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Browsing: Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Volume 1

Docno: ADMS-13-01-02-0003-0011-0022

Author: CFA
Date: 1824-10-22

Friday. October 22d. VI.

Attended Prayers and recitation in Topography. After breakfast went to Mr. Everett’s Lecture which he commenced with an account of Alcman, whose name is not often repeated but who is remarkable as being almost the only poet of whom the Spartans can boast. He { 409 } was by birth a Lydian and flourished in the seventh century before Christ. He is distinguished as being a specimen of the Peloponesian Doric dialect. The fragments remaining from him are very inconsiderable, about 130 lines, no single piece containing more than four lines. He is reported to have been the inventor of amatory songs, and some say the father of lyric poetry, but this cannot be attributed to one alone. A notice of an epitaph said to be his is on the third article of the 33d page. Alcaeus is the next poet. He is supposed to have lived at the end of the seventh century before Christ, he was a native of Mytilene and an ornament of the Aeolic school of lyric poetry. He, like Horace and Archilochus, was guilty of throwing away his shield and flight in a battle with the Athenians about the plain of Troy. He is celebrated as a poet and an enemy of tyrants. He violently opposed Pittacus of Mytilene who had obtained the Government but did not succeed in overturning his power. His poems against tyranny were those for which he was most distinguished. He afterwards travelled and wrote an account of his voyages in verse. He is reputed to be the author of the verse which received his name. Very inconsiderable fragments of him remain. Some have attributed to him the song of Harmodius and Aristogeiton [Aristogiton] but we find this impossible when we recollect that he preceded the age of which he speaks, and we must infer also that this song was not the work of one hand only.
We next come to notice Sappho, of whom Addison says that she is the most beautiful of the mutilated poets of antiquity. She was a native of Mytilene and a contemporary of Alcaeus. This island has the credit of giving two admirable poets and the circumstance gives us reason to suppose the Aeolic strain to have ever been that of musical passion. Little is known of her life. The common story is that she went in pursuit of Phaon and ended her life by taking the lover’s leap. Sappho has always ranked very high as a poetess. Besides the mention in the pamphlet, she has the favourable notice of all antiquity. Aelian tells us she was characterized by Plato the wise but Bayle argues that this applies to her ode and not to her mind or moral character. Demetrius Phalereus called her divine and Strabo most inimitable. There is no proof among the ancients of her having that profligate character for which she has since been characterized. It is probable they had their origin in the license of the comic poets of later ages. The latter grammarians, the roman writers and particularly Ovid have taken their impressions from this source. Welcher,1 in a work on the subject, says that the moderns have falsified Ovid { 410 } even, and that without it he could not have said what is there. Aristotle, in a passage in which if there was any objection to be made certainly would and must have made this, charges her only with being a woman. Of her poems only two have come down but these are in proportion to their size the most famous fragments of all antiquity. Addison has devoted two pages of the Spectator to them and translations are added by Phillips [Philips]. That in the 223d he thought was very cold and paraphrastic although praised by Addison whereas the other was pretty good. Contemporary with Sappho was Erinna a native of Teos, or of Lesbos. The only considerable fragment remaining of her is an ode addressed to Fortitude. Some of the critics have thought it meant Rome as the address supposes, but there is nothing further to support the proposition. It is singular however that she is so vague, that there is nothing to make it apply without hesitation either to Fortitude or Rome.
After Lecture, I returned home and commenced writing my Journal with which I progressed quite rapidly until I was interrupted by a visit from Brenan who sat with me all the rest of the morning. He is a pleasant man and although with half distorted views of human nature, I am exceedingly inclined to believe in them. We talked much of College and of character which is generally the sum of our conversation. I am out of spirits this term, but what in God’s name is the cause, I cannot possibly tell. I think the College company has done more to it than any thing and I am sorry, very sincerely sorry, that I accepted it. I was scarce fit for the place, I have always been partially unpopular in College and I have experienced more dissatisfaction than pleasure myself. I shall be heartily glad when the end of next week comes as it will free me from a great deal of drudgery. At twelve o’clock I went down to Porter’s Hall on company business but I found the hall was shut up and no prospect of any [ . . . ] so I returned home and went to dinner.
