Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 7, May 1836, 5:???-???


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Didactics — Social, Literary, and Political. By Robert Walsh. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard.

Having read these volumes with much attention and pleasure, we are prepared to admit that their author is one of the finest writers, one of the most accomplished scholars, and when not in too great a hurry, one of the most accurate thinkers in the country. Yet had we never seen this collection of Didactics, we should never have entertained these opinions. Mr. Walsh has been peculiarly an anonymous writer, and has thus been instrumental in cheating himself of a great portion of that literary renown which is most unequivocally his due. We have been not unfrequently astonished in the perusal of the book now before us, at meeting with a variety of well known and highly esteemed acquaintances, for whose paternity we had been accustomed to give credit where we now find it should not have been given. Among these we may mention in especial the very excellent Essay on the acting of Kean, entitled “Notices of Kean’s principal performances during his first season in Philadelphia,” to be found at page 146, volume i. We have often thought of the unknown author of this Essay, as of one to whom we might speak, if occasion should at any time be granted us, with a perfect certainty of being understood. We have looked to the article itself as to a fair oasis in the general blankness and futility of our customary theatrical notices. We read it with that thrill of pleasure with which we always welcome our own long-cherished opinions, when we meet them unexpectedly in the language of another. How absolute is the necessity now daily growing, of rescuing our stage criticism from the control of illiterate mountebanks, and placing it in the hands of gentlemen and scholars!

The paper on Collegiate Education, beginning at page 165, volume ii, is much more than a sufficient reply to that Essay in the Old Bachelor of Mr. Wirt, in which the attempt is made to argue down colleges as seminaries for the young. Mr. Walsh’s article does not uphold Mr. Barlow’s plan of a National University — a plan which is assailed by the Attorney General — but comments upon some errors in point of fact, and enters into a brief but comprehensive examination of the general subject. He maintains with undeniable truth, that it is illogical to deduce arguments against universities which are to exist at the present day, from the inconveniences found to be connected with institutions formed in the dark ages — institutions similar to our own in but few respects, modelled upon the principles and prejudices of the times, organized with a view to particular ecclesiastical purposes, and confined in their operations by an infinity of Gothic and perplexing regulations. He thinks, (and we believe he thinks with a great majority of our well educated fellow citizens) that in the case either of a great national institute or of State universities, nearly all the difficulties so much insisted upon will prove a series of mere chimeras — that the evils apprehended might be readily obviated, and the acknowledged benefits uninterruptedly secured. He denies, very justly, the assertion of the Old Bachelor — that, in the progress of society, funds for collegiate establishments will no doubt be accumulated, independently of government, when their benefits are evident, and a necessity for them felt — and that the rich who have funds will, whenever strongly impressed with the necessity of so doing, provide, either by associations or otherwise, proper seminaries for the education of their children. He shows that these assertions are contradictory to experience, and more particularly to the experience of the State of Virginia, where, notwithstanding the extent of private opulence, and the disadvantages under which the community so long labored from a want of regular and systematic instruction, it was the government which was finally compelled, and not private societies which were induced, to provide establishments for effecting the great end. He says (and therein we must all fully agree with him) that Virginia may consider herself fortunate in following the example of all the enlightened nations of modern times rather than in hearkening to the counsels of the Old Bachelor. He dissents (and who would not?) from the allegation, that “the most eminent men in Europe, particularly in England, have received their education neither at public schools or universities,” and shows that the very reverse may be affirmed — that on the continent of Europe by far the greater number of its great names have been attached to the rolls of its universities — and that in England a vast majority of those minds which we have reverenced so long — the Bacons, the Newtons, the Barrows, the Clarkes, the Spencers, the Miltons, the Drydens, the Addisons, the Temples, the Hales, the Clarendons, the Mansfields, Chatham, Pitt, Fox, Wyndham, &c. were educated among the venerable cloisters of Oxford or of Cambridge. He cites the Oxford Prize Essays, so well known even in America, as direct evidence of the energetic ardor in acquiring knowledge brought about through the means of British Universities, and maintains that “when attention is given to the subsequent public stations and labors of most of the writers of these Essays, it will be found that they prove also the ultimate practical utility of the literary discipline of the colleges for the students and the nation.” He argues, that were it even true that the greatest men have not been educated in public schools, the fact would have little to do with the question of their efficacy in the instruction of the mass of mankind. Great men cannot be created — and are usually independent of all particular schemes of education. Public seminaries are best adapted to the generality of cases. He concludes with observing that the course of study pursued at English Universities, is more liberal by far than we are willing to suppose it — that it is, demonstrably, the best, inasmuch as regards the preference given to classical and mathematical knowledge — and that upon the whole it would be an easy matter, in transferring to America the general principles of those institutions, to leave them their obvious errors, while we avail ourselves as we best may, of their still more obvious virtues and advantages.

