Page images

of limited extent, and which contain but few prominent parts.

Revolutions in Taste.

On the principles which have been stated in this chapter, the revolutions of taste may be easily explained. As peculiar circumstances have their influence on the tastes of different individuals, so the manners and customs and peculiar circumstances of different ages, exert their influence on the taste of these ages. The power of these adventitious circumstances is so great, that what in one age is esteemed and pronounced beautiful, in a succeeding age of more refinement, is regarded with disgust. Still it is true, that in this case, as in the diversities of the taste of individuals, there are some works of art, which rise superior to the influence of these accidental causes, and wherever they are known excite emotions of beauty.

Different qualities of taste explained.

I shall close this account of taste in general with a short explanation of the qualities, which are most frequently ascribed to it. These are three; Refinement. Delicacy and Correctness.

We speak of Refinement of taste in reference to different ages and different periods in the life of an individual. It implies a progress, so that what is pleasing in one age, or one period of life, is not so in another. The sculptured monument, which in the early ages of a country is regarded with admiration and called beautiful, at a later period is unheeded, or considered rude and unsightly. The pictures, which in our childish years we gazed upon with pleasure, at a more mature time of life, are passed by with neglect. This difference in the feelings with which the same object is regarded at different periods, is found connected with advances that have been

made in knowledge, and in the cultivation and refinement of the intellectual powers. The emotion of pleasure, felt by the ignorant and half civilized man, when gazing on some rude monument or unsightly picture, is of the same nature as that felt by the man of knowledge and refinement, while viewing a finished work of sculpture, or of painting. But the latter has become habituated to the exhibition of skill in the works of art. He has become familiar with monuments and paintings, that are better in their design and execution, than those that have been seen by the former; and hence it is, that the production of the artist, which at an earlier period of life would have excited emotions of beauty, is now disregarded. Refinement in taste, then, denotes a progress in the knowledge of what is excellent in works of art, and results from the study of models of excellence.

Delicacy of taste implies a quick and nice perception of whatever is fitted to excite emotions of beauty. He who possesses it, will detect beauties both of design and execution, which pass unnoticed by common men; and when others pronounce a scene beautiful from the general effect on their minds, he will discover and point out all that tends to the production of this effect. This quality of taste results from a habit of careful and minute observation, joined with a quick susceptibility of emotions of beauty. It is also most frequently found in connexion with moral purity of feeling, and in its common acceptation, is sometimes used as opposed to what is indelicate.

Correctness of taste, evidently refers to an agreement with some standard. What this standard is, has been already shewn. It is the concurrent voice of those, who, from their experience of past emotions, are able to form a judgment on what is fitted to excite emotions of beauty. He, then, who has a correct taste, feels and judges of

objects which come under the cognizance of taste, in agreement with the only true standard of taste.

Different uses of the word Taste.

It will at once be seen, that in the preceding account of taste, the word is used in a sense, different from that often applied to it in its common acceptation. We speak of a taste for some particular occupation, for some amusement or study, when all that is meant to be expressed, is, that there is a fondness, or inclination of the mind, for the pursuit, and the word fondness or inclination would better convey our meaning. It must be obvious to all, that the rhetorical use of the word is quite different.

The definition here given of taste is also different from that found in Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric. He defines taste to be the power of receiving pleasure or pain from the beauties or deformities of nature and art. The definition which has been given of it in this chapter, makes it more of a discriminating principle. It implies, that the man of taste is able to discern what in nature and art is fitted to excite this feeling of pleasure and pain, while the power of receiving this pleasure is called sensibility. That there is ground for this distinction, is evident from the fact already stated, that some men are highly susceptible of emotions of beauty, who, at the same time, are utterly destitute of good taste.

Technical Taste.

Neither is it the case, that in all instances where the word taste is used, reference is had to the standard, which has been stated in this chapter to be the true standard of taste. A man is sometimes called a man of taste, when his judgment extends no farther than to a decision, whether in any particular production, or performance, the rules of the art have been observed. This may


illustrated in the case of an epic poem. Aristotle has fully and with precision laid down the rules, according to which this species of writing should be composed, deriving them from Homer, the great master of the art. It is evident, that one, who has made himself familiar with these rules, may sit in judgment on the Æneid of Virgil, and the Paradise Lost of Milton. With his line and his compass, he may take the dimensions of an Epic Poem, as readily and easily as of a building. In fact, he does nothing more than apply to the work he examines, the measures which have been taken from some other work that has been admired, and in this way decides as to the merits of the poem. This is the lowest kind of criticism, and he who exercises it, may be called a man of technical taste.

Taste of Comparison.

It is also sometimes the case, that the productions of some admired author, or artist, are the standard, to which all attempts of the same nature must be brought. The admirer of Byron, who is wont to dwell on his masterstrokes of passion, in examining the productions of other poets, will pronounce on their excellence, from their comparative effect on his own mind, and will approve or condemn, as they agree with those of this great master of the art. This may be distinguished as the taste of comparison. It is often found among those, who devote their time to visiting galleries of paintings, and other collections of works in the fine arts. This kind of taste is a source of enjoyment to its possessor, and is often found united with merit as an author or artist. Some men succeed better, when they take the taste of another for their guide, than when they rely on their own.-" Velles eum suo ingenio dixisse, alieno judicio."*

* You commend the genius of the writer, but prefer that it should be guided by another's taste, rather than by his own.


Philosophical Taste.

But the man of taste, in the true use of the word, does not, like the mere critic of technical skill, only apply the rules of his art. Neither, in forming his decisions, does he bring every object of which he judges, to some favourite standard of excellence. Truth and nature are the models which he has studied, and he has found them alike in the objects of creation around him, in the scenes of real life, and in the creations of genius. Like Numa of old, he has his Egeria in the woods, and after holding high converse with this mysterious revealer of the secrets of nature, he comes forth to the world, and discloses, as if by inspiration, the principles of the empire of taste, and the laws of her dominion. To him belongs the prophetic eye of taste. Not only can he decide with correctness on the scene spread before him, but, surveying the visions of his own mind-the scenes that exist only in the world of imagination, he can anticipate with unerring certainty their beauty and effect. There is also an unchanging uniformity in the decisions of philosophical taste. Even the eternal principles of morality are not more fixed and determinate. What met the approbation of the man of philosophical taste two thousand years ago, meets the approbation of the man of philosophical taste now, and will continue to be thus admired till the end of time. On this principle Quinctilian has said,

"Ille se profecisse sciat, cui Cicero valde placebit.”

On this principle. Homer, and Virgil, and Demosthenes, and Cicero have been admired, wherever they have been known. Here also is the only foundation of hope to the aspirant after literary immortality.

* Whoever can discern the excellences of Cicero, may hence learn that he has himself made proficiency as an orator.

« PreviousContinue »