Text: Unknown (???), Literary Reviews, Southern Literary Messenger, vol. III, no. 2, February 1837, 3:130-135


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[page 130:]

REVIEW

OF PRESIDENT DEW’S ADDRESS

We have read with great attention the Introductory Address of President Dew, lately delivered before the Students of the College of William and Mary. It is a very interesting performance, presenting most agreeable information in regard to the condition and prospects of the Institution, giving a clear and comprehensive view of the enlarged course of studies to be pursued, and closing with some advice to the students, at once wise and parental, the tone and spirit of which cannot be too highly commended.

President Dew may now be regarded as a writer of established reputation. Possessing fine talents, combined with great industry and a popular style, his compositions will doubtless exercise no little influence on the opinions and taste of the rising generation. The productions of such a writer, occupying too, as President [page 131:] Dew does, a station, which confers not only influence, but a species of authority in the republic of letters, should be distinguished both for correctness of sentiment and purity of style; and so far from protecting him from criticism, the eminence of the author renders it the more necessary that his errors should be exposed, in order that they may be avoided by those who may select him as a model for imitation. Dissenting from some of the views presented in this address, and deeming it, as a literary production, liable to just criticism, we propose briefly to review it; and shall endeavor, in a candid and respectful manner, to point out some of its faults in style and errors in doctrine.

The style is flowing and harmonious, but seems to us more florid and declamatory than is consistent with good taste in so grave a performance as an Inaugural Address. It is, moreover, not remarkable for purity or precision. We may possibly be regarded as performing a task useless, if not invidious, in entering into an enumeration of errors, in the use of words, committed perhaps through haste or inadvertence. But in this republican country, where the tendency to corruption in our language is so great, that many seem to consider the privilege of murdering the “king’s English” at pleasure, as a necessary part of liberty, we cannot think that verbal criticism ought to be regarded as an art altogether useless. There can, at least, be no cause of just complaint against its exercise, when the work to be reviewed is the finished production of a gentleman of acknowledged erudition, who is professionally engaged in imparting to others instruction in the art of composition.

The offences against purity of style in this Address are numerous, and may be classed, in the language of grammarians, under the general heads of barbarisms and improprieties. Some words in it are not pure English, and others are applied in a sense not sanctioned by good use, or the definitions of the best lexicographers. For example, we have to ornament used as a verb, in place of to adorn, at once a legitimate and much more elegant expression. An error of the same kind is committed in the use of based on for founded on. Although the latter of these expressions is frequently used in conversation and in public speaking, yet neither of them will be found in any work of such acknowledged merit that it may be regarded as a standard. We have also this expression — “rail-roads are constructing.” Expressions of this kind are ungrammatical, and may be easily avoided without offending against good taste; and although they may be tolerated in colloquial discourse, should never be introduced in an elaborate composition. By this criticism we wish, by no means, to be understood as sanctioning the still more objectionable phrase “are being constructed,” which of late has become fashionable. The words pervasive and incipiency are new to our ear: they are not found in Walker, and not having seen them in the course of our reading, we infer that they have not yet been licensed by that use, quem penes arbitrium est, et jus, et norma loquendi.

“There is nothing” (says the address) “in which our speakers are more defective than in comprehension of idea.” In this short sentence are two improprieties of expression. The author means, that there is nothing in which our speakers are more deficient than in comprehensiveness of idea. Comprehension occurs again in the same sense, in the same paragraph, and also in a note. [column 2:] Our author was probably misled by the use of this word in Burke’s celebrated description of the character of Lord Grenville, which was evidently in his mind when the address was prepared. He cannot, however, plead the authority of this distinguished writer. The word was used by him in its proper sense, as denoting an act and not a quality of the mind. His expression is, “a far more extensive comprehension of things.”

We might add to this enumeration other expressions not free from objection, and point out defects in the structure of many of the sentences of the address that might be amended. But we desire not to be considered hypercritical; and no good purpose would probably be accomplished by prosecuting farther this species of verbal criticism. Enough has already been said to convince us of the facility with which even the best writers may fall into errors of expression, and of the importance of cultivating that habit of discrimination in the use of words, without which can never be attained, a style at once elegant, perspicuous and correct.

