« PreviousContinue »
Literary pursuits of Soldiers. Descartes; B. Jonson; Buchanan; Cervantes.—Of Sailors. Dampier ; Davis; Drury; Falconer; Giordani; Fransham; Oswald; Columbus; Cook; Vancouver; Collingwood.
If the distractions of business or of professional duty are to be deemed an insurmountable bar to the cultivation of science or literature, what annoyances or interruptions of this description shall seem more unfavourable for such an attempt than those which beset the rude and unsettled life of a seaman or a soldier! Yet it has been in the midst of these that some of the persons whose names are most distinguished in the annals of literature and philosophy have begun their career. The great DEs CARTEs entered the army, in obedience to the wishes of his family, at the age of twenty, and served first with the troops of the Prince of Orange, and afterwards with those of Maximilian of Bavaria. With the latter prince he was present at the battle of Prague, in 1620, when Maximilian, acting in concert with the Emperor, Ferdinand II., obtained a signal victory over the Elector Palatine, Frederick. During his military life, however, Des Cartes never neglected his philosophical studies, of which he gave a striking proof on one occasion while he was in the service of the Prince of Orange. He happened to be in garrison with his regiment at the town of Breda, in the Netherlands, when, walking out one morning, he observed a crowd of people assembled around a placard or advertisement which was stuck up on the wall. Finding that it was written in the Dutch language, which he did not understand, (for he was a native of Touraine, in France,) he inquired of a person whom he saw reading it, what it meant. The individual to whom he addressed his inquiries happened to be the Principal of the university of Dort, a man of distinguished mathematical attainments; and it was with something of a sneer that he informed the young officer, in reply to his question, that the paper contained the announcement of a difficult geometrical problem, of which the proposer challenged the most able men of the city to attempt the solution. Not repulsed, however, by the tone and manner of the learned professor, Des Cartes requested to be favoured with a translation of the placard, which he had no sooner received than he calmly remarked that he thought he should be able to answer the challenge. Accordingly, next day he presented himself again before Beckman (that was the name of the professor) with a complete solution of the problem, greatly to the astonishment of that distinguished person, who had probably never before dreamed of the possibility of so much learning being found beyond the walls of a university. It was at this period of his life, indeed, that this illustrious person laid the foundation of most of those mathematical discoveries which subsequently obtained for him so much celebrity. He wrote a Latin treatise on music, and projected several of his other works, during the time he was stationed at Breda. Our celebrated countryman, BEN Jonson, some of whose early difficulties we have already mentioned, could find no way of escaping from the humble employment of a working mason or bricklayer, to which he had been doomed on his mother's second marriage, except by enlisting as a private soldier. Accordingly he served in that capacity for some time against the Spaniards in the Netherlands, and gained a high reputation for personal prowess, of which he was in after life not a little vain. This was also the fate of the famous GEoRGE BuchanaN, one of the most elegant scholars and writers that modern times have produced—another illustrious evidence of how little it is in the power of the most unquiet and disjointed times, or the most adverse fortunes, to interrupt the intellectual pursuits of a mind-really in love with knowledge. Scarcely any part of Buchanan's long life was passed either in leisure or tranquillity. He was born of poor parents, and was sent to the university of Paris to be educated at the expense of an uncle, whose death, however, after some time, left him in such a state of destitution, that, in order to get back to his native country, he was obliged to enter himself as a private in a corps which was leaving France to serve in Scotland, as auxiliaries to the Duke of Albany. It would detain us too long to attempt any sketch of the remainder of a life of whose many troubles this was only the fit commencement. Although, in point of learning and genius, confessedly without a rival among his countrymen, and even acknowledged by all Europe as the chief of the poets and eloquent writers of his day, it is melancholy to think, that, amid the civil discords of those unhappy times, his portion was little else than poverty, persecution, imprisonment, and exile. But his own mind was to him a kingdom, of which the world's unkindness could not deprive him, and in which he found, doubtless, under all he had to suffer, his sufficient consolation. He took refuge in literary labour from the cruel fortunes that pursued him. We know that it was in a Portuguese dungeon that he composed his celebrated Latin version of the Psalms. He had just carried through the press his great work, the History of so. when - M
he died at the age of seventy-six, being at the time in such a state of indigence, that, when he felt his end approaching, having inquired of his servant how much money he had remaining, and finding that there was not enough for the expenses of his funeral, he ordered the whole to be given to the poor. He was accordingly buried at the cost of the city of Edinburgh. Even still more crowded with disasters is the history of the renowned CERVANTes, whose admirable Don Quixote ranks so high among the glories of modern literature. Cervantes, too, commenced life as a soldier, lost his left hand in battle, and was afterwards detained for five years in captivity at Algiers. Even after he had recovered his liberty, and had returned to his native country, he was again in a short time thrown into confinement by an unjust decision of the courts, in a cause in which he was implicated; and it was while he lay in prison that he wrote the first part of Don Quixote. He was, soon after the publication of this work, once more restored to freedom; but, although he afterwards produced various other literary performances, he never succeeded in raising himself above the necessitous circumstances in which his early misfortunes had involved him. The dedication of the last work he gave to the world is dated only four • days before his death, and in it he mentions, with great calmness, his approaching dissolution. Cervantes died at the age of sixty-nine, on the 23d of April, 1617, exactly a year after our own Shakspeare. There are many cases on record of individuals who, even with scarcely any other education than what they contrived to give themselves while serving in subordinate and laborious situations in the camp or on shipboard, have attained to great familiarity with books, and sometimes risen to considerable literary or scientific distinction. The celebrated English navigator, DAMPIER, although he had been some time at school before he left his native country, yet went to sea at so early an age that, considering he for a long time led a vagabond and lawless life, he must have very soon forgotten every thing he had been taught, if he had not, in the midst of all his wild adventures, taken great pains both to retain and to extend his knowledge. That he must have done so is evident from the accounts of his different voyages which he afterwards published. We have few works of the kind more vigorously or graphically written than these volumes; and they contain abundant evidences of a scientific and philosophical knowledge of no ordinary extent and exactness. Along with Dampier's, we may mention an older name, that of John DAvis, the discoverer of the well known Strait leading into Baffin's Bay. Davis also went to sea when quite a boy, and must have acquired all his knowledge both of science and of the art of composition, while engaged among the duties of his profession. Yet we not only have from his pen accounts of several of his voyages, but also a treatise on the general hydrography of the earth. He was the inventor, besides, of a quadrant for taking the sun's altitude at sea. Robert DRURY, too, whose account of the Island of Madagascar, and of his strange adventures there, is now (from having been lately re-published) a well-known book, deserves to be remembered when we are making mention of authors bred at sea. Drury was only fourteen when he set out on his first voyage in a vessel proceeding to India, and he was shipwrecked in returning home on the island we have mentioned, where he remained in a species of captivity for fifteen years; so that when he at last contrived to make his escape, he had almost forgotten his native language. . He