An English Academy Of Literature by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay


We have Royal Societies for philosophers, for antiquaries, and for artists–none for men of letters! The lovers of philological studies have regretted the want of an asylum since the days of Anne, when the establishment of an English Academy of Literature was designed; but political changes occurred which threw out a literary administration. France and Italy have gloried in great national academies, and even in provincial ones. With us, the curious history and the fate of the societies at Spalding, Stamford, and Peterborough, whom their zealous founder lived to see sink into country clubs, is that of most of our rural attempts at literary academies! The Manchester society has but an ambiguous existence; and that of Exeter expired in its birth. Yet that a great purpose may be obtained by an inconsiderable number, the history of “The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures,” etc., may prove; for that originally consisted only of twelve persons, brought together with great difficulty, and neither distinguished for their ability nor their rank.

The opponents to the establishment of an academy in this country may urge, and find Bruyere on their side, that no corporate body generates a single man of genius. No Milton, no Hume, no Adam Smith, will spring out of an academical community, however they may partake of one common labour. Of the fame, too, shared among the many, the individual feels his portion too contracted, besides that he will often suffer by comparison. Literature, with us, exists independent of patronage or association. We have done well without an academy; our dictionary and our style have been polished by individuals, and not by a society.

The advocates for such a literary institution may reply, that in what has been advanced against it we may perhaps find more glory than profit. Had an academy been established in this country, we should have possessed all our present advantages, with the peculiar ones of such an institution. A series of volumes composed by the learned of England had rivalled the precious “Memoirs of the French Academy,” probably more philosophical, and more congenial to our modes of thinking! The congregating spirit creates by its sympathy; an intercourse exists between its members which had not otherwise occurred; in this attrition of minds, the torpid awakens, the timid is emboldened, and the secluded is called forth; to contradict, and to be contradicted, is the privilege and the source of knowledge. Those original ideas, hints, and suggestions, which some literary men sometimes throw out once or twice during their whole lives, might here be preserved; and if endowed with sufficient funds, there are important labours, which surpass the means and industry of the individual, which would be more advantageously performed by such literary unions.

An academy of literature can only succeed by the same means in which originated all such academies–among individuals themselves. It will not be “by the favour of the MANY, but by the wisdom and energy of the FEW.” It is not even in the power of royalty to create at a word what can only be formed by the co-operation of the workmen themselves, and of the great taskmaster, Time!

Such institutions have sprung from the same principle, and have followed the same march. It was from a private meeting that “The French Academy” derived its origin; and the true beginners of that celebrated institution assuredly had no foresight of the object to which their conferences tended. Several literary friends at Paris, finding the extent of the city occasioned much loss of time in their visits, agreed to meet on a fixed day every week, and chose Conrart’s residence as centrical. They met for the purposes of general conversation, or to walk together, or, what was not least social, to partake in some refreshing collation. All being literary men, those who were authors submitted their new works to this friendly society, who, without jealousy or malice, freely communicated their strictures; the works were improved, the authors were delighted, and the critics were honest! Such was the happy life of the members of this private society during three or four years. Pelisson, the earliest historian of the French Academy, has delightfully described it: “It was such that, now when they speak of these first days of the Academy, they call it the golden age, during which, with all the innocence and freedom of that fortunate period, without pomp and noise, and without any other laws than those of friendship, they enjoyed together all which a society of minds, and a rational life, can yield of whatever softens and charms.”

