Page images
PDF
EPUB

Pass of Thermopylæ are eternal monuments, not of Grecian valor only, but also of the invincible strength of patriotism, when kindled at the shrine of the muses.

As poetry is peculiarly the language of sentiment and passion, its political influence must, in a great measure, be limited to that stage in the progress of society, where civil institutions are rather the offspring of impulsive feelings, than the emanations of unimpassioned reason. She utters her voice in the silent haunts of retirement, and is often most prodigal of her inspiration, to those whose golden hopes have been reaped down by the sickle of adversity. They who have advanced farthest into the chambers of Imagery, where she holds her court, have often been enabled to gaze undazzled on her glowing visions, and to convey them in their integrity to the minds of others, by the very misfortunes that have dried up the fountains of their sympathies with their fellows. Though the voice of poetry be full of melodious harmony, yet the din of this every-day working world forces its influence back into the silence of the closet where it received its birth. In proportion as the ardor of passion is assuaged by the calm voice of reason, in building the frame-work of society, poetry is compelled to resign her command of the public ear, to the counsels of a bolder and less sensitive spirit, viz. ELOQUENCE, which animates a department of literature, that if measured by the power which it evinces in wielding the destinies of men, will not yield to poetry, and is much more intimately interwoven into the tissue of politics, than poetry, from its nature, can ever be.

The action of eloquence is never so vigorous, nor are her tones so commanding, as when civil liberty calls in her aid to resist the encroachments of tyranny. She gathers strength from obstacles, and all attempts to stifle her voice, give addition to its impressive energy. The history of ancient and modern free states furnish noble examples of her triumphs. To return to the land of the Iliad. As the waves of foreign war subsided, and the beams of peace returned, the energies that, concentrated, had raised a wall of fire around this glorious nation, were divided by the jealousies that must distract every state, which has a diversity of local interests, uncemented by the charm of an indissoluble union. Whatever dissolves the charm, awakens the demons of faction. Discussions become bold and free. Schemes are set on foot, and theories broached and advocated by intellects which ambition has sharpened to keenness. The field is now clear for eloquence. The insidious and overreaching policy of Philip of Macedon kindled the great heart of Demosthenes, and sinking the name of 'party' in the solemn and venerable name of patriotism, his political views acquired a princely dignity by the invincible eloquence with which he enforced them. Those orations, whose bold truths, thrilling appeals, and indignant, sarcastic wit electrified the men of Athens, are the fountains whence succeeding rhetoricians have drawn the rules and principles of that sublime science, which embraces in itself a knowledge of all the others.

The Romans were less poetical, and more imitative, than the Greeks, but their orators were scarcely less illustrious. Their stately annals gleam with the light which flashed from the ardent souls of the Gracchi. The darkest and most corrupt days of the republic had Cato and Cicero, who threw a splendor around them, that made the darkness odious, by rendering it visible. But none of these great men, and especially Cicero, ever reached the full height of their intellectual stature, except when, on the political arena, they appeared as the indomitable champions of the crumbling commonwealth. Their almost superhuman exertions in the cause of patriotism, have procured for themselves a fame which has survived the wreck of the republic, at the same time that they lent a surpassing interest to every thing Roman. The orations of Cicero are not merely beautiful specimens of rhetorical skill, but they are the most valuable commentaries on the Roman Commonwealth extant. The exquisite finish of the style, and the glowing fire of genius which burns beneath every period, give them not only a high rank in classical literature, but render them the most acceptable text-book that can be placed in the hands of the young scholar. The noble and patriotic sentiments of the old Roman are thus interwoven into the texture of the ideas, and become a component part of the intellectual nature, when it is most susceptible of deep impressions, and exert a strong influence in casting the mould of thought, even after the original impressions may have been partially effaced. The lifeless corpse of the republic has thus been embalmed in the uncorrupting fragrance of genius, and though

"The Scipios' tomb contains no ashes now,' the features of Rome's great men are engraven on tablets of everlasting duration

But the triumphs of eloquence are not confined to Greece or Rome. The scroll of English prose literature can unrol but few pages of equal beauty with those which record the intellectual struggles of Chatham, Pitt, Fox, Burke, Sheridan, Wyndham, and others, in the British Senate; and decidedly the most attractive and eloquent passages, the finest specimens of profound thought and exquisite elegance of diction, in the whole range of American literature, are found in the political speeches and treatises of our Henry, Hamilton, Jay, Marshall

, Fisher Ames, Clay, Randolph, and Webster. Many of the orations of these mighty geniuses, especially those of Chatham, Burke, Fisher Ames, and Webster, offspring as they are of questions that arise out of the depths of political science, contain choice touches of sentiment, thrilling appeals to the most generous passions of human nature, fine imagery, and graphic descriptions; thus cementing together the different parts of their discourses by golden links, that add strength to the work, while they give the finishing touch to the most costly embellishments.

