« PreviousContinue »
I was not to be moved by such a consideration : CHAP. the agitations of the public mind were not likely to subside speedily; and I had fondly destined my work to be an inheritance for ever, not a contentious struggle for contemporary fame. With a like purpose, I afterwards commenced a translation of Aristotle's critical works, perceiving that to strange opinions on morals and politics, others, analogous, and equally extravagant, had succeeded in matters of taste and criticism.
From the boundless increase of books, and Growing the indefinite variety of readers of all descrip- acy of tions, it came to be regarded as an old and dull literature. prejudice, that the labours of the several muses should be any longer confined to their distinct provinces, or directed to their specific ends. The love of wonder, novelty, and other popular passions, it was thought, would be better gratified by jumbling together all subjects and all styles, though to the same confusion in the productions of art, that would arise in those of nature, from the multiplication of monsters. In this manner, the public taste was gradually brought back to that decrepitude which is a second infancy, and was to be fed with food convenient for it; with rhymes in short verse, tales of wonder and witchery, and that motley brood of non-descripts, calculated to please the pruriency of wild and childish fancies: no longer tragedies or comedies,
2 Κτημα εις αιει.
CHAP. but DRAMATIC works not intended to be acted,
wire-drawn biographies of such men as never lived, histories without facts, philosophy without principles, poetry without harmony, and oratory, supplying by loquacity and petulance, the want of pathos and argument.
In the space of the last thirty years, literature has thus degenerated in the two most conspicuous countries of modern Europe, more than it had done in Rome in the period of 140 years, from Cicero to the younger Pliny; and more than it did in Greece in the course of many centuries. This applies generally to thought and diction; to compositions to be read in the closet, or pronounced in public assemblies; and it cannot be doubted that the inaccuracy and diffuseness of speeches, now so numerous, and by orators of all classes, has contributed to the deterioration of our written style, and, together with coarser blemishes, given to it that vaporous pomp and tinsel texture which characterised, of old, the Asiatic and Alexandrian school, and contrasted it with the pure Atticism, to which our classic authors, both in prose and verse, had long successfully aspired.
We have, however, critics and critical reviewcriticism.
ers in abundance: how comes it that their voice has not been raised against such vile innovations ? I answer, these arbiters of elegance have gone over, themselves, into the camp of the enemy. They discerned the signs of the times. They discovered that the exclusive appetite for satire
and satirical novels, had destroyed all relish for CHAP: any
kind of food which had not the novel flavour:and that even works of learning must assume that form, if they aspired to be fashionable. Cultivating letters, not as the first of elegant pursuits, but as a mere trade, many of the workmen employed soon saw that this was a trade that might be carried on successfully, with little other stock but that of presumption and knavery. They did not combat an author to invest themselves in his spoils; they first stole his arms, then turned them insidiously against him.
Instead of looking upwards. to. their superiors in knowledge for fair fame, they looked downwards to the multitude for sordid lucre : ridicule or ribaldry was opposed to truth and reason; the soundest arguments were encountered by a sarcasm or a sneer; and in favour of the new school, of which they were devoted partisans, many of our noblest authors were greatly depreciated, and some of the ablest of them treated with no small degree of studied contumely. There were no bounds to the idle loquacity of critics, without name and without shame; and no cessation to the thick vollies of words, which they emitted, without ever once hitting the point in question.
* Mr. Knight, (Inquiry into Taste, Part iii. chap. iii. p, 452,) well observes, “that the habit which young people get, of reading for events, without any attention to language, thought, or sentiment completely unnerves all their powers of application, and makes them, incapable of learning or retaining any thing. The mind, like the body," he says, “may be thus reduced to a state of atrophy, in which knowsledge, like food, may pass through it without adding eithe to it strength, its bulk, or its beauty."
But it is idle to arraign writers, whom you may
refute, but do not silence; whom you may stab in the vitals, but do not kill. For, month after month, or quarter after quarter, they revive periodically; enter the lists afresh, after all their errors have been exposed, all their sophisms detected, all their predictions falsified; and while their buffoonery, in the mask of erudition, amuses idleness or delights malice, they will preserve their influence, unimpaired, over readers of scanty education and lazy habits, of light minds and vicious characters.
When errors reach a certain height, they have a tendency to correct themselves; and their removal is said to be the work of time. But mere length of time is an inefficacious reformer. By time, on the contrary, all institutions will contract rust; and into the best of them, in the course of time, corruption will enter, merely through the love of change, and the fastidious preference of novelty to excellence. They ought all of them, therefore, in the words of a great and much injured author", to be seasonably brought back to their first principles.
With this view, I have exerted my best endeavour to familiarize the modern reader with the most approved, and also the most ancient treatise extant, professing to explain, on correct philosophical principles, the merits and demerits of literary composition; to investigate the rules of taste, and establish the canons of criticism. This
* This epithet is justified by my observations on the works of Machiavel, in various parts of “ Aristotle's Politics."
treatise is degraded by the name of “ Rhetoric," CHAP. in the present acceptation of that word. Taken in conjunction with the works of more exact science to which the author perpetually refers, the “ Rhetoric of Aristotle” comprises, within a narrow compass, the absolute and unalterable principles of good tastes, the foundations of all correct moral reasoning, and, humanly speaking, the maxims of all sound practical wisdom. Here, especially, the Stagyrite is exercised, in a field which the condition of his times afforded advantages for cultivating, that were never united in any other : the agitations of many free states in the near neighbourhood of each other; the ardent and illustrious competitions in tribunals and public assemblies; the unrivalled elegance of national solemnities; and those high literary attainments, approved in all ages, themselves worthy of approbation, and never vilified by any but those ignorant and conceited persons, whose envious and feeble eyes were unable to endure their splendour. Such were the advantages of which Aristotle fully availed himself, in writing his treatise on prosaic composition ; for he had before written his art of poetry, whose golden fragments have been translated and commented by some of the first names in modern literature. But his Rhetoricis not, like the Poetic, a fragment: it is a complete work, ample in detail, and strict in method, and comprised wholly in the three
• Though tastes be variable to a proverb, good taste is ever and every where the same. How few ages have been adorned by it ! But in these few the glory of the human species is concentrated.