Page images


TASTE may be considered either as sensitive or mental; and under each of these denominations is sometimes spoken of as natural, sometimes as acquired; I propose to treat of it in its intellectual construction only, and in this sense Mr. Addison defines it to be that faculty of the soul, which discerns the beauties of an author with pleasure, and the imperfections with dislike.

This definition may very properly apply to the faculty which we exercise in judging and deciding upon the works of others; but how does it apply to the faculty exercised by those who produced those works? How does it serve to develope the taste of an author, the taste of a painter, or a statuary? And yet we may speak of a work of taste with the same propriety, as we do of a man of taste. It should seem therefore as if this definition went only to that denomination of taste, which we properly call an acquired taste; the productions of which generally end in imitation, whilst those of natural taste bear the stamp of originality. Another characteristic of natural taste will be simplicity; for how can nature give more than she possesses, and what is nature but simplicity? Now when the mind of any man is endued with a fine natural taste, and all means of profiting by other men's ideas are out of the question, that taste will operate by disposing him to select the fairest subjects out of what he sees either for art or imagination to work upon: Still his production will be marked with simplicity; but as it is the province of taste to separate deformity or vulgarity from

what is merely simple, so according to the nature of his mind who possesses it, beauty or sublimity will be the result of the operation: if his taste inclines him to what is fair and elegant in nature, he will produce beauty; if to what is lofty, bold, and tremendous, he will strike out sublimity.

Agreeably to this, we may observe in all literary and enlightened nations, their earliest authors and artists are the most simple: First, adventurers represent what they see or conceive with simplicity, because their impulse is unbiassed by emulation, having nothing in their sight either to imitate, avoid, or excel: on the other hand, their successors are sensible that one man's description of nature must be like another's, and in their zeal to keep clear of imitation, and to outstrip a predecessor, they begin to compound, refine, and even to distort. I will refer to the Venus de Medicis and the Laöcoon for an illustration of this: I do not concern myself about the dates or sculptors of these figures: but in the former we see beautiful simplicity, the fairest form in nature, selected by a fine taste, and imitated without affectation or distortion, and as it should seem without even an effort of art: in the Laöcoon we have a complicated plot; we unravel a maze of ingenious contrivance, where the artist has compounded and distorted nature in the ambition of surpassing her.

Virgil possessed a fine taste according to Mr. Addison's definition, which I before observed applies only to an acquired taste: he had the faculty of discerning the beauties of an author with pleasure, and the imperfections with dislike:' he had also the faculty of imitating what he discerned; so that I cannot verify what I have advanced by any stronger instance than his. I should think there does not exist a poet, who has gone such lengths in imitation

as Virgil; for to pass over his pastoral and bucolic poems, which are evidently drawn from Theocritus and Hesiod, with the assistance of Aratus in every thing that relates to the scientific part of the signs. and seasons, it is supposed that his whole narrative of the destruction of Troy, with the incident of the wooden horse and the episode of Sinon, are an almost literal translation of Pisander the epic poet, who in his turn perhaps might copy his account from the Ilias Minor (but this last is mere suggestion). As for the Æneid, it does little else but reverse the order of Homer's epic, making Æneas's voyage precede his wars in Italy, whereas the voyage of Ulysses is subsequent to the operations of the Iliad. As Apollo is made hostile to the Greeks, and the cause of his offence is introduced by Homer in the opening of the Iliad, so Juno in the Æneid stands in his place with every circumstance of imitation. It would be an endless task to trace the various instances throughout the Eneid, where scarce a single incident can be found which is not copied from Homer. Neither is there greater originality in the executive parts of the poem, than in the constructive; with this difference only, that he has copied passages from various authors, Roman as well as Greek, though from Homer the most. Amongst the Greeks, the dramatic poets Eschylus, Sophocles, and principally Euripides, have had the greatest share of his attention; Aristophanes, Menander, and other comic authors, Callimachus and some of the lyric writers, also may be traced in his imitations. A vast collection of passages from Ennius chiefly, from Lucretius, Furius, Lucilius, Pacuvius, Suevius, Nævius, Varius, Catullus, Accius, and others of his own nation, has been made by Macrobius in his Saturnalia, where Virgil has done little else but put their sentiments into more elegant verse; so that in strictness


