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The attentive mind,
To all this must be added, as a material consideration in -favour of the study of polite literature, that it affords an agreeable and useful exercise of the judgment, in determining the degree of merit in literary productions; an exercise 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 literatare in general, and of the ancient classical writers in particular, is made a principal branch of liberal education : and for these reasons, fome attention may be due to the observations and precepts, relative to the reading of works of tafte, which are to fill up the remainder of this Essay.
The effect which is produced by writing is fimilar to that which is produced by painting, in this respect, among others; as in painting the spectator first enjoys the im. mediate pleasure of the emotion excited by the reprefentation, and then the secondary gratification of exerci. ling his judgment upon the merit of the painter; fo 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, judg. ment, and taste, which the production discovers. The former is the fole object of attention in the yulgar speciator, 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 taite, beside the foundation of good sense, and lively fenfi. bility, which must be laid by nature, several preparatory acquisitions are requisite.
The first is, an accurate acquaintance vith 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 compofition, without knowing the meaning of the terms which the writer uses, and the fructure 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 trilling employment; yet, as an instrument for discovering the true meaning, in order to perceive the excellencies or defects, and thus ascere tain the merit of a writer, it must be acknowledged to be a useful art. A man of accurate tafte in works of liteyature 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 b 6
poenes of the first merit appear obscure, only because the reader is not sufficiently 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 philosophically, muft 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 into their works with little effect indeed, for, as Dr. Johnson says, “ The attention na“ turally retires from a new tale of Venus, Diana, and “ Minerva" - require, in their readers, fome 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 beasties of poetry cannot be completely relished, without a habit of attending to those forms of nature's from which the poet borrows his conceptions, and obferving, with accuracy, the diftinct 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, fo par ticularly in the exercise of the imagination, or judgment, upon works 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 elear and vivid conceptions, ever wrote well. Nor can any one, with
* See th's suł ject illustrated by many pertinent examples and judicious observations, in Dr. Aikin's Elay on the application of Natural History to Poetry.
out that degree of exertion, which preserves the mind awake to every impreffion, and strongly fixes its at:ention opon every object which comes under its notice, be in a proper ftate for enjoying the pleasures of taste, or for exer. cising the functions of criticism. He wlio 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 its full force; nor will any fingle touch, however minute, escape his observation. The confequence muft be, a perfect experience of the effect which it was intended to produce, and an accurate discernment of all its beauties and blemishes. This remark is equally valid, whether the instrument, which ge. nius employs, be the pencil or the pen.
Thus furnished with learning, knowledge, and attention, nothing further can be necessary to put the reader of works of taste into immediate possession of the pleasures of imagination and fentiment; but a careful felection, and diligent perufal, 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 talte 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
The second object of attention in reading works of taste, that of forming a judgment concerning their merit, require, beside the general preparation already suggested, a distint examination of their several excellencies and defects. In order to execute the office of criticism with tolerable success, the general principles of good writing muft be well understood, and every piece which
is to be examined must be brought to the standard of these principles. Whatever ridicule some witty writers may have caft 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 tafte may be distino guished 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 'poffeffor to no inconfiderable Share of diftinction, 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 diverfified, regularly connected, and adapted to some good end.
CONFORMITY NATURE is a quality, without which no writing, whatever other excellence it may possess, can obtain approbation in the court of goodsense,—the court, to which the ultimate appeal must lie, in all disputes concerning literary. merit*. - A writer
* Scribendi recè fapere eft et principium et fons.