Cloudsley; a Tale. By the Author of Caleb Williams. 3 vols. 8vo. London. 1830.
We find little of the author of Caleb Williams in the present work, except the name in the title-page. Either we are changed, or Mr. Godwin is changed, since he wrote that masterly performance. We remember the first time of reading it well, though now long ago. In addition to the singularity and surprise occasioned by seeing a romance written by a philosopher and politician, what a quickening of the pulse, — what an interest in the progress of the story, — what an eager curiosity in divining the future, — what an individuality and contrast in the characters, — what an elevation and what a fall was that of Falkland; — how we felt for his blighted hopes, his remorse, and despair, and took part with Caleb Williams as his ordinary and unformed sentiments are brought out, and rendered more and more acute by the force of circumstances, till hurried on by an increasing and incontrollable impulse, he turns upon his proud benefactor and unrelenting persecutor, and in a mortal struggle, overthrows him on the vantage-ground of humanity and justice! There is not a moment's pause in the action or sentiments: the breath is suspended, the faculties wound up to the highest pitch, as we read. Page after page is greedily devoured. There is no laying down the book till we come to the end; and even then the words still ring in our ears, nor do the mental apparitions ever pass away from the eye of memory. Few books have made a greater impression than Caleb Williams on its first appearance. It was read, admired, parodied, dramatised. All parties joined in its praise. Those (not a few) who at the time favoured Mr. Godwin's political principles, hailed it as a new triumph of his powers, and as a proof that the stoicism of the doctrines he inculcated did not arise from any defect of warmth or enthusiasm of feeling, and that his abstract speculations were grounded in, and sanctioned by an intimate knowledge of, and rare felicity in, developing the actual vicissitudes of human life. On the other hand, his enemies, or those who looked with a mixture of dislike and fear at the system of ethics advanced in the Enquiry concerning Political Justice, were disposed to forgive the author's paradoxes for the truth of imitation with which he had depicted prevailing passions, and were glad to have something in which they could sympathize with a man of no mean capacity or attainments. At any rate, it was a new and startling event in literary history for a metaphysician to write a popular romance. The thing took, as all displays of unforeseen talent do with the public. Mr. Godwin was thought a man of very powerful and versatile genius; and in him the understanding and the imagination reflected a mutual and dazzling light upon each other. His St. Leon did not lessen the wonder, nor the public admiration of him, or rather 'seemed like another "morn risen on mid-noon." But from that time be has done nothing of superlative merit. He has imitated himself, and not well. He has changed the glittering spear, which always detected truth or novelty, for a leaden foil. We cannot say of his last work (Cloudesley), — "Even in his ashes live his wonted fires." The story is cast indeed something in the same moulds as Caleb Williams; but they are not filled and running over with molten passion, or with scalding tears. The situations and characters, though forced and extreme, are without effect from the want of juxtaposition and collision. Cloudesley (the elder) is like Caleb Williams, a person of low origin, and rebels against his patron and employer; but he remains a characterless, passive, inefficient agent to the last, — forming his plans and resolutions at a distance, — not whirled from expedient to expedient, nor driven from one sleepless hiding-place to another; and his lordly and conscience-stricken accomplice (Danvers) keeps his state in like manner, brooding over his guilt and remorse in solitude, with scarce an object or effort to vary the round of his reflections, a lengthened paraphrase of grief. The only dramatic incidents in the course of the narrative are, the sudden metamorphosis of the Florentine Count Camaldoli into the robber St. Elmo, and the unexpected and opportune arrival of Lord Danvers in person, with a coach and, four and liveries, at Naples, just in time to save his ill-treated nephew from a violent death. The rest is a well-written essay, or theme, composed as an exercise to gain a mastery of style and topics.
