« ZurückWeiter »
service to the reading world, and not unlikely to deter other zealots from a like offence. But there is no element of persuasion in the style which Mr. Gilfillan has adopted. We have as little taste for Mr. Neale's improvement of Bunyan as Mr. Gilfillan himself; but why should our critic substitute personal abuse for definite exposure? There is, surely, no more wit than charity in his exclamation: "O, J. M. Neale! thou miserable ninny, and bigot of the first magnitude!" Such a pitiful want of temper was never aggravated by such a plentiful lack of taste. Even the haste and warmth of composition can never justify the use of such unworthy language; but what must we think of the judgment which deliberately transfers it from the loud oblivion of a popular Scottish serial to the region of serene and settled literature? If Mr. Gilfillan could have shown his author to be a ninny and a bigot, he might have kept clean lips, and spared to insult the criminal whom it was his duty only to convict.
This is not an occasional fault of Mr. Gilfillan. None of his faults, indeed, are so. They are repeated with tiresome iteration; and there is as little variety in his actual blemishes as in his intended beauties. So thickly do these abusive epithets occur in Mr. Gilfillan's pages, that we grow accustomed, if not reconciled, to them. But sometimes a background of charming delicacy brings out this favourite figure into strong relief. On the very page, for instance, where he rebukes a northern journalist for calling the late Mr. Hazlitt "an ass," he pronounces a certain living critic, whom he points out by no uncertain name, to be an " ape of the first magnitude!"
When Mr. Gilfillan's page is unusually free from these rhetorical displays, we are admitted to a glimpse of his ordinary style, forming the background of these striking pictures. This level composition, as it comparatively is, may be fairly described as frivolous in substance, and very loose and feeble in expression. What makes this wretched manufacture more contemptible, is the contrasted dignity of his pretended theme. We have, for example, a series of papers under the title of "A Constellation of Sacred Authors." It is rather, however, as sacred orators that Mr. Gilfillan treats Chalmers, and Hall, and Irving, although, by selecting this method, he is able to furnish only second-hand descriptions. It is questionable, we have always thought, how far the characteristic and comparative merits of great pulpit celebrities, even when they have departed from us, may be canvassed with advantage and propriety. But it is certain that Mr. Gilfillan's treatment of these subjects is open to the strongest objections. His lightest fault is trivial gossiping, which can have no rational bearing on the theme proposed. A sober estimate of the ministerial gifts of the orator, and of the peculiar manner of their development and exercise, is
the most removed from the range of our critic's power; but it is also that which he is least desirous to supply. The paper on "Robert Hall" may be instanced as in striking contrast with the dignity and power of that great man's genius; it is weak and unworthy to the last degree. Of the truth of this censure we will enable the reader to judge for himself. After assuring us that the essay is meant as a "calm and comprehensive view" of Mr. Hall's "real characteristics, both in point of merit, of fault, and of simple deficiency," our critic proceeds in the manner following :
"We labour, like all critics who have never seen their author, under considerable disadvantages. Knowledge is power.' Still more, craving Lord Bacon's pardon, vision is power. Cæsar said a similar thing when he wrote, Vidi, vici.' To see is to conquer, if you happen to have the faculty of clear, full, conclusive sight. In other cases, the sight of a man whom you misappreciate, and, though you have eyes, cannot see, is a curse to your conception of his character. You look at him through a mist of prejudice which discolours his visage, and even, when it exaggerates, distorts his stature. Far otherwise with the prepared, yet unprepossessed, look of intelligent love."
