« ZurückWeiter »
quences of so baneful a nature,—then, indeed, may they be considered as the pests of society; as the propagators of moral contagion. Too much care, therefore, cannot be taken, to discard all works from which such consequences are likely to
There are, indeed, some productions, which, though objectionable in particular passages, are still, perhaps, good in their general effect. Entirely to repudiate these, might be considered an unnecessary strictness, because freedom from fault is not to be expected in any human work. Their perusal, however, should, at all events, be confined to those, whose maturity of judgment, and solidity of principle, will protect them alike from the insidious arts of sophistry, and the still more dangerous and contaminating influence of unprincipled hints and inflammatory allusions. But, from the youthful mind, every thing that has the smallest tendency to damp the ardour of virtue, should be carefully withheld: If baseness and impurity cannot be banished from the world, they should, at least, be confined within the narrowest limits.
It is not, however, sufficient, that works of fiction should be carefully selected, they must also be used in moderation. Pure as they may be in respect of their morality, they will not still be found innocuous, if we indulge in their perusal to excess. If resorted to merely for the relaxation of the mind, when fatigued by its more important labours, while affording us amusement, they will improve us too; but if, inverting the order of propriety, we make them our business, instead of our recreation, their effects will be injurious in various ways, They will give us a distaste for more serious studies, as the indulgence of luxury unfits the palate for the relish of plain and wholesome food. If the fictions of the poet, the dramatist, or the writer of novels and romances, constitute the principal occupation of our minds, the details of the historian, and the disquisitions of the philosopher, will speedily be found tedious and disgusting, and will at length be entirely laid aside. Accustomed always to the strong excitement of our feelings,—when they are dormant, we shall have no pleasure; accustomed to read with a degree of rapidity that forbids reflection, the mind will become unfit for sober thought. By continually dwelling on relations of circumstances, which never occurred in real life, we are apt to acquire false views of human nature. Indeed, by the excessive indulgence of those sympathetic feelings, which form the basis of the enjoyment that fiction imparts, the enjoyment is itself diminished by the extinction of the sensibility from which it springs.
But, though it is unfortunately true, that fictitious compositions are frequently of a baneful, and still more frequently of a trifling and useless nature, yet, taken in a general view, as a class of literary productions, they cannot fail to excite admiration by the talents which they display, and to attract regard by the pleasure which they communicate. If the sons of genius had not shewn by their works, what the powers of invention are capable of effecting, individuals of more limited capacity could never have formed an adequate idea of the boundless variety and combination of incident, which have had their source in fancy only. Nor is the judgment of fictitious writers less remarkable than their invention. What consummate ingenuity and art do they continually exhibit, in so arranging their relation of circumstances as to keep alive the curiosity of their readers, till the proper period arrives . for the development of the plot, or the application of the moral! That work, of which the end may easily and certainly be anticipated from its commencement, clearly indicates the unskilfulness of its writer, and shews that, whatever his learning and abilities may be, they are not of such a nature as to qualify him for excelling in this species of composition. The distinct delineation, and well-supported preservation of character, are also marks of judgment in an author, for which every production of real genius is more or less distinguished, and which contribute in no small degree to the gratification which the reader receives. It is not very generally the case, that works of fiction afford much scope for displays of learning, in the strict acceptation of that term; and some writers, (Milton and Fielding, for example,) have incurred the censure of pedantry, for the scholastic allusions and disquisitions which, in their productions, are by no means uncommon; but the possession of extensive knowledge, both in nature and in morals, as well as of the dispositions and manners of mankind, if not absolutely necessary, is at all events highly important, to those who desire that their fictitious compositions should combine utility with pleasure.
