« VorigeDoorgaan »
for keeping alive the reader's attention. Whenever his subject admits of being enriched or adorned by political or philosophical disquisition, by picturesque description, or by the interesting details of a romantic episode, he scruples not to try his strength with those who have excelled the most in these different departments of literature ; uniformly, however, avoiding to mingle in the humble scenes of ordinary life, or to meet his rivals on any ground where he did not feel himself completely their equal.
To this systematical selection of the more regular and analogical forms of construction, is to be ascribed, in a considerable degree, his popularity among foreigners, who unite in esteeming him, not only as one of the most eloquent, but as one of the most intelligible of our writers. And it is presumable that the same circumstance will secure in his favor the suffrages of posterity, when the passing idioms generated by the capricious modes of our own times, shall be antiquated or forgotten.*
* Since these remarks on Dr. Robertson's style were written, I have met with some critical reflections on the same subject by Mr. Burke, too honorable for Dr. Robertson to be suppressed here, although in some particulars, they do not coincide with the opinion I have presumed to state.*
“ There is a style,” says Mr. Burke, in a letter addressed to Mr. Murphy on his translation of Tacitus, “ which daily gains ground amongst us, which I should be sorry to see further advanced by a writer of your just reputation. The tendency of the mode to which I allude is, to establish two very different idioms amongst us, and to introduce a marked distinction between the English that is written and the English that is spoken. This practice, if grown a little more general, would confirm this distemper, such I must think it, in our language, and perhaps render it incurable.
“ From this feigned manner of falsetto, as I think the musicians call something of the same sort in singing, no one modern historian, Robertson only excepted, is perfectly free. It is assumed, I know, to give dignity and variety to the style. But whatever success the attempt may sometimes have, it is always obtained at the expense of purity, and of the graces that are natural and appropriate to our language. It is true that when the exigence calls for auxiliaries of all sorts, and common language becomes unequal to the demands of extraordinary thoughts, something ought to be conceded to the necessities which make ambition virtue. But the allowances to necessities ought not to grow into a practice. Those portents and prodigies ought not to grow too common. If you have, here and there, (much more rarely, however, than others of great and not unmerited fame) fallen into an error, which is not that of the dull or careless, you have an author who is himself guilty, in his own tongue, of the same fault, in a very high degree. No author thinks more deeply, or paints more strongly; but he seldom or ever expresses himself naturally. It is plain, that comparing him with Plautus and Terence, or the beautiful fragments of Publius
* It is proper for me to mention, that I have no authority for the authenticity of the following passage but that of a London newspaper, in which it appeared some years ago. I do not find, however, that it has been ever called in question..
I have only to add, that some of the foregoing observations apply more strongly to Dr. Robertson's earlier than to his later publications. In the History of Charles V., and still more in that of America, he ventures on expressions which he would not have hazarded before the establishment of his literary name; and accordingly, it
may be doubted, whether, in consequence of this circumstance, he did not lose in purity of diction what he gained in ease and freedom. Perhaps, on the whole, it will be found, that of all his performances, Charles V. is that which unites the various requisites of good writing in the greatest degree. The style is more natural and flowing than that of the History of Scotland; while, at the same time, idiomatical phrases are introduced with so sparing and timid a hand, that it is easy to perceive the author's attention to correctness was not sensibly diminished. In the History of America, although it
Syrus, he did not write the language of good conversation. Cicero is much nearer to it. Tacitus, and the writers of his time, have fallen into that vice, by aiming at a poetical style. It is true, that eloquence in both modes of rhetoric is fundamentally the same; but the manner of handling it is totally different, even where words and phrases may be transferred from the one of these departments of writing to the other.”
For this encomium on Dr. Robertson's style when considered in contrast with that of Mr. Gibbon (to whom it is presumable that Mr. Burke's strictures more particularly refer) there is unquestionably a very solid foundation; but in estimating the merits of the former as an English writer, I must acknowledge that I should never have thought of singling out among his characteristical excellences, an approach to the language of good conversation. It is indeed surprising, when we attend to the elevation of that tone which he uniformly sustains, how very seldom his turn of expression can be censured as unnatural or affected. The graces of his composition, however, although great and various, are by no means those which are appropriate to our language ; and, in fact, he knew too well the extent and the limits of his own powers to attempt them. Accordingly he has aimed at perfections of a still higher order, the effect of which is scarcely diminished, when we contemplate them through the medium of a foreign translation.
Lord Chesterfield's judgment with respect to Dr. Robertson, while it is equally flattering with that of Mr. Burke, appears to me more precise and just. “There is a history lately come out, of the reign of Mary, queen of Scots, and her son, king James, written by one Robertson, a Scotchman, which, for clearness, purity, and dignity, I will not scruple to compare with the best historians extant, not excepting Davila, Guicciardini, and perhaps Livy."
May I be permitted to remark, that in the opposite extreme to that fault which Mr. Burke has here so justly censured, there is another originating in too close an adherence to what he recommends as the model of good writing, the ease and familiarity of colloquial discourse. In the productions of his more advanced years, he has occasionally fallen into it himself, and has sanctioned it by his example, in the numerous herd of his imitators, who are incapable of atoning for it, by copying the exquisite and inimitable beauties which abound in his compositions. For my own part, I can much more easily reconcile myself, in a grave and dignified argument, to the dulcia vitia of Tacitus and of Gibbon, than to that affection of cant words and allusions which so often debases Mr. Burke's eloquence, and which was long ago stigmatized by Swift as “the most ruinous of all the corruptions of a language.'
contains many passages, equal if not superior to any thing else in his writings, the composition does not seem to me to be so uniformly polished as that of his former works ; nor does it always possess, in the same degree, the recommendations of concisenesss and simplicity.
