Page images
PDF
EPUB

sanity. This notion is satisfactorily refuted by Sir D. Brewster; and, indeed, it had enough to contend with in the isolated triumphs by which Newton still showed the lion's claw in every problem with which he grappled, as well as in the ingenuity of his essays on prophecy, and his attempt at a systematic chronology. But it is not surprising that strange theories should be started to account for the premature close of so brilliant a scientific career. A little more attention to the indications afforded by his earlier history, of the steady, unintermittent thought by which he was accustomed to vanquish difficulties which no other mind could overcome, would have suggested the far more probable supposition, that Newton, the philosopher, died when Newton, the Master of the Mint, came into existence.

Perhaps even this was better than that the history of the life of the greatest of our philosophers should have closed with a tale of national neglect; but it is impossible to contrast the efforts made for the encouragement of science in other countries, with the total absence of any adequate provision in the country of Sir Isaac Newton, without some sense of shame. In exceptional instances, honour and wealth have been showered on the heads of distinguished discoverers; but what is needed in the interests of science, is a provision which shall enable the chief labourers in the field of discovery to pursue their studies without anxiety, and without the distraction of other duties; though it may be, and perhaps it would be better that it should be, without the temptations of over-abundant means. In Newton's case, the choicest intellect that the world possessed, was harnessed to the state and lost to science. In a thousand others, powers which would have been worthily devoted to the discovery of truth, have been thrown away in less congenial but more lucrative pursuits. A partial compensation for the want of more direct encouragement to the highest studies, is certainly found in the endowments of our Universities; and but for this resource Newton must probably have passed his life as the obscure cultivator of a narrow estate. Ample in amount as these endowments are, but fettered as they have been in times past by conditions which have impaired their usefulness, the marvel is, rather that so much scientific genius should have found a shelter within the walls of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, than that the rewards offered for youthful energy should have been commonly used as mere stepping-stones to professional preferment and distinction. It was only by a fortunate, though irregular exercise of the dispensing power assumed by the crown, that Newton was enabled to retain the emoluments on which he depended for subsistence during the period of his scientific activity. So precarious has been the 2 F provision

Vol. 110.-No. 220.

provision which our institutions have made for the cultivation of science, that even the life of our greatest philosopher cannot be read without reflecting how much it was due to fortune that the most brilliant of all the votaries of science was enabled to give one-half of his life to the pursuits for which nature destined the whole. In spite of such discouragements, and of the allurements of a more stirring life, men have seldom been wanting to maintain the honour of England in the race of discovery. But it is as true now as it always has been, that the country which exults in the triumphs of Sir Isaac Newton, does less than any other to foster the pursuits from which he won his imperishable fame.

In strange contrast to that fame is the almost total absence of any public manifestations in honour of the man who was venerated at once as the monarch of science, the glory of his country, and the vindicator of the national faith. His friends were permitted to erect a statue over his tomb in Westminster, and we owe to private munificence another statue placed in his own college; but we have to travel down to the immediate present to find a formal celebration of Newton's achievements. The erection of the Grantham memorial statue and the eloquent address which Lord Brougham delivered on the occasion-gracefully returning, after the struggles and the triumphs of so brilliant a political career, to contemplate the still grander arena of science, in which his own earliest honours had been won-made the absence of any earlier demonstration the more conspicuous. Whatever complacency England may have felt in the consciousness of having given to science the greatest of her worshippers has been cherished with an insular reserve which has filled foreigners with wonder. The quiet irony of a recent proposal to erect a memorial to Newton, to which the natives of all countries except England are invited to subscribe, has certainly not been undeserved.

Upon this subject we will quote the impressive words of the Grantham Address:

6

The inscription upon the Cathedral, masterpiece of his celebrated friend's architecture, may possibly be applied in defence of this neglect: "If you seek for a monument, look around." If you seek for a monument, lift up your eyes to the heavens which show forth his fame. Nor, when we recollect the Greek orator's exclamation, "The whole earth is the monument of illustrious men," can we stop short of declaring that the whole universe is Newton's. Yet in raising the statue which preserves his likeness near the place of his birth, on the spot where his prodigious faculties were unfolded and trained, we at once gratify our honest pride as citizens of the same state, and humbly testify our grateful sense of the Divine goodness which deigned to bestow upon our race one so marvellously gifted to comprehend the

works

works of Infinite Wisdom, and so piously resolved to make all his study of them the source of religious contemplations, both philosophic and sublime.'

But the partial tribute of a mere local memorial cannot discharge this long-neglected debt of the English people. England cannot do justice to herself except by rearing, in the Metropolis itself, a great and glorious monument, such as shall adequately express in the face of the world that the veneration in which the memory of Newton is held is no factitious sentiment, but a deep-seated national conviction.

ART. V.-Bell's Annotated Series of British Poets.* London, 29 Vols.

ORD MACAULAY'S maturer literary judgments are well entitled to attention; but English poetry amply refutes the dictum of his youth, that Poets, in the full force of the word, belong to the earliest stage in the development. of a nation. Even as regards Epic Poems, properly so called, we doubt whether it be true; and certainly, if we look to poetry, descriptive, lyrical, narrative, or didactic, the present century gives proof that this art, in Wordsworth's fine phrase, is the first and best of all knowledge-it is immortal as the heart of man.'

