Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Literary Unions.

Secret History of Rawleigh’s History of the World, and Vasari’s Lives.

A union of talents, differing in their qualities, might carry some important works to a more extended perfection. In a work of great enterprise, the aid of a friendly hand may be absolutely necessary to complete the labours of the projector, who may have neither the courage, the leisure, nor all necessary acquisitions for performing the favourite task which he has otherwise matured. Many great works, commenced by a master-genius, have remained unfinished, or have been deficient for want of this friendly succour. The public would have been grateful to Johnson, had he united in his dictionary the labours of some learned etymologist. Speed’s Chronicle owes most of its value, as it does its ornaments, to the hand of Sir Robert Cotton, and other curious researchers, who contributed entire portions. Goguet’s esteemed work of the “Origin of the Arts and Sciences” was greatly indebted to the fraternal zeal of a devoted friend. The still valued books of the Port Royal Society were all formed by this happy union. The secret history of many eminent works would show the advantages which may be derived from that combination of talents, differing in their nature. Cumberland’s masterly versions of the fragments of the Greek dramatic poets would never have been given to the poetical world, had he not accidentally possessed the manuscript notes of his relative, the learned Bentley. This treasure supplied that research in the most obscure works, which the volatile studies of Cumberland could never have explored; a circumstance which he concealed from the world, proud of the Greek erudition which he thus cheaply possessed. Yet by this literary union, Bentley’s vast erudition made those researches which Cumberland could not; and Cumberland gave the nation a copy of the domestic drama of Greece, of which Bentley was incapable.

There is a large work, which is still celebrated, of which the composition has excited the astonishment even of the philosophic Hume, but whose secret history remains yet to be disclosed. This extraordinary volume is “The History of the World by Rawleigh.” I shall transcribe Hume’s observations, that the reader may observe the literary phenomenon. “They were struck with the extensive genius of the man, who being educated amidst naval and military enterprises, had surpassed in the pursuits of literature, even those of the most recluse and sedentary lives; and they admired his unbroken magnanimity, which at his age, and under his circumstances, could engage him to undertake and execute so great a work, as his History of the World.” Now when the truth is known, the wonderful in this literary mystery will disappear, except in the eloquent, the grand, and the pathetic passages interspersed in that venerable volume. We may, indeed, pardon the astonishment of our calm philosopher, when we consider the recondite matter contained in this work, and recollect the little time which this adventurous spirit, whose life was passed in fabricating his own fortune, and in perpetual enterprise, could allow to such erudite pursuits. Where could Rawleigh obtain that familiar acquaintance with the rabbins, of whose language he was probably entirely ignorant? His numerous publications, the effusions of a most active mind, though excellent in their kind, were evidently composed by one who was not abstracted in curious and remote inquiries, but full of the daily business and the wisdom of human life. His confinement in the Tower, which lasted several years, was indeed sufficient for the composition of this folio volume, and of a second which appears to have occupied him. But in that imprisonment it singularly happened that he lived among literary characters with most intimate friendship. There he joined the Earl of Northumberland, the patron of the philosophers of his age, and with whom Rawleigh pursued his chemical studies; and Serjeant Hoskins, a poet and a wit, and the poetical “father” of Ben Jonson, who acknowledged that “It was Hoskins who had polished him;” and that Rawleigh often consulted Hoskins on his literary works, I learn from a manuscript. But however literary the atmosphere of the Tower proved to Rawleigh, no particle of Hebrew, and perhaps little of Grecian lore, floated from a chemist and a poet. The truth is, that the collection of the materials of this history was the labour of several persons, who have not all been discovered. It has been ascertained that Ben Jonson was a considerable contributor; and there was an English philosopher from whom Descartes, it is said even by his own countrymen, borrowed largely — Thomas Hariot, whom Anthony Wood charges with infusing into Rawleigh’s volume philosophical notions, while Rawleigh was composing his History of the World. But if Rawleigh’s pursuits surpassed even those of the most recluse and sedentary lives, as Hume observes, we must attribute this to a “Dr. Robert Burrel, Rector of Northwald, in the county of Norfolk, who was a great favourite of Sir Walter Rawleigh, and had been his chaplain. All, or the greatest part of the drudgery of Sir Walter’s History for criticisms, chronology, and reading Greek and Hebrew authors, was performed by him for Sir Walter.”1 Thus a simple fact, when discovered, clears up the whole mystery; and we learn how that knowledge was acquired, which, as Hume sagaciously detected, required “a recluse and sedentary life,” such as the studies and the habits of a country clergyman would have been in a learned age.

The secret history of another work, still more celebrated than the History of the World, by Sir Walter Rawleigh, will doubtless surprise its numerous admirers.

