The Standard of Taste
Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.To which we might add the names of JOHN HOME and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, about whom our hero had this to say:
When [Home's play, Douglas] shall be printed (which will be soon) I am perswaded it will be esteem'd the best; and by French critics, the only Tragedy in our Language. (Letter to Adam Smith, March 1757)Whereas…
In [Shakespeare's] compositions, we regret, that many irregularities, and even absurdities, should so frequently disfigure the animated and passionate scenes intermixed with them […] His total ignorance of all theatrical art and conduct, however material a defect; yet, as it affects the spectator rather than the reader, we can more easily excuse, than that want of taste which often prevails in his productions, and which gives way, only by intervals, to the irradiations of genius. (History of England, Volume 5, Appendix on the Reign of James I)Hume is not alone in his sceptical judgement of Shakespeare, which was shared by such giants as Wittgenstein and Tolstoy; but his obtuseness became proverbial. Thus, Adam Smith was damned by Wordsworth, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, as "the worst critic, David Hume not excepted, that Scotland, a soil to which this weed seems natural, has produced."
Hume's taste was sounder, by his own insistence, in its literal guise. Having retired to Edinburgh in 1769, without "the least Thought of Regreat to London, or even to Paris", Hume wrote to Gilbert Elliot to describe his plans:
I live still, and must for a twelvemonth, in my old House in James's Court, which is very chearful and even elegant, but too small to display my great Talent for Cookery, the Science to which I intend to addict the remaining Years of my Life; I have just now lying on the Table before me a Receipt for making Soupe à la Reine, copy'd with my own hand. For Beef and Cabbage (a charming Dish), and old Mutton and old Claret, no body excels me. I make also Sheep head Broth in a manner that Mr Keith speaks of it for eight days after, and the Duc de Nivernois would bind himself Apprentice to my Lass to learn it.Picture Hume: apron-clad in his cramped kitchen, surrounded by the vapours of stewing meat, preparing to "dine, [to] play a game of back-gammon", and to give his literary ambitions, not just his sceptical thoughts, a rest.