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ally informing his readers of his singular incapability of mental retention. No one will dispute the acuteness and power of that most delightful Essayist; and indeed it is sufficiently obvious, notwithstanding all his lamentations on the subject of his memory, that he is by no means dissatisfied with the general character of his own intellect. Montaigne's Confessions, for such his Essays may be called as justly as the egotistical ebullitions of Rousseau, may be adduced as a proof of the utter impossibility of a man's regarding himself with any thing like that genuine impartiality of judgment with which he may be regarded by others. He never tells us any thing which he thinks will really injure him greatly in our estimation. Every little error is eagerly followed up by some redeeming virtue. It is true that both Montaigne and Rousseau have dared to communicate to the world several confessedly mean and ludicrous passages in their history; but this may have been done partly with a proud consciousness that their characters would not suffer by such comparative sunspecks, and partly to obtain the more credit for their self-commendations. Still, however, Montaigne's egotism is nearly as candid as is possible to human nature, and he often seems more likely to have deceived himself than to have had
intention to deceive his readers. His constant complaint of a want of memory has been thought the more remarkable on account of the quantity of anecdotes and quotations that crowd his pages. They are almost as full of learned illustrations as Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. His French editor, however, (Peter Coste) has explained this apparent contradiction. In the first place he is said to have fallen into innumerable errors respecting names, dates, and persons, and in the next place he appears to have added illustration after illustration to his Essays while in manuscript, and for every new edition, just as he met with suitable materials in the course of his extensive reading. Montaigne expresses much the same opinion of the faculty of
memory as Pope does. “In my country,” says the former, “when they would signify that a man is void of sense, they say that he has no memory; and when I complain of this defect of mine they reprove me, and do not think I am in earnest in accusing myself of being a fool ; for they do not discern the difference betwixt memory and understanding, in which they make me worse than I really am ; for, on the contrary, we rather find by experience that a strong memory is liable to be accompanied with a weak judgment.” He consoles himself, in a very characteristic way, with the reflection, that in proportion to the extent of this defect of memory the more powerful are his other faculties. He remarks also that if his memory had been better, he would have been apt to rest his understanding and judgment on the wisdom of other men, instead of exerting his own natural powers.
I cannot help thinking, that Montaigne and Pope* have mistaken the nature of memory in its connection with other faculties of the mind. It is to be doubted whether any great powers of intellect are consistent with a feeble memory. This faculty was personified by the ancients as the mother of the Muses. Even Montaigne himself, in alluding to the anecdote of Messala Corvinus having been two years
without any trace of memory, observes that a privation of this faculty, if absolute, must destroy all the functions of the soul. He also quotes the saying of Cicero, that “the memory is the receptacle and sheath of all science.” Rogers has paid it a similar compliment.
Ages and climes remote to thee impart
Pope himself had an excellent memory. It was so tenacious and local, that he could directly refer to any particular passage in a favorite author.”
Montaigne did injustice to his own memory*. He only reckoned his sins of forgetfulness, and did not balance them with his remembrances. He tells us that he was accustomed to forget the names of his servants, and those domestic matters which every body around him remembered with the utmost ease and distinct
He did not consider how many things there were which he remembered and which they forgot. Men of genius forget things which the vulgar remember, and remember those which leave no impression on ordinary minds. The poet who in ten minutes will forget where he has placed his hat and walking stick, will remember in what book he met with a beautiful sentiment or expression ten years ago. He has a better memory than those who laugh at his forgetfulness, but it is employed on subjects with which they are not familiar. People remember only those things in which they take an interest. The trader remembers the state of the market, the poet the state of literature. Let them exchange the subject of their attention, and they will both complain of a want of memory. Scottt is said to have possessed extraordinary powers of retention—but what were the things that he most easily retained ?---specimens of his own favorite art. He doubtless forgot other matters that interested him less, in the same way that a dull prosaic man would remember the most dry details and forget the most delightful verses. In Scott's Autobiography, (published by Lockhart,) he thus speaks of his memory—“ But this memory of mine was a very fickle ally, and has through my whole life acted upon its own capricious motions, and might have enabled me to adopt old Beattie of Mickledale's answer, when complimented by a reverend divine on the strength of the same faculty;—“ No, Sir,” answered the old borderer, “ I have no command of my memory. It only retains what hits my fancy, and, probably, Sir, if you were to preach to me for two hours, I should not be able when you finished to remember a word you had been saying."
