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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Sir Walter Scott.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 14  (11 March 1828)  217-19.
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 14. LONDON, TUESDAY, MARCH 11, 1828. Price 7d.


No. IX.—Sir Walter Scott.

There is no living name the sound of which calls up so brilliant and various an array of recollections, as that of Sir Walter Scott. It seems an unsatisfactory and cheerless labour to pry into the corners, and get behind the scenes, of a mind which we only know as the means of delighting us, by the society of hundreds of breathing and active beings—champions and kings, peasants and minstrels, weird beldames, fantastic spirits, and joyous and delicate damosels. Yet, why should he, who has turned mankind into rich and bright romance, be himself exempted from the fortune to which he has subjected all the world beside; or claim to lie hid in the shadows of Abbotsford, and pace unnoticed the highways of ‘Auld Reekie,’ while century after century is unrolled before us in his pages, and our eyes are dazzled by the pageant of highlanders and chevaliers, monarchs and pilgrims. We must deal with the spell-monger beyond the circle of his power, and cope with him on other ground than the bush-clad rocks of his lonely valleys, or the rugged circuit of shattered monasteries, the presence-chambers of palaces now desolate, or the throng of gallants whose very tombs are dust; and that mind, which has never shone upon us, but as the sun is seen through a pictured window, when lighting and animating crowds of saints, monarchs, and warriors,—must, we fear, be looked at through that colourless glass, which is needful for the critic of mind, no less than for the physical experimentalist.

Sir Walter Scott is the greatest of observers. He seems to be, like the spirits, all eye and ear; but, unlike them, he has scarcely arrived at reflection, much less at intuition. He has looked with a close and searching, and, above all, with a sympathetic eye, on every thing around him, living or inactive. He has watched through the whole of his now waning life, (and may its final close be far distant!) the looks, the tones, the lightest indications of passion among men. He cannot be conceived as sitting for even an hour in a stage-coach or a coffee-room, without having drawn out and measured the characters of all his companions. Every sensitive or irritable line about the lips, every hair of the eye-brow up-raised in the grimace and frankness of foolish admiration, or drawn together into the compressed strength of thought, every pugnacious or friendly trembling of the finger,—bring him but for five minutes within view of them, and he has them noted,—each of them the germ of a picture, or the hint of a personage. He is one of the few men of our generation, whom we may imagine actually going forth like Shakspeare and Ben Jonson to ‘take humours;’ and it is a shrewd and curious art, in which he must, doubtless, be a thorough proficient: it is one in which a treasure of really kind and generous feeling is of more use than wealth, or rank, or even than those other prime requisites, caution and penetration. Seat him in the circle round the kitchen fire of a country ale-house, one of the blithest and most fertile scenes of study for an humble way-faring observer; and it is impossible to doubt that Scott would speedily win his way into the merry affections of the whole party, find out the secrets of a dozen rough-coated breasts, and know who are the rich ones, who the brave ones, who the beauty, and who the oracle, of the hamlet. The serving-maid would giggle while she filled his tumbler, the landlady smooth her apron with gracious attention while he spoke to her, the farmer open his mouth with astonishment at his knowledge of pigs and planting, the smith shake the rafters with a roar, when some good-humoured jest had hit the dusty miller; and the most widely celebrated mind of modern literature would become an intimate with ploughmen, and be held in honour by chimney-corner veterans. Or think of him benighted in some lonely cottage, how would he praise the ale, lay down a theory of peat-cutting, give grave advice on the roasting of potatoes, and teach some chubby-faced urchin to repeat a ballad, or bawl a Jacobite Pæan. We know no more of Sir Walter Scott than is known of him from the Vistula to the Ebro; but such things must have been done, such were done, by the author of Waverley. The field-preaching, the mart, the mess-room, the courts of law, and, meanest and most barren of them all, the tables of princes,—he must have looked at each with this same scrutinizing good-nature, and hawk-eyed friendliness. He has not only gazed upon society, but been a part of it; he has dissected it in a spirit of joyousness, and pried into its secrets with a frank and free-hearted curiosity. It is in the same vein that he has been a spectator of the outward and material world. He has never either turned from it in weariness, or seen it through a theory; but has obviously always found in the visible universe things interesting and beautiful, not as developments of any internal law, or as a lower range of phenomena than the human, yet filled with analogies to our own nature, but as wide and lofty, many-coloured and various facts, inexhaustible subjects for the healthy keenness of the senses, and feeding the mind with an endless succession of primary, uncompounded enjoyments. The mountain and the lake, the pine-wood and the cataract, he has wandered among them neither with misanthropic moodiness nor quietist enthusiasm; but to make them in fancy the stage, not of vague demons or ministering angels, but of hundreds of busy men, clothed indeed in the dresses of all different times and countries, yet thinking and feeling, speaking and acting like ourselves. He has noted the hues of clouds and shapes of crags and precipices, the carvings of pinnacles and massiness of battlements, with the earnest and hearty simplicity of a child; and the fresh vividness of his paintings re-produces them similarly for us. If the description of outward objects were an end and not a means, Sir Walter Scott would be almost a perfect writer; for we view them in his pages through a medium nearly as pure and colourless as the water of his Scottish hills, or the air upon their summit; and herein he is honourably distinguished from many of his predecessors, and some of his contemporaries. He has used his own eyes, and written from his own perceptions; and his works exhibit a fidelity of detail, and a general truth, which are a delightful restorative after mere fancy pictures. The tendency of mind, which has made him look in this way at the men and things around him, has also marked with its own peculiarities his mode of contemplating the past. For him, history is a pageant; and as the world is a finely painted scene, so are mankind a gay procession. He sees, in by-gone centuries, but heaps of brilliant facts. Every individual age and climate seems present to his thoughts, as made up of certain characteristics of appearance,—arms, clothes and horses, festivals and buildings, the diadem of its sovereign and the doublets of its peasants. All times and lands have thus in his memory a splendid and picturesque existence; and his mind is like the glass of the Italian Wizard, or the cave of Shakspeare’s witches, across which the portraits of dynastics, and the symbols of nations and epochs, are perpetually shifting and gleaming. The iron times of chivalry, the glittering magnificence of the East, the barbarian wildness of the Highlands, the prison of Mary, the Court of Elizabeth, the revel of Villiers, all pass before his view with equal brilliancy and motion; while the prime personages are accompanied by a train of inferior attendants, made out with the same beautiful accuracy, and animated by the same spirit of life and reality, which stir and thrill their leaders. The dim expanse of ages is thus illumined by the various array of a gallant and triumphant throng, winding on from beneath the porch of Abbotsford, through palace and wilderness, ruined minister and merry hostel, and leaving behind them a thousand glad remembrances, even when gilded spur, and sparkling carcanet, have faded from before us into mist.

