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ON WORKS OF FICTION.
In all ages and countries, fictitious composition has been considered as holding a distinguished rank among the productions of genius. The remotest times present to our notice the inspired prophet, and the wandering bard, contributing at once to the instruction and delight of man, by parables and other fabulous narratives : nor has this species of writing by any means been confined to uncultivated nations, or to a state of society when civilization was only in its dawn. The most polished people of antiquity had their fictions of various kinds, from the most ludicrous and familiar, to the most solemn and dignified; and what nation is there in the present day, possessing any thing like ancient refinement, which cannot boast of the excursions made by her men of genius in the regions of creative fancy?
The origin of fictitious writing it is not, perhaps, possible distinctly and accurately to trace. The earliest specimens extant are contained in Holy Writ; and, though neither very numerous, nor of considerable length, they cannot fail to delight every reader of sensibility and taste, by that majestic simplicity, which, in so many beautiful passages, constitutes the characteristic charm of the inspired volume. Jotham's parable of the trees choosing a king, and Nathan's parable of the poor man's lamb, are examples of the picturesque and pathetic that will never be excelled. There is reason, both from sacred and profane history, to conclude, that fiction took its rise among the nations of the East. The Scriptures evidently shew, that allegorical illustration was prevalent among the Jews; and all compositions which have been brought from Eastern countries, are uniformly found, whether in prose or verse, to be distinguished by a very remarkable boldness of figure, and by a superabundance of symbolical allusion-a sort of mental hieroglyphics. From the East, it is probable; that, with other branches of knowledge, and means of mental improvement, fictitious composition, in some of its various forms,
was carried into Greece; and that it was thence diffused, by slow and imperceptible gradations, through the rest
But without endeavouring to follow, through all its tortuous windings, the progress of genius in the realms of fiction, -a task requiring far more time and labour than the present purpose would in any view allow,- let us endeavour to as
certain the causes of that estimation, in which works of fiction have, at every period, universally been held.
Mankind have never been accustomed either to express their admiration, or in any other way to manifest their partiality, for an object, which they have not found, by experience, to be in some respects calculated to promote their improvement, or contribute to their pleasure. It must, therefore, be inferred, that the works of the fictitious writer, if composed with skill and judgment, if illumined by the rays
of imagination, if enriched by the stores of knowledge, and, above all, if framed with strict regard to the dictates of reason and the precepts of virtue, are calculated in a high degree to expand the intellect and refine the heart; and, unless we are prepared to impute to the people of former times, the absurdity of a groundless and irrational prepossession, we must admit, that these, or similar reasons, were the chief inducements to that attention, and the principal sources of that regard, which the fabulous effusions of genius have seldom failed to possess.
The superiority of example over precept, in stimulating mankind to the practice of virtue, has become proverbial. Man is the creature of imitation. Whatever he meets with, that is at all characterized by the excellence of its qualities, he instinctively regards as an example which he is called upon to follow. Perhaps it would not be calumniating mankind to say, that their propensity to imitate is too frequently displayed, even with respect to those objects which ought rather to be shunned. It is on this account that both virtue and vice are of a prolific nature; that each has a tendency to multiply itself; that while the one purities, the other corrupts. Hence the benefits of virtuous society, and the baneful effects of evil communications. But, inasmuch as the principles of virtue or of vice may be disseminated by other means than those of personal intimacy, it equally behoves us to be cautious in the choice of the works we read, as of the companions with whom we associate. Now, the various attractive and -interesting circumstances which are presented to our view in fictitious narratives, adorned with all the graces of style, and rendered doubly delightful by the artful combination and variety of incident, and by the exhibition of characters calculated to excite our pity, our esteem, or our admiration, can hardly fail to produce upon our minds a much more powerful and permanent effect, than the more authentic, but, at the same time, less interesting details of the historian or biographer. How important, then, that a species of writing, calculated so deeply to affect us, should leave an impression as beneficial as it is likely to be lasting !
It must, indeed, be confessed, that the circumstances which the poet or the novelist feigns, as they never really occurred, cannot be regarded as examples in the same unqualified sense as those which men of virtue or talent have displayed for the benefit of their own times, and which others have transmitted for that of posterity. But, as reason and experience would alike induce us to believe, that the fictitious narrative will operate as strongly as that which is well attested, and in some instances, perhaps, with greater force, for the ordinary purposes of human action, the one must be considered as equally important with the other, because the effects which it produces are the same in nature, and superior in degree. When men are taught by precept, the natural pride of the human heart revolts against the dictation of authority, and seeks for refuge in that school where instruction assumes the garb of amusement, and where the pupil is flattered with the idea, that the information and improvement which he acquires, are derived from his own observation and discernment, and not from the lessons of another. By reflecting on the incidents, by investigating and comparing the characters, and by bestowing upon them approbation or censure, according as they appear to be accomplished or depraved, both the judgment and imagination are called into exercise; and the reader is exalted in his own estimation, by the idea that he is engaged in deciding on the conduct of those, with whose actions and adventures he is made acquainted, instead of receiving, as an inferior being, the lectures of a monitor, whose sentiments he cannot presume to question, and whose admonitions he is bound to obey. The fictitious writer is, therefore, generally a greater favourite than the historian, or the philosopher; and, perhaps, by pretending to less wisdom, may communicate instruction with a more speedy, as well as a more permanent, effect. The one professes to impart knowledge, and therefore repulses those who do not seek it; the other professes chiefly to amuse, and by that means often insinuates improvement, which otherwise might have never been obtained.
