To Dr LEWIS.
Yes, Doctor, I have seen the British Museum; which is a noble collection, and even stupendous, if we consider it was made by a private man, a physician, who was obliged to make his own for tune at the same time: but great as the collection is, it would appear more striking if it was arranged in one spacious saloon, instead of being divided into different apartments, which it does not entirely fill—I could wish the series of medals was connected, and the whole of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms completed, by adding to each, at the public expence, those articles that are wanting. It would likewise be a great improvement, with respect to the library, if the deficiencies were made up, by purchasing all the books of character that are not to be found already in the collection—They might be classed in centuries, according to the dates of their publication, and catalogues printed of them and the manuscripts, for the information of those that want to consult, or compile from such authorities. I could also wish, for the honour of the nation, that there was a complete apparatus for a course of mathematics, mechanics, and experimental philosophy; and a good salary settled upon an able professor, who should give regular lectures on these subjects.
But this is all idle speculation, which will never be reduced to practice—Considering the temper of the times, it is a wonder to see any institution whatsoever established for the benefit of the Public. The spirit of party is risen to a kind of phrenzy, unknown to former ages, or rather degenerated to a total extinction of honesty and candour—You know I have observed, for some time, that the public papers are become the infamous vehicles of the most cruel and perfidious defamation: every rancorous knave every desperate incendiary, that can afford to spend half a crown or three shillings, may skulk behind the press of a newsmonger, and have a stab at the first character in the kingdom, without running the least hazard of detection or punishment.
I have made acquaintance with a Mr Barton, whom Jery knew at Oxford; a good sort of a man, though most ridiculously warped in his political principles; but his partiality is the less offensive, as it never appears in the stile of scurrility and abuse. He is a member of parliament, and a retainer to the court; and his whole conversation turns upon the virtues and perfections of the ministers, who are his patrons. T’other day, when he was bedaubing one of those worthies, with the most fulsome praise, I told him I had seen the same nobleman characterised very differently, in one of the daily-papers; indeed, so stigmatized, that if one half of what was said of him was true, he must be not only unfit to rule, but even unfit to live: that those impeachments had been repeated again and again, with the addition of fresh matter; and that as he had taken no steps towards his own vindication, I began to think there was some foundation for the charge. ‘And pray, Sir (said Mr Barton), what steps would you have him take? Suppose he should prosecute the publisher, who screens the anonymous accuser, and bring him to the pillory for a libel; this is so far from being counted a punishment, in terrorem, that it will probably make his fortune. The multitude immediately take him into their protection, as a martyr to the cause of defamation, which they have always espoused. They pay his fine, they contribute to the increase of his stock, his shop is crowded with customers, and the sale of his paper rises in proportion to the scandal it contains. All this time the prosecutor is inveighed against as a tyrant and oppressor, for having chosen to proceed by the way of information, which is deemed a grievance; but if he lays an action for damages, he must prove the damage, and I leave you to judge, whether a gentleman’s character may not be brought into contempt, and all his views in life blasted by calumny, without his being able to specify the particulars of the damage he has sustained.
‘This spirit of defamation is a kind of heresy, that thrives under persecution. The liberty of the press is a term of great efficacy; and like that of the Protestant religion, has often served the purposes of sedition—A minister, therefore, must arm himself with patience, and bear those attacks without repining—Whatever mischief they may do in other respects, they certainly contribute, in one particular, to the advantages of government; for those defamatory articles have multiplied papers in such a manner, and augmented their sale to such a degree, that the duty upon stamps and advertisements has made a very considerable addition to the revenue.’ Certain it is, a gentleman’s honour is a very delicate subject to be handled by a jury, composed of men, who cannot be supposed remarkable either for sentiment or impartiality—In such a case, indeed, the defendant is tried, not only by his peers, but also by his party; and I really think, that of all patriots, he is the most resolute who exposes himself to such detraction, for the sake of his country—If, from the ignorance or partiality of juries, a gentleman can have no redress from law, for being defamed in a pamphlet or newspaper, I know but one other method of proceeding against the publisher, which is attended with some risque, but has been practised successfully, more than once, in my remembrance—A regiment of horse was represented, in one of the newspapers, as having misbehaved at Dettingen; a captain of that regiment broke the publisher’s bones, telling him, at the same time, if he went to law, he should certainly have the like salutation from every officer of the corps. Governor—took the same satisfaction on the ribs of an author, who traduced him by name in a periodical paper—I know a low fellow of the same class, who, being turned out of Venice for his impudence and scurrility, retired to Lugano, a town of the Grisons (a free people, God wot) where he found a printing press, from whence he squirted his filth at some respectable characters in the republic, which he had been obliged to abandon. Some of these, finding him out of the reach of legal chastisement, employed certain useful instruments, such as may be found in all countries, to give him the bastinado; which, being repeated more than once, effectually stopt the current of his abuse.
As for the liberty of the press, like every other privilege, it must be restrained within certain bounds; for if it is carried to a branch of law, religion, and charity, it becomes one of the greatest evils that ever annoyed the community. If the lowest ruffian may stab your good name with impunity in England, will you be so uncandid as to exclaim against Italy for the practice of common assassination? To what purpose is our property secured, if our moral character is left defenceless? People thus baited, grow desperate; and the despair of being able to preserve one’s character, untainted by such vermin, produces a total neglect of fame; so that one of the chief incitements to the practice of virtue is effectually destroyed.
