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William Bellenden


BELLENDEN, WILLIAM, more commonly known by his Latin name of Gulielmus Bellendenus, is one of those learned and ingenious Scotsmen of a former age, who are esteemed in the general literary world as an honour to their country, but with whom that country itself is scarcely at all acquainted. As there were many great but unrecorded heroes before Agamemnon, so may it be said that there have flourished, out of Scotland, many illustrious Scotsmen, whose names have not been celebrated in that country. It is time, however, that this should cease to be the case, at least in reference to William Bellenden, whose intellect appears to have been one of the most extraordinary character, and whose intellectual efforts, if in a shape to command more extensive appreciation, would certainly be considered a great addition to those productions which reflect honour upon his native country.

William Bellenden was unquestionably a member of that family whose name has been variously spelled Ballenden, Ballantyn, and latterly Ballantyne, and which has produced several men eminent in Scottish literature. He lived in the reign of James VI., to whom he was Magister Supplicum Libellorum, or reader of private petitions, an office probably conferred upon him in consideration of his eminent learning. King James, whose many regal faults were redeemed in no small measure by his sincere love of literature, and his extensive patronage of literary men, provided Bellenden with the means of leading a life of studious retirement at the French capital, where he is said to have afterwards become Professor of Humanity, and an advocate in the parliament of Paris. As he is said to have enjoyed his office of professor in 1602, it would of course appear that James had furnished the necessary allowances for the retirement of his learned protégée out of the slender revenues which he enjoyed in his native kingdom; a circumstance which enhances the praise due to him for his munificence in a very high degree.

Bellenden’s first work, entitled, "Ciceronis Princeps," and published, apparently without his name, in 1608, is a treatise on the duties of a prince, formed out of passages of the works of Cicero referring to that subject. In this work, "he shows that, whoever desires to exercise authority over others, should first of all learn the government of himself; should remember and be obedient to every thing which the laws command; should on all occasions be ready to hear the sentiments of the wise; disdaining whatever bears affinity to corruption, and abhorring the delusions of flattery: he should be tenacious in preserving his dignity, and cautious how he attempts to extend it; he should be remarkable for the purity of his morals, and the moderation of his conduct, and never direct his hand, his eye, or his imagination, to that which is the property of another." [Parr’s Preface to Bellendenus.] To the "Ciceronis Princeps," in which Bellenden has only the merit of an ingenious collector, was prefixed an original essay, styled, "Tractatus de Processu et Scriptoribus Rei Politicae," in which there is a rich vein of masculine sense and fervent piety, while the origin of our errors in religion, and of our defects in policy and learning, is traced out with considerable accuracy and erudition. In this treatise, the author, while he condemns the monstrous tenets of ancient idolatry, and the gross corruptions of philosophy, bestows many just encomiums on the wisdom and patriotism of some ancient legislators. He informs us that among the Greek theorists, there is no systematic work on the science of politics, at once comprehensive in its principles, and applicable to real life; but acknowledges that much useful information may be gathered from the writings of Xenophon, and the fragments of Solon, Charondas, and Zaleucus. On the authority of Cicero, he represents Demetrius Phalereus as the first person who united the practice of politics with a correct and profound knowledge of his art. He allows, however, great merit to Plato, to Aristotle, to Theophrastus, and other imitators of Hippodamus, who, it seems, was the first writer on the subject of government, without being personally concerned in the administration of it. He then speaks with becoming and warm admiration of Cicero, and enumerates the political works of that writer which have come down to us—those which were written by him, but are now lost—and those which he intended to draw up at the request of Atticus.

Bellenden next published a treatise, formed like the foregoing from detached passages in Cicero, regarding the duties of the consul, senator, and senate among the Romans. It was entitled, "Ciceronis Consul, Senator, Populusque Romanus: illustratus publici observatione juris, gravissimi usus disciplinâ, administrandi temperata ratione: notatis inclinationibus temporum in Rep. et actis rerum in Senatu: quae a Ciceroniana nondum edita profluxere memoria, annorum DCCX. congesta in libros xvi. De statu rerum Romanorum unde jam manavit Ciceronis Princeps, dignus habitus summorum lectione principum." Bellenden has here shown, not only the duties of a senator, or statesman, but upon what basis the rights of a free but jealous people are erected, and the hallowed care those in institutions demand, which have descended to us from our ancestors. This work was published at Paris, in 1612, and like the former, was dedicated to Henry, Prince of Wales. On the title page, the author is termed "Magister Supplicum Libellorum augusti Regis Magnae Britanniae;" from which it would appear that either there is a mistake in describing him as Master of Requests to the King of Scotland, or he must have been subsequently preferred to the same office for Great Britain. The office, since he resided at Paris, must have been a sinecure, and was probably given to him as a means of sustaining him in literary leisure.

