Page images

template without a perpetual succession of agreeable emos tions. Tragedy, whether she rages with Æschylus, or weeps with Sophocles, or moralizes with Euripides, never ceases to wear a dignified and interesting aspect. Comedy, in the natiral and easy dress, in which, after the best Greek models, she is clothed by Terence, can never fail to please. Lyric poetry, while it rolls on, like an impetuous torrent, in the lofty strains, and the wild and varied numbers of Pindar, or flows in a placid and transparent stream along the channel of Horatian verse, or glides briskly through the bowers of love and joy in the sportive lays of Anacreon, by turns astonishes, soothes, and delights. Elegy, through the soft and plaintive notes of Bion or Tibullus, melts the soul in pleasing sympathy: while Pastoral Song, in the artless notes of Theocritus, or in the sweet melody of the Mantuan pipe, plays gently about the fancy and the heart. Satire, in the mean time, provides entertainment for those who are disposed to laugh at folly, or indulge an honest indignation against vice, in the smile of Horace, the grin of Liician, and the frown of Juvenal. '. So rich and various are the treasures, with which the Greek and Roman writers furnish those, who have enjoyed the advantage of a classical education

But, without having recourse to the ancients, it is possible to find in modern languages valuable specimens of every species of polite literature. The English language, in particular, abounds with writings addressed to the imagination and feelings, and calculated for the improvement of taste. No one, who is not so far blinded by prejudice in favour of antiquity as to be incapable of relishing any thing modern, can doubt, that excellent examples of every kind of literary merit are to be found among the British writers. The inventive powers of Shakspeare, the sublime conceptions of Milton, the versatile genius of Dryden, the wit of Butler, the easy gayety of Prior, the strength and harmony of Pope, the descriptive powers of Thomson, the delicate humour of Ad. dison, the pathetic simplicity of Sterne, and the finished correctness of Gray, might, with some degree of confidence, be respectively brought into comparison with any examples of šimilar excellence among the ancients.

For minds capable of the pleasures of imagination and Sentiment, such writings as these provide a kind of entertainment which is in it's nature elegant and refined, and which

admits of endless diversity. By exhibiting images industriously collected and judiciously disposed, they produce im pressions upon the reader's fancy, scarcely less vivid than those which would result from the actual contemplation of natural objects. By combining incidents and characters of various kinds, and representing them as associated in new aud interesting relations, they keep curiosity perpetually awake, and touch in succession every affection and passion of the heart. Whatever is grand or beautiful in nature ; whatever is noble, lovely, or singular, in character; whatever is surprising or affecting in situation ; is by the magic power of genius brought at pleasure into view, in the manner best adapted to excite correspondent emotions. A rich field of elegant pleasure is hereby laid open before the reader who is possessed of a true taste for polite literature, which distinguishes him from the vulgar, at least as much as the man who enjoys an affluent fortune is distinguished by the luxuries of his table.

Beside the immediate gratification, which this kind of reading affords, it is attended with several COLLATERAL ADVANTAGES, which are perhaps of equal value. The exercise, which it gives to the imagination and feelings, improves the vigour and sensibility of the mind. It is the natural tendency of an intimate acquaintance with images of grandeur, beauty, and excellence, as they are exhibited in works of taste, to produce a general habit of dignity and elegance, which will seldom fail to tincture a man's general character, and diffuse a graceful air over his whole conversation and manners. It is not unreasonable even to expect, that they who are habitually conversant with beautiful forms in nature and art, and are frequently employed in contenplating excellent characters in the pages of history and fiction, will learn to admire whatever is noble or becoming in conduct.

-The attentive Mind,
By this harmonious action on her pow'rs,
Becomes herself harmonious: wont so oft
In ontward things to meditate the charm
Of sacred order, soon she seeks at home
To find a kindred order, to exert
Within herself this elegance of love,
This fair inspir'd delight: but temper'd pow'n
Refine at length, and ev'ry passion wears
A chiaster, milder, more attractive mien. AKENSIDA,

[ocr errors]

To all this must be added, as a material consideration in favour of the study of polite literature, that it affords an agree able and useful exercise of the judgment, in determining the degree of merit in literary productions; an exercise which tends to improve the taste, and to form a habit of correct and elegant expression, both in conversation and writing. v

It is on these accounts, that the study of polite literature in general, and of the aucient classical writers in particular, is made a priucipal branch of liberal education: and for these reasons, some attention may be due to the observations and, precepts, relative to the reading of works of taste, which are to fill up the remaiuder of this Essay.

