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RETROSPECT OF LITERATURE,
FROM THE EARLIEST PERIOD TO THE TWELFTH
CENTURY OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA.
The Permanence of Words.
An eloquent, but extravagant, writer has hazarded the assertion, that “ words are the only things that last for ever.”* Nor is this merely a splendid saying, or a startling paradox, that may be qualified by explanation into common-place; but with respect to man, and his works on earth, it is literally true. Temples and palaces, amphitheatres and catacombsmonuments of power, and magnificence, and skill, to perpetuate the memory, and preserve even the ashes, of those who lived in past ages - must, in the revolutions of mundane events, not only perish themselves by violence or decay, but the very dust in which they perished be so scattered, as to leave no trace of their material existence behind. There is no security be
* The late Mr. William Hazlitt.
yond the passing moment for the most permanent, or the most precious of these; they are as much in jeopardy as ever, after having escaped the changes and chances of thousands of years. An earthquake may suddenly ingulph the pyramids of Egypt, and leave the sand of the Desert as blank as the tide would have left it on the sea-shore. A hammer in the hand of an idiot may break to pieces the Apollo Belvedere, or the Venus de'Medici, which are scarcely less worshipped as miracles of art in our day, than they were by idolaters of old as representatives of deities.
Looking abroad over the whole world, after the lapse of nearly six thousand years, what have we of the past but the words in which its history is recorded? What beside a few mouldering and brittle ruins, which time is imperceptibly touching down into dust,- what, beside these, remains of the glory, the grandeur, the intelligence, the supremacy of the Grecian republics, or the empire of Rome? Nothing but the words of poets, historians, philosophers, and orators, who being dead yet speak, and in their immortal works still maintain their dominion over inferior minds through all posterity. And these intellectual sovereigns not only govern our spirits from the tomb by the power of their thoughts, but their very voices are heard by our living ears in the accents of their mother-tongues. The beauty, the eloquence, and art of these collocations of sounds and syllables, the learned alone can appreciate, and that only (in some cases) after long, intense, and laborious investigation ; but as thought can be made to transmigrate from one
body of words into another, even through all the languages of the earth, without losing what may be called its personal identity,— the great minds of antiquity continue to hold their ascendancy over the opinions, manners, characters, institutions, and events of all ages and nations, through which their posthumous compositions have found way, and been made the earliest subjects of study, the highest standards of morals, and the most perfect examples of taste, to the master-minds in every state of civilised society. In this respect, the “ words” of inspired prophets and apostles among the Jews, and those of gifted writers among the ancient Gentiles, may truly be said to 6 last for ever."
Words are the vehicles by which thought is made visible to the eye, audible to the ear, and intelligible to the mind of another ; they are the palpable forms of ideas, without which these would be intangible as the spirit that conceives, or the breath that would utter them. And of such influence is speech or writing, as the conductor of thought, that, though all words do not “last for ever," and it is well for the peace of the world, and the happiness of individuals, that they do not, - yet even here every word has its date and its effect; so that with the tongue or the pen we are continually doing good or evil to ourselves or our
eighbours. On a single phrase expressed in anger or affection, in levity or seriousness, the whole progress of a human spirit through life—perhaps even to eternity-may be changed from the direction which it was pursuing, whether right or wrong.
For in nothing is the power and indestructibility of words