Images de page
PDF
ePub

impassible to its shafts when more appropriately lodged with a fool. Of the sensitiveness arising out of this foible Walpole seems to have had a great deal, and it certainly dictated those hardhearted reproofs that repelled the warm effusions of friendship with which poor Madame du Deffand (now old and blind) addressed him, and of which he complained with the utmost indignation, merely because, if her letters were opened by a clerk at the post office, such expressions of kindness might expose him to the ridicule of which he had such undue terror.

The same sensitive vanity dictated his conduct as a literary character. He affected to whistle his fugitive pieces down the wind to take their fortune, while in fact he watched their fate with all the jealous feelings of authorship. His correspondence with David Hume, on the subject of his · Historic Doubts, as he modestly entitled his curious remarks on the History of Richard III., is a remarkable example of this duplicity. He commences by inviting strictures and commentaries with an air of the most insidious modesty and gentlemanlike indifference for literary character; but when his hypothesis is impugned, he defends it not only with vigour but with obstinacy, and manifests considerable irritation at the opposition of the historian. In short, his predominant foible seems to have been vanity-a vanity which unfortunately required to be gratified more ways than one, and the appetite of which for popular applause was checked by a contrary feeling, similar to that ridiculed by Prince Hal, when he asks Poins whether it doth not shew vilely in a prince like him, to thirst after the poor creature small beer? It was perhaps in order to indulge both his love of rank and literature, without derogating, (as Cloten has it,) that he wrote his Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors,' a work which might have diminished one article of his vanity, for to no equal number of writers, selected upon any other given principle, can there be ascribed such abundance of plutitude and inanity.

Vanity is generally selfish, and we cannot altogether acquit Horace Walpole of this additional foible. As he loved learning, with a contempt, real or affected, for those who make it their pursuit, so he admired art without any wish to befriend or encourage living genius. The present work, as well as the former volumes, present too many instances of narrowness on this subject. In the following passage there appears a whimsical struggle betwist the desire to possess a copy of a picture in enamel of the Duchesse de Grammont and the wish to screw it out of an artist of eminence at as low a rate as possible:

I am disposed to prefer the younger picture of Madame Grammont by Lely, but I stumbled at the price; twelve guineas for a copy in enamel is very dear. Mrs. Vezey tells me his originals cost sixteen, and are not so good as his copies. I will certainly have none of his originals. His—what is his name? I would fain resist this copy; I would more fain excuse myself for having it; I say to myself, “ it would be rude not to have it now Lady Kingsland and Mr. Montagu have had so much trouble.”—Well, I think I must have it, as my Lady Wishfort says, why does not the fellow take me? Do try if he will not take ten.'—p. 282.

This wretched haggling did not, we believe, arise from general avariciousness of disposition. Horace Walpole seems to have been far from penurious; and when called upon to make some sacrifices to the necessities of the country at the expense of his patent offices, he met the investigation with a liberal and independent spirit. In his correspondence with General Conway, in which his character is seen to greater advantage than in any other series of his letters, he evinces himself to be capable of the most generous exertions, and repeatedly insists upon his friend's accepting a portion of an income certainly not more than sufficient for a person of his rank and habits. The paltry spirit which he frequently suffers to appear, when about to purchase the productions of modern art, the harshness and unkindness which he sometimes shows to Bentley, whose pencil and genius had rendered him so many services, place him almost in the anomalous situation of a man who, liberal to all others, was only penurious towards a beautiful and beloved mistress.

It is natural to suppose that the habits natural to celibacy and solitude may have increased this disposition towards the conclusion of his life. But in truth it was less the parting with the money than the jealousy and dislike which he entertained towards the actual professors of those arts of which he himself was an amateur practitioner, which closed, on this occasion, his hand, his house, and his heart. Upon his quarrel with Muntz, a painter of merit, whose talents he had engrossed at a butler's wages [1007. a year], and whose sole offence seems to have been discovering that he could do better for himself, he observes,

'Poets and painters imagine they confer the honour when they are protected, and they set down impertinence to the article of their own virtue, when you dare to begin to think that an ode or a picture is not a patent for all manner of insolence.'-p. 183.

If we are tempted to inquire why sharp-judging Adriel, himself a muse,' did not complete the character as given by Dryden, and be the muse's friend, we may find the reason in the fantastic aristocracy of Mr. Walpole's character. He would willingly have rendered genius and learning as dependent upon fortune and rank as in his day they existed in France; characters for whom the notice of the great and of the fashionable was sufficient reward

oranges

[merged small][ocr errors]

oranges whose rind was worthless when the juice was suckedwranglers to whom, when disturbed by the paltry squabbles of which he complains, an earl's brother, who had a Gothic plaything of a castle and six acres of ground, might cry, like the French officer to the Parisian pit, Accordez vous, canaille-danglers to be kept in attendance in the anti-chamber, and called in, at the intervals afforded by music and cards, to make sport, like Sampson before the Philistine nobles. He lived, however, to learn by experience that Sampson might pull down the temple on the heads of the lordly audience; and that there is no child's play in confining the power of a steam-engine to turn a lathe for a toyshop, or in barring the powers of intellect from aspiring to their proper rank in the system of society.

In Britain the opinion of an individual, however distinguished, , can be of little consequence, save to bimself; and it is accordingly upon Mr. Walpole's own genius that his narrow and jealouslyaristocratic feelings produced their natural effect. He was born with talents to have distinguished himself in the higher departments of literature, of which the Mysterious Mother,' however disgusting the subject, must always be a splendid monument. It is true, to use one of his own expressions in the volume before us, that when chusing a topic so dreadful it seemed as if he had loved melancholy till it palled on his taste, and was obliged to dram with horror. But the good old English blank verse, the force of character expressed in the wretched mother, and in several of the inferior persons, argue a strength of conception and vigour of expression capable of great things, and which involuntarily carry us back to the earlier æra of the English drama, when there were giants in the land.'

