nineteenth century, with a new Paradise Lost, than the Laureate, Robert Southey, Esq. has done with his Vision of Judgment. It must, indeed, be admitted, that if La Bruyère is right, our English booksellers are very inventive personages; for they produce more bad books than the rest of Europe put together. But there is also abundance of excellence afloat-of that precise excellence which society requires ; and as the overflowing fertility of literature has generated a tact, prompt and accurate as an instinct, for discovering what books are to be bought and studied, what may be read, and what cast aside, the putting forth of nonsense and villainy is much less mischievous than is supposed. In fact, a man is drawn by a sort of elective attraction to the works which harmonize with his intellectual peculiarities, assort with his feelings, and dovetail with his wit, just as animals are drawn by nature to their appropriate bodily nourishment; and the frequency of bad books proves only that fools and knaves now employ their leisure in reading, instead of the more dangerous and brutal pastimes which occupied their predecessors.

[merged small][ocr errors]

This evil of bad books is no novelty. Whoever runs his eye over the catalogue lying on his library table, will be convinced, that in any age, the number of really useful and valuable works bore no very large proportion to the entire mass of literature. Men are apt to imagine, that Ovid, and Virgil, and Horace, had the field to themselves ; but the “mad, melting, reciters of August” were, no doubt, as abundant in their day, as in the silver age of latinity, which so rapidly followed. The unrolling of the manuscripts of Pompeii has proved that “ trash” preceded the invention of reviews, and belongs to an elder antiquity than that of the Row:” and it may be questioned, whether, at the burning of the library at Alexandria, there were an hundred volumes utterly lost to the world, which were not more serviceable as fuel for the baths, than as food for the mind.

The first efforts of the press were expended in disseminating the accumulated errors of a thousand years, which had previously been in the exclusive possession of the few; and since then, each successive generation has pretty equally divided its time between refuting the mistakes of its predecessors, and popularizing and accrediting others of its own. Ignorance, pedantry, and bad taste, infect the earlier writers, notwithstanding their eloquence and energy. Their alchymy, their astrology, their witchcraft, were scarcely less mischievous, than their false morality and silly politics. Of theology it is dangerous to speak; but as every one will admit that whatever has been written without the pale of his own narrow sect, is pernicious error; and as what every body says must be true, the reader may draw his own consequence. Medicine, to this very day, continues a tissue of ill-understood facts, a chaos of false inferences and incongruous systems. The science of law is a nullity; and each particular code a standing monument of the barbarity and perversity of the species : and as for philosophy, why the less that is said on the subject the better. Of all the works of imagination, with which the press teemed during the last two centuries, how very few live and are read! History has ever been a record of errors, of party misrepresentation, and of mistaken views, passed through the cullender of the historian's fancy: while, as to essentials, it is the play of Hamlet, with the part of the Prince of Denmark omitted by particular desire. Each generation, again, has had its harvest of pamphlets, embodying the corrupt interests and false views of the moment, which have fretted their little hour on the stage, and then have been consigned to the trunk-makers, pastrycooks, and bibliomaniacs.

We are told that literature having become a matter of mercantile speculation, and authorship having acquired much pecuniary value, men are in haste to realize; so that, among the multitude of competitors, an author dreads to be anticipated ; and hurries his crude thoughts before the public, lest, while he is digesting them, the market should change, and all chance of reward be cut off for ever. But if authors do not now “ keep their piece nine years,” something must be attributed also to the quickened movements of intellect : writing, aye, and thinking also, are more easily performed than formerly; and a work is not always the worse for being thrown off at a heat.

Another cause for the multiplication of flimsy books, is the universality of authorship; and this fashion for writing is, at least, as good a fashion as

that of driving coaches and beating the watch. When all sorts and conditions of persons publish, all sorts and conditions of persons must read; and the annual quality of publications, is less an exponent of the talent in the market, than of the minimum of wit, sense and utility, beyond which the public will not buy. Let there arise a demand for any species of nonsense and absurdity, and there will be found a corresponding supply.

The last generation ran very much upon literary cobblers and poetic milk-maids. The present goes principally upon lords and honourables ; and low as the "collective wisdom” may rate in the estimation of some persons, M. P. in a title page, is worth at least an extra hundred pounds. Amateur writing, like amateur fiddling, need not be of the very best. Those who are placed beyond the reach of great interests, have rarely strong passions; and if they trifle agreeably, they have done all that can reasonably be expected from them. The “ degenerate race to come,” will, perhaps, read nothing but the works of those who put their mark to their MS., who write by deputy, and publish by dictation: or, perhaps, Mr. Babbage, improving on his

« 前へ次へ »