Page images
PDF
EPUB

III.

is, they are not formed by a train of abstract L E C T. reasoning, independent of facts and observations. Criticism is an art founded wholly on experience; on the observation of such beauties as have come nearest to the standard which I before established; that is, of such beauties as have been found to please mankind most generally. For example; Aristotle's rules concerning the unity of action in dramatic and epic composition, were not rules first dircovered by logical reasoning, and then applied to poetry; but they were drawn from the practice of Homer and Sophocles: they were founded upon observing the superior pleasure which we receive from the relation of an action which is one and entire, beyond what we receive from the relation of scattered and unconnected facts. Such observations taking their rise at first, from feeling and experience, were found on examination to be so consonant to reason, and to the principles of human nature, as to pass into established rules, and to be conveniently applied for judging of the excellency of any performance. This is the most natural account of the origin of Criticism.

A MASTERLY genius, it is true, will of himself, untaught, compose in such a manner as shall be agreeable to the most material rules of Criticism; for as these rules are founded in

nature,

III.

For as

LECT. nature, nature will often suggest them in

practice. Homer, it is more than probable,
was acquainted with no systems of the art of
poetry. Guided by genius alone, he composed
in verse a regular story, which all posterity
has admired. But this is no argument against
the usefulness of Criticism as an art.
no human genius is perfect, there is no writer
but may receive assistance from critical ob-
servations upon the beauties and faults of
those who have gone before him. No ob-
fervations or rules can indeed supply the defect
of genius, or inspire it where it is wanting.
But they may often direct it into its proper
channel; they may correct its extravagancies,
and point out to it the most just and proper
imitation of nature.

Critical rules are defigned chiefly to shew the faults that ought to be avoided. To nature we must be indebted for the production of eminent beauties.

From what has been said, we are enabled to form a judgment concerning those complaints which it has long been fashionable for petty authors to make against Critics and Criticism. Critics have been represented as the great abridgers of the native liberty of genius ; as the imposers of unnatural shackles and bonds upon writers, from whose cruel persecution they must fy to the Public, and implore its protection. Such fupplicatory

prefaces

[ocr errors]

JII.

prefaces are not calculated to give very favour- LECT. able ideas of the genius of the author. For every good writer will be pleased to have his work examined by the principles of found understanding; and true Tafte. The declamations against Criticism commonly proceed upon this supposition, that Critics are such as judge by rule, not by feeling; which is so far from being true, that they who judge after this manner are pedants, not Critics. For all the rules of genuine Criticisın I have thewn to be ultimately founded on feeling; and Taste and Feeling are necessary to guide us in the application of these rules to every particular instance. As there is nothing in which all sorts of persons more readily affect to be judges than in works of Taste, there is no doubt that the number of incompetent Critics will always be great.

But this affords no more foundation for a general invective against Criticism, than the number of bad philosophers or reasoners affords against reason and philosophy.

An objection more plausible may be formed against Criticism, from the applause that some performances have received from the Public; which, when accurately considered, are found to contradict the rules established by Critieism. Now, according to the principles laid down in the last Lecture, the Public is the supreme VOL. I.

E

judge

1

III.

LEC T. judge to whom the last appeal must be made

in every work of Taste; as the standard of
Taste is founded on the sentiments that are
natural and common to all men. But with
respect to this, we are to observe, that the
sense of the Public is often too haftily judged
of. The genuine public Tafte does not always
appear in the first applause given upon the
publication of any new work. There are both
a great vulgar and a small, apt to be catched
and dazzled by very superficial beauties, the
admiration of which, in a little time paffes
away: and sometimes a writer may acquire
great temporary reputation merely by his com-
pliance with the passions or prejudices, with
the party-spirit or superstitious notions, that
may chance to rule for a time almost a whole
nation. In such cases, though the Public may
feem to praise, true Criticism may with reason .
condemn; and it will in progress of time gain
the ascendant: for the judgment of true Cri-
ticisin, and the voice of the Public, when once
become unprejudiced and dispassionate, will
ever coincide at last.

INSTANCES, I admit, there are, of some works that contain gross transgressions of the laws of Criticism, acquiring, nevertheless, a general, and even a lasting admiration. Such are the plays of Shakespeare, which, considered as dramatic poems, are irregular in the highest 8

degree.

III.

degree. But then we are to remark, that LECT. they have gained the public admiration, not by their being irregular, not by their transgressions of the rules of art, but in spite of such transgressions. They poffefs other beauties which are conformable to just rules ; and the force of these beauties has been fo great as to overpower all cenfure, and to give the Public a degree of satisfaction superior to the disgust arising from their blemishes. Shakespeare pleases, not by his bringing the transactions of many years into one play; not by his grotesque mixtures of Tragedy and Comedy in one piece, nor by the strained thoughts, and affected witticisms, which he fometimes employs.

There we consider as blemishes, and impute them to the grossness of the age in which he lived. But he pleases by his animated and masterly representations of characters, by the liveliness of his descriptions, the force of his sentiments, and his poffeffing, beyond ali writers, the natural language of paffion: Beauties which true Criticism no less teaches us to place in the highest rank, than nature teaches us to feel,

I PROCEED next to explain the meaning of another term, which there will be frequent occasion to employ in these Lectures; that is, Genius.

[merged small][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »