Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Isaac Disraeli (17661848)
[Isaac Disraeli was the son of Benjamin Disraeli, a scion of a Jewish family which had been settled in Spain. His father came to London in 1748, and he was himself born there in 1766. He was educated partly in private schools in England, and partly abroad; and, renouncing his fathers plan for him of a commercial life, he followed his own tastes for a literary career. He first sought the patronage of Johnson, to whom he addressed a poem, when Johnson was on his death-bed; and shortly afterwards attacked Wolcot (who subsequently became his friend) in some anonymous verses on The Abuse of Satire. In 1792, appeared the first instalment of the Curiosities of Literature. The book attained speedy popularity, and was enlarged to six volumes, in the course of more than forty years. His other works were stories, which obtained no permanent hold upon public attention; political treatises, in which he maintained the cause of the Stuart kings against the Parliamentary party, the first being the Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James I. (1816), and the next the five volumes of the Commentary on the Life and Reign of Charles I. (1823); and a long series of works bearing upon the miscellanies of literary history. He became the friend of all the leading literary men of his time; and died in 1848.]
IT is difficult for us at the present day fully to appreciate the work of Isaac Disraeli. His books belong to the class of which all men with any literary taste, read something: they belong also, perhaps, to the class of which few men read very much. The shadow of his sons greater fame has eclipsed his own reputation, even although it has, in a certain sense, drawn some additional attention to his name. He pursued an aim in literature which the taste of his youth dictated, he pursued it with unflagging industry and devotion, but at the same time with some of the discursiveness of the dilettante: and he brought to his work wide reading, keen literary interest and sympathy, an accurate and suggestive memory, considerable power of acute thought, and some discernment of character. Intended by his parents for mercantile pursuits, that predisposition which he thought was the necessary accompaniment of genius, repelled him from that line of life; but an easy competence and an indulgence, kind to what his relations deemed to be foibles, enabled him to pursue his own taste without any of the struggles with adverse circumstances which might have given to his literary vein greater force, and might have strengthened the sinews of his mind. He began with writing verse, and proceeded next, in his twenty-fifth year, to publish the first instalment of those literary anecdotes which the taste of the day encouraged, and for which a model was found in the French collections of ana. He meditated throughout all his life the project of a great history of literature: but his studies, although prolonged and ardent, were not sufficiently aided by mental power or genius to sustain him in a comprehensive work, nor was he sufficiently master of the comparative method of criticism, to have rendered such a work of any real value in point of scholarship. After the first instalments of his work were published, he devoted himself even more exclusively to storing his memory: and his more important worksThe Calamities of Authors, The Quarrels of Authors, The Essay on the Literary Character, and the later series of The Curiosities of Literaturewere all issued after he was forty-five years of age. All can learn something from them, all can find entertainment in dipping into their pages here and there; but they have no claim to be considered as serious literary history; their miscellaneous diversity wearies and baffles us: and we are hurried so fast from name to name, linked to one another often by some trifling association of ideas, that we become confused by the rapid shifting of the scene, at the most only have our curiosity tickled, and close the book with no fixed and permanent impression. He used high-sounding words in connection with his own work, which dispassionate criticism might disallow. I still keep casting philosophy with anecdotes, he says, and anecdotes with philosophy,but the philosophy is of a very superficial type. We feel that many of the anecdotes so whimsically strung together, might be interesting indeed if they were the fruit of our own remembered reading, but that they should be presented to us with more of the vivifying power of genius if they are to impress us in a second-hand catalogue. Isaac Disraeli has not given us a critical history of English literature: just as little has he given us that which demanded perhaps even greater genius, a series of essays in the older method which might have enwoven anecdotes, and yet sustained interest by the play of fancy and of art. The Essay on the Literary Character is reckoned by his son as the most perfect of his works; and although it has not attained the secure place amongst books of common reference which has been accorded to the Curiosities, the estimate is probably true. The book has more of sustained argument and definite aim than any other which he wrote. It contains many passages full of sympathy and insight, it depends less than most of his books upon the miscellaneous and rather disorderly storehouse of a retentive memory, and its defence of inborn genius as against the senseless notion then current, of genius as meaning only a certain measure of talent directed by some accidental bias, is not only successful, but, at the time, was of real importance. His political estimates were perhaps useful as protests against views of the seventeenth century, which fashionable Whiggism had made prevalent; but even if we sympathise with them, we cannot maintain that they are either persuasive in form, or powerful in argument. Of these the Commentary on the Life and Reign of Charles I. is the most important.
His style in some of his earlier works is thoroughly bada vile imitation of the whimsical caprices which the genius of a Sterne might make acceptable, but which in the hands of imitators was only ridiculous. A specimen of this may be sought in Flim-flams: the Life and Errors of my Uncle; but, for the sake of his reputation, it is better forgotten. In his other works the style has perhaps a little too much of formality, and gives the impression that he is taking himself rather more seriously than is necessary. It is not always very correct, and is sometimes open to the charge of ambiguity. But on the other hand it has the graceful and courteous dignity of a scholar, imbued with a deep and reverent sympathy for literature: and at times there is a boldness and happy fancy in the choice and collocation of epithets which not only marks the authors Eastern origin, but gives a foretaste of that which was the crowning oratorical glory of his sons transcendent genius. Isaac Disraeli had not the intellectual grasp nor the critical insight required for the literary historian: neither had he the subtle art of the essayist, to whom anecdotes only serve as apt illustrations, and who sustains our interest by combining unity of theme with copiousness of allusion. But at his best he has all the grace, the culture, the well-stored memory, the ready sympathy of the retiring and leisurely scholarwith a formality of manner which is at times a little obtrusive.