The History of Tom Jones HTML version

Book XIV.
Containing Two Days.
Chapter 1.
An essay to prove that an author will write the better for having some knowledge
of the subject on which he writes.
As several gentlemen in these times, by the wonderful force of genius only,
without the least assistance of learning, perhaps, without being well able to read,
have made a considerable figure in the republic of letters; the modern critics, I
am told, have lately begun to assert, that all kind of learning is entirely useless to
a writer; and, indeed, no other than a kind of fetters on the natural sprightliness
and activity of the imagination, which is thus weighed down, and prevented from
soaring to those high flights which otherwise it would be able to reach.
This doctrine, I am afraid, is at present carried much too far: for why should
writing differ so much from all other arts? The nimbleness of a dancing-master is
not at all prejudiced by being taught to move; nor doth any mechanic, I believe,
exercise his tools the worse by having learnt to use them. For my own part, I
cannot conceive that Homer or Virgil would have writ with more fire, if instead of
being masters of all the learning of their times, they had been as ignorant as
most of the authors of the present age. Nor do I believe that all the imagination,
fire, and judgment of Pitt, could have produced those orations that have made
the senate of England, in these our times, a rival in eloquence to Greece and
Rome, if he had not been so well read in the writings of Demosthenes and
Cicero, as to have transferred their whole spirit into his speeches, and, with their
spirit, their knowledge too.
I would not here be understood to insist on the same fund of learning in any of
my brethren, as Cicero persuades us is necessary to the composition of an
orator. On the contrary, very little reading is, I conceive, necessary to the poet,
less to the critic, and the least of all to the politician. For the first, perhaps,
Byshe's Art of Poetry, and a few of our modern poets, may suffice; for the
second, a moderate heap of plays; and, for the last, an indifferent collection of
political journals.
To say the truth, I require no more than that a man should have some little
knowledge of the subject on which he treats, according to the old maxim of law,
Quam quisque norit artem in ea se exerceat. With this alone a writer may
sometimes do tolerably well; and, indeed, without this, all the other learning in the
world will stand him in little stead.
For instance, let us suppose that Homer and Virgil, Aristotle and Cicero,
Thucydides and Livy, could have met all together, and have clubbed their several
talents to have composed a treatise on the art of dancing: I believe it will be
readily agreed they could not have equalled the excellent treatise which Mr
Essex hath given us on that subject, entitled, The Rudiments of Genteel
Education. And, indeed, should the excellent Mr Broughton be prevailed on to set
fist to paper, and to complete the above-said rudiments, by delivering down the
true principles of athletics, I question whether the world will have any cause to