« AnteriorContinuar »
bible into his hands. He happened to pitch upon the Prophet Baruch, and his prayer for the Jews struck him so much, that he asked every body he met if they had read 66 one Baruch, who was a fine genius.” During an illness, somebody recommended the New Testament. He read in it accordingly, and was much pleased with some passages; but “ there is Paul,” said he, “ he is not a temper to my liking.” Sitting one day in company with Racine, Boileau, and some ecclesiastics, among whom was Dr. Boileau, the critic's brother; the talk fell upon St. Augustine, who was highly praised. After a profound silence, La Fontaine asked Dr. Boileau with the greatest gravity, “ whether he thought St. Augustine had more wit than Rabelais." The Doctor who appears to have had his brother's shrewdness, looked at him from head to foot; and said, “ M. La Fontaine, one of your stockings is wrong side out.” He was invited once to a dinner at a great house, in hopes of his contributing to the company's intellectual enjoyment. He took the invitation however at its word ; and did so much justice to the dinner, that not a syllable could be got out of him. He even rose to go away, when he had done eating, and upon being asked why he did so, said he had to attend a sitting of the Academy. " But it is not time," said they. Just so," said the poet, s but I always go soon.” « But M. de la Fontaine," returned the guests, “ the Academy is only over the way." " Ah, so it is,” replied he; “ true, I shall take the longest way then.” He died on the 25th April, (13, O.S.) 1695. It is said that his nurse, observing the priest very earnest and minaceous with him in his last moments, begged him not to be so harsh with her poor master, 66 who was more fool than knave;" adding, “ that God would not have the heart to damn him.” Some stories are told of his having consented, after a former illness, to repent of his writings, though he thought it rather an odd and hard proceeding. The accounts fall in well enough with his character ; but if some orthodox French writers doubt them, they may be doubted by others. Among these, is the story of his being found with a hair shirt on when he died. It is true, in one of his dedications, he seems to think that people expect some apology from him, and he makes it; but he soon sets off again in his old manner; and excuses it by calling himself the “ Butterfly of Parnassus." The excuse has been thought a bad one; but considering his natural goodness of heart, and the sort of irreprehensible ingenuousness and impulse with which he did every thing, it is perhaps deeper than it appears. There are bees about the sacred hill, and there are spiders also, who contrive to be tolerated. Why not give quarter to the butterfly? To quarrel with La Fontaine is to quarrel with the singing birds in the trees. We can easily conceive that his voluptuousness is of too animal a description ; for to say the truth, without meaning to affect any thing, or to deny an acquaintance with his originals, we have not read that part of his works which is objected to. We are not fond enough of French, and not sufficiently attracted by stories, which we suppose too destitute of the sentimental part of passion. But such was the taste of his nation; and to judge by the rest of his writings, if there was any man who could tend to diminish guilt in pleasure, by the mere force of his good nature, and by the absence of vicious intention, La Fontaine was he. It is pleasant to us to see even sensuality take a turn of this kind, instead of putting on all those shapes of hypocrisy and injustice, by which gloomy systems double its guiltiness and its harm. La Fontaine's fables contain such excellent morality, cheerful and generous, that the most objectionable productions of such a temper must be better than the morals of some men. His style is delicious. It is made up of the most extraordinary and relishing mixture in the world, of shrewdness and simplicity, ease and surprise, irony and good humour, archness and unconsciousness. The English reader may have some idea of it by fancying Peter Pindar turned graceful and good-natured, with none of his insincerity, and twenty times his knowledge and genius.
THE ECCENTRIC POET.
You shall perceive him dive his hand into his pocket; he would insinuate by this, and have you infer, that he has money, but no such thing is there; it were as reasonable to expect that the collision of two flakes of snow would make a jingle, as hope to hear the sound of one shilling duetting-it with another. The hand went in empty, it came out so; and though he buttons up that pockct so carefully, there is nothing in it:-it is as empty as Coates's * head, and farthingless as a poor's box.
About four you shall perceive him picking his teeth with the worn-down stump of a pen that has written to you, in its time, half a dozen odes To the scornful Nona, who proves to be his landlady, a fat and fifty-year-old widow;-a folio of poems upon Fortune and Hope, Charity and Independence ;-odes On Retirement, composed in the seclusion of bis back-garret; together with some hundred sonnets to and on ruins, woods, forests, hills, castles, rivers, streamlets and lakes the “ overflowings of his mind," + and ten sonnets on a waterfall, written to the overflowings of his landlady's water-butt;—a hundred extempores, (each of them produced after a long November night's labour;) a few dozen of dedication-asking letters to beggarly noblemen, by which he netted a clear profit of twenty kicks on his unseated seat of honour, thirty door-shuttings in his face, and a French halfcrown insinuated into his pocket by a sentimental fat porter at a great man's door, who proved to be more of a Mæcenas than his master; besides plays, operas, and farces; and pamphlets on the easiest mode of paying off the national debt, written when he was dunned for two-pence, an arrear in an account of three-pence due to his milkwoman. Now you would suppose this picking of teeth indicated his having dined; no such thing; he picks them, that he may remind you to remark, “ What, you have dined ?" upon which he promptly answers, “ No, only lunched;" that is, he has eaten a gooseberry. You cannot choose but have him to dinner; and then you learn by the state of his appetite that he breakfasted with Duke Humphrey.
