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give them such a propensity to criticise, that instead of giving up the reins of their imagination into their authour's hands, their frigid minds are employed in examining whether the performance be according to the rules of art.
To those who are resolved to be criticks in spite of nature, and at the same time have no great disposition to much reading and study, I would recommend to them to assume the character of connoisseur, which may be purchased at a much cheaper rate than that of a critick in poetry. The remembrance of a few names of painters, with their general characters, with a few rules of the academy, which they may pick up among the painters, will go a great way towards making a very notable connoisseur.
With a gentleman of this cast, I visited last week the Cartoons at Hampton-court; he was just returned from Italy, a connoisseur of course, and of course his mouth full of nothing but the grace of Raffaelle, the purity of Domenichino, the learning of Poussin, the air of Guido, the greatness of taste of the Caraches, and the sublimity and grand contorno of Michael Angelo; with all the rest of the cant of criticism, which he emitted with that volubility which generally those orators have who annex no ideas to their words.
As we were passing through the rooms, in our way to the gallery, I made him observe a whole length of Charles the First by Vandyke, as a perfect representation of the character as well as the figure of the man. He agreed it was very fine, but it wanted spirit and contrast, and had not the flowing line, without which a figure could not possibly be graceful. When we entered the gallery, I thought I could perceive him recollecting his rules by which he was to criticise Raffaelle. I shall pass over his observation of the boats being too little, and other criticisms of that kind, till we arrived at “St. Paul's preaching.” “This," says he, “is esteemed the most excellent of all the cartoons; what nobleness, what dignity, there is in that figure of St. Paul! and yet what an addition to that
nobleness could Raffaelle have given, had the art of con-, trast been known in his time! but, above all, the flowing line which constitutes grace and beauty! You would not have then seen an upright figure standing equally on both legs, and both hands stretched forward in the same direction, and his drapery, to all appearance, without the least art of disposition.” The following picture is the “ Charge to Peter.” “Here,” says he, "are twelve upright figures; what a pity it is that Raffaelle was not acquainted with the pyramidal principle! He would then have contrived the figures in the middle to have been on higher grounds, or the figures at the extremities stooping or lying, which would not only have formed the group into the shape of a pyramid, but likewise contrasted the standing figures. Indeed,” added he, “ I have often lamented that so great a genius as Raffaelle had not lived in this enlightened age, since the art has been reduced to principles, and had had his education in one of the modern academies; what glorious works might we then have expected from his divine pencil !"
I shall trouble you no longer with my friend's observations, which, I suppose, you are now able to continue by yourself. It is curious to observe, that, at the same time that great admiration is pretended for a name of fixed reputation, objections are raised against those very qualities by which that great name was acquired.
Those criticks are continually lamenting that. Raffaelle had not the colouring and harmony of Rubens, or the light and shadow of Rembrant, without considering how much the gay harmony of the former, and affectation of the latter, would take from the dignity of Raffaelle; and yet Rubens had great harmony, and Rembrant understood light and shadow: but what may be an excellence in a lower class of painting, becomes a blemish in a higher ; as the quick, spritely turn, which is the life and beauty of epigrammatick compositions, would but ill suit with the majesty of heroick poetry.
To conclude; I would not be thought to infer, from
any thing that has been said, that rules are absolutely unnecessary: but to censure scrupulosity, a servile attention to minute exactness, which is sometimes inconsistent with higher excellency, and is lost in the blaze of expanded genius.
I do not know whether you will think painting a general subject. By inserting this letter, perhaps you will incur the censure a man would deserve, whose business being to entertain a whole room, should turn his back to the company, and talk to a particular person.
I am, Sir, &c.*
N° 77. SATURDAY, October 6, 1759. Easy poetry is universally admired; but I know not whether
rule has yet been fixed, by which it may be decided when poetry can be properly called easy.
Horace has told us, that it is such as “every reader hopes to equal, but after long labour finds unattainable.” This is a very loose description, in which only the effect is noted; the qualities which produce this effect remain to be investigated.
Easy poetry is that in which natural thoughts are expressed without violence to the language. The discriminating character of ease consists principally in the diction; for all true poetry requires that the sentiments be natural. Language suffers violence by harsh or by daring figures, by transposition, by unusual acceptations of words, and by any licence, which would be avoided by a writer of prose. Where any artifice appears in the construction of the verse, that verse is no longer easy. Any epithet which can be ejected without diminution of of the sense, any curious iteration of the same word, and all unusual, though not ungrammatical structure of speech, destroy the grace of easy poetry.
* By Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The first lines of Pope's Iliad afford examples of many licences which an easy writer must decline;
Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain. In the first couplet the language is distorted by inversions, clogged with superfluities, and clouded by a harsh metaphor; and in the second there are two words used in an uncommon sense, and two epithets inserted only to lengthen the line; all these practices may in a long work easily be pardoned, but they always produce some degree of obscurity and ruggedness.
Easy poetry has been so long excluded by ambition of ornament, and luxuriance of imagery, that its nature seems now to be forgotten. Affectation, however opposite to ease, is sometimes mistaken for it: and those who aspire to gentle elegance, collect female phrases and fashionable barbarisms, and imagine that style to be easy which custom has made familiar. Such was the idea of the poet who wrote the following verses to a countess cutting paper :
Pallas grew vap'rish once and odd,
She would not do the least right thing
Nor work, nor play, nor paint, nor sing.
So skilful, and those hands so taper;
She bow'd, obey'd him, and cut paper.
Thought by all Heaven a burning shame,
Her Burlington do just the same?
But sure you'll find it hard to spoil
The name of Savile and of Boyle.
How quickly all the sex pursue !
Between John Overton and you. It is the prerogative of easy poetry to be understood as long as the language lasts ; but modes of speech, which
owe their prevalence only to modish folly, or to the eminence of those that use them, die away with their inventors, and their meaning, in a few years, is no longer known.
Easy poetry is commonly sought in petty compositions upon minute subjects; but ease, though it excludes pomp, will admit greatness. Many lines in Cato's soliloquy are at once easy and sublime:
'Tis the divinity that stirs within us;
If there's a power above us,
And that which he delights in must be happy. Nor is ease more contrary to wit than to sublimity; the celebrated stanza of Cowley, on a lady elaborately dressed, loses nothing of its freedom by the spirit of the sentiment:
Th’adorning thee with so much art
Is but a barb'rous skill,
Too apt before to kill. Cowley seems to have possessed the power of writing easily beyond any other of our poets; yet his pursuit of remote thought led him often into harshness of expression. Waller often attempted, but seldom attained it; for he is (too frequently driven into transpositions. The poets, from the time of Dryden, have gradually advanced in embellishment, and consequently departed from simplicity and ease.
To require from any authour many pieces of easy poetry, would be indeed to oppress him with too hard a task. It is less difficult to write a volume of lines swelled with epithets, brightened by figures, and stiffened by transpositions, than to produce a few couplets graced only by naked elegance and simple purity, which require so much care and skill, that I doubt whether any of our authours have yet been able, for twenty lines together, nicely to observe the true definition of easy poetry.