Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

most popular, of our writers of fiction-a victim, as notoriously as Scott, to the same lavish prodigality of intellectual power. He was qualified to delight and instruct, just as Addison and his contemporaries had done, with refined criticism on the world and its ways, and with fiction, intermingling sentiment and fantastic humour in a manner which few essayists or novelists, very few English-have approached. He was not qualified or rather he was too highly endowed for so paltry a purpose -to feed the reading multitude with periodical doses of incident worked up to a crisis for the first day of every month. He knew that the task was unworthy of him; that he was of too

n delicate fibre to continue it; but it was that which Fate had set him to do. It was his living, and he could not dispense with it And the sense of this incompatibility, the nightmare feeling that nothing was in prospect for him except the perpetual task of drawing on mental resources which he felt or fancied were failing him, overwrought the brain, and through it the bodily powers. And now another has been added to the catalogue, whose fate was even more singular and less accountable, on ordinary principles, than theirs; and yet, perhaps, still more instructive. For this last was a man in whom the elements of longevity seemed, as far as a superficial observer might guess, so well met and balanced as to satisfy the most hopeful prognostics. His stalwart frame of body, kept in condition by constant exercise, was sustained-so at least ordinary observers judged of him --by an even and cheerful disposition, taking an interest in many things, and over-excited about none. He seemed to have few worldly anxieties of the engrossing kind : he had early made an ample fortune, for one of his tastes and desires, and was superior to the mere craving for more. sperity for the sake of the healthy enjoyments of life, which no man relished more than he; but he had no passion for its superfluities, no wild desire after the imaginary greatness of a fortune or a name. No one was better qualified to estimate these things at their true worth, free equally from the extremes of the ascetic and the ambitious. Sensitive, yet not over-sensitive to the public judgment, he seemed to enjoy his literary triumphs without any jealous craving for adulation or dread of neglect. Such he appeared to ordinary eyes--we speak under correction of those who knew him better than ourselves--and yet he had exhausted his vital powers at sixty. He too died, as we suppose, of an overwrought brain, not aggravated by anxiety, or by any morbid tendencies of the mind, but simply because the machine refused any longer to execute the incessant and trying work imposed upon it. The constant VOL, CXXXII. NO. CCLXX.

OO

He valued pro

[ocr errors]

stretch of the inventive faculties, in the endeavour to produce incessant novelties for the market, wore him down. And yet the habit had so grown on him that he could not dispense with the enervating task, any more than the opium-eater can with his stimulant.

From this special temptation to over-exertion, deteriorating at once the quality of the produce and the faculties of the producer, the wits of Queen Anne's age were, as we have said, happily free. The literary El Dorado of modern London and Paris was not open to them, nor dreamt of in their wildest conceptions; and the result was that, when they were so minded, they could indulge for a time in healthy idleness, and maintain their abilities in good condition by a judicious economy. They were short-lived, however, for the most part. They lived .fast, after the fashion of the comrades with whom they kept company, and rashly expended bodily, if not mental vigour. Intemperance was almost a recognised habit, not only of Grub Street, but of literary saloons. Addison, according to his enemies, died of brandy. Poor Steele's slow paralysis ' doubtless had a similar origin. Parnell drank himself out of the world through grief at the loss of his wife; thus dying, as Goldsmith oddly phrases it, in a certain sense a martyr to conjugal fidelity.' And, moreover, the then fashionable notions of dietetics and physical self-treatment in general were perverse to the last degree. No mere literary man of celebrity under Queen Anne attained a great age; only Swift and De Foe reaching that of seventy ; in which respect their case differed widely from that of their contemporary Struldbrugs in France.

There was, however, one eminent writer of the period who might serve as the prototype of the prolific, versatile, indefatigable class of slaves to the press whom modern facilities of production have created. This was De Foe, whose extraordinary fertility of composition and powers of labour, combined with a genius so exceptional and solitary as his, render his life a riddle in his literary, as it assuredly is in his political cha

Lord Stanhope does him scant justice when he rates him far indeed above' such writers as · Oldmixon, full of * party zeal, but little distinguished by ability, and not at all ' by truth ;' but below, if we understand him rightly, the rank of Steele and Prior. In mere effectiveness, and the art of telling home-truths, or what were wished to pass as such, we should place him very far above either of those showy gladiators. But his careless, desultory, as well as inaccurate style, the result of constant writing against time and for daily bread, no doubt placed him at a great disadvantage in the eyes of the

6

6

6

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

6

polished world, and permitted Swift—the only contemporary whose original genius equalled or surpassed his own—to call him a “stupid illiterate scribbler,” “the fellow that was pilloried, 'I have forgotten his name,' without animadversion from his readers. About this time,' says Sir Walter Scott--namely, in 1710—he, ' De Foe, had written down his own reputation.' How he had written it down' may be conjectured from the amount of toil which at this period he contrived to get through. The · Review, commenced by him in 1704, appeared five times a week. “He began it’ (remarks M. Blerzy, in his very interesting article - Daniel De Foe' in the Revue des Deux • Mondes ) ' in Newgate, where he had plenty of leisure. He

produced it single-handed for nine years, including a long and • busy period, passed in Scotland and elsewhere on Government ' errands, whence (even in those days of primitive locomotion) he despatched his contributions with wonderful regularity. The controversies which De Foe carried on against his adversaries on several occasions, several thick volumes which he com• posed, did not once interrupt the continuous labour which he

had imposed on himself.' In 1719, De Foe was fifty-eight years old. . . . No writer of his time had produced so much as himself; and yet the last twelve years of his life were · destined to be even more fertile.' Discredited as a political writer by the repeated prostitution of his pen to one party after another, he turned his hand more and more to the

