« PreviousContinue »
Several artists having been consulted, and a few gentlemen having expressed a disposition to encourage the attempt, the annexed advertisement was published, with no material effect.
But the subject having been frequently discussed, in the conversations of a club-the general origin of enterprizes in England-it had taken possession of the minds of the members; and when the news arrived, that Floyer Sydenham, the beloved friend of several of those members, had silently suffered extreme distress, and died in poverty of a broken heart, a resolution was adopted, to expiate the grief and shame of the event, by a monument to his memory, in the institution of a Literary Fund.
Eight gentlemen subscribed each a guinea, which they repeated three or four times in the first year, to keep an advertisement generally before the public, of which a copy is subjoined; the constitutions. were drawn up, a committee and officers appointed, and the society, in miniature, was formed.
The advertisement continuing to draw numbers, and the receipts of the society exceeding its expenditure, the cases of claimants were taken into consideration, and relieved; and its first anniversary held on the 18th of May, 1790.
It was not proposed by the institution, to remove all the inconve niences, which accrue to literature in England, from the various causes already enumerated, and particularly from a misdirected education. These are legislative objects. The scholar must assume the character of an author, to acquire a claim to the attention of the committee. Even to authors, that attention is circumscribed.
A government, having nothing to apprehend from literature, might absorb this institution in some general regulations, for the support of talents, or in some tribunal of genius and learning, on the encouragement or the depression of which, depend all the important distinctions of nations.
The humble substitutes of such a tribunal are the council and general committee of the society, described in its constitutions; which, with funds and powers, inadequate to their purposes, have difficult offices to discharge.
To apportion the honourable indemnities, which the Literary Fund "may afford; to seize the moments when those indemnities may prevent despondence, the parent of crime, and rouse the efforts of sinking talents; to distinguish the plausibilities of pretenders from the claims of genius; to separate the squalid impurity, and criminal dross, which the necessities of a second nature have attached to minds of na→ tive excellence; to resist importunity, and even the seductions of mere humanity: what discernment; what probity, what force of character, are required in their members!
It is, however, the distinguishing happiness of this institution, that it does not, in any degree, produce or foster the evil it is intended to remedy. It does not, it cannot, turn towards the pursuits of its unfortunate objects, a greater share of the talents and industry of the country, than would go into them of their own accord, as may be the case with other charities: for men cannot furnish themselves with genius and learning at their own will; they are furnished by nature and education, without a choice. The balance of employments, through
out the country, is, therefore, never disturbed by the Literaty Fund; and if it enable men of genius, already educated, to exert and employ their talents, it must contribute to the advantage and perfection of all other employments.
But the virtues and merits of literature, in all its departments, like the rules of grammar, in all languages, are not without embarrassing exceptions.
Compensations for long and painful inquiries, abstracting the inquirer from the economy of his affairs, may be acts of justice, easily rendered, if the means be at hand; and the removal of many of those distresses, which discourage ingenuity, and repress all intellectual emulation, may not be difficult, where the characters are blameless: but where crime, offence, and misconduct, have been the produce of, perhaps, inevitable misery, the business of the council and committee requires discretion, for they are liable to error, as well as to animadversion and blame.
It is impracticable to form an exact thermometer, which the council and committee may apply to the varieties of literary distress. They have wisely adopted a general rule, to favour the claims of real genius, or superior talents, whatever may have been their private circumstances, and even their errors. Men most susceptible of great excellences, are most liable to great faults; and the business of the council and committee, is not with those who are preserved in insignificant uniformity, from want of passions, the companions, if not the seeds, of genius; but to encourage or console real talents, when well em ployed, and to restore them to the paths of honour and utility, when driven, by misery, into error and crime.
Perhaps the difference of Curtius and Sylla, may have been only the difference of circumstances. We blame poverty for not producing virtue, at a time when money is infinitely more honoured. Cæsar would have laughed at the satyrist, who had reproached him for not possessing the virtues of Cincinnatus.