Mr Barton’s last consideration, respecting the stamp-duty, is equally wise and laudable with another maxim which has been long adopted by our financiers, namely, to connive at drunkenness, riot, and dissipation, because they inhance the receipt of the excise; not reflecting, that in providing this temporary convenience, they are destroying the morals, health, and industry of the people—Notwithstanding my contempt for those who flatter a minister, I think there is something still more despicable in flattering a mob. When I see a man of birth, education, and fortune, put himself on a level with the dregs of the people, mingle with low mechanics, feed with them at the same board, and drink with them in the same cup, flatter their prejudices, harangue in praise of their virtues, expose themselves to the belchings of their beer, the fumes of their tobacco, the grossness of their familiarity, and the impertinence of their conversation, I cannot help despising him, as a man guilty of the vilest prostitution, in order to effect a purpose equally selfish and illiberal.
I should renounce politics the more willingly, if I could find other topics of conversation discussed with more modesty and candour; but the daemon of party seems to have usurped every department of life. Even the world of literature and taste is divided into the most virulent factions, which revile, decry, and traduce the works of one another. Yesterday, I went to return an afternoon’s visit to a gentleman of my acquaintance, at whose house I found one of the authors of the present age, who has written with some success—As I had read one or two of his performances, which gave me pleasure, I was glad of this opportunity to know his person; but his discourse and deportment destroyed all the impressions which his writings had made in his favour. He took upon him to decide dogmatically upon every subject, without deigning to shew the least cause for his differing from the general opinions of mankind, as if it had been our duty to acquiesce in the ipse dixit of this new Pythagoras. He rejudged the characters of all the principal authors, who had died within a century of the present time; and, in this revision, paid no sort of regard to the reputation they had acquired—Milton was harsh and prosaic; Dryden, languid and verbose; Butler and Swift without humour; Congreve, without wit; and Pope destitute of any sort of poetical merit—As for his contemporaries, he could not bear to hear one of them mentioned with any degree of applause—They were all dunces, pedants, plagiaries, quacks, and impostors; and you could not name a single performance, but what was tame, stupid, and insipid. It must be owned, that this writer had nothing to charge his conscience with, on the side of flattery; for I understand, he was never known to praise one line that was written, even by those with whom he lived on terms of good fellowship. This arrogance and presumption, in depreciating authors, for whose reputation the company may be interested, is such an insult upon the understanding, as I could not bear without wincing.
I desired to know his reasons for decrying some works, which had afforded me uncommon pleasure; and, as demonstration did not seem to be his talent, I dissented from his opinion with great freedom. Having been spoiled by the deference and humility of his hearers, he did not bear contradiction with much temper; and the dispute might have grown warm, had it not been interrupted by the entrance of a rival bard, at whose appearance he always quits the place—They are of different cabals, and have been at open war these twenty years—If the other was dogmatical, this genius was declamatory: he did not discourse, but harangue; and his orations were equally tedious and turgid. He too pronounces ex cathedra upon the characters of his contemporaries; and though he scruples not to deal out praise, even lavishly, to the lowest reptile in Grubstreet who will either flatter him in private, or mount the public rostrum as his panegyrist, he damns all the other writers of the age, with the utmost insolence and rancour—One is a blunderbuss, as being a native of Ireland; another, a half-starved louse of literature, from the banks of the Tweed; a third, an ass, because he enjoys a pension from the government; a fourth, the very angel of dulness, because he succeeded in a species of writing in which this Aristarchus had failed; a fifth, who presumed to make strictures upon one of his performances, he holds as a bug in criticism, whose stench is more offensive than his sting—In short, except himself and his myrmidons, there is not a man of genius or learning in the three kingdoms. As for the success of those, who have written without the pale of this confederacy, he imputes it entirely to want of taste in the public; not considering, that to the approbation of that very tasteless public, he himself owes all the consequence he has in life.
Those originals are not fit for conversation. If they would maintain the advantage they have gained by their writing, they should never appear but upon paper—For my part, I am shocked to find a man have sublime ideas in his head, and nothing but illiberal sentiments in his heart—The human soul will be generally found most defective in the article of candour—I am inclined to think, no mind was ever wholly exempt from envy; which, perhaps, may have been implanted, as an instinct essential to our nature. I am afraid we sometimes palliate this vice, under the spacious name of emulation. I have known a person remarkably generous, humane, moderate, and apparently self-denying, who could not hear even a friend commended, without betraying marks of uneasiness; as if that commendation had implied an odious comparison to his prejudice, and every wreath of praise added to the other’s character, was a garland plucked from his own temples. This is a malignant species of jealousy, of which I stand acquitted in my own conscience.
Whether it is a vice, or an infirmity, I leave you to inquire.
There is another point, which I would much rather see determined; whether the world was always as contemptible, as it appears to me at present?—If the morals of mankind have not contracted an extraordinary degree of depravity, within these thirty years, then must I be infected with the common vice of old men, difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti; or, which is more probable, the impetuous pursuits and avocations of youth have formerly hindered me from observing those rotten parts of human nature, which now appear so offensively to my observation.
We have been at court, and ’change, and every where; and every where we find food for spleen, and subject for ridicule—My new servant, Humphry Clinker, turns out a great original: and Tabby is a changed creature—She has parted with Chowder; and does nothing but smile, like Malvolio in the play—I’ll be hanged if she is not acting a part which is not natural to her disposition, for some purpose which I have not yet discovered.
With respect to the characters of mankind, my curiosity is quite satisfied: I have done with the science of men, and must now endeavour to amuse myself with the novelty of things. I am, at present, by a violent effort of the mind, forced from my natural bias; but this power ceasing to act, I shall return to my solitude with redoubled velocity. Every thing I see, and hear, and feel, in this great reservoir of folly, knavery, and sophistication, contributes to inhance the value of a country life, in the sentiments of
Yours always, MATT. BRAMBLE LONDON, June 2.