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Browsing: Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Volume 1


Docno: ADMS-13-01-02-0003-0011-0018

Author: CFA
Date: 1824-10-18

Monday. October 18th. VI.

Attended Prayers and recitation this morning to Mr. Hayward with usual success. After breakfast attended a lecture from Professor Everett. He began this morning with Hesiod and his lecture was of a sort rather more amusing. The works which remain to us under the name of Hesiod have not received the notice which they merit and which they held in antiquity. Velleius Paterculus in a passage quoted in the pamphlet gives him high praise,1 which Wolf in modern times has repeated. The same question with that concerning Homer may be agitated here, and is only less interesting, as the shortness of the poems is an answer to many arguments which apply to Homer and makes it less worthwhile to contest. Much doubt has existed as to the real time of Hesiod; he has been placed before, contemporary with and after Homer. An argument is drawn from some lines of his concerning the rising of Arcturus which it was supposed might be calculated so as to fix his time. This was attempted by Longomontanus, Kepler, Riccioli and Sir Isaac Newton. The first made the calculation and supposed, to make up for a difficulty as he brought this much earlier, that Hesiod did not speak of it as it was in his own day but 270 years previous. Sir Isaac Newton came to a very different result. On the whole nothing can be made of it. The reasons why are to be found at length in the pamphlet.2 But little is known of his life and that is collected from his own works. He mentions a poetical contest at the funeral of Amphidamas, king of Euboea in which he obtained a prize. From this, arose the fabulous story of his victory over Homer. Origin of this may be traced in some grammarian who supposed that as Hesiod lived at the time of Homer, this last must have been his rival, and that at the contest the decision was made unjustly in favour of the former. The accounts of the death of Hesiod are equally fabulous.
Hesiod is to be considered as the head of an ancient Boeotian school of Poetry in the same way that Homer is head of the Ionic. There appears to have been a remarkable contrast between the early and late character of this part of Greece. Hesiod and Pindar are not by any means men by whom we are to judge that a country is stupid. The fact is that the proverbial character of stupidity did not attach itself to the inhabitants of Boeotia until after the time of the Persian invasion and it was probably in consequence of their conduct in it that they received the epithets which have ever since stuck to them.
The works of Hesiod have a twofold character; they are partly didactic and partly mythological and epic. This may probably arise { 397 } | view from his poems being compilations or from his versatility. His works and days is very unequal in beauty, it has some fine passages and is remarkable for having relics of a mythology still more ancient and more romantic to use the modern word than the one usually known to us. His next poem is the Theogony. It is of an entirely different character from the Works and days. It treats of the creation of the world. It is valuable as a treatise displaying the old opinions but it gives no mythology. It is probable that these works were formed into their present state in the age of Pisistratus by the Διασκευασται 3 whose business I have before related. This is most likely the case with all the present works of this bard. Some passages in this last work are fine.
After Lecture, I returned home and was quietly sitting at my Journal when I was surprised by a visit from a new classmate of mine, Mr. Prescott.4 I used to know him pretty well in my dissipated days, but I had left off his acquaintance and was not inclined to renew it upon visiting terms. He indeed did not intend a visit to me as he mistook my room for Otis’s. His character for years has been very bad, he has indulged in all the wildest excesses and has hardly given it up now. He and Hunt and Loundes make a set of curiosities. His visit was pretty long and he was guarded in his conversation, which however is moderately agreable. I went to recitation in Astronomy as usual.
In the afternoon, owing to a large dinner, I could not study at all and went to recitation quite unprepared. Mr. Hedge came upon our side, surprised us and called upon me, but fortunately it was in the review so that I managed to pass off. We drilled as usual and did very well after which I attended Mr. Ticknor’s Lecture. He went over many of the inferior branches of French poetry. Two more important forms of the French drama appeared—the serious opera first introduced by Corneille in 1650 which is an exotic from Italy where the love of music had prevailed over the drama. It is a sort which does not succeed much in France. The French opera is proverbial for it’s magnificence and it’s wretched singing—the comic opera has been more successful. This also arose in 1650. No considerable author can be mentioned however who has not succeeded better in the other branches of literature. In Lyrical Poetry there has been but little success. The French seem to have failed in this branch almost entirely. There is but one exception. There is very little of the lyrical character in Malherbe, more of it in the choruses to Athalie and Esther, the place perhaps where we should not wish to find it.
The only instance where we find regular lyrical poetry is in J. B. Rousseau5 who was born in 1669. His father was a shoemaker but { 398 } gave him a good education. He published a book at 20 and was so entirely given up to his literary pursuits that he refused a place of very considerable profit from the government because he thought it would interrupt them. A satirical piece of poetry appeared of little merit which he was charged with and, in consequence of which, a prosecution was entered against him which was decided unfavourably in 1712. He was exiled but received very friendly treatment wherever he went. He became melancholy however, refused all compromise in a noble answer which was given to us. As to the charge, we have not much right to doubt his innocence. He died in exile in 1741. His plays are bad, his epigrams are pretty good, his epistles are inferior to Boileau’s, but his character rests upon his lyrical works. His cantata, a new species of verse introduced by Rousseau, he does not like. The mixture of mythology in them makes them cold and stiff. The Odes are very good. The first book is a bold paraphrase of the psalms of David, the second of them is the best specimen but they are not equal to the English on the same subject. The second book consists of moral odes. There is not much poetry in it, but his character rests chiefly on the third book. These odes were mentioned and severely criticized. Mr. Ticknor evidently did not like the man’s poems.
We pass from here to fiction, and at this place Mr. Ticknor gave us a history of the rise and progress of romantic fiction. It’s common stock, the story tellers, the ballads, chivalrous romances, historical romances which are the different steps in the progress. Madame de la Fayette6 was the person in France first to touch upon the more natural feelings of the heart. She was born in 1633, lived a wit of the hotel de Rambouillet and [was] a woman of powerful influence as well as an authoress. She died in 1693 having produced many works of which Zaide [Zayde] in 1670 and the Princesse de Cleves in 1677.7 These he analysed. They are old fashioned romances.
I returned home, finished Burke’s treatise, which however I should like to read again, read the second part of Beattie’s Minstrel and spent the remainder of the Evening in Otis’s room, chatting and drinking Porter until quite late in the night. XI:35.
1. See Everett’s Synopsis , p. 62.
2. Actually, according to Professor Everett’s account in his Synopsis , p. 63-64, the age of Hesiod might be computed within 70 years because of the rising of Arcturus.
3. Literally “arrangers,” meaning revisors or editors.
4. Edward Goldsborough Prescott, of Boston ( Harvard Annual Cat., 1824).
5. Jean Baptiste Rousseau (1669–1741).
6. Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, Comtesse de la Fayette (1634–1692), whose novel, La Princesse de Clèves, was published in 1678.
7. Sentence defective.