Yet there is, in all his writings, the evidence of this main defect; he knows what is, but not how or why it is so. He has seen the outward, but he has not connected it with that which is within. He has looked at the conduct, and listened to the speech, of men; but he has not understood from what kind of central source their deeds and words are drawn. He seems to have no fondness for referring things to their origin; will instead of considering men’s actions as worth observation, only in so much as they illustrate the essential character of the being from which they spring, he has treated them as if they had in themselves a definite and positive value, modified, in the hands of the poet and the novelist, by nothing but the necessity of exciting interest and giving pleasure. It is not that he has no systematic theory of human nature, for if he had, he would, to an absolute certainty, be in error. But he does not appear to believe that there is any human nature at all, or that man is aught more than a means to certain external results, the which when he has described, he has done his task and fulfilled his ministry. There is incomparably more freedom and truth in his picture of our species, than in the books of any of the systematic speculators, Locke, for instance, or Helvetius; because he has seen the inexhaustible varieties of our doings, and has exhibited them fairly and sincerely, while such writers as those to whom we allude, have assumed some one small base, and attempted to rear upon it a fabric which, restricted and low as it is, is yet infinitely too wide and lofty for the narrowness of the foundation. But his idea of man is meagre and wretched, compared to that of the philosophers who have contemplated the mind, instead of measuring the footsteps; who have not sought to number the hairs upon our heads, but have dealt, as it were, with the very elements of our creation. This defect shows itself very strongly in every part of his works, where he attempts to cope alone with the thoughts of any of his personages. In his dialogues, he in some degree gets over the difficulty, by repartees, passion, and mimicry of the language of the time; but, in soliloquies, how barren and incomplete appears to be his psychology! and compare these, or even the best parts of the conversations, with a scene of Shakspeare, and the difference may at once be perceived between writers, the one of whom knows nothing but phenomena, while the other, with to the full as much of individual observation, was also imbued with the largest abundance that any man ever had of universal truth. There is scarce a page of Shakspeare that does not present us with the deepest and finest moral meditations, and with a living image of those thoughts which occupy men’s minds, when they reflect upon their own nature, and attempt to overleap the bounds of the present and time actual. There is rarely any thing in Scott that pretends to this, the highest of all merit; we doubt if there are a dozen attempts at reflection in his voluminous works; and the standard of good which he exhibits, in so far as it differs from the merest worldliness, is only raised above it by something more than usual of a certain shrewd good-humour.