production-always for immediate profit-of popular works of fiction; and, in the struggle to preserve a wretched, creditorhunted existence, became immortal. • In five years, from • 1719 to 1724, adds M. Blerzy, he gave to the public, ' fifteen big volumes, twenty political pamphlets, a monthly ' commercial journal of a hundred pages a number, another . weekly, another appearing three times a week, and one, for * part of the time, daily. Do these innumerable productions • all really proceed from his pen, even when they are signed with his name? All which can be said is, that they are cha

racterised by his general spirit, and also by those ordinary * peculiarities of style which distinguish him plainly from his

contemporaries.' Mr. William Lee, his latest biographer, really understates the case when he says that ' De Foes labours, • from 1719 to 1729, were in extent more like those of ten ordinary writers than the achievement of a single intellect.'

And the first work, or nearly so, which these five years produced was “Robinson Crusoe. Such was the birth of the most thoroughly English work of genius, perhaps, which the English language has engendered; the fruit of occasional and

6

[ocr errors]

6

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

doubtless much-enjoyed intervals, snatched from the daily demand of the printer's devil for newspaper copy. And ‘Robinson

Crusoe ' was followed in rapid succession by those other wellknown works of fiction which, even by themselves, would have secured for the old and used-up scribbler, as his enemies termed him, a very high place in the library of English romance. Rétif de la Bretonne, a man of very inferior powers to De Foe, but with something of his faculty of evoking homely interest by lifelike incident, was called the · Rousseau of the 'gutter,'le Rousseau du ruisseau'; and some at least of De Foe's productions of this period—not the least popular-might entitle him to the distinction of a similar title. But Robinson • Crusoe 'stands alone.

Recent inquiries have thrown much light on De Foe's literary activity, and at the same time raised the popular estimate of his genius. But we are sorry to add that the same process of investigation has tended by no means to elevate the judgment to be pronounced on his moral character. It is strange, with the insight now afforded into his career as a political controversialist-see especially the fresh researches of Mr. Lee, already noticed, in his Life and Newly Discovered Writings

of Daniel De Foe,' and the paper by M. Blerzy above cited—to turn to such undiscriminating panegyrics as that, for instance, of Mr. Chadwick, Life and Times of Daniel • De Foe,' 1859, who places him on a pedestal of honour as the only far-seeing prophet and incorruptible champion of the great cause of English liberty in a dull and profligate age. We now know—unhappily beyond a doubt—that the honest if vehement partisan in youth degenerated into a mere mercenary in advanced life; that after his virtue had once yielded to the seductions of Harley, he became the commonest of political hacks, and was reduced to edit Mist's Tory journal, a proceeding which he called “bowing down in the

House of Rimmon.' He tried to persuade himself and others that his only object was to keep down and mitigate the tone of the paper. This disreputable connexion he seems to have maintained until Mist convinced himself that his own zealous contributor was engaged in betraying him to the Whig Attorney-General, and broke off the connexion accordingly. But Lord Stanhope—and we are sorry for it—has added one more disagreeable item to the catalogue of sins already registered against our shifty favourite.

It was of course to be naturally expected that De Foe should take a strong part, as a public writer, in support of the proceedings against Sacheverell. His principles—for his prin

[ocr errors]

6

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

ciples were real, however subordinate for the time to party or personal objects—were in direct opposition to those of High Church and passive obedience. And he had himself so recently smarted under the most stupid of all prosecutionsthat occasioned by his “Short Way with the Dissenters '—and listened to the exulting Tory shouts and jeers which accompanied his disgrace, that he was not likely, as might have been presumed, to entertain very charitable sentiments towards the clerical martyr of the hour, But Mr. Lee makes a great merit of the moderation and freedom from personal spite with which De Foe conducted his part of the controversy. The great pamphleteer tells his Whig friends, “Upon the whole, I think the roaring of this Beast ought to give you no

manner of disturbance: you ought to laugh at him; he'll vent ' his gall, and then he'll be quiet.' De Foe, says Mr. Lee, with genuine biographer's simplicity, 'returns to the subject repeatedly; proving how incapable he was of harbouring any • feeling of revenge towards the party which had wreaked its ' vengeance on him'! • For my part,” he adds elsewhere, *though I have as much reason to desire justice upon him as anybody, yet I am looking another way, and I hope it is the right way. I had rather see the crime punished than the man; I had rather see the wound cured, than the hand which gave it cut off.

And in this I am sure I pursue the general good, whether I please private resentment or no.'

This is all very plausible ; but, unfortunately, Lord Stanhope has discovered among the Chevening archives the following letter from De Foe to General Stanhope, written at the outset of the Sacheverell prosecution :

Sir,-As it is my misfortune not to have the honour to be known to you, so at this time it may be some loss to the public interest in the affair of Sacheverell, which you are managing--pardon me the wordwith so much applause. . : . Nothing, Sir, has withheld me from blackening and exposing this insolent priest but a nicety of honour, that I thought it dishonourable to strike him when he was down, or to fall on him when he had other enemies to engage. But since, Sir, his defence is made up of false suggestions as to his being for the Revolution, and his character is part of his applause among the rabble; and particularly since you find it necessary to represent him right to those who are his judges, I chose rather to be impertinent than that you should not be let a little way into his character, to the truth of which I will at any time produce sufficient testimony; at the same time running the venture of the indignation both of the Doctor and his rabble, with which I am severely and openly threatened. First, Sir, as to his morals. I do not say there are members in your own house who have been drunk with him a hundred times, and can say enough

6

[ocr errors]

6

« VorigeDoorgaan »