« ZurückWeiter »
graduates, and would thus purge themselves of all responsibleness for the slovenly process, which is looding the professions with dunces and boors.
Robert Hall was no doubt a much greater man than his writings indicate. He has appeared before the public under the greatest possible disadvantages. The complete edition of his works is an insult to his memory. It is swollen into three large octavos by short-hand sketches, often travesties, of his sermons, sweepings of his desk, skeletons, and memoranda, which he forgot to burn. Indeed, it is hardly too much to suppose that we have in that collection the contents of every scrap of paper in his hand, or written from his lips, which bis editor could find in existence. He wrote but little. Repeated attacks of insanity made him fearful of overtasking his intervals of soundness. Almost unintermitted neuralgia rendered the manual labor of writing always intensely difficult, often impossible ; and some of his best productions were dictated to an amanuensis, while he was writhing on a sofa or the floor in utter agony. Of all his published sermons, he wrote but one before it was delivered ; and we can easily conceive, that much of his brilliant rhetoric and many happy turns of thought must have escaped his memory, when he came to write or dictate for the press. He prepared no work which was adapted to test or to exhibit the full extent of his mental power or resources. His controversial tracts were written in haste, and for immediate effect ; and in them he simply measures strength with his antagonists, without attempting the full discussion of the subjects at issue. His reviews were mere reviews, not essays, keen, strong, discriminating, but with no purpose beyond that of praising or castigating the work in hand. But it is no mean proof of his compass and vigor of intellect, that, if he seldom rises above the demands of the occasion or his subject, he never falls short of them. Nor does he ever give one the idea that he is making a special effort, or laying out his whole strength. You feel, in reading him, that there is much more in reserve than appears on the
and that be measures his effort, not by his own capacity, but by the then current needs and expectations of his audience or his readers. He evidently had no design of making an impression on posterity, but simply meant to exert the influence of a Christian mind on the various emergencies that presented themselves in his
walk of duty. And how great that influence must have been we may best learn, perhaps, from those outlines of discourses, which ought never to have been published. They are always outlines, which a feeble or jejune mind could never have drawn or filled. From his own pen we have nothing weak or paltry, while the occasional sottises of his stenographers reveal themselves by their broad contrast with his most hasty and fragmentary writings.
The most striking trait in the character of Hall's mind is its entire lack of striking traits, - the evenness, harmony, and breadth of its development. He never astonishes, and never disappoints. His wisdom and learning are never obtrusive, and never at fault. In argument and illustration, we trace no redundancy, and complain of no omission. His eloquence is never quickened into a torrent-like flow, but is never dry or languid. He is majestic without pretension, and sensible without dulness. The spirits all come at his bidding, and vanish when they are no longer needed. His quick wit never encroaches on his reverence, and his scorching sarcasm is kept in check by conscientious justice. He seems to have been hardly better fitted for his chosen profession, than for any other path in life. His sermons indicate the thoroughly furnished and devoted religious teacher, while his political essays display powers that might have adorned the highest places in the state ; and his few contributions to the general literature of the day show, that without profession or preferment, he could have acquired brilliant reputation as a critic, scholar, and man of letters.
Yet, with this high praise, we do not feel authorized in assigning to Hall a place in the first rank of genius. His mind lacked the power of concentration.
While never superficial, he is seldom profound. We are indebted to him for few original ideas, or fresh, first-hand views of truth. He was rather a sagacious student, than a deep thinker. He had more discrimination than invention. He was a judicious eclectic, and worked up to admiration the rough materials of thought that lay around him in bis library; but seems seldom to have pursued any independent path of research or investigation. We should doubt, even, whether his opinions assumed a systematic form to his own consciousness, or were connected with each other, except by a perception of their moral resemblances, and the instinct of
self-consistency. His mind was constructive rather than analytic. On most classes of subjects, he was content to build on foundations laid to his hand; and in his peculiar department of theology, though well versed in the grounds of argument, he contributed to the defence of Christianity only the example of his own faith, and the clear, vigorous, and eloquent statement of its reasons and its evidences. In fine, his mind was chiefly noted for its distinct cognizance of the practically important points of every subject, for its strong and healthy action, its conscientious adherence to the right and the true, and the earnest consecration of all its energies to the highest interests of freedom, virtue, and piety. When sane, he was perfectly sane ; and it would be hard to
, point to a writer more constantly under the guidance of common sense and practical wisdom. Hall's style is rich, but chaste, - highly rhetorical, but
never gaudy. He has no sentences penned for show or sound; but solid thought always underlies his ornament and points his metaphors. His tone varies gracefully and naturally with the progress of his discourse. In his sermons, the exordium is always simple, the discussion perspicuous, direct, and often marked by a piquant vivacity of manner ; and then from the argumentation be easily rises to a sustained and solemn eloquence, hardly equalled in grandeur and pathos by any writer in modern Christendom, and often reminding us of the loftiest passages of Isaiah or St. Paul, when he crowns one of his complex trains of reasoning with a pæan of gratitude and adoration. His mastery of the resources of the English language is unrivalled and perfect. It would be difficult to find, in his finished writings, a word, idiom, or construction of doubtful purity, or a passage faulty in point of euphony; and there often runs, through page after page, a rhythm hardly less perfect than if restricted by metrical laws. Much of the beauty of his style is to be ascribed to his uniform preference for words of Saxon origin. On this point his biographer relates a conversation, which is well worth transcribing, both for doctrine and reproof.
