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"Out of the olde fieldes, as men saithe,
Cometh all this newe corn fro yere to yere ;
Cometh all this newe science that men lere."
Of such books as feed thought and nourish intellect our times can number few; nor does there seem to be, in any department of literature, or in the higher walks of intellectual research, any leading and controlling mind, as there has almost always been before. The firmament shows no morning-star that outshines all the rest, but a galaxy, with here and there a brighter patch of light from a cluster of luminaries. Nor do we trace in many quarters that spirit of devout and earnest inquiry, that deep solemnity of soul in the contemplation of truth, before which the veil always parts and the empire of the unknown recedes. Two or three great works we have, indeed, had from beyond the Atlantic within as many years. Whewell and Mill (whose labors have been already noticed in our pages), in some respects antagonists in their philosophy, and the latter a much less careful reasoner and safe guide than the former, have done more than any other living English writers to replenish the fountains of fresh and vigorous thought. Their works go down to the very foundations of knowledge, to the roots of thought and theory; but they fail of meeting the general taste of the republic of letters, on account of their utter lack of false rhetoric, amplified or diluted statements, and illustrations drawn from the way-side of busy life. Whewell's History and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, though cursorily commended in a recent number of this journal, have not, we believe, found the courtesy of an elaborate notice in any American periodical; and his Elements of Morality have in two or three instances been reviewed with a superciliousness and wrong-headedness which indicated either the indifference of a hireling critic, or an utter inability to rise to the author's point of view and to appreciate his labors.
The German mind is, indeed, commonly deemed more active at the present time than the Anglo-Saxon, and it certainly grapples with higher themes of thought. But we doubt whether, since Goethe and Richter have passed off the stage, there remains any rival, of their fame, as an original and creative mind, in any department whatsoever. German books, on all subjects of archæology, criticism, philosophy,
and theology, display, indeed, prodigious learning. But so far as our limited acquaintance with German literature extends, its greatest achievements of the present day are of three classes. First, there are works which present, with little method or system, compends of all that can be read or known on a given subject. Secondly, there are numerous works which revive old and often exploded theories, and attempt to sustain them by excerpts, frequently garbled and distorted, from the erudition of all past ages. Then, thirdly, a new theory, so outré and absurd, that neither the author himself nor any of his readers can be supposed to have even a momentary faith in it, is often started on some subject, on which the true doctrine has long been established beyond dispute, and this strange theory is made a nucleus for the crystallization of old learning in new and eccentric forms,the sole object being the exhibition of a startling piece of intellectual jugglery, which shall transfix the literary world with the same kind of admiration with which the less enlightened multitude see a man stand on his head, or balance a a cart-wheel on his chin. Strauss's Life of Jesus, reviewed in our number for October, belongs to this latter class. Its origin is, no doubt, to be accounted for on this wise. Niebuhr (the example of whose confiding faith in historical Christianity is made doubly precious by his extreme skepticism in the weighing of testimony) had applied the most profound and scientific criticism to the heterogeneous compound of fact and fable that bore the name of Roman history, exposed numberless fallacies in the evidence on which the faith of all preceding ages had implicitly rested, and reconstructed with the hand of a master-builder the fabric and fortunes of the great republic. Strauss, emulous of his fame, and yet lacking the enterprise to go beyond the range of his own department of learning, has brought into a period of authentic history the critical instruments which Niebuhr most aptly employed about the traditions of a fabulous age. The work, intellectually considered, is a scientific blunder, as much so as it would be to apply mechanical reasoning to facts in chemistry, or algebraic formulas to the solution of ethical problems; for the mode of investigation adapted to dateless and anonymous legends from ages that have transmitted no written history differs toto cælo from that which belongs to records about the date and authorship of which there hangs
no mystery, and to an age of which the events and statistics are familiarly known.
We pass to the aspect of our times as to works of the imagination. It has been often said, that an epic poem is no longer possible. This we believe; for no man living has sufficient faith in the commingling of any class of intermediate supernatural agencies with the common affairs of life to furnish the machinery for an epic. Nay, even could a work of this class be elaborated with the highest degree of artistical skill, and its supernatural machinery adjusted with the closest fidelity to the best models, it is doubtful whether it would find readers. We must feel that the poet writes in good faith, in order to enjoy his creations. Had the Henriade been anonymous, it would have passed unchallenged to a secondary place among the works of its class; but we can never forget, while we read it, that it is the unbelieving, scoffing, sneering Voltaire that is pulling the wires. of a machinery which he denied and scorned. Had the Paradise Lost, with its half-pagan demonology, been written in our own day, it would not be read with the whole-hearted admiration, with the intense earnestness of spirit, which it now commands the more with every new perusal; for we should all the while suspect the author's good faith, and the artificial, heartless process by which we should suppose the poem to have been written would leave its trail on all the gorgeous description and splendid imagery. As it stands, the Paradise Lost is to us what every true poem is, the belief, the spirit, the image of its age and people, uttering itself through its heaven-attested seer; and through it we not only behold the fantastic creations with which it swarms, which without contact with humanity have no charm for us, but we are borne back to the age when such creations were possible and credible, we enter for the time into the then current faith, and glow with the hopes and fears, the visions and the musings, that then dwelt deep in the general heart, and quickened the throbbings of the general pulse.
