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fancy. Among the moderns there is more of art and correctness, but less genius. But, though this remark may in general be just, there are some exceptions from it; Milton and Shakespeare are inferior to no poets in any age.
Among the ancients were many circumstances favourable to the exertions of genius. They travelled much in search of learning, and conversed with priests, poets, and philosophers. They returned home full of discoveries, and fired by uncommon objects. Their enthusiasm was greater; and few, being stimulated to excel as authors, their fame was more intense and flattering. In modern times good writing is less prized. We write with less effort. Printing has so multiplied books, that assistance is easily procured. Hence mediocrity of genius prevails. To rise beyond this, and to soar above the crowd, is given to few.
In epic poetry, Homer and Virgil are still unrivalled; and orators, equal to Demosthenes and Cicero, we
have none. In history, we have no modern narration so elegant, so picturesque, so animated, and interesting as those of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Tacitus, and Sallust. Our dramas, with all their improvements, are inferior in poetry and sentiment to those of Sophocles and Euripides. We have no comic dialogue that equals the correct, graceful, and elegant simplicity of Terence. The elegies of Tibullus, the pastorals of Theocritus, and the lyric poetry of Horace,
are still unrivalled. By those, therefore, who wish to form their taste, and nourish their genius, the utmost attention must be paid to the ancient classics, both Greek and Roman.
After these reflections on the ancients and moderns, we proceed to a critical examination of the most distinguished kinds of composition, and of the characters. of those writers, whether ancient or modern, who have excelled in them. Of orations and public discourses much has already been said. The remaining prose compositions may be divided into historical writing, philosophical writing, epistolary writing, and fictitious history.
HISTORY is a record of truth for the instruction of mankind. Hence the great requisites in a historian are impartiality, fidelity, and accuracy. ́
In the conduct of historical detail, the first object of a historian should be, to give his work all possible unity. History should not consist of unconnected parts. Įts portions should be united by some connecting principle, which will produce in the mind an impression of something that is one, whole, and entire. Polybius, though not an elegant writer, is remarkable for this quality.
A historian should trace actions and events to their sources. He should therefore be well acquainted with human nature and politics. His skill in the former will enable him to describe the characters of individuals; and his knowledge of the latter to account for the revolutions of government, and the operation of political causes on public affairs. With regard to political knowledge, the ancients wanted some advantages which are enjoyed by the moderns. In ancient times there was less communication among neighbouring states; no intercourse by established posts, nor by ambassadors at distant courts. Larger experience too of the different modes of government has improved the modern histori an beyond the historian of antiquity.
It is however in the form of narrative, and not by dissertation, that the historian is to impart his political knowledge. Formal discussions expose him to suspicion of being willing to accommodate his facts to his theory. They have also an air of pedantry, and evidently result from want of art. For reflections, whether moral, political, or philosophical, may be insinuated in the body of a narrative.
Clearness, order, and connexion are primary virtues in historical narration. These are attained when the historian is complete master of his subject; can see the whole at one view; and comprehend the dependence of all its parts. History being a dignified species of composition, it should also be conspicuous for gravity.
There should be nothing mean nor vulgar in the style; no quaintness, no smartness, no affectation, no wit. A history should likewise be interesting; and this is the quality which chiefly distinguishes a writer of genius and eloquence.
To be interesting, historian must preserve a medium between rapid recital and prolix detail. He should know when to be concise, and when to enlarge. He should make a proper selection of circumstances. These give life, body and colouring to his narration. They constitute what is termed historical painting.
In all these virtues of narration, particularly in pic. turesque description, the ancients eminently excel. Hence the pleasure of reading Thucydides, Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus. In historical painting there are great varieties. Livy and Tacitus paint in very dif ferent ways. The descriptions of Livy are full, plain, and natural; those of Tacitus are short and bold.
One embellishment, which the moderns have laid aside, was employed by the ancients. They put orations into the mouths of celebrated personages. By these, they diversified their history, and conveyed both moral and political instruction. Thucydides was the first who adopted this method; and the orations with which his history abounds, are valuable remains of antiquity. It is doubtful, however, whether this embellishment should be allowed to the historian; for they form a mixture, unnatural to history, of truth and fic
tion. The moderns are more chaste when on great occasions the historian delivers in his own person the sentiments and reasonings of opposite parties.
Another splendid embellishment of history is the delineation of characters. These are considered as exhibitions of fine writing; and hence the difficulty of excelling in this province. For characters may be too shining and laboured. The accomplished historian avoids here to dazzle too much. He is solicitous to give the resemblance in a style equally removed from meanness and affectation. He studies the grandeur of simplicity.
Sound morality should always reign in history. A historian should ever show himself on the side of virtue. It is not, however, his province to deliver moral instructions in a formal manner. He should excite indignation against the designing and the vicious; and by appeals to the passions, he will not only improve his reader, but take away from the natural coolness of bistorical narration.
In modern times historical genius has shone most in Italy. Acuteness, political sagacity, and wisdom are all conspicuous in Machiavel, Guicciardin, Davila, Bentivoglio, and Father Paul. In Great Britain history has been fashionable only a few years. For, though Clarendon and Burnet are considerable historians, they are inferior to Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon.