Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Dipped into Bacon’s essays

Thomas Green, a man of leisure and a self-professed lover of literature, died 190 years ago today. He kept a diary for much of his life, but one focused almost exclusively on his thoughts and opinions on books he was reading. According to this diary, he was often to be found ‘dipping into’ some great work of non-fiction or other, such as Bacon’s essays.

Green was born at Monmouth in 1769. His grandfather was a wealthy Suffolk soap-boiler, who had made a fortune during the reign of Queen Anne, and his father was a man of letters, a pamphleteer, and a champion of the Church of England. Green was partly educated privately, and partly at the free grammar school in Ispwich, and was admitted to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. However, illness prevented him from taking up his university studies. Instead, he was called to the bar, and travelled the Norfolk Circuit. He married Catherine Hartcup, and they had one son.

Aged 25, Green inherited the family estate, and he set about a life of leisure and reading literature. He lived at Ipswich, visiting the continent and different parts of England from time to time. Occasionally, he wrote and published political pamphlets, and provided contributions to The Gentleman’s Magazine. He died on 6 January 1825. Further biographical information is available from an 1834 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine, Dictionary of National Biography 1895-1900, or Edmund Gosse’s Gossip in a Library.

Green kept a diary for most of his adult life, and is mostly remembered because of a quirky book, based on this diary, that he published in 1810: Extracts from The Diary of a Lover of Literature (freely available at Internet Archive). It records his thoughts, and lengthy opinions, on the books he was reading, most of which were worthy, non-fiction classics. Although his selection of diary extracts in this book are confined to a five year period (1796-1800), his friend John Mitford published further extracts in The Gentleman’s Magazine between 1834 and 1843 (here and here for example).

Here are several extracts from Green’s book, starting with much of his elaborately self-effacing and wittily apologetic preface.

‘At length, after much hesitation, and in an evil hour perhaps, I am induced to submit to the indulgence of the Public, the idlest Work, probably, that ever was composed; but, I could wish to hope, not absolutely the most unentertaining or unprofitable.

For the errors and defects naturally incident to a composition successively exhibiting the impressions of the moment in the language which the moment prompted, and which must derive any interest it may possess from the ease and freedom with which these impressions are communicated, it would be fruitless and absurd to attempt an apology. [. . .] For faults of every other description; and for more than a due proportion of these, I feel that I am strictly accountable ; and present myself before the Audience whose attention I have presumed to engage with my babble, under an appalling sense of the responsibility which my rashness has incurred.

To the objector, who should fiercely demand, why I obtruded on the Public at all, matter confessedly so crude and so peccant, I have really little to allege which is quite satisfactory to my own mind, or which I could reasonably hope, therefore, would prove so to his: but to an offended spirit of a gentler nature, I might perhaps be allowed to intimate, that, whatever my faults may be, I have not attempted to decoy unwary Readers by an imposing Title, nor to tax their curiosity with the costly splendours of fashionable typography. It has been my earnest wish, at least, to obviate disappointment, by accommodating, as much as possible, my appearance to my pretensions. These are simple, and of easy statement. To furnish occupation, in a vacant hour, to minds imbued with a relish for literary pursuits, by suggesting topics for reflection and incentives to research, partly from an exhibition of whatever struck me as most interesting in the thoughts of others, during a miscellaneous course of reading, and partly, too, from a free and unreserved communication of the thoughts they gave rise to in my own mind - this is all that I venture to propose to the Reader as my aim in the publication of the following Extracts. [. . .]

With respect to my success in this adventure, if I am not generally very sanguine, there are certain moments - under the encouraging influence of a balmy air, bright sky, and vigorous digestion - in which I am not altogether without hope. When I advert, it is true, to the numerous faults that deform the following pages, all crowding in hideous succession before me - when I reflect on the various improvements of which the whole would be susceptible, even under my own mature revisal - above all, when I compute what brighter talents and ampler attainments might have achieved in a similar career - my heart, oppressed with the load of my infirmities, sinks in despondency within me: but when I consider, on the other hand, the wretched trash with which the Public is sometimes apparently content to be amused, my spirits, in a slight degree, revive; I cannot disguise, from myself, that I am at least entitled to equal indulgence with some of these candidates for public favour; and in the momentary elation of this ignoble triumph, am tempted to anticipate a reception, which however moderate and subdued for an illusion of the fancy, may perhaps prove ridiculously flattering compared with the actual doom that awaits me. [. . .]

The following Sheets are, of course, only a sample, though a pretty large one, of a more considerable Work: but the Purchaser of the present Volume (I hasten to add) need not be alarmed. I cannot flatter myself that the materials for a future selection, are eminently better than those from which I have thus far drawn; and with the present Extracts I am so little satisfied, on a review of them in print, that unless they should experience the most unequivocal symptoms of public favour, they are the last that will appear. An idle experiment, however unsuccessful, may be good-naturedly excused; but to persist in a piece of folly of this kind, after a fair warning that it is such, would betray an unpardonable disregard of what is due, on the occasion, both to public feeling and my own character.’

