is preserved between vegetable and animal life.'—(viii. 612*.)

Mr Alison does not wear his borrowed plumes with a better grace than his original ornaments. The following is an instance of a fine thought carelessly appropriated and thoroughly spoiled. The British Bard in Gray's famous ode speaks of the banners of his victorious enemy as - fanned by conquest's crimson wing.' Mr Alison has adorned a passage of his history with this easy and spirited metaphor; but he has most unskilfully transferred the ventilation from the banners to the minds of the conquerors, and assures us, that it is not while “ fanned by conquest's crimson 'wing," that the real motives of human conduct can be made ap

parent.'-(ix. 104.) A similar and still more painful example of bad taste is to be found in the very next page. All the springs, says he, which the world can furnish to sustain the fortunes of an • empire, were in full activity, and worked with consummate • ability ; but one (query three?) was wanting, without which, • in the hour of trial, all the others are but as tinkling brass-a

belief in God, a sense of duty, and a faith in immortality. The celebrated passage from which Mr Alison has here borrowed an illustration, is familiar to all our readers. It is that in which St Paul compares the eloquence of an idle declaimer to the tinkling of a cymbal. The original phrase is one of such admirable point and force as to have become almost proverbial. But how has its merit survived Mr Alison's appropriation ? He seizes on one half of the simile, severs it from the other, and tacks it to a new object with which it has no natural connexion whatever. Nothing can be more apt and lively than the comparison of unmeaning verbosity to the empty ringing of metal, as every one who studies Mr Alison's specimens of declamation will allow. But how does such a comparison express the inefficiency of a mechanical force ? For aught we know, a spring may be of brass, and of tinkling brass too, and yet be sufficiently strong and elastic. A better illustration, or a worse adaptation, of the apostle's forcible image, than the passage just quoted, we do not expect again to see.

Tedious self-repetition, the most inveterate fault of careless and declamatory writers, has been carried by Mr Alison to an almost unprecedented extent. We have neither space nor time to extract some of his digressions, in which the seltsame current of ideas is run through twice or thrice in various language. But the mere recurrence of favourite phrases cannot fail to strike and displease the most careless reader. The bow of Esop, the small black cloud of Elijah, the boon of Polypheme to Ulysses, together with numberless less remarkable allusions and expressions, are applied three or four times each, precisely under the same circumstances, and almost in the same words. Winds, waves, meteors, thunderbolts, earthquakes, and similar phenomena of all sorts, are constantly ready to be let loose upon the reader; nor, however frequently he may have sustained them, is he ever, for a single page, secure against their recurrence. As a proof that we have not exaggerated the frequency of this unpleasing practice, we must, in justice to ourselves, refer our readers to the first fifteen pages of Mr Alison's eighth volume; within which short space they will find no less than thirteen similes and illustrations drawn from light and colour, of which nearly one-half are crowded into twenty-five consecutive lines, and no less than four are expressed in the same identical phrase.

We do not think it necessary to apologise for having dwelt so long upon a subject which we have already admitted to be of secondary importance. If we believed that Mr Alison had failed in one branch of his history from real want of ability, we should have thought it ungenerous to mortify the author of a valuable and laborious work, by cavilling at the false taste of its embellishments. But we cannot imagine that this is the case. It is impossible that a man of Mr Alison's talents and knowledge should be deliberately blind to the defects and the nonsense we have been quoting. Most of these blemishes are such as a little reflection would induce a sensible schoolboy to strike out of his theme. We are apt to think that Mr Alison has neglected these parts of his work ; that he has sketched them when fatigued and excited by his labours ; and that he has left the first rough draught unaltered for publication. We are unwilling to deal harshly with such errors. There is something both striking and gratifying in the spectacle of a writer who is scrupulous of historical truth and justice, but negligent of his own literary fame—who lavishes that time and trouble in ascertaining his facts which he omits to employ in polishing his style. We are confident that Mr Alison might, with a little care and patience, correct more serious faults than those we have noticed ;

and shonld this prove to be the case, we shall not be sorry if we have made him feel a certain degree of regret for their commission.

As a military historian, Mr Alison has received general and merited applause. His narratives of warlike operations are well arranged, minute, and spirited; and display considerable scientific knowledge. He is particularly remarkable for the clear and accurate descriptions which he never fails to give of the situations in which the most important manœuvres of the war took place. His sketches are written with as much spirit as topographical knowledge; and he not only impresses on the memory the principal features of the scene of action, but generally succeeds in conveying a vivid picture of them to the imagination. He appears, indeed, to have been induced, by his strong interest in the subject, to visit most of Napoleon's fields of battle in person; and it is but just to say, that he has surveyed them with the feeling of an artist and the precision of a tactician.

The lively colouring of Mr Alison's descriptions of battles is, in general, as pleasing as the accuracy of the outline is praiseworthy. He has a strong and manly sympathy with military daring and devotion, which never blinds him to the sufferings inflicted by war, but which leads him to give warm and impartial praise to every brave action, by whichever party achieved. We might easily fill our pages with interesting extracts of this nature; but we must content ourselves with referring our readers to the work itself. There is scarcely an important victory of the war which Mr Alison has not related in the fullest detail, and with the strictest impartiality. We may also remark the successful art with which he occasionally pauses, in the most critical moment of a great battle, to remind his readers, by a word dexterously thrown in, of the mighty interests at stake. It is an artifice to which he has perhaps too freely resorted, but which he occasionally employs with marked effect.

