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LITERATURE AND COMPOSITION.
INTRODUCTION....PRINCIPLE OF ASSOCIATION.....
PLEASURES FROM THE FINE ARTS.
MY DEAR JOHN,
WE live in an age when almost every thing is artificial. When not only rules are proposed for the performance of almost every action connected with social life, but when the grounds and principles on which those rules are founded constitute an object of anxious inquiry. Men have long agreed in regarding some things as pleasing; but not satisfied with this, we are led to inquire whence they have derived their power to please, and on what principle in human nature it is that certain appearances, sounds or ideas are delightful to the human mind.
The pleasure which is imparted by the fine arts, and their power over the mind, are founded upon certain principles. We have not yet indeed been enabled to mount to the source whence their controul over the passions is derived; but by observing carefully certain effects, we can generally foretel when these effects will
be produced. Music is perhaps the simplest of all the fine arts : its power is derived entirely from the influence of certain sounds upon the organs of perception. It is impossible to say why some sounds or combinations of sound should be termed pathetic; why some should excite hilarity; why some should be adapted to the passion of love, and why others should be assimilated to joy and triumph; yet so it is, and there is scarcely an ear so insensible to harmony as not to have proved the force of music on one occasion or another. These effects upon the ear have been compared, and perhaps not without reason, to certain impressions produced upon our other senses.
“ That strain again ;~it had a dying fall,
To the eye some appearances, and even some colours, are productive of pleasure. It is extremely difficult to analyze the sensation, and to account for the pleasing effect of some flowers more than others; it depends upon the combination and arrangement of colours; upon the regular disposition of the petals; upon some unknown circumstance even independent of the principle of association, something as unconnected with ideas of social pleasure or pain, as the vibrations of an Æolian harp.
I find I have casually mentioned the word association, and it is necessary perhaps to enter upon a short explanation of it, since those pleasurable sensations, which may properly be called mental, and consequently those which are derived from the reading of poetry, or the beauties of composition in general, are not simple but complex sensations, derived, at least in part, from certain associations which the mind has formed with other objects.
It is exceedingly obvious that two or more sensations happening at the same time, the ideas will become united. Thus the ideas of the figure and colour of bo
dies admitted by the eye are always combined, and these may be still -associated with another idea admitted by means of the touch. Thus the idea, or picture formed in the mind of any object, is complex, or composed of several ideas united : of figure, colour, and perhaps softness or hardness also. If music is heard while we behold the instrument, the sound will be associated with the visible appearance, and the former will recal the idea of the latter, even when we do not see the instrument. Names are associated with things, and things with actions.
On this principle of association depends the necessary succession of ideas in a train, of which any one may satisfy himself by attending to the operations of his own mind: ideas are introduced by an agreement in some of the parts of which complex ideas are composed. Shakspeare, describing a merchant's fears, says,
“ My wind, cooling my broth,
“ Should I go to church,
The association and train of ideas is perhaps still more pleasantly illustrated by a story related by Hobbes. “ In a discourse on our present civil war (that in the reign of Charles I.) what,” says he, “ could seem more impertinent than to ask, as one did, the value of a Roman penny. Yet the coherence was to me sufficiently manifest. The thought of the war introduced the thought of the delivering up of the king to his enemies; the thought of that brought in the thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the thought of the thirty pence which was the price of that treason; and thencé easily followed that malicious question, and all that in an instant of time; for thought is quick."
I hope sufficient has been said to make you acquaint. ed with what is meant by the association and train of ideas; and what may appear a digression is in reality more connected with our subject than at first sight may, appear. For much of the pleasure derived from the fine · arts, and particularly from poetry and oratory, may be resolved, in part at least, into the principle of association. Many of the human passions are chiefly, if not entirely, derived from it. Thus patriotism, or the strong attachment which almost every person feels for his country, is in a manner created from the pleasurable sensations derived in our earliest youth from the enjoyments we have found there. The sight of the place where we have been happy always revives in us a placid, perhaps a melancholy idea of pleasure.
But it is not necessary in a course of letters on rhetoric and criticism, to enter deeply into the philosophy of the human mind, of which, after all, but little is known; and my wish is rather to make these letters practical than speculative. The pleasures afforded by the fine arts, music, painting, and poetry, have been termed “ the pleasures of the imagination,” in contradiction to the sensual pleasures, though I confess music appears to approach very near to a mere pleasure of the sense ; and it is perhaps from its connexion with poetry, or rather from its subservience to it, that it has been classed among the superior arts, or those which administer pleasure to the mind.
The pleasures of the imagination are almost all in a considerable degree the result of association. If it was possible to present a finely pictured landscape to a person who had never seen a natural landscape, one who had been born blind, and who was recently couched for instance, I much doubt whether he would derive from it any other pleasure than that which its novelty would afford. I question whether the harmony of the colouring, so much spoken of by painters, or the light and shade, would afford any peculiar pleasure. It is the recollection that is revived of the beauties of nature, of the happiness we have enjoyed in similar scenes, or
possibly of that which we have heard described as flow, ing from them, and perhaps an admiration of the excellence of the imitation, that principally inspire us with pleasurable sensations on such an occasion.
Hence the fine arts, and particularly painting, sculpture, and poetry, have been termed the “ imitative arts," because their chief excellence depends upon their being an imitation or description of whatever is beautiful or striking in nature.
To apply all this to the immediate object of our correspondence. Nothing is more obvious than that some books are more pleasing than others; some forcibly occupy our attention, while some inevitably tire and disgust. It is very easy to see why a narrative or description, a fine history or a well-told fiction, a tragedy or a romance should interest. It is because it affords us a picture of ourselves, or of something in which our passions are naturally engaged. But why one composition should be even more pleasing in its manner than another, why the style and language of an author should particularly interest us, is a more curious inquiry, and more remote from common observation.
Should we be able to satisfy ourselves upon the iba ject, it is probable that even a practical benefit might result from it, since a person who is acquainted with the sources whence those inaterials are derived which render a composition pleasing, will be better able to avail himself of them than one who writes at random, and without any knowledge of his art.
I am not one of those who affect to “ write dull receipts how poems should be made.” I know that the most intense study will not give what is called genius, or imagination, or fancy ; but still I must assert that every intellectual endowment may be improved. I must assert that writing, as far as chasteness, correctness, elegance, and fluency are concerned, is as much an art as any other; that it is in a great measure acquired by practice and study, by an imitation of the hest models, and by occasionally referring even 'to principles and rules.