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so difficult an execution of so grave a task, the effect upon his reputation cannot but be injurious. The sensible and intellectual, though they may while away an hour in turning over the pages of such a book, and in gleaning the flowers of fancy and wit with which it may be strewn, cannot but lament that so many fine thoughts and beautiful ideas have been dissipated and wasted.
It is very far, however, from our purpose to criticise this work seriously. This would be treating the book itself ill, though the author might well deserve it. It is indeed below serious criticism. Our
design is, as we have said, to gather the amusement it affords, and spread it before our readers. This we shall do in as connected a way as so very desultory matter will permit. The “Sketches of English Literature," contain notices of the Middle Ages-their laws, buildings, dress, entertainments, and manners; the Reformation, with a brief view of Luther and the other reformers—its merits compared with the Papacy, and a defence of the latter; the Protectorate; the Revolution of 1688, and of the great men who flourished at that epoch, and a comparison between it and the French revolutions of 1789 and 1830; and last, and by no means least, the private opinions, adventures, writings and sayings of the noble author himself. Who will not say that these various themes present a broad and fruitful field for a fancy so discursive as that of Chateaubriand, or who that knows the character of his genius but would anticipate his uneasiness at being confined within narrower bounds? The author, nevertheless, in his preface deems it proper to put the reader on his guard. He says :
“I ought to premise that in this historical view I have not stuck close to my subject : I have treated of every thing—the present, the past, the future; I digress hither and thither. When I meet with the middle ages, I talk of them; when I run foul of the reformation, I dwell upon it; when I come to the English revolution, it reminds me of our own, and I advert to the actors and the events of the latter. If an English royalist is thrown into jail, I think of the cell which I occupied at the prefecture of police. The English poets lead me to the French poets; Lord Byron brings to my recollection my exile in England, my walks to Harrow hill, and my travels to Venice and so of the rest. The book is composed of miscellanies which have all tones, because they relate to all things: they pass from literary criticism, lofty or familiar, to historical observations, narratives, portraits, and recollections, general or personal. That I may not take any one by surprise, that the reader may know from the first what he has to expect, that he may be aware that English literature here forms but the ground of my medley, the canvass for my embroidery, I have given a second title to this work.” pp. vii., viii.
Some apology however was thought necessary, even by the viscount himself, in placing at the very front of his book, a lengthened dissertation upon the middle ages under the different aspects we have adverted to above, and he does it in the
following very ingenious way. His remarks, it must be admitted, have much of the tone of the philosopher, while they are full of the fancy of the poet :
“When we study the literature of different countries, a great number of allusions and traits escape us, if we do not bear in mind the manners and customs of the respective nations. A view of literature, apart from the history of nations, would create a prodigious fallacy; to hear the successive poets calmly singing their loves and their sheep, you would figure to yourself the uninterrupted existence of the golden age on the earth. And yet, in that same England of which we are treating, these strains resound amid the invasion of the Romans, the Picts, the Saxons, the Danes; amid the conquest of the Normans, the insurrections of the barons, the quarrels of the first Plantagenets for the crown, the civil wars of the Red and White Rose, the ravages of the reformation, the executions commanded by Henry VIII., and the burnings ordered by Mary, amid the massacres and slavery of Ireland, the desolations of Scotland, the scaffolds of Charles I. and Sidney, the flight of James, the proscription of the Pretender and the Jacobites—the whole intermingled with parliamentary storms, court crimes, and a thousand foreign wars.
“Social order, separate from political order, is composed of religion, intelligence, and material industry. In every nation, even at the moment of the direst catastrophes and of the greatest events, there will always be a priest who prays, a poet who sings, an author who writes, a philosopher who meditates, a painter, a sculptor, an architect, who paints, chisels, builds, and a workman who labours. These men, surrounded by revolutions, seem to lead a life apart: if you look at them only, you see a real, a genuine, an immutable world, the base of the human edifice, but which appears fictitious and foreign to the society of convention, the political society. The priest, indeed, in his hymns, the poet, the philosopher, the artist, in their compositions, the artisan in his work, mark occasionally the time in which they live, and the recoil of the events which wrung from them in more abundance their sweat, their complaints, and the productions of their genius.
“To destroy this illusion of two views presented separately; to avoid creating that fallacy to which I have alluded in the course of this chapter; and that I may not suddenly throw the reader unprepared into the history of the poetry, works, and authors of the first stages of English literature, I think it right io introduce here a general picture of the middle ages. These preliminary matters will facilitate the understanding of the subject. Vol. I. pp. 14–16.
