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"On a bulk, in a cellar, or in a glass-house, was to be found the author of the Wanderer, the man of exalted sentiment, extensive views, and curious observation; the man whose remarks on life might have assisted the statesman, whose ideas of virtue might have enlightened the moralist; whose eloquence might have influenced senates, and whose delicacy might have polished courts."
From a deficiency of materials I conclude it happened that some of Dr. Johnson's lives of the poets are little more than mere critical sketches; yet in this point of view they are excellent, and even where the deficiency of materials is most apparent, he contrives to introduce some moral observation, or some short dissertation as valuable as interesting. As I wish rather to make you acquainted with the beauties of authors, than to exhibit a display of my own critical skill, I cannot help transcribing a charming passage from the life of Smith.
"Of Gilbert Walmsley, thus presented to my mind, let me indulge myself in the remembrance. I knew him very early; he was one of the first friends that literature procured me, and I hope that at least my gratitude made me worthy of his notice.
"He was of an advanced age, and I was only yet a boy; yet he never received my notions with contempt. He was a whig, with all the virulence and malevolence of his party; yet difference of opinion did not keep us apart. I honoured him, and he endured me.
"He had mingled with the gay world without exemption from its vices or its follies, but had never neglected the cultivation of his mind; his belief of revelation was unshaken; his learning preserved his principles; he grew first regular, then pious.
"His studies had been so various, that I am not able to name a man of equal knowledge. His acquaintance with books was great; and what he did not immediately know he would at least tell where to find. Such was his amplitude of learning, and such his copiousness of communication, that it may be doubted whether a day
now passes in which I have not some advantage from his friendship.
"At this man's table I enjoyed many cheerful and instructive hours, with companions such as are not often to be found; with one who has lengthened, and one who has gladdened life; with Dr. James whose skill in physic will be long remembered; and with David Garrick, whom I hoped to have gratified with this character of our common friend: but what are the hopes of man? I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure."
While I am treating of biography, I cannot pass over that noble monument to national fame, the Biographia Britannica; a work which I at one time flattered myself with the hope of bringing to perfection; before old age had unstrung my faculties, and palsed my hand. I am disappointed....
"Optima quique dies miseris mortalibus ævi
"Prima fugit, subeunt morbi, histisque senectus."
Though debased by a low, and sometimes even vulgar style; though the error of Bayle has been imitated in throwing too much of the matter into notes, yet the Biographia is an invaluable work. It is a Thesaurus of English literature and science; and is incomparable for one excellence, that of presenting an abstract of almost every valuable work that had ever appeared in this country previous to its publication. The labour of Dr. Campbell, and the original compilers, in making these abstracts, astonishes me, and they will be the means of rescuing many valuable publications from oblivion.
We have long wanted a good general Biographical Dictionary; that deficiency is however now in a great measure supplied by the new edition of that which was originally published in 1761; and the public will soon be accommodated with an unexceptionable work of this nature, under the superintendance of our amiable and learned friend Dr. Aikin.
VOYAGES AND TRAVELS....ANSON...HAWKESWORTH... ADDISON...BURNET...LADY M. W. MONTAGUE...JOHNSON....FICTITIOUS NARRATIVE...THE XENOPHONS.... CERVANTES.....LE SAGE.....FIELDING.....SMOLLETT....
MRS. HAMILTON...EPISTOLARY WRITINGS..CICERO...
PLINY.....SENECA.....BALZAC....VOITURE.....POPE, &c...... DIALOGUE......PLATO......CICERO......LUCIAN.......HORNE
MY DEAR JOHN,
VOYAGES and travels are another species of narrative which I must not pass over, since it differs in one essential from those which have been already mentioned. It requires considerable powers of description to render it pleasing, and great accuracy of observation to make it useful. The style of these works should be suited to the subject, but in general care should be taken to avoid too much ornament, and especially the affectation of it. Description is the rock on which most narrators of travels suffer shipwreck, especially when they attempt to be picturesque. They should remember that no language can convey a correct idea of a landscape; and the most laboured effort of this kind will be so different from the reality, that no spectator could possibly recognize it by what he had read. Descriptions of this kind ought therefore to be short and striking; the writer selecting only a few of the prominent features belonging to a place or situation, which will at once be less tiresome, and less likely to mislead than a long detail. In the delineation of manners and customs, language is most powerful; for there
are certain well defined, and well known phrases, which can express any thing of this nature, but words cannot describe mere objects of sight; even a portrait can scarcely be drawn in words, so as to express a real likeness. A traveller will be tedious if he describes every thing he sees; selection is as much his duty as that of the historian. All the errors to which I have alluded will be found in most of those ephemeral productions which almost daily choke the press, and annoy the public, under the title of "Tours to the lakes," "Rambles to watering places," "Scenery in Wales," &c. &c. What can be more uninteresting than travels in this country, along turnpike roads, between quickset hedges, among square or triangular paddocks or fields, and where there can be nothing new or extraordinary in natural produce, architecture, or manners and customs, to awaken curiosity, or to increase our stock of knowledge? Such trash is only calculated to sail silently down the stream of oblivion, with their fit companions, the usual furniture of our circulating libraries.
A traveller, who means to interest or instruct the public, should be properly accomplished for the task, and should at least possess a good general knowledge of most of the popular arts and sciences, particularly natural history, philosophy, chemistry, and painting : he should also possess an enlarged and liberal mind.
There are many excellent narratives of voyages and `travels extant, both in French and English, but my limits will allow me only to notice a few of the latter. The popularity of Anson's voyage has established its character, and that popularity (whoever was the writer whether Robins the engineer, or the chaplain, (whose name it bears) is not undeserved. It is clear and simple, and the story well told, without episode or superfluous description. Dr. Hawkesworth's voyages are more laboured, and more highly ornamented, but seem to want somewhat of that spirit which a writer who describes scenes in which he had been personally conversant would have infused into them. The simple tale of the illustrious Cook I relish better.
Among our principal travellers, his reputation obliges me to notice Mr. Addison, but it is extraordinary that he, who excelled in almost every other department of literature, should have failed in this. The rapid, yet dull narrative, is hardly enlivened by his beautiful classical quotations. I have seen it somewhere insinuated, that these were transcribed from an Italian author; but this I cannot believe; for few men were more conversant in the classics, or had more taste to relish their beauties, than Mr. Addison.
Bishop Burnet, though possessed of little original genius, is more entertaining as a traveller than even the great writer whom I have last mentioned. One advantage he had, in adopting the epistolary style, which always imparts an air of ease and sprightliness, and breaks the heavy uniformity of a continued narrative.
The letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, during her husband's embassy to the Porte, were evidently not written for publication, yet they have been long esteemed the happiest specimen extant of lively and entertaining narrative. Indeed it has by some been asserted that the composition was so excellent and correct that they could not have been written by a lady; this / absurd calumny has, however, been amply refuted by the great talents displayed, particularly in prose composition, by the truly eminent female writers of the present day; and whoever has read the productions of a More, a Barbauld, a Williams, and a Hamilton, will not think it impossible that Lady Mary's letters should have been the production of a woman. The suspicion probably arose from a surreptitious edition of them having been printed some years ago by a notorious character of the name of Cleland, whose name was sufficient to bring suspicion on whatever he produced. The mistake is, however, now completely corrected by the publication of her whole correspondence and poems, in five volumes, under the sanction of her grandson, the present Marquis of Bute.
But the most elegant production that has ever adorned this walk of literature, is Dr. Johnson's Journey to