ePub 版

we see through the translucent air, and tells us of things yet undiscovered, and enriches us with treasures, of which we had been hitherto entirely ignorant. The nature of the human mind, and the capabilities of our species are in like manner a magazine of undiscovered things, till some mighty genius comes to break the surface, and shew us the wonderful treasures that lay beneath uncalled for and idle.

Human character is like the contents of an ample cabinet, brought together by the untired zeal of some curious collector, who tickets his rarities with numbers, and has a catalogue in many volumes, in which are recorded the description and qualities of the things presented to our view. Among the most splendid examples of character which the genius of man has brought to light, are Don Quixote and his trusty squire, sir Roger de Coverley, Parson Adams, Walter Shandy and his brother Toby. Who shall set bounds to the everlasting variety of nature, as she has recorded her creations in the heart of man? Most of these instances are recent, and sufficiently shew that the enterprising adventurer, who would aspire to emulate the illustrious men from whose writings these examples are drawn, has no cause to despair. Vulgar observers pass carelessly by a thousand figures in the crowded masquerade of human society, which, when inscribed on the tablet by the pencil of a master, would prove not less wondrous in the power of

affording pleasure, nor less rich as themes for inexhaustible reflection, than the most admirable of these. The things are there ; and all that is wanting is an eye to perceive, and a pen to record them.

As to a great degree we may subscribe to the saying of the wise man, that “ there is nothing new under the sun,” so in a certain sense

so in a certain sense it may also be affirmed that nothing is old. Both of these maxims may be equally true. The prima materia, the atoms of which the universe is composed, is of a date beyond all record ; and the figures which have yet been introduced into the most fantastic chronology, may perhaps be incompetent to represent the period of its birth. But the ways in which they may be compounded are exhaustless. It is like what the writers on the Doctrine of Chances tell us of the throwing of dice. How many men now exist on the face of the earth? Yet, if all these were brought together, and if, in addition to this, we could call up all the men that ever lived, it may

be doubted, whether any two would be found so much alike, that a clear-sighted and acute observer might not surely distinguish the one from the other. Leibnitz informs us, that no two leaves of a tree exist in the most spacious garden, that, upon examination, could be pronounced perfectly similar a.

The true question is not, whether any thing can be found that is new, but whether the particulars in which any thing is new may not be so minute

a See above, p. 31.

[ocr errors]

and trifling, as scarcely to enter for any thing, into that grand and comprehensive view of the whole, in which matters of obvious insignificance are of no account.

But, if art and the invention of the human mind are exhaustless, science is even more notoriously

We stand but on the threshold of the knowledge of nature, and of the various ways in which physical power may be brought to operate for the accommodation of man. This is a business that seems to be perpetually in progress; and, like the fall of bodies by the power of gravitation, appears to gain in momentum, in proportion as it advances to a greater distance from the point at which the impulse was given. The discoveries which at no remote period have been made, would, if prophesied of, have been laughed to scorn by the ignorant sluggishness of former generations ; and we are equally ready to regard with incredulity the discoveries yet unmade, which will be familiar to our posterity. Indeed every man of a capacious and liberal mind is willing to admit, that the progress of human understanding in science, which is now going on, is altogether without any limits that by the most penetrating genius can be assigned. It is like a mighty river, that flows on for ever and for ever, as far as the words, “ for ever,” can have a meaning to the comprehension of mortals. The question that remains is, our practicable improvement in literature and morals; and here those per

sons who entertain a mean opinion of human nature, are constantly ready to tell us that it will be found to amount to nothing. However we may be continually improving in mechanical knowledge and ingenuity, we are assured by this party, that we shall never surpass what has already been done in poetry and literature, and, which is still worse, that, however marvellous may be our future acquisitions in science and the application of science, we shall be, as much as ever, the creatures of that vanity, ostentation, opulence and the spirit of exclusive accumulation, which has hitherto, in most countries (not in all countries), generated the glaring inequality of property, and the oppression of the many for the sake of pampering the folly of the few. There is another circumstance that


be tioned, which, particularly as regards the question of repetition and novelty that is now under consideration, may seem to operate in an eminent degree in favour of science, while it casts a most discouraging veil over poetry and the pure growth of human fancy and invention. Poetry is, after all, nothing more than new combinations of old materials. Nihil est in intellectu, quod non fuit prius in sensu. The poet has perhaps in all languages been called a maker, a creator: but this seems to be a vain-glorious and an empty boast. He is a collector of materials only, which he afterwards uses as best he may be able. He answers to the description I have heard given of a tailor, a man who cuts to


pieces whatever is delivered to him from the loom, that he may afterwards sew it together again. The poet therefore, we may be told, adds nothing to the stock of ideas and conceptions already laid up in the storehouse of mind. But the man who is employed upon the secrets of nature, is eternally in progress; day after day he delivers in to the

magazine of materials for thinking and acting, what was not there before ; he increases the stock, upon which human ingenuity and the arts of life are destined to operate. He does not, as the poet may be affirmed by his censurers to do, travel for ever in a circle, but continues to hasten towards a goal, while at every interval we may mark how much further he has proceeded from the point at which his race began. Much


be said in answer to this, and in vindication and honour of the poet and the artist. All that is here alleged to their disadvantage, is in reality little better than a sophism. The consideration of the articles he makes use of, does not in sound estimate detract from the glories of which he is the artificer. Materiem superat opus. He changes the nature of what he handles ; all that he touches is turned into gold. The manufacture he delivers to us is so new, that the thing it previously was, is no longer recognisable. The impression that he makes upon the imagination and the heart, the impulses that he communicates to the understanding and the moral feeling, are all his own ;

« 上一頁繼續 »