Imágenes de páginas

Sketch of the Progress and State of Polite Literature.

supplied the one, susceptibility and observation the other. The history of the human mind is marked with changes, as the chivalrous spirit of freedom, and the enlightened struggles of philosophy triumphed or sunk; and to follow the involutions of its wild and unsettled course, dwelling on the moments of its loveliness, and turning in regret from the pictures of its degradation, were to wander over a desolation which seldom presents a green and fertile spot, to reward us for the fatigue we had encountered. There is, however, a great and important benefit to be drawn from the perusal of the past; for, while we mourn over the sleep of Genius through the ages of darkness and tyranny, and rejoice in her light through the times of liberty and civilization, we have before us the inspirations of her freedom— the glorious lessons of ancient wisdom-a long line, that carries with it an eternal brilliancy and warmth, imparting truth, beauty, and animation to all it touches in its course. When Genius first gazed upon the field of Nature, an ample and extensive plain met her view, and she had but to breathe her invocation through the gloom to call up the spirit of all that was stretched beneath her; the beautiful-the enthusiastic, borrowed no imagery from the past, and the tints with which she embellished her bold imaginings, were a creation in themselves. But this was a chaos of splendor, in the confusions of which judgment was dazzled and bewildered; the emanations of thought were like the bursts of a stormy sky, at once magnificent and irregular; Nature was worshipped rudely and without discrimination; her attributes were unmarked, and she was consecrated in her general excellence, to the omission of her peculiar and loveliest properties. At length it was found necessary to divide and throw into classes the ideas and labors of the mind-it was discovered that arrangement and simplicity gave to argument its force, and to instruction its efficacy; and man resorted to method to effect what would otherwise have triumphed over his efforts. The resulting distinctions have been generally separated by the learned into four partsHistory, Philosophy, Eloquence and Poetry; which are supposed to comprehend the extent of mental attainment, and intellectual exertion. Yet even these, although decided in their peculiar qualities, are treated without reference to order, some holding up the dogmas of Philosophy to the first place, and others maintaining the enthusiasm of Eloquence-some defending the beauty of one class, and some

Sketch of the Progress and State of Polite Literature.

the excellence of another; always suiting their observations to the turn of their own taste, and the convenience of their own talents. The estimation, however, they are severally entitled to can be rated according to their general service and utility, which can be ascertained by an examination into the cause and proper object of each.

If instruction be the great aim of education, and end of learning, it is evident that those sciences which have most improved mankind claim the highest place in his estimation. The developement of the human character fastens strongly on the attention, and we are in no manner so easily won over to the conviction of our own errors, as by the exposure of similar offences in others; the recital of the past warns us in the fulfilment of the future, and we look upon the records of frailty or greatness with a mingled feeling of fear and emulation. It has been elegantly observed, that History is Philosophy teaching by example; but it is a Philosophy divested of scepticism, and fraught with interest-a Philosophy, that reaches the humblest capacity, while it improves the purest heart-and one that possesses the value of erudition, unsullied by its obscurity. The wisest men of antiquity have considered that example is more forcible than precept, and the actions of illustrious characters are, in consequence, frequently delineated in their works. Æsop, one of their most judicious philosophers, did not disdain to throw his wisdom into a series of simple fables; and, to refer to a higher authority, and one more calculated to excite our attention, we perceive that the laws of Christianity are illustrated and supported by parables from the lips of the great Lawgiver himself. This is the strongest and most satisfactory proof of the worth of that method of instruction, which seizes the heart by placing its faults before it as they existed with others. Thus History, rendering up to our view the long list of the ages that are past, with all their glory, and all their shame, and bringing under our notice the virtues by which men have prospered, and the crimes by which they have fallen, gains that essential control over our regard, which accomplishes the object of study, and obtains for itself the first name amongst the efforts of human genius.

Philosophy, from its nature and design, is placed before Poetry and Eloquence, and, perhaps, might have ranked above History, if those great men who threw a lustre round its name had not inculcated doctrines, which the enlightened researches of subsequent periods have overturned.

Sketch of the Progress and State of Polite Literature.

There was, however, a magnificence even in their errors, and it is difficult not to acknowledge their sublimity, while we condemn their opinions. They were comprehensive and argumentative; but Christianity has overturned the fabric of their genius, and changed the theatre of metaphysical eloquence into the holy temple of persuasive truth. Modern philosophers have not, however, much improved upon the system; for if the former were deficient in fundamental knowledge, the latter are abstruse, complex and confused, involving truth in intricacies, through which it is difficult to follow her. Locke, Bacon, and Newton, are not adapted to the general capacity, and it is easy to misunderstand them. We will say nothing of the pernicious sophistry of Rousseau, Gibbon, Hume, Shaftesbury, &c.; like a beautiful conflagration, that astonishes while it devastates, they were most sublime in the moment of destruction; but they have erected the monument of their own disgrace, and if the inscriptions are flattering on the one side, they are blotted with everlasting shame on the other.