29 September 1796
‘Read the 9th Chapter of Roscoe’s Lorenzo de Medici; in which the rise (or renovation) and progress of the arts of painting, statuary, engraving, and sculpture upon gems, with the merits of the respective artists in each department, are happily delineated. The account of Michael Angelo - his giant powers - and the concussion with which his advent shook the world of genius and taste - is even sublime. Roscoe is not always exact in the choice of his expressions: for instance, he uses “instigate” in a good sense; which, where we have another appropriate term, is unpardonable: “compromise”, which properly means, the adjustment of differences by reciprocal concession, he employs, by what authority I know not, to express, the putting to hazard by implication. A catalogue of synonymes, executed with philological skill and philosophical discrimination, would be a valuable accession to English Literature.

Read, after a long interval, with much delight, the first two Books of Caesar’s Commentaries. The States of Gaul are represented as far more advanced in government and manners, than I should have expected him to find them; and it would puzzle the Directory of France, at this moment, to frame a manifesto, so neatly conceived, and so forcibly yet chastely expressed, as the reply of Ariovistus, a barbaric chief from the wilds off Germany, to the embassy of Caesar. It is interesting to trace the route of this great commander (and the similitude of names will sometimes fix it with precision) on a modern map. Nothing can exceed the ease, perspicuity, and spirit, with which this incomparable narrative is conducted.

Dipped into Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Boswell, from his open, communicative, good-humoured vanity, which leads him to display events and feelings that other men, of more judgment, though slighter pretensions, would have studiously concealed, has depressed himself below his just level in public estimation. His information is extensive; his talents far from despicable; and he seems so exactly adapted, even by his very foibles, that we might almost suppose him purposely created, to be the Chronicler of Johnson. A pleasing and instructive packet-companion might be formed, by a judicious selection from his copious repertory of Johnson’s talk.’

5 October 1796
‘Pursued Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Johnson’s coarse censure of Lord Chesterfield, “that he taught the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master”, is as unjust as it is harsh. Indeed I have always thought the noble author of Letters to his Son, hardly dealt with by the Public; though to public opinion I have the highest deference. How stands the case? Having bred up his son to a youth of learning and virtue, and consigned him to a tutor well adapted to cultivate these qualities, he naturally wishes to render him an accomplished gentleman; and, for this purpose, undertakes, in person, a task for which none surely was so well qualified as himself. I follow the order he assigns, and that which his Letters testify he pursued. Well! but he insists eternally on such frivolous points - the graces - the graces! Because they were wanting, and the only thing wanting. Other qualities were attained, or presumed to be attained: to correct those slovenly, shy, reserved, and uncouth habits in the son, which as he advanced in life grew more conspicuous; and threatened to thwart all the parent’s fondest prospects in his child, was felt, and justly felt, by the father, to have become an imperious and urgent duty; and he accordingly labours at it with parental assiduity, an assiduity, which none but a father would have bestowed upon the subject. Had his Lordship published these Letters; as a regular System of Education, the common objection to their contents would have, had unanswerable force: viewing them however in their true light, as written privately and confidentially by a parent to his child - inculcating, as he naturally would, with the greatest earnestness, not what was the most important, but most requisite - it must surely be confessed, there never was a popular exception more unfounded. But he - I admit it: he touches upon certain topics, which, a sentiment of delicacy suggests, between a father and son had better been forborne: yet those who might hesitate to give the advice, if they are conversant with the world, and advert to circumstances, will not be disposed to think the advice itself injudicious.’

11 October 1796
‘Read Hawkesworth’s Life of Swift; of whose character and conduct but an imperfect idea is given by the narrative of Johnson. Hawkesworth is much more communicative and interesting; and the minuteness and simplicity with which he details the few, but deplorable, incidents of the four last years of Swift’s life, are highly affecting. The circumstance of his struggling to express himself, after a silence broken but once for more than a year; and, finding all his efforts ineffectual, heaving a deep sigh, quite cleaves the heart.’

12 September 1798
‘Dipped into Bacon’s Essays; so pregnant with just, original, and striking observations on every topic which is touched, that I cannot select what pleases me most. For reach of thought, variety and extent of view, sheer solid and powerful sense, and admirable sagacity, what works of man can be placed in competition with these wonderful effusions.’

6 May 1800
‘Read Gildon’s Essay, prefixed to Shakespear’s Poems; in which he largely discusses Dramatic Poetry. Poetry, he considers as an art; and he is a grand stickler for the rules of this art, which he regards, rather as the original suggestions of right reason, instructing us how to please, than the mere conclusions of experience from what has pleased: a preposterous piece of folly, nearly akin to that which attempts to solve the phaenomena of nature from the chimaeras of the fancy, instead of collecting the materials for this solution from a patient investigation of the laws by which nature is really governed in all her operations; but as a practical piece of folly, leading to consequences still more absurd. According to Gildon, all excellence flows from the observance of the rules of composition, and all deformity from their violation: to such a taste, Shakespear’s Dramas must have a most untoward aspect; yet his “wood-notes wild” occasionally extort, even from this sturdy champion of the summum jus in critical jurisprudence, an approving nod, with - “this is very well”. At the close of his Remarks on Shakespear’s Plays, he observes, that “verisimilitude in the Drama, is more essential than truth, because fact itself is sometimes so barely possible that it is almost incredible”. Hurd has caught this idea: and it is not the only instance in which I fancy I have detected him poaching on this antient and neglected manor.’

The Diary Junction

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