In the course of his address, President Dew pays a well-deserved tribute to the value of classical learning; and it should be a subject of congratulation with the friends of William and Mary, that this important department of education, which has so long been neglected, is about to receive a proper degree of attention in that venerable institution. It is most remarkable, however, that a gentleman of our author’s extensive acquirements, and one so thoroughly impressed with the importance of this species of literature, should have been so very unfortunate in his classical quotations. These should never be introduced in a written composition, particularly in one emanating from a learned institution, unless they be apposite, and calculated to illustrate or adorn the subject under consideration. Nor should they be used except in the very language and true spirit of the author from whom they are borrowed. In violation of these rules, President Dew has introduced in his address the following prosaic line: “Addicti jurare in verba nullius magistri.” How little this adds to the force or elegance of his composition, the genuine lovers of classical literature can determine. It can scarcely be regarded as a quotation; and literally rendered into English, it would be flat and insipid, and perfectly ridiculous as a part of the highly-wrought passage in which it occurs. The whole force and beauty of the original, “nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri,” are destroyed, and the classical reader is at a loss to determine for what good purpose the sacrifice has been made. The next quotation occurs in a very labored passage, which, though evidently intended to be highly finished, is exceedingly defective. We will, therefore, transcribe it: “Hence it is, that old William and Mary can boast of so astonishing a number of distinguished statesmen in proportion to her alumni — statesmen with whom she might boldly challenge any other institution in this country or the world — statesmen who, whilst they have woven the chaplet of her glory, and engraven her name [page 132:] on the page of our country’s history, have illustrated by their eloquence and statesmanship, the national legislature and federal government, and carried their pervasive influence into the councils of every state in our widespread confederacy. So that we may well say of our alma mater, in view of these brilliant results, in the language of one of the Trojan wanderers:

Quis jam locus,

Quae regio in terris, nostri non plena laboris?

Some of the defects of this passage are indicated by the words in italics, and will be sufficiently obvious to the eye of the critical reader. But our present business is with the quotation. How entirely have the spirit and meaning of the author been misconceived.” These beautiful lines constitute a part of one of those tender and pathetic passages that so frequently occur in the Æneid, and for which Virgil, above all writers of epic poetry, is distinguished. AEneas, who uttered them, was in no situation for the display of feelings of triumph or exultation. Having witnessed the destruction of Troy, and the melancholy fate of the greater part of his countrymen, he had fled from the fury of the Greeks, with a party of wretched companions, trusting to the winds and waves to bear them to a peaceful settlement in some other region of the earth. After long wandering, and a series of adventures the most calamitous, he sails from Sicily, where he had buried his father Anchises, omnis curae casusque levamen, to seek the coasts of Italy. On his voyage he encounters the anger of the Gods, is overtaken by a furious tempest, and his fleet tossed for a long time on the waves, is finally dispersed, and he and his companions driven by the storm on the shores of Africa. AEneas and his faithful friend Achates proceed to Carthage, where, entering the temple of Juno, they perceive some pictures representing the most affecting scenes of the siege of Troy. In this situation, an exile and a wanderer, subdued with grief, and about to appeal to the compassion of Queen Dido for succor, AEneas, looking on the pictures, and overwhelmed with the recollection of the misfortunes of his country,

Constilit, et lacrymans: Quis jam locus inquit, Achate, Quae regio in terris, nostri non plena laboris?

The mind of Æneas whilst he contemplated these pictures, and uttered in the fulness of his heart this pathetic speech, may well be supposed to have been filled with a number of the most melancholy and touching associations. The hostile chiefs in battle array; the fierce conflict; the rout of the Trojans; the pursuit of the Greeks; the wounded and the slain; the dead body of the proud Hector drawn around the walls of Troy; the crowds of Trojan women stupified with horror, flying to the temple, with hair disheveled and beating their breasts, imploring the compassion of the unkind Goddess; Polites wounded, flying from his pursuer, and falling and pouring out his blood in the presence of his parents; the aged Priam, attended by his affectionate Hecuba and her daughters, dragged trembling from the altar, and falling in the blood of that son whose death he had vainly attempted to avenge; the sacking of the city; the lurid glare of the midnight conflagration; — all these, with many other scenes of thrilling horror, rushed upon his mind, and filled his imagination [column 2:] with a variety of images, the most touching, awful, terrible and sublime. Well might Æneas in view, not “of these brilliant results,” but of the direful calamities that had overwhelmed his country, exclaim, in the agony of his heart,

Qua, regio in terris nostri non plena laboris “*

Having finished our criticism of this address as a literary production, we come now to consider it in a much more important point of view, as presenting the opinions of a gentleman of acknowledged abilities and experience on the interesting subject of collegiate education in Virginia.

