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that he was versed in all the knowledge of his times; and it is reasonable to suppose, that he availed himself to the utmost of what previous ages had accumulated in precept and example*. However assisted, or however independent of others, he has left the world two productions, whose execution and construction have been the admiration of posterity. To display the unity and integrity of his fable, the just bearings and concatenations of its various incidents; to awaken attention to the variety, strength, and beauty of his characters, and their fidelity as draughts from nature, has been the useful province of criticism.
* “ Homer," observes the Editor of the Bibliographical Dictionary, " has been generally stiled the Father of Epic Poetry.--This has ever appeared to me very improper. It is true he is the oldest Greek poet we know. But as the Paradise Lost of Millon plainly supposed that other Epic poems existed prior to this, and that Milton had read them, so does that of Homer. It is contrary to all the phænomena of the human mind, that so finished a work should have been the first essay of the kind. There can be no room to doubt. but many poets flourished before Homer, and perhaps not a few Epic poems were made ; and it would be rash to assert that even his is the best that ever was produced. As the Paradise Lost, necessarily supposes SPENSER's Fairy Queen: that, TASSO's Gerusalemme Liberata : that, VIRGIL'S Æneid; and the Æncid, the Iliad of Homer; so the Iliad itself may stand in reference to as many preceding poems as the Paradise Lost does. As the Æneid never could have existed had not the Iliad gone before, on the plan of which it is all built: and, as the Jerusalem Delivered is a proceed from the Æneid, as the Fairy Queen is from the poem of Tusso, and the Paradise Lost from the whole ; so I conjecture the Iliad is from the works of preceding poets. And if this conjecture be well fouuded, we are left to deplore the irreparable loss of a vast mass of intellect in the destruction of the works which preceded and gave birth to those of Homer!”
Vol. 4th, p. 127, 128.
Of still greater estimation is the duty of the critic when employed to develope or arraign the beauties and blemishes of vast but irregular genius, where the fascinations of transcendant ability is ever liable to consecrate even its most glaring defects. The usual result of talent emerging in an era unimbued with science and literature, and when neither good models nor precepts are accessible, is originality in style and conception ; an originality, however, which strongly paints the state of society which gave it birth, exhibiting strong lights and shades, matchless beauty and sublimity, almost instantly contrasted with palpable and striking deformity.
Of this mixed character was Shakspeare, the most original, and, frequently, the greatest poet the world has yet seen. He is consequently a most appropriate object of criticism; and in no more useful task can this art be engaged than in weighing with impartiality his numerous excellencies and errors.
Of equal value are the exertions of the critic
when engaged in elucidating the productions of a more advanced stage of society, where genius is clothed in the panoply of profound and varied erudition. It is in this situation, where a few are truly learned, intimate with the best models of antiquity, and capable of emulating their proudest efforts, whilst the bulk of the people is still immersed in comparative ignorance, that the taste and judgment of the critic are most essentially necessary in familiarising and imparting a relish for excellence, which would otherwise neither be felt nor understood. This interesting and important service did Addison effectually perform for our sublime Milton, and, at the same time, presented his countrymen with the first specimen in their language of elegant systematic criticism.,
To ascertain, however, with due precision, the great merits of Addison as a critic, it will be necessary to consider what steps had been previously taken in the island for the improvement of this branch of literature. Before we proceed, therefore, to estimate more particularly the value and utility of what our author has left us in this department, it will be proper to dwell, for a short time, on the origin and progress of English criticism, and to trace its course to the commencement of the eighteenth century.
Little attention had been paid to, and few
books of any worth published in English prose, before the middle of the sixteenth century. Those who aspired to the character of learning neglected the vernacular language for the Latin tongue, in which alone they could hope for a wide-extended circulation of their ideas. We may date indeed the first attempt to raise a model of English style from the Toxophilus of Roger Ascham, which appeared in the year 1545. It was composed professedly with the view of shewing with what elegance, purity, and precision the language might be written.
The consequence of the attempt was such as the ingenious author had in view. In fact, English criticism owes its birth to this production ; for, struck with the novelty and beauty of the experiment, the minds of the literati were immediately turned toward the construction and improvement of their native tongue; and eight years after the publication of the Toxophilus, appeared for the first time in our language a work which could with propriety be termed a book of criticism.
This valuable treatise made its appearance in 1553, and is entitled “ THE ARTE of RHETORIKE for the use of all suche as are studious of Eloquence, sette forthe in Englishe by Thomas Wilson.” Wilson was the first scholar of his age, had been educated in King's College, and tutor to Henry and Charles Brandon, dukes of Suffolk. He took his degree of Doctor of Laws, and afterwards attained great eminence in the state. He was ambassador from Elizabeth to Mary Queen of Scots and the Low Countries, secretary of state, privy counsellor, and lastly, in 1579, Dean of Durham.
The arte of RHETORIKE not only contains rules for composing in English, but displays a most elegant and accomplished mind, and a perfect acquaiutance with the best writers of antiquity. “ It is liberal and discursive,” observes Warton, “illustrating the arts of eloquence by example, and examining and ascertaining the beauties of composition with the speculative skill and sagacity of a critic *." It points out also, with great acuteness, the powers and compass of our language, the various energies and styles of which it is susceptible, and censures with just indignation those who attempt to corrupt it by the introduction of foreign words, or pedantic and affected phrases. In his third book, when treating of simplicity of style, he thus humourously ridicules these whimsical innovators.
“ Among other lessons this should first be learned, that we never affect any straunge ynke
* Warton's History of English Poetry, vol. 3d.