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They were happy, and they resolved to be silent; nor was this bond and compact of friendship violated till one of them, Malleville, secretary of Marshal Bassompierre, being anxious that his friend Faret, who had just printed his L’Honnete Homme, which he had drawn from the famous “Il Cortigiano” of Castiglione, should profit by all their opinions, procured his admission to one of their conferences; Faret presented them with his book, heard a great deal concerning the nature of his work, was charmed by their literary communications, and returned home ready to burst with the secret. Could the society hope that others would be more faithful than they had been to themselves? Faret happened to be one of those light-hearted men who are communicative in the degree in which they are grateful, and he whispered the secret to Des Marets and to Boisrobert. The first, as soon as he heard of such a literary senate, used every effort to appear before them and read the first volume of his “Ariane.” Boisrobert, a man of distinction, and a common friend to them all, could not be refused an admission; he admired the frankness of their mutual criticisms. The society, besides, was a new object; and his daily business was to furnish an amusing story to his patron, Richelieu. The cardinal-minister was very literary, and apt to be so hipped in his hours of retirement, that the physician declared, that “all his drugs were of no avail, unless his patient mixed with them a drachm of Boisrobert.” In one of those fortunate moments, when the cardinal was “in the vein,” Boisrobert painted, with the warmest hues, this region of literary felicity, of a small, happy society formed of critics and authors! The minister, who was ever considering things in that particular aspect which might tend to his own glory, instantly asked Boisrobert, whether this private meeting would not like to be constituted a public body, and establish itself by letters patent, offering them his protection. The flatterer of the minister was overjoyed, and executed the important mission; but not one of the members shared in the rapture, while some regretted an honour which would only disturb the sweetness and familiarity of their intercourse. Malleville, whose master was a prisoner in the Bastile, and Serisay, the intendant of the Duke of Rochefoucault, who was in disgrace at court, louldly protested, in the style of an opposition party, against the protection of the minister; but Chapelain, who was known to have no party-interests, argued so clearly, that he left them to infer that Richelieu’s offer was a command; that the cardinal was a minister who willed not things by halves; and was one of those very great men who avenge any contempt shown to them even on such little men as themselves! In a word, the dogs bowed their necks to the golden collar. However, the appearance, if not the reality, of freedom was left to them; and the minister allowed them to frame their own constitution, and elect their own magistrates and citizens in this infant and illustrious republic of literature. The history of the farther establishment of the French Academy is elegantly narrated by Pelisson. The usual difficulty occurred of fixing on a title; and they appear to have changed it so often, that the Academy was at first addressed by more than one title; Academie des beaux Esprits; Academie de l’Eloquence; Academie Eminente, in allusion to the quality of the cardinal, its protector. Desirous of avoiding the extravagant and mystifying titles of the Italian academies,[2] they fixed on the most unaffected, “L’Academie Francaise; but though the national genius may disguise itself for a moment, it cannot be entirely got rid of, and they assumed a vaunting device of a laurel wreath, including their epigraph, “A l’Immortalite.” The Academy of Petersburgh has chosen a more enlightened inscription, Paulatim (“little by little”), so expressive of the great labours of man–even of the inventions of genius!

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Such was the origin of L’ACADEMIE FRANCAISE; it was long a private meeting before it became a public institution. Yet, like the Royal Society, its origin has been attributed to political motives, with a view to divert the attention from popular discontents; but when we look into the real origin of the French Academy, and our Royal Society, it must be granted, that if the government either in France or England ever entertained this project, it came to them so accidentally, that at least we cannot allow them the merit of profound invention. Statesmen are often considered by speculative men in their closets to be mightier wonder-workers than they often prove to be.

Were the origin of the Royal Society inquired into, it might be justly dated a century before its existence; the real founder was Lord Bacon, who planned the ideal institution in his philosophical romance of the New Atlantis! This notion is not fanciful, and it was that of its first founders, as not only appears by the expression of old Aubrey, when, alluding to the commencement of the society, he adds secundum mentem Domini Baconi; but by a rare print designed by Evelyn, probably for a frontispiece to Bishop Sprat’s history, although we seldom find the print in the volume. The design is precious to a Grangerite, exhibiting three fine portraits. On one side is represented a library, and on the table lie the statutes, the journals, and the mace of the Royal Society; on its opposite side are suspended numerous philosophical instruments; in the centre of the print is a column on which is placed the bust of Charles the Second, the patron; on each side whole lengths of Lord Brouncker, the first president, and Lord Bacon, as the founder, inscribed Artium Instaurator. The graver of Hollar has preserved this happy intention of Evelyn’s, which exemplifies what may be called the continuity and genealogy of genius, as its spirit is perpetuated by its successors.[3]

When the fury of the civil wars had exhausted all parties, and a breathing time from the passions and madness of the age allowed ingenious men to return once more to their forsaken studies, Bacon’s vision of a philosophical society appears to have occupied their reveries. It charmed the fancy of Cowley and Milton; but the politics and religion of the times were still possessed by the same frenzy, and divinity and politics were unanimously agreed to be utterly proscribed from their inquiries. On the subject of religion they were more particularly alarmed, not only at the time of the foundation of the society, but at a much later period, when under the direction of Newton himself. Even Bishop Sprat, their first historian, observed, that “they have freely admitted men of different religions, countries, and professions of life, not to lay the foundation of an English, Scotch, Irish, popish, or protestant philosophy, but a philosophy of mankind.” A curious protest of the most illustrious of philosophers may be found: when “the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge were desirous of holding their meetings at the house of the Royal Society, Newton drew up a number of arguments against their admission. One of them is, that “It is a fundamental rule of the society not to meddle with religion; and the reason is, that we may give no occasion to religious bodies to meddle with us.” Newton would not even comply with their wishes, lest by this compliance the Royal Society might “dissatisfy those of other religions.” The wisdom of the protest by Newton is as admirable as it is remarkable,–the preservation of the Royal Society from the passions of the age.