Very curious is the jumble of ideas in this short passage. No man accustomed to accuracy of thought or language could have so hopelessly confounded ordinary sight with mental appreciation. And then, what an improvement of Lord Bacon's apophthegm! what an interpretation of Cæsar's famous boast! That Mr. Gilfillan should pronounce the "look of intelligent love" to be "prepared," yet at the same time "unprepossessed,” is an attempt at exquisite refinement which we cannot recommend him to repeat: his forte is quite in the opposite direction. After a full page of this material, in which our critic's entanglement is every moment frightfully increased, a sudden effort brings him to his immediate theme; and the character of Robert Hall is set forth in this edifying manner :—
"We have met with some of those who have seen and heard him talk and preach, and their accounts have coincided in this,-that he was more powerful in the parlour than in the pulpit. He was more at ease in the former. He had his pipe in his mouth, his tea-pot beside him, eager ears listening to catch his every whisper, bright eyes raining influence on him; and under these various excitements he was sure to shine. His spirits rose, his wit flashed, his keen and pointed sentences thickened, and his audience began to imagine him a Baptist Burke or a Johnson Redivivus, and to wish that Boswell were to undergo a resurrection too. In these evening parties he appeared, we suspect, to greater advantage than in the mornings, when Ministers from all quarters called to see the lion of Leicester, and tried to tempt him to roar by such questions as, 'Whether do you think, Mr. Hall, Cicero or Demosthenes the greater orator ?' 'Was Burke the author of Junius?' 'Whether is Bentham or Wilber,
force the leading spirit of the age ?' &c., &c. How Hall kept his gravity or his temper under such a fire of queries, not to speak of the smoke of the half-putrid incense amid which it came forth, we cannot tell. He was, however, although a vehement and irritable, a very polite, man; and, like Dr. Johnson, he loved to fold his legs, and have his talk out.' Many of his visitors, too, were really distinguished men, and were sure, when they returned home, to circulate his repartees, and spread abroad his fame. Hence, even in the forenoons, he sometimes said brilliant things, many of which have been diligently collected by the late excellent Dr. Balmer and others, and are to be found in his Memoirs."
We have no space for further extract of this sort; but we can assure the reader that there is nothing better than this foolish and unprofitable gossip in Mr. Gilfillan's "clear and comprehensive view" of Robert Hall. Equally void of useful knowledge and just discrimination are the essays on Dr. Chalmers and Edward Irving. They only derive the most transient interest from the misappropriation of these great names, which run the greatest risk of disenchantment from such popular degradation and abuse. Let the reader judge—we alter our resolution to enable him to do so of the qualifications of a critic who could write, and print, and publish, and re-publish an estimate of ministerial character commencing in this style :
"It is now ten years since we, attracted by the tidings that a live Leeds lion had reached a norland town, hurried away (breaking an engagement on the road) to hear Dr. Hamilton preach. It was
a Sabbath evening. We had previously read and re-read his first volume of sermons, (besides having had the pleasure of often hearing him quoted, without acknowledgment, by aspiring sprigs in divinity, in academies, pulpits, &c.,) and had heard a great deal that was curious and contradictory about his character and habits. There appeared before a tolerably large audience a man rather above than under the middle size in stature, dressed very carefully in clerical costume, with a brow not at all remarkable for either height, breadth, or expression; with eyes completely sunk in spectacles; with a cheek, like a baker's, pale with fat; and with a huge round Sir-John-Falstaff corporation,— so much so, that, like the immortal Will Waddle,—
'He look'd like a tun,
Or two single gentlemen roll'd into one.""
Nothing but a strong sense of duty to society could possibly induce us to transfer this degrading language to our columns; and if it excite an involuntary feeling of disgust, it is all that we can either expect or desire.
We cannot pretend to challenge all the questionable verdicts of this book, nor to point out a tithe of its literary faults; and having little hope of Mr. Gilfillan's improvement, we shall glance at some of his more prominent peculiarities rather with a view to the reader's profit than his own. If we should not be able to
Titans, Colossi, Boanerges, Bonaparte, &c.
preserve throughout a tone of serious remonstrance, the fault will not be ours; and, in the end, we will endeavour to make some amends by eliciting the moral of the whole.