"It is hardly possible," says Mr. Blair, "to determine the exact limits where Eloquence ends and Poetry begins;" from which we are to infer, that Eloquence is either antecedent to Poetry in its creation, or superior in its use and worth. Poetry is directed to the imagination, Eloquence to the passions: the one plays like a spirit of fancy amongst the wild flowers, and grottos, and secret recesses of nature; its language is imagery, and its end is pleasure; it never sinks into the servile or unworthy, but delights to dwell with the good and the exalted-it gives to barrenness a fresh and vigorous life, to cultivation an interest-it deprives the beautiful of ungraceful ornament, and places it in all its abstract and native charms before the eye-it scatters over desolation an incalescence peculiar to itself, destroying its lifeless aspect, and creating through it a breathing loveliness-it soars into supernal existence to light its Promethean torch, kindling its eternal flame amidst the stars, the comets, and the lightning-its wing never falls, and its fertility is inexhaustible. The other derives its power from truth, and its end is conviction-it has a spell in its words to raise up the heart from its solemnity, or depress it in its gaiety; it is composed of enthusiasm, that bursts over tle soul like the volcano, when, throwing a brilliant and overpowering chain over the coldness beneath, it rages at midnight among the mountains, rousing up inanimate dark,

[ocr errors]

Sketch of the Progress and State of Polite Literature.

ness into sudden and fiery splendor, and irradiating the whole atmosphere with wild, terrific, and sublime emanations, that seem to borrow their grandeur from some source we are impatient, yet fear to investigate. Eloquence collects its fame in the instant it triumphs; but the grace of delivery, the impressive energy of the speaker, the many local and immediate effects are all lost to after ages; and the language, stripped of the embellishments of action and circumstances, comes coldly down to posterity, honored with less reverence, and admired with less delight: but Poetry, that depends on nothing adventitious-that is raised in the temple of the imagination, and consecrated at the shrine of general and intelligible nature-that owes nothing to the decorations of time or place-for which the awards of a contemporary age promise less than the approbation of future timesholds a higher and nobler rank, and is entitled to more unqualified estimation in the division of the labors of the mind.

The progress of literature is so interwoven with the history of nations, that the writer who records the one must, in part, be the annalist of the other; and in tracing the improvement or decline of polite learning, it is impossible to avoid touching upon those great political events that agitated so deeply the sources of knowledge and information. In the earlier ages of paganism and superstition, when the laws of moral action and the government of the passions were drawn from the romantic code of a visionary mythology, the poets were the historians of the public events, and the tablet that was to descend to posterity, engraved with the character, customs, and energies of the times, was filled with the images of fiction and bold improbability; hence the obscurity in which those periods are involved, and the difficulty of fixing to their proper dates and bounds those interesting narrations that are connected with the original establishment of states and empires. There is one fact, however, afforded by this uncertain chronology, which is the evidence it gives of the existence of poetry at a time when the more serious and useful branches of study were totally unknown. The curious amongst the learned have spared no labor to ascertain the first names to which the several walks of composition are to be attributed; thus, they have traced back the origin of epic poetry to Homer, and to Thespis, the waggoner, they have given the merit of the first dramatic exhibijon-to Theocritus the pastoral poem, and the lyrical to

Sketch of the Progress and State of Polite Literature.

Pindar, &c. In the invention and rapid progress of the arts, Greece was much earlier than Rome; and the characters she produced, claiming the first place in point of order, command it in respect of genius. But if there is more energy, and dignity, and fire, in the composition of the one, there is, perhaps, a greater degree of smoothness and harmony in the versification of the other; the tone of the languages admitted this, and the poet, seizing on their peculiarities, profited by them; it is to their happy selection of subjects, and their manner of treating them, they owed much of that esteem and veneration in which they were held. There are many anecdotes handed down to us of the magic power the bard possessed over the actions of his fellow men, in the primitive stages of polite literature. In the hours of battle and festivity, whether to raise the heart into daring and fearless conceptions, or swell it with tender and rapturous thoughts, the lyre had the sway and the spell, that raised, and depressed, and animated, and weakened; there was a charm in its melody, and a superstitious solemnity in its music that enslaved the soul. Tyrtæus is related to have excited in the retreating Spartans such a spirit of bravery, that they returned on the Messenians, and finally routed them with considerable slaughter; and such was the ascendancy Pindar possessed, that when Alexander conquered Thebes, he spared the house of the poet from the depredations and ravages of his soldiers. The memory, therefore, of those great men of antiquity, should be reverenced and honored; and although the cant of modern criticism holds up the refinement of modern authors in competition with the ancients, we should hesitate before we decide, as there is much to be argued on both sides of the question. In bringing together Homer and Milton-Sophocles and Shakespeare, we should remember the peculiar manners and modes-the tastes and opinions, and, most of all, the periods in which they severally flourished. The ancients were vigorous, bold and sensitive; in drawing from nature they copied all things as they appeared, and were not deterred from wide and sometimes unrefined definitions by affectation: inanimate nature grew into life in their pages, and they cherished her wherever she spread her being, in all that wild and original grandeur that dignifies and beautifies their remains. Society had not yet reached that elegance that can only relish what is selected, and was just wise enough to be pleased with the fresh coloring of men who wandered over the

« AnteriorContinuar »