Without the aid of a friendly hand, we should probably have been deprived of the delightful History of Artists by Vasari: although a mere painter and goldsmith, and not a literary man, Vasari was blessed with the nice discernment of one deeply conversant with art, and saw rightly what was to be done, when the idea of the work was suggested by the celebrated Paulus Jovius as a supplement to his own work of the “Eulogiums of Illustrious Men.” Vasari approved of the project; but on that occasion judiciously observed, not blinded by the celebrity of the literary man who projected it, that “It would require the assistance of an artist to collect the materials, and arrange them in their proper order; for although Jovius displayed great knowledge in his observations, yet he had not been equally accurate in the arrangement of his facts in his book of Eulogiums.” Afterwards, when Vasari began to collect his information, and consulted Paulus Jovius on the plan, although that author highly approved of what he saw, he alleged his own want of leisure and ability to complete such an enterprise; and this was fortunate: we should otherwise have had, instead of the rambling spirit which charms us in the volumes of Vasari, the verbose babble of a declaimer. Vasari, however, looked round for the assistance he wanted; a circumstance which Tiraboschi has not noticed: like Hogarth, he required a literary man for his scribe. I have discovered the name of the chief writer of the Lives of the Painters, who wrote under the direction of Vasari, and probably often used his own natural style, and conveyed to us those reflections which surely come from their source. I shall give the passage, as a curious instance where the secret history of books is often detected in the most obscure corners of research. Who could have imagined that in a collection of the lives de’ Santi e Beati dell’ Ordine de’ Predicatori, we are to look for the writer of Vasari’s lives? Don Serafini Razzi, the author of this ecclesiastical biography, has this reference: “Who would see more of this may turn to the Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, written for the greater part by Don Silvano Razzi, my brother, for the Signor Cavaliere M. Giorgio Vasari, his great friend.”2

The discovery that Vasari’s volumes were not entirely written by himself, though probably under his dictation, and unquestionably, with his communications, as we know that Dr. Morell wrote the “Analysis of Beauty” for Hogarth, will perhaps serve to clear up some unaccountable mistakes or omissions which appear in that series of volumes, written at long intervals, and by different hands. Mr. Fuseli has alluded to them in utter astonishment; and cannot account for Vasari’s “incredible dereliction of reminiscence, which prompted him to transfer what he had rightly ascribed to Giorgione in one edition to the elder Parma in the subsequent ones.” Again: “Vasari’s memory was either so treacherous, or his rapidity in writing so inconsiderate, that his account of the Capella Sistina, and the stanze of Raffaello, is a mere heap of errors and unpardonable confusion.” Even Bottari, his learned editor, is at a loss how to account for his mistakes. Mr. Fuseli finely observes —“He has been called the Herodotus of our art; and if the main simplicity of his narrative, and the desire of heaping anecdote on anecdote, entitle him in some degree to that appellation, we ought not to forget that the information of every day adds something to the authenticity of the Greek historian, whilst every day furnishes matter to question the credibility of the Tuscan.” All this strongly confirms the suspicion that Vasari employed different hands at different times to write out his work. Such mistakes would occur to a new writer, not always conversant with the subject he was composing on, and the disjointed materials of which were often found in a disordered state. It is, however, strange that neither Bottari nor Tiraboschi appears to have been aware that Vasari employed others to write for him; we see that from the first suggestion of the work he had originally proposed that Paulus Jovius should hold the pen for him.

The principle illustrated in this article might be pursued; but the secret history of two great works so well known is as sufficient as twenty others of writings less celebrated. The literary phenomenon which had puzzled the calm inquiring Hume to cry out “a miracle!” has been solved by the discovery of a little fact on Literary Unions, which derives importance from this circumstance.3

1 I draw my information from a very singular manuscript in the Lansdowne collection, which I think has been mistaken for a boy’s ciphering book, of which it has much the appearance, No. 741, fo. 57, as it stands in the auctioneer’s catalogue. It appears to be a collection closely written, extracted out of Anthony Wood’s papers; and as I have discovered in the manuscript numerous notices not elsewhere preserved, I am inclined to think that the transcriber copied them from that mass of Anthony Wood’s papers, of which more than one sackful was burnt at his desire before him when dying. If it be so, this MS. is the only register of many curious facts.

Ben Jonson has been too freely censured for his own free censures, and particularly for one he made on Sir Walter Rawleigh, who, he told Drummond, “esteemed more fame than conscience. The best wits in England were employed in making his History; Ben himself had written a piece to him of the Punic War, which he altered and set in his book.” Jonson’s powerful advocate, Mr. Gifford, has not alleged a word in the defence of our great bard’s free conversational strictures; the secret history of Rawleigh’s great work had never been discovered; on this occasion, however, Jonson only spoke what he knew to be true — and there may have been other truths, in those conversations which were set down at random by Drummond, who may have chiefly recollected the satirical touches.

2 I find this quotation in a sort of polemical work of natural philosophy, entitled “Saggio di Storia Litteraria Fiorentina del Secolo XVII. da Giovanne Clemente Nelli,” Lucca, 1759, p. 58. Nelli also refers to what he had said on this subject in his Piante ad alzati di S.M. del Fiore, p. vi. e vii.; a work on architecture. See Brunet; and Haym, Bib. Ital. de Libri rari.

3 Mr. Patrick Fraser Tytler, in his recent biography of Sir Walter Rawleigh, a work of vigorous research and elegant composition, has dedicated to me a supernumerary article in his Appendix, entitled Mr. D’Israeli’s Errors!

He has inferred from the present article, that I denied that Rawleigh was the writer of his own great work! — because I have shown how great works may be advantageously pursued by the aid of “Literary Union.” It is a monstrous inference! The chimera which plays before his eyes is his own contrivance; he starts at his own phantasmagoria, and leaves me, after all, to fight with his shadow.

Mr. Tytler has not contradicted a single statement of mine. I have carefully read his article and my own, and I have made no alteration.

I may be allowed to add that there is much redundant matter in the article of Mr. Tytler; and, to use the legal style, there is much “impertinence,” which, with a little candour and more philosophy, he would strike his pen through, as sound lawyers do on these occasions.

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