There is, indeed, no falling off in point of style or command of language in the work before us. Cloudesley is better written than Caleb Williams. The expression is everywhere terse, vigorous, elegant: — a polished mirror without a wrinkle. But the spirit of the execution is lost in the inertness of the subject-matter. There is a dearth of invention, a want of character and grouping. There are clouds of reflections without any new occasion to call them forth; — an expanded flow of words without a single pointed remark. A want of acuteness and originality is not a fault that is generally chargeable upon our author's writings. Nor do we lay the blame upon him now, but upon circumstances. Had Mr. Godwin been bred a monk, and lived in the good old times, he would assuredly either have been burnt as a free-thinker, or have been rewarded with a mitre, for a tenth part of the learning and talent he has displayed. He might have reposed on a rich benefice, and the reputation he had earned, enjoying the "otium cum dignitate," or at most relieving his official cares by revising successive editions of his former productions, and enshrining them in cases of sandal-wood and crimson velvet in some cloistered hall or princely library. He might then have courted
That in trim gardens takes its pleasure,—
have seen his peaches ripen in the sun; and, smiling secure on fortune and on fame, have repeated with complacency the motto — "Horas non numero nisi serenas!" But an author by profession knows nothing of all this. His is only "the iron rod, the torturing hour." He lies stretched upon the rack of restless ecstacy:" he runs the everlasting gauntlet of public opinion. He must write on, and if he had the strength of Hercules and the wit of Mercury, he must in the end write himself down:
And like a gallant horse, fallen in first rank,
Lies there for pavement to the abject rear,
O'er-run and trampled on.
He cannot let well done alone. He cannot take his stand on what he has already achieved, and say, Let it be a durable monument to me and mine, and a covenant between me and the world for ever! He is called upon for perpetual new exertions, and urged forward by ever-craving necessities. The wolf must be kept from the door: the printer's devil must not go empty-handed away. He makes a second attempt, and though equal perhaps to the first, because it does not excite the same surprise, it falls tame and flat on the public mind. If he pursues the real bent of his genius, he is thought to grow dull and monotonous; or if he varies his style, and tries to cater for the capricious appetite of the town, he either escapes by miracle or breaks down that way, amidst the shout of the multitude and the condolence of friends, to see the idol of the moment pushed from its pedestal, and reduced to its proper level. There is only one living writer who can pass through this ordeal; and if he had barely written half what he had done, his reputation would have been none the less. His inexhaustible facility makes the willing world believe there is not much in it. Still, there is no alternative. Popularity, like one of the Danaides, imposes impossible tasks on her votary, — to pour water into sives, to reap the wind. If he does nothing, he is forgotten; if he attempts more than he can perform, he gets laughed at for his pains. He is impelled by circumstances to fresh sacrifices of time, of labour, and of self respect; parts with well-earned fame for a newspaper puff, and sells his birth-right for a mess of pottage. In the meanwhile, the public wonder why an author writes so badly and so much. With all his efforts, he builds no house, leaves no inheritance, lives from hand to mouth, and, though condemned to daily drudgery for a precarious subsistence, is expected to produce none but works of first-rate genius. No learning unconsecrated, unincorporated, unendowed, is no match for the importunate demands and thoughtless ingratitude of the reading public.
—O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was!
To have done, is to hang,
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery;—
That all, with one consent, praise new-born gaudes,
Though they are made and moulded of things past;
And give to dust, that is a little gilt,
More laud than gilt o'erdusted.
