Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Literary Parallels.

An opinion on this subject in the preceding article has led me to a further investigation. It may be right to acknowledge that so attractive is this critical and moral amusement of comparing great characters with one another, that, among others, Bishop Hurd once proposed to write a book of Parallels, and has furnished a specimen in that of Petrarch and Rousseau, and intended for another that of Erasmus with Cicero. It is amusing to observe how a lively and subtle mind can strike out resemblances, and make contraries accord, and at the same time it may show the pinching difficulties through which a parallel is pushed, till it ends in a paradox.

Hurd says of Petrarch and Rousseau —“Both were impelled by an equal enthusiasm, though directed towards different objects: Petrarch’s towards the glory of the Roman name, Rousseau’s towards his idol of a state of nature; the one religious, the other un esprit fort; but may not Petrarch’s spite to Babylon be considered, in his time, as a species of free-thinking”— and concludes, that “both were mad, but of a different nature.” Unquestionably there were features much alike, and almost peculiar to these two literary characters; but I doubt if Hurd has comprehended them in the parallel.

I now give a specimen of those parallels which have done so much mischief in the literary world, when drawn by a hand which covertly leans on one side. An elaborate one of this sort was composed by Longolius or Longuel, between Budæus and Erasmus.1 This man, though of Dutch origin, affected to pass for a Frenchman, and, to pay his court to his chosen people, gives the preference obliquely to the French Budæus; though, to make a show of impartiality, he acknowledges that Francis the First had awarded it to Erasmus; but probably he did not infer that kings were the most able reviewers! This parallel was sent forth during the lifetime of both these great scholars, who had long been correspondents, but the publication of the parallel interrupted their friendly intercourse. Erasmus returned his compliments and thanks to Longolius, but at the same time insinuates a gentle hint that he was not overpleased. “What pleases me most,” Erasmus writes, “is the just preference you have given Budæus over me; I confess you are even too economical in your praise of him, as you are too prodigal in mine. I thank you for informing me what it is the learned desire to find in me; my self-love suggests many little excuses, with which, you observe, I am apt to favour my defects. If I am careless, it arises partly from my ignorance, and more from my indolence; I am so constituted, that I cannot conquer my nature; I precipitate rather than compose, and it is far more irksome for me to revise than to write.”

This parallel between Erasmus and Budæus, though the parallel itself was not of a malignant nature, yet disturbed the quiet, and interrupted the friendship of both. When Longolius discovered that the Parisian surpassed the Hollander in Greek literature and the knowledge of the civil law, and worked more learnedly and laboriously, how did this detract from the finer genius and the varied erudition of the more delightful writer? The parallelist compares Erasmus to “a river swelling its waters, and often overflowing its banks; Budæus rolled on like a majestic stream, ever restraining its waves within its bed. The Frenchman has more nerve, and blood, and life, and the Hollander more fulness, freshness, and colour.”

The taste for biographical parallels must have reached us from Plutarch; and there is something malicious in our nature which inclines us to form comparative estimates, usually with a view to elevate one great man at the cost of another, whom we would secretly depreciate. Our political parties at home have often indulged in these fallacious parallels, and Pitt and Fox once balanced the scales, not by the standard weights and measures which ought to have been used, but by the adroitness of the hand that pressed down the scale. In literature, these comparative estimates have proved most prejudicial. A finer model exists not than the parallel of Dryden and Pope, by Johnson; for, without designing any undue preference, his vigorous judgment has analysed them by his contrasts, and has rather shown their distinctness than their similarity. But literary parallels usually end in producing parties; and, as I have elsewhere observed, often originate in undervaluing one man of genius, for his deficiency in some eminent quality possessed by the other man of genius; they not unfrequently proceed from adverse tastes, and are formed with the concealed design of establishing some favourite one. The world of literature has been deeply infected with this folly. Virgil probably was often vexed in his days by a parallel with Homer, and the Homerians combated with the Virgilians. Modern Italy was long divided into such literary sects: a perpetual skirmishing is carried on between the Ariostoists and the Tassoists; and feuds as dire as those between two Highland clans were raised concerning the Petrarchists, and the Chiabrerists. Old Corneille lived to bow his venerable genius before a parallel with Racine; and no one has suffered more unjustly by such arbitrary criticisms than Pope, for a strange unnatural civil war has often been renewed between the Drydenists and the Popeists. Two men of great genius should never be depreciated by the misapplied ingenuity of a parallel; on such occasions we ought to conclude magis pares quam similes.

1 It is noticed by Jortin in his Life of Erasmus, vol. i. p. 160.

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