Page images

them, he left a wonderful monument of active learning.

Peers? How would they appreciate the significance of telling what it was that Virgil's shepherd found to be a native of the rocks? But perhaps it would be sufficient to account for the nature of the production to say that it was the outburst of an impetuous man of genius chained down to dictionary work. He gave forth other growls in his agony, and one of an exhilarating kind when half-way through, at letter L-to wit, "Lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, who busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words."

Like St Anthony, and other selftormentors, he conjured up visions of demons and malignant imps. Chief among these was Lord Chesterfield, who had failed to receive his promises with acclamation, but stepped forward to welcome his performance. There was an old story which Boswell is right in discrediting, that Johnson's wrath towards Chesterfield arose from his having had to wait in the anteroom, where he saw Colley Cibber step out from the presence. Chesterfield was the demon of his troubled spirit undergoing its self-imposed martyrdom. The knights-errant, in their vows of asceticism, when assailed by the evil one, fell on him with sword and spear. St Anthony, and people of his kind, attacked him with prayers and sacred symbols. Johnson set upon his own demon with his own peculiar weapon, rolling against him a succession of sonorous sentences, which came heavily on him, and did him a good deal of damage.

"Seven years, my lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one

word of encouragement, or one smile of

favour. Such treatment I did not expect for I never had a patron before.


'The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.

"Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.

[ocr errors]

What would the public think of a letter of this sort addressed at the present day to some distinguished member of the House of


He seems to have taken out a little of his spite against the world in employing certain innocent persons to do the more mechanical part of his harmless drudgery. The tyrant of Syracuse turning schoolmaster was a joke to this exercise of petty tyranny.

Boswell says: 66 The learned yet judicious research of etymology, the various yet accurate display of definition, and the rich collection of authorities, were reserved for the superior mind of our great philologist. For the mechanical part he employed, as he told me, six amanuenses; and let it be remembered by the natives of North Britain, to whom he is supposed to have been so hostile, that five of them were of that country.'

[ocr errors]

have been utterly ashamed of this Boswell, as a Scotsman, should passage. Contempt and scorn could not have been more odiously poured out upon his countrymen than in setting them to such work. It was a refinement of contumely; and to speak of it as founded on a partiality for the people so treated! tell us as well that slavery is founded on a partiality for the negro race.

Let us again widen our range, and pass from the dictionary to a class of works generally deemed still more ambitious in their aims. The editorial guidance of a full, well-balanced encyclopædia, from its birth to its successful conclusion, demands an amount of organising power and generalship

[ocr errors]

which it taxes ordinary powers of mind merely to realise, and be conscious of the possible existence of. To suppose the Commander-in-Chief becoming also First Lord of the Admiralty, Master-General of the Ordnance, and First Commissioner of Her Majesty's Works, will be but a partial approach to the comprehensive realisation. We must also suppose him directing the functions of the Lord Chancellor, the First Lord of the Treasury, the Home, Foreign, and Colonial Secretaries, the Presidents of the Royal Society and of the Royal Academy, with a few other offices of like kind.

Such a troublesome, unruly, crotchety, angular, unconformable set, as such an administrator has to work with, is not easily conceived by those who are accustomed to the discipline and precision of official life. All are self-centred in their own crotchets, and determined to make room for themselves and elbow out all others. Here the conchologist, conscious of no life and interest save in the clammy sea-beach or the tangled recesses of the rocks, whose highest notions of an event or a crisis in life is the pulling-up and emptying of his dredge, shoves his neighbours, the ichthyologist and the paleozoic entomologist, out of the way as a couple of quacks, whose pretended science is all humbug in comparison with his own testaceous molluscs. The cryptogamist, or cultivator of the class of beings addicted to clandestine marriages, must have a large space for his algæ, which are of weightier import than all the rest of science put together, since in them we are to study the first germs and laws of vitality, and to find the infant origin, as it were, of the whole busy world of life and action, of growth and decay, of life and death, by which they are surround ed. Here comes a devotee to the doctrine that species are formed by the stronger crushing the weaker, and aggrandising themselves through the roll of ages until they

divide all nature among themselves; and he desires to exemplify his doctrine by elbowing out of the way all the other devotees around him. Down on all these comes "the practical man," who despises the whole tribe of philosophers, and is all for bricks or leather. A sort of half-breed between both comes forward in the shape of the inventor; he has discovered, say, a plan for blowing up fortresses with India-rubber bombs, and he wants to write the article Ordnance, Artillery, Bomb-ketch, Army, Fortification, War, or any other which will enable him to give prominence to the grandest discovery of our day-the invention that is to be the great crisis in the history of the world.