If we wished to please Mr. Godwin, we should say that his last work was his best; but we cannot do this in justice to him or to ourselves. Its greatest fault is, that (as Mr. Bayes would have declared) there is nothing "to elevate and surprise" in it. There is a story, to be sure, but you know it all beforehand, just as well as after having read the book. It is like those long straight roads that travellers complain of on the Continent, where you see from one end of your day's journey to the other, and carry the same prospect with you, like a map in your hand, the whole way. Mr. Godwin has laid no ambuscade for the unwary reader — no picturesque group greets the eye as you pass on — no sudden turn at an angle places you on the giddy verge of a precipice. Nevertheless, our author's courage never flags. Mr. Godwin is an eminent rhetorician; and he shows it in this, that he expatiates, discusses, amplifies, with equal fervour, and unabated ingenuity, on the merest accidents of the way-side, or common-places of human life. Thus, for instance, if a youth of eleven or twelve years of age is introduced upon the carpet, the author sets himself to show, with a laudable candour and communicativeness, what the peculiar features of that period of life are, and "takes an inventory" of all the particulars, — such as sparkling eyes, roses in the cheeks, a smooth forehead, flaxen locks, elasticity of limb, lively animal spirits, and 'all the flush of hope, — as if he were describing a novelty, or some terra incognita, to the reader. In like manner, when a young man of twenty is confined in a dungeon as belonging to a gang of banditti, and going to be hanged, great pains are taken through three or four pages to convince us, that at that period of life this is no very agreeable prospect; that the feelings of youth are more acute and sanguine than those of age; that, therefore, we are to take a due and proportionate interest in the tender years and blighted hopes of the younger Cloudesley; and that if any means could be found to rescue him from his present perilous situation, it would be a great relief, not only to him, but to all humane and compassionate persons. Every man's strength is his weakness, and turns in some way or other against himself. Mr. Godwin has been so long accustomed to trust to his own powers, and to draw upon his own resources, that he comes at length to imagine that he can build a palace of words upon nothing. When he lavished the colours of style and the exuberant strength of his fancy, on descriptions like those of the character of Margaret, the wife of St. Leon, or of his musings in the dungeon of Bethlem Gabor, or of his enthusiasm on discovering the philosopher's stone, and being restored to youth and the plenitude of joy by drinking the Elixer viate; — or when he recounts the long and lasting despair which succeeded that utter separation from his kind, and that deep solitude which followed him into crowds and cities, — deeper and more appalling than the dungeon of Bethlem Gabor, — we were never weary of being borne along by the golden tide of eloquence, supplied from the true sources of passion and feeling. But when he bestows the same elaboration of phrases, and artificial arrangement of sentences, to set off the most trite and obvious truisms, we confess it has to us a striking effect of the bathos. Lest, however, we should be thought to have overcharged or given a false turn to this description, we will enable our readers to judge for themselves, by giving the passage to which we have just alluded, as a specimen of this overstrained and supererogatory style.
—"The condition in which he was now placed could not fail to have a memorable effect on the mind of Julian. Shut up in a solitary dungeon, without exercise or amusement, he had nothing upon which to occupy his thoughts but the image of his own situation. He had hitherto lived, particularly during the last twelve months, in a dream, He grieved most bitterly, most persistingly, for the death of Cloudesley (the elder). He had been instigated by his grief to seek the society of the companions he had left in the Apennines. He did not desire any new connexions; he would have shrunk from the encounter of new faces.
"All this was well. But the case was different, when he understood from the language and manner of those who had him in custody, the only persons he saw, that he would probably barely be taken out of prison to be led to the scaffold. This was a kind of shock, greatly calculated to awaken a man out of a dream. Julian was young, and had seen little of the diversified scenes of human life. Existence is a thing that is regarded in a very different light by the young and the old. The springs of human nature are of a limited sort, and lie in a narrow compass; and when we grow old, our desires are declining, our faculties have lost their sharpness, and we are reasonably contented 'to close our eyes and shut out daylight.' But to the young it is a very different thing, particularly perhaps at twenty years of age. We are just come into the possession of all our faculties, and begin fully to be aware of our own independence. Every thing is new to us; and the larger half at least of what is new, is also agreeable. Pleasure spreads before us all its allurements; knowledge unrolls its ample page. We have every thing to learn, and every thing to enjoy. Ambition proffers its variegated visions; and we are at a loss on which side to fix our choice. It is easy to dally with death. The young man is like the coquette of the other sex She has little objection to trifling with a displeasing and superannuated lover, so long as she is satisfied she is not within his clutches.
"But all these considerations sink into nothing when contrasted with the horrible death that was prepared for him. Juhian had hitherto been a stranger to adversity and pain. The path of his juvenile years had been smoothed to him by the exemplary cares of Cloudesley and Eudocia. To his own apprehension he was the favourite of fortune. All that be had read of tragic and disastrous in the annals of mankind, seemed like a drama, prepared to make him wise by the sorrows of others, without costing him a particle of the bitter price of experience. All that he had encountered of displeasing was when he was the inmate of Borromeo; and this, though felt by him as intolerable, he was aware had been planned in a spirit of kindness. How terrible, therefore, was the reverse that had now fallen upon him That he, who had never contemplated the slightest mischief to a human creature, whose life had been all kindness, find beneficence, and good-humour, should suddenly be treated as the vilest of criminals, shut up in a dungeon, and destined to the scaffold, was a thought that overturned all his previous conceptions of human society and life. It filled him with wildness and horror; it drove him to frenzy. From time to time he was ready to burst into paroxysm, and dash out his desperate brains against the bars of his prison. To exchange the most beautiful scene that Paradise ever exhibited, for utter desolation and tremendous hurricane, that should tear up rocks from their foundations, and overwhelm the produce of the earth with rushing and uncontrollable waves, would feebly express the revolution that took place in his mind. He repented that he had ever again sought the society of these alluring but pernicious friends." — Vol. III. p. 88.
