Article 11

ART. XI. William Tell, or Swisserland Delivered. By the Chevalier de Florian, &c. A posthumous Work. To which is prefixed a Life of the Author, by Jauffret. Translated from the French. By William B. Hewetson, Author of the Blind Boy, &c. London: Sherwood and Co. 1809. 12mo. pp. 115.

[pp. 348-354] [original article in PDF format]

  1. FEW readers of French are unacquainted with the works of Florian. His style, at once elegant and easy of construction, has universally recommended him to the teachers of the language, and Telemachus is commonly succeeded or supplanted by Numa. Gonsalve de Cordoue, Estelle, and Galathée are stock-books in all the circulating libraries, and the Tales of Florian are almost as generally read as those of Voltaire and Marmontel. He possesses indeed very great attractions for the lovers of light reading. His narrative is spirited and interesting. Love, Friendship, and Heroism are his themes, and he commonly descants upon them with that genuine warmth which results from the combination of sensibility with genius.

  2. Though he never reaches that full power of pathos which characterizes some of the sentimental writers of the French school, he [348] is raised above the great majority of them by a much prouder distinction. The feelings with him are never exalted at the expense of Virtue. His women are tender without licentiousness, and his heroes daring without violating the laws of their country, or questioning the existence of their Creator. But his merits in this respect are not merely negative. In his exhibitions of correct and moral feeling, he displays the same beauties which many of his rivals exhibit in the effusions of a vicious sensibility; and while they give an artificial energy to their sentiments, by violating all the restrictions which Virtue would impose, he imparts a genuine vigour to his, by courting her alliance. He combines the morality of Fenelon with the enthusiasm of Rousseau or St. Pierre.

  3. The writings of Florian derive an additional charm from his glowing descriptions of the beauties of nature, an excellence of close affinity with that which has been already noticed. He seems tenaciously to uphold the poetical connection between rural life and moral purity, and loves to annex to tales of love and hardihood their appropriate scenery of rivers, woods, and mountains. These propensities naturally led him to pastoral and romance, and his most celebrated works are accordingly of one or other of these descriptions.

  4. 'Gonsalve de Cordoue' is a prose epic, not inferior to Telemachus in beauty of diction, or interest of narrative. The author has most happily engrafted upon the plan of the Iliad every charm which could be derived from the martial and amorous gallantry of the middle ages; and had this work been less exclusively dedicated to entertainment, the true genius and classical taste with which it is written would have raised its author to a much higher rank in the scale of literary eminence, than he has actually attained. But to exercise with dignity the province of mere amusement, is a privilege by invariable, though perhaps arbitrary prescription, appropriated to the poets.

  5. The historical romance of 'Numa Pompilius' is in a higher style of composition. It is founded upon some passages in the history of early Rome, and aspires to the dignity of moral and political instruction. The fabulous part of the story is well imagined, and of sufficient probability to be interesting. The youth of the religious and peaceful Numa is arrayed in all the splendours of heroism and romance, and the connection with Egeria resolves itself, of course, into an affaire du cœur.

  6. The 'Estelle' and 'Galathée' seemed formed in some degree upon the Idylls of Gesner; and were a bold and not unsuccessful attempt to revive in France the long-forgotten pastoral romance. Of the merits of this species of composition, a very inadequate estimate will be formed by those who pretend to judge of it from the 'Arcadia' of Sir Philip Sidney, the only work of the kind in any repute in the [349] English language. It is a style of writing very capable of being conducted in a natural and lively manner, and does not labour under the same radical objections as the dramatic or the amœbæan pastoral. When uneducated rustics are made to utter their own sentiments, their language, if correct, is unnatural; and if vulgar, disgusting. But this dilemma, of improbability on the one hand, and coarseness on the other, which has proved so embarrassing to the writers of pastoral dialogue, is avoided by throwing the same ideas into the form of a narrative. The difficulty is not to conceive that shepherds may be capable of the refinements of love and friendship; but that they should be able to give expression to those feelings in refined or delicate language.

  7. The remaining works of Florian chiefly consist of plays and poësies légères, which never obtained much notoriety in this country, nor, indeed, any extraordinary celebrity abroad. Yet he cannot write in vain, and there are few of his numerous productions in which some traces of taste and spirit are not discernible.