The effect which is produced by writing is similar to that wbich is produced by painting, in this respect, among others:. as in painting the spectator first enjoys the immediate pleasure of the emotion excited by the representation, and then the secondary gratification of exercising his judgment upon the merit of the painter; so in poetry, and other literary. works of taste, the reader first indulges his feelings in contemplating the objects, which, by means of a due choice and arrangement of words, are presented before bis imagination and then proceeds to a critical examination of the degree of invention, judgment, and taste, which the production dis

The former is the sole object of attention in the vulgar spectator, or uneducated reader: the latter is the chief occupation of those who, without natural delicacy of feeling, or vigour of fancy, coolly apply to works of genius the technical rules of art. To form the character of the real manz of taste and the true critic, both must be united.

In order to enjoy in perfection the pleasure arising from these employments of the mind upon literary works of taste, beside the foundation of good sense, and lively sensibility, which must be laid by nature, several preparatory acquisitions are requisite.

The first is an accurate acquaintance with the LANGUAGE, in which the works we read are written. It is very evident, that it is impossible to feel the effect, or judge of the meriti of any literary composition, without knowing the meaning of the terms which the writer uses, and the structure and idiom of the language in which he writes. Hence arises the necessity of a correct and grammatical knowledge of Greek and


[ocr errors]

Latiti, in order to enable any one to relish the beauties of the ancients. And hence it becomes reasonable to suspect some deficiency in classical learning, where tliese established mo." dels of fine writing are made the subject of indiscriminate censure. I verbal criticism be thought in itself a trifling employment; yet, as an instrument for discovering the true meaning, in order to perceive the excellencies or defects, and thus ascertain the merit of a writer, it must be acknowledged to be a useful art. A man of accurate taste in works of literature must be a good grammarian.

Beside this, it is necessary to be so well acquainted with the sources from which writers borrow their images and illustrations, as to be capable of feeling the effect, and judging of the propriety, of the application. Many poems of the first merit appear obscure, only because the reader is not sufficiently acquainted with the ancient fables, historical facts, or natural objects, to which the poet refers. The mythology of the Greeks, however difficult it may be to explain it philosophically, must at least be known as a subject of narration and description, before the poetical writings of the ancients can be understood. And even modern poets, who frequently introduce these fables into their works with little effect indeed, for, as Dr. Johnson says, “ The attention naturally “.retires from a new tale of Venus, Diana, and Minerva" require, in their readers, some portion of mythological knowledge. Since genius ransacks every region of nature, science, and art, for materials upon which she may exercise her powers; a general acquaintance with things, as well as words, is necessary, in order to form a true estimate of the merit of her productions. The beauties of poetry cannot be completely relished, without a habit of attending to those forms of nature, from which the poet borrows his conceptions, and observing with accuracy the distinct features, and peculiar characters, of objects in the vegetable and animal world *.

"A general habit of CLOSE ATTENTION is another most important requisite, as in all other pursuits, so particularly in the exercise of the imagination, or judgnient, upon works

See this subject illustrated by many pertinent examples and ju. dicious observations, in Dr. Aikin's Essay on the application of Natural History to Poetry,

the pen.

of taste. The difference between a languid and a vigorous exertion of the faculties forms the chief point of distinction between genius and dulness. No man, who was not capable of forming clear and vivid conceptions, ever wrote well. Nor. can any one, without that degree of exertion, which preserves the mind awake to every impression, and strongly fixes it's attention upon every object which comes under it's notice, be in a proper state for enjoying the pleasures of taste, or for exercising the functions of criticism. He who has acquired this important habit of attention has learned to see and feel. The general picture presented before his fancy by the artist will strike him with it's full force; nor will any single touch, however minute, escape his observation. The consequence must be, a perfect experience of the effect which it was intended to produce, and an accurate discernment of all it's beauties and blemishes. This remark is equally valid, whether the instrument, which genius employs, be the pencil or

Thus furnished with learning, knowledge, and attention, nothing farther can be necessary to put the reader of works of taste into immediate possession of the pleasures of imagination and sentiment, but a careful selection, and diligent perusal, of the most excellent productions. It is of great consequence to young persons, at least at their entrance upon the study of polite literature, before their taste is completely formed, that they confine themselves to writers of the first merit in each branch of composition. If, in making this choice, the advice of a judicious friend be wanting, they may safely rely upon the vcice of common fanie: for on questions of taste and feeling the general result of public opinion is

The second object of attention in reading works of taste, that of forming a judgment concerning their

merit, requires, beside the general preparation already suggested, a distinct examination of their several excellencies and defects. In order to execute the office of criticism with tolerable success, the general principles of good writing must be well uuderstood, and every piece which is to be examined must be brought to the standard of these principles. Whatever ridicule some witty writers may have cast upon this kind of admeasurement :-however delightful it may, he thought, to

seldom wrong:

« PreviousContinue »