Exactly similar observations hold good with regard to his treatment of things inanimate. He sees, neither in the world, nor in human works, any thing more than so much positive existence, more beautiful or more uninteresting, larger or smaller, as the case may be, but always something to be looked at solely for itself. And herein he would be perfectly right, if men had no faculty except that which has beauty for its object. There is doubtless a pleasure and a good in the contem-
plation of those things which are in conformity with the original idea of the beautiful in our minds; but there is also a nobler good in viewing all things around us, not merely by this one faculty, but as manifestations of still higher principles, and in connection with moral and religious truth. Even as ends in themselves, almost all the objects around its have their beauty; but it is as forms and symptoms of superior and invisible powers, that it is most truly useful to regard them. Nor is it necessary to put forward broadly the intention of a writer on this point; but, if he has the feeling and the law within himself, their influence will be seen in every line he writes; just as in speaking of a picture, we need not explain the construction of the eye, or the science of optics, though it will be obvious that we could not have thought one word about time matter without possessing the faculty of sight. It is from the want of this habit of mind, that
Sir Walter Scott’s descriptions of scenery are in general so completely separate parts of his works; they stand out front the rest of the narrative, instead of being introduced casually, indicated by an occasional expression, or shown as the drapery of the thoughts.

Besides his mode of dealing with the results of his observations of men and nature, we mentioned, as connected with it, his way of regarding history; and this is certainly no less striking than the points we have just been treating of. If the narrative of past events exhibits them to us as naked facts, it does nothing; if it presents them with their immediate causes and consequences in the minds of the actors, it does much, and what few histories have done; if it displays them justly as exponents of principles, and results of the great scheme for the education of mankind, it does all that it can do. The knowledge of an occurrence is of no value whatsoever in itself. The most spirited description of it, which merely lets us know the dresses of the chief personages, how this man looked, and what that man ate, and tells us whether a sovereign died on a bed or a battlefield, gives us knowledge of nothing worth knowing. The points which deserve to be examined, are those which make manifest the feelings of the persons concerned, the spirit of the times, the great designs that were at work, and were spreading to embrace ages in their circuit, the peculiarities and progress of national character; in short, what the mind of the world was, and what means were operating to improve it. The events themselves are of interest only as exhibiting human motives, either in the individual or the mass, and thereby opening to us some new recesses of the soul, containing perhaps powers of which we were previously unconscious, like titles to wealth, or symbols of empire, discovered in some dark and long-forgotten chamber. Yet, in reading history, it is not upon such matters as these that Sir Walter Scott has turned his attention, but to the mere external changes and salient occurrences, to triumphs or tournaments, battles or hunting snatches, to whatever can be converted into a picture, or emblazoned in a show. He has not read the annals of the earth as they ought to be studied; but he would probably not be nearly so popular a writer if he had. As it is, he has filled his mind with all that is most stirring and gorgeous in the chronicles of Europe, superstitions the more impressive because forgotten, brilliant assemblages of kings, and barons, hard-fought battles, and weary pilgrimages, characters the most desperately predominating, and events the most terrible or fantastic. Of these he has made a long phantasmagoria, the most exciting and beautiful spectacle of our day; and who can wonder or complain, if he, who delights mankind with so glorious a pageant, is held by almost general consent to be the greatest of modern authors.

