Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

In great occasions, then, the friendship of the man perhaps is to be preferred; but for our ordinary happiness, we cannot help thinking, that female friendship is most to be desired.

With respect to the attachments of the heart, the rapidity with which they shoot forth, and die away, among our own sex, would plainly seem to indicate, that in unshaken constancy, the women are superior to the men. We might, indeed, be rather led to expect, from the excessive adulation which is so universally offered to them, (for they, like princes, seldom hear the truth,) that their capriciousness would have been proverbial: the number of victims to male inconstancy and perjury, prove it however to be otherwise.

We are perfectly aware of the numerous exceptions to these remarks, in the present age; that there are many women in the middling and higher classes of society, who set no value upon accomplishments which adorn retirement; whose mornings are spent in coquetry, and nights in gaming; who talk of mar. riage as if treachery and infidelity were its inseparable concomitants; who practise every kind of vice and folly in succession; and whose last groan, we may say with St. Evremond, is more for the loss of their beauty than their life. Yet we may confidently boast, that the majority of the female sex, in England, cultivate literature, and esteem it for its own sake, and not for a vain and frivolous reputation; and keep their esteem for virtue, their contempt for vice, their sensibility for friend. ship, and their affection entire for their families, uncontaminated by all such disgraceful examples.

284

Travels in the Island of Iceland during the summer of the year

1809. By Sir George S. Mackenzie. Edinburgh, 1811. We know not when we have had our attention and sympathy more strongly attracted, than while engaged in the perusal of this volume of travels. The country described, is wretched and desolate beyond, perhaps, any other of the inhabited portions of the globe, and the people who occupy it, are of utter insignificance in the political world. Yet both the one and the other, furnish the richest food for enlightened curiosity, and materials for the most interesting speculation physiological and moral. In some of the features of the inanimate nature of Iceland, there seems to be a magnificence no where surpassed in the range of man, and in the history of her population, there are peculiarities of the most striking, and, we may say, admirable kind. The picture of intellectual culture, and moral refinement, which is there exhibited, under circumstances of physical condition, eminently adverse to both, is no less rare and grateful to the philosophic eye, than the physical phenomena in this polar region, are wonderful and sublime.

Sir George Mackenzie, and his able associates appear to have done justice, in their descriptions, to the scenes in which they were engaged, and have furnished a book, altogether worthy of the attention of every moralist and philosopher. The foreign reviewers, in the accounts they have given of it, are unanimous in its praise, but have confined themselves to a few, and those but short extracts. This circumstance united to the consideration, that the work itself will not, in all likeli. hood, be republished in this country, induces us to give place in this Journal, to such portions of it, as we deem best fitted to illustrate, the most important topics, of which the writers treat.

In reading their statements concerning the literature of Iceland, the comparison between what has been achieved, and is possessed in this lipe, by its inhabitants, with a population not exceed fifty thousand souls,-to say nothing of the wretchedness of their condition,-and the degree and specimens of erudition of which the United States can boast,--this comparison we say,often obtruded itself upon our minds, and awakened some very humiliating reflections. Others of our countrymen when they dwell upon what we are about to transcribe, will probably be disturbed by similar suggestions, and some benefit may result, in the excitement of a feeling, which is, oftentimes, the most powerful stimulus to exertion. Our extracts refer to the general character, the early and present literature, and the manners and customs of the island, and will be ranged under these heads, with no more attention, however, to method, or aptitude, than may be indispensably necessary for the purpose of division.

History, Character and Literature of the Icelanders. “ The history of Iceland, though possessing little importance in its relation to the political events of other nations, is nevertheless curious and interesting in many of its features. It is the narrative of a distinct and peculiar race of people; of a community which, oppressed by all the severities of soil and climate, and secluded amidst the desolation and most destructive operations of pature, has preserved, through the progress of nearly a thousand years, an enlightened system of internal policy, an exalted character in all religious and social duties, liberal methods of education, and the culture of even the more refined branches of literature and knowledge."

“ In the constitution which the Icelanders created for themselves, a distinct relation will be traced to the progressive institutions of several of the European states. One obvious peculiarity, however, offers itself in the present instance. Elsewhere, the progress towards regular government was gradual, and every step made through contest and bloodshed. In Ice land, all was effected by a single and simultaneous effort. The necessity appeared for some bond of union among the several communities of the island: the voice of

sage

deliberation gave to the people this common bond, in a constitution which was received without tumult, and brought into action without delay.”