Let us instance, in the first place, our author's style of panegyric. Marked though it is by considerable novelty and boldness, we cannot bring ourselves to relish it. Always profuse, it is often strangely misapplied, and much too frequently profane. Other critics think it needful to give praise in detail, measure, and proportion; but Mr. Gilfillan finds it more convenient to throw it by the lump, and often it falls upon the wrong person, and always it alights with damaging effect. Modest, reputable men, who naturally shrink from being forced into comparison with famous, lofty, and even sacred worthies, may well fear to attract the admiration of our author. Mr. Isaac Taylor is here pronounced "a Christian Colossus;" Edward Irving, a "Titan among Titans, a Boanerges among the Sons of Thunder." When the latter preaches in the Caledonian chapel, "it is Isaiah or Ezekiel over again, uttering their stern yet musical and poetic burdens." The imagery and language of the former is nothing less than "barbaric pearl and gold." "Bulwer has made out his claim to be the Milton of novelists." Disraeli "bears a striking resemblance to Bonaparte." The poem of " Balder" is "a wilderness of thought, -a sea of towering imagery and passion." There is much more of the same discriminating kind, as we shall presently discover. In the meantime we are spared the trouble of characterizing this style of panegyric by our author himself, who, in two or three sentences of this volume, generously gives us the key to all the rest. Thus we read, (on page 237,) "False or ignorant panegyric is easily detected. It is clumsy, careless, and fulsome; it often praises writers for qualities they possess not, or it singles out their faults for beauties, or, by overdoing, overleaps itself, and falls on the other side." This is said by our author without a remorseful twinge,-with all the oblivious calmness of a lucid interval.
But Mr. Gilfillan tells us, "he is nothing if not critical." Unfortunately he cannot qualify his wholesale adulation without stultifying himself. In one little sentence he will snatch back all the laboured and pompous praise he has bestowed, and slap the receiver's face into the bargain. Thus, after having encouraged one of our young poets with outrageous eulogy, he quietly lodges this little stone in the other pocket: "Many of his passages would be greatly improved by leaving out every third line." If this censure be honest, what must be the value of the praise that went before? The fact, of course, is, that the poet did not merit either one or the other; and we hope he may be able to despise them both.
Of epithet and expletive there is no lack in Mr. Gilfillan's
page. Indeed, it is here more plentiful than choice, and more prominent by far than pleasing. It would be very idle, however, to regret the absence of that measured nice propriety of phrasethe warp of language fixing the woof of thought-which is the inwoven and enduring charm of every literary fabric. It is far more natural, under the circumstances, to wish that our critic's single epithets were a trifle more appropriate, and that their combinations did not utterly defy appreciation. We can only afford to give a solitary specimen of this peculiarity: it must therefore be one of the compound kind, and useful as a Chinese puzzle on a winter's evening. Who, then, but Mr. Gilfillan could have found terms to praise "the glowingly acute, gorgeously clear, and dazzlingly deep criticisms of poor Hazlitt?" The reader who derives from this description any definite idea of Mr. Hazlitt's literary character, is worth knowing; and we should be proud to make his acquaintance.
The language of illustration and metaphor forms a still larger element in our author's composition. Perhaps his particular admirers and possibly the hero himself, in an unguarded moment of self-dalliance-would say his strength resides in these abundant flowers of speech, as Samson's in his profuse and curling locks. We do him then peculiar justice in pointing attention to a number of these tropes.
So incongruous are our author's figures-so frequently and unaccountably changed in the course of a single sentence-that when a really just reflection escapes him, it is either distorted or destroyed by the very language intended to give it force. The following is a striking instance of this fault :
"For too often we believe that high genius is a mystery and a terror to itself; that it communicates with the demoniac mines of sulphur as well as the divine sources; and that only God's grace can determine to which of these it is to be permanently connected; and that only the stern alembic of death can settle the question, to which it has on the whole turned, whether it has really been the radiant angel or the disguised fiend."
We are puzzled to conceive how an author so practised as Mr. Gilfillan could have deliberately written the last clause of this sentence; and are compelled to conclude that practice alone does not certainly make perfect. The "stern alembic" is positively a new idea. Yet it is not difficult to match the foregoing extract by referring to the same source:
"If Mr. Massey comes (as we trust he shall) to a true belief, it will corroborate him for every trial and every sad internal and external experience; and he will stand like an Atlas above the ruins of a world, -calm, firm, pensive, but pressing forwards and looking on high."
The allusion to Atlas is here peculiarly unfortunate, as that mythological personage is supposed to have stood below a world which was not in ruins, and in an attitude quite inconsistent