In regard to the correctness of the general views of President Dew on this subject, there can be no room for diversity of opinion. All must concur as to the importance of an enlarged and liberal course of study in every department of literature and science. The value of the classics, of mathematics, of physics, of moral and political philosophy, of civil engineering as a practical pursuit, and of the law as an enlightened and liberal profession, must be universally acknowledged. It is only when he descends from the chair of the President, and assumes that of the Professor, that the views of our author become liable to objection. Here he expatiates with the ardor of an enthusiast on the preeminent importance, dignity and difficulty of his own favorite studies; and substituting declamation for argument, his reasoning becomes necessarily unsatisfactory and his conclusions erroneous. He urges the students by all those exciting motives of pride, patriotism and ambition, that are so easily kindled in the youthful breast, to press on in the acquisition of political knowledge with the view to future usefulness and distinction. He tells them that the great mass of high intellect in every country must be employed in morals and politics; that “politics here is the business of every man, however humble his condition may be. We have it in commission to instruct the world in the science and the art of government” — and appeals to them to know if they are willing “to add themselves to the great mass of unaspiring and illiterate citizens, who have been in all ages and in all countries the blind instruments with which despotism has achieved its results.” Let us not be misunderstood. We do not mean to underrate the importance of the study of moral and political philosophy. So far are we from entertaining such a purpose, that no person can, in our estimation, aspire to the character of an educated gentleman who is not well informed on these subjects. Nor do we deny the propriety of making the study of them form a part, and an important part too, of collegiate education. The study of morals, indeed, should commence at a period of life much earlier than that at which youths are prepared to enter on their collegiate course; the best school of practical [page 133:] morality being found at the knee of a pious mother, who draws her lessons from those simple yet sublime truths, which are suited to the taste and capacity of both children and philosophers. But however important correct information on these subjects may be deemed, no sufficient reason can be perceived for giving them such a pre-eminence over other studies in a course of collegiate instruction. It should never be forgotten that education constitutes the business of life; and he who, at the close of his collegiate career, deems it complete, in any one department of learning, can never be more than a literary sciolist. He may trade successfully for a time on his small capital of ready change, but will soon find himself bankrupt in knowledge, and unable to meet the smallest draft that may be made upon him. The great object of collegiate education, is to excite in the youthful mind a taste for learning, and to point out the readiest paths by which her temples may be reached. All that can be expected of the most perfect system, is to lay before the mind of the pupil a general map of the great world of science, on which may be delineated the boundaries of the various provinces, the terra incognita, the chief cities of the different empires, and the beautiful streams that irrigate and fertilize the whole. To fill up this outline should constitute the business of after life. Could we commend the course of a teacher of geography, who in preparing a map of the world for the use of his scholars, should, after faintly delineating the general outlines of the whole, select one favorite country on which to employ all the arts of the painter and the varied tints of the rainbow, to give to it distinctness and coloring — presenting a landscape, rich in all those objects distinguished for natural beauty or artificial elegance — silver lakes, lofty mountains, green valleys, beautiful rivers whitened with the sails of commerce, thriving villages and splendid cities, with their noble castles, magnificent palaces, and lofty spires pointing to the clouds? The gorgeous splendor of such a picture, would captivate the youthful imagination, and cause the pupil to turn with indifference or disgust from the contemplation of other portions of the world as barren wastes, offering nothing to repay the labor of inquiry or research. It is no less unwise in those who preside over our institutions of learning, to hold up to the minds of the students the pre-eminent advantages of any one department of science or philosophy.

We are well aware that these opinions of President Dew are not peculiar to himself, but have been maintained by metaphysicians of no little celebrity. One at least of his predecessors, as we have reason to know, had his hobbies. Metaphysics and political economy were the constant themes of his discourse, and the ardor of his devotion being communicated to his pupils, they became inspired with so strong a passion for these studies, as to render them almost insensible to the attractions of mathematics, and of those physical sciences, the study of which cannot be so successfully prosecuted in after life, in consequence of the want of those helps which professors, cabinets and laboratories only can afford.