Was so much circumlocution necessary to prove that it is a disagreeable thing to be shut up in a prison, and led out to the gallows? This is the style of the orator, where the whole object is to turn a plain moral adage in as many different ways as possible, and not that of the romance-writer, who has, or ought to have, too many rare and surprising adventures on his hands, to stoop to this trifling, snail-paced method. According to the foregoing studied description, it should seem, that for a man to feel shocked at being immured in a goal, or broke on the wheel, is "a pass of wit." When the author has conjured up all the aggravations of the particular case, and compared it to the nicest shade of difference with his former or his future possible history, he then feels satisfied that his hero would like it little better, than he does, and inflicts a tardy horror and repentance on him. With submission, this may be the scholastic or rational process for exciting pity and terror; nature takes a shorter cut, and jumps at a conclusion without all this formality and cool calculation of grains and scruples in the scale of misfortune.
We have a graver charge yet to bring against Mr. Godwin on the score of style, than that it leads him into useless amplification: from his desire to load and give effect to his descriptions, he runs different characters and feelings into one another. By not stopping short of excess and hyperbole, he loses the line of distinction, and "o'ersteps the modesty of nature." All his characters are patterns of vice or virtue. They are carried to extremes, — they are abstractions of woe, miracles of wit and gaiety, — gifted with every grace and accomplishment that can be enumerated in the same page; and they are not only prodigies in themselves, but destined to immortal renown, though we have never heard of their names before. This is not like a veteran in the art, but like the raptures of some boarding-school girl in love with every new face or dress she sees. It is difficult to say which is the most extraordinary genius, — the improvisatori Bernardino Perfetti, or his nephew, Francesco, or young Julian. Mr. Godwin still sees with "eyes of youth." Irene is a Greek, the model of beauty and of conjugal faith. Eudocia, her maid, who marries the elder Cloudesley, is a Greek too, and nearly as handsome and as exemplary in her conduct. Again, on the same principle, the account of Irene's devotion to her father and her husband, is by no means clearly discriminated. The spiritual feeling is exaggerated till it is confounded with the passionate; and the passionate is spiritualized in the same incontinence of tropes and figures, till it loses its distinctive character. Each sentiment, by being over-done, is neutralized into a sort of platonics. It is obvious to remark, that the novel of Cloudesley has no hero, no principal figure. The attention is divided, and wavers between Meadows, who is a candidate for the reader's sympathy through the first half volume, and whose affairs and love adventures at St Petersburg are huddled up in haste, and broke off in the middle; Lord Danvers, who is the guilty sufferer; Cloudesley, his sullen, dilatory Mentor; and Julian, (the supposed offspring of Cloudesley, but real son of Lord Alton, and nephew of Lord Danvers,) who turns out the fortunate youth of the piece. The story is awkwardly told. Meadows begins it with an account of himself, and a topographical description of the Russian empire, which has nothing to do with the subject; and nearly through the remainder of the work, listens to a speech. of Lord Danveis, recounting his own history and that of Julian, which lasts for six hundred pages without interruption or stop. It is the longest parenthesis in a narrative that ever was known. Meadows then emerges from his incognito once more, as if he had been hid behind a curtain, and gives the coup-de-grace to his own auto-biography, and the lingering sufferings of his patron. The plot is borrowed from a real event that took place concerning a disputed succession in the middle of the last century, arid which gave birth not long after to a novel with the title of Annesley. We should like to meet with a copy of this work, in order to see how a writer of less genius would get to the end of his task, and carry the reader along with him without the aid of those subtle researches and lofty declamations with which Mr. Godwin has supplied the place of facts and circumstances. The published trial, we will hazard a conjecture, has more "mark and likelihood" in it. This is the beauty of Sir Walter Scott: he takes a legend or an actual character as he finds it, while other writers think they have not performed their engagements and acquitted themselves with applause, till they have slobbered over the plain face of nature with paint and varnish of their own. They conceive that truth is a plagiarism, and the thing as it happened a forgery and imposition on the public. They stand right before their subject, and say, "Nay, but hear me first!" We know no other merit in the Author of Waverley than that he is never this opaque, obtrusive body, getting in the way and eclipsing the sun of truth and nature, which shines with broad universal light through his different works. If we were to describe the secret of this author's success in three words, we should say, that it consists in the absence of egotism.
