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After the labour of years, the seventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica has been at length completed. It is in every respect a great work great even as a commercial speculation. We have been assured the money expended on this edition alone would be more than sufficient to build three such monuments as that now in the course of erection in Edinburgh to the memory of Sir Walter Scott. And containing, as it does, all the more valuable matter of former editions all that the advancing tide of knowledge has not obliterated or covered up, and which at one time must have represented in the commercial point of view a large amount of capital it must be obvious that, great as the cost of the present edition has been, it bears merely some such relation to the accumulated cost of the whole, as that borne by the expense of partial rénovations and repairs in a vast edifice to the sum originally expended on the entire erection.

It is a great work, too, regarded as a trophy of the united science and literature of Britain. Like a lofty obelisk, raised to mark the spot where some important expedition terminated, it stands as it were to indicate the line at which the march of human knowledge has now arrived. We see it rising on the extreme verge of the boundary which separates the clear and the palpable from the indistinct and the obscure. The explored province of past research, with all its many party-coloured fields, stretches out from it in long perspective on the one hand, luminous, well-defined, rejoicing in the light. The terra incognita of future discovery lies enveloped in cloud on the other an untried region of fogs and darkness.

The history of this publication for the last seventy years for so slow has been its growth, that rather more than seventy years have now elapsed since its first appearance in the world of letters would serve curiously to illustrate the literary and scientific history of Scotland during that period. The naturalist, by observing the rings of annual growth in a tree newly cut down, can not only tell what its exact bulk had been at certain determinate dates in the past from its first existence as a tiny sapling of a single twelvemonth, till the axe had fallen on the huge circumference of perchance its hundredth ring but he can also form from them a shrewd guess of the various characters of the seasons that have passed over it. Is the ring of wide development? it speaks of genial warmth and kindly showers. Is it narrow and contracted? it tells of scorching droughts or of biting cold. Now the succeeding editions of this great work narrate a somewhat similar story, in a somewhat similar manner. They speak of the growth of science and the arts during the various succeeding periods in which they appeared. The great increase, too, at certain times, in particular departments of knowledge, is curiously connected with peculiar circumstances in the history of our country. In the present edition, for instance, almost all the geography is new. The age has been peculiarly an age of exploration a locomotive age: commerce, curiosity, the spirit of adventure, the desire of escaping from the tedium of inactive life, these, and other motives besides, have scattered travellers by hundreds, during the period of our long European peace, over almost every country of the world. And hence so mighty an increase of knowledge in this department, that what the last age knew of the subject has been altogether overgrown. Vast additions, too, have been made to the province of mechanical contrivance: the constructive faculties of the country, stimulated apparently by the demands of commerce and the influence of competition both at home and abroad, have performed in well-nigh a single generation the work of centuries.

Even the Encyclopædia itself, regarded in a literary point of view, is strikingly illustrative of a change which has taken place chiefly within the present century in the republic of letters.

We enjoyed a very ample opportunity of acquainting ourselves with it in its infancy. More years have passed away than we at present feel quite inclined to specify, since our attention was attracted at a very early age to an Encyclopædia, the first we had ever seen, that formed one work of a dozen or so stored on the upper shelf of a press to which we were permitted access. It consisted of three quarto volumes sprinkled over with what seventy years ago must have been deemed very respectable copperplates, and remarkable, chiefly in the arrangement of its contents, for the inequality of the portions, if we may so speak, into which the knowledge it contained was broken up. As might be anticipated from its comparatively small size, most of the articles were exceedingly meagre. There were pages after pages in which some eight or ten lines, sometimes a single line, comprised all that the writers had deemed it necessary to communicate on the subjects on which they touched. And yet, set full in the middle of these brief sentences these mere skeletons of information there were complete and elaborate treatises, whales among the minnows. Some of these extended over ten, twenty, thirty, fifty pages of the work. We remember there was an old-fashioned but not ill-written treatise on Chemistry among the number, quite bulky enough of itself to fill a small volume. There was a sensibly written treatise on Law, too; a treatise on Anatomy not quite unworthy of the Edinburgh school; a treatise on Botany, of which at this distance of time we remember little else than that it rejected the sexual system of Linnaeus, then newly promulgated; a treatise on Architecture, sufficiently incorrect, as we afterwards found, in some of its minor details, but which we still remember with the kindly feeling of the pupil for his first master; a treatise on Fortification, that at least taught us how to make model forts in sand; treatises on Arithmetic, Astronomy, Bookkeeping, Grammar, Language, Theology, Metaphysics, and a great many other treatises besides. The least interesting portion of the work was the portion devoted to Natural History: it named and numbered species and varieties, instead of describing instincts and habits, and afforded little else to the reader than lists of hard words, and lines of uninteresting numerals. But our appetite for books was keen and but ill supplied at the time, and so we read all of the work that would read, some of it oftener than once. The character of the whole reminded us somewhat of that style of building common in some of the older ruins of the north country, in which we find layers of huge stones surrounded by strips and patches of a minute pinned work composed of splinters and fragments.

