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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 exercice which tends to improve the taste, and to form a habit of correct and elegant expression, both in conversation and writing..
It is on these accounts, that the study of polite literature in general, and of the ancient classical writers in particular, is made a principal 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 remainder of this Essay.
The effect which is produced by writing is similar to that which 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 his imagination ; and then proceeds to a critical examination of the degree of invention, judgment, and taste, which the production discovers. 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 man 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 merit 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
Latin, 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 these established models of fine writing are made the subject of indiscriminate censure. If 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 suf ficiently 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 phi losophically, 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 inte 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 judgment, upon works
See this subject illustrated by many pertinent examples and judicious observations, in Dr. Aikin's Essay on the application of Naturak History to Poetry
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 the pen.
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 voice of common fame: for on questions of taste and feeling the general result of public opinion is seldom wrong.
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 understood, and every piece which is to be examined must be brought to the standard of these principles. Whatever ridi-. cule some witty writers may have cast upon this kind of admeasurement:-however delightful 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 dis cern, 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 in teresting 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 produc tion, 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 re-, lation to the rest; and all should unite to produce, one regular whole.
Denique sit quidvis simplex duntaxat et unum.
A throught 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
Sed nunc non erat his locus.
Whatever has no tendency to illustrate the subject interrupts