Mr. Godwin, in his preface, remarks, that as Caleb Williams was intended as a paraphrase of "Blue Beard," the present work may be regarded as a paraphrase of the story of the "Children in the Wood." "Multum abludit imago." He has at least contrived to take the sting of simplicity out of it. It is a very adult, self-conscious set of substitutes he has given us for the two children, wandering hand in hand, the robin-redbreast, and their leafy bed. The grand eloquence, the epic march of Cloudesley, is beyond the ballad style. In a word, the fault of this and some other of the author's productions is, that the critical and didactic part overlays the narrative and dramatic part; as we see in some editions of the poets, where there are two lines of original text, and the rest of the page is heavy with the lumber and pedantry of the commentators. The writer does not call characters from the dead, or conjure them from the regions of fancy, to paint their peculiar physiognomy, or tell us their story, so much as (like the anatomist) to dissect and demonstrate on the insertion of the bones, the springs of the muscles, and those understood principles of life and motion which are common to the species. Now, in a novel, we want the individual, and not the genus. The tale of Cloudesley is a dissertation on remorse. Besides, this truth of science is often a different thing from the truth of nature, which is modified by a thousand accidents, "subject to all the skyey influences;" — not a mechanical principle, brooding over and working every thing out of itself. Nothing, therefore, gives so little appearance of a resemblance to reality as this abstract identity and violent continuity of purpose. Not to say that this cutting up and probing of the internal feelings and motives, without a reference to external objects, tends, like the operations of the anatomist, to give a morbid and unwholesome taint to the surrounding atmosphere.
Mr. Godwin's mind is, we conceive, essentially active, and therefore may naturally be expected to wear itself out sooner than those that are passive to external impressions, and receive continual new accessions to their stock of knowledge and acquirement:
—A fiery soul that working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy body to decay,
And o'er-inform'd its tenement of clay.
That some of this author's latter works are (in our judgment) comparatively feeble, is, therefore, no matter of surprise to us, and still less is it matter of reproach or triumph. We look upon it as a consequence incident to that constitution of mind and operation of the faculties. To quarrel with the author on this account, is to reject all that class of excellence of which he is the representative, and perhaps stands at the head. A writer who gives us himself, cannot do this twenty times following.
He gives us the best and most prominent part of himself first; and afterwards "but the lees and dregs remain." If a writer takes patterns and fac-similes of external objects, he may give us twenty different works, each better than the other, though this is not likely to happen. Such a one makes use of the universe as his common-place-book; and there is no end of the quantity or variety. The other sort of genius is his own microcosm, deriving almost all from within; and as this is different from every thing else, and is to be had at no other source, so it soon degenerates into a repetition of itself, and is confined within circumscribed limits. We do not rank ourselves in the number of "those base plebians," as Don Quixote expresses it, "who cry, Long life to the conqueror!" And, so far, the author is better off than the warrior, that "after a thousand victories once foiled," he does not remain in the hands of his enemies,
And all the rest forgot, for which he toil'd."
He is not judged of by his last performance, but his best,—that which is seen farthest off, and stands out with time and distance; and in this respect, Mr. Godwin may point to more than one monument of his powers of no mean height and durability. As we do not look upon books as fashions, and think that "a great man's memory may last more than half a year," we still look at our author's talents with the same respect as ever — on his industry and perseverance under some discouragements with more; and we shall try to explain as briefly and as impartially as we can, in what the peculiarity of his genius consists, and on what his claim to distinction is founded.
