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Wave their proud tops, and form of stateliest view
The dancing wave! while o'er th' adjoining lawns
This, my lord, is but a faint picture of the place of your retirement, which no one ever enjoyed more elegantly: no part of your life lies heavy upon you; there is no uneasy vacancy in it; it is all filled up with study, exercise, or polite amusement: here you shine in the most agreeable, though not most strong and dazzling light; in your public station you commanded admiration and honour; in your private, you attract love and esteem: the nobler parts of your life will be the subject of the historian; and the actions of the great statesman and patriot will adorn many pages of our future annals: but the affectionate father, the indulgent master, the condescending and benevolent friend, patron, and companion, can only be described by those, who have the pleasure and happiness to see you act in all those relations: I could with delight enlarge upon this amiable part of your character; but am sensible that no portion of your time is so ill spent as in reading what I write. I will therefore only beg the honour to subscribe myself,
I AM very sensible that many hard circumstances attend all authors: if they write ill, they are sure to be used with contempt; if well, too often with envy. Some men, even while they improve themselves with the sentiments of others, rail at their benefactors, and while they gather the fruit, tear the tree that bore it. I must confess, that mere idleness induced me to write; and the hopes of entertaining a few idle men, to publish, I am not so vain as not to think there are many faults in the ensuing poems; all human works must fall short of perfection; and therefore to acknowledge it is no humility: however, I am not like those authors, who, out of a false modesty, complain of the imperfections of their own works, yet would take it very ill if the world should believe them: I will not add hypocrisy to my other faults, or act so absurdly as to invite the reader to an entertainment, and then tell him, that there is nothing worth his eating; I have furnished out the table according to my best abilities, if not with a splendid elegance, yet at least with an innocent variety.
But since this is the last time that I shall ever, perhaps, trouble the world in this kind, I will beg leave to speak something not as a poet, but a critic; that if my credit should fail as a poet, I may have recourse to my remarks upon Homer, and be pardoned for my industry as the annotator in part upon the Iliad, and entirely upon the Odyssey.
I will therefore offer a few things upon criticism in general, a study very necessary, but fallen into contempt through the abuse of it, At the restoration of learning, it was particularly necessary; authors had been long buried in obscurity, and consequently had contracted some rust through the ignorance and barbarism of preceding ages: it was therefore very requisite that they should be polished by a critical hand, and restored to their original purity. In this consists the office of critics; but, instead of making copies agreeable to the manuscripts, they have long inserted their own conjectures; and from this licence arise most of the various readings, the burthens of modern editions: whereas books are like pictures, they may be new varnished, but not a feature is to be altered; and every stroke that is thus added destroys in some degree the resemblance; and the original is no longer an Homer or a Virgil, but a mere ideal person, the creature of the editor's fancy. Whoever deviateş from this rule, does not correct, but corrupt his author: and therefore, since most books worth reading have now good impressions, it is a folly to devote too much time to this branch of criticism; it is ridiculous to make it the supreme business of life to repair the ruins of a decayed word, to trouble the world with vain niceties about a letter, or a syllable, or the transposition of a phrase, when the present reading is sufficiently intelligible. These learned triflers are mere weeders of an author; they collect the weeds for their own use, and permit others to gather the herbs and flowers: it would be of more advantage to mankind, when once an author is faithfully published, to turn our thoughts from the words to the sentiments, and make them more easy and intelligible. A skill in verbal criticism is in reality but a skill in guessing, and consequently he is the best critic who guesses best: a mighty attainment! And yet with what pomp is a trivial alteration ushered into the world! Such writers are like Caligula, who raised a mighty army, and alarmed the whole world, and then led it to gather cockle-shells. In short, the question is not what the author might have said, but what he has actually said; it is not whether a different word will agree with the sense, and turn of the period, but whether it was used by the author; if it was, it has a good title still to maintain its post, and the authority of the manuscript ought to be followed rather than the fancy of the editor: for can a modern be a better judge of the language of the purest of the ancients, than those ancients who wrote it in the greatest purity? or if he could, was ever any author so happy, as always to choose the most proper word ? Experience shows the impossibility. Besides, of what use is verbal criticism when once we have a faithful edition? It embarrasses the reader instead of giving new light, and hinders his proficiency by engrossing his time, and calling off the attention from the author to the editor: it increases the ex
pense of books, and makes us pay an high price for trifles, and often for absurdities. I will only add, with Sir Henry Saville, that various lections are now grown so voluminous, that we begin to value the first editions of books as most correct, because least corrected.
There are other critics who think themselves obliged to see no imperfections in their author: from the moment they undertake his cause, they look upon him as a lover upon his mistress; Of partial he has no faults, or his very faults improve into beauties: this, indeed, is a well-natured Critics. errour, but still blameable, because it misguides the judgment. Such critics act no less erroneously, than a judge who should resolve to acquit a person, whether innocent or guilty, who comes before him upon his trial. It is frequent for the partial critic to praise the work as he likes the author; he admires a book as an antiquary a medal, solely from the impression of the name, and not from the intrinsic value: the copper of a favourite writer shall be more esteemed than the finest gold of a less acceptable author: for this reason many persons have chosen to publish their works without a name, and by this method, like Apelles, who stood unseen behind his own Venus, have received a praise, which perhaps might have been denied if the author had been visible.
