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Miscellanists

MISCELLANISTS are the most popular writers among every people; for it is they who form a communication between the learned and the unlearned, and as it were throw a bridge between those two great divisions of the public. Literary Miscellanies are classed among philological studies. The studies of philology formerly consisted rather of the labours of arid grammarians and conjectural critics, than of that more elegant philosophy which has, within our own time, been introduced into literature, and which, by its graces and investigation, augment the beauties of original genius. This delightful province has been termed in Germany the Æsthetic from a Greek term signifying sentiment or feeling. Æsthetic critics fathom the depths, or run with the current of an author’s thoughts, and the sympathies of such a critic offer a supplement to the genius of the original writer. Longinus and Addison are Æsthetic critics. The critics of the adverse school always look for a precedent, and if none is found, woe to the originality of a great writer!

Very elaborate criticisms have been formed by eminent writers, in which great learning and acute logic have only betrayed the absence of the Æsthetic faculty. Warburton called Addison an empty superficial writer, destitute himself of an atom of Addison’s taste for the beautiful; and Johnson is a flagrant instance that great powers of reasoning are more fatal to the works of imagination than had ever been suspected.

By one of these learned critics was Montaigne, the venerable father of modern Miscellanies, called “a bold ignorant fellow.” To thinking readers, this critical summary will appear mysterious; for Montaigne had imbibed the spirit of all the moral writers of antiquity; and although he has made a capricious complaint of a defective memory, we cannot but wish the complaint had been more real; for we discover in his works such a gathering of knowledge that it seems at times to stifle his own energies. Montaigne was censured by Scaliger, as Addison was censured by Warburton; because both, like Socrates, smiled at that mere erudition which consists of knowing the thoughts of others and having no thoughts of our own. To weigh syllables, and to arrange dates, to adjust texts, and to heap annotations, has generally proved the absence of the higher faculties. When a more adventurous spirit of this herd attempts some novel discovery, often men of taste behold, with indignation, the perversions of their understanding; and a Bentley in his Milton, or a Warburton on a Virgil, had either a singular imbecility concealed under the arrogance of the scholar, or they did not believe what they told the public; the one in his extraordinary invention of an interpolating editor, and the other in his more extraordinary explanation of the Eleusinian mysteries. But what was still worse, the froth of the head became venom, when it reached the heart.

Montaigne has also been censured for an apparent vanity, in making himself the idol of his lucubrations. If he had not done this, he had not performed the promise he makes at the commencement of his preface. An engaging tenderness prevails in these naïve expressions which shall not be injured by a version, “Je l’ay voué à la commodité particulière de mes parens et amis; a ce que m’ayans perdu (ce qu’ils ont à faire bientost) ils y puissent retrouver quelques traicts de mes humeurs, et que par ce moyen ils nourissent plus entière et plus vifue la conoissance qu’ils ont en de moi,”

Those authors who appear sometimes to forget they are writers, and remember they are men, will be our favourites. He who writes from the heart, will write to the heart; every one is enabled to decide on his merits, and they will not be referred to learned heads or a distant day. “Why,” says Boileau, “are my verses read by all? it is only because they speak truths, and that I am convinced of the truths I write.”

Why have some of our fine writers interested more than others, who have not displayed inferior talents? Why is Addison still the first of our essayists? he has sometimes been excelled in criticisms more philosophical, in topics more interesting, and in diction more coloured. But there is a personal charm in the character he has assumed in his periodical Miscellanies, which is felt with such a gentle force that we scarce advert to it. He has painted forth his little humours his individual feelings, and eternised himself to his readers. Johnson and Hawkesworth we receive with respect, and we dismiss with awe; we come from their writings as from public lectures, and from Addison’s as from private conversations. Montaigne preferred those of the ancients, who appear to write under a conviction of what they said; the eloquent Cicero declaims but coldly on liberty, while in the impetuous Brutus may be perceived a man who is resolved to purchase it with his life. We know little of Plutarch, yet a spirit of honesty and persuasion in his works expresses a philosophical character capable of imitating, as well as admiring, the virtues he records.

Sterne perhaps derives a portion of his celebrity from the same influence; he interests us in his minutest motions, for he tells us all he feels. Richardson was sensible of the power with which these minute strokes of description enter the heart and which are so many fastenings to which the imagination clings. He says, “If I give speeches and conversations, I ought to give them justly; for the humours and characters of persons cannot be known, unless I repeat what they say, and their manner of saying.” I confess I am infinitely pleased when Sir William Temple acquaints us with the size of his orange-trees, and with the flavour of his peaches and grapes, confessed by Frenchmen to equal those of France; with his having had the honour to naturalise in this country four kinds of grapes, with his liberal distribution of them, because “he ever thought all things of this kind the commoner they are the better.“ In a word, with his passionate attachment to his garden, where he desired his heart to be buried, of his desire to escape from great employments, and having passed five years without going to town, where, by the way, “he had a large house always ready to receive him.” Dryden has interspersed many of these little particulars in his prosaic compositions, and I think that his character and dispositions may be more correctly acquired by uniting these scattered notices than by any biographical account which can now be given of this man of genius.