Review of the more active Occupations of Dr. Robertson's Life
Conclusion of the Narrative Sketch of his Character.
In reviewing the History of Dr. Robertson’s Life, our attention has hitherto been confined to those pursuits which formed the habitual occupation of his mind; and which have left behind them unperishable monuments. His life, however, was not devoted wholly to the cultivation of letters. His talents fitted him in an eminent degree for the business of the world; and the station in which Providence placed him opened to him a field, which, however unequal to his ambition or to his genius, afforded him the means of evincing what he might have accomplished, if his sphere of exertion had been more extensive and brilliant.
Among the active scenes in which he had an opportunity to engage, the most conspicuous was presented to him by the supreme ecclesiastical court in Scotland. Of the constitution of this court, accordingly, which differs in some remarkable particulars from the clerical convocations in other Christian countries, a general outline is necessary, in order to convey a just idea of the abilities which secured to him, for a long course of years, an unrivalled influence in guiding its delibera
* For the materials both of this outline and of the subsequent view of Dr. Robertson's system of ecclesiastical policy, I am indebted to a paper drawn up (at the request of Dr. Robertson's son) by the Rev. George Hill, Ď. D. principal of St. Mary's college in the university of St. Andrew's; a gentleman intimately connected with Dr. Robertson by friendship, and highly respected by him for the talents and
“The general assembly of the church of Scotland is composed of representatives from the presbyteries ; from the royal boroughs ; from the four universities ; and from the Scots' church of Campvere in Holland. The presbyteries send two hundred and ninety members, of whom two hundred and one are ministers, and eighty-nine lay-elders; the royal boroughs send sixtyseven members, all of whom are laymen; the universities send five members, who may be either laymen, or ministers holding an office in the university; and the church of Campvere sends two members, one minister and one lay-elder. The whole number is three hundred and sixty-four, of whom two hundred and two are ministers, and one hundred and sixty-two laymen; including in the latter class the members from the universities. The annual sittings of the assembly continue only for ten days; but a committee of the whole house (called the commission) has four stated meetings in the year, for the despatch of whatever business the general assembly has been unable to overtake.” *
In subordination to this supreme court, there is a series of inferior judicatories, rising, one above another, in authority.
The lowest of these is the kirk-sessions,
eloquence which he has for many years displayed in the ecclesiastical courts. In general I have transcribed Dr. Hill's words, taking the liberty occasionally to make such slight alterations on the language as were necessary for preserving some degree of uniformity in the style of my narrative; and a few retrenchments, which the plan of this memoir rendered unavoidable. That the public, however, may not lose any part of so valuable a communication, I have inserted in a note, the paragraphs which are here omitted.
As Dr. Hill's paper was submitted to the examination, and received the unqualified approbation of three of Dr. Robertson's most confidential friends,* it may be regarded as an authentic statement of his general principles of church government. For the sake of connexion, I have adopted into this section such parts of it as seemed to me to be necessary for completing the history of his life ; abstaining, however, scrupulously from hazarding any ideas of my own, on the subject to which it relates.
*« The mixture of ecclesiastical and lay.members in the church courts is attended with the happiest effects. It corrects that esprit de corps which is apt to prevail in all assemblies of professional men. It affords the principal nobility and gentry of Scotland an opportunity of obtaining a seat in the general assembly when any interesting object calls for their attendance; and although in the factious and troublesome times which our ancestors saw, the general assembly, by means of this mixture, became a scene of political debate, this accidental evil is counterbalanced by permanent good : for the presence of those lay-members of high rank, whose names are usually found upon the roll of the assembly, has a powerful influence in maintaining that connexion between church and state, which is necessary for the peace, security, and welfare of both.” |
* Drs. Blair, Carlyle, and Grieve.
| MS. of Dr. Hill.
or parochial consistories; composed of the ministers, together with the lay-elders of their respective parishes. The ministers of a number of contiguous parishes, together with certain representatives from the kirk-sessions, form a presbytery; and a plurality of presbyteries (differing in number according to accidental circumstances) form a provincial synod.
While the constitution of the Scottish church admits of no superiority of one minister above another, it requires from all its individual members, and from all its inferior judicatories, strict obedience to those who are placed in authority over them. Every court is bound to lay the record of all its proceedings from time to time before the tribunal which is its immediate superior; any part of its proceedings may be brought, by appeal or complaint, under the review of a higher jurisdiction; and every minister, when he receives orders, comes under a solemn engagement, “ to assert, maintain, and defend the doctrines, discipline, and government of the church; and never to attempt any thing, directly or indirectly, which may tend to its subversion or prejudice.”
In consequence of this subordination of judicatories, the general assembly determines, as the court of last resort, all the causes brought under its review, and has the power of enforcing, without control, obedience to its decrees. It possesses also extensive legislative powers, as it may, with the concurrence of a majority of presbyteries, enact laws for the government of the whole church.
By the act of 1592, which gave a legal establishment to the form of church government now delineated, the patron of a vacant parish was entitled to present to the presbytery a person properly qualified; and the presbytery were required, after subjecting the presentee to certain trials and examinations, of which they were constituted the judges, “to ordain and settle him as minister of the parish, provided no relevant objection should be stated to his life, doctrine, and qualifications." This right of presentation, however, although conferred by the fundamental charter of presbyterian government in Scotland, was early complained of as a grievance; and