Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Angelo Politian.

Angelo Politian, an Italian, was one of the most polished writers of the fifteenth century. Baillet has placed him amongst his celebrated children; for he was a writer at twelve years of age. The Muses indeed cherished him in his cradle, and the Graces hung round it their wreaths. When he became professor of the Greek language, such were the charms of his lectures, that Chalcondylas, a native of Greece, saw himself abandoned by his pupils, who resorted to the delightful disquisitions of the elegant Politian. Critics of various nations have acknowledged that his poetical versions have frequently excelled the originals. This happy genius was lodged in a most unhappy form; nor were his morals untainted: it is only in his literary compositions that he appears perfect.

As a specimen of his Epistles, here is one, which serves as prefatory and dedicatory. The letter is replete with literature, though void of pedantry; a barren subject is embellished by its happy turns. Perhaps no author has more playfully defended himself from the incertitude of criticism and the fastidiousness of critics.

My Lord,

You have frequently urged me to collect my letters, to revise and to publish them in a volume. I have now gathered them, that I might not omit any mark of that obedience which I owe to him, on whom I rest all my hopes, and all my prosperity. I have not, however, collected them all, because that would have been a more laborious task than to have gathered the scattered leaves of the Sibyl. It was never, indeed, with an intention of forming my letters into one body that I wrote them, but merely as occasion prompted, and as the subjects presented themselves without seeking for them. I never retained copies except of a few, which, less fortunate, I think, than the others, were thus favoured for the sake of the verses they contained. To form, however, a tolerable volume, I have also inserted some written by others, but only those with which several ingenious scholars favoured me, and which, perhaps, may put the reader in good humour with my own.

There is one thing for which some will be inclined to censure me; the style of my letters is very unequal; and, to confess the truth, I did not find myself always in the same humour, and the same modes of expression were not adapted to every person and every topic. They will not fail then to observe, when they read such a diversity of letters (I mean if they do read them), that I have composed not epistles, but (once more) miscellanies.

I hope, my Lord, notwithstanding this, that amongst such a variety of opinions, of those who write letters, and of those who give precepts how letters should be written, I shall find some apology. Some, probably, will deny that they are Ciceronian. I can answer such, and not without good authority, that in epistolary composition we must not regard Cicero as a model. Another perhaps will say that I imitate Cicero. And him I will answer by observing, that I wish nothing better than to be capable of grasping something of this great man, were it but his shadow!

Another will wish that I had borrowed a little from the manner of Pliny the orator, because his profound sense and accuracy were greatly esteemed. I shall oppose him by expressing my contempt of all writers of the age of Pliny. If it should be observed, that I have imitated the manner of Pliny, I shall then screen myself by what Sidonius Apollinaris, an author who is by no means disreputable, says in commendation of his epistolary style. Do I resemble Symmachus? I shall not be sorry, for they distinguish his openness and conciseness. Am I considered in nowise resembling him? I shall confess that I am not pleased with his dry manner.

Will my letters be condemned for their length? Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Cicero, have all written long ones. Will some of them be criticised for their brevity? I allege in my favour the examples of Dion, Brutus, Apollonius, Philostratus, Marcus Antoninus, Alciphron, Julian, Symmachus, and also Lucian, who vulgarly, but falsely, is believed to have been Phalaris.

I shall be censured for having treated of topics which are not generally considered as proper for epistolary composition. I admit this censure, provided, while I am condemned, Seneca also shares in the condemnation. Another will not allow of a sententious manner in my letters; I will still justify myself by Seneca. Another, on the contrary, desires abrupt sententious periods; Dionysius shall answer him for me, who maintains that pointed sentences should not be admitted into letters.

Is my style too perspicuous? It is precisely that which Philostratus admires. Is it obscure? Such is that of Cicero to Attica. Negligent? An agreeable negligence in letters is more graceful than elaborate ornaments. Laboured? Nothing can be more proper, since we send epistles to our friends as a kind of presents. If they display too nice an arrangement, the Halicarnassian shall vindicate me. If there is none; Artemon says there should be none.

Now as a good and pure Latinity has its peculiar taste, its manners, and, to express myself thus, its Atticisms; if in this sense a letter shall be found not sufficiently Attic, so much the better; for what was Herod the sophist censured? but that having been born an Athenian, he affected too much to appear one in his language. Should a letter seem too Attical; still better, since it was by discovering Theophrastus, who was no Athenian, that a good old woman of Athens laid hold of a word, and shamed him.

Shall one letter be found not sufficiently serious? I love to jest. Or is it too grave? I am pleased with gravity. Is another full of figures? Letters being the images of discourse, figures have the effect of graceful action in conversation. Are they deficient in figures? This is just what characterises a letter, this want of figure! Does it discover the genius of the writer? This frankness is recommended. Does it conceal it? The writer did not think proper to paint himself; and it is one requisite in a letter, that it should be void of ostentation. You express yourself, some one will observe, in common terms on common topics, and in new terms on new topics. The style is thus adapted to the subject. No, no, he will answer; it is in common terms you express new ideas, and in new terms common ideas. Very well! It is because I have not forgotten an ancient Greek precept which expressly recommends this.

It is thus by attempting to be ambidextrous, I try to ward off attacks. My critics, however, will criticise me as they please. It will be sufficient for me, my Lord, to be assured of having satisfied you, by my letters, if they are good; or by my obedience, if they are not so.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37