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Life And Habits Of A Literary Antiquary.–Oldys And His Manuscripts
by [?]

Such a picture may be furnished by some unexpected materials which my inquiries have obtained of Oldys. This is a sort of personage little known to the wits, who write more than they read, and to their volatile votaries, who only read what the wits write. It is time to vindicate the honours of the few whose laborious days enrich the stores of national literature, not by the duplicates but the supplements of knowledge. A literary antiquary is that idler whose life is passed in a perpetual voyage autour de ma chambre; fervent in sagacious diligence, instinct with the enthusiasm of curious inquiry, critical as well as erudite; he has to arbitrate between contending opinions, to resolve the doubtful, to clear up the obscure, and to grasp at the remote; so busied with other times, and so interested for other persons than those about him, that he becomes the inhabitant of the visionary world of books. He counts only his days by his acquisitions, and may be said by his original discoveries to be the CREATOR OF FACTS; often exciting the gratitude of the literary world, while the very name of the benefactor has not always descended with the inestimable labours.

Such is the man whom we often find leaving, when he dies, his favourite volumes only an incomplete project! and few of this class of literary men have escaped the fate reserved for most of their brothers. Voluminous works have been usually left unfinished by the death of the authors; and it is with them as with the planting of trees, of which Johnson has forcibly observed, “There is a frightful interval between the seed and timber.” And he admirably remarks, what I cannot forbear applying to the labours I am now to describe: “He that calculates the growth of trees has the remembrance of the shortness of life driven hard upon him. He knows that he is doing what will never benefit himself; and where he rejoices to see the stem rise, is disposed to repine that another shall cut it down.” The days of the patriotic Count Mazzuchelli were freely given to his national literature; and six invaluable folios attest the gigantic force of his immense erudition; yet these only carry us through the letters A and B: and though Mazzuchelli had finished for the press other volumes, the torpor of his descendants has defrauded Europe of her claims.[1] The Abbe Goujet, who had designed a classified history of his national literature, in the eighteen volumes we possess, could only conclude that of the translators, and commence that of the poets; two other volumes in manuscript have perished. That great enterprise of the Benedictines, the “Histoire Literaire de la France,” now consists of twelve large quartos, and the industry of its successive writers has only been able to carry it to the twelfth century. David Clement designed the most extensive bibliography which had ever appeared; but the diligent life of the writer could only proceed as far as H. The alphabetical order, which so many writers of this class have adopted, has proved a mortifying memento of human life! Tiraboschi was so fortunate as to complete his great national history of Italian literature. But, unhappily for us, Thomas Warton, after feeling his way through the darker ages of our poetry, in planning the map of the beautiful land, of which he had only a Pisgah-sight, expired amidst his volumes. The most precious portion of Warton’s history is but the fragment of a fragment.

Oldys, among this brotherhood, has met perhaps with a harder fate; his published works, and the numerous ones to which he contributed, are now highly appreciated by the lovers of books; but the larger portion of his literary labours have met with the sad fortune of dispersed, and probably of wasted manuscripts. Oldys’s manuscripts, or O. M. as they are sometimes designated, are constantly referred to by every distinguished writer on our literary history. I believe that not one of them could have given us any positive account of the manuscripts themselves! They have indeed long served as the solitary sources of information–but like the well at the wayside, too many have drawn their waters in silence.