To the middle ages then, if our author must have it so, let us turn and see what agreeable remarks we may find in his sketches, without, for the moment, troubling ourselves to discover their immediate connection with the subject of English literature. And the “buildings" of the middle ages first attract our notice. The architecture of that era is well described :
“Even in its external appearance, Europe then presented a much more picturesque and national aspect than it al present exhibits. For buildings, the offspring of our religion and our manners, we have substituted, from affectation of the bastard Roman architecture, such as are neither in harmony with our climate nor appropriate to our wants. The cold and servile spirit of copyism has introduced falsehood into our arts, as the
groundwork of Latin literature has destroyed in our literature the originality of the Frankish genius. It was not thus that the middle ages imitated; the minds of those times also admired the Greeks and the Romans; they sought after and studied their works, but, instead of sufsering themselves to be mastered by, they mastered them, moulded them to their will, rendering them French, and heightening their beauty by this metamorphosis, full of creative vigour and independence.
“ The first Christian churches in the west were only temples reversed; the pagan worship was external, the decoration of the temple was external; the Christian worship was internal, the decoration of the church was internal. The pillars were transformed from the outside to the inside of the edifice, as in the churches in which the believers held their meetings when they issued from the crypts and catacombs. The proportions of the church surpassed in dimensions those of the temple, because the Christian congregation met beneath the roof of the church, whereas the pagan multitude collected under the peristyle of the temple. But when the Christians became masters, they changed this arrangement, and adorned their buildings also on the side towards the landscape and the sky.
“And, in order that the supports of the aerial nave might not be inappropriate to the structure, the chisel had cut them out; nothing was to be seen but flying buttresses, pyramids, pinnacles, and statues.
“The ornaments which were not essential parts of the edifice were adapted to its style; the tombs were of Gothic fashion, and the church, which covered them like an immense canopy, seemed to be moulded upon their form. The arts of design shared in this flowery and composite taste: on the walls and on the windows were painted landscapes, scripture subjects, and scenes of national history.
“In the castles of the great, coloured armorial bearings, inclosed in Jozenges of gold, formed ceilings resembling those of the beautiful palaces of the cinque cento in Italy. Writing itself was drawn, the German hieroglyphic substituted for the rectilinear Roman letters, harmonized with the sepulchral stones. The detached towers which served for lookouts on the heights; the castles embosomed in woods or perched on the tops of rocks, like the eyries of vultures; the pointed and narrow bridges thrown boldly across torrents; the fortified towns which you come to at every step, and the battlements of which were at once ramparts and ornaments; the chapels, the oratories, the hermitages, placed in the most picturesque spots beside roads and rivers; the towers, the steeples of country churches, the abbeys, the monasteries, the cathedrals, all those edifices of which but a small number now exists, and whose fretwork time has blackened, filled up, or broken, had then the freshness of youth ; they had just issued from the hands of the workman. In the whiteness of their stones the eye lost none of the lightness of their details, of the elegance of their towers, of the variety of their wavings, their carvings, their chiselings, their pinkings, and all the whims of a free and inexhaustible imagination.
“In the short space of eighteen years, from 1136 to 1154, not fewer than eleven hundred and fifteen castles were built in England alone.
"Christianity raised at the general expense, by means of collections and alms, the cathedrals for the erection of which each state was not wealthy enough to pay separately, and scarcely any of which is finished. In those vast and mysterious edifices were engraved in relief, and hollowed out as with a nipping tool, the decorations of the altar, the sacred monograms, the vestures and articles used by the priests. The banners, the crosses of various compositions, the cups, the shrines, the canopies,
the copes, the cowls, the crosiers, the mitres, whose forms are met with in the Gothic, preserved the symbols of the worship at the same time that they produced unexpected effects of art. The gutters and spouts were very often carved into the faces of hideous demons or vomiting mouths. This architecture of the middle ages exhibited a medley of the tragic and the grotesque, of the gigantic and the graceful, like the poems and romances of the same period.
“The plants of our soil, the trees of our woods, the trefoil and the oak, also decorated our churches, in like manner as the acanthus and the palm had embellished the temples of the country and the age of Pericles. Within a cathedral was a forest, a labyrinth, whose thousands of arches, at every motion of the spectator, crossed each other, separated, and entwined again. This forest was lighted by circular windows of painted glass, which resembled suns shining with a thousand colours beneath the foliage; externally the same cathedral looked, with its flying buttresses and its pinnacles, like an edifice from which the scaffolding had not been removed.” Vol. I. pp. 18—22.