Still, Mr Alison's finest descriptions are occasionally marred by the same faults which we have remarked in his political dissertations; by the same tendency to flights of poetical extravagance; the same wearisome repetitions; the same fow of sonorous verbosity. We forbear to recommence our reluctant strictures upon these faults of style; but there is a single error which we are unwilling to pass over, because we believe it to be peculiar to this branch of the narrative. We allude to the occasional substitution of the present for the past tense in the relation of events. It is one of the most unimpressive and unpleasing artifices which a writer can employ-rarely admissible in narrative poetry, scarcely ever in prose romance, and utterly inconsistent with the sober dignity of the historical style. Much of all this is, no doubt, to be attributed to the incorrectness of taste indisputably displayed by Mr Alison in many of the more impassioned passages of his work; but mych, we suspect, is owing to an injudicious and indiscriminate, though just and laudable, admiration for the genius of a rival historian.

Mr Alison frequently speaks with warm and generous applause of the ardent military eloquence which distinguishes the style of Colonel Napier. Nothing can be more handsomely expressed than this feeling; but we suspect that it has occasionally betrayed Mr Alison into unconscious, and not always happy, imitation. We appreciate as highly as any one the force and originality of the language employed by this great military historian. Among all his high qualities none is more conspicuous than the warmth and vigour of his narration. It is impossible not to feel animated by the fiery energy, and the graphic minuteness of his descriptions. But his most partial admirers will allow, that the more fanciful and brilliant peculiarities of his style, are such as must make all attempts at imitation difficult and dangerous to an unusual degree. Its fervent impetuosity occasionally overpowers even its master, and it is unlikely to prove more docile in less familiar hands. Colonel Napier's genius, if we may be pardoned the comparison, resembles those Indian figurantes described by Captain Mundy in his amusing sketches, whose chief difficulty is to restrain within graceful limits the superabundant suppleness and agility of their limbs. It is the luxuriant vivacity of the writer's imagination, and his unlimited command of pointed and original language, that occasion the principal blemishes in his style. And it is impossible to deny, that when he gives the rein to his fancy, it occasionally hurries him across the fatal step which separates the sublime, we will not say from the ridiculous, but assuredly from the quaint and grotesque.

We are far from accusing Mr Alison of caricaturing Colonel Napier's manner. We think his descriptions a softened, and in some respects an improved copy of those of his great original. But Colonel Napier's battle-pieces are in a style which will not bear softening—we had almost said, in a style which will not bear improvement. We know no description so appropriate to it as the quaint expression applied by Henry Grattan to Lord Chatham's oratory—that it was very great, and very odd.' Its eccentricity cannot be corrected without weakening its energy; it is either strikingly yet irregularly lofty, or it becomes tame, hollow, and exaggerated. With Colonel Napier himself the last is never the case. His faults are as racy and as characteristic as his beauties; and in his boldest offences against taste, his originality and vigour are conspicuous.

Still, this lively melodramatic style, even when most successful, is not that which we prefer for historical narrative. We are no very rigid advocates for what is called the dignity of history. We have no doubt that thousands of interesting facts have perished, never to be recovered, by the supercilious neglect of over formal historians. We would have all circumstances preserved which can add the least effect to the narrative, however trivial they may appear. But we do not see the advantage of ornamental descriptions, however striking in themselves, which comprise merely general and common-place particulars, such as could not but accompany the main facts related.

There is, surely, something unpleasing in seeing a historian, while recounting events which shook and terrified all Europe, glance aside to notice the trembling of the earth under a heavy cannonade, or the glittering of helmets in a charge of cavalry. We object to such fights, not because they are beneath the dig, nity of the narrative, but because they diminish the simplicity to which it must owe much of its awful effect; and because they can be far more imposingly supplied by the imagination of the reader. It is not by such rhetorical arts as these, that the great masters of history have produced their most successful effects. Thucydides has never once throughout his work departed from the grave and simple dignity of his habitual style. Yet what classical scholar will ever forget the condensed pathos and energy with which he has described the desolation of Athens during the pestilence, or the overthrow of the Syracusan expedition ? Froissart is a still more extraordinary instance. Without for a moment suffering himself to be raised above his ordinary tone of easy and almost childish garrulity, he has yet attained that chivalrous ardour of expression, which, to borrow the emphatic words of Sidney, stirs the heart like the sound of a trumpet.' What soldier ever read without enthusiasm his account of the battle of Crecy? Not, we are confident, Colonel Napier, whose warm and ready sympathy with the brave is one of his noblest qualities as a historian. The brilliant array of the French chivalry—the fierce gestures and fell cry' of the undisciplined Genoese - the motionless silence of the English archery—the sudden and deadly flight of arrows—the mad confusion of the routed army ;-all are painted with the life and vigour of Homer himself. And yet the chronicler has not employed a shade of fanciful colouring or poetical ornament--his whole narrative is full of the same simple and delightful naïveté with which he commends the innocence of the Black Prince's oaths; or cele

« AnkstesnisTęsti »