Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

There is an element in human nature, the hereditary, which letters might illustrate more conspicuously than they do, were it not that men with great gifts are, for the most part, singularly devoid of issue ; and even if there is some one to represent them in the generation next their own (which is the exception), there is generally no one in those succeeding. So it is with Shakespeare, Bacon, Newton, Milton, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Gibbon, Cowper, Macaulay, Mill, Carlyle, Voltaire, Rousseau, Goethe, Schiller, Pitt, Fox, Brougham, Huskisson, Cromwell, and Buonaparte; and, as observed by Denham-

Tho' Solomon with a thousand wives
To get a wise successor strives,
But one (and he a fool) survives.

Some one (Mr. Galton I think) has found an ingenious way of accounting for the early extinction of hereditary peerages. A peer can and does marry an heiress; an heiress is usually an only child; and the infecundity which she derives from her progenitors she devolves to her progeny. But I am not aware that any explanation has been given, or indeed any notice taken, of the non-existence or early dissolution of lineal descent in the case of the greatest philosophers, authors, politicians, poets, and conquerors of bygone centuries. In our own, however, we have two excellent examples of inherited attributes, in the one case of genius and poetic power descending to the children, in the other of wit descending to the grandchildren (for great gifts, like insanity and the gout, will sometimes skip one generation), the one the case of Coleridge, the other of Sheridan. Hartley Coleridge's inheritance is conspicuous in his poetry (whether in his letters I know not), his sister's in her letters, as well as in her other writings. The wit of the three granddaughters of Sheridan has been radiant in society, though it is Mrs. Norton's only which has been brought out to the world in books, and in them her poetic and other powers are more seen than her wit.

Of Lady Dufferin's wit, however, here is a specimen than which a better could not be desired :

Hampton Court: October 22. My dear Miss Berry,-I began a little note the other day to thank you for your kind remembrance of me and your coming so far to see me (which opportunity I was very sorry to have missed), but my note in the agitating agonies of packing up disappeared, and I had no strength of mind to begin another. My mother and I have returned to this place for a few days, in order to make an ineffectual grasp at any remaining property that we may have in the world. Of course you have heard that we were robbed and murdered the other night by a certain soft-spoken cook, who headed a storming party of banditti through my mother's kitchen window; if not, you will seet he full, true, and dreadful particulars in the papers, as we are to be had up' at the Old Bailey on Monday next for the trial. We have seen a great deal of life, and learnt a great deal of the criminal law of England this week,-knowledge cheaply purchased at the cost all my wardrobe and all my mother's plate. We have gone through two examinations in court: they were

very hurrying and agitating affairs, and I had to kiss either the Bible or the magistrate -I don't recollect which, but it smelt of thumbs. The magistrates seemed to take less interest in my clothes than in my mother's spoons,- I suppose from some secret affinity or congeniality which they were conscious of. “Similis gaudet'something—(I have lost my Latin with the rest of my property). When I say similis,' I don't so much allude to the purity of the metal as to its particular form.

I find that the idea of personal property is a fascinating illusion, for our goods belong in fact to our country, and not to us; and that the petticoats and stockings which I have fondly imagined mine, are really the petticoats of Great Britain and Ireland. I am now and then indulged with a distant glimpse of my most necessary garments in the hands of different policemen; but in this stage of the proceedings' may do no more than wistfully recognise them. Even on such occasions, the words of justice are, ‘Policeman B 25, produce your gowns;' • Letter A 36, identify your lace;' "Letter C, tie up your stockings.' All this is harrowing to the feelings ; but one

cannot have everything in this life; we have obtained justice and can easily wait for a cbange of linen. Hopes are held out to us that at some vague period in the lapse of time we may be allowed a wear out of our raiment—at least, su much of it as may have resisted the wear and tear of justice ; and my poor mother looks confidently forward to being restored to the bosom of her silver teapot. But I don't know ; I begin to look upon all property with a philosophic eye as unstable in its nature and liable to all sorts of pawnbrokers. Moreover, the police and I have so long had my clothes in common, that I shall never feel at home in them again. To a virtuous mind the idea that Inspector Dowsett examined into all one's hooks and eyes, tapes and buttons, &c., is inexpressibly painful. But I cannot pursue that view of the subject. Let me hope, dear Miss Berry, that you feel for us as we really deserve, and that you wish me well ó thro' my clothes,' on Monday next. . . . Yours very truly,

HELEN A. DUFFERIN."

