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CONDITION OF THE POLES:
In a Letter from a Traveller. *
Cracow, Aug. 2, 1758. MY DEAR WILL,—You see, by the date of my letter, that I am arrived in Poland. When will my wanderings be at an end? When will my restless disposition give me leave to enjoy the present hour? When at Lyons, I thought all happiness lay beyond the Alps; when in Italy, I found myself still in want of something, and expected to leave solicitude behind me by going into Romelia ; and now you find me turning back, still expecting ease every where, but where I am. It is now seven years since I saw the face of a single creature who cared a farthing whether I was dead or alive. Secluded from all the comforts of confidence, friendship, or society, I feel the solitude of a hermit, but not his ease.t
The prince of *** has taken me in his train, so that I am in no danger of starving for this bout. The prince's governor is a rude ignorant pedant, and his tutor a battered rake: thus, between two such characters, you may imagine he is finely
(Who the writer of this letter was does not appear; most probably, from some allusions found elsewhere in his writings, Goldsmith himself. He was never indeed in Poland, but we may presume he thought himself privileged, when writing anonyinously, to use a little fiction for the purpose of drawing public attention to the condition of a most unfortunate country, little knows then, as now, to the rest of Europe.]
† [" But me, not destin'd such delights to share,
My prime of life in wandering spent and care :
instructed. I made some attempts to display all the little knowledge I had acquired by reading or observation ; but I find myself regarded as an ignorant intruder. The truth is, I shall never be able to acquire a power of expressing myself with ease in any language but my own; and out of my own country, the highest character I can ever acquire is that of being a philosophio vagabond.
When I consider myself in the country which was onoe so formidable in war, and spread terror and desolation over the whole Roman empire, I can hardly account for the present wretchedness and pusillanimity of its inhabitants—a prey to every invader; their cities plundered without an enemy; their magistrates seeking redress by complaints, and not by vigor. Every thing conspires to raise my compassion for their miseries, were not my thoughts too busily engaged by my own. The whole kingdom is in a strange disorder; when our equipage, which consists of the prince and thirteen attendants, had arrived at some towns, there were no conveniences to be found, and we were obliged to have girls to conduct us to the next. I have seen a woman travel thus on horseback before us for thirty miles, and think herself highly paid, and make twenty reverences, upon receiving, with ecstasy, about two-pence for her trouble. In general, we were better served by the women than the men on those occasions. The men seemed directed by a low sordid interest alone; they seemed mere machines, and all their thoughts were employed in the care of their horses. If we gently desired them to make more speed, they took not the least notice; kind language was what they had by no means been used to. It was proper to speak to them in the tones of anger, and sometimes it was even necessary to use blows, to excite them to their duty. How different these from the common people of England, whom a blow might induce to return the affront sevenfold !
people, however, from being brought up to vile usage, lose all the respect which they should have for themselves. They have contracted a habit of regarding constraint as the great rule of their duty. When they were treated with mildness, they no longer continued to perceive a superiority. They fancied themselves our equals, and a continuance of our humanity might probably have rendered them insolent; but the imperious tone, menaces, and blows, at once changed their sensations and their ideas : their ears and shoulders taught their souls to shrink back into servitude, from which they had for some moments fancied themselves disengaged.
The enthusiasm of liberty an Englishman feels is never so strong, as when presented by such prospects as these. I must own, in all my indigence, it is one of my comforts, (perhaps, indeed, it is my only boast,) that I am of that happy country; though I scorn to starve there; though I do not choose to lead a life of wretched dependence, or be an object for my former acquaintance to point at. While you enjoy all the ease and elegance of prudence and virtue, your old friend wanders over the world, without a single anchor to hold by, or a friend, except you, to confide in.*
SHORT ACCOUNT OF MAUPERTUIS.
M. Maupertuis, lately deceased, t was the first to whom the English officers owed their being particularly admired by the rest
* The sequel of this correspondence to be continued occasionally. I shall alter nothing either in the style or sabstance of these letters, and the reader may depend on their being genuine.
+ [Maupertuis was born at St. Malo in 1698, and died at Basle, in 1759, in his sixty-second year.]
of Europe. The romantic system of Des Cartes was adapted to the taste of the superficial and the indolent; the foreign universities had embraced it with ardor, and such are seldom convinced of their errors till all others give up such false opinions as untenable. The philosophy of Newton, and the metaphysics of Locke, appeared; but, like all new truths, they were at once received with opposition and contempt. The English, it is true, studied, anderstood, and consequently admired them; it was very different on the Continent. Fontenelle, who seemed to preside over the republic of letters, unwilling to acknowledge that all his life had been spent in erroneous philosophy, joined in the universal disapprobation, and the English philosophers seemed entirely anknown.
Maupertuis, however, made them his study: he thought he might oppose the physics of his country, and yet still be a good citizen; he defended our countrymen, wrote in their favor, and at last, as he had truth on his side, carried his cause. Almost all the learning of the English, till very lately, was conveyed in the language of France. The writings of Maupertuis spread the reputation of his master Newton, and by a happy fortune have united his fame with that of our human prodigy.
The first of his performances, openly, in vindication of the Newtonian system, is his treatise entitled, "Sur la Figure des Astres,” if I remember right; a work at once expressive of deep geometrical knowledge, and the most happy manner of delivering abstruse science with ease. This met with violent opposition from a people, though fond of novelty in every thing else, yet however, in matters of science, attached to ancient opinions with bigotry. As the old and obstinate fell away, the youth of France embraced the new opinions, and now seem more eager to defend Newton than even his countrymen.
The oddity of character which great men are sometimes remarkable for, Maupertuis was not entirely free from. If we can believe Voltaire, he once attempted to castrate himself; but whether this be true or no, it is certain he was extremely wbimsical. Though born to a large fortune, when employed in mathematical inquiries, he disregarded his person to such a degree, and loved retirement so much, that he has been more than once put on the list of modest beggars by the curates of Paris, when he retired to some private quarter of the town, in order to enjoy his meditations without interruption. The character given of him by one of Voltaire's antagonists, if it can be depended upon, is much to his honor. You, says this writer to M. Voltaire, you were entertained by the king of Prussia as a buffoon, but Maupertuis as a philosopher. It is certain that the preference which this royal scholar gave to Maupertuis was the cause of Voltaire's disagreement with him.* Voltaire could not bear to see a man, whose talents he had no great opinion of, preferred before him as president of the royal academy. His “Micromegas” was designed to ridicule Maupertuis; and probably it has brought more disgrace on the author than the subject. Whatever absurdities men of letters have indulged, and how fantastical soever the modes of science have been, their anger is still more subject to ridicule.