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The principal uses of reading may, perhaps not improperly, be referred to two objects, the improvement of the understanding, and the exercise of imagination: whence books may be distinguished by two leading characters, Instructive and Interesting; and will be divided into two classes, Works of Knowledge, and Works of Tafte.
Between the two kinds of reading, which books, thus classed, afford, there is one characteristic difference. In works which are merely intended to communicate know. ledge, writing is made use of only as a vehicle of inftruc. tion; and therefore nothing further is necessary, or perhaps desirable, than that they should exprefs the facts, or truths, which they are intended to teach, with perfect perfpicuity of conception, arrangement, and diction. But in works of tafie, the writing itself becomes a principal object of attention, as a representation of nature, more or less accurate, according to the powers which the writer poilefles of expressing in language the conceptions of his own imagination. This representation cannot, indeed, be called an imitation of nature, in the fa ne strict and literal fenfe in which the term is applied to a picture ; because words are not natural copies, Lut arbitrary signs of things : but it pruduces an effect upon the imagination and feelings of the reader, similar to that which is produced by the art of painting. It was doubtless for this reason, that Aristotle defined
poetry an imitative art. These circunstances render the READING OF WORKS Of Taste a subject of disquisition, or of precept, not kifs extensive than that of writings intended for the communication of knowledge; and on acccunt of its influence upon the state of the mind, it may serhaps be juflly asserted to be not less important." It is the design of this Eslay, briefly to represent the senefits which are to be expected from this kind of reading; and to suggest certain RULES for conducting it in the most advantageous manner.
The agreeable EMPLOYMENT which reading works of tafte affords the adive faculties of the mind, is its first and most obvious effect.
The productions of genius, whether written in nar. rative, de criptive, or dramatic form, agree in the general character, of presenting before the mind of the reader certain objects which awaken his attention, exercise his fancy, and interest his feelings. Those scenes in nature, that, from causes which it is the business of philosophy to explore, are adapted to excite in the spectator agreeable peree ptions and emotions, may, by the aid of language, be exhibited in colours less vivid indeed than those of nature, but fufficiently bright, to make a ftrong impreffion upon the imagination.. A fimilar effect will be produced by the representation of human characters and actions, but with a fuperior degree of force, on ac. count of the superiority of animated to inanimate nature, and op account of the peculiar interest, which men naturally take in whatever concerns their own species. These are rich and spacious fields, from which genius may collect materials 'for its various productions, without hazard of exhausting their treasures. The ancients, numerous as their works of fancy are, were capable of enriching them with an endless variety of imagery, fentiment, and language. That strict adherence to nature, which good sense and correct taste obliged them to ob. serve, produced indeed such a general resemblance, as ruft always be found among disciples of the same fchool : and sometimes we find them copying, with too much fervility, the works of other artifts. But there were few among them, who were not able to coliect, from the common magazine of nature, stores before un. noticed, and to adorn their works, not only with new decorations of language, but with original conceptions. And, netwithstanding the complaint of indolence and dalness,
that the topics of description, and even of fiction, are exhaaled; genius still sometimes asserts her claims, and proves that the variety of her productions, like that of the operations of nature, is without limit.
Hence, they who are conversant with works of genius and afte, find a variety in their sources of entertainment, in fume measure proportioned to the extent of their ac. quaintance with languages. The industrious scholar, who has, with many a weary slep, so far won his way through the rogged path of grammatical studies, as to have acquired a competent knowledge of the ancient Greek and Romata languages, is arrived at a fertile and well.cultivated plain, every where adorned with the faireft flowers, and enriched with the choicest froits.
The writings of the ancients abound with excellent productions in every interesting kind of compofirion. 'There is no pleasing affection of the mind, which may not, in these invaluable remains of antiquity, find ample scope for gratifcation. The Epic Muse, whether the appears in the majeftic fimplicity of Homer, or in the finished elegance of Virgil, presents before the delighted imagination an endlefs variety of grand and beautiful objects, interesting actions, and characters strongly marked, which it is impossible to contemplate without a perpetual fuccession of agreeable emotions. Tragedy, whether she rages with Æschylus, or weeps with Sophocles, or moralizes with Euripides, never ceases to wear a dignified and interesting aspect. Comedy, in the natural and easy dress, in which, after the best Greek models, she is clothed by Terence, can never fail to please. Lyric poetry, whilft it rolls on, like an impetuous torrent, in the lofty strains, and the wild and varied numbers of Pindar, or flows in a placid and transparent stream along the channel of Horatian verse, or glides briskly through the bowers of love and joy in the sportive lays of Anacreon, by turns astonishes, b4
soothes, and delights. Elegy, through the soft and plaintive notes of Bion or Tibullus, melts the foul in pleasing fympathy : wbilft Pastoral Song, in the artless notes of Theocritus, or in the sweet melody of the Mantuan pipe, plays gently about the fancy and the heart. Satire, in the meantime, provides entertainment for those who are dif. posed to laugh at folly, or indulge an honest indignation against vice, in the smile of Horace, the grin of Lucian, and the frown of Juvenal. So rich and various are the treasures with which the Greck and Roman writers furnish those, who have enjoyed the advantage of a classical edu. cation.
But, without having recourse to the ancients, it is poffible to find in modern languages valuable specimens of every species of polite literature. The English language, in particular, abounds with writings addreffed to the imagination and feelings, and calculated for the improvement of taste. No one, who is not so far blinded by prejudice in favour of antiquity as to be incapable of relihing any thing modern, can doubt, that excellenc examples of
every kind of literary m:rit are to be found among the British writers.
The inventive powers of Shakspeare, the fublime conceptions of Milcon, the ver: fatile genius of Dryden, the wit of Butler, the easy gayelya of Prior, the strength and harmony of Pope, the descriptive
powers of Thomson, the delicate humour of Addison, the pathetic fimplicity of Sterne, and the finished correctness of Gray, might, with some degree of confidence, be respectively brought into comparison with any examples offimilar excellence among the ancients.
For minds capable of the pleasures of imagination and sentiment, fuch writings as these provide a kind of entertainment, which is in its nature elegant and refined, and which admits of endless diversity. By exhibiting, images industriously collected and judiciously disposed,
they produce impresions upon the reader's fancy, scarcely Jess vivid, than those which would refult from the actual contemplation of natural obje&ts. By combining incidents and characters of various kinds, and representing them as associated in new and interesting relations, they keep curiofity perpetually awake, and touch in fucceffon every affection and passion of the heart. Whatever is grand or beautiful in nature; whatever is noble, lovely, or singular, in character; whatever is furprising or affecting in fituation, is by the magic power of genios brought at pleasure into view, in the manner best adapted to excite correspondent emotions. A sich field of elegant pleasure is hereby laid open before the reader who is poffeffed of a true taste for polite literature, which distinguishes him from the vulgar, at least as much as the man who enjoys an affluent fortune is diftinguished by the luxuries of his table.
Besides the immediate gratification which this kind of reading affords, it is attended with feveral COLLATERAL ADVANTAGES, which are perhaps of equal value. The exercise, which it gives to the imagination and feelings, improves the vigour and fenfibility of the mind. It is the natural tendency of an intimate acquaintance with images of grandeur, beauty, and excellence, as they are exhibited in works of talte, to produce a general habie of dignity and elegance, which will feldom fail to tincture a man's general character, and diffuse a graceful air over his whole conversation and manners.
It is not unreasonable even to expect, that they who are habitually conversant with beautiful forms in nature and art, and are frequently employed in contemplating excellent characters in the pages of history and fi&ion, will learn to admire whatever is noble or becoming in condust.