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which marked the middle ages, the powers and intellectual capacities of man were developing, and enlarging, and we see, rising gradually from the chaos, the elements of languages and laws, that are to enlighten and rule the world.
Ancient learning may he distinguished into three periods. Its commence ment, or the age of poets : its maturity, or the age of philosophers: and its decline, or the age of critics. In the poetical age, commentators were very few, but might have, in some respects, been useful. In its philosophical, their assistance must necessarily become obnoxious; yet, as if the nearer we approached perfection the more we stood in need of their directions, in this period they began to grow numerous. But when polite learning was no more, then it was those literary lawgivers made the most formidable appearance. Corruptissima republica, plurimæ leges,
What then is taste, but these internal powers
So learning, which from reason's fountain springs
For a century past, it has been a question with many, and it is not yet resolved, whether English literature is advancing or on the decline.
Some look upon the past, as its golden days, and suppose that the sun, which for three centuries shone with increasing splendor, penetrating even the regions of barbarism, and dissipating ignorance and error, till it shed its beams over a civilized world, long since has passed its zenith, and is now going down the sky. They believe that English literature attained its highest pitch of perfection in a past age; after which, according to its essential laws, it necessarily receded.
Again, some persons, possessed of that happy disposition which predisposes them to believe that this world was fitted up with a special reference to themselves, and consequently, that they are thrown into the most auspicious era of the world's history, think that in the present is the perfection of letters, as of every thing else. They believe the highest achievements of human genius in art and literature to have taken place within their day, and doubt not they are enjoying the radiance of the noon-day sun.
While a third class is dissatisfied with all that is or has been; they look to the future with bright anticipations, and conceive a state of things corresponding to the perfectability of man: they look for a literature, which, in agreement with the new state of things, shall surpass the proudest achievements of ancient or modern genius. Literature is subject to vicissitude.
Its general history is written in a few words; It rose,-- It flourished, and declined: and that embraces the whole of it. Here its career closes, and is sealed up forever. It is a solemn truth, that when a nation's literature
becomes corrupt, its sun sinks to rise no more. The virtue, the happiness, the liberty, and the glory of a nation, nay, its very existence, seem to depend upon a pure literature. The sparks of taste, when once extinguished, never rekindle again in the ashes, nor light again the altars of the same nation: all sinks into barbarism, and darkness prevails till art and letters break out afresh in another place, or commence a new era in another land.
Literature, like the seasons, is subject to vicissitude; like them it has its regular succession of production, improvement, perfection, and decay. In its time of production, the germs of thought seem to spring forth spontaneously, and the poet weaves the offsprings of his fancy and imagination into metrical forms, and melodious numbers, thus harmonizing the rough accents of his native tongue, and raising it from its chaotic state until he reduces its rude combinations to order. From these luxuriant productions of the poet, the orator forms his style, and rhetoric flourishes. Poetry first sprang from prose; but in vivifying the language, and imbuing it with beauty, poetry imparted every species of excellence to writing. Delicacy of sentiment, the choice and arrangement of words, which results in precision of thought, and harmony of construction, are derived from the poet.
In more credulous times, his mission would have been thought divine, had he done no more than this : to raise his native tongue above common conversation, and to form the orator, the historian and the philosopher.
Then philosophy gathers up the observations of the past, and seeking out the causes of things, reduces