After dinner we had a drill and a very good one; the company will be able to do exceedingly well upon Exhibition. I lost the section in which I took so much pride however and felt exceedingly indifferent about their success. We remained exercising until the bell rung for Declamation which dispersed us. We were amused by an effort from Mr. Furbish2 which was exceeding great, otherwise the affair much as usual. After declamation I came home and employed myself the rest of the afternoon very industriously in continuation of my Journal which I could not finish this morning. I managed to obtain a little while for myself, this was broken in upon however by Lothrop who { 411 } came to visit me this afternoon. The term is just commencing as to society, and excepting Prescott, these are the first visitors I have had.
After Prayers we had a regular drill, which was an exceeding good one. I could not avoid falling into a difficulty at the same moment, and one of the privates has left the company in consequence. I am an unfortunate man but decision of character carries it’s disadvantages with it. After drill I went directly to the meeting of the Knights where I did not remain long however, as I wished to attend Mr. Ticknor’s Lecture.
I shall continue from the place I left off. A criticism of the works of Voltaire. Oedipe was a bold attempt after Corneille had written upon the same subject before him, and has one great fault, the introduction of a love intrigue in the midst of such an accumulation of misery. It nevertheless was attended with astonishing success. It was represented forty five nights running. He wrote Zarie in twenty two days and it was Mr. Ticknor’s opinion that there was more tenderness in it than in any thing on the French stage. Adelaide had a strange fate. At it’s first representation it was hissed off the stage without hesitation. In 1752 it was brought up again in an altered form and met with moderate success. In 1765 however the actors determined to take it up in it’s original form and it was received with the most unbounded admiration and was represented forty times successively. It was surprising with what coolness he bore these various decisions and he wrote a letter at the time in which he expressed himself perfectly satisfied with either judgment. If it is not his best play, it is at least his most interesting one. In 1736 he produced Alzere, in some respects his best piece, more elevation and more dignity belongs to it. It is free, bold and natural but it cannot be considered any thing more than a fine poetical picture. It has not much probability and but little nature. It is not what it assumes to be, a scene in South America. Mahomet was written at the same time but withdrawn until 1756. He in this play endeavours to represent the character as detestable and his object was indirectly to attack religion in every line. Merope came out in 1743. This play is founded on maternal affection and is nearly perfect in it’s kind; it met with very great success. The surprising thing is that there is no labour apparent in all these works. Tancrede appeared in 1760. It has some weaknesses and faults. The first and third acts are particularly faulty, it afterwards rises however and becomes great. These are the best of twenty seven tragedies which he composed, the rest he did not mention. Voltaire’s intention (and he succeeded) was to give greater splendour and power to the French { 412 } stage, for it must be confessed that we sometimes become tired with the unvarying grandeur of Racine and Corneille. It is too stiff. Between 1725 and 1770 he gave ten comedies and about half a dozen operas, which failed entirely, and it is only surprising to think how a man like him could so little estimate his own powers.
The Henriade was begun at eighteen and continued during his residence at the Bastile, a surreptitious edition was published in 1723 and three years after a correct and authorized copy was printed at London. This poem claims to be an epic and is the only one on which the French ever rest a claim in that branch of poetry. It is not strictly speaking an epic, according to the ancient models we have, it is merely a narrative poem with a plan partly epic and contains many interesting narratives and agreable episodes. There is no unity however in the plot and may be considered rather a historical than an epic poem. If we can be satisfied with rich and glowing descriptions, correct delineations of character and interesting episodes, we shall here receive perfect entertainment. He finished his last Lecture here and went on tonight saying that he would willingly, if he could, avoid speaking of the infamous work called “La Pucelle d’Orleans” which he was writing between 1730–62. But it had been so well received that he was not able to pass it entirely over. It is a blasphemous ridicule upon one of the finest passages in French history and is sufficient to disgrace any man without the crime should be aggravated by being the work of a Frenchman. It has nothing known by which to recommend itself, it displays no invention and is equally an outrage upon religion and national feeling. It is equally an offense against decency and good taste for it has not even the critical merit which some equally indecent books have to recommend them. Mr. Ticknor skips over a large portion of the numerous works of Voltaire, his didactic poems are poor, his epistles are epigrammatic and lively, there is considerable variety in his narrative poems and his satire is bitter without humour.
