Page images
PDF
EPUB

but even

granted ; and where this is not possessed, it is to be obtained only by following our author through his discursive track of reading; and furnishing ourselves with those facts which are so familiar to him, that he forgets that they are not equally so to his readers. It is not enough simply to know such facts ; they must be completely wrought into our minds; almost every thing that belongs to the past and to the distant, not only the characteristic traits of a people, a country, or an age, the minutest forms of social life, and the evanescent colouring of social manners, are to be kept constantly present to our sight. This plan of writing, however it may fail in the production of immediate effect, where the associations of the reader are not sufficiently identified with those of the author, is yet attended with some indirect advantages, to those into whose hands his productions fall. The thirst for a full comprehension of what has once seized upon their imaginations, leads them often to studies of a graver at least, if not of a higher order ; and not a few, even of the lighter readers of romance, hasten from Kenilworth and the Abbot, to the sober memoirs of Aikin, or the severer histories of Robertson and Hume.

But it is in poetry that this propensity to the assemblage of various knowledge is most singularly displayed. It would seem to be a fair conclusion a priori,' that an art which speaks directly to the imagination and the passions, should have but little to do with associations that must transport us to other climes, and identify us with other nations, before we can feel the full effect of any one of its productions. We might think that it should take us as we are, or as we may be supposed to be ; that our attention should be arrested, and our sympathies excited by characters, occurrences and allusions not entirely unlike any thing we may ourselves have seen or heard of. It needs but a single glance, however, at the course of the most popular poets, to perceive how little this natural, and, as might be supposed, necessary principle, enters into their plans. One lays his scene in the times recorded by the earliest annalists of the Saxons, or takes the materials for the fabric of his muse from the venerable Josephus. Another transports us to the gorgeous East,' and accompanies every minute allusion in his fanciful tales by a note to show its propriety, according to the natural history or the mythology of the locus in quo of his luxuriant imagination. Another works up the romantic history of the vindication of Spanish liberty into one poem, makes the machinery of another out of the monstrous fables of Hindoo superstition, and stuffs it with sublimities which we must have learned to wor

ship three millions of Gods before we relish or even comprehend ; and another takes us on a pilgrimage along the whole shore of southern Europe; sweeps us through every period of the history of every people that we pass ; contemplates them as they were, as they are, as they might be ; reaches the region in which his own mind loves the best to linger; and when he has conjured up around each spot of it every association by which it is endeared and consecrated in the recollections of the enthusiast of ancient lore, leaves us (spell-bound' at last amid the clustering Cyclades.'

It is plain then, that, in the wide ramblings of a literature like this, .very little is to be found which is simply and purely national; and, to those who insist that in the creation of a native literature among ourselves, the subjects, the scenes, and the style must be exclusively American, the example of our intellectual mother may be pointed out, whose felicity in the

prole virum,' in the line of literary descent, will at least be conceded, whatever, in other respects, may be denied to her as a nation. We have not, like the early Italians, a language to redeem from the shackles of monkish barbarism, nor like the modern Germans, a new one to compound from the pure fount of original etymology. Formed, as we are, from a mixture of almost all the people of Europe, our national associations are necessarily few, and those few have not as yet entwined with them enough of the ferrugineæ flores antiquitatis,' to make them as sacred in our own eyes, as they will probably be in those of our posterity. Of the mummery of Aboriginal superstition, little can be learned, and of that little, it seems that nothing can be made ; of traditionary history we have hardly any that is of a romantic character. The belief in witchcraft which looks a little better for the purposes of the literary adventurer, was but local and temporary, and with its best appliances, would furnish but a poor substitute for the widely-spread submission of the soul of man to the empire of judicial astrology. But, we are remanded to Nature by the advocates of the domestic system ; we are told, and truly told, that our mountains tower as high, our forests spread as wide, our rivers flow as far, and our cataracts thunder as loud, as those of any country in the world ; and that we are abundantly furnished, at home, with all the materials of at least the highest order of descriptive poetry. Be it so ; but without the traditionary associations connected with the stronger features of Nature, even in the old world, what could be made of them ? As a single instance--could Lord Byron himself have sunk the sun to sleep so sweetly behind any cis-atlantic mountains, as behind the Delphian Cliff;' or could he have made the Queen of Night' assert her reign so majestically from any summit of America, as from the high Hymettus ?' It is the magic of association that fits every thing for the poets' hand; and at this moment, and it will perhaps be the case for years to come, more poetry is to be made out of the humblest hillock

upon

the surface of the long inhabited regions of the other continent, than out of the whole American chain of Apalaches, Alleganies and Andes.