The alliance that subsists between poetry, eloquence, and politics, it is true, is rather incidental than direct; but there is another department of literature, whose range is very extensive, and is daily becoming more so, which exerts a political influence that is incalculable. I refer to periodical criticism. Magazines, originally established as an ordeal through which works offered to the favor of the public must pass, be subjected to a rigid analysis, and be tested by the application of the rules of just criticism, are now the charts

on which the pilots of the ship of state sketch not merely the outlines of their course, but develope at length the principles of party policy. The Edinburgh Review, planted in the northern capital of Britain, has stretched its gigantic arm not merely over the domain of literature, sometimes withering the budding hopes of young aspirants for fame, and wielding the knife of critical dissection with energetic vigor, but it has also unfurled the banner of · The Liberals ;' and at the same time that its pages are glowing with the genius of literature, it affords the Whigs of Britain more strength than all the other periodicals in the kingdom. For the avowed purpose of checking the bold licentiousness of this northern Whig champion, whose advocacy of what the supporters of the crown deemed revolutionary doctrines was unmasked and vigorous, Sir Walter Scott, Bishop Heber, and several other gentlemen of kindred character, established in the opposite quarter of the empire the · London Quarterly.'' They caught up the enemy's own weapons, and rejecting contemptuously the venom that pointed his shafts, with polished learning and chivalrous courtesy, they parried and paid back his attacks; and for nearly thirty years, amidst the mutations of empires, and the fiercest and most fiery action of the political elements, they have sounded shrill and clear the note of

"Successful or unsuccessful war,' in the van of their respective ranks. At the same time that these reviews have borne this warlike aspect, their eagle glance has suffered no valuable work of literature or science to escape unnoticed, and not often unanalyzed; relieving their excellencies, and pointing out defects to be avoided; although it must be acknowledged, that both parties have often suffered the rancor of prejudice to jaundice their vision, and instil its juice into the feelings that give color to the web of thought.

In our own country, the ' Quarterly,' the North American,' and Southern Reviews, and recently the New York Review,' a work of high merit, have been made the vehicles of conveying to the public elaborate examinations of domestic slavery,' the public lands,' the boundary question, state rights, nullification, and the like subjects, that have shaken the union to its base ; while their avowed aim has rather been to register the birth, display the beauties, and valuable discoveries and improvements, in literary and scientific works.

Since the election of Mr. Van Buren to the presidency, the two great parties that divide the republic have ranged themselves under a separate banner; have formally announced their intention, and commenced the attempt, to weave the tissue of politics into the favorite reading of the public. Let but the great lungs of the republic send forth the invigorating breath of sound principles, and such connexion may be advantageous, both to literature and politics. The former may receive a zest it could acquire no where else, and the latter may be elevated by the refining influences and attractive beauties of literature.

In addition to works of periodical criticism, many volumes of Eng. lish and American literature, which take rank among the classics, owe their birth to the rage and rancor of political struggles. The name

of Burke is here covered with splendor. The volumes in which he has bequeathed his fame to posterity, all treat, with a single exception, of subjects purely political; and although Goldsmith has said, that

Born for the universe, he narrowed his mind,

And to party gave up what was meant for mankind,' yet we think it quite problematical whether Burke's memory would have been cherished with more profound veneration than it is now, if he had chosen for his walks the groves of the academy, instead of making the senate echo the tones of his matchless eloquence. His reflections on the French Revolution, his most elaborate work, to say nothing of the depth of knowledge and political sagacity that are evinced on every page, are an exhibition of the most majestic style which the English language is capable of affording. The diction accommodates itself to the solemn grandeur of the subject, like the * ample folds of the drapery on the master-pieces of antique sculpture.' It is impossible to court the acquaintance of this great man, through his works, without feeling pure and elevating influences. One breathes in his presence a purer and more invigorating atmosphere. By communion with him, the soul, unaccustomed to bold Aights, gradually acquires the ardor and enterprise of the eagle.