From this agreeable mode of writing, a species of compositions may be discriminated which seems above all others to identify the reader with the writer; compositions which are often discovered in a fugitive state, but to which their authors were prompted by the fine impulses of genius, derived from the peculiarity of their situation. Dictated by the heart, or polished with the fondness of delight, these productions are impressed by the seductive eloquence of genius, or attach us by the sensibility of taste. The object thus selected is no task imposed on the mind of the writer for the mere ambition of literature, but is a voluntary effusion, warm with all the sensations of a pathetic writer. In a word, they are the compositions of genius, on a subject in which it is most deeply interested, which it revolves on all its sides, which it paints in all its tints, and which it finishes with the same ardour it began. Among such works may be placed the exiled Bolingbroke’s “Reflections upon Exile;” the retired Petrarch and Zimmerman’s Essays on “Solitude;” the imprisoned Boethius’s “Consolations of Philosophy;” the oppressed Pierius Valerianus’s Catalogue of “Literary Calamities;” the deformed Hay’s Essay on “Deformity;” the projecting De Foe’s “Essays on Projects;” the liberal Shenstone’s Poem on “Economy.”

We may respect the profound genius of voluminous writers; they are a kind of painters who occupy a great room and fill up, as a satirist expresses it, “an acre of canvas.” But we love to dwell on those more delicate pieces,—a group of Cupids; a Venus emerging from the waves; a Psyche or an Aglaia, which embellish the cabinet of the man of taste.

It should, indeed, be the characteristic of good Miscellanies, to be multifarious and concise. Usbek, the Persian of Montesquieu, is one of the profoundest philosophers, his letters are, however, but concise pages. Rochefoucault and La Bruyere are not superficial observers of human nature, although they have only written sentences. Of Tacitus it has been finely remarked by Montesquieu, that “he abridged everything because he saw everything.” Montaigne approves of Plutarch and Seneca because their loose papers were suited to his dispositions, and where knowledge is acquired without a tedious study. “It is,” said he, “no great attempt to take one in hand and I give over at pleasure, for they have no sequel or connexion,” La Fontaine agreeably applauds short compositions:

Les longs ouvrages me font peur;
Loin d’épuiser une matière,
On n’en doit prendre que la fleur;

and Old Francis Osborne has a coarse and ludicrous image in favour of such opuscula; he says, “Huge volumes like the ox roasted whole at Bartholomew fair, may proclaim plenty of labour and invention, but afford less of what is delicate, savoury, and well concocted, than smaller pieces.” To quote so light a genius as the enchanting La Fontaine, and so solid a mind as the sensible Osborne is taking in all the climates of the human mind; it is touching at the equator, and pushing on to the pole.

Montaigne’s works have been called by a cardinal “The Breviary of Idlers.” It is therefore the book of man; for all men are idlers; we have hours which we pass with lamentation, and which we know are always returning. At those moments miscellanists are conformable to all our humours. We dart along their airy and concise page; and their lively anecdote or their profound observation are so many interstitial pleasures in our listless hours.

The ancients were great admirers of miscellanies; Aulus Gellius has preserved a copious list of titles of such works. These titles are so numerous and include such gay and pleasing descriptions, that we may infer by their number that they were greatly admired by the public, and by their titles that they prove the great delight their authors experienced in their composition. Among the titles are “a basket of flowers;” “an embroidered mantle;” and “a variegated meadow.” Such a miscellanist as was the admirable Erasmus deserves the happy description which Plutarch with an elegant enthusiasm bestows on Menander: he calls him the delight of philosophers fatigued with study; that they have recourse to his works as to a meadow enamelled with flowers, where the sense is delighted by a purer air; and very elegantly adds, that Menander has a salt peculiar to himself, drawn from the same waters that gave birth to Venus.

The Troubadours, Conteurs, and Jongleurs, practised what is yet called in the southern parts of France, Le guay Saber, or the gay science. I consider these as the Miscellanists of their day; they had their grave moralities, their tragical histories, and their sportive tales; their verse and their prose. The village was in motion at their approach; the castle was opened to the ambulatory poets, and the feudal hypochondriac listened to their solemn instruction and their airy fancy. I would call miscellaneous composition LE GUAY SABER, and I would have every miscellaneous writer as solemn and as gay, as various and as pleasing, as these lively artists of versatility.

Nature herself is most delightful in her miscellaneous scenes, When I hold a volume of miscellanies, and run over with avidity the titles of its contents, my mind is enchanted as if it were placed among the landscapes of Valais, which Rousseau has described with such picturesque beauty. I fancy myself seated in a cottage amid those mountains, those valleys, those rocks, encircled by the enchantments of optical illusion. I look and behold at once the united seasons—“All climates in one place, all seasons in one instant.” I gaze at once on a hundred rainbows, and trace the romantic figures of the shifting clouds. I seem to be in a temple dedicated to the service of the Goddess VARIETY.


Editor’s Notes

This essay is not a part of the Curiosities, but rather belongs to a smaller group of compositions first published in 1796 under the title of Miscellanies; or, literary recreations; and later re-issued as Literary Miscellanies. I have included it here as a postscript to this project, as it seems to me a fine eulogy and apology for the art in which D’Israeli excelled.