The tendency, which we have now dwelt upon at some length, to look at humanity and nature in their outward manifestations, instead of seizing them in their inward being, has decided in what class Sir Walter Scott must be placed with reference to the moral influence he exercises. He would commonly be called one of the most moral of writers; for he always speaks of religion with respect, and never depraves his writings by indecency. But ethics and religion would be the least important of studies, and the human mind the simplest object in the creation, if nothing more than this were needful to constitute a moral writer. However, it is not so. He, and he alone, is a moral author, whose works have the effect of flinging men back upon themselves; of forcing them to look within for the higher principles of their existence; of teaching them that the only happiness, and the only virtue, are to be found by submitting themselves uniformly to the dictates of duty, and by aiming and struggling always towards a better state of being than that which ourselves, or those around us, have hitherto attained. Sir Walter Scott has observed men’s conduct instead of his own mind. He has presented to its a fair average of that conduct: but he knows nothing of the hidden powers which, if strenuously and generally called forth, will leave his books a transcript of the world, as erroneous as they are now accurate and honest. He has, therefore, no influence whatever in making men aim at improvement. He shows its what is, and that, Heaven knows, is discouraging enough; but he does not show us what we have the means of being, or he would teach us a lesson of hope, comfort, and invigoration.
‘It is our will
Which thus enchains us to permitted ill.
We might be otherwise; we might be all
We dream of—happy, high, majestical.
Where is the love, beauty, and truth we seek,
But in our minds? And if we were not weak,
Should we be less in deed than in desire?
Those who try may find
How strong the chains are which our spirit bind,
Brittle, perchance, as straw. We are assured
Much may be conquered, much may be endured,
Of what degrades and crushes us. We know
That we have power over ourselves to do
And suffer—what, we know not till we try;
But something nobler than to live and die:
So taught the kings of old philosophy.
And those who suffer with their suffering kind,
Yet feel this faith religion.’
Though, therefore, it would be an insane malignity to call him individually an immoral writer, as he has always recognized the distinction between right and wrong, and never knowingly inculcated evil; yet it would be folly to pretend that he produces much moral effect upon the world, as his works do scarcely any thing towards making men wiser or better.

The most obvious ground, on which to fix his claim of a strong and beneficial influence over men, is the general and good-humoured benevolence apparent in his writings. In an age of so much affected misanthropy and real selfishness, this is, doubtless, a high merit, and it is one which, in the works of Sir Walter Scott, does not carry with it the slightest symptom of pretence, or even of exaggeration. We feel, at once, that we are in presence of a man of free and open heart, disposed to laugh at every man’s jest, treat every man’s foibles with gentleness, and spread over the path of life as much as possible of manly generosity. It would be difficult not to feel, after reading his books, that peevishness and envy are bad and foolish propensities, that earth yields better fruits than scorn and hatred, and, above all, that there is nothing impressive in diseased melancholy—nothing sublime in assumed misery. His mind is evidently of the very healthiest and most genial sort that society will admit, without avenging itself, by calumny and oppression, for a superiority which reproaches its own viciousness. But it should be borne in recollection, that, excellent in themselves as are such qualities, and unalloyed, as they probably are, in Sir Walter Scott, a very considerable share of them is perfectly compatible with that kind of feeling which confines itself entirely within the boundaries of our personal connections; and, though it would give up the most delicate morsel to another at the same dinner-table, would not sacrifice a farthing to do good to a kingdom or a continent. A similar character to that displayed in the writings of Sir Walter Scott, is the result, in many cases, of mere temperament and circumstance; though we perfectly believe that it exists, in his own breast, in its purest and most meritorious avatar. The benevolence that spends itself upon whatever may be brought by chance within its view, is all infinitely more agreeable quality than mere selfishness, but one that is very little likely to do any more good to mankind. We see it constantly around us, exerting itself towards every particular object it happens to stumble on; and yet perfectly indifferent and cold to the greater general designs, which would do good an hundred times as extensive, and a thousand times as certain.

