The Admirable Crichton by Unknown

"Signor Giacomo caro, non vi accorgete che sete un giovane senza pare? Nobile, bello, dotto, e robusto, ed alto quasi egualmente, or lingua or mano ad oprando, a dire e fare ogni bene?"

So, in or about the year of Grace 1582, wrote Sperone Speroni the Paduan, to James Crichton the Scotchman:

"Dear James, do you not know that you have no equal? Noble, handsome, learned, and robust,—equally apt to use the tongue or the hand,—to say or to do what is excellent?"

There cannot be the smallest doubt that James knew all this himself; and now, since the appearance of Mr. Ainsworth's romance, all the world knows it. Wherefore, as the Admirable has suddenly become an object of admiration, we are moved to say a few words about him.

A number of learned people, remarkable chiefly for the dullness of their learning, have on various occasions undertaken to prove the egregious quackery and pretension of the famous Scot. Such-like people are, naturally enough, given to such researches; for they cannot endure in any shape the rebuke of an obvious superiority. "How now, thou particular fellow?" said Jack Cade to the man who sought to recommend himself on the score of being able to write and read; and, "How now, thou particular fellow?" is the exclamation of plodding pedants to the illustrious Crichton, when, instead of approaching them covered with the dust of folios, he bounds into their presence beaming with grace and beauty, the idol of the gay and the young, the observed of all observers, crowned with the favours of women, and followed by the applauding shouts of men!

We are not pedants, and therefore we have faith in Crichton. How otherwise? In philosophy and learning was he not a Bayle's Dictionary? In the universality of his literary accomplishments, a perfect Bentley's Miscellany? Who shall impugn the opinions of the most classic time of Scotland, or set up his dogmas against the generous acknowledgments of Italy in her golden day? And was not Crichton so beautiful in body only because he was in mind so beautiful;—for, where true beauty exists, who would separate body from mind? Shade of the Admirable, forgive your poor detractors, for the sake of the true worship your memory has inspired! It was natural that to the sight of many men, before whom in life you strode on so far, you should have dwindled in the distance; but now, after many years, you reappear again, graceful as ever in form, and wonderful in accomplishments. We hail you as we should some missing star that once more "swims into our ken!"

And what sort of fame is that, the reader possibly asks, which may seek from the hands of some novelist or romancer its privilege of continuance in the mouths of men? Let that reader first ask himself how many brilliant actions there are which pass away and are forgotten—while a thousandth part of the effort that produced them, embodied in a few words, might have lived for ever. It was the remark of an old writer, that words harden into substances, while bodies moulder away into air. Even Cęsar and Alexander weigh  little in comparison with Virgil and Homer. Now Crichton might have been a Cęsar or an Alexander, if he had had legions at his back; or, without the legions, if his youth had been allowed to ripen into age. The great principle of his being was a stirring and irrepressible activity. His learning was as prodigious as his accomplishments; but how, in the short six or seven years of his public life, could he have exhibited them to the admiration of Europe, if he had set to work in the fashion of the schoolmen? With a probable forecast of his early doom, he bethought himself of a different way. He made up for the brevity of his life, by its brightness. He kindled all its fires at once. Resolved to abate no single particle of his brilliancy among the great men of his time, he rose at once to the topmost height of his possible achievements, careless whether he should fall among posterity, dark as a spent rocket, and recognizable by a few fragments of faded paper only. But what of that? What he designed to do, he did. He struck the blow he had desired to strike. And which of the Great Men has done more? How many have done lamentably less! We see the beauty and the learning of Crichton reflected back from the most intellectual minds of the greatest day that ever shone upon Scotland or Italy. What nobler mirror?

