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Natural taste is apt to be seduced and debauched by vicious precept and bad example. There is a dangerous tinsel in false taste, by which the unwary mind and young imagination are often fascinated. Nothing has been so often explained, and yet so little understood, as simplicity in writing. Simplicity in this acceptation has a larger signification than either the door of the Greeks, or the simplex of the Latins; for it implies beauty. It is the λó ἁπλόον zainduv of Demetrius Phalereus, the simplex munditiis of Horace, and expressed by one word, naïveté, in the French language. It is, in fact, no other than beautiful nature, without affectation or extraneous ornament. In statuary, it is the Venus of Medicis; in architecture, the Pantheon. It would be an endless task to enumerate all the instances of this natural simplicity that occur in poetry and painting, among the ancients and moderns. We shall only mention two examples of it, the beauty of which consists in the pathetic.
Anaxagoras the philosopher, and preceptor of Pericles, being told that both his sons were dead, laid his hand upon his heart, and after a short pause, consoled himself with a reflection couched in three words, ἥδειν θνητοὺς γεγεννηκὼς, << I knew they were mortal. » The other instance we select from the tragedy of Macbeth. The gallant Macduff, being informed that his wife and children were murdered by order of the tyrant, pulls his hat over his eyes, and his internal agony bursts out into an exclamation of four words, the most expressive perhaps that ever were uttered: « He has no children." This is the energetic language of simple nature, which is now grown into disrepute. By the present mode of education, we are forcibly warped from the bias of nature, and all simplicity in manners is rejected. We are taught to disguise and distort our sentiments, until the
faculty of thinking is diverted into an unnatural channel ; and we not only relinquish and forget, but also become incapable of our original dispositions. We are totally changed into creatures of art and affectation. Our perception is abused, and even our senses are perverted. Our minds lose their native force and flavour. The imagination, sweated by artificial fire, produces nought but vapid bloom. The genius, instead of growing like a vigorous tree, extending its branches on every side, and bearing delicious fruit, resembles a stunted yew, tortured into some wretched form, projecting no shade, displaying no flower, diffusing no fragrance, yielding no fruit, and affording nothing but a barren conceit for the amusement of the idle spectator.
Thus debauched from nature, how can we relish her genuine productions? As well might a man distinguish objects through a prism, that presents nothing but a variety of colours to the eye; or a maid pining in the green sickness prefer a biscuit to a cinder. It has been often alleged, that the passions can never be wholly deposited; and that, by appealing to these, a good writer will always be able to force himself into the hearts of his readers: but even the strongest passions are weakened, nay, sometimes totally extinguished, by mutual opposition, dissipation, and acquired insensibility. How often at the theatre is the tear of sympathy and the burst of laughter repressed by a ridiculous species of pride, refusing approbation to the author and actor, and renouncing society with the audience! This seeming insensibility is not owing to any original defect. Nature has stretched the string, though it has long ceased to vibrate. It may have been displaced and distracted by the violence of pride; it may have lost its tone through long disuse; or be so twisted or overstrained as to produce the most jarring discords.
If so little regard is paid to nature when she knocks so powerfully at the breast, she must be altogether neglected and despised in her calmer mood of serene tranquillity, when nothing appears to recommend her but simplicity, propriety, and innocence. A person must have delicate feelings that can taste the celebrated repartee in Terence : Homo sum; nihil humani a me alienum puto: « I am a man ; therefore think I have an interest in every thing that concerns humanity.» A clear blue sky, spangled with stars, will prove an insipid object to eyes accustomed to the glare of torches and tapers, gilding and glitter; eyes that will turn with disgust from the green mantle of the spring, so gorgeously adorned with buds and foliage, flowers and blossoms, to contemplate a gaudy silken robe, striped and intersected with unfriendly tints, that fritter the masses of light, and distract the vision, pinked into the most fantastic forms, flounced, and furbelowed, and fringed with all the littleness of art unknown to elegance.
Those ears that are offended by the notes of the thrush, the blackbird, and the nightingale, will be regaled and ravished by the squeaking fiddle touched by a musician, who has no other genius than that which lies in his fingers; they will even be entertained with the rattling of coaches, and the alarming knock, by which the doors of fashionable people are so loudly distinguished. The sense of smelling, that delights in the scent of excrementitious animal juices, such as musk, civet, and urinous salts, will loath the fragrance of new-mown hay, the sweet-brier, the honey-suckle, and the rose. The organs that are gratified with the taste of sickly veal bled into a palsy, crammed fowls, and dropsical brawn, peas without substance, peaches without taste, and pine-apples without flavour, will certainly nauscate the native, genuine, and salutary taste of Welsh beef,
Banstead mutton, and barn-door fowls, whose juices are concocted by a natural digestion, and whose flesh is consolidated by free air and exercise. In such a total perversion of the senses, the ideas must be misrepresented; the powers of the imagination disordered; and the judgment, of consequence, unsound. unsound. The disease is attended with a false appetite, which the natural food of the mind will not satisfy. It will prefer Ovid to Tibullus, and the rant of Lee to the tenderness of Otway. The soul sinks into a kind of sleepy idiotism, and is diverted by toys and baubles, which can only be pleasing to the most superficial curiosity. It is enlivened by a quick succession of trivial objects, that glisten and dance before the eye; and, like an infant, is kept awake and inspirited by the sound of a rattle. It must not only be dazzled and aroused, but also cheated, hurried, and perplexed, by the artifice of deception, business, intricacy, and intrigue; a kind of low juggle, which may be termed the legerdemain of genius.
In this state of depravity the mind cannot enjoy, nor indeed distinguish the charms of natural and moral beauty and decorum. The ingenuous blush of native innocence, the plain language of ancient faith and sincerity, the cheerful resignation to the will of Heaven, the mutual affection of the charities, the voluntary respect paid to superiour dignity or station, the virtue of beneficence, extended even to the brute creation, nay the very crimson glow of health, and swelling lines of beauty, are despised, detested, scorned, and ridiculed, as ignorance, rudeness, rusticity, and superstition. Thus we see how moral and natural beauty are connected; and of what importance it is, even to the formation of taste, that the manners should be severely superintended. This is a task which ought to take the lead of science; for we will venture to say, that virtue is
the foundation of taste; or rather, that virtue and taste are built upon the same foundation of sensibility, and cannot be disjoined without offering violence to both. But virtue must be informed, and taste instructed, otherwise they will both remain imperfect and ineffectual:
Qui didicit patriæ quid debeat, et quid amicis,
The critic, who with nice discernment knows,
Thus we see taste is composed of nature improved by art; of feeling, tutored by instruction.
HAVING explained what we conceive to be true taste, and in some measure accounted for the prevalence of vitiated taste, we should proceed to point out the most effectual manner, in which a natural capacity may be improved into a delicacy of judgment, and an intimate acquaintance with