Lectures on the English Language

By GEORGE P. MARSH. New York: Charles Scribner, 1860, pp. vi., 697.
AN American scholar of wide range, at the same time thorough and unpretentious, is a rarity; a philologist who is neither perversely wrongheaded nor the victim of a preconceived theory is a still greater one; yet we find both characters pleasantly united in the author of these Lectures. Decided in his opinions, Mr. Marsh is modest in expressing them, because they are the result of various culture and long reflection, and these have taught him that time and study often render the most positive conclusions doubtful, especially in regard to such a topic as Language. Deservedly honored with diplomatic employment in Europe, he has done credit to the choice of the Government by turning the long leisure of a foreign mission to as great profit by study and observation as if he had been a Travelling Fellow and these had been the conditions of his tenure.
Addressed to a mixed audience, to the laity rather than to students, these Lectures are more popular than scholastic in their character. Mr. Marsh alludes to this with something like regret in his Preface. We look upon this as by no means a misfortune. The book will, for this very reason, reach and interest a much larger number of readers ; and while there is nothing in it to scare away those who read for mere entertainment, they whose studies have led them into the same paths with the author will continually recognize those signs, trifling, but unmistakable, which distinguish the work of a master from that of a journeyman. Scholarship is indicated not only by readiness of allusion, and variety and aptness of illustration, but by a thorough self-possession and chastened eloquence of style. A genius for language comes doubtless by nature, but Mr. Marsh is too wise a man to believe that a knowledge of it comes in the same way ; his learning has that ripened clearness which tells of olden vintages and of long storing in the crypts of the brain ; he has nothing in common with the easy generalizes who know as little of roots as Shelley’s skylark, and who, seeking a shelter in welcome clouds, pour forth “profuse strains of unpremeditated art” upon questions which above all others are limited by exact science and unyielding fact.
We believe we are not going too far when we say that Mr. Marsh’s book is the best treatise of the kind in the language. It abounds in nice criticism and elegant discussion on matters of taste, showing in the author a happy capacity for aesthetic discrimination as well as for linguistic attainment. He does not profess to deal with some of the deeper problems of language, but nevertheless makes us feel that they have been subjects of thoughtful study, and, within the limits he has imposed upon himself, he is often profound without the pretence of it.
We have spoken warmly of this volume, for it has both interested and instructed us, and because we consider it one of the few thoroughly creditable productions of Cisatlantic scholarship. We hope the appreciation it meets with will be such that we shall soon have occasion to thank Mr. Marsh for another volume on some kindred theme