1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Jones

Charles Brockden Brown?, "On the Character of Sir William Jones" Literary Magazine and American Register [Philadelphia] 3 (May 1805) 360-62



There are few men of the present age, to whose memory more love and admiration have been paid than to that of sir William Jones. There is a kind of competition among his survivors, which shall be most lavish of his veneration. While his erudition excites the astonishment of some, his poetical genius awakens the idolatry of others. The eloquent praise of a third set of admirers is called forth by his legal and political pre-eminence; while a fourth bestows upon his head the honours due to the patriot and philanthropist, the friend of his God and of mankind. His great literary reputation would atone for many social and moral defects; but sir William Jones was no less eminent for the integrity, purity, and mildness of his private manners, than for the extent and variety of his intellectual attainments.

I have seldom been more pleased than in contemplating a portrait drawn by one of his most rational admirers. His life, according to this pourtrayer, was, from his earliest youth, not only unstained by those excesses which are generally excluded by a passion for letters, but was distinguished for all that manly and varied activity, which so rarely escapes the languor of academical retirement, while it was adorned by the polished manners and elegant accomplishments, still more frequently neglected by the man of business and. the scholar.

He seems chiefly remarkable for the union of this gentleness and modesty of disposition, with very lofty notions of his own powers and destiny. Without any presumptuous confidence in the force of his genius, or the vigour of his understanding, he thought nothing beyond the reach of his industry and perseverance. From the very commencement of his career, accordingly, he tasked himself very highly; and having, in early youth, set before his eyes the standard of a noble and accomplished character in every kind of excellence, he never lost sight of this object of ambition, and never remitted his exertions to reach it. Though born in a condition far from affluent, he soon determined to give himself the education of a finished gentleman, and not only to cultivate all the elegance and refinement implied by that term, but to carry into an honourable profession all the lights and ornaments of philosophy and learning, and, extending his ambition beyond mere literary or professional eminence, to qualify himself for the management of public affairs, and for obtaining the higher rewards of patriotic virtue and political skill.

The exemplary industry with which he laboured to accomplish this magnificent plan, and his wonderful success, afford an instructive lesson to all who may be inclined, by equal diligence, to deserve an equal reward. The more we learn, indeed, of the early history of those who have left a great name to posterity, the more clearly shall we see that no permanent excellence can ever be attained without painful and laborious preparation, and that extraordinary talents are less necessary to this end than perseverance and industry. Great as sir William Jones's attainments were, they may be viewed without despair by any one who is not frightened at his diligence.

Nobody can doubt but that sir William Jones was a consummate scholar, an accomplished philologist, an elegant critic, a candid and perspicuous writer. It is impossible to read either his works or his history without acknowledging his claim, in all these capacities, to the highest distinction; but many will not so readily admit the extent of his philosophical capacity, the original strength of his understanding, or his familiarity with those general principles which lead to great and simple discoveries, and bind together, into one useful whole, the particulars of miscellaneous knowledge. His studies were chiefly directed to particulars; and his aim was rather to follow out admitted principles to larger or more precise conclusions, than to investigate the principles themselves, or to settle the truth of the conclusion on a solid basis.

The labour which he expended in securing the praise of a great scholar, that is, of an adept in many languages, obstructed his progress in the sciences. His understanding would have been better replenished, and his judgment stronger, had he not imbibed so deeply an affection for Greek and prosody, and classical and mythological allusions. — These things are the proper ornament and boast of a school-boy, but will not go far in procuring lasting glory to a man. The fame of sir William Jones rests, indeed, upon a firmer basis; but it has rather been restrained than extended by the influence of this early passion. Though his language be, in general, pure, polished, and harmonious, it is not entirely free from pedantry; many of his best compositions are rendered .languid and insipid by those classical affectations which may still he permitted to adorn an academical declamation. We can excuse him, at fourteen, for talking to his sister of Solon and Croesus; but we are less indulgent to a barrister, who professes to write a treatise of English law in imitation of the analytic method of Aristotle, or a politician who compares the balance of the British constitution to the harmony produced by the flute of Aristoxenus, or the lyre of Timotheus. The mythological digressions of Pindar have also been too carefully copied in his poetical addresses to the divinities of the east; and, indeed, by far the greater part of his poetry is so learned and elaborate, that the perusal of it is rather a labour than a relaxation.

His chief eminence and singularity was his skill in the Asiatic languages; but this, in the eyes of impartial persons, will add little to his merit. I must entertain very different notions of the intrinsic merit of the poets, orators, and sages of Persia and Arabia from my present ones, before I can applaud him who takes the trouble of making himself master of their language or their works. This attainment is so difficult to a native of western Europe, that it may lay claim to great praise on account of its difficulty; but, on any other account, we cannot applaud it. We admire the perseverance and dexterity of a man who writes well with his knees, but can hardly fail of regretting such a perverse employment of his genius.

As to the sages and orators of Persia and Arabia, I have never heard their names, even from sir William Jones, who was so ardent a pupil of Schultens and Pococke. As to their historians, that title is never given to annalists, chroniclers, and genealogists. Ardent constitutions and vacant minds have given birth among them to something called poetry; that is, to the inclination and faculty of putting into rhyme and metre the sentiments with which a voluptuary is inspired by the taste of wine and the smell of roses. The oriental bards, indeed, loudly celebrate a feeling, the name of which is commonly translated by the word love; but I do not give that name to the passion which a boar or a bull has to the female of his kind. Some tenderness, some humanity, some devotion, which looks a little beyond, while, at the same time, it comprehends, the animal desire, seems necessary to that love which poets may celebrate, and sages practise without infamy. Sir William Jones's veneration for such poetry, and his occasional attempts at the translation of it, seem strangely inconsistent with his relish for Sophocles and Shakespeare, and his attachment to Isaeus and Isocrates.

This person's most admirable accomplishments, indeed, were chiefly of the professional and social kind. As a member of a family, as the head of an important judicature, he seems entitled to all our veneration; but, in considering his intellectual attainments, we are more struck by them as proofs of the variety of his inclinations, the ardour of his diligence, and the strength of his memory, than as evidences of a just taste, or vigorous understanding.