The next work of Bellenden was entitled, "De Statu Prisci Orbis, in Religione, Re Politica, et Literis, liber unus." It was printed, but may scarcely be described as published, in 1615. This is the most original of Bellenden’s works. The expressions and sentiments are all his own, excepting the quotations which he takes occasion to introduce from his favourite Cicero. In this work he has "brought to light, from the most remote antiquity, many facts which had been buried in oblivion. Whatever relates to the discipline of the Persians and Egyptians, which was obscure in itself, and very variously dispersed, he has carefully collected, placed in one uniform point of view, and polished with diligent acuteness. In a manner the most plain and satisfactory, he has described the first origin of states, their progressive political advances, and how they differed from each other. Those fabulous inventions with which Greece has encumbered history, he explains and refutes. Philosophy owes him much. He has confuted all those systems which were wild and extravagant, and removed the difficulties from such as were in their operation subservient to religious piety. But he has in particular confirmed and dignified with every assistance of solid argument, whatever tended to serve the great truths of revelation. Much, however, as he has been involved in the gloom of ancient times, he in no one instance assumes the character of a cold unfeeling antiquary; he never employs his talents upon those intricate and useless questions in endeavouring to explain which many luckless and idle theologists torment themselves and lose their labour. The style of Bellendenus, in this performance, is perspicuous, and elegant without affectation. The different parts of the work are so well and so judiciously disposed, that we meet with nothing harsh and dissonant, no awkward interval or interruptions, nothing placed where it ought not to remain." [Parr’s Preface to Bellendenus.]

All these three works—namely, the "Princeps," the "Consul," and the "De Statu Prisci Orbis," were republished in 1616, in a united form, under the general title, "DE STATU, LIBRI TRES." Prince Henry being now dead, the whole work was dedicated anew to his surviving brother Charles; a circumstance which afforded the author an opportunity of paying an ingenious compliment to the Latter prince:

—Uno avulso non deficit alter,
Aureus, et simili frondescit virga metallo.

Of the justness of this eulogy the politician may have some doubt, but the man of feeling will be captivated by its elegance and pathos.

The last work which Bellenden himself published is of very small extent, consisting merely of two short poems: "Caroli Primi et Henricae Mariae, Regis et Reginae Magnae Britanniae," &c. "Epithalamium; et in ipsas augustissimas nuptias, Panegyricum Carmen et Elogia" Paris, 1675, 4to. It would appear that Bellenden did not soon forget the kind patronage which he had experienced from King James, but transferred his gratitude, with his loyalty, to the descendants of that prince. This is the only known specimen of Bellenden’s efforts in poetry.

The "Do Statu, Libri Tres," which perhaps were never very extensively diffused, had latterly become so extremely scarce, as only to be known by name to the most of scholars. From this obscurity, the work was rescued in 1787, by Dr Samuel Parr, the most eminent British Latinist of modern times. Dr Parr republished it in an elegant form, with a preface, which, though embracing a singular jumble of subjects, and not free from the charge of pedantry, is justly looked upon as one of the most admirable specimens of modern Latin which we possess. Imitating the example of Bellendenus, who prefixed a dedication to each of his three books, the learned editor inscribed them anew to three great men of modern times, Edward Burke, Lord North, and Charles James Fox, who were then the leaders of his own party in British politics. In the preface, he introduced a high allegorical eulogy upon these statesmen, which was admired as a singularly nervous piece of composition, though there were, of course, different opinions as to the justness of the panegyric. He also exposed the plagiary which Middleton, in composing his "Life of Cicero," had committed upon the splendid stores of Bellenden.