Her name recalls to me a letter from Samuel Rogers, and her answer (shown me some forty years ago); and if there is no wit in it, as the word is commonly used, there is certainly brevity, which, according to Polonius, is the soul of wit.'

Mr. Rogers.— Will you dine with me on Wednesday ?
Lady Dufferin.- Won't I?

This is unpublished. That which follows is again from Miss Berry's correspondence :

Engaged, my dear Miss Berry, up to the teeth on Saturday, or should be too happy. It gives me great comfort that you are recovered. I would not have survived you. To precipitate myself from the pulpit of Paul 10 was the peculiar mode of destruction on which I had resolved.—Ever yours,

SYDNEY SMITH. Wit, in virtue of its brevity, and little traits of social intercourse, are more easily produced in letters than what is illustrative of professional life and character. Military and diplomatic correspondences are often interesting in their totality, but the interest is not easily producible in quotations. The context of circumstance is wanting

Journal and Correspondence of Viss Berry, edited by Lady Theresa Leris, vol. iii. p. 497.

10 He was Canon of St. Paul's at the date of the letter, Feb. 22, 1837.

The Duke of Wellington's dispatches are of course admirable in dealing with military men and measures, but they can only be appreciated by being read in succession. He could appreciate them himself, and avow it with characteristic frankness. The late Lord Aberdeen (from whom I heard it) repeated to the Duke what Lord Brougham had said,—that when one reads those dispatches, one sees how it is that there is only one great general in a century. To which the Duke replied, “By God, it is quite true; and when I read them myself I cannot conceive how I can ever have written them.'

Of his individual nature, apart from his profession, we know more through the Greville Memoirs than through his dispatches; but even in the dispatches we find from time to time tokens of his sagacity in the management of men, as well as in the management of campaigns. . He writes to an English Resident who found himself baffled by a perverse Spanish Junta : “ The less authority you claim the more you will have.' He is said to have studied Cæsar's Commentaries. Had he studied Tacitus also ? For Tacitus speaks of a German leader as auctoritate suadendi magis quàm jubendi potestate'?" There is another little incident, betokening a prudential shrewdness in the exercise of authority (in this instance military authority), which was told me by Mr. Greville (though not to be found in his memoirs, at least as hitherto published) on the authority of Lord Fitzroy Somerset. The army was in retreat, and having to cross a river, the Duke had given orders, the evening before the crossing, that one half should cross by a bridge and the other by a ford some miles further up. Early in the morning the Duke rode up to the ford, but found no troops ; and after waiting some time, as none came in sight, he rode back in dismay, thinking he had lost his army. He told Lord Fitzroy how it had happened. His generals of division had met in the morning, and finding that rain had fallen in the night, they had had the audacity to countermand the Duke's orders and pass the whole army over the bridge to the great peril of the rear. Lord Fitzroy expressed his astonishment. "And what did you say, sir ? 'he asked. “Oh, by God, it was too serious; I said nothing.'

In official dealings, the Duke is said to have held with too much firmness any position he had once taken up. I remember a remarkable letter from a rough, grand old general, Sir Lionel Smith, to whom he persisted in refusing certain moneys claimed as prize of war in an Indian city which had been captured. In spite of the evidence produced, the Duke chose to believe that the money had been removed before the capture ; and Sir Lionel, tired of producing arguments and evidence to no purpose, replied at last, with unofficial plain dealing :— My Lord Duke, you know in your own mind where the money was.' The Duke may have been unjust, but he was not ungenerous. Some time afterwards the Secretary of State for the Colonies was contemplating the appointment of Sir Lionel to a first-class government at a critical period, and wrote to the Duke for his opinion of him. The reply was that he was equal to any situation in which he could be placed.'

11 Germania, xi.

The letters diplomatic, when exclusively on business, stand as much in need of surroundings as the military. But here and there they are, or were in the last century, in the hands of some diplomatists, descriptive of the life of courts and the characters of sovereigns and statesmen.

The memoir of Hugh Elliot, by his granddaughter, the present Countess of Minto, is full of such descriptions, and no biography can be more brightly expressive of the time and the man; a man.compounded of many simples,'gay and gloomy, indolent and energetic, tender and cynical; with no ordinary gifts of understanding, which were from time to time of no use to him. For · Heaven is just,' says his biographer; “it gives to some the power of reasoning, and to others that of acting conformably to reason.'

