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THE POETICAL REMAINS OF THE LATE DR JOHN LEYDEN.*
WITHOUT a strong spirit of nationality no people could build up any thing like a national literature. Every reflecting mind, therefore, must be disposed not to pardon only, but to approve all manifestations of it that betoken a sense of dignity, and challenge an appeal to reason and to truth. The pride of intellect, so offensive in an individual, it is delightful to see exhibited by a whole people-and that People does well to think loftily of itself which has good works to shew, nor need Nations fear to proclaim their faith in their own exaltation. If there be certain virtues and faculties which have been, in a more especial manner, brought into action through the course of their history, they are entitled to appropriate them as national characteristics,-nor would that people be worthy of their own ancestral glories, who did not boldly avow their pride in the moral or intellectual powers by which those glories were won, and without the continued possession of which they could serve only to darken the melancholy gloom of present degradation.
We are disposed to think that, upon the whole, the national pride of Scotsmen is manly and enlightened. Within the last hundred years Scotland has produced more men of genius than during all her previous historyand she who was so long the barbarian sister of civilized England has shewn herself but little inferior to her friendly rival either in stateliness or beauty. But we are greatly mistaken, if along with a proper pride in the achieve ments of our own genius, Scotsmen
do not too generally entertain an unreasonable impatience of the ascendancy of the genius of England, and, since we must say so, a very unjust and illiberal determination to undervalue certain excellencies to which they themselves have never yet been able to attain.
There is little or no erudition in Scotland, and yet instead of acknowledging and deploring our ignorance, and setting ourselves strenuously to the reformation of our exceedingly defec tive system of public education, we turn about on our English neighbours with an air of most ludicrous and provoking self-assurance, and laugh at them for possessing that knowledge of which we are so disgracefully destitute. With us the epithet of Scholar is an epithet of contempt—and men of the very shallowest pretensionswith but small acuteness and no reading-are daily heard talking with levity and scorn of the best scholars of England. In this way, we have reached to an undisturbed contentment with our ignorance and having discovered that book-learning is suitable to pedants only, we have become, by the mere force of theorizing, a nation of philosophers.
The effects of all this are most lamentable. While every little townevery village in England contains its accomplished scholars, Scotland is contented with her men of common sense, who take the liberty of thinking for themselves. A coarseness-a hardness-and a nakedness of mind universally prevails. Men of rich and various lore are nowhere to be found
The Poetical Remains of the late Dr John Leyden, with Memoirs of his Life, by the Rev. James Morton. Constable, Edinburgh, 1819.
among us. A few gifted spirits have raised the character of our country's genius-but though knowledge be spread among the lower ranks of society, perhaps almost to that precise extent advantageous to a state, none will be found to deny that the higher orders are almost universally unacquainted with all ancient literature and philosophy, and that, with few exceptions, the Scots literati are the most superficial men on earth.
The inferiority of Scotsmen, in general, to Englishmen, in all those accomplishments which are essential to a well-educated gentleman, is, we suspect, pretty forcibly felt even by themselves, when they happen to cross the Tweed. But when we are all together in a body, as for example, here in Edinburgh, we can talk with a magnanimous derision of the slender clerks of the south; and a solitary Englishman, surrounded by a dozen or a score of us Scotch philosophers, seems to us to shrink into very small dimensions. The southerns are themselves not unfrequently imposed upon by our airs of superiority in our own capital, and we have ourselves seen strangers of genuine talent and erudition listening, without being aware of the absurdity, to the emptiest of all pretenders, the Editor of the Supplement, and his eternal,
""Twas I, Says the fly,
With my little eye."
It is true, that we are yet poor,and perhaps our poverty may account for our want of erudition. But we ought to make a better use of our philosophy, than to undervalue the materials on which alone any philosophy can speculate to much purpose. Our ignorance ought not to be our pride, and instead of deriding that knowledge, which as a nation we have hitherto been prevented from acquiring, either by the poverty of our country, or by the defective character of our schools and universities, we ought rather to shew a generous admiration and a generous envy of the happier scholar of the south, trusting, that we may imbibe something of their spirit, and ere long to enjoy some of their manifold advantages.
we set no bounds to our national pride in the phenomenon,-and comparing him, not with the learned men of learned countries, but with the inerudite literati around us, we hail his advent with songs of triumph, and much to our satisfaction, place him without ceremony at the head of all the scholars of Europe. We then most inconsistently rave about those acquirements in him, which we have all along undervalued in others-and in doing so, can it be denied, that we are exhibiting a senseless and repulsive nationality?