“In one of my early interviews with Mr. Hall, I used the word felicity three or four times in rather quick succession. He asked: “Why do you say felicity, sir ? Happiness is a better word, more musical and genuine English, coming from the Saxon.' 'Not more musical, I think, sir.' 'Yes, more musical;
and so are words derived from the Saxon generally. Listen, sir: "My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; "there 's plaintive music. Listen again, sir: "Under the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice;" there's cheerful music.' 'Yes; but rejoice is French.' True, but all the rest is Saxon, and rejoice is almost out of tune with the other words. Listen again: "Thou hast delivered my eyes from tears, my soul from death, and my feet from falling; "all Saxon, sir, except delivered. I could think of the word tear, sir, till I wept. Then again, for another noble specimen, and almost all good old Saxon-English: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."
We have spoken of the sermon on the death of the Princess Charlotte. This is undoubtedly the most eloquent of his sermons, and we have been led only to admire it the more by attempting to compare it with the magnificent funeral discourses of Bossuet and Massillon. Indeed, we suppose that a taste for their style of pulpit eloquence is almost always outgrown, and may be regarded as marking an era of immature judgment. We can remember the time when we hardly thought any sermons but theirs worth reading; while now, they would yield us but Lenten fare. They never for a moment merge the rhetorician in the Christian preacher. They make the spiritual utterly subordinate to the artistical element. Their most startling appeals and apostrophes have more of theatrical clap-trap than religious unction. Their pointed antitheses, their epigrammatical turns of thought, their studied bursts of emotion, their measured flights into the empyrean, with the wires that pull them back upon the stage-floor in clear view, belittle the great themes of death, judgment, and eternity, and chill the heart while they amuse the fancy. We can imagine an easy and natural transition from their sermons to the ballroom and the theatre, and find no difficulty in believing, that their preaching might have been a favorite entertainment for the dissolute court of Louis the Fourteenth, without starting a penitential tear, or converting a soul. We should as soon seek warmth from the coruscations of the aurora borealis, as spiritual edification from their always brilliant and sparkling, but never fervent, declamation. In their funeral eulogies, they put every rhetorical art and trick in the fullest play; but uniformly desecrate the sad solemnities of death and an
opening eternity by the most abject man-worship. Nowhere do they so magnify the artificial distinctions and additions of humanity, the trappings of royalty, the pomp of office, the gewgaws of fashion, as in the presence of the great leveller, and in the contemplation of that event which consigns the unclothed soul to the tribunal where the monarch and the beggar find equal privilege. Far otherwise does Robert Hall treat the occasion which called a nation to mourning. He manifests no coarse indifference to the peculiar circumstances of the event. In the illustrious rank of the princess, he hears no ordinary voice of Providence. The hopes that were centred in her person make her dissolution the more profoundly impressive, and read the more eloquent lesson of man's dependence and frailty. Yet not with rhetorical artifice, but with the instinct of a Christian heart, he isolates the princess from her exalted place and destiny, and sees in her unwarned death simply the passage of an humble, dutiful disciple of Christ from a scene of arduous trial to the home of the faithful. There is not a word of adulation ; the panegyric is carefully kept far within the limits of well-known fact, and is less full and free than it would have been at the obsequies of some obscure wife and mother in his own flock. He manifestly fears the faintest show of the adoration of earthly greatness in the presence of the King of kings; but maintains throughout the attitude of a prayerful interpreter of the religious uses of this great public calamity. To justify these remarks, we quote one of the most impressive passages.
“ When Jehovah was pleased to command Isaiah the prophet to make a public proclamation in the ears of the people, what was it, think you, he was ordered to announce ? Was it some profound secret of nature, which had baffled the inquiries of philosophers ? or some great political convulsion which was to change the destiny of empires ? No: these were not the sort of communications most suited to the grandeur of his nature, or the exigencies of ours. The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? An flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field : the grass withereth, the flower fadeth ; because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it : surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth : but the word of our God shall stand for ever. Instead of presenting to our eyes the mutations of power, and the revoVOL. LXIV. - No. 135.