When twenty-two years of age Elliot was Minister Plenipotentiary at the court of Munich, and when twenty-four at the court of Berlin in the latter days of Frederick the Great. The relations between Prussia and England were not altogether friendly, and the personal intercourse between Elliot and Frederick was very much the reverse; Frederick indulging in gibes and sneers but little disguised, and Elliot in skilfully equivocal retorts. A respectable minister of Frederick’s at the Court of St. James was recalled and replaced by a notoriously illconditioned fellow, merely to spite the English cabinet'; whereupon - What do they say

of - in London ?' asked Frederick, in a taunting tone. · Digne représentant de votre Majesté,' replied Elliot, bowing to the ground. This did not mend matters, and the King would not speak to Elliot at several successive levées. Elliot, highly indignant, was longing for an opportunity to be revenged, when, intelligence having arrived that Hyder Ali had made a successful inroad into the Carnatic, the King asked in a wicked way,

—M. Elliot, qui est ce Hyder Ali qui sait si bien arranger vos affaires aux Indes ?' • Sire,' replied Elliot, c'est un vieux despote, qui a beaucoup pillé ses voisins, mais qui, Dieu merci, commence à radoter.'

It was clearly time that Mr. Elliot should exercise elsewhere his peculiar gifts in dealing with despots, old or young, and he was transferred to Copenhagen.

In this position momentous events were awaiting him. In 1788 Sweden was invaded by an army of Danes and Russians, and was rescued by Elliot's prompt and determined interposition. Assuming on his own responsibility powers which he had no time to obtain from his Government, he dictated terms of peace to both potentates; and there can be little doubt that, in saving Sweden, he warded off an European war. The language he used was somewhat imperious, till

all was over ; and when such a tone was no longer essential to his purpose, there is something touching in the tone of deference and dignified humility with which he takes his leave. How often is it that a man's true nature is better seen in what he writes than in what he speaks! 12

Gothenburgh : 10th of November, 1788. Sire,—At the moment of my departure, deign to accept a few lines, dictated by the strongest feelings of respect, gratitude, and attachment. Forgive, Sire, the feelings of humanity. The memory of those moments in which, through an excess of zeal, I failed in respect to your Majesty, causes a flush to rise to my brow, and fills my soul with bitterness. Deign, Sire, to forget my errors, and suffer me, in leaving your kingdom, once more to speak the truth.

I think I foresee the consummation of a defensive alliance which would secure the tranquillity of your Majesty's states and that of the neighbouring countries. But one sacrifice is necessary; it is that of the miserable glory which a prince can only attain by the effusion of blood. A warrrior king depends for his reputation on the vulgar crowd, and must address himself to prejudices and ignorance to obtain the applause of a day, which the pen of the philosopher and the page of the historian often annul before death comes to enshroud the mortal faculties in the nothingness from which they came. Consult, Sire, the laws of the King of Kings, and acknowledge that the God of the universe is a God of peace.

There is a letter from Gustavus, acknowledging that he owes his crown to Elliot, and there was a lifelong friendship between them.

It is time to come to an end, but I have something to say about letter-writing at large, and something more about dispatches, whether military or diplomatic or other.

There are letters, chiefly of the eighteenth century, which might be better called epistles ; and many of this century which have been, and more which profess to have been, scribbled. And it is generally, and to a certain extent justly, assumed that the style should be governed by the theme, and by the relations, familiar or other than familiar, between the writer and his correspondent-I say to a certain extent justly; but I think there should be large allowances.

Familiar letters, it is said, to be admired should be written with ease and fluency. Such letters, for the most part, are not written to be admired ; and when read by others than those to whom they were written, as they often are, in volumes of correspondence posthumously published, ease and fluency alone will not make them acceptable. And when they are the letters of literary men, whether or not they may seem to have been fluently written, they will be valued for what does not often lend itself to fluency. Writers who have been occupied all their lives in the moulding and shaping of language, and have a love of it for its own sake, may be expected to write even their familiar letters in the spirit of that love and under the influence of the habits to which it has given birth. They will not, if they are wise, value their language above the thoughts it expresses, or for any admiration it may meet with; should they do so, it will be likely to lose its

12 The letter is in French. The translation is Lady Minto's.

« VorigeDoorgaan »