“ The code of laws, adopted in connection with this new form of government, and progressively altered and amended by the decisions of the public assembly, is another striking specimen of the genius and habits of the Icelanders of this age. It was constructed with a minute attention to the

usages of the people, and to the various objects in their internal economy. All the contingencies of society were provided for; the relations and duties of different classes prescribed; and other regulations introduced, which had in view the convenience and utility of the whole.”

• “ The constitution, thus adopted by the Icelanders, was preserved with little change for more than three centuries; during which period the records exist of thirty-eight Laugmen, who in succession sustained the executive powers. Were it allowed to apply the term to a desolate island on the confines of the Arctic Circle, this might be called the golden age of Iceland. Secured by physical circumstances from the ambition of more powerful states, an efficient government and well directed laws provided

for the people all the advantages of justice and social order. Education, literature, and even the , refinements of poetical fancy, flourished among them. Like the Aurora Borealis of their native sky, the poets and historians of Iceland not only illuminated their own country, but Aashed the lights of their genius through the night which then hung over the rest of Europe. Commerce was pursued by the inhabitants with ardour and success; and they partook in the maritime adventures of discovery and colonization, which gave so much merited celebrity to the Norwegians of this

period. Many of their chiefs and learned men visited the courts of other countries, formed connections with the most eminent personages of the time, and surveying the habits, institutions and arts of different communities, returned home, fraught with the treasures of collected knowledge.”

“Of the several features which distinguish this remarkable period in the history of Iceland, the literary character of the people is doubtless the most extraordinary and peculiar. We require much evidence to convince us of the fact, that a nation, remote from the rest of Europe, dwelling on a soil so sterile, and beneath such inclement skies, should have sent forth men whose genius, taste and acquirements did honour to their country, and to the times in which they lived. Such evidence, however, of the most distinct and decisive kind, we possess in the many writings which have come down from this period to the present age, and in the testimonies afforded by the contemporary writers of other countries. The reality of the fact, indeed, can admit of no doubt; and it is only left for us to speculate upon the causes which led to this singular anomaly in the history of literature."

“ It was not solely as reviving the memory of former times, or as a source of domestic enjoyment, that the Icelanders of this age devoted themselves to the composition of history and poetry. The ambition of wealth and glory further animated their pursuits. Their bards and historians visited other countries, resided amid the splendours of courts, were caressed by the greatest monarchs of the time, and returned to their native island, covered with honours, and enriched by the gifts which their genius had won. Thus, interest and emulation preserved the character the people had acquired, long after

some of the causes producing it had ceased to operate; and literature became with the Icelanders a species of commerce, in which the fruit of their mental endowments was exchanged for those foreign luxuries or comforts, which nature had denied to them from their own soil.” " Such appear

to have been the circumstances which gave rise to this singular condition of Iceland during the period from the 10th to the 14th century; nor will it seem extraordinary, when the nature of the causes is considered, that they should have had so much effect upon the dispositions and character of the people. It may be observed, in concurrence with the view that has been given, that their attention was chiefly engaged by the two branches of literature already mentioned, history and poetry; and that the more severe departments of knowledge, though not entirely disregarded, were by no means held in equal estimation. To these favourite pursuits they applied their utmost powers; cultivating them in various forms, yet reducing the whole to a system, which in its structure displayed great refinement and skill."

“The poetry of the ancient Icelanders, though cherished by them with so much success, was not, however, essentially distinct in its character from that common to the other northern nations at this period. Before the emigration which originally peopled Iceland, the Scandinavian kings and chieftains retained in their courts, and about their persons, bards who might celebrate their greatness, and convey the memory of their deeds to future times. These men were called Skaldr Skalds:* they exercised poetry as a profession, and their exertions were munificently rewarded by those whose praises they sung. After the Icelanders were established as a people, and when from the causes just enumerated, they had devoted themselves to poetical composition, their native poets assumed the highest rank among these bards of the age. The style of their composition was nearly the same as that of their predecessors in the art; but, from their more complete devotion to the pursuit, they appear to have acquired greater skill, and a superior excellence in the qualities which were deemed essential to this kind of poetry. We accordingly find that the Icelandic Skalds obtained a singular celebrity, not only in their

or

*The origin of the word Skuld has been variously stated. It has beca derived from Skiall, narratio; from skall, sonus; fiom gul-a, canere; and by Torfæus (Præfat. Hist. Orcud.) from Skalla, depilure. The most probable derivation seems to be from Skiucl, signifying wisdom or counsel; whence also the English word skill."

[ocr errors]
« ForrigeFortsett »