Mr. Godwin, we suspect, regards his Political Justice as his great work — his passport to immortality; or perhaps he balances between this and Caleb Williams. Now, it is something for a man to have two works of so opposite a kind about which he and his admirers can be at a loss to say, in which he has done best. We never heard his title to originality in either of these performances called in question: yet they are as distinct as to style and subject-matter, as if two different persons wrote them. No one in reading the philosophical treatise would suspect the embryo romance: those who personally know Mr. Godwin would as little anticipate either. The man differs from the author, at least as much as the author in this case apparently did from himself. It is as if a magician had produced some mighty feat of his art without warning. He is not deeply learned; nor is he much beholden to a knowledge of the world. He has no passion but a love of fame; or we may add to this another, the love of truth; for he has never betrayed his cause, or swerved from his principles, to gratify a little temporary vanity. His senses are not acute: but it cannot be denied that he is a man of great capacity, and of uncommon genius. How is this seeming contradiction to be reconciled? Mr. Godwin is by way of distinction and emphasis an author; he is so not only by habit, but by nature, and by the whole turn of his mind. To make a book is with him the prime end and use of creation. His is the scholastic character handed down in its integrity to the present day. If he had cultivated a more extensive intercourse with the world, with nature, or even with books, he would not have been what he is — he could not have done what he has done. Mr. Godwin in society is nothing; but shut him up by himself, set him down to write a book, — it is then that the electric spark begins to unfold itself, — to expand, to kindle, to illuminate, to melt, or shatter all in its way. With little knowledge of the subject, with little interest in it at first, he turns it slowly in his mind, — one suggestion gives rise to another, — he calls home, arranges, scrutinizes his thoughts; he bends his whole strength to his task; he seizes on some one view more striking than the rest, he holds it with a convulsive grasp, — he will not let it go; and this is the clew that conducts him triumphantly through the labyrinth of doubt and obscurity. Some leading truth, some master-passion, is the secret of his daring and his success, which he wind and turns at his pleasure, like Perseus his winged steed. An idea having once taken root in his mind, grows there like a germ: "at first no bigger than a mustard-seed, — then a great tree overshadowing the whole earth." The progress of his reflections resembles the circles that spread from a centre when a stone is thrown into the water. Everything is enlarged, heightened, refined. The blow is repeated, and each impression is made more intense than the last. Whatever strengthens the favourite conception is summoned to its aid: whatever weakens or interrupts it is scornfully discarded. All is the effect, not of feeling, not of fancy, not of intuition, but of one sole purpose, and of a determined will operating on a clear and consecutive understanding. His Caleb Williams is the illustration of a single passion; his Political Justice is the insisting on a single proposition or view of a subject. In both, there is the same pertinacity and unity of design, the same agglomeration of objects round a centre, the same aggrandizement of some one thing at the expense of every other, the same sagacity in discovering what makes for its purpose, and blindness to every thing but that. His genius is not dramatic; but it has something of an heroic cast: he gains new trophies in intellect, as the conqueror overruns new provinces and kingdoms, by patience and boldness; and he is great because he wills to be so.
We have said that Mr. Godwin has shown great versatility of talent in his different works. The works themselves have considerable monotony; and this must be the case, since they are all bottomed on nearly the same principle of an uniform "keeping" and strict totality of impression. We do not hold with the doctrines or philosophy of the Enquiry concerning Political Justice; but we should be dishonest to deny that it is an ingenious and splendid — and we may also add, useful piece of sophistical declamation. If Mr. Godwin is not right, he has shown what is wrong in the view of morality he advocates, by carrying it to the utmost extent with unflinching spirit and ability.