With this notice he passes directly to history. In 1740 he published The “Essai sur les Moeurs” in four volumes. This work was intended to take a general view of the influences of character upon the different nations of the world drawn from the results in history. The faults in this book however are sufficient to condemn it. It contains an unfair and dishonorable representation of what has passed, it draws inferences and makes deductions from partial statements and is made the engine of mischief to religion and morality. It displays moreover a remarkable want of knowledge which it would have been better { 413 } for him to hide. The History of the Life of Louis the 14th is of a different character. It is an interesting and splendid account of one of the most brilliant periods in French History. It has great faults however. The subject is above his strength, he does not know how to manage a grave work like this, he makes one suppose that all that passed before this age was darkness and that every other country but that of France was in a barbarous state. Whoever does not look for much philosophy in the work, will find it interesting and amusing. The history of Louis the 15th is not equal to it. That of Charles 12th is to history what Romance is to drama, it is an interesting account of a romantic character. That of Peter of Russia is at the same time the dullest and the least correct of all his works in this style. His twenty five romances are the production of his old age, they [are] of very different lengths but all have the same end, the mocking of religion. It is disgraceful in the extreme to an old man to see him the author of works like these; in youth possibly it is pardonable. If we look over the events of his life and examine his conduct, we should conclude him to be the greatest of villains, without faith, morality or law. And the greatest of calumniators. But this is not the case. He was not the most designedly vicious man, but there is nothing like integrity in his character. He had not the least constancy of character, he was a man of whims and prejudices without a spark of principle to govern them. His life was a strange drama.
He now passed on to Jean Jacques Rousseau. He was born in 1712 and is always mentioned in such [close] connection with Voltaire, that this is the fittest place to introduce the notice of him. He was the son of a watchmaker. Before the age of fifteen he was sent as an apprentice to an attorney from whom he ran away. He was found by a Catholic and supported with the only condition of changing his faith. He was afterwards in the family of Madame de Warrens [Warens] with whom he lived for some time with much appearance of happiness. Leaving her he next went to Venice where he remained a little while and in 1750, about 30 years of age, he took the prize at Dijon on a question concerning the inequality of men. This was his first explosion. The book was not written with many sound arguments but it had a novel and prepossessing style and was much read. It was a book, new, striking and entirely false. It was here that he first displayed that enthusiastic love of nature and hatred of art for which he was ever after so distinguished. In 1752 he wrote a comedy and an opera with not much credit. In 1758 he wrote letters on a Theatre by which he fell into a quarrel with d’Alembert and Voltaire { 414 } which was the cause of much irritation to him. In 1760 the Nouvelle Heloise appeared, a work in a style altogether new and extremely attractive, received and much read, the more because it was thought that he was drawing his descriptions entirely from himself. They considered it as the product of the action of the mind upon itself. In short, men thought they were reading his history. In 1762 The “Contrat Social” came out and gained him much celebrity. It is a work brought out by the state of political parties at the time, and if fitted for any state, will apply only to a small republic. In it the people are to have the power of expressing their voices directly and the executive power is to be the mere passive instrument of executing their will. But it is better at once to consider it as a treatise not practicable, but the work of a simple man consulting only his natural feelings. It’s effect was only to unsettle the old opinions of those who trusted it without fixing any definite ideas in their places. It was one of the causes of the French revolution, born after it was prohibited, and here commence the troubles of which he complained so bitterly ever after.
