Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 1

Monday. October 11th. VI.

Wednesday. October 13th. VI.

Tuesday. October 12th. VI. CFA


Tuesday. October 12th. VI. CFA
Tuesday. October 12th. VI.

Attended Prayers and recitation as usual in Topography. Part of the 380class have seceded so that the room is not very full. The next point of investigation is according to the words of Wolf, the character of the rhapsodists, thus began Mr. Everett this morning. He mentions what he supposes three errors in the common opinion concerning their profession. The first is the confounding those of the early ages with the worthless persons who arose under the same name subsequently and who are mentioned with contempt by Plato and Xenophon. The supposing from a mistaken derivation of the name, that it was their profession to compile worthless centos,1 as they were afterwards called, from the productions of Homer. That these were confined to this poet alone. Wolf on the contrary supposes that they were dignified and authorized agents for transmitting the works of all distinguished Poets of the time. That being poets themselves, they varied according to the occasion, the structure of these poems, from which origin proceeded the various readings which we have of the author. It is necessary therefore to suppose a sort of composition corresponding to this way of publication. And if there was no other way of producing a poem, but by teaching it to the rhapsodists, one like this of 15000 lines could not have been conceived. And supposing Homer to have been a man of the greatest genius that man ever has or ever will see, it is impossible that even then he could have done this. But it is to be observed that this reasoning takes want of writing for granted. We have no historical ground for supposing that the rhapsodists were of the character stated, and we diminish their importance precisely as we increase our supposition of the knowledge of writing at that time. Homer makes no mention of such persons but speaks on the contrary of the bard as a separate and distinct profession. The French in fact have treated of Homer too familiarly doubtless, but the Germans have gone very much too far in the opposite extreme and have exaggerated the difficulty of producing poetry without writing. We have instances even now of improvisatori who have cultivated this power to great extent, one particular instance he mentioned which has been in many of the late newspapers, of a man in Paris who has delivered a whole tragedy in five Acts without more than a few minutes preparation, a fact of which there can be no doubt.

The third point of Wolf is the internal structure of the Poem. This is an analysis of the whole poem too long to state in a lecture, the general sum of which is that The Odyssey is allowed to have unity but the Iliad is not—still he argues that either might have been the work of a succession of rhapsodists. Mr. Hug in his analysis argues and infers the reverse. Wolf has had many followers, in this inquiry, the reasons of some of whom are in the 38th Article of the pamphlet.


The last point in Wolf’s argument is the external historical testimony beginning at the earliest period. We have already considered the introduction of these books into Greece by Lycurgus. The next in the order of time is concerning the labours of Solon and the Pisistratidae for the restoration of them. Diogenes Laertius quotes from Diuchidas an account that Solon first caused the rhapsodists to sing these poems. A Greek expression follows which explains the manner and is variously translated, but the critics think in its proper connexion and place. Similar efforts for the restoration and preservation of Homer are ascribed by the grammarians to Pisistratus. A fabulous account is given by Diomedes which has since been copied by many. It states that Pisistratus, wishing to collect these verses which in his time were repeated in detached portions by the people, sent heralds over the country, proclaiming that every one who knew any of these verses should upon repeating them to him receive a certain sum of money for every verse, that in this way a large number were collected and every man was paid even when he brought verses which had been repeated before. This mass was referred to seventy grammarians, each to produce an arrangement of them; when they reported, that of Aristarchus was preferred. This is an anachronism however as Aristarchus did not live until long after. It is an absurd fable but is nevertheless adopted by Barthélemy in his Preface to Anacharsis. Cicero has attributed the arrangement of the books to Pisistratus, others to Hipparchus. Wolf with this argues that these attempts were not confined to any time, but that they were made at different periods and to a greater or less degree by various persons who might possess portions of the materials, an idea confirmed in the Scholia by the frequent mention of the arrangers as peculiar officers.

After Lecture, I returned to my room and spent the morning writing my notes. I did not read over all of Ferguson this morning as I was peculiarly employed. I attended Mr. Farrar’s recitation. He lectured in his way today upon the spots on the sun. I shall not give any account of them in this book as I have already more to do than I can well make way with. I shall therefore take the whole course in regular order from a copy which is already in the possession of some of my classmates. In the afternoon I attended recitation in Paley as usual and in the Evening, we had a common drill. The privates performed well and revived my liking to the company, which I must confess had very nearly become extinct.

After drill, I attended Mr. Ticknor’s Lecture. He went on tonight with La Fontaine. He was born in Normandy in 1621, where his father was supervisor of woods and waters. He studied Latin at Rheims and entered a religious house which he soon left however as not con-382sistent with his spirit. No symptoms of talent made their appearance in him until the age of 22. This was excited much as Corregio’s was, on seeing a painting of Raphael’s, for he having heard an ode of Malherbe’s, fancied he could also write and therefore became a poet. His character was always remarkable for a childlike simplicity. He was married by a family arrangement and was not happy until he left his wife. Some say that in Belphégor he characterized her. The Duchess de Bouillon, she who had so conspired against Racine, had sense and taste enough to discover him. He always lived with all the carelessness of his character, he was almost adopted by Madame Sabliere with whom he lived during twenty years, and was so domestic and simple an animal that she said once upon being asked who was in the house, that nobody was there except her cat, her parrot and La Fontaine. When she died, he would have been left again upon the world had he not been supported by the Duke of Burgundy and then again adopted by Madame Herval d’Hervart, in 1694.

He did not value his own talents sufficiently, not that he was not conscious he possessed some, but from his simplicity he did not give them their due weight. He failed in his love elegies and his religious poetry, his pieces also for the Theatre all failed although there is much humour in one of them. We have his letters, his epistles in verse, ballads and the tale of Psyche, a beautiful romance drawn from the story recorded in Apuleius. But in his Tales and Fables we find him shining forth in the natural power of his character. This sort of writing indeed was peculiarly well adapted to it’s display. His fables are in twelve books, the first of which did not produce much effect. Madame de Sevigne, who is a good chronicler, says that they were good but some part was tiresome, the feeling soon changed however and they were pronounced delightful. In his tales he shows his talent still more by the variety and originality of his ideas but it is unfortunate that they are indecent and thus their whole effect is ruined.

Next came Pascal who was born in Auvergne in 1623. He was instructed by his father first in the languages and then in mathematics. I shall pass over the early symptoms of his genius as too numerous to mention, suffice it that he made a Geometry for himself. At 16 he wrote a treatise on Conic sections, at 19 he made a machine and at 23 he wrote a treatise on the subject of the vacuum. His physical strength could not endure it, he became fanatical and distempered in mind, he was austere in his life beyond endurance. He wore hair cloth for a shirt and a girdle of wire with points. His famous letters were written however after his derangement. These letters called Lettres Provinciales2 had a tremendous effect, were condemned by parliament and stopped by the Pope. They exhibit however every kind of eloquence. He did not finish them as he stopped in obedience to the Pope’s orders.

After Lecture I returned home and wrote my notes for last nights lecture, read Burke’s observations upon Taste3 and then retired for the night. XI.


A composition formed by joining scraps from other authors.


Les provinciales, ou les lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincial de ses amis, published in 1656.


JQA’s set of The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 8 vols., London, 1792–1827, is in the Stone Library.