* Marmontel observes, in his Memoirs, that he had a great desire to learn, but nature had refused him the gift of memory. He admits, however, that though the words left no trace upon his mind, he retained the sense of what he read.
Rousseau repeatedly complains of his want of memory. But he exaggerated the defect; for no man with such a feeble memory as he represents his own to have been, could have gathered and retained a fiftieth part of his knowledge.
+ Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, gives a curious proof of Scott's retentiveness. I take the following from the Shepherd's “ Familiar Anecdotes." “ He, and Skene of Rubislaw, and I were out one night about midnight, leistering kippers in Tweed, about the end of January, not long after the opening of the river for fishing, which was then on the tenth, and Scott having a great range of the river himself, we went up to the side of the Rough-haugh of Elibank; but when we came to kindle our light, behold our peat was gone out. This was a terrible disappointment, but to think of giving up our sport was out of the question, so we had no other shift save to send Rob Fletcher all the way through the darkness, the distance of two miles, for another fiery peat.
The night was mild, calm, and as dark as pitch, and while Fletcher was absent we three sat down on the brink of the river, on a little green sward which I never shall forget, and Scott desired me to sing them my ballad of “ Gilinan's cleuch.” Now, be it remembered, that this ballad had never been printed. I had merely composed it by rote, and, on finishing it three years before, had sung it once over to Sir Walter. I began it, at his request, but at the eighth or ninth stanza I stuck in it, and could not get on with another verse, on which he began it again, and recited it every word from beginning to end. It being a very long ballad, consisting of eighty-eight stanzas, I testified my astonishment, knowing that he had never heard it but once, and even then did not appear to be paying particular attention. He said he had been out with a pleasure party as far as the opening of the Frith of Forth, and, to amuse the company, he had recited both that ballad and one of Southey's (The Abbot of Aberbrothock), both of which ballads he had only heard once from their respective authors, and he believed he recited them both without misplacing a word.”
Scaliger tells us that in his youth he could repeat 100 verses after having once read them. It is said that Dr. Leyden had so strong a memory, that he could repeat correctly a long Act of Parliament or any similar document after a single perusal. There is an anecdote of an English gentleman, whom the king of Prussia placed behind a screen, when Voltaire came to read him a new poem of considerable length. The gentleman afterwards perplexed the poet by asserting that the poem was his, and repeated it word for word as a proof of the truth of his assertion. Locke in
his description of memory (which description, as Campbell justly observes*, is “ absolutely poetical"), mentions that it is recorded of “ that prodigy of parts, Monsieur Pascal, that till the decay of his health had impaired his memory, he forgot nothing of what he had done, read, or thought in any part of his rational age.” It is said that the admirable Crichton was similarly gifted, and could repeat backwards any speech he had made. Magliabecchi, the Florentine Librarian, could recollect whole volumes, and once supplied an author from memory with a copy of his own work of which the original was lost. Spence records the observation of Pope, that Bolingbroke had so great a memory that if he was alone and without books, he could refer to a particular subject in them, and write as fully on it, as another man would with all his books about him. Woodfall's extraordinary power of reporting the debates in the House of Commons without the aid of written memoranda is well known. During a debate he used to close his eyes and lean with both hands upon his stick, resolutely excluding all extraneous associations. The accuracy and precision of his reports brought his newspaper into great repute. He would retain a full recollection of a particular debate a fortnight after it had occurred, and during the intervention of other debates. He used to say that it was put by in a corner of his mind for future reference.
It seems sometimes more easy to exert the memory than to suppress it.
· We may remember,” says Felton, “what we are intent upon ; but with all the art we can use we cannot know
The following passage bears out Campbell's praise—“The mind very often sets itself on work in search of some hidden idea, and turns as it were the eye of the soul upon it ; though sometimes too they start up in our minds of their own accord, and offer themselves to the understanding ; and very often are roused and tumbled out of their durk cells into open day-light by turbulent and tempestuous passions, our affections bringing ideas to our memory, which had otherwise lain quiet and unregarded.”