1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Isaac D'Israeli

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 102-06.



Whether I regard his long and honourable life, exclusively devoted to the best interests of literature, — the pure and elevating pleasure which his writings have bestowed, — the influence which they have had in diffusing that taste for historical and literary investigation which is a marked characteristic of the age, — the impartiality of his judicial decisions, — the catholicity of his sentiments, — the philosophic tone of his criticism, — or the industry and conscientiousness of his research, — I commence a few notes upon the literary career of ISAAC D'ISRAELI with feelings of profound respect and gratitude.

He was born at Enfield, May, 1766, and was the only child of Benjamin D'Israeli, a Venetian merchant, long settled in this country, and descended from a line of merchants, whose home for generations had been the once proud Queen of the Adriatic. His early education was received in this country, whence he proceeded to Holland, acquiring at Amsterdam and Leyden several modern tongues, and then to France (1786), where he became imbued with that taste for the French language and literature which never afterwards left him.

It must have been shortly after his return that he wrote those two curious letters to Dr. Vicesimus Knox, dated severally April 10th and 20th, 1786, which were printed for the first time in the Gentleman's Magazine, July, 1848 (vol. xxx. p. 29), and which exhibit his early ambition to distinguish himself in a literary career. In 1789 he wrote A Poetical Epistle on the Abuse of Satire, and in 1790, A Defence of Poetry, which he afterwards suppressed, burning the entire edition, except a few copies which had been sold. In 1791-3 appeared the Curiosities of Literature, a work which was the first to make revelation of the fact that we possessed in our own literature materials for historical and literary investigation hardly inferior to the celebrated Memoires pour Servir of the French. Next appeared the Dissertation on Anecdotes (1793), Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character (1795), — a favourite with Lord Byron and Bulwer; Miscellanies; or, Literary Recreations (1796). All of these are standard works, and have been often reprinted. Besides these, D'Israeli was author of many books which are not so well known; he was a literary projector, full of industry and energy, and much of his earlier career as an author is buried in obscurity. I believe he had a hand in the compilation of two bulky tomes, entitled Varieties of Literature, from Foreign Literary Journals and Original MSS., now first published (London, Debrett, 1795, 2 vols. 8vo). W. Tooke was also engaged in this, and assistance was lent by Pratt, Mavor, and other literary friends, whose respective parts it is impossible now to ascertain. Buy the book when you can get it; it is full of curious matter. Just after this appeared Vaurien; or, Sketches of the Times: a philosophical novel (1797, 2 vols. 8vo), the title of which was, perhaps, prophetic; and Romances (1798, 8vo, 2nd ed. 1801), the principal tale in which — Mejnoun and Leila, the Arabian Petrarch and Laura, — is worth mentioning, as it is said to be the first Eastern story written by a European, in which the proprieties of custom and manner have received careful attention, though in this respect it is still inferior to that marvelous Oriental romance, The Wondrous Tale of Alroy, written by the gifted son of the author. The notes, moreover, to this tale exhibit considerable diversity of reading. Next we have a volume of Narrative Poems (1803, 4to) and a novel, entitled Despotism; or, the Fall of the Jesuits (1811, 2 vols. 8vo). I have also before me the curious Rabelaisian piece, commonly attributed to D'Israeli, entitled Flim-Flams; or, the Life and Errors of my Uncle and his Friends. With Illustrations and Obscurities by Messieurs Tag, Rag and Bobtail. A literary romance (London, Murray, 3 vols. 12mo, 1806). This very curious medley is profusely illustrated by clever satirical etchings, by Richard Dagley, author of Death's Doings (2 vols, 8vo, 1827), and to the "curious reader" is well worth the trouble and cost of acquisition.

The work may be described as an account of a supposed Uncle by a supposed Nephew. It does not profess to give a life of this worthy, but an account of his character and pursuits. The class of individuals to whom the author states that he belonged, has, not unhappily, the appellation of "Philos," or lovers of anything, bestowed upon them. This uncle, described as having a face like a snipe, and a very small receptacle for brains in his skull, is conducted in the narrative through almost every walk of Literature and Philosophy; attaching himself rather to that which is new, than to that which is useful. The tone of satire is not ill-natured, and even the allusions to particular persons are hardly of a nature to give offence. There is a large amount of learning in the notes, where the authority will be found for all the absurdities ridiculed.

The unfortunate J. Selby Watson — the awful termination of whose social career was brought before us some years ago — would throw some doubt upon the authorship of this book, which he characterizes as "a production filled with pointless attempts at satirical description and dialogue, and abortive efforts at wit, and written altogether in a style and manner utterly at variance with D'Israeli's acknowledged works." These remarks, however, are especially in allusion to the passage in which Professor Porson is ridiculed (vol. iii. p. 262), which Mr. Watson would ascribe to Edward Dubois.

D'Israeli had doubtless met with the rare work of J. Pierius Valerianus, De Literatorum Infelicitate (Venetiis, 1620),: or the curious lines by Thomas Heywood, De dura et misera sorte Poetarum. These may have not improbably suggested to him his treatises on the Quarrels and Calamities of Authors — titles which hardly convey a just idea of the wide range of literary history which they embrace. To the collected edition of these is now appended the Inquiry into be Literary and Political Character of James the First, including a Sketch of his Age.