This Dictionary of the three quarto volumes was the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, the identical work in its first beginnings, of which the seventh edition has been so recently completed. It was published in 1771 in the days of Goldsmith, and Burke, and Johnson, and David Hume several years ere Adam Smith had given his Wealth of Nations or Robertson his History of America to the public, and ere the names of Burns or Cowper had any place in BRITISH LITERATURE.

The world has grown greatly in knowledge since that period, and the Encyclopædia Britannica has done much more than kept pace with it in its merits of acquirement. The three volumes have swelled into twenty-one; and each of the twenty-one contains at least one-third more of matter than each of the three. The growth and proportions of a work of genius seem to be very little dependent on the period of its production. Shakespeare may be regarded as the founder of the English drama. He wrote at a time when art was rude, and science comparatively low. All agree, at least, that the subjects of Queen Victoria know a very great deal which was not known by the subjects of Queen Elizabeth. There was no gas burned in front of the Globe Theatre, nor was the distant roar of a locomotive ever heard within its dingy recesses; nor did ever adventurous aeronaut look down from his dizzy elevation of miles on its tub-like proportions, or its gay flag of motley. And yet we question whether even Mr. Wakley himself, with all his advantages, would venture to do more than assert his equality with the Swan of Avon. Homer, too, wrote in a very remote period, so very remote and so very uncertain, that the critics have begun seriously to doubt whether the huge figure of the blind old man, as it looms through the grey obscure of ages, be in reality the figure of one poet, or of a whole school of poets rolled up into a bundle. But though men fight much more scientifically now than they did at Troy, and know much more about the taking and defending of walled towns, no poet of the present day greatly excels Homer, no, not the Scotch schoolmaster even who wrote Wolfe’s Ode, or the gentleman who sends us abstruse verses which we unluckily cannot understand, and then scolds us in perspicuous prose for not giving them a place in our columns.

Works of genius bear no reference in their bulk and proportions, if we may so speak, to the period at which they are produced; but it is far otherwise with works of science and general information: they grow with the world’s growth; the tomes from which the father derived his acquaintance with facts and principles, prove all inadequate to satisfy the curiosity of the son: almost every season adds its ring to the ‘tree of knowledge;’ and the measuring line which girthed and registered its bulk in one age, fails to embrace it in the succeeding one. And hence one element at least in the superiority of this edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica to every other edition, and every other Encyclopædia.

It appears at the period of the world’s greatest experience. But there are other very important elements, characteristic, as we have said, of a peculiarity in the literature of the age, which have tended also to this result. We have remarked that the first edition appeared in the days of Hume, Robertson, and Adam Smith. None of these men wrote for it, however.

In France the first intellects of the country were engaged on their National Encyclopædia, and mighty was the mischief which they accomplished through its means; but works of this character in Britain were left to authors of a lower standing. Smollett once conducted a critical review; Gilbert Stuart an Edinburgh magazine; Dr. Johnson drew up parliamentary debates for two years together; Edmund Burke toiled at the pages of an Annual Register; and Goldsmith, early in his career, wrote letters for the newspapers. But, like the apothecary in Shakespeare, it was their ’poverty, not their will, that consented;’ and when their fortunes brightened, these walks of obscure laboriousness were left to what were deemed their legitimate denizens mere mediocritists and compilers. A similar feeling seems to have obtained regarding works of an encyclopaediacal character. The authors of the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica were merely respectable compilers, we know not that any of their names would now sound familiar to the reader, with perhaps the exception of that of Smellie, an Edinburgh writer of the last century, whose philosophical essays one sometimes meets with on our bookstalls.

