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ON READING WORKS OF TASTE.
Malta magis quam multorum lectione formanda mens, et ducendus est color.—Quintil.
READING can be considered as a mere amusement, only by the most vulgar, or the most frivolous part of mankind. Every one, whom natural good sense and a liberal education have qualified to form a judgment upon the subject, will acknowledge, that it is capable of being applied to an endless variety of useful purposes. This is, indeed, sufficiently evident, without any studied proof, from the nature of the thing. For, what is reading, but a method of conferring with men who in every age have been most distinguished by their genius and learning, of becoming acquainted with the result of their mature reflections, and of contemplating at leisure the finished productions of their inventive powers? From such an intercourse, conducted with a moderate share of caution and judgment, it must be impossible not to derive innumerable advantages.
The principal uses of reading may perhaps not improperly be referred to two objects, the improvement of the understanding, and the exercise of imagination: whence books may be distinguished by two leading characters, Instructive and Interesting; and will be divided into two classes, Works of Knowledge, and Works of Taste.
Between the two kinds of reading, which books, thus classed, afford, there is one characteristic difference. In works which are merely intended to communicate knowledge, writing is made use of only as a vehicle of instruction; and therefore nothing farther is necessary, or perhaps desirable, than that they should express the facts, or truths, which they are intended to teach, with perfect perspicuity of conception, arrangement, and dietion. But in works of taste, the writing itself becomes a principal object of attention, as a representation of nature, more or less accurate, according to the powers which the writer possesses of expressing in language the conceptions of his own imagination. This representation cannot, indeed, be called an imitation of nature, in the same strict and literal sense in which the term is applied to a picture; because words are not natural copies, but arbitrary signs of things: but it produces an effect upon the imagination and feelings of the reader, similar to that which is produced by the art of painting. It was doubtless for this reason, that Aristotle defined poetry an imitative art.
These circumstances render THE READING OF WORKS OF TASTE a subject of disquisition, or of precept, not less extensive than that of writings intended for the communication of knowledge; and on account of it's influence upon the state of the mind, it may perhaps be justly asserted to be not less important. It is the design of this Essay, briefly to represent the BENEFITS which are to be expected from this kind of reading; and to suggest certain RULES for conduciing it in the most advantageous manner.
The agreeable EMPLOYMENT, which reading works of taste affords the active faculties of the mind, is it's first and most obvious effect.
The productions of genius, whether written in narrative, descriptive, or dramatic form, agree in the general character of presenting before the mind of the reader certain objects, which awaken his attention, exercise his fancy, and interest his feelings. Those scenes in nature, that, from causes which it is the business of philosophy to explore, are adapted to excite in the spectator agreeable perceptions and emotions, may, by the aid of language, be exhibited in colours less vivid indeed than those of nature, but sufficiently bright, to make a strong impression upon the imagination. A similar effect
will be produced by the representation of human characters and actions; but with a superior degree of force, on account of the superiority of animated to inanimate nature, and on account of the peculiar interest, which men naturally take in whatever concerns their own species. These are rich and spacious fields, from which genius may collect materials for it's various productions, without hazard of exhausting their treasures. The ancients, numerous as their works of fancy are, were capable of enriching them with an endless variety of imagery, sentiment, and language. That strict adherence to nature, which good sense and correct taste obliged them to observe, produced indeed such a general resemblance, as must always be found among disciples of the same school: and sometimes we find them copying with too much.servility the works of other artists. But there were few among them, who were not able to collect, from the common magazine of nature, stores before unnoticed ; and to adorn their works, not only with new decorations of language, but with original conceptions. And, notwithstanding the complaint of indolence and dulness, that the topics of description, and even of fiction, are exhausted; Genius still sometimes asserts her daims, and proves that the variety of her productions, like that of the operations of nature, is without limit.
Hence they who are conversant with works of genius and taste find a variety in their sources of entertainment, in some measure proportioned to the extent of their acquaintance with languages. The industrious scholar, who has, with many a weary step, so far won his way through the rugged path of grammatical studies, as to have acquired a competent knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman languages, is arrived at a fertile and well-cultivated plain, every where adorned with the fairest flowers, and enriched with the choicest fruits..