Mr. Godwin was the first whole-length broacher of the doctrine of Utility. He took the whole duty of man — all other passions, affections, rules, weaknesses, oaths, gratitude, promises, friendship, natural piety, patriotism, — infused them in the glowing cauldron of universal benevolence, and ground them into powder under the unsparing weight of the convictions of the individual understanding. The entire and complicated mass and texture of human society and feeling was to pass through the furnace of this new philosophy, and to come out renovated and changed without a trace of its former Gothic ornaments, fantastic disproportions, embossing, or relief. It was as if an angel had descended from another sphere to promulgate a new code of morality; and who, clad in a panoply of light and truth, unconscious alike of the artificial strength and inherent weakness of man's nature, — supposing him to have nothing to do with the flesh, the world, or the Devil, — should lay down a set of laws and principles of action for him, as if he were a pure spirit. But such a mere abstracted intelligence would not require any rules or forms to guide his conduct or prompt his volitions. And this is the effect of Mr. Godwin's book — to absolve a rational and voluntary agent from all ties, but a conformity to the independent dictates and strict obligations of the understanding:—
Within his bosom reigns another lord,
Reason, sole judge and umpire of itself.
We own that if man were this pure, abstracted essence, — if he had not senses, passions, prejudices, — if custom, will, imagination, example, opinion, were nothing, and reason were all in all; — if the author, in a word, could establish as the foundation, what he assumes as the result of his system, namely, the omnipotence of mind over matter, and the triumph of truth over every warped and partial bias of the heart — then we see no objection to his scheme taking place, and no possibility of any other having ever been substituted for it. But this would imply that the mind's eye can see an object equally well whether it is near or a thousand miles off, — that we can take an interest in the people in the moon, or in ages yet unborn, as if they were our own flesh and blood, — that we can sympathize with a perfect stranger, as with our dearest friend, at a moment's notice, — that habit is not an ingredient in the growth of affection, — that no check need be provided against the strong bias of self-love, — that we can achieve any art or accomplishment by a volition, master all knowledge with a thought; and that in this well-disciplined intuition and faultless transparency of soul, we can take cognizance (without presumption and without mistake) of all causes and consequences, — establish an equal and impartial interest in the chain of created beings, — discard all petty feelings and minor claims, — throw down the obstructions and stumbling-blocks in the way of these grand cosmopolite views of disinterested philanthropy, and hold the balance even between ourselves and the universe. It were "a consummation devoutly to be wished;" and Mr. Godwin is not to be taxed with blame for having boldly and ardently aspired to it. We meet him on the ground, not of the desirable, but the practicable. It were better that a man were an angel or a god than what he is; but he can neither be one nor the other. Enclosed in the shell of self, he sees a little way beyond himself, and feels what concerns others still more slowly. To require him to attain the highest point of perfection, is to fling him back to grovel in the mire of sensuality and selfishness. He must get on by the use and management of the faculties which God has given him, and not by striking more than one half of these with the dead palsy. To refuse to avail ourselves of mixed motives and imperfect obligations, in a creature like man, whose "very name is frailty," and who is a compound of contradictions, is to lose the substance in catching at the shadow. It is as if a man would be enabled to fly by cutting off his legs. If we are not allowed to love our neighbour better than a stranger, that is, if habit and sympathy are to make no part of our affections, the consequence will be, not that we shall love a stranger more, but that we shall love our neighbour less, and care about nobody but ourselves. These partial and personal attachments are "the scale by which we ascend" to sentiments of general philanthropy. Are we to act upon pure speculation, without knowing the circumstances of the case, or even the parties? — for it would come to that. If we act from a knowledge of these, and bend all our thoughts and efforts to alleviate some immediate distress, are we to take no more interest in it than in a case of merely possible and contingent suffering? This is to put the known upon a level with the unknown, the real with the imaginary. It is to say that habit, sense, sympathy, are non-entities. It is a contradiction in terms. But if man were such a being as Mr. Godwin supposes, that is, a perfect intelligence, there would be no contradiction in it; for then he would have the same knowledge of whatever was possible, as of his gross and actual experience, and would feel the same interest in it, and act with the same energy and certainty upon a sheer hypothesis, as now upon a matter-of-fact. We can look at the clouds, but we cannot stand upon them. Mr. Godwin takes one element of the human mind, the understanding, and makes it the whole; and hence he falls into solecisms and extravagancies, the more striking and fatal in proportion to his own acuteness of reasoning, and honesty of intention. He has, however, the merit of having been the first to show up the abstract, or Utilitarian, system of morality in its fullest extent, whatever may have been pretended to the contrary; and those who wish to study the question, and not to take it for granted, cannot do better than refer to the first edition of the Enquiry concerning Political Justice; for afterwards Mr. Godwin, out of complaisance to the public, qualified, and in some degree neutralized, his own doctrines.
