« ПретходнаНастави »
ANOTHER great spirit has recently gone from the midst
It is now three months since the nation heard, with a deep though quiet sadness, that an aged man of venerable mien, who for fifty years had borne worthily the name of English poet, had at length disappeared from those scenes of lake and mountain where, in stately care of his own worth, he had fixed his recluse abode, and passed forward, one star the more, into the still unfeatured future, whither all that lives is rolling, and whither, as he well knew and believed, the Shakespeares and Miltons, whom men count dead, had but as yesterday transferred their kindred radiance. When the news spread, it seemed as if our island were
1 North British Review, August 1850.—“The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, D.C.L., Poet Laureate, &c." London, 1849.
suddenly a man the poorer, as if some pillar or other notable object, long conspicuous on its broad surface, had suddenly fallen down. It is right, then, that we should detain our thoughts for a little in the vicinity of this event ; that, the worldly course of such a man having now been ended, we should stand for a little around his grave, and think solemnly of what he was. Neither few nor unimportant, we may be sure, are the reflections that should suggest themselves over the grave of William Wordsworth.
Of the various mysteries that the human mind can contemplate none is more baffling, and at the same time more charming to the understanding, than the nature of that law which determines the differences of power and mental manifestation between age and age. That all history is an evolution, that each generation inherits all that had been accumulated by its predecessor, and bequeathes in turn all that itself contains to its successor, is an idea to which, in one form or another, science binds us down. But, native as this idea now is in all cultivated minds, with how many facts, and with what a large proportion of our daily speech, does it not still stand in apparent contradiction! Looking back upon the past career of our race, does not the eye single out, as by instinct, certain epochs that are epochs of virtue and glory, and others that are epochs of frivolity and shame? Do we not speak of the age of Pericles in Greece, of the Augustan age in Rome, of the outburst of chivalry in modern Europe, of the noble era of Elizabeth in England, and of the sad decrepitude that followed it? And is there not a certain justice of perception in this mode of speaking ? Does it not seem as if all ages were not equally favoured from on high, gifts both moral and intellectual being vouchsafed to one that are all but withheld from another? As with individual men, so with nations and with humanity at large, may not the hour of highest spiritual elevation and sternest moral resolve be nearest the hour of most absolute obliviousness and most profound degradation? Has not humanity also its moods -now brutal and full-acorned, large in physical device, and pregnant with the wit of unconcern; again, touched to higher things, tearful for very goodness, turning an upward eye to the stars, and shivering to its smallest nerve with the power and the sense of beauty? In rude and superficial expression of which fact, have not our literary men coined the commonplace that a critical and sceptical age always follows an age of heroism and creative genius ?
These, we say, are queries which, though they may not be answered to their depths, it is still useful to put and ponder. One remark only will we venture in connexion with them. According to one theory, it is a sufficient explanation of these moral and intellectual changes in the spirit of nations to suppose that they take place by a law of mere contagion or propagation from individual to individual. One man of powerful and original nature, or of unusually accurate perceptions, makes his appearance in some central, or, it may be, sequestered spot; he gains admirers or makes converts ; disciples gather round him, or try to form an opinion of him from a distance; they, again, in their turn, affect others; till, at last, as the gloom of the largest church is slowly changed into brilliance by the successive lighting of all its lamps, so a whole country may, district by district, succumb to the peculiarity of a new influence! Now, this is perfectly true; and it would be indeed difficult to estimate the amazing efficacy of such a law of incessant diffusion from point to point over a surface. But this mode of representing the fact under notice does not convey the whole truth. Concerning even the silent pestilences, we have been recently taught that they do not wholly depend on transmission from individual to individual, but are rather distinct derangements in the body of the earth itself, tremors among its electricities and imponderables, alterations of the sum-total of those material conditions wherewith human life has been associated. In like inanner, as it appears to us, must those streaming processes of sympathy and contagion whereby a moral or intellectual change is diffused over a community be regarded as but the superficial indications of a deep contemporaneous agitation pervading the whole frame of Nature. From the mineral core of this vast world, outwards to the last thoughts, impulses, and conclusions of us its human inhabitants, there runs, as science teaches, a mystic law of intercourse and affinity, pledging its parts to act in concert. The moral and intellectual revolutions of our world, its wars, its new philosophies, its outbursts of creative genius, its profligate sinkings, and its noble recoveries, all must rest, under the decree of supreme wisdom, on a concurrent basis of physical undulations and vicissitudes. When, therefore, a man starts up in any locality,
, charged with a new spirit or a new desire, there, be sure, the ground around him is similarly affected. New intellectual dispositions are like atmospheres ; they overhang whole countries at once. It is not necessarily by communication or plagiarism that the thought excogitated to-day in London breaks out tomorrow in Edinburgh, or that persons in Göttingen and Oxford are found speculating at the same time in the same direction. In our own island, for example, it is a fact capable of experimental verification, that whatever is being thought at any one time in any one spot, is, with a very small amount of difference, being independently thought at the same time in fifty other