The same talents, and the same passions, which, in easy or affluent circumstances, may inspire us with the love of private and public virtues, might, in those of distress or oppression, have abandoned us to the opposite vices. Man is helpless and miserable. Pity, even in common cases, enumerates his sufferings, never his faults. "I am not miserable; who will believe me, if I say, it is because I have no faults?"
The spirit of candour, inspired by this institution, has soared above all distinctions of names and parties, even in a period when public and private happiness were sacrificed to them. While Europe was hostilely divided by partizans, and a political delirium perceived nothing generally but aristocrats and Jacobins, despots and anarchists; within the sphere of this society humanity saw only men.
There are, however, depravities and profligate abuses of talents, which the council and committee think a duty to treat with neglect or abhorrence; they change the useful direction of all mental pursuits, and violate, by false associations, the natural distinctions of good and evil.
The society for a literary fund, though not connected with any political or civil department of the public administration, thinks itself
nevertheless obliged to act as the friend of the community; and it is its fundamental law, that its beneficiaries should be, or should discover a disposition to become, useful writers.
Speculative men, who examine the modes of regulating societies by institutions, are generally neither useful nor hurtful in the degrees commonly assigned them.
There are men of genius, who think in allegory and imagery; but they are few, and they are never dangerous. The philosopher, who taught the eastern despot, by the incidents of the game of chess, gave no alarm but to the despot's conscience.
Indeed, literature is very seldom, though frequently supposed to be, the instrument of sedition or conspiracy. Milton justly observes, "The Christian faith; for that was once a schism; is not unknown to have spread over all Asia, before any Gospel or epistle was seen in writing." All treasonable measures, ancient and modern, have shunned every thing analogous to the press or to publication, until their principal and most important effects were produced.
Men of talents, in distrees, are generally of that class, which covets the fame of extensive utility, but finds too powerful competitions in all useful employments. Being denied support, in seeking and discovering unknown regions of science, they continue, by the cultivation of learning, communications with those already discovered; or they become translators, who are literary merchants, or importers of foreign knowledge. In this class they may be very useful. They who develope the scientific discoveries, or render any of the noble produc tions of foreign talents familiar to their fellow citizens, are like the inventors of navigation, or of bridges and roads, which facilitate communications between country and country.
And when profound ideas cannot be conveyed to the public, until reduced to simple and clear propositions, men may be useful in retailing those ideas, though they employ only secondary talents. In this class are, compilers, and writers of books for children, who do not add to the common stock of knowledge, but increase its utility, by diffusion.
Even as novelists, writers may be forgiven the injuries they commit, when they harmonize and improve the language; for the art of saying nothing elegantly, becomes, in time, the art of expressing ideas; and the early habit of harmonious sounds, and beautiful expressions, may be of great importance, as writers capable of analyzing ideas, may be induced, by pleasing examples, to adorn their inestimable thoughts with the charms of an elegant style.
Even literary indolence, in disappointed men of letters, is not to be wholly overlooked. It would be grateful to those who have nothing left, not even in hope, to be allowed, in a condition of mere competence, the captivations of intellectual pleasures, which never cloy, never satiate, never disgust, admit neither of tedium, nor dissa◄ tisfaction, and diffuse a serenity uninterrupted and everlasting.
But when authors, disappointed of useful employments, or unsuccessful in them, seek consolation in the vanity of passing illiberal judgments on others in secret tribunals, and become the means of involving them in similar misfortunes, the feelings of compassion yield to considerations of discretion and utility, in the assistance to be af
forded from the Literary Fund. Scholars are the more sensible of these injuries from each other; as the motives are despicable, the interests of mercenary employers, and a dastardly species of envy. Claimants of exclusive fame, susceptible of lively jealousy, have always disturbed the republic of letters: but they have always been least numerous in the highest classes; where it is universally acknowledged, that the large stock of public esteem is fully sufficient for all those who can fairly and directly draw on it, and the laurels of Parnassus are sufficiently numerous for all the heads intitled to wear them.
