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lost in a boundless sea of detached occurrences. It is not the “tale of Troy divine," nor the narrative of Roman heroism, nor the conquest of Jerusalem, which requires to be recorded ; but the transactions of many different nations, as various and detached from each other as the adventures of the knights-errant in Ariosto.
For these reasons history cannot be written now on the plan of the ancients,—and if attempted, it would fail of success. The family of nations has become too large to admit of interest being centred only on one member of it. It is in vain now to draw the picture of the groups of time, by throwing the whole light on one figure, and all the rest in shade. Equally impossible is it to give a mere narrative of interesting events, and cast all the rest overboard. All the world would revolt at such an attempt, if made. The transactions of the one selected would be unintelligible, if those of the adjoining states were not given. One set of readers would say, “Where are your statistics ?” Another, " There is no military discussion-the author is evidently no soldier.” A third would condemn the book as wanting diplomatic transactions; a fourth, as destitute of philosophic reflection. The statesman would throw it aside as not containing the information he desired ; the scholar as affording no clue to contemporary and original authority; the man of the world, as a narrative not to be relied on, and to which it was hazardous to trust without farther investigation. Women would reject it as less interesting than novels ; men, as not more authentic than a romance.
Notwithstanding, however, this great and increasing difficulty of writing history in modern times, from the vast addition to the subjects which it embraces and must embrace, the fundamental principles of the art are still the same as they were in the days of Thucydides or Sallust. The figures in the picture are greatly multiplied ; many cross lights disturb the unity of its effect; infinitely more learning is required in the drapery and still life ; but the object of the painter has undergone no change. Unity of effect, singleness of emotion, should still be his great aim : the multiplication of objects from which it is to be produced has increased the difficulty, but not altered the principles of the art. And that this difficulty is not insuperable, but
may be overcome by the light of genius directing the hand of industry, is decisively proved by the example of Gibbon's Rome, which, embracing the events of fifteen centuries, and successive descriptions of all the nations which, during that long period, took a prominent part in the transactions of the world, yet conveys a clear and distinct impression in every part to the mind of the reader; and presents a series of pictures so vivid, and drawn with such force, that the work, more permanently than any romance, fascinates every successive generation.
It is commonly said that accuracy and impartiality are the chief requisites in a historian. That they are indispensable to his utility or success is indeed certain ; for if the impression once be lost that the author is to be relied on, the value of his production, as a record of past events, is at an end. No brilliancy of description, no magic of eloquence, no power of narrative, can supply the want of the one thing needful—trustworthiness. But fully admitting that truth and justice are the bases of history, there never was a greater mistake than to imagine that of themselves they will constitute a historian. They may make a valuable annalist—a good compiler of materials ; but very different qualities are required in the artist who is to construct the edifice. In him we expect the power of combination, the inspiration of genius, the brilliancy of conception, the generalisation of effect. The workman who cuts the stones out of the quarry, or fashions and dresses them into entablatures and columns, is a very different man from him who combines them into the temple, the palace, or the cathedral. The one is a tradesman, the other an artist--the first a quarrier, the last a Michael Angelo
Mr Fox arranged the arts of composition thus -1. Poetry ; 2. History ; 3. Oratory. That very order indicated that the great orator had a just conception of the nature of history, and possessed many of the qualities requisite to excel in it, as he did in the flights of eloquence. It is, in truth, in its higher departments, one of the fine arts ; and it is the extraordinary difficulty of finding a person who combines the imagination and fervour requisite for eminence in their aërial visions, with the industry and research which are indispensable for the correct narrative of earthly events, which renders great historians so very rare, even in the most brilliant periods of human existence. Antiquity only produced six ; modern times can hardly boast of eight. It is much easier to find a great epic than a great history ; there were many poets in antiquity, but only one Tacitus. Homer himself is rather an annalist than a poet : it is his inimitable traits of nature which constitute his principal charm : the Iliad is a history in verse. Modern Italy can boast of a cluster of immortal poets and painters ; but the country of Raphael and Tasso has not produced one really great history. The laboured annals of Guicciardini or Davila cannot bear the name; a work, the perusal of which was deemed worse than the fate of a galley-slave, cannot be admitted to take its place with the master-pieces of Italian art.* Three historians only in Great Britain have by common consent taken their station in the highest rank of historic excellence. Sismondi alone in France has been assigned a place by the side of Gibbon, Hume, and Robertson. This extraordinary rarity of the highest excellence demonstrates the extraordinary difficulty of the art, and justifies Mr Fox's assertion, that it ranks next to poetry in the fine arts; but it becomes the more extraordinary, when the immense number of works written on historical subjects is taken into consideration, and the prodigious piles of books of history which are to be met with in every public library.
