« AnteriorContinuar »
the power of judging of works of taste and imagination, by certain ideas of propriety and fitness that exist in his mind. He is a literary anatomist who, as he rather considers the muscular conformation and proportion of the parts,' is insensible to the exquisite delights of the sublime and beautiful. His art stimulates the love of novelty, and promotes the superficial spirit of the age. As it counteracts the proper and legitimate design of reading, so, by leaving us to estimate the merits of works by the fallible rules of judgement rather than the unerring impulses of feeling, it produces a callousness to natural and simple beauties, and, to crown the whole, by refining our perception of the ridiculous, nourishes a sarcastic humour. Nor is it less detrimental to the interests of the literary republic at large. Criticism, as managed at present, tends to degrade even its more eminent members; and instead of making science and literature a labour, transforms them into amusement and relaxation. While it wounds the sensibility of some authors, fortifies others in their absurdities, and produces a general medi, ocrity in every department of polite Tearning; it foments a party'spirit, discourages an imitation of chaste and elegant models, and diffúses a flippant, gross, arrogant, grioning style of composition.-Such is a brief abstract of so much of this pamphlet as treats of the influence of criticism on the character of the age, moral, intellectual and literary. As the remaining, part of it consists of reports of dubious authority, and remarks on such journals as do not fall within our jurisdiction, we must be excused any farther notice of it.
From the foregoing abstract, it is evident that Mr. O'Reid has treated his subject in a very partial manner. Indeed he does not appear to have found out much for himself; but being a good deal in the company of persons who, partly to display their information, partly to vent their spleen, and partly to disclose imaginary evils, declaim with no small degree of vehemence, on the partiality, injustice, severity, ignorance, dulness, and malignity of critics, his imagination became heated, and in this state of ebullition he wrote this pamphlet to awaken the attention of the parent, of the man of taste, and of all who feel for the interests of literature,' to the fearful aşcendency' and 'terrific importance of reviews.
We might, in our turn, take an opposite view of the subject to that of Mr. O'Reid, -and make out a tolerably plausible case in favour of our own profession. We might say, that we folJow, in this department of writing, the example of the ancients, who, from Aristotle, the father of criticism, down to Longinus, made it their business to expose the defects as well as point out the beauties of authors : that we have very much improved on the practice of the ancients ; since we include in our journals,
besides a character of new works, specimens and abstracts, as well as general reasonings on the different branches of science and literature: that thus we bring into use the materials that would otherwise be lost in the mass of books daily issuing from the press, convey information throughout the republic of letters, and keep up an advantageous intercourse among its most distant members, and that, by an easy and not very expensive means, we promote a spirit of inquiry in all classes of the community, refine the public taste, and impart useful instruction and innocent entertainment to an immense multitude, who would neither be instructed nor entertained, were it not for our friendly assistance. But without enlarging on these topics, which certainly ought to be taken into the account, to judge impartially of the effects of periodical criticism, we shall content ourselves, at present, with a brief examination of the mischiefs of which Nr. O'Reid describes it as the fruitful parent.
In some cases our author has mistaken matter of fact, and reasons from his misapprehensions to the malignant influence of reviews, The shallowness of the present age, compared with former times, is a pure conceit.
• Jamque caput quassans grandis suspirat arator
Præteritis, laudat fortunas sæpe parentis. So says Lacretius; although few persons, we apprehend, will believe that the fields of Italy were more fruitful in the days of Romulus than in those of the poet. Nor will Mr. O'Reid, who seems to have caught the infection from these venerable republican farmers, gain more credit, among thinking men, to his complaints about the mediocrity and shallowness of his contemporaries. We are not to imagine that the shopkeepers in Bacon's time mastered the circle of the sciences, or that the merchants' clerks in Locke's age were qualified to compose treatises on the origin of human knowledge. Deep and original thipkers, scholars of various and profound erudition, have been rare,
in every age. The stream of knowledge, indeed, flows over a larger surface, than at any former period, but it is equally deep near the centre. It is needless to mention names; but metaphysicians flourish in our age, whom our posterity will rank with Locke and Berkeley, mathematicians that they will class with Newton, scholars with Bently, and poets with Dryden and Pope. But were it true, that in consequence of the general diffusion of knowledge, science and literature have ac
* Lib. II. v. 1164.
quired a light and superficial character, and that criticisin have ing multiplied and widened the channels of information, has in a manner emptied the main currents, it may admit of a doubt whether, even on that account, it merits the vituperation of our author. Whatever benefits man derives from science, and literature, it is certainly far better that these benefits should, in an inferior degree, be common to several millions of thinking beings, than be enjoyed in their utmost extent by a very small number of individuals. The general diffusion of taste and information multiplies the points at which the members of the community can meet each other, while it prodigiously increases the pleasures of the man of more refined sensibility and larger knowledge, by enabling him to find some of that satisfaction in every company, that otherwise he could only have found in solitude. The shallowness, however, of our contemporaries is only apparent. Persons, who, had they lived in former times, would have read little or nothing, who would have been total strangers to literary pleasures, and never made intellectual objects the topics of their conversation, now read a good deal, often substitute the pleasures of fancy and intellect for those of the senses, and venture observations on critical and scientific matters. Now it is an absurd way of reasoning to conclude, that the age is gross and superficial, because persons of this description often betray their ignorance and want of taste.
