Text: Nathan Covington Brooks (???), “Review of The Phenix,” American Museum (Baltimore, MD), vol. I, no. 3, November 1838, pp. 379-385


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[page 379:]

REVIEWS.

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THE PHENIX: a collection of old and rare fragments, viz: The Morals of Confucius, the Chinese Philosopher; the Oracles of Zoroaster, the founder of the religion of the Persian magi; Sanchoniatho’s history of the Creation; the Voyages of Hanno round the coast of Africa, five hundred years before Christ; king Hiempsal’s history of the African settlement, translated from the Punic books; and the Choice Sayings of Publius Syrus. New York: Published by WILLIAM GOWAN, 121 Chatham street, 1835.

We have given to the admiring eyes of the public, the entire title-page of this most original production — this rara avis, the Phenix. Ere this its merits would have been loudly sung, and noticed with that reverence which beseems its literary worth; but the introduction to the volume having inspired us with some hopes that another descendant from the same illustrious stock would have shed new light to illumine the footsteps of purblind American scholars, now wandering in darkness, and in unblessed ignorance of the curious and rare stores of knowledge to be found in the pages of Publius Syrus, and in the log-book of Hanno, (so long mislaid, and now handed to the regards of posterity, by the learned compiler of this volume,) we have postponed, until now, its notice. No such production, however, having greeted our longing vision, we are per force compelled to demi-satiate our literary appetites with the choice morceaux spread before us in the Phenix; and to lament, that we are forever debarred access to the “beautiful and affecting picture of human life, delineated with great accuracy of judgment and splendour of sentiment,” by the Theban philosopher, Cebes.

We will therefore now build the aromatic pile of the Phenix, trusting that from the ashes of the funeral pyre, a new bird may arise, to exceed in beauty its progenitor. For, though we deny most strenuously, that the book in question contains one single article of interest, we by no means question the abilities of the author to compose some work of merit, if he will cease from his unprofitable and idle angling after useless fragments.

In an extremely curious advertisement prefixed to this [page 380:] volume, the author addressing the “Inhabitants of the New World,” in a pompous strain announces the first arrival of certain “illustrious and venerable strangers from China, Persia, Phoenicia, Carthage, and the city of Rome,” in “this asylum of light and liberty.” Now, with all due deference to the opinion of this learned Theban, we can by no means coincide with his exulting paean of welcome. These illustrious and venerable strangers, especially the works of Confucius, or Confutzee, have been well known to the admirers of antiquarian studies: have been rendered into English from the original French translation of the Catholic missionaries who first placed an European foot in China, and attempted the conversion of an unconvertible race; and have been generally read by those who were desirous of becoming acquainted with oriental studies. Indeed, it would have been surprising, if the writings of the most celebrated sage of China, the illustrious Confucius, should have been deemed unworthy of a translation, while the fables of Pilpay, and the works of Mencius, or Meng-tsee, have received that honour so repeatedly.

But as it is not our intention to enter upon a discussion concerning the writings of Confucius, which are well known as a collection of morals and ethics, divided into six Books, and reverenced by the Chinese with an almost superstitious idolatry, we shall merely mention that his collection of aphorisms, moral inculcations, and religious instructions, bear upon them a character of high polish and sound observation. Though by no means interesting as regards the perusal, for the modern student has many opportunities of consulting better authorities and more valuable treatises, they are generally conceded a place in the libraries of the curious. This Confucius lived about 500 years before Christ, and filled the most important posts which the government of China could confer. But, like most eminent and pious lawgivers, he attracted the envy of the neighbouring monarchs, by whose intrigues he was forced to abandon his country. He retired from his native land, and instituted a school, where, it is said, he instructed no less than six hundred scholars. He died in the seventieth and second year of his age, leaving behind him an eminent reputation for sanctity and wisdom. His great literary reputation is reverenced, and his code of laws practised by the Chinese to this day. Indeed, the principle of the English barons, “Nolumus leges Angliae mutari,” seems to have obtained an equal footing as regards the reverence paid to their ancient institutions, with that most strange of all nations, the Chinese. The translation in the work before [page 381:] us, is taken from a version of Incorcetta and Couplet, and a very curious affair it is.

Passing over the collection of Morals, (which being applicable to a despotic form of government, present nothing useful to the American reader, who has perused the Maxims of Rochefoucault,) we come to an extremely interesting portion of the work, devoted to the excellent purpose of directing the hungry man in the way wherein he should eat, and to the maxims which are placed upon slips of wood before the public offices, for the admonition and edification of the passers by.

These maxims, it appears, are derived from the canonical books of China, and contain, in themselves, all the elements requisite to form a good citizen; but the medical directions shall speak for themselves.

