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I am afraid this extreme zeal on both fides is illplaced; Poetry and Criticism being by no means the univerfal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their clofets, and of idle men who read there...
Yet fure upon the whole, a bad Author deferves better ufage than a bad Critic: for a Writer's endeavour, for the moft part, is to please his Readers, and he fails merely through the misfortune of an ill judgment; but fuch a Critic's is to put them out of humor; a defign he could never go upon without both that and an ill temper.
I think a good deal may be faid to extenuate the fault of bad poets. What we call a Genius, is hard, to be diftinguished by a man himself, from a strong inclination and if his genius be ever fo great, he cannot at firft difcover it any other way, than by giving way to that prevalent propenfity which renders him the more liable to be mistaken. The only method he has, is to make the experiment by writ ing, and appealing to the judgment of others: now if he happens to write ill (which is certainly no fin` in itfelf) he is immediately made an object of ridicule. I wish we had the humanity to reflect that even the worst authors might, in their endeavour to please us, deferve fomething at our hands. We have no caufe to quarrel with them but for their obftinacy in perfifting to write; and this too may admit of alleviating circumftances. Their particular friends may be either ignorant, or infincere; and the rest of the world in general is too well bred to fhock them with a truth, which generally their Bookfellers are the first that inform them of. This happens not till they have spent too much of their time, to apply to any profeffion which might better fit their talents; and till fuch talents as they have are fo far difcredited as to be but of fmall fervice to them. For (what is the hardeft cafe imaginable)
the reputation of a man generally depends upon the first steps he makes in the world, and people will eftablish their opinion of us, from what we do at that feason when we have leaft judgment to direct us.
On the other hand, a good Poet no fooner communicates his works with the fame defire of infor◄ mation, but it is imagined he is a vain young creature given up to the ambition of fame; when per-> haps the poor man is all the while trembling with the fear of being ridiculous. If he is made to hope he may please the world, he falls under very unlucky circumftances: for, from the moment he prints, he must expect to hear no more truth, than if he were a Prince, or a Beauty. If he has not very good fenfe (and indeed there are twenty men of wit, for one man of fenfe) his living thus in a courfe of flattery may put him in no small danger of becoming a Coxcomb: if he has, he will confequently have fo much diffidence as not to reap any great fatisfaction from his praise; fince, if it be given to his face, it can scarce be diftinguished from flattery, and if in his absence, it is hard to be certain of it. Were he fure to be commended by the beft and most knowing, he is as fure of being envied by the worst and most ignorant, which are the majority; for it is with a fine Genius as with a fine fafhion, all thofe are difpleased at it who are not able to follow it: and it is to be feared that esteem will feldom do any man fo much good, as ill-will does him harm. Then there is a third clafs of people who make the largest part of mankind, thofe of ordinary or indifferent capacities; and thefe (to a man) will hate, or fufpect him: a hundred honeft Gentle men will dread him as a Wit, and a hundred innocent Women as a Satirift. In a word, whatever be his fate in Poetry, it is ten to one but he up all the reasonable aims of life for it. indeed fome advantages accruing from a
must give There are Genius to
Poetry, and they are all I can think of: the agreeable power of felf-amufement when a man is idle or alone; the privilege of being admitted into the best company; and the freedom of faying as many carelefs things as other people, without being fo feverely remarked upon.
I believe, if any one, early in his life, should contemplate the dangerous fate of authors, he would fcarce be of their number on any confideration. The life of a Wit is a warfare upon earth; and the prefent fpirit of the learned world is fuch, that to attempt to serve it (any way) one must have the conftancy of a martyr, and a refolution to fuffer for its fake. I could with people would believe what I am pretty certain they will not, that I have been much lefs concerned about Fame than I durft declare till this occafion, when methinks I fhould find more credit than I could heretofore: fince my writings have had their fate already, and it is too late to think of prepoffeffing the reader in their favour. I would plead it as fome merit in me, that the world has never been prepared for these Trifles by Prefaces, byaffed by recommendations, dazled with the names of great patrons, wheedled with fine reasons and pretences, or troubled with excufes. I confess it was want of confideration that made me an author; I writ because it amused me; I corrected because it was as pleasant to me to correct as to write; and I published because I was told I might please such as it was a credit to pleafe. To what degree I have done this I am really ignorant; I had too much fondness for my productions to judge of them at first, and too much judgment to be pleafed with them at laft. But I have reafon to think they can have no reputation which will continue long, or which deferves to do fo: for they have always fallen fhort not only of what I read of others, but even of my own Ideas of Poetry.
If any one fhould imagine I am not in earnest, I defire him to reflect, that the Ancients (to fay the leaft of them) had as much Genius as we: and that to take more pains, and employ more time, cannot fail to produce more compleat pieces. They conftantly apply'd themfelves not only to that art, but to that single branch of an art, to which their talent was most powerfully bent; and it was the business of their lives to correct and finish their works for pofterity. If we can pretend to have used the fame industry, let us expect the fame immortality: Tho' if we took the fame care, we should still lie under a farther misfortune: they writ in languages that became universal and everlasting, while ours are extremely limited both in extent and in duration. mighty foundation for our pride! when the utmost we can hope, is but to be read in one Island, and to be thrown aside at the end of one Age.
All that is left us is to recommend our productions by the imitation of the Ancients: and it will be found true, that, in every age, the highest character for sense and learning has been obtained by those who have been moft indebted to them. For, to fay truth, whatever is very good fenfe, must have been common sense in all times; and what we call Learning, is but the knowledge of the fense of our predeceffors. Therefore they who say our thoughts are not our own, because they refemble the Ancients, may as well fay our faces are not our own, because they are like our Fathers: And indeed it is very unreasonable, that people fhould expect us to be Scholars, and yet be angry to find us fo.
I fairly confess that I have ferved myself all I could by reading; that I made ufe of the judgment of authors dead and living; that I omitted no means in my power to be informed of my errors, both by my friends and enemies: But the true reafon these pieces are not more correct, is owing to the confideration
how short a time they, and I, have to live: One may be ashamed to confume half one's days in bringing fenfe and rhyme together; and what Critic can be fo unreasonable, as not to leave a man time enough for any more ferious employment, or more agreeable amufement?
The only plea I fhall ufe for the favour of the public, is, that I have as great a refpect for it, as moft authors have for themselves; and that I have facrificed much of my own felf-love for its fake, in preventing not only many mean things from seeing the light, but many which I thought tolerable. I would not be like thofe Authors, who forgive themselves fome particular lines for the fake of a whole Poem, and vice verfa a whole Poem for the fake of fome particular lines. I believe no one qualification is fo likely to make a good writer, as the power of rejecting his own thoughts; and it must be this (if any thing) that can give me a chance to be one. For what I have published, I can only hope to be pardoned; but for what I have burned, I deferve to be praised. On this account the world is under fome obligation to me, and owes me the juftice in return, to look upon no verses as mine that are not inferted in this collection. And perhaps nothing could make it worth my while to own what are really fo, but to avoid the imputation of fo many dull and immoral things, as partly by malice, and partly by ignorance, have been afcribed to me. I must farther acquit myfélf of the prefumption of having lent my name to recommend any Mifcellanies, or Works of other men ; a thing I never thought becoming a perfon who has hardly credit enough to anfwer for his own.
In this office of collecting my pieces, I am altogether uncertain, whether to look upon myfelf as a man building a monument, or burying the dead.