Isaac Watts On Guarding Your Heart While Judging Books


X. Another, and that a very frequent fault, in passing a judgment upon books, is this, that persons spread the same praises or the same reproaches over a whole treatise, and all the chapters in it, which are due only to some of them. They judge as it were by wholesale, without making a due distinction between the several parts or sections of the performance; and this is ready to lead those who hear them talk into a dangerous mistake. Florus is a great and just admirer of the late Archbishop of Cambray, and mightily commends every thing he has written, and will allow no blemish in him; whereas the writings of that excellent man are not all of a piece; nor are those very books of his, which have a good number of beautiful and valuable sentiments in them, to be recommended throughout, or all at once without distinction.

There is his demonstration of the Existence and Attributes of God, which has justly gained a universal esteem, for bringing down some new and noble thoughts of the wisdom of the creation to the understanding of the unlearned, and they are such as well deserve the perusal of the man of science, perhaps as far as the 50th section; but there are many of the following sections which are very weakly written, and some of them built upon an enthusiastical and mistaken scheme, akin to the peculiar opinions of Father Malebranche; such as sect. 5 1 , 53, ” That we know the finite only by the ideas of the infinite.” Sect. 55, 60, ” That the superior reason in man is God himself acting in him.” Sect. 61, 62, ” That the idea of unity cannot be taken from creatures, but from God only:” and several of his sections, from 65 to 68, upon the doctrine of liberty, seem to be inconsistent. Again, toward the end of his book, he spends more time and pains than are needful in refuting the Epicurian fancy of atoms moving eternally through infinite changes, which might be done effectually in a much shorter and better way. So in his posthumous essays, and his letters, there are many admirable thoughts in practical and experimental religion, and very beautiful and divine sentiments in devotion; but sometimes in large paragraphs, or in whole chapters together, you find him in the clouds of mystic divinity, and he never descends within the reach of common ideas or common sense. But remember this also, that there are but few such authors as this great man, who talks so very weakly sometimes, and yet in other places is so much superior to the greatest part of writers. There are other instances of this kind, where men of good sense in the main set up for judges, but they carry too many of their passions about them, and then, like lovers, they are in rapture at the name of their fair idol: they lavish out all their incense upon that shrine, and cannot bear the thought of admitting a blemish in them.

You shall hear Altisono not only admire Casimire of Poland in his lyrics, as the utmost purity and perfection of Latin poesy; but he will allow nothing in him to be extravagant or faulty, and will vindicate every line: nor can I much wonder at it, when I have heard him pronounce Lucan the best of the ancient Latins, and idolize his very weaknesses and mistakes. I will readily acknowledge the Odes of Casimire to have more spirit and force, more magnificence and fire in them, and in twenty places arise to more dignity and beauty than I could ever meet with in any of our modern poets: yet I am afraid to say that ” Falla sutilis e luce” has dignity enough in it for a robe made for the Almighty: Lib. iv. Od. 7, 1. 37, or that the man of virtue in Od. 3, 1. 44, ” under the ruins of heaven and earth, will bear up the fragments of the falling world with a comely wound on his shoulders.” Late ruenti Subjiciens sua colla caelo Mundum decoro vulnere fulcie; Interque cxli fragmina.

Yet I must needs confess also, that it is hardly possible a man should rise to so exalted and sublime a vein of poesy as Casimire, who is not in danger now and then of such extravagances; but still they should not be admired or defended, if we pretend to pass a just judgment on the writings of the greatest men. Milton is a noble genius, and the world agrees to con fess it: his poem of Paradise Lost is a glorious performance, and rivals the most famous pieces of antiquity; but that reader must be deeply prejudiced in favour of the poet, who can imagine him equal to himself through all that work. Neither the sublime sentiments, nor dignity of numbers, nor force or beauty of expression, are equally maintained, even in all those parts which require grandeur or beauty, force or harmony. I can not but consent to Mr. Dryden’s opinion, though I will not use his words, that for some scores of lines together there is a coldness and flatness, and almost a perfect absence of that spirit of poesy which breathes, and lives, and flames in other pages.

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