The greatest cause of this general failure of historical works to excite general attention, or acquire lasting fame, is the want of power of generalisation and classification in the writers. Immersed in a boundless sea of details, of the relative importance of which they were unable to form any just estimate, the authors of the vast majority of these works have faithfully chronicled the events which fell under their notice, but in so dry and uninteresting a manner that they produced no sort of impression on mankind. Except as books of antiquity or reference, they have long since been consigned to the vault of all the Capulets. They were crushed under their own weight—they were drowned in the flood of their own facts. While they were straining every nerve not to deceive their readers, the whole class of those readers quietly slipped over to the other side. They, their merits and their faults, were alike forgotten. It may safely be affirmed, that ninety-nine out of a hundred historical works are consigned to oblivion from this cause.
* It is reported in Italy, that a galley-slave was offered a commutation of his sentence, if he would read through Guicciardini's War of Florence with Pisa. After labouring at it for some time, he petitioned to be sent back to the oar Si non è vero è bene trörato.
The quality, on the other hand, which distinguishes all the histories which have acquired a great and lasting reputation among men, has been the very reverse of this. It consists in the power of throwing into the shade the subordinate and comparatively immaterial facts, and bringing into a prominent light those only on which subsequent ages love to dwell, from the heroism of the actions recounted, the tragic interest of the catastrophes portrayed, or the important consequences with which they have been attended on the future generations of men. It was thus that Herodotus painted with so much force the memorable events of the Persian invasion of Greece ; and Thucydides, the contest of aristocracy and democracy in the Greek commonwealths; and Livy, the immortal strife of Hannibal and Scipio in Roman story. No historian ever equalled Gibbon in this power of classification, and of giving breadth of effect; for none ever had so vast and complicated a series of events to recount, and none ever portrayed them with so graphic and luminous a pen. Observe his great pictures :—the condition of the Roman empire in the time of Augustus—the capture of Constantinople by the Latin crusaders—the rise of Mahommed—the habits and manners of the pastoral nations—the disasters of Julian—and the final decay and ruin of the Eternal City. They stand out from the canvass with all the freshness and animation of real life ; and seizing powerfully on the imagination of the reader, they make an indelible impression, and compensate or cause to be forgotten all the insignificant details of revolutions in the palace of Constantinople, or in the decline of the Roman empire, which necessarily required to be introduced.
Struck with the fate of so prodigious a host of historical writers, who had sunk into oblivion from this cause, Voltaire, with his usual vigour and originality, struck out a new style in this department of literature. Discarding at once the whole meagre details, the long descriptions of dress and ceremony, which filled the pages of the old chronicles or
monkish annalists, he strove to bring history back to what he conceived, and with reason, was its true object—a striking delineation of the principal events which had occurred, with a picture of the changes of manners, ideas, and principles with which they were accompanied. This was a great improvement on the jejune narratives of former times; and proportionally great was the success with which, in the first instance at least, it was attended. While the dry details of Guicciardini, the ponderous tomes of Villaret or Mezeray, and the trustworthy quartos of De Thou, slumbered in respectable obscurity on the dusty shelves of the library, the “Siècle de Louis XIV.," the Life of Peter the Great and Charles XII., were on every table, and almost in every boudoir; and their popular author was elevated to the pinnacle of worldly fame, while his more laborious and industrious predecessors were nigh forgotten by a frivolous age. A host of imitators, as usual with every original writer, followed in this brilliant and lucrative path ; of whom, Raynal in France, Schiller in Germany, and Watson in England, were the most successful.
But it was ere long discovered that this brilliant and sketchy style of history was neither satisfactory to the scholar nor permanently popular with the public. It was amusing rather than interesting, brilliant than profound. Its ingenious authors sprang too suddenly to conclusions—they laid down positions which the experience of the next age proved to be erroneous. It wanted that essential requisite in history, a knowledge of the human heart and a practical acquaintance with men. Above all, it had none of the earnestness of thought, the impassioned expression which springs from deep and sincere conviction, and which is ever found to be the only lasting passport to the human heart. After the first burst of popularity was over, it began to be discovered that these brilliant sketches were not real history, and could never supply its place. They left an immense deal untold, of equal or greater importance than what was told. They gave an amusing, but deceptive, and therefore not permanently interesting, account of the periods they embraced. Men desire something more in reading the narrative of great and important events in past times, than an able sketch of their leading features and brilliant charac