While Bellenden was employed in writing his tripartite work, "Do Statu," he had Cicero constantly before him. "His warmest attachment, and increasing admiration," to quote the words of Dr Parr, "were necessarily attracted to the character whose writings were the object of his unremitting attention; whose expressions were as familiar to him as possible; and whose various and profound learning occupied all the faculties of his soul." He now commenced a still more extensive and laborious cento of the writings of the Roman orator, which he concluded in sixteen books, and which, with the addition of similar centoes of the writings of Seneca and Pliny the Elder, was to bear the name, "De Tribus Luminibus Romanorum." The Ciceronian cento, the only one he lived to complete, is justly considered a most extraordinary performance. By an exertion of fictitious machinery, akin to the modern historical romance, Cicero is introduced as if he had spoken or written the whole from beginning to end. The first seven books give a very concise abstract of the Roman history, from the foundation of the city, to the 647th year, in which he was born. Then he becomes more particular in the account of his own times, and enlarges very fully on all that happened after his first appearance in public business. He gives an account of the most remarkable of his orations and epistles, and the occasions on which they were written, as also of such of his philosophical works as have come down to us, and of some other pieces that are now lost, ending with a letter he is supposed to have written to Octavianus, afterwards named Augustus, which letter, however, is supposed to be spurious. There cannot be a more complete history of the life of Cicero, or of the tumultuous times in which he lived, than this work, all of which, by an exquisite ingenuity, is so faithfully compiled from the known works of the orator, that probably there is not in the whole book a single expression, perhaps not a single word, which is not to be found in that great storehouse of philosophical eloquence. Nor is there any incoherence or awkwardness in this rearrangement of Cicero’s language; but, on the contrary, the matter flows as gracefully as in the original. "Whatever we find," says Parr, in the different writings of Cicero, elegantly expressed, or acutely conceived, Bellendenus has not only collected in one view, but elucidated in the clearest manner. He, therefore, who peruses this performance with the attention which it merits, will possess all the treasures of antiquity, all the energy of the mightiest examples. He will obtain an adequate knowledge of the Roman law, and system of jurisprudence, and may draw, as from an inexhaustible source, an abundance of expressions, the most exquisite in their kind." In the opinion of another critic, [The late Earl of Buchan, who had the extraordinary fortune to possess a copy of this rare book.] it is inconceivable that Bellenden could have composed this singular work, without having the whole of the writings of Cicero, and all the collateral authorities, in his mind at once, as it must have been quite impossible to perform such a task by turning over the leaves of the books, in order to find the different expressions suited to the various occasions where they were required.

After the death of Bellenden, the date of which is only known to have been posterior to 1625, the manuscript of his great work fell into the hands of one Toussaint du Bray, who printed it at Paris in 1631, or 1634, and dedicated it to King Charles I. of Great Britain. It is alleged that the principal part of the impression, about a thousand copies, was shipped for sale in Britain, and was lost on the passage, so that only a few copies survived. The work therefore fell at once into obscurity, and in a few years was scarcely known to exist. One copy having found its way to the Cambridge University Library, fell into the hands of Conyers Middleton, the keeper of that institution, who seems to have adopted the idea of making it the ground-work for a Life of Cicero under his own name. Hence has arisen one of the most monstrous instances of literary plagium which modern times have witnessed. The work of Middleton at once attained to great reputation, and chiefly through that skilful arrangement of the writings of the orator himself: which Bellenden had provided to his hands. The theft was first denounced by Warton, and subsequently made clear by Dr Parr, in his preface to the "De Statu." As the latter gentleman was prepossessed in favour of both the literary and political character of Middleton, the terms in which he speaks of the theft are entitled to the more weight. He commences his exposure in the following strain of tender apology, which we quote in the original, on account of its extraordinary beauty; for we know not that even the writings of Tully exhibit periods more harmonious, or that the human ear has hitherto been gratified with a more enchanting sweetness of language:

"Litterae fuerunt Middletono, non vulgares hae et quotidianae, sed uberrimae et maxime exquisitae. Fuit judicium subtile limatumque. Teretes et religiosae fuerunt aures. Stylus est ejus ita purus ac suavis, ita salebris sine ullis profluens quiddam et canorum habet, numeros ut videatur complecti, quales in alio quopiam, praeter Addisonum, frustra quaesiveris. Animum fuisse ejusdem parum candidum ac sincerum, id vero, fateor invitus, dolens, coactus."

