페이지 이미지

of genuine wit, and the paltry subterfuges of those who were then deemed the directors of literary opinion. It is scarcely necessary to say that he succeeded in these different objects; the stage became more rational and chaste, and the regions of pun, acrostic, and conundrum, of nonsense, obscenity, and affectation, fled, like the fabled fabrics of romance, before the wand of the disenchanter.

When this arduous task had been completed, when the meretricious colouring of false wit had faded at the touch of truth, it remained to place before the public eye a model of beauty, of grandeur, and of grace, whose style and structure should be such as to lay the foundation of a national school on the broad principles of classical simplicity and purity:

The choice of Addison has been sanctioned by universal approbation ; and perhaps no effort in the annals of criticism has been productive of more salutary and decided effects, than the attempt to render popular the Paradise Lost of Milton. The literature of the country had been corrupted by the dissolute and inglorious reign of the second Charles; and the chill indifference of the warrior William had little tended either to improve the public taste, or to awaken a spirit of literary ambition. To vitiated learning or general ignorance, political prejudice was added ; and the noblest poem of any age or country was in danger of sinking into oblivion, when Addison stepped forth to bind the laurel on the brow of the poet, and to avert the reproach which menaced the reputation of Britain.

The mode, however, which our author adopted for the illustration of this admirable poem, has been censured by some modern critics of great acuteness and celebrity, though, in my opinion, without due allowance for the period in which the critique was produced, and for the circumstances necessary to render it effective. They appear to have formed the extravagant expectation, that, at an era when criticism was just rising into notice, and when, to render such a work as Milton's popular, it was, in the first place, essential to awaken the feelings and the taste of the people, Addison should have embraced the philosophical tone, the metaphysical research which distinguishes the present age; in fact, that, instead of merely pointing out the beauties and defects of the poem upon which he was commenting, he should have entered at large into the causes of grandeur, sublimity, pathos, &c.

Dr. Hurd, the most distinguished of our philosophical critics, after describing the plan which Longinus, Bouhours, and Addison pursued, obVOL. II.


serves, “ as in sound criticism, candour must not be indulged at the expence of justice, I think myself obliged to add an observation concerning their defects ; and that on what I must think the just principles here delivered. Though the method taken by these writers be scientifical, the real service they have done to criticism is not very considerable; and the reason is, they dwell too much in generals; that is, not only the genus. to which they refer their species is too large, but those very subordinate species themselves are too comprehensive. Of the three critics under consideration, the most instructive is, unquestionably, Longinus. The genus itself, under which he ranks his several classes, is as particular as the species of the other two. Yet even his classes are much too general to convey any very distinct and useful information. It had been still better if this fine critic had descended to lower and more minute particularities, as subordinate to each dass. For to observe of any sentiment, that it is grand or pathetic, and so of the other species of sublime, is saying very little. Few readers want to be informed of this. It had been sufficient, if any notice was to be taken at all of so general beauties, to have done it in the way which some of the best critics have taken, of merely pointing to them.. But could he have discovered and pro duced to observation those peculiar qualities in sentiment, which occasion the impression of gran. deur, pathos, &c. this had been advancing the science of criticism very much, as tending to lay open the more secret and hidden springs of that pleasure which results from poetical composition.

“ It gives one pain to refuse to such a writer as Mr. Addison any kind of merit, which he appears to have valued himself upon, and which the generality of his readers have seemed willing to allow him. Yet it must not be dissembled, that criticism was by no means his talent. His taste was truly elegant; but he had neither that vigour of understanding, nor chastised philosophical spirit, which are so essential to this character, and which we find in hardly any of the ancients besides Aristotle, and but in a very few of the moderns. For what concerns his criticism on Milton in particular, there was this accidental benefit arising from it, that it occasioned an admirable poet to be read, and his excellencies to be observed. But for the merit of the work itself, if there be any thing just in the plan, it was because Aristotle and Bossu had taken the same route before him. And as to his own proper observations, they are, for the most part, so general and indeterminate, as to afford but little instruc

[ocr errors]

tion to the reader, and are, not unfrequently, altogether frivolous *.

Had our author pursued the plan which this learned critic has chalked out ; had he written with the metaphysical acumen of a Harris or a Campbell, the gloom which overshadowed Milton had not been dispersed, nor would he himself have been intelligible to the bulk of his contemporaries. Addison, in fact, did that which a correct taste and sound sense dictated; he very justly thought it necessary, in the first place, at a period when the very principles of criticism had been little diffused, and the public mind but just awakened to a sense of its previous grossness and deficiencies, to allure and fix the reader by short and elegant essays on the beauties and composition of the poet that he was endeavouring to familiarize : to have philosophized on the qualities which occasioned the impressions of grandeur, sublimity, &c. he must necessarily have perceived, had he been ever so competent to the undertaking, would, owing to the unprepared state of society, and the want of a proper audience, have been useless and absurd...

The censure of Dr. Hurd appears to have arisen from a misconception as to the motive of Addison

* Hurd's Notes on the Epistle to Augustus, vol. ii. p. 112, 113, 114, 5th edition.

« 이전계속 »