“Be virtuous; govern your passions: restrain your appetite. Avoid excess and high seasoned food, eat slowly, and chew your food well. (Shade of Trollope! thou hast a congenial spirit which possesses all thy antipathy to the crime of “bolting!”) Do not eat to satiety. * * In winter, a glass or two of wine is an excellent preservative against unwholesome air. Make a hearty meal about noon, and eat plain meats only; avoid salted meats; those who eat them often have pale complexions and a slow pulse, and are full of corrupted humours. * * * * I do indeed drink wine, hut never more than four or five glasses. (A moderate supernaculum, truly!) * * * Immediately after you awake, rub your breast where the heart lies, with the palm of your hand. * * When you lie down, banish all thought.” [Maxims, pp. 122, 123.

And our Chinese philosopher continues in a strain, which our translator has rendered supremely ridiculous, to wit:

“An ague in the spring is physic for a king; agues come on horseback, but go away on foot. You eat and you eat, but you do not drink to fill you. Children and chicken, must always be picking. (!) Old young and old long; they who would be young when they are old, must be old when they are young. Every man is either a fool or a physician after forty years of age. Good health is half a meal.

* * *

After dinner sit awhile; after supper walk a mile. If you would live forever, you must wash milk from your liver.

* * *

Who goes to bed with a late supper, all night tumbles and tosses. Often and little eating makes a man fat. Fish must swim

thrice.”

Morals, pp. 123, 124.

Bravissimo! — We have heard the good old proverb concerning the necessity of causing fish to swim, first in water, [page 382:] secondly in oil, and thirdly in brandy, but we were not preared to discover it in Confucius.

But of all this “skimble skamble stuff,” which, we are assured, is a wretched translation, are the maxims composed, which the learned compiler assures us, are of great consideration, if we pay attention to the importance of the things therein contained. Papæ!

The second fragment which the author of the Phenix professes to have extracted from the store-rooms of antiquity, is the Oracles of Zoroaster, founder of the Persian Magi, or fireworshippers; a jargon of unmeaning phrases, unattended by any explanatory note, which might confer some value upon them. The compiler professes to have translated them from the Greek of J. P. Cory, Esq. the translator of Herodotus. The oracles are collected from various eminent sources, amongst which are the names of Plotinus, Priscian, Porphyrius, Diogenes, Hermias, &c. That the original task of collecting these oracles, was a formidable undertaking, we doubt not; but that the author of the Phenix should have been so blind as not to have discovered the utter inutility of publishing a second Babel of confusion, entirely destitute of explanatory notes, is surprising. To the oracles of Delphi and Dodona — to the magical books of the Sybil — to the Alcoran and Talmud, the reader may attribute some meaning, grounded upon common “sense; and references to historical events, have plainly been traced by the learned, to these oracles. Of the extraordinary prophecies and oracles contained in Scripture, we have ample and satisfactory solutions. The Talmud, with its accompanying Mishna and Gemara, has been the subject of fruitful inquiry and painful investigation by the learned rabbis, from Rabbi Akiba down. Each succeeding writer upon the foregoing oracles, or concealed moralities, has endeavoured to elucidate his author; but the discerning compiler of the Phenix, has left his readers to exercise their own discretions upon such an unintelligible slang of philosophy as the following. We make no invidious extracts, but give the passages taken ad libitum from any part of the work before us. We will even go farther, and take the most intelligible.

PARTICULAR SOULS.

Soul. Life. Man.

78. These things the Father conceived, and the mortal was animated for him. T. (or Theurgists.)

79. For the Father of gods and men placed the mind in soul, but in body he placed you.

80. The paternal mind has sowed symbols in the souls. Z. [page 383:]

81. Having mingled the vital spark from two according substances, mind and divine spirit, as a third, to these he added holy love, the venerable chariotteer uniting all things.

82. Filling the soul with profound love. Z. or T.

83. The soul of man will in a manner clasp God to herself. — Having nothing mortal, she is wholly inebriated from God; for she glories in the barmony under which the mortal body exists. T.

Oracles, pp. 157, 158.

These passages are tolerably plain through their own constructions; but what shall we say to the man who, pretending to exhibit antiquarian lights, will leave passages such as the following, unexplained? They contain curious meanings, and, no doubt, shed great light over the ancient Persian mythology; but what that light is — c’est une autre affaire.

90. * * * Understanding the works of the Father, they avoid the shameless wing of fate; they are placed in God, drawing strong torches; descending from the Father, from which, as they descend, the soul gathers of the empyreal fruits of the soul-nourishing power. Z. or T.

