1772 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Kames

Anonymous, in "Catalogue of the most celebrated Writers" Letters concerning the present State of England (1772) 370-75.



HOME. Famous for his Elements of Criticism, which is a work fraught with erudition, taste, and critical acumen. He investigates the art of criticism by investigating human nature, of which a striking instance is his chapters on emotions and passions; the following distinction is a material foundation in all critical enquiries. "If an emotion be sometimes productive of desire, sometimes not, it comes to be a material enquiry, in what respect a passion differs from an emotion. Is passion in its nature or feeling distinguishable from emotion? I have been apt to think, that there must be a distinction, when the emotion seems in all cases to precede the passion, and to be the cause or occasion of it. But after the strictest examination, I cannot perceive any such distinction, betwixt emotion and passion. What is love to a mistress, for example, but a pleasing emotion raised by a sight or idea of the person beloved, joined with desire of enjoyment? in what else consists the passion of resentment, but in a painful emotion, occasioned by the injury, accompanied with desire to chastise the author of the injury? In general, as to every sort of passion, we find no more in the composition, but the particulars now mentioned, an emotion pleasant or painful accompanied with desire [...]. Envy is emulation in excess. If the exaltation of a competitor be barely disagreeable, the painful feeling is reckoned an emotion. If it produce desire to depress him, it is reckoned a passion."

These ideas are certainly just, and the distinction are drawn with philosophical precision; this merit runs almost throughout the work; but one singular passage, very difficult to characterise, I shall further desire here to quote.

"In explaining the effects of novelty, the place a being occupies in the scale of existence, is a circumstance that must not be omitted. Novelty in the individuals of a low class is perceived with indifference, or with a very slight emotion. Thus a pebble, however singular its appearance, scarce moves our wonder. The emotion rises with the rank of the object; and, other circumstances being equal, is strongest in the highest order of existence. A strange animal affects us more than a strange vegetable; and were we admitted to view superior beings, our wonder would rise proportionably; and accompanying nature in her AMAZING WORKS, be completed in the contemplation of the Deity." — Does not this make the Deity a monster of nature's creation? Surely this passage is very inadequate to the idea which every reader Lord Kaime's must be clear that he entertains.

If there is any marked inferiority in this excellent work, it is the chapters on the sublime and on wit. In the former, he is far exceeded by Mr. Burke; and in the latter his instances are so few, and so irregularly arranged, that one cannot form from them any clear and distinct idea.