Yet although it may be confidently anticipated that no possible advance or probable change in the circumstances of our race will be fatal to the growth of this 'immortal amaranth,' there is no lover of poetry but will have been struck by the long and seemingly unaccountable intervals during which the vision has been withheld and the faculty powerless. There are nations, rich in the materials for poetry, that have waited during whole centuries, for the one true singer who should awake them from silence, by speaking to them a language which they at once have recognized as their own. Such was Italy when, after the attainment of no inconsiderable civilization, and after the prelusive strains of writers unable to make any definite step beyond their Provençal models, Dante gave in the Commedia' a masterpiece, of which his early poems afforded no anticipation at once, as Hallam observes, dispelling the fear that the Muses had withdrawn their gifts from modern Europe, and creating the poetry of the fair land where Si is in use. Such was Germany when, the first age of legend and love-song concluded, four hundred years went by before a nation gifted with

6

6

* The series, which is to extend to 50 volumes, is not yet completed.
2 F 2

the

the best poetical elements found its voice in Goethe and his fellow-poets. And such was our own country, when the noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks,' though latest in the race at starting, at one step went far beyond all her contemporaries, nor stayed her advance until she rivalled the glories of Periclean Athens. It is on some aspects of this subject, mainly lying in the first of the two great divisions of English poetry (from Chaucer to Milton), that we wish at present to comment. For we think that there are but two essential cycles; and that with the writers after 1660 begins what, although marked by very diverse phases, may be truly defined as the modern style.

6

Most readers will be aware of the reasons which made it natural that English poetry, after its splendid annunciation in the 'Canterbury Tales,' should languish during the century and half that intervened before its reappearance in the 'Faery Queen.' Nor is any deep historical reading needful to account in general terms for the approach to excellence made by Chaucer and by Spenser, or for the triumphant progress whose first stage was consummated in Paradise Lost.' We see at once that the years of barrenness were years of foreign and of civil warfare, ending in momentous political and religious convulsions, and that this period was preceded and was followed by the two long and brilliant reigns of Edward III. and Elizabeth. Many, perhaps most of the ages in which the higher forms of poetry have flourished resemble these reigns in the main features of national confidence and energy, arising from success abroad, and a rich and peaceful development of the resources of the country. The early epics of Greece, Germany, and the far North may indeed have been slowly evolved during the more tranquil and fortunate moments of many stormy centuries; but the features which we have enumerated are common, more or less, to the days of the first Ionic and Æolian minstrelsy; to those of the poets of Athens, Alexandria, and Rome; to the territories in which Dante and Petrarch, Ariosto and Tasso, spent their youth or their later years; to the Spain of Calderon, and the Germany of the poets between Wieland and Heine. Allowance made for the strange unlikeness of Oriental and Western civilization, the remark may, we believe, be extended to the age of Kalidas in India, of Firdusi and of Hafiz in Persia; of those writers, lastly, whose language, unfamiliar to European ears, is said by competent judges to conceal treasures of song almost worthy of the Paradise which tradition once placed within Arabia the Happy.

Whilst, however, a similarity exists between these poetical periods, a difference may be noted, dividing them in a certain

degree

degree into classes which we might call Creative and Retrospective. Human nature and human history never indeed really present broad lines of distinction: one age is always intertwined with the past, and prophetic of the coming; the old ever blended in the new, and the new anticipated in the old. But there have been creative ages, producing poets like Sophocles or Shakespeare; and ages like those to which Virgil and Horace, Tasso and Calderon belonged: when poets looked back with regret to the brilliant time that had preceded them, and to models from which they were unwilling to depart.

Applying these remarks to England, we think that Chaucer, rightly termed often the Morning Star of our poetical literature, towards his own age stood in an inverse relation. Before his own death in 1400, he had seen the succession to the Crown, so splendid and so secure at the era of Poitiers, first shaken by the premature death of the Prince, then destroyed by his son's incapacity; he had seen what he must have considered the virtual close of English sovereignty in western France; he had seen the first outbreak of that spirit of religious change which was hardly to sleep again until the gentle Prioress, who,

'Full well sang the service divine Entuned in hire nose full sweetely,'

6

-with monk and pardoner, and the whole rule of Seint Maure and of Seint Beneit,' were to become a tale that is told, and alive only in the brilliant colours of his immortal narrative. The reign of his great patron Edward III. was in fact the turningpoint of the middle ages in England; the half-artificial splendours of chivalry which emblazon it, and are reflected in the pages of his ambassador, stand in strange contrast, we know not whether more pathetic or more pitiful, with the stern questions raised, within a few months of the dreary death of the King in deserted Eltham, by the claims of Religion and of Labour-claims now first heard of together within the country which they have never since ceased to stir. That the poet shared in some portion of these new interests we know from the tradition which connects him with the Wickliffite tendencies of John of Gaunt. But his poetry embodies almost exclusively the spirit of his own younger days. The Anglo-French dialect of Chaucer, interspersed with Latinisms, which, like Milton, he failed to naturalize, was not aptly described as a well of English undefiled.' It is rather such chivalric English as Froissart might have employed, and within a century it was obsolete. Except in the rare passages of humour and of vivid description, which in style belong to no special age, the substance of his bulky volume refers as closely

6

to

« PreviousContinue »