1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Burke

Thomas Green, 6 October 1798; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 105-6.



Read Burke's Disquisition on Taste prefixed to his Sublime and Beautiful. He seems to consider the object of Reason, to be Truth and Falsehood; and of Taste, Sentiment; but without drawing a determined line between their respective provinces: and his object is to prove, that the standard of both is the same in all human creatures. Taste, he defines "that faculty or those faculties in the mind, which are affected with, or which form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts." He first examines the natural pleasures of SENSE; which he shews to be the same in all, and that our acquired relishes are distinguishable from them to the last. He next considers the pleasures of IMAGINATION. These, so far as that faculty is concerned in representing the objects of Sense, must, like those of Sense, be common to all. But in works of the Imagination, a new pleasure is derived from discerning the resemblance which the imitation bears to the original: this pleasure must of course depend on a knowledge of the object represented; but, where this knowledge is the same, seems nearly the same in all. In exercising our Taste on the objects of sense, or the representations of these objects, or the representations of the passions, which, acting, and acting upon certain principles, on all, leave a standard in every breast, little more than the sensibility seems concerned, which may be assumed to differ only in degree: but where the representation embraces the character, manners, actions, and designs of men, their relations, their virtues and vices, here, he thinks, attention and reasoning are required, and Taste becomes no other than a refined judgment, differing as judgments differ. Taste is thus composed of sensibility and judgment: from a defect of sensibility, arises a want of Taste; and from a defect of judgment, a wrong or had Taste. — I am not sure that I have represented his ideas very exactly; indeed they do not seem, especially with regard to a leading point I have in view, very distinctly enuntiated: as far however as I am qualified to form an opinion, it appears to me, that in attempting to withdraw a certain class of objects from the proper jurisdiction of Taste, and to place them under that of the Judgment, he yields at last, after an earnest of better things, to a delusion which has misled, in a still greater degree, most writers who have treated the same subject. That an exercise of the Judgment is often necessary to put us in possession (if I may be allowed to say so) of the case on which the Taste is to be exerted, admits of no dispute. Mr. Burke had before observed, that where the subject submitted to our Taste is the imitation of any natural object, a competent knowledge of the original, is necessary to determine the justness of the copy; and, I would add, a competent acquaintance with other imitations in the same way, to ascertain its comparative excellence, and to form a complete decision on its merits: intelligence of a higher order and more difficult acquirement, no doubt, is necessary to enable us to judge of the truth and accuracy of any representation of the human character, modified by its manners, its habits, its passions, its virtues and its vices: but in neither case, surely, should this information, or the capacity to gain it, though indispensable as preliminary qualifications for the exercise of Taste, be confounded with that faculty itself; — incorporated with it as an integrant part, or (still less) allowed to supersede it altogether. By Taste we emphatically mean, a quick and just perception of beauty and deformity in the works of nature or of art; and it is only by making it a distinct subject of consideration in this character, and separating from it those talents and attainments, which however requisite to enlarge the sphere of its action, are at least equally subservient to other and totally different purposes in our moral oeconomy, that we can reasonably expect to obtain a clear and just conception of this peculiar part of our constitution, and of the laws which regulate its exercise.