  8. Among those of his works, which have least contributed to his fame, is the subject of the present translation. 'William Tell' was not published till after his death, and does not deviate from the established character of posthumous publications. Experience has proved, that little is to be hoped from works of this description. We open them indeed with avidity; for it is pleasing to possess the last memorials of departed excellence; but it is a pleasure

    'di memoria, via piu, che di speranza,'

    the result rather of remembrance than of anticipation.

  9. For the posthumous degeneracy of which we complain, it is not difficult to account. The vanity of an author has its bounds. To deny to the world the happy product of the hour of inspiration, or the well-digested labours of a life of industry, he would indeed feel to be inhuman; nay, he would think it rigorous perhaps to withhold even the every-day achievements of his pen, in which, though inferior, the hand of so great a master is observable: still, however, there is a certain portion of the contents of his portfolio, which, though he feel himself unable to commit it to the flames, he thinks may be retained in manuscript without any serious detriment to the interests of literature. But there are no limits to the blind partiality of an injudicious admirer, or to the experimental hardihood of a speculating bookseller. The folly of the one, or the impudence of the other, drags to light what the modesty of the author had endeavoured to conceal. Unfinished and unrevised, it is rapidly prepared for the press by some literary journeyman; and the public is presented with a posthumous work, half of which the deceased author never wrote, and the other half of which he never approved. We [350] do not, of course, state this as the invariable history of books of this description: the case has, without doubt, many exceptions; but we believe it to be so general, that we always anticipate it where we see (as in the present instance) no proof offered that the wishes of the author had sanctioned the publication.

  10. 'William Tell' has few touches of the genius of Florian, and abounds more than any other of his compositions in a fault to which, in common with most of the fine writers of his country, he is greatly addicted. It is that which Martial objects to a writer of his day. Omnia vult bellè Matho dicere. There is a perpetual studiousness of point and finery. Every thing must be strikingly said. Whether the most trivial or the most exalted images are to be conveyed, the same ambition of splendour is perceptible. If this author wishes to say that a man rose every morning to plough, he tells us that,

    'He rose with the dawn of day, and sustaining, with a vigorous arm, the extremity of a plough, which two oxen drew with difficulty, he buried the shining iron in a flinty soil, hastened the sluggish animals with the goad, and his brow covered with sweat, only sought repose at the close of the day.' p.7.

    An old man, who ferries passengers across a river, is sure to 'strike the transparent wave with equal and sturdy strokes.' p. 40. And the son of Tell, when asked where his father lives, makes an epigram upon the occasion, and answers, 'in the mountains, in the midst of a desert, where he cultivates the fields, and practises the virtues.' p. 51.

  11. But the great objection to this work is to be found in the injudicious choice of the subject. Of a story so well known as that of the deliverance of Swisserland, it was not easy to adhere to the facts without dulness, or to deviate from them with that degree of credibility which even fictitious narrative ought to preserve. This difficulty, inherent in the design of the work, has not been overcome by any great dexterity in its execution. The fabulous and the authentic parts of the tale do not happily coalesce, and by the struggle between them the interest is divided, and the general impression weakened. Nor is the intrinsic merit of the fictitious embellishments such as to compensate for their unsuitable introduction. The story, as it appears in the work of M. de Florian, is briefly as follows.

