Imatges de pÓgina

or England; but the laws designed to improve our taste, by this reasoning, must be adapted to the genius of every people, as much as those enacted to promote morality.

"What I propose as objections, are really the sentiments I mean to prove, not to obviate. I must own it as my opinion, that if criticism be at all requisite to promote the interests of learning, its rules should be taken from among the inhabitants, and adapted to the genius and temper of the country it attempts to refine. I must own it, though, perhaps, by this opinion's prevailing, many a scholium of the ancients and many a folio of criticism translated from the French, now in repute among us, would infallibly sink into oblivion. English taste, like English liberty, should be restrained only by laws of its own promoting.

"But to use argument as well as assertion, let us take a nearer view of what is called taste, examine its standard, see if foreign critics are just in setting up theirs as a model to us, or whether we be right in adopting their proffered improvements. As the disquisition, however, is dry, I shall study conciseness.

"All objects affect us with pleasure one of these two ways, either by immediately gratifying the senses with pleasing sensations, or by being thought in a secondary manner capable of making other objects contribute to this effect. The pleasures of immediate sensation are coeval with our senses, and, perhaps, most vivid in infancy; the secondary source of pleasure results from experience only, from considering the analogy of nature, or the capacity a part has to unite to a whole. The pleasures of the first sort, are derived from the beauty of the object; those of the second, from a consideration of its use. The first are natural; no art can increase them without mending the organ which was to give them admission. The second are artificial, and continually altering, as whim, climate, or seasons direct. To illustrate my meaning. The beauty of a guinea, for instance, its regular figure and shining colour, are equally obvious to the senses in every country and climate; these qualities please the wildest savage as much as the most polished European; as far as it affects the senses, the pleasure a guinea gives is, therefore, in every country the same.

"But the consideration of the uses it can be turned to, are another source of pleasure, which is different in different countries. A native of Madagascar prefers to it a glass bead; a native of Holland prefers it to every thing else. The pleasure then of its sensible qualities are every where the same; those of its secondary qualities every where different. He whom nature has furnished with the most vivid perceptions of beauty, and to whom experience has suggested the greatest number of uses, in the contemplation of any object, may be said to receive the greatest pleasure that object is capable of affording. Thus the barbarian finds some small pleasure in the contemplation of a guinea; the enlightened European, who is acquainted with its uses, still more than him; the chemist, who besides this, knows the peculiar fixedness and malleability of the metal, most of all. This capacity of receiving pleasure, may be called Taste in the objects of nature. The polite arts,

[blocks in formation]

in all their variety, are only an imitation of nature. He then must excel in them, who is capable of inspiring us at once with the most vivid perceptions of beauty, and with the greatest number of experimental uses in any object described But as the artist, to give vivid perceptions, must be perspicuous and concise, and yet to exhibit usefulness requires minuteness; here are two opposite qualities required in the writer, in one of which his imagination, in the other his reasoning faculty is every moment liable to offend; what has he in this case to guide him? Taste is, perhaps, his only director. Taste in writing is the exhibition of the greatest quantity of beauty and of use that may be admitted into any description without counteracting each other.

"The perfection of taste, therefore, proceeds from a knowledge of what is beautiful and useful. Criticism professes to increase our taste. But our taste cannot be increased with regard to beauty; because, as has been shewn, our perceptions of this kind cannot be increased, but are most vivid in infancy. Criticism then can only improve our taste in the useful. But this, as was observed, is different in every climate and country; what is useful in one climate being often noxious in another; therefore, criticism must understand the nature of the climate and country, &c. before it gives rules to direct taste. In other words, every country should have a national system of criticism.

"In fact, nothing can be more absurd than rules to direct the taste of one country drawn from the manners of another. There may be some general marks in nature, by which all writers are to proceed; these, however, are obvious, and might as well have never been pointed out: but to trace the sources of our passions, to mark the evanescent boundaries between satiety and disgust, and how far elegance differs from finery, requires a thorough knowledge of the people to whom the criticism is directed.

"If, for instance, the English be a people who look upon death as an incident no way terrible, but sometimes fly to it for refuge from the calamities of life, why should a Frenchman be disgusted at our bloody stage? there is nothing hideous in the representation to one of us, whatever there might be to him.

"We have long been characterized as a nation of spleen, and our rivals on the continent as a land of levity. Ought they to be offended at the melancholy air which many of our modern poets assume, or ought we to be displeased with them for all their harmless trifling upon pincushions, parrots, and pretty faces. What is rational with us, becomes with them formality; and what is fancy at Paris, is at London fantastical. Critics should, therefore, imitate physicians, and consider every country as having a peculiar constitution, and consequently requiring a peculiar regimen."]