It has sometimes been a matter of speculation, why the writer of fiction should be able to excite, as he usually does, so much more interest in the mind than the historian or biographer; and it does appear a kind of intellectual phenomenon, that the relation of what we know to be unreal, should produce a more powerful effect than what we have every reason to believe authentic. This may, however, be accounted for from the circumstance, that fictitious narratives almost always deal in events of an uncommon nature, and the occurrence of which, in real life, it would be absurd to expect. The representation of these is more interesting than historical facts, because it gratifies our love of novelty,-it takes us into a kind of new creation,-it presents us with
VOL. 1. PART I.
beings such as we seldom, if ever, meet with in society, and it places them in situations alternately of danger and safety, of bustle and repose, of distress and enjoyment, the accounts of which keep our minds in a state of pleasing suspense; and, by agitating our bosoms with hope and fear, with pity and delight, kindle in us the liveliest sympathy with the characters of the imaginary scene. Triumphant baseness rouses our indignation,-its downfal inspires us with joy; oppressed innocence calls forth our compassionate feelings,-its perils excite our anxiety,—and its ruin, or its rescue, fails not to produce the depression or exaltation of our hearts: on the perversion of talent or power to base and unworthy purposes, we look with contempt and detestation ---While superior virtue, supported and adorned by intellectual energy and elegant accomplishment, we cannot fail to reverence and admire. Such are the objects which fiction introduces : in history, such are more seldom to be found; and hence it is that it interests us less. That the conjecture now offered is not wholly groundless, appears also from this, that when (which is not often) a real event is distinguished by uncommon and romantic incidents, the pleasure which it imparts resembles that which is derived from a fictitious recital. Nor should it be forgotten, that in perusing works of fiction, though we know the narrative is not true, yet we are continually introduced to persons and places, to periods and events, which are described with so much precision and minuteness, as to impress upon us a sort of temporary belief in the reality of the scene before us, without which we could feel no interest, but should turn from the recital with disgust.
When it is considered how extensively and how eagerly productions of this kind are perused, it can scarcely be doubted that their influence is great on the morals and manners, on the taste and character, of society. In this point of view, fictitious composition deserves the attention of the philosopher, and that it has occasionally received. Lord Bacon expresses his opinion, that the partiality which has ever prevailed for this kind of writing, is a proof of the greatness and dignity of the human mind, because it indicates a desire of something, that should give to the intellectual powers a greater degree of expansion than the ordinary course of human events is calculated to produce. Some works of fiction have, however, been objected to, either for having no moral at all, or such as was comparatively unimportant; and it has, therefore, been urged, that mankind could be little affected by the widest dispersion of productions, which were so destitute of any direct and definite object. In answer to such objections, the critics have frequently busied themselves in endeavouring to discover a moral, where the probability is , that none was ever intended. With this view, much learn. ing and ingenuity have been employed to prove, that the Iliad was written for the purpose of exhibiting the bad effects of immoderate anger, and that the Æneid was designed to shew the beneficial effects of piety to the gods. Critical sagacity may probably discover, that these works are adapted to the illustration of some such sentiments; but, if so, it is far more likely, that this is merely accidental, than that Homer or Virgil should have written a long epic poem only to enforce some trite maxim
of common-place morality. The fact appears to be, that works of fiction are not usually designed to illustrate any particular principle; but rather, by the influence of their general sentiments, to mend the heart, and to improve the understanding, at the same time that they afford it an agreeable relaxation. The uses and advantages of such productions are, indeed, various; they exercise the mind, without fatiguing it; they make us familiar with the manners of different countries, and different periods of time; by shewing us what man is, and what he might be, they exhibit the capabilities of human improvement; by calling the passions and affections into action, they tend to awaken the sympathies of our nature, to excite our benevolence, and to sharpen our sensibility : in short, though this species of composition is liable to some abuses, the most beneficial results may be expected from its cultivation,—when Fiction follows in the train of Truth, and when the mirror, which she exhibits to mankind, reflects only the image of Virtue.
If money be the root of
(When we a common enemy have prov'd it)
And when we happily have quite renov'd it,
Yes—'twas that very want that made it golden;
For neither corn, nor wine, por oil, were sold then;
But that was in the time by bards callid olden,-
Men toil'd for silver-copper-aught callid money:
Battled, uolike the bee who works for honey:
Proud Gold, dare raise their heads till they have won ye!
If he be happier who has fewer cares,
He must be happiest who has nought to care for;
Most of that miserable dust,—and therefore
Then why should toil and anguish mortals wear- -for
The spirit that should struggle to the sky?
That bids sense-feeling-honour prostrate lie?
Like glittering sands, shine on the aching eye?
Cheers him, -save that of counting o'er his hoard;
Scarce yield a meal to cheer bis naked board,
Nor can his hand what nature needs afford :