This composition however is the principal, if not the only proof which Walpole has bequeathed us of the great things which he might have performed, had he been left at liberty, instead of being immured within the imaginary Bastile of his rank, the airy yet impassable walls of which, like the operation of a magician's spell, condemned him to such a mincing pace, and trifling tone, as suited the petty circle to which he was limited by his imaginary consequence. His Castle of Otranto, notwithstanding the beauty of the style, and the chivalrous ideas which it summons up, cannot surely be termed a work of much power. In his vers de société we perpetually discover a laborious effort to introduce the lightness of the French badinage, into a masculine and somewhat rough language. His Lives are in the style of French Mémoires, and the criticism much of the same superficial and slight cast. In short, all the writings published in his lifetime were such as in Charles the Second's time might have suited' a man of wit and

pleasure

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

pleasure about town;' or rather a French marquis of a later period, to whom it might indeed be permitted to take up a pen for an idle hour, but not to retain it until it soiled his fingers. And, we say it with some regret,-except in his letters, of which we shall presently speak,-our author seems, in these occasional compositions, to have ceased to possess the strong and sound feeling of an Englishman, without acquiring the light and graceful elegance of the rival country. What he would have wished to be thought may be conjectured from the following passage:

* You cannot imagine how astonished a Mr. Seward, a learned clergyman was, who came to Ragley while I was there. Strolling about the house, he saw me first sitting on the pavement of the lumber room with Louis, all over cobwebs and dirt and mortar; then found me in his own room on a ladder writing on a picture; and half an hour afterwards lying on the grass in the court with the dogs and the children, in iny slippers and without my hat. He had had some doubt whether I was the painter or the factotum of the family; but you would have died at his surprise when he saw me walk in to dinner dressed and sit by Lady Hertford. Lord Lyttleton was there, and the conversation turned on literature: finding me not quite ignorant added to the parson's wonder; but he could not contain himself any longer, when after dinner he saw me go to romps and jumping with the two boys; he broke out to my Lady Hertford, and begged to know who and what sort of a man I really was, for he had never met with any thing of the kind.' -160.

Walpole probably wished Mr. Seward to infer that this versatility of employment indicated a man who only needed to give himself the trouble of study to become a second Admirable Crichton, but whose rank and station rather inclined him to - daff the world aside and bid it pass.' But most of our readers will regret to see a man of real genius frittering away his time in trifles to' astonish the natives, and say of the passage, with Sir Hugh Evans, ' Why this is affectations.'

It must however be allowed to Horace Walpole, that if he was so much deceived by his imaginary importance as to rest his literary ambition on becoming rather the Hamilton or Saint Simon, than the Fletcher or the Massinger of the age, he has fully attained his end, and left us one, and only one literary name to oppose to those of France

• Who shine unrival'd in the light memoir.' His Reminiscences of the reigns of George I. and II. make us better acquainted with the manners of these princes and their courts, than we should be after perusing an hundred heavy historians; and futurity will long be indebted to the chance which threw into his vicinity, when age rendered him communicative, the accomplished ladies to whom these anecdotes were communi

cated.

[ocr errors]

cated. In this point of view, his character, as given by Madame du Deffand, is likely to prove as true in the future as in the past. Vous avez du discernement, le tact très-fin, le goût très-juste, le ton excellent; vous auriez été de la meilleure compagnie du monde dans les siècles passés ; vous l'êtes dans celui-ci, et vous le seriez dans ceux à venir.'-His certainty of success with posterity indeed will rest upon his letters and his Reminiscences. The last partake of the character of his correspondence, being written without study, arrangement, or that embarrassing constraint which usually attends an express purpose of publication, especially in a character like that of Walpole, who was internally solicitous about the general opinion of the public, which he affected to despise, and would at any time rather have struck out a beauty than have hazarded the encounter of a mauvaise plaisanterie. In his epistolary correspondence he was under no controul -he wrote to his selected friends without fear of derogationthat miserable apprehension which haunted him on other occasions, and which he endeavoured to propitiate by the use of the limited edition and the private press, like amateur actors who secure a favourable audience by taking no money at the door.

The Letters of Horace Walpole accordingly are master-pieces in their way. He never indeed touches upon important subjects of discussion either in science or in the fine arts; he was too much of a gentleman to take the trouble of it; neither is he so superfluous as to trouble himself much about the right and wrong in national measures. He only details the political changes of the times to indulge the curiosity of his correspondents, or his own talent for acute and satirical observation. Far less are we to look in his letters for any traces of deep or agitating passion, for fashion frames as many stoics as ever were trained by philosophy. The sorrows for a friend's death, or for the robbery of his pond of gold fishes, as they are expressed in his letters with becoming philosophy, may be read without violent sympathy. But that in which Walpole's letters shine unrivalled, is their accurate reflexion of the passing scenes of each day, pointed by remarks equally witty and sarcastic. A new Democritus seems to have assumed the sneer at the grave follies of the human species.

The variety of these letters, as well as their peculiar and lively diction, renders them very entertaining, and as the correspondence extends from 1736 to about 1770, it embraces many changes of scene both political and fashionable. The narratives of remarkable historical events, told without the form of history, and with those circumstances which add an interest and authenticity which history, dignified and fastidious as Walpole himself, sometimes discards too readily, come upon us unexpectedly, with an air of

novelty

pen, to

« PrécédentContinuer »