I have spoken of D'Israeli's early education at Amsterdam and Leyden. There can be little doubt, even if we had not the internal evidence of his later works in support of the belief, that, inspired by the Jewish influence of these cities, no less than by his own tastes and family traditions, he became deeply initiated in Hebrew and Rabbinical literature. Upon a mind like his the works of Maimonides, Moses Ben Mizraim, Aben Ezra, Manasseh Ben Israel, and Moses Mendelssohn, would have a deep and abiding influence; and taking the last great writer as a model — the Jews say "from Moses to Moses there is none like Moses," — he was wise enough to escape the snares of Rabbinism and Talmudism; to have small regard for the authoritative commentaries with which the authors of the Mishna and Gemara have overlaid and perverted the Mosaic legislation; and, standing aloof as a cool and speculative philosopher, to shun association with political and religious parties. It is to the pervading spirit and habit of thought thus acquired that we are indebted for his Genius of Judaism (London, Moxon, 8vo, 1833), a work at once philosophic in tone, able in treatment, and learned in illustration. It is now a scarce book, and has fallen into an oblivion so complete that ordinary readers are not even aware of its existence.

It was an article by D'Israeli on Spence's Anecdotes, in the Quarterly Review, in which he attempted a vindication of the moral and poetical character of Pope, which produced the famous controversy as to the merits of that poet, which was carried on in some score of pamphlets by Bowles, Lord Byron, Gilchrist, M'Dermot, Thomas Campbell, and others.

At a later period of his literary career, D'Israeli's character for accuracy of research was somewhat rudely assailed by the publication of Mr. Bolton Corney's Curiosities of Literature Illustrated, of which I have before me the second edition, "revised and acuminated," 1838, 8vo. A review of this will be found in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. ix. p. 61. D'Israeli replied in a pamphlet entitled The Illustrator Illustrated (1838), which is also noticed in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. ix. p. 369

About 1839 this useful and interesting writer was stricken with blindness. As in the case of our own Milton, the American Prescott, and the French historian Thierry, this awful calamity did not altogether interrupt his valuable labours. By the aid of his daughter, who, to use his own touching expressions of paternal gratitude, "so often lent the light of her eyes, the intelligence of her voice, and the careful work of her hand," the stricken author—"in the midst of his library, distant from it, surrounded by unfinished labours, frustrated designs," — was enabled to revise and correct his Miscellanies of Literature, for Moxon's collective edition of 1840; to produce that interesting series of papers which form a kind of sequel to the Curiosities and the Miscellanies, and bear the title of Amenities; and to revise his great work on the Life and Reign of Charles the First, which, on its first appearance, had procured for its author the honorary title of D.C.L. from the University of Oxford, conferred as a mark of respect by the authorities of that ancient seat of learning, in the words of its public orator, — "optimi regis optimo defensori."

Isaac D'Israeli was fortunate in his own career in having steered clear of the two misfortunes which formed the subject of his best known works. Although one of the genus irritable, he managed to escape — except indeed, in his squabble with Bolton Corney, — participation in the "Quarrels of Authors"; and although a literary man by profession, he vas not an instance, — unless, again, we think of his blindness, — of the "Calamities" of the tribe. As a Jew by origin, he may be cited, himself as a "Curiosity of Literature"; for "among all the writers of the present day there was none who had so thoroughly imbibed the English feeling of affectionate regard for our history, even in its most minute branches whether literary or political; or was so deeply impressed with a reverent love for all the great institutions of our country. No Tory Doctor of Oxford was a warmer champion of the good old cause; not Anthony Wood himself, a more unwearied searcher into the history of our literature." Thus the course of Isaac D'Israeli was fitly described by Fraser as "prosperous and quiet, from agreeable youth to respectable old age." He attained to patriarchal years; dying at the age of 81, at his seat, Bradenham House, Bucks, Jan. 19th, 1848. He had lost his wife, to whom he had been united more than forty years, in the spring of the previous year, and he left behind him four children, — a daughter, alluded to above, — and three sons, of whom the eldest, the late Lord Beaconsfield, the celebrated novelist and statesman, is known as an author wherever the English language has penetrated, and as a diplomatist wherever English politics are a matter of importance or interest.

There is a portrait of Isaac D'lsraeli by Drummond, in the Monthly Mirror, for January, 1797; another by Denning in Bentley's Miscellany, and prefixed to Moxon's edition of the Curiosities; and a sketch by Count D'Orsay, in 1848, a woodcut from which illustrates the notice of the original in the Illustrated London News, Jan. 28th, 1848. Madden, in his Life of Lady Blessington (iii. 78), speaks of this as "one of the best likenesses;" but he falls into the natural error, in which he is followed by the writer of the obituary notice of D'lsraeli, in the Gentleman's Magazine (vol. xxx. p. 99), of attributing the sketch before us from Fraser, by "Alfred Croquis," the signature of Maclise, to "Alfred Crowquill," the recognized pseudonym of the well-known comic draughtsman, Alfred Henry Forrester, who died in May, 1872, in the sixty-seventh year of his age.