He soon after published Emile which was the boldest attack upon the existing institutions which had been made and this was followed by a Letter from the Mountains in consequence of which his house was mobbed and in 1765 he was obliged to fly for his life. He at this time formed an acquaintance with David Hume who invited him to England, as the Government would not suffer him to remain in Paris, as he was at that time exposing himself to them in the dress of an Armenian. He accordingly went over to England with Mr. Hume with whom he quarrelled soon after, and as he found that he did not attract the attention he wished, although he had been well received, and that melancholy as he was, there were many others so in this country, he returned again to France in 1767, and spent the time in the succeeding year in making a Dictionary of Music and studying Botany. He marries a woman with whom he had long been living and at this time was regular in frequenting a famous Coffee House in the Palais Royal. Crowds of people were in the habit of collecting here to see Jean Jacques as he was familiarly called without knowing why. This however displeased the government and he was obliged to retire into the country near Ermenonville in 1778 and here spent the remainder of his life embittered by his own suspicions and still more by the infidelity of his wife. It is fairly to be concluded from the circumstances of his death, that he poisoned himself. This happened on the 2d of July 1778.
As to the character of his principal works, The Nouvelle Heloise { 415 } is no delineation of real life. It is improbable in the plan, and of bad tendency; there is a colouring charm over the guilt of Julie which is perfectly seductive. We must think of this work in connection with the views it speaks of, and it is only in the spots he describes that we can take the full delight of his magnificent description. Emile is a treatise on Education and is also entirely impossible. A man is to be a savage in the midst of society, and without religion in the midst of Churches. While we read we are confident that we are treading on hollow ground. From the views of his character which we have hitherto had, we might be led to believe that were reading3 of an anchorite and a philosopher and this would have been the impression had not his Confessions appeared after his death in which he displays himself entirely and without disguise. Works by other hands have also appeared by which we have a thorough insight into his character and find [it] selfish, jealous and irritable, suspicious of his friends and thoroughly sensual. Nobody could remain attached to him for he would reject them all. On a review of his works we should pronounce them as most powerful, most false and most interesting.
After Lecture, I again went to the meeting of the Knights and we began to consider what should be done for the Society. Two or three of the members appeared very considerably frightened and were inclined to leave the club if we persisted in having our former meetings. We passed a vote to that effect for the present, the laws are lost and consequently, I told the society that it was entirely out of the question for me to proceed without some farther authority. The same committee was accordingly appointed to form a new body of laws. Nothing more was done of any importance, the meeting was a dull one as many of our class were out of spirits and more of the inferior classes. One man, McLean, was proposed but rejected. I thought it was no time to admit members now when the club was in such a state. I had a dislike to the man’s manners and I disliked Shaler,4 the man who proposed him. This was the reason for my vote although I was not the only one who put in a black ball. After this was done, we adjourned “sine die.” I then walked over to Brenan’s room, and falling into conversation, sat with him rather longer than I had intended. He has singularly perverted his good feelings and will in time become a confirmed cynic and unpleasant fellow. He is a good friend of mine as much as any man is. I went from his room to Dwight’s where I spent considerably over an hour in conversation with them. They are neither of them in good spirits this term or at { 416 } least I never before liked them so little. It is my disgust I believe. If they were not so often here, I think I should like them better. It is not well for men who wish to be friends to see too much of each other, and as Chapman and Dwight both are not men possessed of that delicacy and tact which indeed is in the possession of but few men, I could wish not to be so exceedingly intimate. As a visitor at their room however, I can make out very well relying principally upon my conversational powers. I have no doubt however that I bored them to use the familiar term at College. I ascribe my melancholy feelings principally to this source. My social feelings are blasted in the very season when I have the time and inclination to indulge them. My College life is my time of freedom and I wish to seize the time for my future course will possibly be melancholy enough. I did not arrive at home until late and immediately retired. XI:40.
1. Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker (1784–1868), professor, successively, at Giessen, Göttingen, and Bonn (Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship , 3:216).
2. James Furbish, a senior from Wells, Maine ( Harvard Annual Cat., 1824).
3. Thus in MS , but the sentence is garbled; some words have been scored out, and probably others have been omitted. A possible reconstruction is: “we are reading the works of an anchorite,” &c.
4. Nathaniel Burger Shaler, a sophomore from Lancaster, Mass. ( Harvard Annual Cat., 1824).