The productions of Junius take high rank among the English classics, and now, after the events and circumstances that gave

keenness and pungency to his satire have been swallowed up in oblivion, they are read, and will continue to be read, for the bold and noble cast of the thoughts, and the vigor with which they are expressed. Without attempting to complete a catalogue that might be extended to an almost indefinite length, of those who have adorned political discussions with the spoils of literature, it is sufficient to remark, that scarcely an electoral canvass now takes place, without bringing forth intellectual creations that need only the name of Junius, to raise them into an equality with those letters which are now marching on to immortality, under the banner of · Stat nominis umbra.'

The blending of politics and literature may be productive of immense advantages, or of overwhelming evils, as examples abundantly show. The influence of the Iliad on the states of Greece, has been already adverted to; and the popular author of Ferdinand and Isabella,' which may be regarded as one of the most beautiful productions of American genius, bas advanced the opinion that the turbulent spirits of Spain (while the institutions of chivalry alternately covered the state with glory, and were themselves invested with commanding dignity by their union with the state,) were bound together by the patriotic ardor which they breathed in the poem of the Cid, and other works of a kindred character, with which the literature of southern Europe abounds. But the best example of this kind of influence is offered by England, whose legends and tales of chivalry gleam through the elfin dream' of Spenser, and give a keener zest even to Milton's heavenly theme. The memory of her kings and queens has been immortalized by Shakspeare, and their vices drawn forth, and unmasked to be detested, with such pathos and generous sympathy, that our tears flow at the downfall of greatness supported by guilt, and we see without envy the vault which

successful ambition makes, as he has withdrawn the curtain, and permitted us to see the accompanying thorns, how they pierce the deepest when the splendor is most dazzling. All the events of her history have been woven by a thousand others, whose names whiten along the milky way of her intellectual sky, into solemn narrative, festive poetry, and sportive lays : Thus

'Uniting as with a moral band
Its native legends with their land,
Giving each rock its storied tale,
Pouring a lay for every dale,'

until the sentiment of patriotism, which is a complex idea, composed of the recollections which great men have left behind them, and of the master-pieces of genius, has settled down into a component principle of the British constitutional nature ; combining with loyalty, it embraces the throne with a grasp so strong, that the attempt to upheave it would be as futile as the attempt to dislodge the foundations of the deep-anchored isle.

A Briton conceives the State to be the offspring of the will of God, and be looks upon the framework of his government, adorned as it is with spoils which have been culled from the richest products of genius, through the space of a thousand years, as a sublime temple, which the Deity honors with his presence. The church engraves her eternal sanctions on the cap-stones of the temple, and maintains her sacred ministers through all its departments. The civil officer, in vowing allegiance to his sovereign, also vows allegiance to the majesty of heaven, in the sacraments of the church. He thus acquires a sanctity of character which has a strong tendency at least to stifle the cold selfishness of the human heart, which too often looks upon office as the mere avenue of gain. To render it still more attractive, the idea of royalty and nobility is embodied in the persons of individuals. All the charms that inspire the deepest and most romantic devotion, relieved by long lines of splendid ancestry, are concentrated around the throne. Love, and enthusiastic ardor, all the strongest and most generous passions of the human breast, united with cool, reflecting reason, combine to give strength and durability to the noblest monarchy that ever was framed. Now compare

this gorgeous fabric with the simplicity of the American republic. They who framed it were baptized sons of liberty in a river of patriot blood. They were thus made sacred for their sublime duty. Their institutions are the emanations of pure reason. Passions of every description were commanded to hold their peace, when they addressed themselves to their appointed task. Not beauty but utility was the object sought and gained. They looked for support, not to enthusiastic passions, and the ardor of devotion, but to the unsophisticated reason of men of common sense. But passions are stronger than reason, and they often usurp her authority. İnstitutions strong as iron and solid as stone, may effect every purpose of utility, but they cannot cause to vibrate the cords of affection in the heart. Self interest may be enlisted to support them, but the deep, resistless current of patriotic ardor requires our strongest passions to arouse it to its full force. As the genius of the republic is

« PreviousContinue »