[ocr errors]

But perhaps the most troublesome of all are the biographers, and for this reason: In the sciences there are men with hobbies, who no doubt will ride them to desperation; but afford them the ordinary locomotive means of the rest of the world, and they will be quite reasonable, going no farther than the prescribed distance, and going no faster than the ordinary pace. But your biographer is apt to get off at all points. It is a specialty in the nature of man which might open a fine field of inquiry to psychological investigators, that whenever man writes the biography of his fellow-man he begins to worship him. Is it because the Life written is the property of the writer, and therefore to be magnified? Is it because the vast acquirements and noble virtues of the object of the laudations throw some slight reflection on the man who writes them? Is it a mere stupid, lazy practice which the tribe of biographers have got into,

owing to this, that some lives of great men have been written by their devoted admirers, and other writers who cared nothing whatever about the lives they were doing-who never heard of them till set to the task of writing them,-as the established method of writing

[ocr errors]

the American Revolution. The Life was written by an eminent person of the same surname-Adam Ferguson, the author of the History of the Roman Republic,' and some other books. Readers of this may not have read either his great work or the smaller

biography? Is it, after all, from some better method than any of these-a geniality which lures the human being into assimilation with any other being of the race with whom he has had to make acquaintance, without coming too close to suffer from his badness? Let us not anticipate the metaphysicians it is even possible that some of in assigning the cause of the specialty. But when it is duly investigated, let not one curious phenomenon be omitted. The French so thoroughly accepted the fact that a biography could be no other than laudatory, that the term they applied to it was an éloge-and it would be a piece of honesty if our own age and language would use a like term.

It being the propensity of the biographer at large to magnify his hero, portentous difficulties are doubtless in store for the encyclopædical editor, when a devoted disciple or an attached relation of a departed celebrity undertakes the task of giving him the precise amount of letterpress and laudation to which his importance entitles him, in comparison with all the other celebrated persons that have passed into and out of the world, and all the things in heaven and earth that are comprehended within the arena of human knowledge. Editors could no doubt tell curious stories about the difference between the space taken by the contributor in his estimate of due proportion, and the estimate made by the general umpire of what he should have taken. There would be some such incompatibility as in the saying about La Harpe, that it would be a good commercial speculation to buy him at his actual market price, and sell him (if one could) at his own estimation of his value.

In evidence how far up this propensity may extend, we tender a thin octavo volume, valuable to the collectors of rarities, being the Life of Colonel Fergusson, a gallant officer who fell bravely fighting in the cause of his duty in the war of

them may not be acquainted with his name. Those, however, who are in this position had better say nothing about it, for he has a place in literature, both from the capacity he brought to bear on Roman history, and the eminence of the literary set he lived in, which included David Hume, Adam Smith, Robertson, and Carlyle.

The literary history of the minor work before us is thus candidly announced in its title-' Biographical Sketch or Memoir of Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Fergusson, originally intended for the Encyclopædia Britannica,' 8vo, 1817. This is followed by the explanation, that


"The following biographical sketch was written by Dr Ferguson for the purpose of being published in the Encyclopædia Britannica;' but being considered by the editor too long for that work, and the Doctor declining to abridge it, it was not inserted." Accordingly, it begins by giving the Colonel his proper alphabetical place in the long list in close vicinity to Ferdusi, Fernando, Feres, and Ferrei—"Fergusson, Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick." are told that "he was second son of James Fergusson, Esq. of Pitfour, one of the Senators of the College of Justice and Lords Commissioners of Justiciary in Scotland, by Anne Murray, daughter of Alexander Lord Elibank; and with this descent fortunately united in his own character the calm judgment and exalted abilities of his father, with the vivacity and genius of his mother's family." Doomed as he was to exclusion, yet it seems he and his friends believed in his successful achievement of an inven

tion which, had the world accepted of it, would have secured him a rank among the Congreves, Schrapnells, and Armstrongs. This was "a new species of rifle, which he could load at the breech without the use of the rammer, and with such quick repetition as to fire seven times in a minute. The rifleman in the mean time might be stretched at full length on the ground, so as to have the cover of a parapet, behind even a consolidated mole-hill, or the least inequality of the earth's surface." This invention was tried in the presence of royalty, but the firing was very wide. This was attributed to diffidence of the august spectator, and the inventor aptly enough said that the nerves of the performer would not have been so much disturbed by the presence of his majesty's enemies.

An encyclopædia is something professing to give instruction in a circle. This will hardly convey a distinctive notion to the mind without some explanations taken from practice. The idea of a philosophical work of this kind involves the joint action of the two logical operations, analysis and synthesis. First, you take all human knowledge and analyse it into its component parts -each of these must be treated according to its due proportion. Next, you take every substantive in the dictionary, and every scientific, historical, biographical, and geographical word, and each of these must have a place. General treatises on all human knowledge had been long in existence, and received a considerable stimulus from the labours of Bacon. Dictionaries also had been long in existence, in which each word was a separate entity, treated without any reference to the position of the thing it represented in the field of human knowledge.