But among the other great changes produced by the French Revolution, there was a striking and very important change effected in our periodical literature. The old foundations of society seemed breaking up, and the true nature of that basis of opinion on which they had so long rested came to be everywhere practically understood.

Minds of the larger order found it necessary to address themselves direct to the people; and the newspaper, the review, the magazine, the pamphlet, furnished them with ready vehicles of conveyance. Archimedes, during the siege of Syracuse, had to quit the sober quiet of his study, and to mix with the armed defenders of his native city, amid the wild confusion of sallies and assaults, the rocking of beleaguered towers, the creaking of engines, and the hurtling of missiles. It was thus with some of the greatest minds of the country during the distraction and alarm of the French Revolution. Coleridge conducted a newspaper; Sir James Mackintosh wrote for one; Canning contributed to the Anti-Jacobin; Robert Hall of Leicester became a reviewer; Southey, Jeffrey, Brougham, Scott, Giffard, all men in the first rank, appeared in the character of contributors to the periodicals.

The aspect of this department of literature suddenly changed, and the influence of that change survives to this day. Even now, some of our first literary names are known chiefly in their connection with magazines and reviews. Men such as Macaulay and Sidney Smith have scarce any place as authors dissociated from the Edinburgh; and Lockhart and Wilson are most felt in the world of letters in their connection with Blackwood and the Quarterly. And this change affected more than the periodicals. Its influence extended to works of the encyclopaediacal character. The two great Encyclopaedias of Edinburgh that which bears the name of the city, and that whose name we have placed at the head of this article came to reckon among their contributors the first men of the kingdom, both in science and literature: they benefited as greatly by the change we describe as the periodicals themselves. The Revolution, in its reflex influence, seems to have drawn a line in the British encyclopaediacal field between the labours of mere compilers and the achievements of original authorship; and the peculiarity of plan in the Encyclopædia Britannica, to which we have already referred that peculiarity which gives an art or science entire as a treatise, instead of breaking it down into as many separate articles as it possesses technical terms enabled this work to avail itself to the fullest extent of the improvement. No author, however great his powers, can be profound in the compass of a few paragraphs.

Goldsmith could assert that in an essay of a page or two it is even a merit to be superficial; and few there are who possess, with Goldsmith, the pure literary ability of being superficial with good effect.

But it is not enough to say of this work that it is enriched by contributions from not a few of the ablest writers which the present century has produced. It should be added, further, that it contains some of the masterpieces of these men. No one ever excelled Sir James Mackintosh in philosophical criticism. It was peculiarly his forte. He was rather a great judge of metaphysical power than a metaphysician. And yet it is this admirable critic who decides that the exquisitely classical dissertation of Dugald Stewart, written for this Encyclopædia, is the most magnificent of that philosopher’s works; and remarks, in accounting for the fact, that the ’memorable instances of Cicero and Milton, and still more those of Dryden and Burke, seem to show that there is some natural tendency in the fire of genius to burn more brightly, or to blaze more fiercely, in the evening than in the morning of human life.’ We are mistaken if Sir James’s own contribution to this work does not take decidedly a first place among his productions. The present age has not produced a piece of more exquisitely polished English, or of more tasteful or more nicely discriminating criticism.

There is an occult beauty and elegance in some of his thoughts and expressions, on which it is no small luxury to repose, lines of reflection, too, along which one must feel as well as think one’s way.

What can be finer, for instance, than his remarks on the poetry of Dr. Thomas Brown, or what more thoroughly removed from commonplace? He tells us how the philosophic poet ’observed man and his wider world with the eye of a metaphysician;’ that ’the dark results of such contemplations, when he reviewed them, often filled his soul with feelings which, being both grand and melancholy, were truly poetical;’ that ’unfortunately, however, few readers can be touched with fellow-feeling;’ for that ’he sings to few, and must be content with sometimes moving a string in the soul of the lonely visionary, who, in the daydreams of youth, has felt as well as meditated on the mysteries of nature.’ The dissertation of Playfair is also pitched on the highest key to which that elegant writer ever attained. If we except the unjust and offensive estimate of the powers of Franklin, a similar judgment may be passed on the preliminary dissertation of Sir John Leslie. Jeffrey’s famous theory of beauty is, of all the philosophic pieces of that accomplished writer, by far the most widely known; and Sir Walter Scott’s essay on the drama is at least equal to any of the serious prose compositions of its great author. There is something peculiarly fascinating in the natural history of this edition, a department wholly rewritten, and furnished chiefly by the singularly pleasing pen of Mr. James Wilson. It is not yet twenty years since Constable’s supplement to the last edition appeared; and yet in this province, so mightily has the tide risen, that well-nigh all the old lines of classification have been obliterated or covered up. Vast additions have been also made. At no former time was there half the amount of actual observation in this field which exists in it now; and it is well that there should be so skilful a workman as Mr. Wilson to avail himself of the accumulating materials. His treatises show how very just is the estimate of his powers given to the public in Peter’s Letters considerably more than twenty years ago, at a time when he was comparatively little known. But we cannot enumerate a tithe of the masterpieces of the British Encyclopædia.

