« PreviousContinue »
VII. The History of Ireland. By John O'Driscol
VIIJ. The Parliamentary Writs and Writs of Military Sum
mons, together with the Records and Muniments re-
IX. A Short Review of the Slave Trade and Slavery, with
Considerations on the Benefit which would arise
X. Journey from Buenos Ayres, through the Provinces of
Cordova, Tucuman, and Salta, to Potosi, thence by
I. 1. Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existing
Attributes of the Deity, collected from the Appear-
Art. I.-The Epistolary Correspondence of the Right Honourable
EDMUND BURKE and Dr French LAURENCE. Published from the Original Manuscripts. 8vo. pp. 332. London, Rivingtons. 1827.
The Letters contained in this volume are extremely interestL ing, as connected both with the literary and the political history of the last century. They were written in the unrestrained freedom of intimate friendship, without the most distant view of publication, by two men, both highly gifted with natural parts, almost equally distinguished among their most learned contemporaries for extraordinary acquirements; both actively engaged in the great scene of letters and of affairs which the close of the century presented; and if not both persons of the highest celebrity, yet one of them ranking among the greatest names in the philosophy and the history of the country, and the other his approved associate and familiar friend. The subjects upon which we are here presented with their most unreserved thoughts, are the passing events of a period, when every succeeding month was big with changes, each equal in importance to those that formerly used to distinguish one age from another. And those topics are here handled, not merely by near observers, but by actors in the scene, or by those, who, having just ceased to act, continue to counsel and guide their former associates. Great, however, as, on all these accounts, our desire naturally is to begin at once upon the important matter thus laid before us with no common attractions, we must pause for a while to say something more in detail of both the eminent
VOL. XLVI. No. 92.
men, whose epistolary intercourse we are going to examine. The matter is difficult; but it is also high, and it is useful. One of the individuals is much less known and esteemed than he deserves; the other presents, after all that has been spoken of him, a rich field of observation; and his opinions having been by one class of men too much decried, and by a more numerous and powerful body far too highly estimated, not a little remains still to be done in ascertaining the exact value at which his merits are likely to pass current in after times.
Dr Laurence was one of the most singularly endowed men, in some respects, that ever appeared in public life. He united in himself the indefatigable labour of a Dutch Commentator, with the alternate playfulness and sharpness of a Parisian Wit. His general information was boundless; his powers of mastering a given subject, were not to be resisted by any degree of dryness or complication in its details; and his fancy was lively enough to shed light upon the darkest, and to strew flowers round the most barren tracks of inquiry, had it been suffered to play easily and vent itself freely. But, unfortunately, he had only the conception of the Wit, with the execution of the Commentator; it was not Scarron or Voltaire speaking in society, or Mirabeau in public, from the stores of Erasmus or of Bayle; but it was Hemsterhuysius emerging into polished life, with the dust of many libraries upon him, to make the circle gay; it was Grævius entering the Senate with somewhere from one-half to two-thirds of his forthcoming folio at his fingers' ends, to awaken the flagging attention, and strike animation into the lazy debate. He might have spoken with the wit of Voltaire and the humour of Scarron united; none of it could pierce through the lumber of his solid matter; and any spark that by chance found its way, was stifled by the still more uncouth manner. As an author, he had no such defects; his profuse stores of knowledge, his business-like habit of applying them to the point; his taste, generally speaking correct, because originally formed on the models of antiquity, and only relaxed by his admiration of Mr Burke's less severe beauties; all gave him a facility of writing, both copiously and nervously, upon serious subjects; while his wit could display itself upon lighter ones unincumbered by pedantry, and unobstructed by the very worst delivery ever witnessed,-a delivery calculated to alienate the mind of the hearer, to beguile him of his attention, but by stealing it away from the speaker, and almost to prevent him from comprehending what was so spoken. It was in reference to this unvarying effect of Doctor Laurence's delivery, that Mr Fox once said, a man should attend, if possible, to a speech of his, and then speak
it over again himself: it must, he conceived, succeed infallibly, for it was sure to be admirable in itself, and as certain of being new to the audience. But in this saying there was considerably more wit than truth. The Doctor's speech was sure to contain materials not for one, but for half a dozen speeches; and a person might with great advantage listen to it, in order to use those materials, in part, afterwards, as indeed many did both in Parliament and at the Bar where he practised, make an effort to attend to him, how difficult soever, in order to hear all that could be said upon every part of the question. But whoever did so, was sure to hear a vast deal that was useless, and could serve no purpose but to perplex and fatigue; and he was equally sure to hear the immaterial points treated with as much vehemence, and as minutely dwelt upon, as the great and commanding features of the subject. In short, the Commentator was here again displayed, who never can perceive the different value of different matters; who gives no relief to his work, and exhausts all the stores of his learning, and spends the whole power of his ingenuity, as eagerly in dethroning one particle which has usurped another's place, as in overthrowing the interpolated verse in St John, or the spurious chapter in Josephus, upon which may depend the foundations of a religion, or the articles of its faith.