We are not sure that Sir Walter Scott’s political opinions are to he explained in this way, for we well know the vast allowances that must be made for early prejudice, confirmed by subsequent connections, habits, and interests. But we confess that it does seem to us a melancholy and painful contrast, when we think of the many warm and honest sympathies expressed and embodied in the writings of this author, and then compare them with the narrow and degraded cast of his political feelings. We think of the statue with the feet of clay; of the king in the Arabian tales, the half of whose body had been changed to insensible stone; of the woman in Milton, so fair above, yet terminating in such monstrous foulness; of all, in short, that is strangely and fearfully discordant: for nothing in fable or vision can be more so than the politics and the romance of the writer in question. He, above all other men, would be likely to fall into such an error as this; because, from his attachment to the forms of one state of society, and his indifference to the spirit of all, he could hardly avoid imagining that those forms were valuable for themselves, and applicable to or own times as well as to the thirteenth century, and to London as well as to Lochaber. The crown and the coronet still seem to him the emblems of law as opposed to anarchy, though the only countries in Europe where anarchy exists, are those where the government is peculiarly despotic, as in Southern Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Ireland. He still thinks of feudalism and hereditary nobility, as the causes no less than the glories of the most brilliant of modern ages, though the remains of the system are even now the greatest curses to England, and the very name of hereditary wisdom has become a mockery and a hissing. To his eyes a splendour appears to have vanished from the world, since mankind have omitted that custom now confined, (except among soldiers,) to kings and courtiers, the wearing arms in peace, which, much more than two thousand years ago, was cited, by the best of historians, as the most evident relic of the rudest barbarism.* We fear, however, that even Sir Walter Scott himself would apostatise from the ninth to the nineteenth century, if a party of English borderers were making a forage, and threatening to burn Abbotsford. It is true, that no people ever existed, not living under some form of government which has, of course, grown out of their character, and adapted itself, in a considerable degree, to their peculiar circumstances. We are irrevocably connected with the past,—the prolongation of an antiquity winch reaches back from us into the dim shades of an almost immeasurable remoteness. Every nation has within itself the germs and types of those institutions which are the most likely to produce its happiness, and which can
* Thucydides, b. i., c. 5, 6.
alone be in conformity with its hereditary spirit. But these institutions must needs be altered, to fit them to the varying occasions and silent revolutions of society. It is thus that
Solon reformed the government of Athens, when he saw that it was necessary, from the increasing power of the inferior classes, to give it a more democratic character; it is thus that the Licinian rogations admitted to a larger share of authority a commonalty which had become too numerous and too strong to he safely contemned; and thus it is, that, in spite of the opposition even of such men as Sir Walter Scott, the wardens, who guard the cob-webbed doors of the English constitution, will be compelled to turn the rusty hinges, and draw back the rotten bolts, and to admit to the political sanctuary an equal representation of the people.

We have spoken of the mode in which he looks at men, at nature, and at history; and attempted to show how one great defect accompanies him in each. We have said something of his claims to he considered as a moral writer; and something of his political opinions and feelings; but connected more or less with all these subjects, there is another on which we have not hitherto touched, the necessary influence, namely, of the whole class of composition for which Sir Walter Scott is distinguished: and in speaking of the great bulk of his writings, as forming a class, we include both verse and prose, for the character of his rhymed and of his ummnetrical romances is essentially the same. The great classes into which fiction may be divided are made up of those that please chiefly by the exhibition of the human mind, and those that please chiefly by time display of incident and situation. The former are the domain of the mightier teachers of mankind; the kingdom of Homer, of Cervantes, of Shakspeare, of Milton, and of Schiller,—a realm allied, indeed, to this world, and open to the access of men, but pure from our infirmities, and far raised above the stir of our evil passions,—a sphere with which the earth is connected, and moves in accordance, but which, like to the sun itself, only shines upon the world to be its illumination and its law. Here is the true and serene empire of man’s glory and greatness; and from this sanctuary issue the eternal oracles of consolation, which tell us to how free and sublime a destiny the human soul may lift itself. But the other class of writers, who find their resources in every thing that can create an interest, however transitory and vulgar, who describe scenes merely for the purpose of describing them, and heap together circumstances that shall have a value in themselves, quite independently of the characters of those whom they act upon;—it is the doom of such men to compound melo-drames, and the prize of their high calling to produce excitement without thought; and to relieve from listlessness, without rousing to exertion. To neither of those does Sir Walter Scott exclusively belong. That he is not one of the latter order of authors, witness much of ‘Old Mortality,’ of ‘The Antiquary,’ of ‘The Bride of Lammermoor,’ and ‘The Heart of Mid-Lothian;’ and yet, unhappily, the larger proportion of his works would seem to separate him entirely from the former; and, on the whole, he has ministered immensely to the diseased craving for mere amusement, so strikingly characteristic of an age in which men read as a relaxation from the nobler and more serious employments of shooting wild-fowl or adding together figures. Literature has become the property of the crowd, before the crowd have been made fit auditors of truth; literature has, consequently, been divorced from truth, and degraded to their level. But, alas! that men of genius, instead of doing something to reform their age, should submit themselves to the meanest eddies of that current which they might have turned from its wanderings, to flow between banks of fragrance and beauty, and sparkle over sands of gold! Therefore, when it shall fill its appointed channel, it will leave their reputations but decaying wrecks upon the barren sands it will have deserted; and float forward, in the prouder triumph, the argosies from which it may now have shrunk away.