  12. While Tell is enjoying virtuous independence, in the cultivation of his paternal farm, his peace is disturbed by the oppression which the Austrian governor exercises over his countrymen; and he had already formed a plan of revolt, when a new provocation urges him to its immediate execution. Melctal, an old man to whom he is much attached, has his eyes torn out as a punishment for concealing [351] his son from the unjust vengeance of the tyrant. Young Melctal and Tell, exasperated by this barbarity, concert measures for an immediate insurrection, and appoint a day with their confederates to appear under the walls of Altorff. In the mean time, the son of Tell offends the governor, is thrown into prison, and commanded to name his parents. This the youth refuses to do, and at this juncture, Tell enters Altorff with a view to obtain, if possible, the co-operation of the citizens in the proposed revolt. He finds the governor's hat erected as an object of the public obeisance, and distinguishes himself from the crowd, as the only one who refuses to submit to the degradation. He is, therefore, dragged before the governor, and being confronted with his child, is led by his emotion to discover the relation between them. This suggests to the tyrant a refined cruelty of punishment. Tell is renowned for archery, and his own life, with that of his son, is offered him on the condition of striking an apple off the boy's head. The father, with great agitation, complies, and is successful; but it is discovered that he has concealed an arrow to avenge himself, in case of failure, on his oppressor. The governor, enraged and alarmed, resolves to convey Tell to a strong castle at the extremity of the lake of Lucerne. On the passage, the boat is overtaken by a violent storm, and the lives of the party are in extreme danger. The helm is consigned to Tell, who is as renowned for navigation as for archery. By his skill he weathers the storm, but contrives at the same time imperceptibly to turn the boat, and to make his way back to Altorff. Just as he reaches land, the governor perceives the stratagem, and gives orders to the soldiers to put him to death. Tell snatches a bow, pierces the tyrant's heart, joins his confederates, who are already assembled in Altorff, demolishes the Austrian fortress, and gives liberty to Swisserland.

  13. Into such a story of alarm and bloodshed, it would not seem easy to introduce any mention of love. Yet in a French tale it is not possible to abstain from the subject altogether. In the present case, there would have been something so triste in the omission, that it was not to be thought of. It seems, however, to have been very difficult to fix upon a proper person to fill the love department. It was not reasonable to require Tell to fall in love, not only because he had so much of other important business on his hands, but because he was already become a parent for the purpose of shooting an apple on his son's head. Gesler was too barbarous to be susceptible of the tender passion; and besides, as he was to die at the end of the book, the affair would have had an unhappy conclusion, which, as every body knows, love-affairs should never have. It was at last fortunately recollected, that boys and girls often fall in love with each other; Tell's son, therefore, might [352] very naturally form an attachment; and as Melctal lived very near his father, and happened to have a daughter, it was equally natural that she should be the object of his passion. This matter being happily adjusted, the children make love for a few pages; but as their tendresse has no connection with the rest of the narrative, it is unnecessary to betray their secrets.

  14. The translation of this work is introduced by a prefatory memoir, to which those who are acquainted with Florian only through the medium of his writings, will turn with some curiosity. If they expect much information from it, however, they will be disappointed. His monotonous and unobtrusive habits of life appear to have afforded in themselves but scanty materials for biography, and the little which it was interesting to tell seems entirely to have escaped the knowledge of M. Jauffret. That the Chevalier de Florian was by birth a gentleman, and by profession a soldier, that he was introduced to the wits of Paris by Voltaire, and that he was imprisoned and ill-treated by the National Assembly, is nearly the sum total of his biographer's account. If M. Jauffret had no more to communicate, he should have spared himself the trouble of writing what was already known to most of his readers; and if he had, it is not easy to excuse him for having recourse to such ludicrous substitutes for intelligible composition as the following.

    'He who, called into life, loaded with all the favours which nature lavishes on the object of her affections, regards the place on which he is destined for a while to move with an eye of indifference or contempt; he who, still more culpable, sullies the earth with his vices, in place of embellishing it by his virtues, seem both equally unworthy, &c. But the man whose heart is, as it were, the very asylum of feeling, whose eyes glisten with the tears of gratitude at beholding the beauties of nature, the man, whose virtues recall to our mind the golden age, whose songs, pure as the morning breeze, never raise a blush upon the cheek of innocence; such a man as this should never die, &c. I have described Florian, without having as yet named him.'

    This is, undoubtedly, pleasant, and, as a specimen of enigmatical biography, entirely new:—but we have exceeded our limits, and must, therefore, dismiss Mr. J. with our sincere condolence on the demerits of his translator. Violations of grammar occur perpetually in this little volume, which are rendered yet more offensive by barbarous and affected inversions of the common forms of speech. Mr. Hewetson's idea of translation seems to be merely that of turning a French word into an English one by the aid of a pocket dictionary:—this, as he is no great proficient in either language, sufficiently accounts for his ridiculous anomalies. 'If I have failed,' says he, 'the fault is not mine alone.' Granted; [353] but we must beseech him to recollect, before he again ventures to translate, that the disgrace may be more extensive. So wretched a version of an elegant and classical French writer, is a reproach to the literature of the country.