But there are other critics who act a contrary part, and condemn all as criminals whom they try: they dwell only on the faults of an author, and endeavour to raise a reputation by disOf envious praising every thing that other men praise; they have an antipathy to a shining character, and mali- like some animals, that hate the Sun only because of its brightness: it is a crime with cious Cri- them to excel; they are a kind of Tartars in learning, who, seeing a person of distinguished qualifications, immediately endeavour to kill him, in hopes to attain just so much merit as they destroy in their adversary. I never look into one of these critics but he puts me in mind of a giant in romance: the glory of the giant consists in the number of the limbs of men whom he has destroyed; that of the critic in viewing
Disjecti membra poetæ.
If ever he accidentally deviates into praise, he does it that his ensuing blame may fall with the greater weight; he adorns an author with a few flowers, as the ancients those victims which they were ready to sacrifice: he studies criticism as if it extended only to dispraise; a practice, which, when most successful, is least desirable. A painter might justly be thought to have a perverse imagination, who should delight only to draw the deformities and distortions of human nature, which, when executed by the most masterly hand, strike the beholder with most horrour. It is usual with envious critics to attack the writings of others, because they are good; they constantly prey upon the fairest fruits, and hope to spread their own works by uniting them to those of their adversary. But this is like Mezentius in Virgil, to join a dead carcass to a living body: and the only effect of it, to fill every well-natured mind with detestation: their malice becomes impotent, and, contrary to their design, they give a testimony of their enemy's merit, and show him to be an hero by turning all their weapons against him such critics are like dead coals; they may blacken, but cannot burn. These writers bring to my memory a passage in the Iliad, where all the inferior powers, the Plebs Superûm, or rabble of the sky, are fancied to unite their endeavours to pull Jupiter down to the Earth: 'but by the attempt they only betray their own inability; Jupiter is still Jupiter, and by their unavailing efforts" they manifest his superiority.
Modesty is essential to true criticism: no man has a title to be a dictator in knowledge, and the sense of our own infirmities ought to teach us to treat others with humanity. The envious critic ought to consider, that if the authors be dead whom he censures, it is inhumanity to trample upon their ashes with insolence; that it is cruelty to summon, implead, and condemn them with rigour and animosity, when they are not in a capacity to answer his unjust allegations. If the authors be alive, the common laws of society oblige us not to commit any outrage against another's reputation; we ought modestly to convince, not injuriously insult; and contend for truth, not victory; and yet the envious critic is like the tyrants of old, who thought it not enough to conquer, unless their enemies were made a public spectacle, and dragged in triumph at their chariot-wheels: but what is such a triumph but a barbarous insult over the calamities of their fellow-creatures? the noise of a day, purchased with the misery of nations? However, I would not be thought to be pleading for an exemption from criticism; I would only have it circumscribed within the rules of candour and humanity: writers may be told of their errours, provided it be with the decency and tenderness of a friend, not the malice and passion of an enemy; boys may be whipped into sense, but men are to guided with reason.
If we grant the malicious critic all that he claims, and allow him to have proved his adversary's dulness, and his own acuteness, yet, as long as there is virtue in the world, modest dulness will be preferable to learned arrogance. Dulness may be a misfortune, but arroganee is a crime; and where is the mighty advantage, if, while he discovers more learning, he is found to have less virtue than his adversary? and, though he be a better critic, yet proves himself to a worse man? Besides, no one is to be envied the skill in finding such faults as others are so dull as to mistake for beauties. What advantage is such a quicksightedness even to the possessors of it? It makes them difficult to be pleased, and gives them pain, while others receive a pleasure: they resemble the second-sighted people in Scotland, who are fabled to see more than other persons; but all the benefit they reap from this privilege, is to discover objects of horrour, ghosts, and apparitions.
But it is time to end, though I have too much reason to enlarge the argument for candour in criticism, through a consciousness of my own deficiency: I have in reality been pleading my own cause, that, if I appear too guilty to obtain a pardon, I may find so much mercy from my judges, as to be condemned to suffer without inhumanity. But whatever be the fate of these works, they have proved of use to me, and been an agreeable amusement in a constant solitude. Providence has been pleased to lead me out of the great roads of life, into a private path; where, though we have leisure to choose the smoothest way, yet we are all sure to meet many obstacles in the journey: I have found poetry an innocent companion, and support from the fatigues of it; how long, or how short, the future stages of it are to be, as it is uncertain, so it is a folly to be over solicitous about it; he that lives the longest, has but the small privilege of creeping more leisurely than others to his grave; what we call living, is in reality but a longer time in dying and if these verses prove as short-lived as their author, it is a loss not worth regretting: they only die, as they were born, in obscurity.