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It was in the lodgings of Dr. Wilkins in Wadham College that a small philosophical club met together, which proved to be, as Aubrey expresses it, the incunabula of the Royal Society. When the members were dispersed about London, they renewed their meetings first at a tavern, then at a private house; and when the society became too great to be called a club, they assembled in “the parlour” of Gresham College, which itself had been raised by the munificence of a citizen, who endowed it liberally, and presented a noble example to the individuals now assembled under its roof. The society afterwards derived its title from a sort of accident. The warm loyalty of Evelyn in the first hopeful days of the Restoration, in his dedicatory epistle of Naude’s treatise on libraries, called that philosophical meeting THE ROYAL SOCIETY. These learned men immediately voted their thanks to Evelyn for the happy designation, which was so grateful to Charles the Second, who was himself a virtuoso of the day, that the charter was soon granted: the king, declaring himself their founder, “sent them a mace of silver-gilt, of the same fashion and bigness as those carried before his majesty, to be borne before the president on meeting days.” To the zeal of Evelyn the Royal Society owes no inferior acquisition to its title and its mace:[4] the noble Arundelian library, the rare literary accumulation of the noble Howards; the last possessor of which had so little inclination for books, that the treasures which his ancestors had collected lay open at the mercy of any purloiner. This degenerate heir to the literature and the name of Howard seemed perfectly relieved when Evelyn sent his marbles, which were perishing in his gardens, to Oxford, and his books, which were diminishing daily, to the Royal Society!

The SOCIETY of ANTIQUARIES might create a deeper interest, could we penetrate to its secret history: it was interrupted, and suffered to expire by some obscure cause of political jealousy. It long ceased to exist, and was only reinstated almost in our own days. The revival of learning under Edward the Sixth suffered a severe check from the papistical government of Mary; but under Elizabeth a happier era opened to our literary pursuits. At this period several students of the Inns of Court, many of whose names are illustrious for their rank or their genius, formed a weekly society, which they called “the Antiquaries’ College.” From very opposite quarters we are furnished with many curious particulars of their literary intercourse: it is delightful to discover Rawleigh borrowing manuscripts from the library of Sir Robert Cotton, and Selden deriving his studies from the collections of Rawleigh. Their mode of proceeding has even been preserved. At every meeting they proposed a question or two respecting the history or the antiquities of the English nation, on which each member was expected, at the subsequent meeting, to deliver a dissertation or an opinion. They also “supped together.” From the days of Athenaeus to those of Dr. Johnson, the pleasures of the table have enlivened those of literature. A copy of each question and a summons for the place of conference were sent to the absent members. The opinions were carefully registered by the secretary, and the dissertations deposited in their archives. One of these summonses to Stowe, the antiquary, with his memoranda on the back, exists in the Ashmolean Museum. I shall preserve it with all its verbal aerugo.



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“The place appointed for a conference upon the question followinge ys att Mr. Garter’s house, on Frydaye the 2nd. of this November, being Al Soule’s daye, at 2 of the clocke in the afternoone, where your oppinioun in wrytinge or otherwise is expected.

“The question is,

“Of the antiquitie, etimologie, and priviledges of parishes in Englande.

“Yt ys desyred that you give not notice hereof to any, but such as haue the like somons.”

Such is the summons; the memoranda in the handwriting of Stowe are these:–

[630. Honorius Romanus, Archbyshope of Canterbury, devided his province into parishes; he ordeyned clerks and prechars, comaunding them that they should instruct the people, as well by good lyfe, as by doctryne.

760. Cuthbert, Archbyshope of Canterbury, procured of the Pope, that in cities and townes there should be appoynted church yards for buriall of the dead, whose bodies were used to be buried abrode, & cet.]

Their meetings had hitherto been private; but to give stability to them, they petitioned for a charter of incorporation, under the title of the Academy for the Study of Antiquity and History, founded by Queen Elizabeth. And to preserve all the memorials of history which the dissolution of the monasteries had scattered about the kingdom, they proposed to erect a library, to be called “The Library of Queen Elizabeth.” The death of the queen overturned this honourable project. The society was somewhat interrupted by the usual casualties of human life; the members were dispersed or died, and it ceased for twenty years. Spelman, Camden, and others, desirous of renovating the society, met for this purpose at the Herald’s-office; they settled their regulations, among which, one was “for avoiding offence, they should neither meddle with matters of state nor religion.” “But before our next meeting,” says Spelman, “we had notice that his majesty took a little mislike of our society, not being informed that we had resolved to decline all matters of state. Yet hereupon we forbore to meet again, and so all our labour’s lost!” Unquestionably much was lost, for much could have been produced; and Spelman’s work on law terms, where I find this information, was one of the first projected. James the First has incurred the censure of those who have written more boldly than Spelman on the suppression of this society; but whether James was misinformed by “taking a little mislike,” or whether the antiquaries failed in exerting themselves to open their plan more clearly to that “timid pedant,” as Gough and others designate this monarch, may yet be doubtful; assuredly James was not a man to contemn their erudition!

