1799 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Hugh Blair

Thomas Green, 23 November 1799; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 175-79.



Finished the perusal of Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric. The praise of ingenuity, of a judgment in general accurate, and a taste for the most part timidly correct, I can readily allow him; but to the higher order of merit in a critic — to that superior sensibility which imparts a just relish for transcendant excellence, and to that philosophical sagacity, penetrating discernment, and nice tact, which qualify the possessor for tracing the pleasures of the imagination to their secret springs, he has certainly not the slightest pretensions. There is no raciness — no smack of an original cast of thought or feeling in his work: where little is hazarded, little can be gained; and though his Lectures (I feel the qualifying force of this title) are exempt, accordingly, from any gross or offensive errors, they are destitute, on the other hand, of whatever is adapted powerfully to awaken interest, and enchain attention, on the most engaging of all human speculations. — He starts on a right principle, by maintaining at the outset (L. 2.), that Taste is founded on a natural instinctive sensibility to beauty, refined by exercise, and guided and improved by reason; whose office he appears to limit (on this head) to the ascertaining the resemblance of an imitation to the original, or the reference of parts to the whole, or of means to an end, so far as any beauty depends on such resemblance or reference. Thus far, he seems to think that reason may act as a standard to taste: but then, as the application of this test is not sufficiently extensive, and as our reasonings appeal always, in the last resort, to feeling, he has recourse for this purpose, to the concurring sentiments of men placed in situations favourable to the exertions of taste. Truth, the object of reason, he remarks, is one; beauty, the object of taste, manifold; so that men may differ in preferring one beauty to another, according to their age, sensibility, &c. provided they agree in considering the same object as still beautiful, in sufficient consistency with justness of taste. — Genius (L. 3.) he distinguishes as the power of executing, taste as the power of judging, and criticism as the application of taste to the fine arts; and maintains here again, that the rules of criticism are not formed by any induction a priori — by any train of abstract reasoning — but are derived from an observation of such beauties as most generally please, though reason afterwards approves them as just and natural. His ideas on this subject, are, on neither occasion, so precisely and determinately marked as one could wish; but they are valuable as enforcing, however loosely, a fundamental distinction too generally overlooked in our researches into the principles of criticism. — Abandoning the efficient causes of the pleasures of taste as inscrutable, he proceeds to the consideration of sublimity or grandeur; which he divides, into sublimity in objects, and sublimity in writing; and the former, into physical and moral — the sublime in external things, and the sublime in sentiment. He differs from Burke, who makes terror the source of the sublime; and suggests, with diffidence, that if there is any one quality in which all sublime objects agree, and which is the cause of their producing a similar emotion, it is "mighty power": but mighty power, Burke has very justly remarked, is terrible; since so much does our sense of pain predominate over that of pleasure, that we are instinctively prompted to anticipate rather the evils such a power may inflict, than the benefits it may confer. Sublimity in writing, he makes to consist (L. 4.) in describing sublime objects, or exhibiting sublime sentiments, so as to give us forcible impressions of them, viz. with conciseness, simplicity, and strength — the result of lively feelings in the writer. — In treating of beauty (L. 5.) he professes himself unable to discover any common quality running through all the varieties of objects regarded as beautiful, which entitle them to that distinction; and he proceeds accordingly to consider separately, the beauty of colour, figure and motion, the union of these, the beauty of expression of the mind — where he takes occasion to observe, that the higher virtues (such as I should term, those which turn on self-command) excite an emotion of the sublime, the social and more gentle (those which turn on sensibility) of the beautiful, — and lastly the beauty arising from the fitness of means to an end: — he distinguishes, too, an appropriate beauty in writing, consisting in a certain turn in the style and sentiment, calculated to diffuse a serene delight. The truth is, I think, that beauty, in its popular sense, and regarded as applicable to the exciting causes of every species of the gentler pleasurable sensations, is much too lax to oppose to the sublime; except in the very vague sense in which that term is employed by Longinus, who seems to include under it, whatever produces vehement emotion: and a consequent embarrassment, I suspect, must ever take place in the treatment of this subject, till a more precise circumscription of these qualities obtains. Besides beauty and sublimity, Blair considers that there are other pleasures of taste, such as those arising from novelty, imitation, melody, harmony, numerousness, and the effect produced by wit, humour, and ridicule; and remarks, that poetry and eloquence avail themselves of all these modes of touching the affections. — In the 6th. and 7th. Ls., he treats of the progress of speech and writing. Of the former, he observes, that the understanding has, in all its successive changes, been gaining ground on the imagination; and that language was originally descriptive in the sound, expressive in the utterance, figurative in the style, and that the order of the words followed the order of events in the mind of the speaker, and not, as in modern languages, their real order in point of time. Writing, he deduces, from pictural representations, through hieroglyphics (in which the specific signification of these pictures was extended by analogy), to arbitrary marks (probably originating from this source) like the Chinese characters and Arabic numerals: thus far, the sign immediately represented the thing signified; till it occurred, that these signs might be employed to denote, not the thing itself, but the sound by which it was known; and, by tracing these sounds to their elements, be simplified into the Letters of the Alphabet. These two latter leaps, however, though easy in the statement, are in practice surely immense. — In the 8th. and 9th. Ls., he discusses the nature of language in general, and of the English language in particular; but as he takes Harris and Monboddo for his guides, I have nothing to say about him. — From the 10th. to the 13th. he treats of style, in the choice of terms, and structure of sentences. I was most pleased with