Supposing it to be conceded then, that our materials, at least in the provinces of poetry and fiction, must be gathered from an extent as wide as that which has been laid under contribution by transatlantic genius; that we cannot be exclusive either in our subjects or our style; and that the path pursued by ourselves, although at first, perhaps, with unequal steps, must be essentially the same with that which has conducted our elder brethren in safety up the steeps of literary fame, the next question is, whether we are to go to the single people from whom we sprang, for our models, or whether we are to attempt to combine in the as yet unformed character of our national literature, the various excellencies of the established ones within our reach. This question can hardly be better answered in a more philosophical spirit, than a similar one has been by Sismondi, in relation to another country. “ fine ourselves to the study of our own literature alone, (allud“ing to that of France) is to remain in a condition of partial “knowledge. Those by whom it was created were influenced 6 by an inspiration which is now extinct; in their own hearts - they have discovered rules which they have never defined " even to themselves; their works have been examples of per"fect excellence in their kind, but examples are not to be " confounded with models, since models are for those alone 66 who doom themselves to the wretched trade of imitation ; 66 the critics who have succeeded them have discovered in “ their writings the natural direction of their minds, and, per"haps, of that of their nation ; they have shown by what course “these distinguished men have arrived at the effects which they “have produced, how any other course would have turned them “ aside from their aim ; what proprieties they have been dis“posed to preserve and have been able to dignify in the eyes “ of those for whom they exert their powers; they have thus “strengthened our prejudices, while they have shown us what " they are; and all that is requisite, is to beware how we con“sider the maxims with which they furnish us as essential to 66 the mind of man. Other distinguished men have written in " other languages; they have been the glory of other litera“tures ; they, too, have acted powerfully upon the soul, and “ have produced all the effects by which poetry and eloquence

66 To con* An Anniversary Discourse delivered before the Historical Society of New-York, on Saturday, December 6, 1823; showing the Origin, Progress, Antiquities, Curiosities, and Nature of the Common Law. By William Sampson, Esq. New-York. 8vo. pp. 68. 1824.

are uniformly accompanied. Let us study the manner of " these authors; let us judge of them, not by our own rules, “but by those which they themselves have followed ; let us “ learn to separate what belongs to the intellectual character “ of a nation from what belongs to that of the species ; let us 5 raise our views to a height that may enable us to distinguish " those precepts which spring from the fountain of beauty, and

are common to all languages, from those which are gathered “ from great examples, sanctioned by habit, vindicated by talent, " and supported by their apparent fitness, but which have, “among other nations, yielded to other rules, adapted to other “modes of thinking and other perceptions of fitness, sanction6 ed by other examples, and justified by reasonings no less “subtle, and an analysis no less profound.”

Little else can be needed to show the advantages that might be derived in the improvement of a national literature from the prosecution of it with views as liberal and extensive as those which are here disclosed ; and a portion of the pages of this Magazine will be regularly devoted to some humble efforts in this direction, by presenting, from time to time, such sketches and specimens of writers in other languages of stationary and deserved celebrity as may, it is hoped, awaken the curiosity and excite the emulation of the few arnong us, who are, or may become aspirants to similar distinctions.

THE COMMON LAW.

Counsellor Sampson, in a Discourse* delivered before the New-York Historical Society, has made a violent attack upon the common Law, which he has denounced as a foolish and absurd system, engendered in the superstitious brains of the barbarous Saxons, reverenced with blind infatuation through successive ages, and altogether unworthy of the present enlightened generation. This, it must be confessed is a heavy charge ; and if one tenth part of the abuse lavished upon the Common Law be deserved, then indeed were our ancestors most egregious fools; and we, their worthy descendants, if we continue to uphold that rotten fabric, deserve to be branded as the degenerates sons of degenerate sires. But if, on the other hand, it should appear, that this learned Discourse, from beginning to end, is a tissue of specious sophistry, and that the Common Law, which the Pilgrims brought with them from the shores of England, and which our fathers considered so rich a legacy, as to incorporate it into our present form of government, in truth merits the high encomiums that have been passed upon it by some of the wisest and greatest of men,-if it can be prov. ed that under this system of Law we have enjoyed unexampled prosperity, and happiness, and liberty, then our admiration of the reformer will abate; and we will begin to think that the learned Counsellor has been fighting with a phantom conjured up by his own ardent imagination. It is an easy thing to call hard names.

But it should ever be remembered that satire is not argument. In discussing, therefore, the opinions of Counsellor Sampson, whatever may be our admiration of the scintillations of his wit, and the bright embellishments of his fancy, it is our duty to strip his sentiments of their gaudy appendages, and bring them naked to the infallible test of truth.

The most striking fault of the Discourse before us, is its want of order and method. It is entirely destitute of that “ lucidus ordo,” which characterises the writings of all profound thinkers; and is written, to say the least of it, in a very unphilosophical spirit. So far as we can understand it, the object of the work seems to be, to do away the Common Law entirely, and to substitute in its place a code of written reason. Like most pretended reformers, however, our author takes care not to propose a system of his own; but merely contents himself with indulging in a vein of satirical remarks upon what he considers the absurdities of that system which he has chosen to decry.

* The Discourse purports to be “ an account of the Origin, Progress, Antiquities, Curiosities and Nature of the common Law !!" How far this is accomplished, we shall perceive as we advance.

Quid dignum tanto feret hic promissor hiatu ?

After a brief introduction, our learned author affects to regret that our students of law are obliged to enter the temple, " through the vestibule of the Commentaries of Sir William

66

« PreviousContinue »