Of fictitious composition there are various kinds, some distinguished by their grandeur and dignity, others for their familiarity and ease; some are remarkable for the interest they excite, others for the invention they display; by some we are convulsed with laughter, by others, dissolved in tears; some soothe us to tranquillity, others rouse us to indignation. In short, there is no passion or emotion of the mind, which these productions may not be found occasionally to affect,often with improvement, and always with delight.
To investigate minutely the various classes of works, which have fiction for their basis, would lead far beyond the bounds
of an essay like the present. A glance is all that can be expected, and such is the popularity of fictitious compositions, that a glance will fortunately suffice. Works of fiction, well selected, afford to the mind an agreeable and improving relaxation; and, while they tend to refine the taste and sharpen the sensibility, they also contribute to alleviate the cares, to increase the enjoyments, and to expand the intellect of man: Every species produces its peculiar effect, and the combination of all enhances the pleasure tenfold, by the variety through which it enables us to roam.
With Homer and Milton we soar to the heights of sublimity; by Virgil we are presented with the charms of tenderness and beauty. The tragic muse has inspired an Æschylus to rouse our indignant emotions, and a Sophocles to melt us with sympathy and compassion; her cheerful sister has enlivened the soul and refined the sentiments of a Terence; while the inventive powers of the bard of Avon, displayed alike in tragic and in comic scenes, have proclaimed to an admiring world, that both these muses blessed him with their smiles. The imaginary charms of pastoral life are represented by Theocritus with the most artless simplicity, and by the Mantuan bard in the most melodious verse. The lessons of familiar morality are agreeably illustrated in the fables of Æsop and of Gay. The tales and allegories with which several of the British essayists have been adorned by Addison, Johnson, Hawkesworth, and Mackenzie, exhibit such a knowledge of human life and human feelings, combined with the most important morality, and display such richness of imagination,-sometimies clothed in the greatest simplicity, and at others in the utmost magnificence of diction,—that improvement and delight cannot fail to attend their perusal. In those remarkable fictions, called the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, and other Eastern tales of a similar kind, fancy appears to have run absolutely wild; the laws of nature are entirely disregarded; every thing gives way before the author's marvellous inventions; magicians and genii are always at hand, to relieve princes and damsels in distress, to erect them palaces, to procure for them riches, and to transport them, in the twinkling of an eye, over all parts of the universe. But, however extravagant these productions are, they display the utmost vigour and exuberance of imagination, they present us with interesting pictures of Eastern manners, and they abound in lessons of refined morality. In the novels of Richardson, though spun out to an almost interminable length, the cause of virtue is ably supported; but though undoubtedly superior in this respect, in all others he falls far short of his contemporary and rival, Fielding, whose works
at once delight and improve us, by the wit they display, the interest they excite, and the knowledge they exhibit of human nature. Since the time of Fielding, novels and romances have sprung up like the mushroom's spawn, and it is matter of lamentation, that too many of them may be justly compared to the poisonous fungus. It must, however, be confessed, that there are several which do equal credit to the talents and morals of their authors, and constitute a valuable part of the literature of the country. Some of these, it is pleasing to reflect, are the productions of female pens; and it cannot be denied, that such writings as those of Miss Burney, Miss Edgeworth, and Mrs. Opie, deserve what they cannot fail to obtain—the approbation of posterity,—that of their contemporaries they already possess. To the writings of “the Great Unknown," it is needless to advert; his fertile and inexhaustible genius is daily pouring forth its conceptions with astonishing rapidity; and the public, by their eagerness to peruse his works, shew that they are capable of appreciating his merits.
From the discreet perusal of such productions, we can hardly fail to derive both pleasure and improvement, in the exercise of the mental powers, and the acquirement of useful instruction. By some, however, with whom no subject is so clear as not to raise a question, doubts have been entertained, whether fictitious compositions were not inconsistent with that regard for truth, which it is our duty ever to pay; and whether the cultivation of that branch of literature would not be calculated to undermine the stability of the moral fabric. An objection so groundless might, it is conceived, be easily and satisfactorily refuted, if it were necessary to enter into a discussion respecting it; but we are fortunately furnished with an undeniable answer, in the example of the ancient prophets, and still more of Him who was the object of their predictions.
But, however clear it is, that to employ fiction, as a means of profitable occupation to the mind, is not inconsistent with any moral principle; it must still be granted, that this species of composition, like every other, may be perverted from its genuine and proper ends, and may, to a very great extent, become productive of the most injurious effects. When the principles, which fictitious writings inculcate, are calculated to weaken our sense of duty; when vice and virtue are so blended, that we lose our detestation of the one in our admiration of the other; when scenes are depicted which have a tendency to inflame the passions and deprave the heart; and when the brilliancy of wit, the glow of eloquence, and the excitement of interest, lend their aid in promoting conse