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THIRD SERIES, NO. IX.-WHOLE NUMBER, LXV.'
LIFE AND WRITINGS OF JOHN FOSTER.
By Rev. GEORGE B. CHEEVER, D. D., New York.
The Life and Correspondence of John Foster: Edited by J. E.
Ryland. With notices of Mr. Foster as a Preacher and a Companion, by JOHN SHEPPARD, Author of “ Thoughts on Devotion," etc., etc. In two volumes. New York, Wiley & Putnam, 161 Broadway, 1846.
GEOLOGISTS tell us somewhat quaintly, that great and inexhaustible springs are found in connection with what they call faults, that is, breaks in the continuity of the rocks. There must be these breaks in the strata, and if it were not for this benevolent arrangement of Providence, there had been neither running fountains nor rivers, but sluggish stagnant pools. A powerful spring is not to be found but in connection with the existence of a great fault. The despotic crust of the earth must be broken up, before its living fountains of waters can gush in freedom to the surface. There is an instructive analogy in all this.
An Ecclesiastical Despotism would keep the intellectual and moral world without faults, that is, without freedom: it would circle the globe with the dead, hard, rocky crust and tetter of an enforced religious uniformity : it would have no spontaneous, powerful springs breaking out and running freely to the ocean. But God's benevolent power interposes, and breaks up the despotic continuity, and gives us springs. The strata of establishments being pierced and rent, there are no longer stagnant pools, but deep, living fountains. THIRD SERIES, VOL. III. NO. I.
The analogy might be extended into something like an argument for the necessity and usefulness of various denominations in the Church of Christ. These things are not necessarily the result of sectarianism, but of freedom ; and God makes use of these faults, even if we admitted them to be, not merely in the geological, but moral sense of the term, faults,-for the production of vastly greater good than ever there could have been without them. They are not faults, but blessings; and though men may abuse them, they are the assurance and the safeguard of spiritual freedom.
Of the English minds that have departed from our world within a few years, none have excited a deeper interest, or wielded for a season a loftier power, than John Foster and Robert Hall. They were both triumphant instances of the superiority of intellect, and the homage that will be paid to it, over all circumstance and mere external distinction. One of the most obvious reflections that rises in the mind of a thoughtful observer of the greatness and power of such intellect, after the first analysis and admiration of its elements, may be that it was a possession and result of what is called the voluntary system. These men were two of the “Intellectual Incas" of their race. In the two together, there were combined nearly all the grand qualities that ever go to make up minds of the highest order : severity and aflluence, keenness and magnificence, simplicity and sublimity of thought; ruggedness, power, and elaborate beauty and exquisiteness of style; precision and splendor of language; condensed energy, fire, and diffusive richness of imagination ; originality, independence, and perfect classical elegance; comprehensiveness and accuracy; nobleness of feeling, intense hatred of oppression, Christian humility, childlike simplicity.
And yet there were greater differences between them than there were similarities. In some respects their minds were of quite an opposite mould. Hall's mind was more mathematical than Foster's, and he was distinguished for his power of abstract speculation, and his love and habit of reasoning. The tenor of Foster's mind was less argumentative, but more absolute, more intuitive, more rapidly and thoroughly observant.
The impression of power is greater from the mind of Foster than of Hall. On this account, and for its eminently suggestive properties, Foster's general style, both of thinking and writing, is much to be preferred; though Hall's has the most sustained and elaborate beauty. Yet the word elaborate is not strictly applicable to Hall's style, which is the natural action of his mind, the movement, not artificial, nor supported by effort, in which his thoughts arranged themselves with the precision and regularity of a Roman cohort. Hall's was a careful beauty of expression, his carefulness and almost fastidiousness of taste being a second nature to him; Foster's was a careless mixture of ruggedness and beauty, the ruggedness greatly predominating. Hall's style is too constantly, too uniformly regular; it becomes monotonous; it is like riding or walking a vast distance over a level macadamized road; a difficult mountain would be an interval of relief. We feel the need of something to break up the uniformity, and startle the mind; and we would like here and there to pass through an untrodden wilderness, or a gloomy forest, or to have some unexpected solemn apparition rise before us. There is more of the romantic in Foster than in Hall, and Foster's style is sometimes thickset with expressions, that sparkle with electric fire of imagination.
