« AnteriorContinua »
raised by a cursory narrative; which ideas being faint, obscure, and imperfect, leave a vacuity in the mind, which solicits reflection. And accordingly, a curt narrative of feigned incidents is never relished : any slight pleasure it affords, is more than counterbalanced by the disgust it inspires for want of truth.
To support the foregoing theory, I add what I reckon a decisive argument; which is, that even genuine history has no command over our passions but by ideal presence only; and consequently, that in this respect it stands upon the same footing with fable. To me it appears clear, that in neither can our sympathy hold firm against reflection : for if the reflection that a story is a pure fiction prevent our sympathy, so will equally the reflection that the persons described are no longer existing. What effect, for example, can the belief of the rape of Lucretia have to raise our sympathy, when she died above 2000 years ago, and hath at present no painful feeling of the injury done her? The effect of history, in point of instruction, depends in some measure upon its veracity. But history cannot reach the heart, while we indulge any reflection upon the facts : such reflection, if it engage our belief, never fails at the same time to poison our pleasure, by convincing us that our sympathy for those who are dead and gone is absurd. And if reflection be laid aside, history stands upon the same footing with fable: what effect either may have to raise our sympathy, depends on the vivacity of the ideas they raise ; and, with respect to that circumstance, fable is generally more successful than history.
Of all the means for making an impression of ideal presence, theatrical representation is the most powerful. That words, independent of action, have the same power in a less degree, every one of sensibility must have felt: a good tragedy will extort. tears in private, though not so forcibly as upon the stage. That power belongs also to painting : a good historical picture makes a deeper impression than words can, though not equal to that of theatrical action. Painting seems to possess a middle place between reading and acting : in making an impression of ideal presence, it is not less superior to the former than inferior to the latter.
It must not however be thought, that our passions can be raised by painting to such a height as by words: a picture is confined to a single instant of time, and cannot take in a succession of incidents : its impression indeed is the deepest that can be made instantaneously; but seldom is a passion raised to any height in an instant, or by a single impression: it was observed above, that our passions, those especially of the sympathetic kind, require a succession of impressions ; and for that reason, reading and acting have greatly the advantage, by reiterating impressions without end.
Upon the whole, it is by means of ideal presence that our passions are excited ; and till words produce that charm, they avail nothing: even real events entitled to our belief, must be conceived present and passing in our sight, before they can move us. And this theory serves to explain several phenomena otherwise unaccountable. A misfortune happening to a stranger, makes a less impression than happening to a man we know, even where we are no way interested in him : our acquaintance with this man, however slight, aids the conception of his suffering in our presence. For the same reason, we are little moved by any distant event; because we have more difficulty to conceive it present, than an event that happened in our neighbourhood.
Every one is sensible, that describing a past event as present, has a fine effect in language : for what other reason than that it aids the conception of ideal presence ? Take the following example:
And now with shouts the shocking armies clos'd,
And slaughter'd heroes swell the dreadful tide. In this passage we may observe how the writer, inflamed with the subject, insensibly advances from the past time , to the present; led to that form of narration by conceiving every circumstance as passing in his own sight: which at the same time has a fine effect upon the reader, by presenting things to him as a spectator. But change from the past to the present requires some preparation; and is not sweet where there is no stop in the sense: witness the following passage :
Thy fate was next, O Phæstus! doom'd to feel
Iliad, v. 57.
It is still worse to fall back to the past in the same period; for that is an anticlimax in description :
Through breaking ranks his furious course he bends,
Iliad, v. 415.
Again, describing the shield of Jupiter,
Here all the Terrors of grim war appear,
Iliad, v. 914.
Nor is it pleasant to be carried backward and forward alternately in a rapid succession:
Then dy'd Scamandrius, expert in the chace,
Iliad, v. 65.
It is wonderful to observe, upon what slight foundations Nature erects some of her most solid and magnificent works. In appearance at least, what can be more slight than ideal presence? And yet from it is derived that extensive influence which language hath over the heart; an influence which, more than any other means, strengthens the bond of society, and attracts individuals from their private system to perform acts of generosity and benevolence. Matters of fact, it is true, and truth in general, may be inculcated without taking advantage of ideal presence; but without it, the finest speaker or writer would in vain attempt to move any passion : our sympathy would be confined to objects that are really present ; and language would lose entirely its signal power of making us sympathise with beings removed at the greatest distance of time as well as of place. Nor is the influence of language, by means of ideal presence, confined to the heart: it reacheth also the understanding, and contributes to belief. For when events are related in a lively manner, and every circumstance appears as passing before us, we suffer not patiently the truth of the facts to be questioned. An historian, accordingly, who hath a genius for narration, seldom fails to engage our belief. The same facts related in a manner cold and indistinct, are not suffered to pass without examination : a thing ill described is like an object seen at a distance, or through a mist; we doubt whether it be a reality or a fiction. Cicero says, that to relate the manner in which an event passed, not only enlivens the story, but makes it appear more credible.* For that reason, a poet who can warm and animate his reader, may employ bolder fictions than ought to be ventured by an inferior genius: the reader once thoroughly engaged, is susceptible of the strongest impressions :
Veraque constituunt, quæ belle tangere possunt
Lucretius, lib. I. 1. 644.
A masterly painting has the same effect: Le Brun is on small support to Quintus Curtius: and among the vulgar in Italy, the belief of scripture-history is, perhaps, founded as much upon the authority of Raphael, Michael Angelo, and other celebrated painters, as upon that of the sacred writers.
* De Oratore, lib. ii. sect. 81.
† At quæ Polycleto defuerent, Phidæ atque Alcaneni dantur. Phidias tamen diis quam hominibus efficiendis melior artifex traditur: in ebore vero longe citra æmulum, vel si nihil nisi Minervam Athenis, aut Olympium in Elide Jovem fecisset, cujus pulchritudo adjecisse aliquid etiam recepte VOL. I.