We cannot help thinking that something of this sort has happened in the case of Dr John Leyden,-that his countrymen have bestowed on him a reputation beyond his deserts,-and endeavoured to raise him to an eminence among scholars, from which, in process of tine, he must inevitably be made to descend. Nothing less will satisfy us, than to compare him with Sir William Jones,-nor have there been wanting persons publicly to affirm, that Leyden was the greater man of the two, and that the world sustained the greater loss in his premature death. This we conceive is carrying Scotch nationality not to the verge, but into the very heart of folly.
It would be to no purpose to shew, that Sir William Jones enjoyed far greater advantages than Leyden; for the superiority of the former was wholly independent of these-he was, by nature, a far greater man. He was an universal, a perfect scholar. He was not actuated by the vain desire of knowing more than other men; but he loved and sought knowledge purely for its own sake. He had, therefore, no satisfaction in any acquirement that was not solid and complete.Truth, and truth alone, could satisfy him; and in all his researches, he advanced not a single step without a sure footing, and never journeyed on till he had dispersed the mist and the darkness. There was no quackery about him. With all his manifold accomplishments, there was a simple dignity in his manners and in his mind, that spoke not only the scholar but the philosopher; and no faith could have been placed in truth, had Sir William Jones but once in his life pretended to any knowledge which he did not possess. But in every department of learning he was equal to the most learned; and it has been well
When, however, amidst this universal dearth of knowledge, a man of great acquirements happens to arise,
observed," that in the course of a short life he had acquired a degree of knowledge which the ordinary faculties of man, if they were blest with antediluvian longevity, could scarcely hope to surpass. His learning threw light on the laws of Greece and India on the general literature of Asia, and on the history of the family of nations."
The character of Dr Leyden was, in too many respects, the very reverse of this. He had a strong passion for knowledge; but that passion was, unluckily, too much mixed with a fondness for display, and he could not fully enjoy his knowledge, unless he could get all the world to admire it. This restless love of distinction drove him from one study to another, as if he were afraid of being reckoned ignorant of any thing; and he had scarcely entered on one pursuit, till he darted away with feverish impatience into another. He seems to have prosecuted his studies on no regular system-to have devoured and gorged every thing that came in his way, without fear of indigestion. The consequence was, that the growth of his mind was not in proportion to the vast quantity of victuals which it consumed.
It cannot be denied, and it ought to be acknowledged, that Leyden often affected to know much more than he did; and that he sometimes committed such gross and ludicrous blunders, as overwhelmed with confusion every body but himself. He possessed but a very imperfect knowledge, indeed, of any of the languages of modern Europe; and though he talked of "passing muster with Dr Parr," all who knew Leyden were aware that he was no Grecian. Now, people are apt to feel some suspicion of a vain and blundering man; and they who know how imperfect and superficial a scholar Leyden was in those languages, with which all men of education have some acquaintance, may be pardoned for withholding their full faith from that almost miraculous gift of tongues which descended upon him in the East. His genius for the acquisition of languages was no doubt very extraordinary; and, as he finally relinquished every thing for the study of oriental literature, history, and laws, had he lived, it is likely that he might have thrown considerable light on the dark
ness in which they still lie enveloped. But Leyden never could have become a sure guide; for it was the radical defect of his intellect, that it was satisfied with glimpses of truth—with partial openings in the darkness, instead of the cloudless lustre of the disencumbered sky-as if he had believed that the fields of knowledge were to be taken and kept possession of by sudden and transitory inroads.
