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Sources of fine Composition.
MY DEAR JOHN,
METAPHYSICAL writers have generalized and classed the various sources whence the pleasures of the imagination, and the ornaments of style are derived. They are all to be traced into the human passions, for, as I observed, it is by exciting correspondent emotions in their minds that the imagery employed by any writer affects and interests his readers. The same philosophers have endeavoured to explain why the excitement of moderate emotions, such as are produced by the sight of a tragedy, should be a source of pleasure. The best cause I can assign for this is, that life itself consists chiefly in action, and it is only when in some degree occupied or engaged, that we feel the pleasure of living. Violent action or agitation, on the contrary, pains and fatigues. Hence the moderate excitement of the passions on the sight of
a tragedy, or the hearing of a pathetic narrative, gives pleasure, whereas the same event in real life is productive of pain. Whether this account, however, is consistent with truth and nature or not, will make little difference as to the practical part of our subject. It is enough that pleasure is derivable from the following sources, and that what is captivating in writers may in general be traced to one or other of them: 1st, The marvellous; 2d, the new; 3d, the sublime; 4th, the pathetic; 5th, the ridiculous.
1. Our taste for the marvellous is chiefly to be referred to that general principle of our nature, which is so strong a principle of action, the passion of admiration. It may also be increased by the same cause from which I have accounted for the pleasurable sensations excited by tragedy. Almost every thing wonderful is connected with something of the terrific, and we know that terror moderately excited, or I should perhaps say, rather excited by association than reality, is not less productive of pleasure than the pathetic. You must well remember the pleasure which you, but a very few years since, derived from the "Fairy Tales," the “ Arabian
Nights," the " Tales of the Genii," &c., and that in general the more you were terrified the greater was your enjoyment of the book.
You will always find pleasure from similar productions, but less as you advance in life. Your mind was more fervid, and less informed when you read them first than it will be at the period to which I refer. You will then be more shocked with their improbability, for the more' this kind of imagery is believed in, the more vivid is the impression which it makes. Hence an obsolete system of mythology, such as that of the heathen poets, has less effect upon our minds than a modern well-wrought tale of witchcraft or apparitions, which are more connected with the faith that we profess; and even these had more effect, I dare believe, with our ancestors than with us.
The taste which all mankind naturally entertain for the marvellous is proved by the avidity with which any extraordinary story, even in the newspapers, is received, and the credit which is given to such. People are desirous of their proving true, and almost displeased to be undeceived.
A great part of the entertainment of our rural
ancestors used to consist in hearing such wonderful stories related while assembled in a social circle round a warm hearth. The tales and ballads related or sung by the minstrels of old, were chiefly of this description:
"Be mine to read the visions old,
"Which thy awakening bards have told;
The effect of the marvellous on the human mind is charmingly depicted by that incomparable judge of human nature, Shakspeare, in describing the manner in which Desdemona was induced to love Othello.
"Her father lov'd me; oft invited me;
"I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
"Of hair-breadth 'scapes i' the imminent deadly breach; "Of being taken by the insolent foe,
"And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence,
"And 'portance in my travel's history,
"Wherein of antres vast, and desarts wild,
Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch
"It was my hint to speak, such was the process;
"And of the cannibals that each other eat,
"The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
"Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear,
"Would Desdemona seriously incline:
"But still the house affairs would draw her thence;
II. The love of novelty is nearly allied to the principle we have been discussing, and it will be easily conceived to be a powerful instrument in the hands of a skilful writer or speaker, when we remember how strong and low general a passion curiosity is. The word itself has supplied a name to a very voluminous class of literary productions, the professed object of which is to gratify their readers with something novel or new. This passion seems indeed natural to creatures, who are in constant pursuit of happiness, and to whom possession brings only disappointment; and perhaps it may not be unphilosophically accounted for upon this principle. The pleasure we derive from no