The king at this time was busied by furthering a similar project, which was to found “King James’s College at Chelsea;” a project originating with Dean Sutcliff; and zealously approved by Prince Henry, to raise a nursery for young polemics in scholastical divinity, for the purpose of defending the Protestant cause from the attacks of catholics and sectaries; a college which was afterwards called by Laud “Controversy College.” In this society were appointed historians and antiquaries, for Camden and Haywood filled these offices.

The Society of Antiquaries, however, though suppressed, was perhaps never extinct; it survived in some shape under Charles the Second, for Ashmole in his Diary notices “the Antiquaries’ Feast,” as well as “the Astrologers’,” and another of “the Freemasons’.”[5] The present society was only incorporated in 1751. There are two sets of their Memoirs; for besides the modern Archaeologia, we have two volumes of “Curious Discourses,” written by the Fathers of the Antiquarian Society in the age of Elizabeth, collected from their dispersed manuscripts, which Camden preserved with a parental hand.

The philosophical spirit of the age, it might have been expected, would have reached our modern antiquaries; but neither profound views, nor eloquent disquisitions, have imparted that value to their confined researches and languid efforts, which the character of the times, and the excellence of our French rivals in their “Academie,” so peremptorily required. It is, however, hopeful to hear Mr. Hallam declare, “I think our last volumes improve a little, and but a little! A comparison with the Academy of Inscriptions in its better days must still inspire us with shame.”

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Among the statutes of the Society of Antiquaries there is one which expels any member “who shall, by speaking, writing, or printing, publicly defame the society.” Some things may be too antique and obsolete even for the Society of Antiquaries! and such is this vile restriction! It compromises the freedom of the republic of letters.

[Footnote 1: Long after this article was composed, the Royal Society of Literature was projected. It was founded by King George IV., and is said to have originated in a conversation between Dr. Burgess, afterwards Bishop of Salisbury, and a member of the royal household, who reported its substance to the king. The bishop was again sent for, and the formation of the society commenced by the offer of premiums for an essay on Homer, the prize being one hundred guineas; a poem on Dartmoor, prize fifty guineas (awarded to Mrs. Hemans); and one of twenty-five guineas, for an essay on the Ancient and Modern Languages of Greece. In 1823 the king granted the society a charter, and placed the annual sum of eleven hundred guineas at its disposal, to be spent in endowing ten associates for life, who were to receive one hundred guineas each yearly (as a delicate mode of aiding needy literary men); the remaining one hundred guineas to be expended on two gold medals, to be also awarded to eminent men of letters. Coleridge, Dr. Jameson, Malthus, Roscoe, Todd, and Sharon Turner received annuities among other well-known literary characters; and Mitford, Southey, Scott, Crabbe, Hallam, and Washington Irving received medals. On the death of George IV., the grant was discontinued, and the society now exists by the subscriptions of its members. ]

[Footnote 2: See an article “On the ridiculous titles assumed by the Italian Academies,” in a future page of this volume. ]

[Footnote 3: In J.T. Smith’s “Historical and Literary Curiosities” is engraved a fac-simile of a series of designs for the arms of the Royal Society, drawn by Evelyn, but not used, because the king gave them the choice of using the Royal Arms in a canton. The first of Evelyn’s designs exhibits a ship in full sail, with the motto Et Augebitur Scientia. The other are as follows:–A hand issuing from the clouds holding a plumb-line–motto, Omnia probate; two telescopes saltier-wise, the earth and planets above–motto, Quantum nescimus; the sun in splendour–motto, Ad majorem lumen; a terrestrial globe, with the human eye above–motto, Rerum cognoscere causas. ]

[Footnote 4: Evelyn notes in his Diary, August 20, 1662–“The king gave us the armes of England, to be borne in a canton in our armes; and sent us a mace of silver-gilt, of the same fashion and bigness as those carried before his majestie, to be borne before our president on meeting-days.” This mace is still used. ]

[Footnote 5: It was revived in 1707, by Wanley, the librarian to the Earl of Oxford, who composed its rules; he was joined by Bagford, Elstob, Holmes (keeper of the Tower records), Maddox, Stukely, and Vertue the engraver. They met at the Devil Tavern, Fleet-street, and afterwards in rooms of their own in Chancery-lane. They ultimately removed to apartments granted them in Somerset House by George III., where they still remain. ]

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