We are well aware, that by these general observations, we may be offending the admirers of this most enthusiastic and meritorious person; and no doubt it would require more room than we can now spare, to prove that our observations are just. Yet though we may be accused of under-rating the literary character of Leyden, in denying that he was a wonderful scholar at all, we are not afraid that any competent judge will blame us for exposing the absurd injustice which they shew to the memory of the acute, dashing, headlong, and fearless Borderer,-who are so grossly ignorant both of his merits and demerits-his knowledge and his ignorance-as to set him up in rivalry with perhaps the greatest scholar that the world ever produced. Had Leyden lived for ever, he had not a mind sufficiently accurate and comprehensive to master the knowledge acquired by Sir William Jones.
Of the poetical genius of Leyden, it is not possible for us to speak in terms of very high praise. He wrote verses because it was necessary that a man of talents should be able to do every thing. It has been attempted to place him among the poets of Scotland; but, though not acknowledged, it seems to be very generally felt that he was not a poet. No one ever heard a line of his quoted, except perhaps by some affectionate friend of his youth; and no fancy or feeling in his versifications has a dwelling-place in the heart of his country! he had no imaginationand no profound feeling. He gives long and laboured descriptions of the days of chivalry; and we feel indeed that the days of chivalry are gone, not to be restored by such a minstrel. The inspiration of a poet is one thing, and the animation of a moss-trooper is another. No doubt Leyden was a genuine Borderer, and consciously proud of the heroic character of old Border chiefs. But he would have handled a pike
much better than a harp, and fought a battle better than he has ever described one. He could write a tolerable ballad; for even in the olden time, goodish ballads were, we suspect, occasionally written by very unpoetical personages; but with all the pains he took, and these were not small, John Leyden never made any near approach to the character of a true poet. The Scenes of Infancy," is one of the heaviest descriptive poems in our language, and that is saying much. -It is impossible to know whether the poet is on the right or left bank of the Teviot-whether he is walking up or down the banks of that celebrated stream. And then, though minutely local as any Minister in the Statistical History of Scotland, his muse is ever and anon expanding her wings, and flying to the uttermost parts of the earth. His great object seems to have been, to make the poem big enough-which it would have been had it consisted of one short part instead of four long ones.
We have repeatedly looked through and through this poem for one fine passage but have met with none which seem to be of that character. In some passages, it is not easy to say what is wanting-for the versification is sonorous-and the imagery profuse. But certain it is, that the soul of poetry is not there-and without that, the pencil of Leyden may touch and retouch the canvass for ever, without a picture being created. Yet some descriptions there are which have been greatly admired, and these we shall select-happy if our readers, on perusing them, shall dissent from our critical opinions.
"On such an eve as this, so mild and clear, I follow'd to the grave a sister's bier. As sad by Teviot I retir'd alone, The setting sun with silent splendour shone; Sublime emotions reach'd my purer mind; The fear of death, the world was left behind.
"The moon, whose silver beams are bath'd in dew,
"Sleeps on her mid-way cloud of softest blue;
"Her watery light, that trembles on the tree,
"Shall safely lead thy viewless steps to me." As o'er my heart the sweet illusions stole, A wilder influence charm'd and aw'd my soul;
Each graceful form that vernal nature wore Rous'd keen sensations never felt before; The woodland's sombre shade that peasants fear,
The haunted mountain-streams that murmur'd near,
The antique tomb-stone, and the churchyard green,
Seem'd to unite me with the world unseen.
Soon learn'd to breathe a more heroic strain,
I saw the thin-spread clouds of summer lie,
"Thyself as pure, fair sufferer, come away!
In mournful murmurs o'er the warrior's grave.
of fancifulness in all this passage to There seems to us to be just enough destroy utterly all natural pathos and truth, without kindling in their room any emotions of a higher character. To others it may seem beautiful.
It is not possible to believe, that any true poet would thus have written of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray-yet the following cold and artificial description we have heard talked of with unbounded admiration.
Two beauteous maids the dire infection shun,
Where Dena's valley fronts the southern sun; While friendship sweet, and love's delightful power,
With fern and rushes thatch'd their summer-bower.
When spring invites the sister-friends to stray,
And ancient rowans mix their berries red With nuts, that cluster brown above their head.
He, mid the writhing roots of elms, that lean O'er oozy rocks of ezlar, shagg'd and green, Collects pale cowslips for the faithful pair, And braids the chaplet round their flowing