The writings of the ancients abound with excellent productions in every interesting kind of composition. There is no pleasing affection of the mind, which may not, in these invaluable remains of antiquity, find ample scope for gratification. The Epic Muse, whether she appears in the majestic simplicity of Homer, or in the finished elegance of Virgil, presents before the delighted imagination an endless variety of grand and beautiful objects, interesting actions, and characters strongly marked, which it is impossible to con
template without a perpetual succession of agreeable emotions. Tragedy, whether she rages with Eschylus, or weeps with Sophocles, or moralizes with Euripides, never ceases to wear a dignified and interesting aspect. Comedy, in the natural and easy dress, in which, after the best Greek models, she is clothed by Terence, can never fail to please. Lyric poetry, while it rolls on, like an impetuous torrent, in the lofty strains, and the wild and varied numbers of Pindar, or flows in a placid and transparent stream along the channel of Horatian verse, or glides briskly through the bowers of love and joy in the sportive lays of Anacreon, by turns astonishes, soothes, and delights. Elegy, through the soft and plaintive notes of Bion or Tibullus, melts the soul in pleasing sympathy while Pastoral Song, in the artless notes of Theocritus, or in the sweet melody of the Mantuan pipe, plays gently about the fancy and the heart. Satire, in the mean time, provides entertainment for those who are disposed to laugh at folly, or indulge an honest indignation against vice, in the smile of Horace, the grin of Lucian, and the frown of Juvenal. So rich and various are the treasures, with which the Greek and Roman writers furnish those, who have enjoyed the advantage of a classical education.
But, without having recourse to the ancients, it is possible to find in modern languages valuable specimens of every species of polite literature. The English language, in particular, abounds with writings addressed to the imagination and feelings, and calculated for the improvement of taste. No one, who is not so far blinded by prejudice in favour of antiquity as to be incapable of relishing any thing modern, can doubt, that excellent examples of every kind of literary merit are to be found among the British writers. The inventive powers of Shakspeare, the sublime conceptions of Milton, the versatile genius of Dryden, the wit of Butler, the easy gayety of Prior, the strength and harmony of Pope, the descriptive powers of Thomson, the delicate humour of Addison, the pathetic simplicity of Sterne, and the finished correctness of Gray, might, with some degree of confidence, be respectively brought into comparison with any examples of similar excellence among the ancients.
For minds capable of the pleasures of imagination and sentiment, such writings as these provide a kind of entertainment, which is in it's nature elegant and refined, and which
admits of endless diversity. By exhibiting images industriously collected and judiciously disposed, they produce impressions upon the reader's fancy, scarcely less vivid than those which would result from the actual contemplation of natural objects. By combining incidents and characters of various kinds, and representing them as associated in new and interesting relations, they keep curiosity perpetually awake, and touch in succession every affection and passion of the heart. Whatever is grand or beautiful in nature; whatever is noble, lovely, or singular, in character; whatever is surprising or affecting in situation; is by the magic power of genius brought at pleasure into view, in the manner best adapted to excite correspondent emotions. A rich field of elegant pleasure is hereby laid open before the reader who is possessed of a true taste for polite literature, which distinguishes him from the vulgar, at least as much as the man who enjoys an affluent fortune is distinguished by the luxuries of his table.
Beside the immediate gratification, which this kind of reading affords, it is attended with several COLLATERÁL ADVANTAGES, which are perhaps of equal value. The exercise, which it gives to the imagination and feelings, improves the vigour and sensibility of the mind. It is the natural tendency of an intimate acquaintance with images of grandeur, beauty, and excellence, as they are exhibited in works of taste, to produce a general habit of dignity and elegance, which will seldom fail to tincture a man's general character, and diffuse a graceful air over his whole conversation and manners. It is not unreasonable even to expect, that they who are habitually conversant with beautiful forms in nature and art, and are frequently employed in contemplating excellent characters in the pages of history and fiction, will learn to admire whatever is noble, or becoming in conduct.
-The attentive Mind,
By this harmonious action on her pow'rs,
This fair inspir'd delight: but temper'd pow'rs