Ancient literature, to the beauties and excellencies of which we can scarcely be said to be approaching, was not a subject of criticism by occupation. Compositions were recited or read in public assemblies. The art of printing has subjected them to general and deliberate perusal. Hence the origin of modern criticism; on the good and evil of which I shall not decide. My business is only to observe, that real and useful critics, and those whose perpetual cavil and disguised calumnies deprave the public taste, and infest conversation and social life with an insatiable spirit of censure and detraction, would have a very different reception from the council and committee of the Literary Fund.
Professed libellers are out of the question; their cases are not taken under consideration, unless accompanied with promises and hopes to adopt honourable and useful employments.
These promises and hopes are always liberally admitted; and in such cases the society is truly disposed to imitate an example of high authority-where more joy is expressed over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety-nine who need no repentance. P. 101.
The constitutions of the society are ably digested, and we see little that we could suggest to improve them. We learn with pleasure, from the remarks which follow, that this society, within the first twelve years of its establishment, has administered relief in not less than one hundred and ninetysix cases of distress; and that the sum distributed in the course of this period amounts, in the whole, to 1680l. 8s.
The very first case of a meritorious scholar and author, in distressed circumstances, which attracted the notice of the committee, was that of the learned, but unfortunate, Dr. Harwood; a man whose perfect knowledge of the learned languages, and laborious diligence, both as an oral instructor, and writer, scarcely procured him a scanty and precarious support.
In the infancy of this institution, and when its funds amounted to little more than was required for the expences of printing and advertisements, this deserving object repeatedly received assistance, which, if it did not place him in affluence, rescued him from misery and despair. Other authors, moral and political, of great merit, and a few, of great and deserved celebrity, received assistance from the committee, to the utmost of its powers; but these being still alive, and it being an invariable rule of the committee, not to publish the names of living objects of their attention, those members of the society who wish to be minutely informed, may have recourse to the records of the
committee, which they have a right to inspect, and which are always open to the examination of any subscriber to the fund.
In this early period of the institution, a lady, well known for works of the imagination, equally amusing and instructive, being in narrow circumstances, was enabled, by the assistance of the society, to place her son in a situation that promised a provision for life. Thus were some distinguished persons assisted from the Literary Fund, while its sources were scanty, and its bounties necessarily limited. But several deserving, though less eminent, writers received great alleviation in their distresses; one in particular (a very industrious and useful author) was, for several years, during which he sustained the most excruciating and incurable malady, preserved from the aggravated misery of want, and when relieved at last by death, from his cruel sufferings, received a decent interment, chiefly by the benevolence of the society.
Of late years, as the funds of the society have increased, and the claimants become more numerous, in proportion as it was more known, its benefactions have been more numerous and liberal. Amongst the cases relieved, during this latter period, are several writers of distinguished eminence, whom it would be a gross indelicacy to name, or particularly allude to; especially since some of them are now in circumstances, that not only prevent their being objects, but may enable them to become supporters of the institution. The number of less brilliant, but useful, writers, relieved within this period, is also very considerable, and the cases of a questionable nature, or, where the vigilance of the committee may have been deceived, few. They will be fewer in future; as all cases that appear doubtful, may, by a late regulation, at the desire of any two members, be referred to a committee of the president, vice-presidents, and council, appointed for 'that among other purposes.
It may, however, be satisfactory, and not uninteresting to the public, to know, that, among the cases during this latter period, was a son of the late ingenious and spirited translator of the Lusiad; to wards the expence of whose education the society, more than once, contributed by donations for that purpose, to the gentleman under whose care the youth was placed. Another interesting case, which may be mentioned, was that of the widow and children of that distinguished poet, and original genius, Robert Burns. Towards the subscription for their relief and future establishment, the committee contributed a large sum, considering the amount of the funds then at their disposal, and have since made an addition; so that the whole amounts to forty-five pounds.' P. 141.
In a detailed and subjoined statement of disbursements, we rejoice to find, that, although in the year 1790 the fund would not allow a larger annual benevolence than ten guineas, their income has been so progressively thriving, that in 1801 they distributed not less than two hundred and eighty-eight pounds, by which they afforded relief in twentyeight cases of misfortune. Most cordially do we wish them every success; and we have no doubt of their obtaining it.