of speaking we may say of the Eneid, that it is a miscellaneous compilation of poetical passages, composing altogether an epic poem, formed upon the model of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey: abounding in beautiful versification, and justly to be admired for the fine acquired taste of its author, but devoid of originality either of construction or execution.' Besides its general inferiority as being a copy from Homer, it particularly falls off from its original in the conception and preservation of character: it does not reach the sublimity and majesty of its model, but it has in a great degree adopted the simplicity, and entirely avoided the rusticity, of Homer.

Lucan and Claudian in later ages were perhaps as good versifiers as Virgil, but far inferior to him in that fine acquired taste in which he excelled: they are ingenious but not simple; and execute better than they contrive. A passage from Claudian, which I shall beg the reader's leave to compare with one from Virgil (where he personifies the evil passions and plagues of mankind, and posts them at the entrance of hell, to which Æneas is descending), will exemplify what I have said: for at the same time that it will bear a dispute, whether Claudian's description is not even superior to Virgil's in poetical merit, yet the judicious manner of introducing it in one case, and the evident want of judgment in the other, will help to shew, that the reason why we prefer Virgil to Claudian, is more on account of his superiority of taste than of talents.

Claudian's description stands in the very front of his poem on Ruffinus; Virgil's is woven into his fable, and will be found in the sixth book of his Eneid, as follows:

Vestibulum ante ipsum, primisque in faucibus orci,
Luctus, et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae;
Pallentesque habitant Morbi, tristisque Senectus,

Et Metus, et malesuada Fames, et turpis Egestas,
Terribiles visu forma; Lethumque, Laborque;
Tum consanguineus Lethi Sopor, et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
Ferreique Eumenidum thalami, et Discordia demens
Vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruentis.-VIRGIL.

Just in the gates and in the jaws of Hell
Revengeful Cares and sullen Sorrows dwell,
And pale Diseases, and repining Age;
Want, Fear, and Famine's unresisted rage:
Here Toils, and Death, and Death's half-brother, Sleep,
Forms terrible to view, their sentry keep:
With anxious Pleasures of a guilty mind,
Deep Frauds before, and open Force behind:
The Furies' iron beds, and Strife that shakes
Her hissing tresses, and unfolds her snakes.-DRYDEN.

Protinus infernas ad limina tetra sorores,
Concilium deforme, vocat; glomerantur in unum
Innumeræ pestes Erebi, quascunque sinistro
Nox genuit fætu: Nutrix Discordia belli;
Imperiosa Fames; leto vicina Senectus;
Impatiensque sui Morbus; Livorque secundis
Anxius, est scisso morens velamine Luctus,
Et Timor, et cæco præceps Audacia vultu;
Et luxus populator opum; cui semper adhærens
Infelix humili gressu comitatur Egestas;
Fædaque Avaritiæ complexa pectora matris
Insomnes longo veniunt examine Curæ.-CLAUDIAN.

The infernal council, at Alecto's call
Conven'd, assemble in the Stygian hall;
Myriads of ghastly plagues that shun the light,
Daughters of Erebus and gloomy Night :
Strife war-compelling; Famine's wasting rage;
And Death just hovering o'er decrepit Age;
Envy, Prosperity's repining foe,
Restless Disease, and self-dishevell❜d Woe,
Rashness, and Fear, and Poverty, that steals
Close as the shadow at the Spendthrift's heels;
And Cares that clinging to the Miser's breast,
Forbid his sordid soul to taste of rest.

The productions of the human genius will borrow their complexion from the times in which they originate. Ben Jonson says, that the players often

« PreviousContinue »