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There are several reasons which have induced the Author of the following sheets to give the Public some account of their origin and progress, previously to their coming under its examination. They are a series of Essays closely connected with one another, and written on a subject, in the examination of which he has at intervals employed himself for a considerable part of his life. Considered separately, each may justly be termed a whole, and complete in itself; taken together, they are consituent parts of one work. The Author entered on this inquiry as early as the year 1750; and it was then that the two first Chapters of the first Book were composed. These he intended as a sort of groundwork to the whole. And the judicious Reader will perceive that, in raising the superstructure, he has entirely conformed to the plan there delineated. That first outline he showed soon after to several of his acquaintance, some of whom are still living. In the year
1757 it was read to a private literary society, of which the Author had the honour to be a member. It was a difference in his situation at that time, and his connexion with the gentlemen of that society, some of whom have since honourably distinguished themselves in the republic of letters, that induced him to resume a subject which he had so long laid aside. The three following years all the other chapters of that Book, except the third, the sixth, and the tenth, which have been but lately added (rather as illustrations and confirmations of some parts of the work, than as essential to it) were composed, and submitted to the judgment of the same ingenious friends. All that follows on the subject of Elocution hath also undergone the same review. Nor has there
been any material alteration made on these, or any addition to them, except in a few instances of notes, examples, and verbal corrections, since they were composed.
It is also proper to observe here, that since transcribing the present Work for the press, a manuscript was put into his hands by Doctor Beattie, at the very time that, in order to be favoured with the Doctor's opinion of this performance, the Author gave him the first Book for his perusal. Doctor Beattie's Tract is called An Essay on Laughter and Ludicrous Writing. Whilst the Author carefully perused that Essay, it gave him a very agreeable surprise to discover that, on a question so nice and curious, there should, without any previous communication, be so remakable a coincidence of sentiments in every thing wherein their subjects coincide. A man must have an uncommon confidence in his own faculties (I might have said in his own infallibility) who is not sensibly more satisfied of the justness of their procedure, especially in abstract matters, when he discovers such a concurrence with the ideas and reasoning of writers of discernment. The subject of that piece is indeed Laughter in general, with an inquiry into those qualities in the object by which it is excited. The investigation is conducted with the greatest accuracy, and the theory confirmed and illustrated by such a variety of pertinent examples, as enable us to scrutinize his doctrine on every side, and view it in almost every possible light. He does not enter into the specific characters whereby wit and humour are discriminated, which are the chief considerations here. His design leads him to consider rather those particulars wherein they all agree, than those wherein they differ. He treats of ludicrous objects and ludicrous writing, with a view to accout for the superior copiousness and refinement of modern ridicule. When philosophical acuteness is happily united with so great richness of fancy and mastery in language, the obscurity in which a subject was formerly involved vanishes entirely, and a reader unacquainted with all other theories and hypotheses can hardly be persuaded that there was ever any difficulty in the question. But there is one reason to think, that the world will soon be favoured with an opportunity of judging for itself, in regard to the merits of that performance.
One reason, though not the only one, which the Author has
for mentioning the manner wherein the composition of this Work has been conducted, and the time it has taken, is, not to enhance its value with the Public, but to apologize in some measure for that inequality in the execution and the style, with which he is afraid it will be thought chargeable. It is his purpose in this Work, on the one hand, to exhibit, he does not say, a correct map, but a tolerable sketch of the human mind; and, aided by the lights which the Poet and the Orator so amply furnish, to disclose its secret movements, tracing its principal channels of perception and action, as near as possible, to their source: and, on the other hand, from the science of human nature, to ascertain with greater precision, the radical principles of that art, whose object it is, by the use of language, to operate on the soul of the hearer, in the way of informing, convincing, pleasing, moving, or persuading. In the prosecution of a design so extensive, there are two extremes to be shunned. One is, too much abstraction in investigating causes; the other, too much minuteness in specifying effects. By the first, the perspicuity of a performance may be endangered ; by the second, its dignity may be sacrificed. The Author does not flatter himself so far as to imagine that he hath succeeded perfectly in his endeavours to avoid either extreme. In a work of this kind it is impossible that every thing should be alike perspicuous to every reader, or that all the parts should be equally elevated. Variety in this respect, as well as in others, is perhaps, on the whole, more pleasing and more instructive than too scrupulous an uniformity. To the eye the interchange of hill and dale beautifies the prospect; and to the ear there is no music in monotony.
The Author can truly say, that he has endeavoured, as much as he could, in the most abstruse questions, to avoid obscurity; and in regard to such of his remarks as may be thought too minute and particular, if just, they will not, he hopes, on a re-examination, be deemed of no consequence. Those may serve to illustrate a general observation, which are scarcely worth notice as subjects either of censure or of praise. Nor is there any thing in this Book which, in his opinion, will create even the smallest difficulty to persons accustomed to inquire into the faculties of the mind. Indeed, the much greater part of it will, he is persuaded, be level to the capacity of all those readers (not perhaps the most numerous
class) who think reflection of some use in reading, and who do not read merely with the intention of killing time.
He begs leave to add, that though his subject be Eloquence, yet, as the nature of his work is didactical, wherein the understanding only is addressed, the style in general admits no higher qualities than purity and perspicuity. These were therefore his highest aim. The best ornaments out of place are not only unbecoming but offensive. Nor can any thing be further from his thoughts than to pretend an exemption from such positive faults in expression, as, on the article of Elocution, he hath so freely criticized in the best English authors. He is entirely sensible, that an impropriety or other negligence in style will escape the notice of the writer, which hardly escapes that of any body else. Next to the purpose of illustrating the principles and canons which he here submits to the judgment of the Public, the two following motives weighed most with the Author in inducing him to use so much freedom in regard to the writings of those for whom he has the highest veneration. One is, to show that we ought in writing, as in other things, carefully to beware of implicit attachment and servile imitation, even when they seem to be claimed by the most celebrated
The other is, to evince that we are in danger of doing great injustice to a work by deciding hastily on its merit from a collection of such oversights. If the critic be rigorous in marking whatever is amiss in this way, what author may abide the trial ? But though such slips are not to be regarded as the sole or even principal test of demerit in literary productions, they ought not to be altogether overlooked. Whatever is faulty in any degree it were better to avoid.
And there are consequences regarding the language in general, as well as the success of particular works, which should preserve verbal criticism from being considered as beneath the attention of any author. An author, so far from having reason to be offended, is doubtless obliged to the man who, free from captious petulance, candidly points out his errors of what kind soever they be.