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It will not, I think, be disputed, that the frequent perusal of pathetic compositions diminishes the uneasiness which they are naturally fitted to excite. A person who indulges habitually in such studies, may feel a growing de- sire of his usual gratification, but he is every day less and less affected by the scenes which are presented to him. I believe it would be difficult to find an actor long hackneyed on the stage, who is capable of being completely interested by the distresses of a tragedy. The effect of such compositions and representations, in rendering the mind callous to actual distress, is still greater; for as the imagination of the Poet almost always carries him beyond truth and nature, a familiarity with the tragic scenes which he exhibits, can hardly fail to deaden the impression produced by the comparatively trifling sufferings which the ordinary course of human affairs presents to us. In real life, a provision is made for this gradual decay of sensibility, by the proportional decay of other passive impressions, which have an opposite tendency, and by the additional force which our active habits are daily acquiring. Exhibitions of fictitious distress, while they produce the former change on the character, have no influence in producing the latter: on the contrary, they tend to strengthen those passive impressions which counteract beneficence. The scenes into which the Novelist introduces us are, in general, perfectly unlike those which occur in the world. As his object is to please, he removes from his descriptions every circumstance which is disgusting, and presents us with histories of elegant and dignified distress. It is not such scenes that human life exhibits. We have to act, not with refined and elevated characters, but with the mean, the illiterate, the vulgar, and the profligate. The perusal of fictitious history has a tendency to increase
that disgust which we naturally feel at the concomitants of "VOL. I. 56
distress, and to cultivate a false refinement of taste, inconsistent with our condition as members of society. Nay, it is posssible for this refinement to be carried so far, as to withdraw a man from the duties of life, and even from the sight of those distresses which he might alleviate. And, accordingly, many are to be found, who, if the situations of romance were realized, would not fail to display the virtues of their favourite characters, whose sense of duty is not sufficiently strong to engage them in the humble and private scenes of human misery. To these effects of fictitious history we may add, that it gives no exercise to our active habits. In real life, we proceed from the passive impression to those exertions which it was intended to produce. In the contemplation of imaginary sufferings, we stop short at the impression, and whatever benevolent dispositions we may feel, we have no opportunity of carrying them into action. From these reasonings it appears, that an habitual attention to exhibitions of fictitious distress, is in every view calculated to check our moral improvement. It diminishes that uneasiness which we feel at the sight of distress, and which prompts us to relieve it. It strengthens that disgust which the loathsome concomitants of distress excite in the mind, and which prompts us to avoid the sight of misery; while, at the same time, it has no tendency to confirm those habits of active beneficence, without which, the best dispositions are useless. I would not, however, be understood to disapprove entirely of fictitious narratives, or of pathetic compositions. On the contrary, I think that the perusal of them may be attended with advantage, when the effects which I have mentioned are corrected by habits of real business. They soothe the mind when ruffled by the rude intercourse of society, and stealing the attention insensibly from our own cares, substitute, instead of discontent and distress, a tender and pleasing melancholy. By exhibitions of characters a little elevated above the common standard, they have a tendency to cultivate the taste in life; to quicken our disgust at what is mean or offensive, and to form the mind insensibly to elegance and dignity. Their tendency to cultivate the powers of moral perception has never been disputed; and when the influence of such perceptions is powerfully felt, and is united with an active and manly temper, they render the character not only more amiable, but more happy in itself, and more useful to others; for although a rectitude of judgment with respect to conduct, and strong moral feelings, do, by no means, alone constitute virtue ; yet they are frequently necessary to direct our behaviour in the more critical situations of life ; and they increase the interest we take in the general prosperity of virtue in the world. I believe, likewise, that, by means of fictitious history, displays of character may be most successfully given, and the various weaknesses of the heart exposed. I only meant to insinuate, that a taste for them may be carried too far ; that the sensibility which terminates in imagination, is but a refined and selfish luxury; and that nothing can effectually advance our moral improvement, but an attention to the active duties which belong to our stations.
Continuation of the same subject.—Important Uses to which the power of Imagimation is subservient.
THE faculty of Imagination is the great spring of human activity, and the principal source of human improvement. As it delights in presenting to the mind scenes and characters more perfect than those which we are acquainted with, it prevents us from ever being completely satisfied with our present condition, or with our past attainments, and engages as continually in the pursuit of some untried enjoyment, or of some ideal excellence. Hence the ardour of the selfish to better their fortunes, and to add to their personal accomplishments; and hence the zeal of the Patriot and the Philosopher to advance the virtue and the happiness of the human race. Destroy this faculty, and the condition of man will become as stationary as that of the brutes. When the notions of enjoyment or of excellence which imagination has formed, are greatly raised above the ordinary standard, they interest the passions too deeply to leave us at all times the cool exercise of reason, and produce that state of the mind which is commonly known by the name of Enthusiasm; a temper which is one of the most fruitful sources of errour and disappointment; but which is a source, at the same time, of heroic actions and of exalted characters. To the exaggerated conceptions of eloquence which perpetually revolved in the mind of Cicero; to that idea, which haunted his thoughts of aliquid immensum infinitumque; we are indebted for some of the most splendid displays of human genius: and it is probable that something of the same kind has been felt by every man who has risen much above the level of humanity, either in speculation or in action. It is happy for the individual, when these enthusiastic desires are directed to events which do not depend on the caprice of fortune. The pleasure we receive from the higher kinds of poetry takes rise, in part, from that dissatisfaction which the objects of imagination inspire us with, for the scenes, the events, and the characters, with which our senses are conversant. Tired and disgusted with this world of imperfection, we delight to escape to another of the poet's creation, where the charms of nature wear an eternal bloom, and where sources of enjoyment are opened to us, suited to the vast capacities of the human mind. On this natural love of poetical fiction,
Lord Bacon has founded a very ingenious argument for the soul's immortality; and, indeed, one of the most important purposes to which it is subservient, is to elevate the mind above the pursuits of our present condition, and to direct the views to higher objects. In the mean time, it is rendered subservient also, in an eminent degree, to the improvement and happiness of mankind, by the tendency which it has to accelerate the progress of society. As the pictures which the Poet presents to us are never (even in works of pure description) faithful copies from nature, but are always meant to be improvements on the original she affords, it cannot be doubted that they must have some effect in refining and exalting our taste, both with respect to material beauty, and to the objects of our pursuit in life. It has been alleged, that the works of our descriptive poets have contributed to diffuse that taste for picturesque beauty, which is so prevalent in England, and to recal the public admiration from the fantastic decorations of art, to the more powerful and permanent charms of cultivated nature; and it is certain, that the first ardours of many an illustrious character have been kindled by the compositions of Homer and Virgil. It is difficult to say, to what a degree, in the earlier periods of society, the rude compositions of the bard and the minstrel may have been instrumental in humanizing the minds of savage warriors, and in accelerating the growth of cultivated manners. Among the Scandinavians and the Celtae we know that this order of men was held in very peculiar veneration; and, accordingly, it would appear, from the monuments which remain of these nations, that they were distinguished by a delicacy in the passion of love, and by a humanity and generosity to the vanquished in war, which seldom appear among barbarous tribes; and with which it is hardly possible to conceive how men in such a state of society could have been inspired, bui.