The study of general principles, so earnestly insisted on by President Dew, is so captivating to the mind, that it too frequently begets a contempt for matters of detail. Those who have been in the habit of roaming [column 2:] at large in the vast regions of speculation, find it difficult to bring down their minds from their lofty contemplations, to the consideration of the concerns of ordinary life. Hence men of speculation are rarely men of action. And to this circumstance, we think, is mainly to be attributed that want of practical usefulness, so frequently remarked among the educated gentlemen of Virginia. We have good writers, profound lawyers, and eloquent debaters; but what evidence of practical talent have we exhibited in our public works, in the arts, or in agriculture? Burke’s character of Lord Grenville, so frequently quoted by professors of moral and political philosophy, has doubtless had considerable influence in forming the habits of thought of many of our aspirants for political distinction. Properly considered, this admirable portrait could have been productive of no injurious effects. But, unfortunately, one side only of the picture is too generally contemplated. Whilst the mere man of detail is looked upon with contempt, it is forgotten that there is another character, precisely his opposite, not so useful, and infinitely more dangerous; and that there is a class of politicians who, as Burke said of Lord Chatham on a certain occasion, “for wise men, are too much governed by general maxims.” This fondness for generalization, when indulged to excess, becomes almost a passion; and we have known some gentlemen who, from long practice in such pursuits, could construct out of a single fact a magnificent theorem. A general principle, to be worth any thing, should be established by a long and laborious process of induction. But, unfortunately, those who are most conversant in the use of general principles, have rarely a sufficient degree of patience, in the study of details, to enable them to distinguish, arrange, and classify the numerous particulars necessary to the establishment of a general truth. Hence it is that so many of the most beautiful theories in politics are found to be fallacious. It is not that theories are necessarily false, but that the facts on which they are supposed to be founded, have not been accurately observed. Whilst it is true that the study of general principles is absolutely necessary to produce a proper enlargement of the mind, it is no less certain that a knowledge of details, and a habit of attention to particulars, are equally important in forming that practical fitness for the conduct of human affairs, which is so essential to success in every department of life. There is much truth and sound philosophy in the remark of Dugald Stewart: “When theoretical knowledge and practical skill are happily combined in the same person, the intellectual power of man appears in its full perfection, and fits him equally to conduct with a masterly hand the details of ordinary business, and to contend successfully with the untried difficulties of new and hazardous situations.” In fact, no mind can be said to be truly great, that is not constituted like that admirably contrived organ of the largest and most sagacious of living animals, which can at once embrace the minutest and the greatest objects.

It cannot be denied that Virginia has produced many shining characters. Her sons have been among the wisest in the council, and the bravest in the field. But how often have the talents of her youth been misdirected, and their energies wasted! Who that has observed the current of events, has not marked the progress, [page 134:] and too common late of genius in Virginia? Many of our young men emerge from the seminaries of learning, and like meteors in a November night, flash across the horizon, dazzling us for a moment with a brilliant splendor, and then are extinguished forever. Others, like the eccentric comet, appearing more rarely, and endowed with more power to destroy than to build up, have attracted for a little longer period the gaze and admiration of the multitude. But although all have been wrapped in admiration at the splendor of their exhibitions, yet when their destined course is run, no deep-felt sorrow pervades the land; and none having anticipated from them any beneficient results, all are content if, in their departure, they shed not a blighting and a withering influence. But how few have there been who, like the glorious orb of day, rising refulgent above the horizon, have gone on increasing in light and power, dispensing comfort and joy and gladness through the land, until they have attained the fulness of meridian glory, and then descending from their high elevation with the true dignity of that resplendent luminary, shedding even in their setting a mellow light, have sunk to rest amidst the benedictions of grateful thousands. One such statesman, at least, may Virginia boast; clarum et venerabile nomen. The pride of the schoolmen may well be rebuked, when they reflect how little of his pre-eminent wisdom, and almost godlike virtues, this most illustrious of men owed to the vaunted lessons of their philosophy.

Among the greatest evils that has ever afflicted this commonwealth, is the morbid desire of her sons for political distinction. It has been the bane of the republic, destroying everything like useful enterprize in Virginia, and banishing from their homes thousands of our citizens, to find preferment among the people of other states, or from the patronage of the federal government. No sooner do our young men leave their seminaries of learning, than, deeming themselves politicians and statesmen, ready made according to the philosophy of the best schools, they rush with ardor into the political arena. Disappointed in their ambitious aspirations, with their taste depraved, and having lost all capacity for useful employment, they become reckless and abandoned; or falling in with a dominant party, they sacrifice all independence of character, and stoop to the lowest arts of the demagogue, hoping to creep to that eminence to which they had vainly attempted to soar. Nor is this passion for political life confined to the educated portion of our people. Truly has President Dew said, “our whole state is a great political nursery.” It swarms with politicians of every age, and hue, and size. But, unfortunately, for one statesman we have a hundred demagogues. Next to a standing army in time of peace, a class of professed politicians, set apart expressly for the business of public life, is most dangerous to the liberties of a free state. Such men must necessarily be the Swiss of party. Considering politics as their vocation, they must needs seek for employment. If they fail to find it in the independent discharge of their duty as representatives of the people, they must seek it in mean compliances with the imperious mandates of party leaders, or in a course of degrading servility and sycophancy to the dispensers of federal patronage. Let us do nothing to increase this numerous swarm of hungry politicians. What we need in Virginia, is a class of [column 2:] educated country gentlemen, well instructed, not only in moral and political philosophy, but in polite literature, and especially in those physical sciences so intimately connected with agriculture, that most ancient, honorable and independent of all pursuits. Such persons would be qualified at once to discharge well the duties of citizens and of statesmen; and like one of the most celebrated of the ancient Romans, could step from their ploughs to the most important offices of the state, without elevating their own dignity, or degrading the high stations to which they might be called.

