Of a work which long has been placed on that shelf which Voltaire has discriminated as la Bibliothèque du Monde, it is never mistimed for the author to offer the many, who are familiar with its pages, a settled conception of its design.
The “Curiosities of Literature,” commenced fifty years since, have been composed at various periods, and necessarily partake of those successive characters which mark the eras of the intellectual habits of the writer.
In my youth, the taste for modern literary history was only of recent date. The first elegant scholar who opened a richer vein in the mine of Modern Literature was Joseph Warton; — he had a fragmentary mind, and he was a rambler in discursive criticism. Dr. Johnson was a famished man for anecdotical literature, and sorely complained of the penury of our literary history.
Thomas Warton must have found, in the taste of his brother and the energy of Johnson, his happiest prototypes; but he had too frequently to wrestle with barren antiquarianism, and was lost to us at the gates of that paradise which had hardly opened on him. These were the true founders of that more elegant literature in which France had preceded us. These works created a more pleasing species of erudition:— the age of taste and genius had come; but the age of philosophical thinking was yet but in its dawn.
Among my earliest literary friends, two distinguished themselves by their anecdotical literature: James Petit Andrews, by his “Anecdotes, Ancient and Modern,” and William Seward, by his “Anecdotes of Distinguished Persons.” These volumes were favourably received, and to such a degree, that a wit of that day, and who is still a wit as well as a poet, considered that we were far gone in our “Anecdotage.”
I was a guest at the banquet, but it seemed to me to consist wholly of confectionery. I conceived the idea of a collection of a different complexion. I was then seeking for instruction in modern literature; and our language afforded no collection of the res litterariæ. In the diversified volumes of the French Ana, I found, among the best, materials to work on. I improved my subjects with as much of our own literature as my limited studies afforded. The volume, without a name, was left to its own unprotected condition. I had not miscalculated the wants of others by my own.
This first volume had reminded the learned of much which it is grateful to remember, and those who were restricted by their classical studies, or lounged only in perishable novelties, were in modern literature but dry wells, for which I had opened clear waters from a fresh spring. The work had effected its design in stimulating the literary curiosity of those, who, with a taste for its tranquil pursuits, are impeded in their acquirement. Imitations were numerous. My reading became more various, and the second volume of “Curiosities of Literature” appeared, with a slight effort at more original investigation. The two brother volumes remained favourites during an interval of twenty years.
It was as late as 1817 that I sent forth the third volume; without a word of preface. I had no longer anxieties to conceal or promises to perform. The subjects chosen were novel, and investigated with more original composition. The motto prefixed to this third volume from the Marquis of Halifax is lost in the republications, but expresses the peculiar delight of all literary researches for those who love them: “The struggling for knowledge hath a pleasure in it like that of wrestling with a fine woman.”
The notice which the third volume obtained, returned me to the dream of my youth. I considered that essay writing, from Addison to the successors of Johnson, which had formed one of the most original features of our national literature, would now fail in its attraction, even if some of those elegant writers themselves had appeared in a form which their own excellence had rendered familiar and deprived of all novelty. I was struck by an observation which Johnson has thrown out. That sage, himself an essayist and who had lived among our essayists, fancied that “mankind may come in time to write all aphoristically;” and so athirst was that first of our great moral biographers for the details of human life and the incidental characteristics of individuals, that he was desirous of obtaining anecdotes without preparation or connexion. “If a man,” said this lover of literary anecdotes, “is to wait till he weaves anecdotes, we may be long in getting them, and get but few in comparison to what we might get.” Another observation, of Lord Bolingbroke, had long dwelt in my mind, that “when examples are pointed out to us, there is a kind of appeal with which we are flattered made to our senses as well as our understandings.” An induction from a variety of particulars seemed to me to combine that delight, which Johnson derived from anecdotes, with that philosophy which Bolingbroke founded on examples; and on this principle the last three volumes of the “Curiosities of Literature” were constructed, freed from the formality of dissertation, and the vagueness of the lighter essay.
These “Curiosities of Literature” have passed through a remarkable ordeal of time; they have survived a generation of rivals; they are found wherever books are bought, and they have been repeatedly reprinted at foreign presses, as well as translated. These volumes have imbued our youth with their first tastes for modern literature, have diffused a delight in critical and philosophical speculation among circles of readers who were not accustomed to literary topics; and finally, they have been honoured by eminent contemporaries, who have long consulted them and set their stamp on the metal.
A voluminous miscellany, composed at various periods, cannot be exempt from slight inadvertencies. Such a circuit of multifarious knowledge could not be traced were we to measure and count each step by some critical pedometer; life would be too short to effect any reasonable progress. Every work must be judged by its design, and is to be valued by its result.
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