These are some, and, we think, the chief of his errors as a writer of fiction. He has given us one work of graver pretension, the latest and the largest of his writings. But he seems to have so little idea of the essential difference between history and romance; not with regard to their comparative truth, but to their different purport, that it may well be pronounced the longest and most tedious of his novels. As to the question of mere fact accuracy, we believe he has not made quite so many mistakes as are commonly charged upon him. After the account of the Revolution, which is, in every way, contemptible, his narrative is tolerably fair and faithful. But it is not to this we look: the ‘Life of Napoleon’ is the history of Europe, in the most important era it has undergone since the Reformation. It is, in the first place, the biography of a man who, in the most extraordinary circumstances, established the most wonderful empire that ever existed upon earth; who, though himself no philosopher, outwitted all the speculators of his time; who, though utterly and uniformly selfish, was sometimes more beloved, and always more admired, than any of his contemporaries; who, born in Corsican obscurity, lived to enter in triumph, Milan, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, and Moscow, to play the sovereign over France, Italy, and Germany, to re-conquer Paris from its dynasty of ages, and the a captive, in the prime of existence, on a rocky islet in a distant ocean. Such was Napoleon Buonaparte in his merely personal character; but feeble as is Sir Walter Scott’s portrait of the man, how wretchedly and despicably insufficient is his account of the times! The close of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, was the period appointed for one of those sudden and violent overthrows of old institutions, which, whether the forms be re-established or not, must leave them tottering and inanimate, which so break the ancient supports of habit and authority, that the mere expansion of the human mind will suffice finally to destroy the superstructure. They formed one of the marked epochs of the world; a going forth of the destroyer to prepare the way for a ministry of good. The relics of other centuries were stumbling-blocks and contrasts in our path, like the antique lances and rusted helmets which grate against the ploughshare of the peasant,* and, like him, we flung them forth from the furrows which were sown with no ignoble seed, and were to produce no scanty harvest. But what did Sir Walter Scott discover in these things? He saw nothing but an illustration of the evils of popular resistance, of the perfections of the British Constitution, of the propriety of again subduing the continent to aristocracies and despotisms; and above all, he seems never for a moment to imagine that the French Revolution was merely one of those shadows on the dial-plate of history which follow and measure, but cannot in themselves influence, the great onward movement of the human mind.

Sir Walter Scott must newer again write history. He not merely knows nothing of the theory of historical composition, but he feels none of the majestic and far-seeing spirit to which alone is committed the power of unrolling the records of past centuries. He may enter into the sepulchres of buried generations, he may burst the coffins, he may breathe a new life into the bones; but he cannot decipher the hieroglyphics which would tell us how they thought; much less can he so withdraw himself from the petty influences of the present, as to transmit to future times a clear picture of that which it really contains of precious and permanent. But we trust that many years may pass before he himself becomes the property of the historian; before we shall be permitted to measure the influence of his works, and the stature of his intellect, without incurring suspicion and calumny; before men will be allowed to say what we have said, and escape the charge of envying greatness because we ourselves are little, and of underrating the genius with which we cannot sympathize. Till time and death have secured to all men this privilege, none can hope more sincerely than ourselves that he will continue to vary the dull track of ordinary existence with his gay and glittering creations; and that if he does not defy criticism by perfection, he will at least persevere, as he always has done, to disarm it of its sting, by the unaffected sincerity and genial kindness of his nature.

* Virgil, Georg. i. 493.