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Schlosser’s Literary History Of The Eighteenth Century
by [?]

In the person of this Mr. Schlosser is exemplified a common abuse, not confined to literature. An artist from the Italian opera of London and Paris, making a professional excursion to our provinces, is received according to the tariff of the metropolis; no one being bold enough to dispute decisions coming down from the courts above. In that particular case there is seldom any reason to complain–since really out of Germany and Italy there is no city, if you except Paris and London, possessing materials, in that field of art, for the composition of an audience large enough to act as a court of revision. It would be presumption in the provincial audience, so slightly trained to good music and dancing, if it should affect to reverse a judgment ratified in the supreme capital. The result, therefore, is practically just, if the original verdict was just; what was right from the first cannot be made wrong by iteration. Yet, even in such a case, there is something not satisfactory to a delicate sense of equity; for the artist returns from the tour as if from some new and independent triumph, whereas, all is but the reverberation of an old one; it seems a new access of sunlight, whereas it is but a reflex illumination from satellites.

In literature the corresponding case is worse. An author, passing by means of translation before a foreign people, ought de jure to find himself before a new tribunal; but de facto, he does not. Like the opera artist, but not with the same propriety, he comes before a court that never interferes to disturb a judgment, but only to re-affirm it. And he returns to his native country, quartering in his armorial bearings these new trophies, as though won by new trials, when, in fact, they are due to servile ratifications of old ones. When Sue, or Balzac, Hugo, or George Sand, comes before an English audience–the opportunity is invariably lost for estimating them at a new angle of sight. All who dislike them lay them aside–whilst those only apply themselves seriously to their study, who are predisposed to the particular key of feeling, through which originally these authors had prospered. And thus a new set of judges, that might usefully have modified the narrow views of the old ones, fall by mere inertia into the humble character of echoes and sounding-boards to swell the uproar of the original mob.

In this way is thrown away the opportunity, not only of applying corrections to false national tastes, but oftentimes even to the unfair accidents of luck that befall books. For it is well known to all who watch literature with vigilance, that books and authors have their fortunes, which travel upon a far different scale of proportions from those that measure their merits. Not even the caprice or the folly of the reading public is required to account for this. Very often, indeed, the whole difference between an extensive circulation for one book, and none at all for another of about equal merit, belongs to no particular blindness in men, but to the simple fact, that the one has, whilst the other has not, been brought effectually under the eyes of the public. By far the greater part of books are lost, not because they are rejected, but because they are never introduced. In any proper sense of the word, very few books are published. Technically they are published; which means, that for six or ten times they are advertised, but they are not made known to attentive ears, or to ears prepared for attention. And amongst the causes which account for this difference in the fortune of books, although there are many, we may reckon, as foremost, personal accidents of position in the authors. For instance, with us in England it will do a bad book no ultimate service, that it is written by a lord, or a bishop, or a privy counsellor, or a member of Parliament–though, undoubtedly, it will do an instant service–it will sell an edition or so. This being the case, it being certain that no rank will reprieve a bad writer from final condemnation, the sycophantic glorifier of the public fancies his idol justified; but not so. A bad book, it is true, will not be saved by advantages of position in the author; but a book moderately good will be extravagantly aided by such advantages. Lectures on Christianity, that happened to be respectably written and delivered, had prodigious success in my young days, because, also, they happened to be lectures of a prelate; three times the ability would not have procured them any attention had they been the lectures of an obscure curate. Yet on the other hand, it is but justice to say, that, if written with three times less ability, lawn-sleeves would not have given them buoyancy, but, on the contrary, they would have sunk the bishop irrecoverably; whilst the curate, favored by obscurity, would have survived for another chance. So again, and indeed, more than so, as to poetry. Lord Carlisle, of the last generation, wrote tolerable verses. They were better than Lord Roscommon’s, which, for one hundred and fifty years, the judicious public has allowed the booksellers to incorporate, along with other refuse of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, into the costly collections of the ‘British Poets.’ And really, if you will insist on odious comparisons, they were not so very much below the verses of an amiable prime minister known to us all. Yet, because they wanted vital stamina, not only they fell, but, in falling, they caused the earl to reel much more than any commoner would have done. Now, on the other hand, a kinsman of Lord Carlisle, viz., Lord Byron, because he brought real genius and power to the effort, found a vast auxiliary advantage in a peerage and a very ancient descent. On these double wings he soared into a region of public interest, far higher than ever he would have reached by poetic power alone. Not only all his rubbish–which in quantity is great–passed for jewels, but also what are incontestably jewels have been, and will be, valued at a far higher rate than if they had been raised from less aristocratic mines. So fatal for mediocrity, so gracious for real power, is any adventitious distinction from birth, station, or circumstances of brilliant notoriety. In reality, the public, our never-sufficiently-to-be- respected mother, is the most unutterable sycophant that ever the clouds dropped their rheum upon. She is always ready for jacobinical scoffs at a man for being a lord, if he happens to fail; she is always ready for toadying a lord, if he happens to make a hit. Ah, dear sycophantic old lady, I kiss your sycophantic hands, and wish heartily that I were a duke for your sake!