We must take the liberty of copying an interesting paper on the subject of Oxford.

The impression made on my mind by the first aspect of Paris was scarcely more lively or profound, than that which I experienced on entering Oxford. Great towns were already familiar to my eye, but a whole city sacred to the cultivation of science, composed of edifices no less venerable for their antiquity than magnificent in their structure, was a novelty which at once delighted and overpowered my imagination. The entire population is in some degree appended and ministerial to the colleges. They comprise nearly the whole town, and are so noble and imposing, although entirely Gothic, that I was inclined to apply to the architecture of Oxford what has been said of the schools of Athens;

“The Muse alone unequal dealt her rage,

And graced with noblest pomp her earliest stage.”

Spacious gardens laid out with taste and skill are annexed to each college, and appropriated to the exercises and meditations of the students. The adjacent country is in the highest state of cultivation, and watered by a beautiful stream, which bears the name of Isis, the divinity of the Nile and the Ceres of the Egyptians. To you who know my attachment to letters, and my veneration for the great men whom this university has produced, it will not appear affectation, when I say that I was most powerfully affected by this scene, that my eyes filled with tears, that all the enthusiasm of a student burst forth.

After resting, I delivered next morning, my letter of introduction to one of the professors, Mr. V — — , and who undertook to serve as my cicerone through the university. The whole day was consumed in wandering over the various colleges and their libraries, in discoursing on their organization, and in admiring the Gothic chapels, the splendid prospects from their domes, the collection of books, of paintings, and of statuary, and the portraits of the great men who were nursed in this seat of learning. Both here and at Cambridge, accurate likenesses of such as have by their political or literary elevation, ennobled their alma mater, are hung up in the great halls, in order to excite the emulation of their successors, and perpetuate the fame of the institution. I do not wish to fatigue you by making you the associate of all my wanderings and reflections, but only beg you to follow me rapidly through the picture-gallery attached to the celebrated Bodleian library. It is long indeed, and covered with a multitude of original portraits, but from them I shall merely select a few, in which your knowledge of history will lead you to take a lively interest.

I was struck with the face of Martin Luther the reformer. It was not necessary to have studied Lavater to collect from it, the character of his mind. His features were excessively harsh though regular, his eye intelligent but sullen and scowling, and the whole expression of his countenance, that of a sour, intemperate, overbearing controversialist. Near him were placed likenesses of Locke, Butler, and Charles II., painted by Sir Peter Lely; with the countenance of Locke you are well acquainted, that of Butler has nothing sportive in it — does not betray a particle of humor, but is, on the contrary, grave, solemn, and didactic in the extreme, and must have been taken in one of his splenetic moods, when brooding over the neglect of Charles, rather than in one of those moments of inspiration, as they may be styled, in which he narrated the achievements of Hudibras. The physiognomy of Charles is, I presume, familiar to you, lively but not “spiritual.” Lord North is among the number of heads, and I was caught by his strong resemblance to the present king; so strong as to remind one of the scandalous chronicles of times past.

