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critics among us are so stupid, that they do not know how to put ten words together with elegance or common propriety, and withal so illiterate, that they have no taste of the learned languages, and therefore criticise upon old authors only at second-hand. They judge of them by what others have written, and not by any notions they have of the authors themselves. The words unity, action, sentiment, and diction, pronounced with an air of authority, give them a figure among unlearned readers, who are apt to believe they are very deep, because they are unintelligible. The ancient critics are full of the praises of their contemporaries; they discover beauties which escaped the observation of the vulgar, and very often find out reasons for palliating and excusing such little slips and oversights as were committed in the writings of eminent authors. On the contrary, most of the smatterers in criticism who appear among us make it their business to vilify and depreciate every new production that gains applause, to descry imaginary blemishes, and to prove, by far-fetched arguments, that what passes for beauties in any celebrated piece, are faults and errors. In short, the writings of these critics compared with those of the ancients, are like the works of the sophists compared with those of the old philosophers.
Envy and cavil are the natural fruits of laziness and ignorance; which was probably the reason, that in the heathen mythology, Momus is said to be the son of Nox and Somnus, of Darkness and Sleep. Idle men, who have not been at the pains to accomplish or distinguish themselves, are very apt to detract from others; as ignorant men are very subject to decry those beauties in a celebrated work which they have not eyes to discover. Many of our sons of Momus, who dignify themselves by the name of critics, are the genuine descendants of those two illustrious ancestors. They are often led into those numerous absurdities, in which they daily instruct the people, by not considering, that, First, There is sometimes a greater judgment shown in deviating from the rules of art, than in adhering to them; and, Secondly, That there is more beauty in the works of a great genius who is ignorant of all the rules of art, than in the works of a little genius, who not only knows, but scrupulously observes them.1
1 Some have made so ridiculous an use of this maxim, as to conclude
First, We may often take notice of men who are perfectly acquainted with all the rules of good writing, and notwithstanding choose to depart from them on extraordinary occasions. I could give instances out of all the tragic writers of antiquity who have shown their judgment in this particular, and purposely receded from an established rule of the drama, when it has made way for a much higher beauty than the observation of such a rule would have been. Those who have surveyed the noblest pieces of architecture and statuary, both ancient and modern, know very well that there are frequent deviations from art in the works of the greatest masters, which have produced a much nobler effect than a more accurate and exact way of proceeding could have done. This often arises from what the Italians calls the gusto grande in these arts, which is what we call the sublime in writing.
In the next place, our critics do not seem sensible that there is more beauty in the works of a great genius who is ignorant of the rules of art, than in those of a little genius who knows and observes them. It is of these men of genius that Terence speaks, in opposition to the little artificial cavillers of his time:
Quorum æmulari exoptat negligentiam
Potiùs, quàm istorum obscuram diligentiam.
A critic may have the same consolation in the ill success of
from it, that to be knowing in the rules of art, is the mark of a little genius, and to transgress them all, the glory of a great one.
This is the prettiest and justest compliment, that was ever paid to our great poet. For, though all the seeds of poetry are to be found in his works, it is only for the true critic to point them out, and tell us which
No. 598. FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24.
Jamne igitur laudas, quod de sapientibus alter
Protuleratque pedem: flebat contrarius alter? Juv.
MANKIND may be divided into the merry and the serious, who both of them make a very good figure in the species so long as they keep their respective humours from degenerating into the neighbouring extreme; there being a natural tendency in the one to a melancholy moroseness, and in the other to a fantastic levity.
The merry part of the world are very amiable, whilst they diffuse a cheerfulness through conversation at proper seasons and on proper occasions; but, on the contrary, a great grievance to society, when they infect every discourse with insipid mirth, and turn into ridicule such subjects as are not suited to it. For though laughter is looked upon by the philosophers as the property of reason, the excess of it has been always considered as the mark of folly.