We have hitherto seen, that wherever the poet was permitted to begin by improving his native language, polite learning flourished; but where the critic undertook the same task, it has never risen to any degree of perfection. Let us now examine the merits of modern learning in France and England; where, though it may be on the decline, yet it is still capable of retrieving much of its former splendour. In other places learning has not yet been planted, or has suffered a total decay. To attempt amendment there, would be only like the application of remedies to an insensible or a mortified part; but here there is still life, and there is hope. And, indeed, the French themselves are so far from giving into any despondence of this kind, that, on the contrary, they admire the progress they are daily making in every science. That levity for which we are apt to despise this nation, is probably the principal source of their happiness. An agreeable oblivion of past pleasures, a freedom from solicitude about future ones, and a poignant zest of every present enjoyment, if they be not philosophy, are at least excellent substitutes. By this they are taught to regard the period in which they live with admiration. The present manners, and the present conversation, surpass all that preceded. A similar enthusiasm as strongly tinctures their learning and their taste. While we, with a despondence characteristic of our nature, are for removing back British excellence to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, our more happy rivals of the continent cry up the writers of the present times with rapture, and regard the age of Louis XV. as the true Augustan age of France.

The truth is, their present writers have not fallen so far short of the merits of their ancestors as ours have done. That self-sufficiency now mentioned, may have been of service to them in this particular. By fancying themselves superior to their ancestors, they have been encouraged to enter the lists with confidence; and by not being dazzled at the splendour of another's reputation, have sometimes had sagacity to mark out an unbeaten path to fame for themselves.

Other causes also may be assigned, that their second growth of genius is still more vigorous than ours. Their encouragements to merit are more skilfully directed; the link of patronage and learning still continues unbroken. The French nobility have certainly a most pleasing way of satisfying the vanity of an author, without indulging his avarice. A man of literary merit is sure of being caressed by the great, though seldom enriched. His pension from the crown just supplies half a competence, and the sale of his labours make some small addition to his circumstances. Thus the author leads a life of splendid poverty, and seldom becomes wealthy or indolent enough to discontinue an exertion of those abilities by which he rose. With the English it is different. Our writers of rising merit are generally neglected, while the few of an established reputation are overpaid by luxurious affluence. The young encounter every hardship which generally attends upon aspiring indigence; the old enjoy the vulgar, and perhaps the more prudent satisfaction, of putting riches in competition with fame. Those are often seen to spend their youth in want and obscurity; these are sometimes found to lead an old age of indolence and avarice. But such treatment must naturally be expected from Englishmen, whose national character it is to be slow and cautious in making friends, but violent in friendships once contracted. The English nobility, in short, are often known to give greater rewards

to genius than the French, who, however, are much more judicious in the application of their empty favours.

The fair sex in France have also not a little contributed to prevent the decline of taste and literature, by expecting such qualifications in their admirers. A man of fashion at Paris, however contemptible we may think him here, must be acquainted with the reigning modes of philosophy as well as of dress, to be able to entertain his mistress agreeably. The sprightly pedants are not to be caught by dumb shew, by the squeeze of the hand, or the ogling of a broad eye; but must be pursued at once, through all the labyrinths of the Newtonian system, or the metaphysics of Locke. I have seen as bright a circle of beauty at the chemical lectures of Rouelle(1) as gracing the court of Versailles. And indeed wisdom never appears so charming, as when graced and protected by beauty.

To these advantages may be added, the reception of their language in the different courts of Europe. An author who excels, is sure of having all the polite for admirers, and is encouraged to write by the pleasing expectation of universal fame. Add to this, that those countries who can make nothing good from their own language, have lately begun to write in this, some of whose productions contribute to support the present literary reputation of France.(2)

There are, therefore, many among the French who do honour to the present age, and whose writings will be transmitted to posterity with an ample share of fame; some of the most celebrated are as follow:

Voltaire, whose voluminous, yet spirited productions are (1) [This eminent chemist was born in 1703, at Matthieu, near Caen, in Normandy, and died at Paris in 1770.]

(2) ["The age of Louis the XIVth, notwithstanding these advantages, is still superior. It is, indeed, a misfortune for a fine writer to be born in a period so enlightened as ours. The harvest of wit is gathered in, and little is left for him, except to glean what others have thought unworthy their bringing away. Yet there are, therefore," &c.-First edit.]

« AnteriorContinua »