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ful it may be thought, to give up the reins of one's imagination into an author's hands, and be pleased one knows not why, and cares not wherefore ;" there are unquestionably in nature certain characters by which works of true genius and taste may be distinguished from inferior productions. To be able, in all cases, to determine with precision how far a literary piece excels, or is deficient, in these characters, is a high attainment, which entitles the possessor to no inconsiderable share of distinction, and will furnish him with an endless variety of pleasing employment. It is impossible, in a short Essay, to enter into a particular discussion of the nature and foundation of those qualities which constitute the merit of fine writing in general, or to delineate the peculiar features by which excellence is marked in the several species of composition; it may, however, be of some use to enumerate several of the leading objects of attention in criticism.
Criticism examines the merit of literary productions under the three general heads of Thought, Arrangement, and Expression.
The ESSENTIAL characters of good writing, respecting the THOUGHTS, ideas, or sentiments, are, that they be consonant to nature, clearly conceived, agreeably diversified, regularly connected, and adapted to some good end.
CONFORMITY TO NATURE is a quality, without which no writing, whatever other excellence it may possess, can obtain approbation in the court of good sense—the court, to which the ultimate appeal must lie in all disputes concerning literary merit.* A writer may be allowed to rise above the usual appearances of nature by combining things which are not commonly associated; but he must admit nothing which contradicts common sense and experience, or of which a real archetype cannot even be supposed to exist. The boldest flights of poetic fiction must not pass the boundaries of nature and probability. It is upon this principle, that Dr. Johnson defines poetry “ the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.”
PERFECT and DISTINCT CONCEPTION-a second character of thought in good writing—is the basis of perspicuity. A writer whose feeble mind produces only half-formed em
* Scribendi rectè sapere est et principium et fons.- Hor.
brios of thought, or whose impetuosity will not permit him to separate his ideas from one another before he clothes them in language, must be obscure. The image reflected from the mirror cannot be more perfect than the original object. He who does not himself clearly understand his own meaning can have no right to expect that his reader will understand it. Those writers are most liable to this fault whose ambition or vanity Outruns their genius. Affecting a degree of novelty and originality, which they are not able to attain, they sink into the profound, and become unintelligible.
To justness and clearness must be added VARIETY of conception. It is this quality chiefly which raises a writer of true genius above one of mean or moderate abilities. The field of nature lies equally open to all men ; but it is only the man whose powers are vigorous and commanding, who can combine them with that diversity which is necessary to produce a strong impression upon the imagination. To discern, not only the obvious properties of things, but their more hidden qualities and relations; to perceive resemblances which are not commonly perceived ; to combine images or sentiments, which are not commonly combined ; to exhibit, in description, persons and things with all the interesting varieties of form or action of which they are capable ; are the offices of genius: and it is only in the degree in which these marks of genius appear in any literary production, that it can be pronounced excellent
Perfectly consistent with that variety which characterizes genius, is another essential quality of thought in good writing, UNITY OF DESIGN. In every piece the writer should have one leading design; every part should have some relation to the rest; and all should unite to produce one regular whole.
Denique sit quidvis simplex duntaxat et unum, A thought may be just; a description may be beautiful; a sentiment may be pathetic ; and yet, not naturally arising from the subject, it may be nothing better than a censurable excrescence.
Sed nunc non erat his locus. Whatever has no tendency to illustrate the subject interrupts the reader's attention, and weakens the general effect. This rule must not, however, he understood to preclude, especially in long works, such incidental excursions, as, having some relation to the main subject, afford the reader an agreeable relief, without destroying the unity of the piece Episodes of this kind may be compared to the ivy twining about the oak; which, without concealing the form, or lessening the grandeur of the main object, gratifies the eye with a sense of variety.
To complete the merit of any literary work, as far as thought is concerned, it is necessary to add to every other excellence that of UTILITY. In writing, as in life, this ultimate end should never be forgotten. Whatever tends to enlighten the understanding, to enlarge the conceptions, to impress the heart with right feelings, or to afford innocent and rational amusement, may be pronounced useful. All beyond this is either trifling or pernicious. No strength of genius, or vivacity of wit, can dignify folly, or excuse immorality.