Our author seems also to be mistaken, in representing men of genius and learning as sinking into insignificance and contempt. It will be found, we believe, on the contrary, that there never was a time when merit of all kinds was so generally patronized, and so liberally rewarded; when literary men enjoyed an equal degree of influence and fame, or lived in so much affluence. Although they make an equal demand on our money and our admiration, and expose the productions of their genius and intellect, like other commodities, to the highest bidder, they retain both their credit and their authority with the public. The foudest of Mr. Scott's admirers will not place him on a level with Milton,--and yet it may be affirmed, that, notwithstanding the violence of party spirit, the liberties of critics, and the gross and glaring defects of this fascinating poet, he is far more generally the object of admiration than Milton was to his contemporaries. Nor has periodical criticims contributed a little to this effect. By increasing the number of readers, it has increased the demand for works of taste and imagination; and by affording early and extensive notice of the issue of such works from the press, procures for them a rapid circulation.
As our author, in his indiscriminate condemnation of reviews has mistaken, matters of fact; so, it seems to us, that some of his speculative principles, if not perfectly erroneous are at least liable to strong objections. According to Mr. OʻReid, taste is a sense, a feeling, whose exercise is inconsistent with habits of minute attention, and which must therefore become callous, and obtuse as it is brought into play. It is, however, rather difficult to believe, that the delicacy of taste that some persons discover in works of genius and fancy, is blind and undiscriminating, or that those who are most alive to the pleasures of imagination, are accustomed to view things in the gross, without perceiving the minuter shades of beauty and deformity. It is acknowledged,' says Mr. Hume, ' to be the
perfection of every sense or faculty, to perceive with exactness its most minute objects, and allow nothing to escape its I notice and observation. The smaller the objects are that be
come sensible to the eye, the finer is that organ, and the more elaborate its make and composition. A good palate is not to be tried by strong flavours; but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest. In like manner a quick and acute perception of beauty must be the
perfection of our mental taste; nor can a man be satisfied • with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish ' in a discourse has passed him unobserved.'* A refined taste, therefore, involves, in its exercise, a ininute observation of the finest shades and most delicate touches; and since in all works of genius and merit, beauty and excellence are predominant, though alive to all defects, it will lose the uneasiness they may create, in the stronger and more grateful emotions of pleasure and delight.
Nor will a man of refined and delicate taste, proceed by in. stinct, or dispense with general principles, in forming an esti. mate of the beauty or deformity of works of genius and imagination. He will not judge of their excellence by the degree of pleasure they may afford him, or the stimulus they may give to his sensibility; since the degree of pleasure he derives from the same work, varies at different times, and he has probably been more deeply affected with a vulgar tale, or a common ballad, than with the story of the Æneid or an ode of Horace.
In the morning of our days,' it is beautifully observed by Mr. Burke, when the senses are unworn and tender, when the
whole man is awake in every part, and the gloss of novelty ' fresh upon all the objects that surround us, how lively at that time are our sensations; but how false and inaccurate the
* Essays and Treatises on several subjects, Vol I. p. 202,
judgments we form of things. I despair of ever receiving
the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent per • formances of genius which I have felt, at that age, from pieces ' that my present judgment regards as trifling and contempti• ble.'* As the works of genius, of whatever description, aimi at a certain effect, it is seldom we can be in such a situation as that all the circumstances will concur to produce it. To estimate their value or receive delight from them, it is necessary to exercise our judgment, and to have recourse to the principles of ideal excellence, that we may have derived from observation or comparison. Without a large share of judgement and observation, no man has ever enjoyed the more tranquil and retired delights, that a well written tragedy or a fine oration imparts.
So far is it from being correct, that exercise wears off the delicacy of taste, and blunts the perception of beauty, that the very reverse of the proposition holds true. Few of our readers, but remember the beautiful and natural description that Cowper has given of the progress of his taste, and of the gradual improvement of those powers that make us susceptible of the more polished and unobtrusive pleasures of fancy and genius. It is exercise that makes such an immense difference between persons of equal natural sensibility, and enables those who are by no means remarkable for vivacity of feeling, not only to judge with greater facility and certainty of works of genius, but to derive a more exquisite and durable pleasure froni them. We cannot, therefore, but be of opinion, that, as criticism pro. motes habits of attention, makes the mind familiar with the general principles of beauty and deformity in productions of art, and brings the taste itself into exercise, it is favourable to the progress of that faculty, as well as increases the relish for literary and intellectual enjoyments.
Having got rid of these charges, which Mr. O'Reid, from mistakenly assumed facts or erroneous principles has brought against periodical criticism, we shall soon dispatch those that are common to it with other kinds of writing, or to which it is particularly liable.
The passion for novelty is born with us; and in proportion as it is gratified, a fresh impulse is given to the faculties, and their exercise is rendered delightful instead of laborious. It does not appear that this passion is stronger now than in former times. The Athenians, and those who frequented that renowned seat of learning, spent their time in little else, than either to tell or hear some new thing. Even if it were a fault to minister to
* Introduction to an Enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.