Our author, not contented with his ethical honours, (for no work of the kind could produce a stronger sensation, or gain more converts than this did at the time,) determined to enter upon a new career, and fling him into the arena once more; thus challenging public opinion with singular magnanimity and confidence in himself. He did not stand "shivering on the brink" of his just-acquired reputation, and fear to tempt the perilous stream of popular favour again. The success of Caleb Williams justified the experiment. There was the same hardihood and gallantry of appeal in both. — In the former case, the author had screwed himself up to the most rigid logic; in the latter, he gave unbounded scope to the suggestions of fancy. It cannot be denied that Mr. Godwin is, in the pugilistic phrase, an out-and-outer. He does not stop till he "reaches the verge of all we hate:" is it to be wondered if he sometimes falls over? He certainly did not do this in Caleb Williams or St Leon. Both were eminently successful; and both, as we conceive, treated of subjects congenial to Mr. Godwin's mind. The one, in the character of Falkland, embodies that love of fame and passionate respect for intellectual excellence, which is a cherished inmate of the author's bosom; (the desire of undying renown breathes through every page and line of the story, and sheds its lurid light over the close, as it has been said that the genius of war blazes through the Iliad;) — in the hero of the other, St. Leon, Mr. Godwin has depicted, as well he might, the feelings and habits of a solitary recluse, placed in new and imaginary situations: but from the philosophical to the romantic visionary, there was perhaps but one step. We give the decided preference to Caleb Williams over St Leon; but if it is more original and interesting, the other is more imposing and eloquent. In the suffering and dying Falkland, we feel the heart-strings of our human being break; in the other work, we are transported to a state of fabulous existence, but unfolded with ample and gorgeous circumstances. The palm-tree waves over the untrodden path of luxuriant fiction; we tread with tip toe elevation and throbbing heart the high-hill tops of boundless existence; and the dawn of hope and renovated life makes strange music in our breast, like the strings of Memnon's harp, touched by the morning's sun. After these two works, he fell off; he could not sustain himself at that height by the force of genius alone, and Mr. Godwin has unfortunately no resources but his genius. He has no Edie Ochiltree at his elbow. His New Man of Feeling we forget; though we well remember the old one by our Scottish Addison, Mackenzie. Mandeville, which followed, is morbid and disagreeable; it is a description of a man and his ill-humour, carried to a degree of derangement. The reader is left far behind. Mr. Godwin has attempted two plays, neither of which has succeeded, nor could succeed. If a tragedy consisted of a series of soliloquies, nobody could write it better than our author. But the essence of the drama depends on the alternation and conflict of different passions, and Mr. Godwin's forte is harping on the same string. He is a reformist, both as it regards the world and himself. If he is told of a fault, he amends it if he can. His Life of Chaucer was objected to as too romantic and dashing; and in his late History of the Common-wealth, he has gone into an excess the other way. His style creeps, and hitches in dates and authorities. We must not omit his Lives of Edward and John Phillips, the nephews of Milton — an interesting contribution to literary history; and his Observations on Judge Eyre's Charge to the Jury in 1794, — one of the most acute and seasonable political pamphlets that ever appeared. He some years ago wrote an Essay on Sepulchres, which contained an idle project enough, but was enriched with some beautiful reflections on old and new countries, and on the memorials of posthumous fame. It is a singular circumstance that our author should maintain for twenty years, that Mr. Malthus's theory (in opposition to his own) was unanswerable, and then write an answer to it, which did not much mend the matter. It is worth knowing (in order to trace the history and progress of the intellectual character) that the author of Political Justice and Caleb Williams commenced his career as a dissenting clergyman; and the book-stalls sometimes present a volume of Sermons by him, and we believe, an English Grammar.
We cannot tell whether Mr. Godwin will have reason to be pleased with our opinion of him; at least, he may depend on our sincerity, and will know what it is.