If we were disposed to detract from the dignity of the study of moral and political philosophy, we might join issue with President Dew on the proposition which he has so broadly stated, that “the great mass of high intellect, in all ages and countries, has been employed in morals and politics;” and we might appeal to the history of the world, and the testimony of many of the wisest of mankind, to disprove the doctrine that seems to be a corollary from this proposition, that the highest intellect is necessary to political success. The truth of the remark of the celebrated Chancellor Oxenstein, who, with great abilities, had the opportunity of extensive observation and experience in one of the most distinguished courts of his age, has been so universally acknowledged, that the remark has become almost proverbial: “Go,” said he to his son, who expressed diffidence of his capacity for office, “Go, and see for yourself, quam parva sapientia regitur mundus.” The philosophic historian of the “Age of Louis XIV,” has added the weight of his opinion to that of this distinguished statesman. He thus expresses himself: “In reading Mazarin’s letters, and Cardinal de Retz’s memoirs, we may easily perceive de Retz to have been the superior genius; nevertheless, the former attained the summit of power, and the latter was banished. In a word, it is a certain truth, that to be a powerful minister, little more is required than a middling understanding, good sense and fortune; but to be a good minister, the prevailing passion of the soul must be a love for the public good; and he is the greatest statesman, who leaves behind him the most noble monuments of public utility.” But it is needless to multiply proofs upon this subject. In this country we have so many living witnesses, that men of very moderate abilities, and of still more slender acquirements, may rise to the highest offices in the state, that to doubt it, would imply a degree of skepticism, sufficient to resist the strongest evidence, or the most conclusive demonstration.*

We had designed to enter at large into a vindication of the claims of the physical sciences; and to endeavor, by examining them in connexion with the useful arts, with agriculture, and with the various interesting phenomena constituting the natural history of the world, to show that they are not inferior, in interest, utility or dignity, to moral or political philosophy. But the subject is too comprehensive for a single essay. We may, [page 135:] possibly, on some future occasion, recur to it, and present our views on this branch of the subject to the readers of the “Messenger.” In the meantime we take leave of President Dew, with the expression of our sincere respect for his talents and character, and our anxious wishes for the continued prosperity and usefulness of the venerable institution over which he has been called to preside.

N.

FOOTNOTES

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 131, column 2:]

* We might have said, with truth, that this sentence contains three improprieties of expression. The word idea is used by our author neither in its philosophical nor popular sense. We presume he intended to use it in its popular sense, in which it is synonymous with a thought, an opinion. It is never used to signify mind, or the power of thought, in which sense our author seems to have applied it.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 132, column 2:]

* Laboris in this passage is properly rendered calamity or misfortune. The word labor is frequently used in this sense by classical authors. We recollect having seen in the newspapers, some years ago, a most successful exposure of a similar error to that we have been criticising, by our gifted Wirt, who was alike distinguished as an elegant scholar, a profound jurist, and an eloquent orator. It was in reply to a speech of the late Thomas Addis Emmet of New York, in the Supreme Court of the United States. He corrected the error into which Mr. Emmet had fallen, and retorted the quotation upon him with the most happy effect.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 134, column 2:]

* The author above quoted (Voltaire,) has also made the following very true and philosophical remarks: “There never was an age which had not some famous statesmen and soldiers: Politics and arms seem, unhappily, to be the two professions most natural to man; who must always be either negotiating or fighting. The most fortunate is accounted the greatest; and the public frequently attributes to merit, what is only the effect of an happy success.”

 


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Notes:

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[S:0 - SLM, 1837] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - SLM Literary Reviews (May 1837)