Of the correctness of these observations we are persuaded. Modern Europe (and our own country may be included in the remark) has no national architecture. There is no modern style of building recognised in her code. Antiquity had her orders. Greece and Egypt reared their temples in forms and proportions as different as the genius of the two countries. The dark ages produced their magnificent piles, the impress of the mind of the era. Eastern barbarians, as we call them, can point to domes which raise their lofty heads in fantastic, it may be, but still national shapes; but modern Europe has been content, either with a servile imitation of one model, or what is infinitely worse, an unsightly and unseemly mixture of all. But let us hasten with our author to other subjects of observation—the dress, entertainments, and repasts of those days.
Nothing could be more picturesque than the variety of costume in the middle ages. Not only the different classes of society, but the inhabitants of different provinces and towns were clothed in garments varying in fashion and splendour. Modern habits have invested nearly every body in a uniform dress; but in those times it marked the wearer's station and profession. The great number of religious fraternities must have increased very much this diversity of wardrobe, and thrown a still more variegated hue over the surface of society. Chateaubriand remarks upon the immense advantages this circumstance gave to the painter in the use of his pencil, and asks, “what can the painter now make of our tight garments, our round or cocked hats?" Little, indeed, to gratify the imagination or the taste. Hence the resort to antique or fancy dresses in individual portraits—and hence, also, the plainness, approaching to the ludicrous, in the few historical paintings we have. Every one must have smiled at the parade of straight coats in Trumbull's picture of the Declaration of Independence, VOL. XXI.---NO. 41.
to say nothing of the number of shin pieces which it exhibits -and every one, too, must have been sensible of the great relief afforded by the introduction into these large pictures, where the subject admitted it, of a military coat, cap, and feathers, but, above all, of a fine looking horse.
The dress varied from time to time. Sometimes a furred pelisse and a long oriental robe en wrapped the figure; again, a close dress prevailed, and that, in its turn, was followed by loose garments. The pelicon, the origin of the surplice, was common to all orders. The breeches, in one age, came but half way down to the knee, and were worn very tight; this, when it was the fashion to tuck up the robe about the waist, must have gratified the taste of such personages as the famous Dutches of Gordon. But the shoes were the most remarkable. Our author says :
“The pointed and stuffed shoes called pouleyns, or poulains, were long in fashion. The maker cut out the upper leather like the windows of a church. They were two feet long for the noble, decorated at the extremity with horns, claws, or grotesque figures. They were of such length that it was impossible to walk in them without fastening the points, which crooked upwards, to the knees with chains of gold or silver. The bishops excommunicated the poulains, and treated them as a sin against nature. They were declared to be contrary to good morals, and invented in derision of the Creator. In England, an act of parliament forbade the making of any shoes or buskins with poleyns exceeding the length of two inches. The pointed shoes were succeeded by wide square-toed slippers. The fashions of that time varied as much as those of our days. The knight or the lady who invented a new fashion became a celebrated person. The inventor of poleyns was the English knight Robert le Cornu.” Vol. I. pp. 25, 26.
A word about the ladies :
“The gentlewomen wore very fine linen next to the skin. They were dressed in high tunics covering the bosom, embroidered on the right breast with the arms of their husbands, on the left with those of their family. Sometimes they wore their hair combed down smooth upon the forehead, and covered with a small cap interlaced with ribands; at others they allowed the hair to float loosely over their shoulders; at others again they built it up into a pyramid three feet high, suspending to it either wimples, or long veils, or stripes of silk, descending to the ground and fluttering in the wind. At the time of Queen Isabeau, it was found necessary to enlarge the door ways, both in height and breadth, in order to afford a passage for the ladies' head-dresses. These headdresses were supported by two curved horns, the frame-work of this structure. From the top of the horn on the right side hung a piece of light stuff
, which the wearer suffered to float, or which she drew over her bosom like a wimple, by twisting it round the left arm. A lady in full dress displayed collars, bracelets, and rings. To her girdle, enriched with gold, pearls, and precious stones, was fastened an embroidered
Her grace is known to have preferred the rear view of a Highland regiment grounding their arms, to any other sight in nature.