He says little during dinner; he allows that there was an appetite-provoking air in the park that morning ; and when he gives over eating, which is a very protracted operation, remarks, to prevent your doing it, “I don't know when I ate a heartier dinner ;” neither does he, unless you can tell him when he last dined with you, or where he dined the day before.
* An amateur actor.
For his wit, which savours of the true attic, it comes in with the salt, but it is broached with the wine. He denies that beef is “ a sore spoiler of your wit.” He is witty because it is expected of him ; but his wit is, at first, rather disagreeable and bitter; it is sauce piquante to your meat, and an olive to your wine. Like wormwood, the more you have of it, the less you dislike it, and you at last palate it. He takes care to say as many brilliant things as the dullards, his auditors, will be a week in retailing as their own ;-my lord takes all he says on books and women as his share; and my lady all he says on men as her’s.
For his suit, you instantly know it to be the livery of those elderly maiden ladies the Muses, to whose suite he is attached, con amore. His coat, once black, is, through long exposure, of à dun colour—the most disagreeable of all complexions to the eyes of a dunned poet. All things change! Its white button-moulds were once snugly-enveloped in the best dark drab; but, after much struggling, they have at last protruded themselves into public notice; and as they more or less shew their bony faces, remind us of the Moon in her various quarters or phases. For the rest of his suit it is suitable ; and is what painters call keeping with what I have just described. Most likely his stockings are of a rusty, mouse-coloured black; and his shoes are very like to be less brilliant than his head. Day and Martin would sneer at their poverty of polish, and fall to blessing their stars that they have more blacking than wit.
His lodging is as high as his circumstances are low: its furniture will be hard to describe, seeing that it has none. His bed is a truckle one; he reconciles its poverty to himself, indeed he considers it poetical, for he remembers that that choice-spirit Mercutio, preferred his truckle to a field bed. It lies immediately beneath a window that looks as much like a chess-board as a window, one pane being white, and giving as much light as its unclean dinginess will allow; and the next black, (or blocked up like a late Admiral's eye) the net-work of a cobweb serves as a ventilator in one corner, and Baxter's “ Light to the Unconverted” darkens the skylight. He has a chair sans back; and a deal table, a deal too large for the most unscanted meal ever spread on it by its present possessor. Then he has a corner cup-board, “ more for ornament than use;" an old-fashioned, lacquered, and gilt thing, like the Lord Mayor's coach, containing in its compartments, two views of Chinese pagodas, and Mandarins, and tea-trees, and bridges, &c. the gilding nearly gone. Its non-contents are too numerous to mention ; but its contents are-one plate and two-thirds of another, both very dusty from long disuse ; two or three rusty odd knives and forks, the forks usually short in one prong, and pointless as Hacket's Epigrams; one cracked bason, a cream jug minus handle, and a tea-pot sans nose.
The walls of his attic are not without their ornaments. On one side, you shall perceive some half-dozen ballads and “ last words of notorious malefactors,” pasted immovably against the wall by the last tenant, a son of St. Crispin, since hanged; on another side, is the portrait of that most celebrated of all celebrated horses, Skewball, the decoration of a previous tenant, an out-of-place groom. Over the fireplace is a portrait of Shakspeare, framed, but not glazed ; in summer, after you have succeeded in brushing off the flies, to gain a look at it, you would suppose it to be a dot engraving, but it is really an aquatint, the dotting is the work of Messieurs the Flies. He had till lately an old bust of “ one John Milton, a blind inan, who wrote a long poem;" the said Milton has since accidentally lost his nose as well as his eyes; but he consoles himself with its still resembling a poet, and calls it a Davenant. The manner and the occasion of the loss of the said nose are as follows:-it seems that a silly and uninformed mouse, ignorant that he had entered a poet's dormitory, whilst searching about the place with the nearsighted curiosity of a Bankes, was then and there discovered by the only companion of the poet's studies, an elderly and faithful tabby, (the solitary gift of a rich old countess who never offered him a dinner,) who, being much enraged at this gross ignorance of the Mouse, in coming to such a place of starvation, (forgetting that she was herself equally silly,). flew indignantly at the said unwitting Mouse, and in the hurry of her expedition, overturned the head of her master's favourite Milton.
A bust of Sappho stands in a nook by his bed-side ; it was a long time draped by a thick, broad, black cobweb, which having fallen (for cobwebs as well as kingdoms must fall,) upon her temples, she has now not taken the veil, but has had it given her.