On the other side, seriousness has its beauty whilst it is attended with cheerfulness and humanity, and does not come in unseasonably to pall the good humour of those with whom
These two sets of men, notwithstanding they each of them shine in their respective characters, are apt to bear a natural aversion and antipathy to one another.
What is more usual, than to hear men of serious tempers, and austere morals, enlarging upon the vanities and follies of the young and gay part of the species; whilst they look with a kind of horror upon such pomps and diversions as are innocent in themselves, and only culpable when they draw the mind too much?
I could not but smile upon reading a passage in the account which Mr. Baxter gives of his own life, wherein he represents it as a great blessing, that in his youth he very narrowly escaped getting a place at court.
It must, indeed, be confessed that levity of temper takes a man off his guard, and opens a pass to his soul for any
they are just as what we call Lusus Naturæ owe much of their beauty, and sometimes, in a manner, their existence, to the taste and ingenuity of the virtuoso.
temptation that assaults it. It favours all the approaches of vice, and weakens all the resistance of virtue. For which reason a renowned statesman in Queen Elizabeth's days, after having retired from court and public business, in order to give himself up to the duties of religion; when his old friends used to visit him, had still this word of advice in his mouth, "Be serious."
An eminent Italian author of this cast of mind, speaking of the great advantage of a serious and composed temper, wishes very gravely, that for the benefit of mankind, he had Trophonius's cave in his possession; which, says he, would contribute more to the reformation of manners than all the workhouses and bridewells in Europe.
We have a very particular description of this cave in Pausanias, who tells us, that it was made in the form of a huge oven, and had many particular circumstances, which disposed the person who was in it to be more pensive and thoughtful than ordinary; insomuch that no man was ever observed to laugh all his life after, who had once made his entry into this cave. It was usual in those times, when any one carried a more than ordinary gloominess in his features, to tell him that he looked like one just come out of Trophonius's cave.
On the other hand, writers of a more merry complexion have been no less severe on the opposite party; and have had one advantage above them, that they have attacked them with more turns of wit and humour.
After all, if a man's temper were at his own disposal, I think he would not choose to be of either of these parties; since the most perfect character is that which is formed out of both of them. A man would neither choose to be a hermit nor a buffoon: human nature is not so miserable, as that we should be always melancholy; nor so happy, as that we should be always merry. In a word, a man should not live as if there was no God in the world; nor, at the same time, as if there were no men in it.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 29.
-Solemque suum, sua sidera norunt. VIRG.
I HAVE always taken a particular pleasure in examining the opinions which men of different religion, different ages, and different countries, have entertained concerning the immortality of the soul, and the state of happiness which they promise themselves in another world. For whatever prejudices and errors human nature lies under; we find that either reason, or tradition from our first parents, has discovered to all people something in these great points which bears analogy to truth, and to the doctrines opened to us by divine revelation. I was lately discoursing on this subject with a learned person who has been very much conversant among the inhabitants of the more western parts of Africa. Upon his conversing with several in that country, he tells me that their notion of heaven, or of a future state of happiness, is this, "That everything we there wish for will immediately present itself to us. We find, (say they,) our souls are of such a nature that they require variety, and are not capable of being always delighted with the same objects. The Supreme Being, therefore, in compliance with this taste of happiness which he has planted in the soul of man, will raise up from time to time, (say they,) every gratification which it is in the humour to be pleased with. If we wish to be in groves or bowers, among running streams or falls of water, we shall immediately find ourselves in the midst of such a scene as we desire. If we would be entertained with music and the melody of sounds, the concert rises upon our wish, and the whole region about us is filled with harmony. In short, every desire will be followed by fruition, and whatever a man's inclination directs him to, will be present with him. Nor is it material whether the Supreme Power creates in conformity to our wishes, or whether he only produces such a change in our imagination as makes us believe ourselves conversant among those scenes which delight us. Our happiness will be the same, whether it proceed from external objects, or from the impressions of the Deity upon our own private fancies." This is the account which I have received from my learned friend. Notwithstanding this system of