It is hardly necessary to add, that they who saw Dr Laurence only in debate, saw him to the greatest disadvantage, and had no means of forming anything like a fair estimate of his merits. In the lighter intercourse of society, too, unless in conversation wholly unrestrained by the desire of distinction, he appeared to little advantage; his mirth, though perfectly inoffensive and good-natured, was elaborate; his wit or drollery wanted concentration and polish; it was unwieldy and clumsy'; it was the gamboling of the elephant, in which, if strength was seen, weight was felt still more; nor was it Milton's elephant, recreating our first parents; and who, to make them play, would wreathe his lithe
proboscis ;'- but the elephant capered bodily, and in a lumbering fashion, after the manner of his tribe. Yet set the same man down to write, and whose compositions are marked by more perfect propriety, more conciseness, more point, more rapidity ? His wit sparkles and illuminates, without more effort than is requisite for throwing it off. It is varied, too, and each kind is excellent. It is a learned wit, very frequently, and then wears an elaborate air ; but not stiff or pedantic, not forced or strained, unless we deem Swift's wit, when it assumes this garb, unnatural or heavy—a sentence which would condemn some of his most famous pieces, and sweep away almost all Arbuthnot's together.
In his profession, Dr Laurence filled the highest place. Practising in courts where a single judge decides, and where the whole matter of each cause is thoroughly sifted and prepared for discussion out of court, he experienced no ill effect from the tedious style and unattractive manner which a jury could not have borne, and felt not the want of that presence of mind, and readiness of execution, which enable a Nisi Prius advocate to decide and to act at the moment, according to circumstances suddenly arising and impossible to foresee. He had all the qualities which his branch of the forensic art requires; profound learning, various and accurate information upon ordinary affairs as well as the contents of books, and a love of labour, not to be satiated by any prolixity and minuteness of detail into which the most complicated cause could run-a memory which let nothing escape that it had once grasped, whether large in size or imperceptibly small-an abundant subtlety in the invention of topics to meet an adversary's arguments, and a penetration that never left one point of his own case unexplored. These qualities might very possibly have been modified and blended with the greater terseness and dexterity of the common lawyer, had his lot been cast in Westminster Hall; but in the precincts of St Paul's, they were more than sufficient to place him at the head of his brethren, and to obtain for him the largest share of practice which any Civilian of the time could enjoy without office.
The same fulness of information and facility of invention, which were so invaluable to his clients, proved most important resources to his political associates, during the thirteen or fourteen years that he sat in Parliament; and they were almost equally useful to the great party he was connected with, for many years before that period. It was a common remark, that nothing could equal the richness of his stores, except the liberality with which he made them accessible to all. Little as he for some time before his death had taken part in debates, and scantily as he had been attended to when he did, his loss might be plainly perceived, for a long time, in the want generally felt of that kind of information which had flowed so copiously through all the channels of private intercourse, and been obtained so easily, that its importance was not felt until its sources were closed for ever. It was then that men inquired 'where Laurence was,' as often as a difficulty arose which called for more than common ingenuity to meet it; or a subject presented itself so large and shapeless, and dry and thorny, that few men's fortitude could face, and no one's patience could grapple with it; or an emergency occurred, demanding, on the sudden, access to stores of learning, the col