Beside these essential properties of the Thoughts, which are common to all good writing, there are others which occur only in certain connections, according to the nature of the subject or the genius and inclination of the writer, and which may therefore be called INCIDENTAL. From these, which are very numerous, we shall select, as a specimen, Sublimity, Beauty and Novelty.
Those conceptions, expressed in writing, which are adapted to excite in the mind of the reader that kind of emotion which arises from the contemplation of grand and noble objects in nature, are said to be SUBLIME. The emotion of sublimity is doubtless first produced by means of the powers of vision. Whatever is lofty, vast, or profound, while it fills the eye, expands the imagination, and dilates the heart, and thus becomes a source of pleasure.
Who that, from Alpine heights, his lab'ring eye
That murmurs at his feet ? From the similarity between the emotions excited by greatness in objects of sight and by certain other objects which affect the rest of the senses, and from the analogy which these bear to several other feelings excited by different causes, the term Sublimity is applied to various other subjects, as dignity of rank, extent of power, and eminence of merit. Hence those writers, who most successfully exhibit objects or characters of this kind before the imagination of their readers, are said to be sublime.
In like manner, because certain objects of sight are distinguished by characters of beauty, and are adapted to excite emotions of complacence, those writers who represent their fair forms, whether natural or moral, with the most lively colouring, are said to excel in the BEAUTIFUL.
Moreover, since there is in human nature a principle of curiosity which leads us to contemplate unusual objects with the pleasing emotion which is called wonder, noVELTY becomes another source of pleasure in works of taste, which affords ample scope for the display of genius to those who are indued by nature with an imagination which can “ body forth the forms of things unknown;" whence their pen
Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. In reading works of taste, it is the business of criticism to remark in what manner any of these properties of thought, or others of the incidental kind, such as Pathos, Resemblance, Contrast, Congruity, and the like, are exemplified, or violated.
After the Thoughts themselves, the next object of criticism is the METHOD in which they are disposed.
Nothing is more inconsistent with good sense and true taste than the contempt with which some affect to treat that methodical arrangement which Horace so happily styles lucidus ordo. Every kind of writing is certainly illuminated by an accurate disposition of its several parts. Method is so far from being an absolute proof of stupidity, that it is no very questionable indication of strength of mind, and compass of thought. The first conceptions which accidental association may raise in the mind are not likely to come forth spontaneously in that order which is most natural, and best suited to form a regular piece. It is only by the exercise of much attention and accurate judgment that a writer can give his work the beauty of regularity amid variety ; and, without this, the detached parts, however excellent, are but the members of a disjointed statue.* The reader, therefore, who wishes to form an accurate judgment concerning the merit of any literary production will inquire, whether the author's general arrangement be such as best suits his design ; whether there be no confusion in the disposition of particular parts; no redundancies or unnecessary repetitions ; in fine, whether every sentiment be not only just, but pertinent, and in its proper place.
The last, but not the least extensive field of criticism is EXPRESSION.
Here the first quality to be considered is Purity. This consists in such a choice of words, and such a grammatical construction of sentences, as is consonant to the analogy of the language and to the general usage of accurate writers. Purity in the choice of words requires that, except in works of science, where new terms are wanted, no words be admitted but such as are established by good authority; that words be used in the sense which is commonly annexed to them; and that all heterogeneous mixtures of foreign or antiquated words be avoided. In the present state of modern languages, particularly the English, stability and uniformity are of more consequence than enlargement. It is not in the power of fashion to justify the affectation of introducing foreign words and phrases, to express even that which cannot be so concisely expressed in the vernacular tongue. With respect to grammatical purity, its importance, as a source of perspicuity and elegance, is universally acknowledged : but it is too commonly taken for granted that a competent acquaintance with grammar, especially with the grammatical structure of the English language, which is remarkable for its simplicity, may be easily acquired. Hence so little attention is paid to grammatical accuracy by some writers, in other respects of distinguished merit, that it would not be difficult to select from their works examples of the most flagrant violations of syntax. These are faults not to be protected by authority; and it is one of the most useful offices of criticism to detect and expose them.
A second kind of excellence in expression is PERSPICUITY. The chief sources of this essential property of
* Neque enim, quamquam fusis omnibus membris, statua sit, nisi collocetur.- Quintil,