We now can no more recall, in separate forms of fancy and sources of inspiration,
"The power, the beauty, and the majesty
That had their haunts in dale, or piny mountain,
Dreary, prosaic fact has established its empire in glade, forest, and cavern, over land, sea, and air, and has banished spiritual essences from these lower skies. To supply the lost inspiration, various tricks are resorted to. Some have recourse to fantastic language, high-flown epithets, and artificially extravagant moods of mind, and ply in full sight of their readers every stroke of the scourge by which they lash themselves up to a most preposterous state of poetical frenzy. Others strew thickly over a mass of unmeaning platitudes impassioned words fresh from the dictionary, and present a caricature of poetic sentiment, that reminds one of the hideous contortions of muscles in the countenance of a galvanized corpse. Others, like Mrs. Hemans, only less gracefully, write on all classes of subjects," in strains that sigh and words that weep," and derive their sole claim to a place on Parnassus from this morbid pathos, this maudlin sensibility, so alien from all actual experience that by its very strangeness it passes for inspiration. Others there are, indeed, both in poetry and in fiction, who anticipate the advent of a better age by creations instinct with a tenderly humane, philanthropic, and devout spirit. But the few truly great poets of our day are less creative than descriptive. Thus, Wordsworth betrays little creative fancy, but the keenest, gentlest, kindest powers of observation, intense sympathy with every form of life and mood of feeling, and a sacred harmony with the indwelling spirit that fills the universe with beauty and with glory. Similar endowments, with hardly less delicacy of perception, but with a more masculine tone and a stronger intellectual fibre, place Sterling (who ought to be more largely known), and our countrymen Bryant and Longfellow, among the first living poets, among whom, however, it is difficult to assign rank and to mark the degrees of glory.
To pass to another topic, our age undeniably manifests strong skeptical tendencies. There is, indeed, but little professed and blasphemous infidelity, unless we give that name (as we feel no hesitation in doing) to the Straussian forms of (so called) faith. But there is (if we may thus employ the name of an old Jewish sect) an abounding Sadducism, -a disposition to believe, trust, and enjoy only things that can be seen and handled, an aversion to spiritual contemplation and spiritual truth, an unwillingness to entertain subjects of
thought drawn from the soul's higher life, from revelation, or from the dread mysteries of a future state. These tendencies result from the false position which we occupy with regard to the region of the unseen and the spiritual. That lies above and beyond; the age looks down and back, is busy in the contemplation of its own attainments, is in the mood of self-glorification, which of course implies self-trust and self-sufficiency. Man has, within the last generation, wrought so many wonders, and unravelled so many, in the outward world, as to lead to the belief that there can have been no event in the universe beyond the scope of his intellect, or the range of the laws that he has verified. He comprehends in his philosophy the material universe, which, in its immensity, is still finite, and forgets that he is embosomed in a spiritual universe which is infinite. As regards philosophy, therefore, the tendency is to complete, full-orbed systems, which leave nothing unexplained, and admit nothing that cannot be comprehended within simple, obvious, mechanical laws, characteristics which ought to brand a system as superficial and utterly inadequate. There must needs be in an infinite universe mysteries too deep, too high, for the unaided intellect, clefts and chasms which it cannot fill; and for these faith seeks light from a surer wisdom than its own, and rejoicingly welcomes miracle, prophecy, revelation, for its guidance in those arduous paths of research in which it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps," in those departments of truth in which reason has not of itself sufficient premises or data, and therefore cannot assure itself of its own conclusions. Never was more needed than at this culminating era of material philosophy and science the prayer of Lord Bacon: "This also we humbly and earnestly beg; that human things may not prejudice such as are divine; neither that from the unlocking of the gates of sense, and the kindling of a greater natural light, any thing may arise of incredulity or intellectual night towards divine mysteries; but rather that by our minds thoroughly purged and cleansed from fancy and vanity, and yet subject and perfectly given up to the divine oracles, there may be given unto faith the things that are faith's."
Such are some of the characteristics of our age. The view that we have presented is by no means so discouraging as it might at first sight seem; for the tendencies which we NO. 135.