Justly Mr. Ainsworth remarks—"It is from the effect produced upon his contemporaries, and such contemporaries, that we can form a just estimate of the extent of Crichton's powers. By them he was esteemed a miracle of learning—divinum planč juvenem: and we have an instance in our own times of a great poet and philosopher, whose published works scarcely bear out the high reputation he enjoyed for colloquial ability. The idolized friend of Aldus Manutius, of Lorenzo Massa, Giovanni Donati, and Sperone Speroni, amongst the must accomplished scholars of their age,—the antagonist of the redoubted Arcangelus Mercenarius and Giacomo Mazzoni, men who had sounded all the depths of philosophy,—could not have been other than an extraordinary person." The allusion to Coleridge here is not altogether out of place. Coleridge, like Crichton, though in a humbler sphere, preferred prompt payment to the tardy waiting for posterity. With both it was in some sort necessary that the effort and the applause should go together. To Coleridge, for instance, so strong had this habit of excessive talking become, even the certainty of seeing what he wrote in print the next day was too remote a stimulus for his imagination; and it was a constant practice of his to lay aside his pen in the middle of an article, if a friend happened to drop in upon him, and to finish the subject more effectually aloud, so that the approbation of his hearer and the sound of his own voice might be co-instantaneous. But what would Coleridge have done, if, besides having to write an article for the Courier, in which he was to unravel some transcendentalism about humanity and universal brotherhood into a slavish support of the Allies—(a difficult task we admit),—if, besides this, the ball-room, the ladies' chamber, the hunting-fields, the riding-house, the lists at the Louvre, and some profoundly learned controversies with the doctors of Navarre or Padua, had all, nearly at the same instant, awaited him? Poor Coleridge would have died at twenty, untouched by opium, and unknown, except by the admiring testimonies of his less accomplished contemporaries.

Mr. Ainsworth has omitted, by-the-by, a very characteristic, and, we think, a very decisive opinion of Crichton, by the famous Joseph Scaliger. "He was a man of very wonderful genius," observes that laborious and self-satisfied person; "but he had something of the coxcomb about him. He wanted a little common sense." Here is an unbiassed opinion. What Joseph means by the coxcombry is obvious enough. Why, thinks Joseph, should a scholar have cheerfulness of blood? All the women ran after Crichton,—a most indecorous thing, and a certain evidence of coxcombry to a person who cannot get a woman to run after him,—"Nor were the young unmarried ladies," as Sir Thomas Urquhart remarks in his jewel of a book, "of all the most eminent places of Italy anything respected of one another, that had not either a lock of Crichtown's haire, or a copy of verses of his composing." Who doubts his coxcombry, or that it was other than a very delightful thing in him?

A want of common sense, in Scaliger's notion, was probably an over supply of modesty. Nothing is so remarkable in Crichton as the modesty which in him united with the most perfect confidence. He proved that a coxcomb and a confident man may possess the truest modesty. There is a charming anecdote told of him at a great levee of learned men in Padua, where, having exposed the errors of the school of Aristotle with equal solidity, modesty, and acuteness, and perceiving that the enthusiasm of his audience was carrying them too far in admiration of himself, he suddenly changed his tone, assumed an extreme playfulness of manner, and declaimed in exquisite phrase upon the happiness of ignorance. Nothing could have been so perfectly devised to self-check any exuberance of pride. But in all things his modesty was remarkable, when taken in connexion with his extraordinary powers. Observe it in the circumstance of his melancholy death, where a romantic sense of what was due to his prince and master induced him to throw aside his unmatchable skill, and present himself naked and defenceless to the dagger of an assassin. This was not weakness in Crichton. Himself the descendant of rulers of the earth, of princes and bishops,—(shall we ever forget that perfect model of ecclesiastical fitness, Bishop George Crichton of Dunkeld, "a man nobly disposed, very hospitable, and a magnificent housekeeper, but in matters of religion not much skilled"?)—a weak and unmanly feeling would have given him presumption, not deference,—would have thrown insult in the face of Gonzaga, and not ill-required chivalry at his feet.

But what more need we say of Crichton? Have not three volumes of brilliant writing been just devoted to the delineation of two days of his matchlessly brilliant life? We may refer the reader, whether he is curious after the Admirable Crichton, or after his own amusement solely, to William Harrison Ainsworth's last romance. An expression of character equally poetic and dramatic, a rich glow of colouring which diffuses itself through every part of the work, and a generally easy and effective style, have secured for this book a high and permanent place in the literature of fiction.