91. This animastic spirit, which blessed men have called the pneumatic soul, (?), becomes a god, an all-various demon, and an image; and the soul in this suffers her punishment. The oracles, too, accord with this account; for they assimilate the employment of the soul in Hades to the delusive visions of a dream. Z. or T.

92. One life with another; from the distributed channels. Passing from above through the opposite part, through the centre of the earth; and the fifth the middle, another fiery channel, where the life beaming fire descends as far as the material channels. Z. Or T.

93. Moisture is a symbol of life; hence Plato, and the gods before Plato, call it (the soul) at one time the liquid of the whole of vivification, and at another time a certain fountain of it. Z.

Now the editor of the Phenix manifests a most culpable neglect in failing to explain the meaning of these passages. If he was unable so to do, why does he attempt to bring into light these dark sayings at all. In their present shape they benefit nobody, and only serve to cast ridicule upon incompetent authorship. These patches of Rosicrucianism are, in aspect, ineffably ridiculous; but they often convey, couched in the deepest mystery, philosophical opinions, equally curious and important.

As regards the partial history of Sanchoniatho, the historian of the Phoenicians, much doubt exists, and much dispute has been excited. The present translation is re-translated from Mr. Cory’s version, taken from Philo. Did all agree in pronouncing these fragments of Sanchoniatho correct, we should take pleasure in extending a notice towards them; but [page 384:] the literary, world is much divided upon this point, and we must allow it to remain untouched.

The Periplus of Hanno is sufficiently well known to those persons who profess the slightest taste for classical antiquarianism. It is a very fine fragment relating to ancient navigation; but not so sufficiently rare as to advance its claims to the titles of “rare, curious, and valuable.” By the way, it by no means appears in this Periplus, that Hanno heard the most remote sounds of that Hesperian chorus, commemorated by the pen of Mr. Alfred Tennyson.

So far from the next compilation, viz: the history of the African settlements, being an antiquarian fragment, it is a well known fact, that each juvenile reader of Q. Sallustius Crispus is well acquainted with its merits, as it forms an essential part of the “Bellum Jugurthinum.”

The Choice Sayings of Publius Syrus complete this hoary array of venerable antiquity. Observe what our excellent compiler remarks in his preface. “The Choice Sayings of Publius Syrus I had much difficulty and long search in procuring.” Did this learned gentleman ever hear of two ancient fairs, annually held in Helvetia? Have the venerable cities of Frankfort and Leipsic fallen entirely into the gulf of oblivion? Perhaps, had he extended his researches into those Hanseatic ruins, he might have procured entire barrow-loads of this very rare work, at a price far below the general cost of an English edition of Phœdrus. And he parades the motto of the Edinburgh Review — “Judex damnatur, cum nocens absolvitur,” with his still more original translation, as a crowning instance of the merits of Publius Syrus.

If our peculiar province led us to expose the mistranslations, the flat common places, in which our translator in , dulges, woe unto the unfortunate reader! Let us therefore close this portion of his volume, and direct a few remarks as regards his advertisement, preface, or introduction.

“Should,” says he, “the publisher of this series of fragments meet with reasonable encouragement in the sale of this collection it will be followed by another, equally rare and valuable. In it will be found the Tables of Cebes, the Theban philosopher, which contain a beautiful and affecting picture of human life, delineated with great accurary of judgment and splendour of sentiments; the memorable sayings of Diogenes, the celebrated cynic philosopher; Epictetus’ Enchiridon;” Cicero’s Dream of Scipio; Fragments of the Twelve Tables of Roman Laws; and the Remains of Berosus, the Babylonian and Chaldean historian and astrologer.” [Advertisement p. 10. [page 385:]

Io pæan! What a prodigious array of antiquities! Does the author of the Phenix know, that the “[[Greek text]],” is among the most common publications of the age? Is he aware that these tables, the “[[Greek text]],” and the “[[Greek text]],” are always bound together, in the most vulgar German editions? To ridicule the idea of the novelty of Scipio and of Diogenes would be futile. Fragments of the Tables of the Roman laws may be found in every Roman historian, from Eutropius down; and the remains of Berosus are by no means so uncommon that they may not be found in Herodotus and Arrian.

Thus much for the critical discernment of our author. One word to him further. Let him direct his talents and application, (both which are apparent in his misdirected work,) in better causes. He is no Porson — no Bloomfield — no Carey; but, if he will turn his endeavours upon less abstruse subjects, and abandon this useless search after trifles, he will entitle himself to the respect of all well wishers to classical learning.

Thus much for the Phenix.

Rara avis in terris; simillimaque nigro cycno.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 384:]

* Enchiridion, we presume; or to give its Latin gloss, “Epicteti Manuale.”


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - AM, 1838] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Rejected - Review of The Phenix [Text-02]