Hall's mind, in the comparison of the two, is more like an inland lake, in which you can see, though many fathoms deep, the clear white sand, and the smallest pebbles on the bottom. Foster's is rather like the Black Sea in commotion. Hall gives you more of known truth, with inimitable perspicuity and happiness of arrangement; Foster sets your own mind in pursuit of truth, fills you with longings after the unknown, leads you to the brink of frightful precipices. There is something such a difference between the two, as between Raphael the sociable angel, relating to Adam in his bower, the history of creation, and Michael, ascending with him the mountain, to tell him what shall happen from his fall.
Hall's mind is like a royal garden, with rich fruits, and overhanging trees in vistas; Foster's is a stern, wild, mountainous region, likely to be the haunt of banditti. As á preacher, Hall must have been altogether superior to Foster in the use and application of ordinary important evangelical truth, “for reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness." But Foster probably sometimes reached a grander style, and threw upon his audience sublimer illustrations and masses of thought. Foster was not successful as a preacher; his training and natural habits were unfortunate for that; and the range of thought, in which his mind spontaneously moved, was too far aloof from men's common uses, abilities of perception, tastes and disposition. But Hall was doubtless one of the greatest preachers that ever lived. Yet there were minds that would prefer Foster, and times at which all the peculiar qualities of his genius would be developed in a grander combination of sublimity and power. As a general thing, Hall must have been more like Paul preaching at Athens in a Roman toga ; Foster, like John the Baptist in the wilderness, with a leathern girdle about his loins, eating locusts and wild honey. He speaks of one of his own sermons, which a man would give much to hare heard; we can imagine some of its characteristics. It was on the oath of the angel, with one foot upon the sea, and another on the land, swearing that Time should be no longer; and his own mind was in a luminous, winged state of freedom and fire, that seems to have surprised' himself; but no record of the sermon is preserved.
The vigor and uptwisting convolutions of Foster's style are the
results simply of the strong workings of the thought, and not of any, elaborate artificial formation. For though he labored upon his sentences with unexampled interest and care, after his thoughts had run them in their own original mould, they were always the creation of the thought, and not a mould prepared for it. The thought had always the living law of its external form within it. We know of scarce another example in English literature, where so much beauty, precision, and yet genuine and inveterate originality are combined. It is like the hulk of a ship made out of the smoothed knees of knotty oak.
There is a glow of life in such a style, and not merely quiet beauty, whether elaborate or natural, that is like the glow in the countenance of a healthy man, after a rapid walk in a clear frosty morning. But it sometimes reminds you of a naked athletic wrestler, struggling to throw his adversary, all the veins and muscles starting out in the effort. Foster's style is like the statue of Laocoon writhing against the serpent : Hall's reminds you more of the Apollo of the Vatican. The difference was the result tense effort with which Foster's mind wrought out and condensed, in the same process, its active meditations. Everywhere it gives you the impression of power at work, and his illustrations themselves seem to be hammered on the anvil. It gives you the picture he has drawn of himself, or his biographer for him, in the attitude of what he called pumping. At Brearly Hall, he used to try and improve himself in composition, by " taking paragraphs from different writers and trying to remodel them, sentence by sentence, into as many forms of expression as he possibly could. His posture on these occasions was to sit with a hand on each knee, and moving his body to and fro, he would remain silent for a considerable time, till his invention in shaping his materials had exhausted itself. This process he used to call pumping.". Foster's style is the very image of a mind working itself to and fro, with inward intensity.
The characteristics of power and rugged thought in Foster, are admirably set forth in some of his own images. Speaking in his journal of a certain individual's discourse, he says, he has a clue of thread of gold in his hand, and he unwinds for you ell after ell, but give me the man who will throw the clue at once, and let me unwind it; and then show in his hand another ready to follow.”
He speaks of the great deficiency of what may be called conclusive writing and speaking. “How seldom we feel at the end of the paragraph or discourse, that something is settled and done. It lets our habit of thinking and feeling just be as it was. It rather carries on a parallel to the line of the mind, at a peaceful distance, than fires down a tangent to smite across it.” Foster always smote across the mind.
“ Many things,” says he, “may descend from the sky of truth,