"Middleton was a man of no common attainments; his learning was elegant and profound, his judgment acute and polished; he had a fine and correct taste; and his style was so pure and so harmonious, so vigorously flowing without being inflated, that, Addison alone excepted, he seems to be without a rival. As to his mind, I am compelled with grief and reluctance to confess, it was neither ingenuous nor faithful.

"Of the faith of any man, in matters of religion, [Middleton was a free-thinker.] I presume not to speak with asperity or anger: yet I am vehemently displeased that a man possessed of an elegant and enlightened mind, should deprive Bellenden of the fame he merited. For I assert, in the most unqualified terms, that Middleton is not only indebted to Bellenden for many useful and splendid materials, but that, wherever it answered his purpose, he has made a mere transcript of his work. He resided at Cambridge, where he possessed all the advantages which that university and all its valuable libraries afford, to make collections for his undertaking. Yet did the man who proposed a system for the regulation of a university library, possess the writings of Bellenden, anticipating all that he professed to accomplish. I cannot deny but that he makes some allusion to this particular work of Bellendenus in his preface, although in a very dark and mysterious manner; particularly where he speaks of the history of those times, which, whoever wishes to understand minutely, has only to peruse Cicero’s Epistles with attention; of the tediousness of being obliged to peruse Cicero’s works two or three times over; of the care and trouble of consorting for future use various passages scattered through the different volumes; and, above all, of the very words of Cicero, which, give a lustre and authority to a sentiment, when woven originally into the text.

"To conclude the whole - whatever Middleton ostentatiously declares it to be his wish and his duty to do, had been already done to his hands, faithfully and skilfully by Bellendenus from the beginning to the end of the work!"

It is impossible to dismiss the life and singular writings of William Bellenden, without a passing expression of regret, that so much ingenuity, so much learning, so much labour, may be expended, without producing even the remuneration of a name—for Bellenden, to use a phrase of Buchanan, is a light rather than a name. His last work extended to 824 pages in folio, and he contemplated other two of similar size, and equal 1abour. Yet all this was so futile, that the very next generation of his own countrymen do not appear to have known that such a man ever existed. Even after all the care of bibliographers and others, which has searched out the few facts embraced by this imperfect narrative, the name of Bellenden is only known in connexion with certain works, which are, it is true, reputed to be admirable of their kind, but, for every practical purpose, are almost as entirely lost to the world at large, as those libri perditi of Cicero, which he has himself alluded to with so much regret. Nor can Bellenden be described as a man defrauded by circumstances of that fame which forms at once the best motive and the best reward of literature. He must have written with but very slender hopes of reputation through the medium of the press. It thus becomes a curious subject of speculation, that so much pains should have been bestowed where there was so little prospect of its reflecting credit or profit upon the labourer. And yet this seems to be rather in consequence of, than in defiance to the want of such temptation. The works of the ancient classics, written when there was no vehicle but manuscripts for their circulation, and a very small circle in which they could be appreciated, are, of all literary performances, the most carefully elaborated: those of the age when printing was in its infancy, such as the works of Bellenden and other great Latinists, are only a degree inferior in accuracy and finish; while these latter times, so remarkable for the facility with which the works of men of genius are diffused, have produced hardly a single work, which can be pointed to as a perfect specimen of careful workmanship and faultless taste. There is something not ungratifying in this reflection; it seems to atone to the great memories of the past, for the imperfect rewards which they enjoyed in life or in fame. If we could suppose that the lofty spirits who once brightened the lustre of knowledge and literature, and died without any contemporary praise, still look down from their spheres upon the present world, it would gratify the moral faculties to think of the pleasure which they must have, in contemplating their half-forgotten but unsurpassed labours, and in knowing that men yet look back to them as the giants of old who have left no descendants in the land. Thus even the aspirate "name" of Bellenden, which almost seems as if it had never had a mortal man attached to it, might reap a shadowy joy from the present humble effort to render it the justice which has been so lone withheld.


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