ページの画像
PDF
ePub

hinted, have so extensive an influence on all the operations and decisions of taste, that a thorough good taste may well be considered as a power compounded of natural sensibility to beauty, and of improved understanding. In order to be satisfied of this, let us observe, that the greater part of the productions of genius are no other than imitations of naturerepresentations of the characters, actions, or manners of men. The pleasure we receive from such imitations, or representations, is founded on mere taste : but to judge whether they be properly executed, belongs to the understanding, which compares the copy with the original.

In reading, for instance, such a poem as the Æneid, a great part of our pleasure arises from the plan or story being well conducted, and all the parts joined together with probability and due connexion -from the characters being taken from nature, the sentiments being suited to the characters, and the style to the sentiments. The pleasure which arises from a poem so conducted, is felt or enjoyed by taste, as an internal sense : but the discovery of this conduct in the poem is owing to reason; and the more that reason enables us to discover such propriety in the conduct, the greater will be our pleasure. We are pleased, through our natural sense of beauty. Reason shows us why, and upon what grounds we are pleased. Wherever, in works of taste, any resemblance to nature is aimed at—wherever there is any reference of parts to a whole-or of means to an end, as there is indeed in almost every writing and discourse, there the understanding must always have a great part to act.

Here then is a wide field for reason's exerting its powers, in relation to the objects of taste, particularly with respect to composition and works of genius; and hence arises a second and a very considerable source of the improvement of taste, from the application of reason and good sense to such productions of genius. Spurious beauties, such as unnatural characters, forced sentiments, affected style, may please for a little : but they please only because their opposition to nature and to good sense has not been examined, or attended to. Once show how nature might have been more justly imitated or represented-how the writer might have managed his subject to greater advantage—the illusion will prefently be dissipated, and these false beauties will please no more.

From these two sources, then, first, the frequent exercise of taste, and next, the application of good sense and reason to the objects of taste, taste as a power of the mind receives its improvement. In its perfect state, it is undoubtedly the result both of nature and of art. It supposes our natural sense of beauty to be refined by frequent attention to the most beautiful objects, and at the same time to be guided and improved by the light of the understanding.

I muft be allowed to add, that as a found head, so likewise a good heart, is a very material requifite to just taste. The moral beauties are not only in themselves superior to all others, but they exert an influence, either more near or more remote, on a great variety of other objects of taste. Wherever the affections, characters, or actions of men are concerned (and these certainly afford the noblest subjects to genius), there can be neither any just or affecting defcription of them, nor any thorough feeling of the beauty of that description, without our possessing the virtuous affections. He, whose heart is indelicate or hard, he who has no admiration of what is truly noble or praiseworthy, nor the proper sympathetic sense of what is soft and tender, must have a very imperfect relish of the highest beauties of eloquence and poetry.

The characters of tafte, when brought to its most improved state, are all reducible to two, delicacy and correctness.

Delicacy of taste respects principally the perfection of that natural sensibility on which taste is founded. It implies those finer organs or powers, which enable us to discover beauties that lie hid from a vulgar eye. One may have strong sensibility, and yet be deficient in delicate taste. He may be deeply impressed by fuch beauties as he perceives; but he perceives only what is in some degree coarse, what is bold and palpable ; while chaster and simpler ornaments escape his notice. In this state, talte generally exists among rude and unrefined nations. But a person of delicate taste both feels strongly, and feels accurately. He fees distinctions and differences where others see none ; the most latent beauty does not escape him; and he is fenfible of the smallest blemish. Delicacy of taste is judged of by the fame marks that we use in judging of the delicacy of an external sense. As the goodness of the palate is not tried by strong flavours, but by a mixture of ingredients, where, notwithstanding the confusion, we remain sensible of each ; in like manner, delicacy of internal taste appears, by a quick and lively sensibility to its finest, most compounded, or moit latent objects.

Correctness of taste respects chiefly the improvement which that faculty receives through its connexion with the understanding. A man of correct taste is one who is never imposed on by counterfeit beauties—who carries always in his mind that standard of good sense, which he employs in judging of every thing. He estimates with propriety the comparative merit of the several beauties which he meets with in any work of genius ; refers them to their proper classes ; assigns the principles, as far as they can be traced, whence their power of pleasing flows : and is pleased himself precisely in that degree in which he ought, and no more.

It is true, that these two qualities of taste, delicacy and correctness, mutually imply each other. No taste can be exquisitely delicate without being correct; nor can be thoroughly correct, without being delicate. But still a predominancy of one or other quality in the mixture is often visible. The power of delicacy is chiefly seen in difcerning the true merit of a work; the power of correctness, in rejecting false pretensions to merit. Delicacy leans more to feeling ; correctness more to reason and judgment. The former is more the gift of nature ; the latter, more the product of culture and art. Among the ancient critics, Longinus possessed most delicacy ; Aristotle most correctness. Among the moderns, mr. Addison is a high example of delicate taste ; dean Swift, had he written on the subject of criticism, would perhaps have afforded the example of a correct one.

Having viewed taste in its most improved and perfect state, I come next to consider its deviations from that state, the fluctuations and changes to which it is liable ; and to enquire, whether, in the midst of these, there be any means of distinguishing a true from a corrupted taste. This brings us to the most difficult part of our task. For it must be acknowledged, that no principle of the human mind is, in its operations, more fluctuating and capricious than 'taste. Its variations have been so great and frequent, as to create a suspicion with some, of its being merely arbitrary-grounded on no foundation, ascertainable by no standard, but wholly dependent on changing fancy; the consequence of which would be, that all studies or regular enquiries concerning the objects of taste, were vain. In architecture, the Grecian models were long esteemed the .nost perfect. In succeeding ages, the Gothic architecture alone prevailed, and afterwards the Grecian taste revived in all its vigour, and engrossed the public admiration. In eloquence and poetry, the Asiatics at no time relished any thing but what was full of ornament, and splendid in a degree that we should denominate gawdy ; whilst the Greeks admired only chaste and simple beauties, and despised the Asiatic oftentation. In our own country, how many writings that were greatly extolled two or three centuries ago, are now fallen into entire disrepute and oblivion ? Without going back to remote instances, how very different is the taste of poetry which prevails in Great Britain now, from what prevailed there no longer ago than the reign of king Charles II. which the author's too of that time deemed an Augustan age : when nothing was in vogue but an affected brilliancy of wit ; when the simple majesty of Milton was overlooked, and Paradise Lost almost entirely unknown; when Cowley's laboured and unnatural conceits were admired as the very quintessence of genius ; Waller's gay sprightliness was mistaken for the tender fpirit of love poetry; and such writers as Suckling and Etheridge were held in esteem for dramatic composition ?

The question is, what conclusion we are to form from such instances as these ? Is there any thing that can be called a standard of taste, by appealing to which we may distinguish between a good and a bad taste? Or is there in truth no such distinction; and are we to hold that, according to the proverb, there is no disputing of tastes; but whatever pleafes is right, for that reason that it does please? This is the question, and a very nice and subtile one it is, which we are now to discuss.

I begin by observing, that if there be no such thing as any standard of taste, this consequence must immediately follow, that all tastes are equally

« 前へ次へ »