[ocr errors]

The thing to be done was to unite the two-provide for the reader a full library of all knowledge the sum of every sciencethe history and geography of every

country, and so on-and yet to answer in detail, through the alphabet, whatever question any one, put to a puzzle in his ordinary reading, desired to ask. And this had to be done without repetition. It is easy to see that this requires care and management. Without venturing to show a sample of it as well done, it is easy to show how it can be ill done. Suppose that, in the hot fervour of developing some new and grand theory in physical geography, it is essential to you to know on the instant how high the village of Aussig on the Elbe stands above the level of the sea-you must have the information at once, or the ideas, crowding one after another, will make their escape. You dash into the proper place in the mass of fifty or sixty volumes which are your standard works of reference, and there, under the head "Aussig," you are referred for information to "Austrian Empire." This is not far off; but there is not much to be made of it when obtained. It fills a volume, and that volume has no index or contents, or division of any kind. The person who had the special charge of such trifles as Aussig was very safe in sending you where he did, for it would take you a week's reading to enable you to contradict him, and say that, after all, there is not a word about Aussig in

the whole treatise. That treatise, indeed, has been written by a great ethnologist, who has devoted himself to the exposition of large views on the balance of the Teutonic and Slavonic races, and on the influence and counterinfluence which their static condition has had on the preservation and development of the imperial institutions, left as they were, by the overthrow of the Roman empire, to develop themselves in new phases of a homogeneous autochomy. To these momentous affairs all his energy, within the limited space allowed to him, is devoted, and he would have no more idea of going into particulars

and saying anything about Aussig, or any place like it, than of devoting himself to the biography of the very respectable landlord of the Goldene Krone in that romantic little town.

The tendency of the encyclopædia towards centralising itself into great treatises on the chief sciences was much encouraged by D'Alembert, Diderot, and the rest of that set who earned for themselves the name of Encyclopædists. D'Alembert was always pottering at what he called Encyclopædial tables, bringing out a Système figuré des connaissances humaines. He professed to found his system on Bacon's; but it is said that this was merely to divert suspicion away from the free-thinking tone which he infused into his classifications. If he and his coadjutors were a little naughty in this way, they certainly were subjected to the direst literary punishment that ever was heard of. To be ostensibly clipped down by the scissors of the censor was bad enough, but nothing to the discovery, just as they were ready to break upon the astonished world with all their powerful originality and contempt for authority, that there was an enemy within their own camp clipping away all those bold original passages on which their reputation was to rest. The publisher, in short, was not to risk ruin and the Bastille for things like that; so he quietly, and without any compunction, cut them out of the proofs before these went finally to press, leaving the enraged authors to such recourse as they might find.

These were the men who introduced great dissertations on branches of science into encyclopædia practice. No doubt each of these was written by some man of great scientific attainments and of wide reputation. Thus the work became so illustrious. But its general plan is believed to have owed many debts to the humbler work of Ephraim Chambers; and still the circle of knowledge had not been completed,

for the French Encyclopædists did not include history and biography.

If all human knowledge is to be within a given cincture, these must of course go with the rest; but they are in many respects so incompatible with science in a system where a sort of common centre is to be looked for, that it is, after all, questionable whether what deals with the history of men and nations should not be detached from the rest of knowledge. Then a new difficulty occurs in a branch of knowledge stretching between the two, something half of science, half of mere human experience, with some ties to the mathematics and other exact sciences, and a close connection with statistics—namely, Political economy.

Indeed, when we suppose all branches of human knowledge to be dealt with in such a work, all to get fair-play, and all to be in some way connected together as meeting in a common centre, the difficulties seem to multiply with the unlimited capacities of man for the acquisition of new knowledge. Every head of division in such an encyclopædia will have hooks fixed into it to draw it to every great department of human knowledge. Take the word Sheep, for instance. The zoologist, let us suppose, has undoubtedly the primary claim, and, all others giving way for the time, takes possession of him as belonging to the genus Ovis, the tribe Capridæ, the order of Ruminants, and the class of Mammalia. Farming has perhaps the next claim, with its distant opposites of Southdown and Highland Blackface, and the multitude of intermediate distinctions and classifications known to the learned. He whose department is the manufacture of textile fabrics has also something to say, perhaps, about the difference between the fibres of animal tissues, which, when examined by the microscope, are seen to have lateral tags which lay hold of each other, while those of vegetable tissues hold together entirely by the twist.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »