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mean only to combat that conventional and hearsay kind of praise, which has so often held out the tragedies of the Greek poets, as elaborate and perfect models, such as had received the last polish of art and meditation. The true praise of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, is (in kind at least, if not in degree,) the praise of Shakespear; that of strong, but irregular, unequal, and hasty genius. Every thing which this genius, and the feeling of the moment would produce, in an early period of the art, before time and long experience, and criticism, had cultivated and refined it, these writers
great abundance; what meditation, and the labour and delay of the file only can effect, they too often want; of Shakespear however, compared with the Greek Poets, it may justly I think be pronounced, that he has much more both of this want, and of that abundance.”—Twining's Aristotle, p. 207.
In no polished nation, after criticism has been much studied, and the rules of writing established, has any very extraordinary work appeared. This has visibly been the case in Greece, in Rome, and in France; after Aristotle, Horace, and Boileau, had written their Arts of Poetry. In our own country the rules of the drama, for instance, were never more completely understood than at present; yet what uninteresting, though faultless, tragedies have we lately seen? So much better is our judgment than our execution.
How to account for the fact here mentioned, adequately and justly, would be attended with all those difficulties that await discussions relative to the productions of the human mind; and to the delicate and secret causes that influence them. Whether or no, the natural powers be not confined and debilitated by that timidity and caution which is occasioned by a rigid regard to the dictates of art ? or whether that philosophical, that geometrical, and systematical spirit so much in vogue, which has spread itself from the sciences even into polite literature, by consulting only reason, has not diminished and destroyed sentiment; and made our poets write from and to the head, rather than the heart? or whether, lastly, when just models, from which the rules have necessarily been drawn, have once appeared, succeeding writers, by vainly and ambitiously striving to surpass those just models, and to shine and surprise, do not become stiff, and forced and affected, in their thoughts and diction?
It is not improper to observe what great improvements the Art of Criticism has received since this Essay was written. For without recurring to pieces of earlier date, and nearer the time in which it was written; namely, the Essays in the Spectator and Guardian; Shaftesbury's Advice to an Author ; Spence on the Odyssey; Fenton on Waller ; Blackwell's Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer : even of late years, we have had the Treatises of Harris ; Hurd's Remarks on Horace; Observations on the Fairy Queen ; Webb on Poetry and Music; Brown's Dissertation on the same; the Dissertations of Beattie; the Elements of Criticism of Kaims; the Lectures of Blair; the editions of Milton, by Newton and Warton; and of Shakespear and Spenser, by Malone, Stevens, and Upton; the History of English Poetry; the critical papers of the Rambler, Adventurer, World, and Connoisseur ; and The Lives of the Poets, by Johnson; the Biographia Britannica ; and the Poetics of Aristotle, translated, and accompanied with judicious notes, by Twining and Pye; and the translation, with notes, of Horace's Art of Poetry, by Hurd and Colman; and the Epistles of Hayley.
Dr. Warton's observation that few poetical pieces of high merit have appeared, after criticism has been studied, and the rules of writing established, is undoubtedly just; but there is nothing very extraordinary in the circumstance. As the wildest countries are by nature more picturesque, the rude banks, the aged forests, and unsubdued scenery of the Mississippi, more romantic than the course of the Thames through its domain of elegant cultivation ; 80 in Poetry, those ages that are comparatively rude and simple, in which the language is figurative, the traditions wild, the cast of manners original, or tinctured with ideas of superstition, chivalry, and romance, are most favourable to works of fancy.
When we consider the works of genius which imply great art and design in the structure, such as Epic Poems and Tragedies, we shall find in general that the time most favourable to their production, is when civilization has advanced beyond the limits of simplicity and rudeness, but still is marked with energy, originality, and native vigour. This period is peculiarly friendly to works of high yet cultivated imagination. Criticism implies an age of reason and refinement, when Imagination is subdued to Truth. This is as it should be, for Poetry is certainly secondary to Truth, and we cannot have from the same tree, at the same time, blossoms and
fruits. It often however happens, that an age becomes too refined either for Poetry or Truth, and we know extravagant Philosophy is much more dangerous than romantic Poetry; it is for this reason that the mind often flies from vain and visionary systems of licentious philosophy, to repose upon the ideas of virtue, the dignified consolations, the enchanting pictures, or the pathetic incidents which the Muse presents.
From the foregoing opinions of the preceding editors, I must be allowed to express my intire dissent. I can neither admit that an acquaintance with the laws of criticism is injurious to the efforts of genius, nor that few poetical pieces of high merit have appeared since such laws were established. Are the powers of the human mind debilitated, or restrained, by an attention to such rules as are insisted on in the foregoing Essay, which chiefly consist in recommending an adherence to nature, simplicity, and truth? or were the works which Pope himself produced, after he had so deeply studied the laws of poetical composition, less distinguished by genius and imagination than those of his earlier years? Yet if the observations of these critics were just, this Essay, instead of adyancing, would retard the progress of the art; instead of directing the flight of genius, would only be a clog attached to his heel.
More than two thousand years have elapsed since “ criticism has been studied," and the laws of poetic composition laid down almost as explicitly as at the present day. Have “ few poetical pieces of high merit” appeared in this interval ? or have not our greatest works been produced by those who were the best acquainted with those rules? Were not Virgil, and Horace, and Tasso, and Boileau, and Milton, and Dryden, and Pope, eminently distinguished by their intimate knowledge of the rules of art, as laid down by the ancients ? - And will it be contended that such knowledge has restricted their powers and deteriorated their works? · Are the former editors of Pope really of opinion that their own unremitting labours, in inculcating from his writings the laws of just composition, are not only useless, but injurious ? and that the more that is known of an art, the less likely it is to arrive at excellence ?
Nor does there seem to be any justice or propriety in the idea that poetry is peculiar to a wild and picturesque country, or to rude and simple ages. On the contrary, all the works which have survived the attacks of time, have been the result of the highest state of cultivation of the countries in which they were produced. Whatever was the age of Homer, it must be admitted that his contemporaries had arrived at such a degree of civilization, as to enable them to feel and to enjoy his productions, and consequently cannot be considered as a rude or unpolished people. The period of Sophocles and Euripides in Greece, of Cicero and Virgil in Rome; of Ariosto, Bembo, and Tasso in Italy; of Racine, Boileau, and Moliere in France; of Milton, Dryden, and Pope in England; have been the highest periods of refinement in those countries, during which almost all the works that command universal admiration have been produced.
In speaking of the progress of mankind in civilization, we are too apt to fall into the idea that they form one immense society, which has its different stages of youth, vigour, and decline; but the ideas of youth and age are relative only to individuals, and seem to have no connexion whatever with the world at large, in which many nations and people are now in as rude and simple a state as others, now more refined and polished, were some thousands of years ago. It is not however from those countries that we are to expect in any predicable time, the inestimable productions of literature or of art. How many ages of civilization had preceded each of those periods of extraordinary excellence to which we have before referred ! To establish the rules and principles of any art or science, is so far to prevent the retrogradation and secure the progress of the human race; and notwithstanding the long catalogue given by Dr. Warton of the critical works which have been produced since the first publication of the preceding Essay, it cannot surely be denied that the same interval has been productive of many works of superlative genius, or that the flame, instead of declining, has been invigorated by some of the productions of our own times.- If on the whole, the efforts of our contemporaries have not rivalled those of former times, we may be assured it is not from too close an adherence to the acknowledged rules of art; but from the indolence that treats them with neglect, or the ignorance that holds them in contempt.