Judging from the list of contributors’ names attached to the index, we must hold that Moderatism in the field of literature and science is very much at a discount. But there is no lack of data of very various kinds to force upon us this conclusion. Among our sound non-intrusionists we find the names of Lord Jeffrey, Sir David Brewster, Professor John Fleming, Professor David Welsh, Professor Anderson, Dr. Irvine, the Rev. Mr. Hetherington, the Rev. Mr. Omond, Mr. Alexander Dunlop, and Mr. Cowan; whereas of all the opposite party who record their votes in our church courts, we have succeeded in finding the name of but a single individual, Dr. John Lee.

Why has Dr. Bryce thus left the field to the fanatics? had he nothing to insert on missions? Or could not Mr. Robertson of Ellon have been great on the article Beza?

Was there no exertion demanded of them to save the credit of the Earl of Aberdeen’s learned clergy? One of the main defects of omission in the work (of course we merely mention the circumstance) is the omission of the name of one very great non-intrusionist. Ethical and metaphysical philosophy are represented by Dugald Stewart and Sir James Mackintosh; mathematical and physical science by Sir David Brewster, Sir John Leslie, Playfair, and Robinson; political economy by Ricardo, M’Culloch, and Malthus; natural history by James Wilson and Dr. Fleming; Hazlitt and Haydon discourse on painting and the fine arts; Jeffrey on the beautiful; Sir Walter Scott on chivalry, the drama, and romance; the classical pen of Dr. Irvine has illustrated what may be termed the biographical history of Scotland; physiology finds a meet expounder in Dr. Roget; geology in Mr. Phillips; medical jurisprudence in Dr. Traill. But in whom does theology find an illustrator? Does our country boast in the present age of no very eminent name in this noble department of knowledge no name known all over Scotland, Britain, Europe, Christendom a name whom we may associate with that of Dugald Stewart in ethical, or that of Sir David Brewster in physical science? In utter ignorance of the facts, we can, as we have said, but merely refer to the omission as one which will be assuredly marked in the future, when the din and dust of our existing controversies shall be laid, and when all now engaged in them who are tall enough to catch the eye of posterity, will be seen in their genuine colours and their true proportions. The article Theology in the Encyclopædia Britannica is written, not by Dr. Chalmers, but new-modelled from an old article by the minister of an Independent congregation in Edinburgh, Mr. Lindsay Alexander we doubt not an able and good man, but not supereminently the one theologian of Scotland.

We mark, besides, a few faults, of commission in the work, apparently of a sub-editorial character, but which, unlike the defect just pointed out, the editor of some future edition will find little difficulty in amending. Works the production of a single mind, bear generally an individual character; works the productions of many minds, are marked rather by the character of the age to which they belong. We find occasional evidence in the Encyclopædia that it belongs to the age of Catholic Emancipation, an age in which the true in science was deemed a very great matter by men to whom the true in religion seemed a much less one. One at least of the minds employed on the minor articles of the work had palpably a papistical leaning.

A blaze of eulogium, which contrasts ludicrously enough with the well-toned sobriety of what we may term its staple style, is made to surround, like the halo in old paintings, some of the men who were happy enough to be distinguished assertors of the Romish Church. We would instance, as a specimen, the biographical sketches of Bossuet and the Jesuit Bourdaloue, written by the late Dr. James Browne. These, however, are but comparatively minute flaws in a work so truly great, and of such immense multiplicity. They are some of the imperfections of a work to which imperfection is inevitable, and which, after all such deductions have been made, must be recognised as by much the least faulty and most complete of its class which the world has yet seen.

April 30, 1842.