« PreviousContinue »
model; some of the papers in the Mirror, likewise, are composed in a vein of great sweetness and delicacy, with regard both to selection and arrangement of language ; and the moral and critical writings of Dr. Aikin display a style which unites the rare qualities of great accuracy, simplicity, and taste.
If we now look back upon the period included in this Essay, involving not less than one hundred and thirty years, we shall find, that from the era of Sidney to the publication of the Spectator, the English language, with few exceptions, had been gradually and successively improving, and at length acquired, in the compositions of Addison, a high degree of classicat elegance and purity. The steps by which this near approach to perfection became attainable, will be accurately seen through the medium of the quotations that I have given, and which it has been my endeavour to select with a view as well to the interest of the matter as the illustration of style.
The attentive reader will soon discern that Addison, who was assiduous in preserving as much of the idiom of our ancient writers as his subject and the progress of refinement would allow, has imbibed much of the flavour and colouring of the best authors of our first period, of Hooker, Raleigh, and Bacon; and, on the other
hand, may be sometimes, though not often, traced in the lax and diffuse sentences of Sidney. Of the second era Cowley, Tillotson, and Temple, as hath already been observed, were his prototypes; and how much of sweetness, of beauty, and of grace, he has added to the improvements which they had already engrafted on composition, must be strongly felt by every person who contrasts their various productions.
It may, in short, without the least charge of partiality, be said, that, though with regard to the minutiæ of grammar and composition Addison may be found less accurate than the best writers of the present day,-in all the great qualities of style, in perspicuity, simplicity, and ease, in harmony, elegance, and amenity, he has been surpassed by none and equalled but by few.
ON THE CRITICAL ABILITIES AND TASTE OF
To discriminate with accuracy the beauties and defects of composition, and to establish laws for its conduct, consonant to the general feelings of nature, and the practice of the best writers, form the basis of an art which has ever been highly esteemed in proportion to the progress of civilization and refinement.
In the early stages of society, though genius of the first-rate quality may exist, its efforts, though brilliant, are seldom under the controul of taste and judgment. The mighty name of Homer is usually pointed out as an exception; but the assistance which this great poet derived from his predecessors or contemporaries, and the state of literature of the period in which he flourished, are
still involved in almost impenetrable obscurity. The internal evidence of his works proves
that he was versed in all the knowledge of his times; and it is reasonable to suppose, that he availed himself to the utmost of what previous ages had accumulated in precept and example *. However assisted, or however independent of others, he has left the world two productions, whose execution and construction have been the admi.
* " Homer," observes the Editor of the Bibliographical Dictionary, “has been generally stiled the Father of Epic Poetry.—This has ever appeared to me very improper. It is true he is the oldest Greek poet we know. But as the Paradise Lost of Milton plainly supposed that other Epic poems existed prior to this, and that Milton had read them, so does that of Homer. It is contrary to all the phænomena of the human mind, that so finished a work should have been the first essay of the kind. There can be no room to doubt but many poets jourished before Homer, and perhaps not a few Epic poems were made ; and it would be rash to assert that even his is the best that ever was produced. As the Paradise Lost, necessarily supposes SPENSER's Fairy Queen: that, tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata : that, viRGIL'S Æneid; and the Æneid, the Iliad of HOMER; so the Iliad it. self may stand in reference to as many preceding poems as the Paradise Lost does. As the Æneid never could have existed had not the Iliad gone before, on the plan of which it is all built: and, as the Jerusalem Delivered is a proceed from the Æneid, as the Fairy Queen is from the poem of Tasso, and the Paradise Lost from the whole ; so I conjec*ture the siad is from the works of preceding poets. And if this conjecture be well fouuded, we are left to deplore the irreparable loss of a vast mass of intellect in the destruction of the works which preceded and gave birth to those of Homer!"
Vol, 4th, p. 127, 128.
ration of posterity. To display the unity and integrity of his fable, the just bearings and concatenations of its various incidents; to awaken attention to the variety, strength, and beauty of his characters, and their fidelity as draughts from nature, has been the useful province of criticism.
Of still greater estimation is the duty of the critic when employed to develope or arraign the beauties and blemishes of vast but irregular genius, where the fascinations of transcendant ability is ever liable to consecrate even its most glaring defects. The usual result of talent emerging in an era unimbued with science and literature, and when neither good models nor precepts are accessible, is originality in style and conception; an originality, however, which strongly paints the state of society which gave it birth, exhibiting strong lights and shades, matchless beauty and sublimity, almost instantly contrasted with palpable and striking deformity.
Of this mixed character was Shakspeare, the most original, and, frequently, the greatest poet the world has yet seen. He is consequently a most appropriate object of criticism; and in no more useful task can this art be engaged than in weighing with impartiality his numerous excellencies and errors.
Of equal value are the exertions of the critic