The face of Mary queen of Scots next attracted my notice. It was taken in her own time, and amply justifies what historians have written, or poets have sung, concerning her incomparable beauty. If ever there was a countenance meriting the epithet of lovely in its most comprehensive signification, it was this, which truly “vindicated the veracity of Fame,” and in which I needed not the aid of imagination to trace the virtues of her heart. In reading Hume and Whitaker I have often wept over her misfortunes, and now turned with increased disgust from an original portrait of Elizabeth, her rival and assassin, which was placed immediately above, and contributed to heighten the captivations of the other by the effect of contrast. The features of Elizabeth are harsh and irregular, her eye severe, her complexion bad, her whole face, in short, just such as you would naturally attach to such a mind.

Among the curiosities of the gallery may be ranked a likeness of Sir Phillip Sydney, done with a red hot poker, on wood, by a person of the name of Griffith, belonging to one of the colleges. It is really a monument of human patience and ingenuity, and has the appearance of a good painting. I cannot describe to you without admiration another most extraordinary freak of genius exhibited here, and altogether unique in its kind. It is a portrait of Isaac Tuller, a celebrated painter in the reign of Charles II., executed by himself when drunk. Tradition represents it as an admirable likeness, and of inebriety in the abstract, there never was a more faithful or perfect delineation. This anecdote is authentic, and must amuse the fancy, if we picture to ourselves the artist completely intoxicated, inspecting his own features in a mirror, and hitting off, with complete success, not only the general character, but the peculiar stamp, which such a state must have impressed upon them. His conception was as full of humor as of originality, and well adapted to the system of manners which the reigning monarch introduced and patronized. As I am on the subject of portraits, permit me to mention three to which my attention was particularly called on my visit to the University of Dublin. They were those of Burke, Swift, and Bishop Berkeley, done by the ablest masters. The latter must have had one of the most impressive physiognomies ever given to man, “the human face divine.” That of Burke is far inferior, but strongly marked by an indignant smile; a proper expression for the feelings by which his mind was constantly agitated towards the close of his life. The face of Swift from which you would expect every thing, is dull, heavy and unmeaning.

Portrait painting is the forte, as it has always been the passion of this country. Happily for the inquisitive stranger, every rich man has all his progenitors and relatives on canvass. The walls of every public institution are crowded with benefactors and pupils, and no town hall is left without the heads of the corporation, or the representatives of the borough. The same impulse that prompts us to gaze with avidity on the persons of our cotemporaries, if there be any thing prominent in their character, or peculiar in their history, leads us to turn a curious and attentive eye on the likenesses of the “mighty dead,” whose souls as well as faces are thus in some degree transmitted to posterity. Next to my association with the living men of genius who render illustrious the names of Englishmen, no more sensible gratification has accrued to me from my residence in this country, than that of studying the countenances of their predecessors; no employment has tended more efficaciously to improve my acquaintance with the history of the nation, to animate research, and to quicken the spirit of competition.

I quitted Oxford with a fervent wish that such an establishment might one day grace our own country. I have uttered an ejaculation to the same effect whenever the great monuments of industry and refinement which Europe displays exclusively, have fallen under my observation. We have indeed just grounds to hope that we shall one day eclipse the old world.

“Each rising art by just gradation moves,

Toil builds on toil, an age on age improves.”

The only paper in the Didactics, to which we have any decided objection, is a tolerably long article on the subject of Phrenology, entitled “Memorial of the Phrenological Society of — t —— to the Honorable the Congress of ——— sitting at ———.” Considered as a specimen of mere burlesque the Memorial is well enough — but we are sorry to see the energies of a scholar and an editor (who should be, if he be not, a man of metaphysical science) so wickedly employed as in any attempt to throw ridicule upon a question, (however much maligned, or however apparently ridiculous) whose merits he has never examined, and of whose very nature, history, and assumptions, he is most evidently ignorant. Mr. Walsh is either ashamed of this article now, or he will have plentiful reason to be ashamed of it hereafter.

 


Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (May 1836)