his remarks on precision in the former department (L. 10.), illustrated by his distinctions between words which are loosely regarded as synonymous; and his judicious recommendations (L. 11.) of unity, in the latter. He very justly observes, that our modes of thinking, and our modes of expressing ourselves, mutually act and re-act upon each other. — From the 14th. to the 17th. L. he treats of figures of style, which, he well remarks, to have a good effect, must spring spontaneously from the feelings of the speaker or writer. I cannot, however, agree with him in his censure (L. 15.) of two passages, in the Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, "The charm dissolves apace", and "As glorious as is a winged messenger", as involving mixed metaphors: the leading figure is surely preserved with sufficient distinctness in both instances; and the expressions at which he cavils, as incongruous, are so little obtrusive in their primitive and metaphorical sense, as, with me at least, not in the slightest degree to impair the general unity and beauty of the image presented to the mind. — There is nothing new under the Sun. The passage I admired so much (April 10th., 1799), in one of the Papers of the Corresponding Society, saying of the Temple of Liberty, "that it had the ample earth for its area, and the arch of Heaven for its dome", seems to have been taken from the Epitaph on Charles the 5th. (L. 16.) "Pro tumulo ponas orbem, pro tegmine coelum": — the rest spoils all — "Sidera pro facibus, pro lachrymis maria": — yet it evinces, by how slender a partition the extravagant and preposterous is divided from the sublime. — From the 18th. to the 24th. L., Blair treats of style. His divisions of the subject are not, I think, sufficiently clear and distinct: but his particular criticisms are in general acute and just; and his strictures upon certain passages in the writings of Addison and Swift, and the emendations he proposes, to rectify and improve them, for the most part, eminently judicious. — In the 25th. L. he at length enters upon Eloquence; which he defines, the art of speaking in such a manner as to attain the end for which we speak — to please to inform and convince the understanding — and to actuate the will. The highest species of eloquence, that which hurries along the hearer with the speaker, he contends, is always the offspring of passion; and he accounts for the inferior degree of liveliness in modern compared with antient eloquence, partly from the progress of philosophy and correct habits of thinking, which are averse to such excitations. — In the 26th. L. he institutes a formal comparison between Demosthenes and Cicero. I pretty nearly agree with him in the result, though I differ widely in many of the particular criticisms from which it is deduced. The character of Demosthenes, says he, is vigour and austerity; that of Cicero, gentleness and insinuation: — feeble characteristics, surely, of two such mighty and opposite proficients in eloquence. With emotions still stronger than those of dissent, do I listen to his unmerciful depression of the moderns compared with the antients, and of the English compared with the French, in oratory. Did he never hear of such men as Chatham, Fox, or Burke? Or would he deny the praise of pathos, to those vehement and impassioned appeals of Erskine, which I well remember to have seen draw tears down the veteran Bearcroft's cheeks, though opposed to him as counsel in the cause: — a triumph more truly glorious, perhaps, to eloquence, than Cicero's expulsion of Cataline from the Senate. — In the 32d. L. he maintains, that the three great subjects of discussion among mankind, are, truth, duty, and interest; and that all arguments are directed to prove one of these three things, that something is true, that it is right, or, that it is profitable: that where we want, not merely to convince, but to actuate, we must touch the springs of action, the passions: and, that to effect this, it is not sufficient to shew, that we ought to be moved, but to exhibit the incentive of that passion which we wish to raise; and, for this purpose, to be moved by it ourselves. — In the 34th. L., amongst other arguments to establish that virtue is necessary to true eloquence, he contends, that from the fountain of virtuous feeling alone, are drawn those dignified and impassioned sentiments, which communicate a glowing ardour and flame to language; and, above all others, command the passions of mankind. — In the 35th. L. he observes, that as we advance in knowledge, systems of philosophy may perish; but that works of taste are addressed to the feelings; that these feelings are the sole test of their merit; that the universal feeling of mankind, is the natural, and therefore the right, feeling; and that long continued reputation, consequently, is, in such cases, decisive of excellence. — In the 38th. L. he enters on the consideration of Poetry; which he defines "the language of passion, or of enlivened imagination, formed, most commonly, into regular numbers": and the primary aim of the Poet, he justly maintains, is, not to instruct, but to please and to move; though, by pleasing and moving, he may, and he ought to, endeavour to accomplish that end. — In the 42d. L. he eloquently remarks, that the respect which Epic Poetry must of necessity bear to the moral sentiments of mankind, is such a testimony in favour of those sentiments, that were it in the power of sceptical philosophers to weaken the force of the reasonings which establish the essential distinction between virtue and vice, the writings of Epic Poets were alone sufficient to evince the fallacy of their deductions, since by the appeal which such Poets are ever making to the feelings of mankind in favour of virtue, they irresistibly attest, that the foundations of it are laid deep and strong in human nature. — In the 45th. and 46th. Ls. he discourses on Tragedy; the characteristic of which, he thinks, is to move, as that of Epic Poetry is to elevate, the mind. He accounts for the gratification produced by the borrows it excites, from the pleasure attending the exercise of the social affections; which is peculiarly strong in pity and compassion, and overbalances the distress arising from sympathy with the sufferers: — the heart is warmed with kindness and humanity, while it is affected by the sufferings in which it shares; and the pleasure thus derived, is heightened by the satisfactory reflection, that we feel as we ought to feel on the occasion. If the pain involved in this mixed emotion be made to predominate, the scene becomes too shocking for representation. — His view of Shakespear, is most unworthy that great master of the human heart: Blair is evidently not up to the high task of criticising such a Genius. — The 47th. and final Lecture, treats of Comedy: and is decidedly the poorest, and feeblest, and flattest, of them all; huddling up the Course to a miserable close. — After having skirted, with a pale and ineffectual ray, the whole horison of Taste, this Arctic Phoebus sets at last in a fog.