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about him the copy of a tragedy, which it seems he had sold for a trifle to Bentley the bookseller. I have seen an advertisement at the end of one of L'Estrange's political papers, offering a reward to any one who should bring it to his shop. What an invaluable treasure was there irretrievably lost, by the ignorance and neglect of the age he lived in!
Lee had a great command of language, and vast force of expression, both which the best of our succeeding dramatic poets thought proper to take for their models. Rowe in particular seems to have caught that manner, though in all other respects inferior. The other poets of that reign contributed but little towards improving the English tongue, and it is not certain whether they did not injure rather than improve it. Immorality has its cant as well as party, and many shocking expressions now crept into the language, and became the transient fashion of the day. galleries, by the prevalence of party-spirit, were courted with great assiduity, and a horse-laugh following ribaldry was the highest instance of applause, the chastity as well as energy of diction being overlooked or neglected.
Virtuous sentiment was recovered, but energy of style never was. This, though disregarded in plays and party writings, still prevailed amongst men of character and business. The dispatches of sir Richard Fanchaw, sir William Godolphin, lord Arlington, and many other ministers of state are all of them, with respect to diction, manly, bold, and nervous. Sir William Temple, though a man of no learning, had great knowledge and experience. He wrote always like a man of sense and a gentleman; and his style is the model, by which the best prose writers in the reign of queen Anne formed theirs. The beauties of Mr. Locke's style, though not so much celebrated, are as striking as that of his understanding. He never says
more nor less than he ought, and never makes use of a word that he could have changed for a better. The same observation holds good of Dr. Samuel Clarke.
Mr. Locke was a philosopher; his antagonist Stillingfieet, bishop of Worcester, was a man of learning, and therefore the contest between them was unequal. The clearness of Mr Locke's head renders his language perspicuous, the learning of Stillingfleet's clouds his. This is a instance of the superiority of good sense over learning, towards the improvement of every language.
There is nothing peculiar to the language of archbishop Tillotson, but his manner of writing is inimitable ; for one who reads him, wonders why he himself did not think and speak in that very manner. The turn of his periods is agreeable, though artless, and every thing he says seems to flow spontaneously from inward conviction. Barrow, though greatly his superior in learning, falls short of him in other respects.
The time seems to be at hand, when justice will be done to Mr. Cowley's prose, as well as poetical 1 writings; and though his friend doctor Sprat, bishop
of Rochester, in his diction falls far short of the abilities for which he has been celebrated; yet there is sometimes a happy flow in his periods, something that looks like eloquence. The style of his successor Atterbury has been much commended by his friends, which always happens when a man distinguishes himself in party, but there is in it nothing extraordinary. Even the speech which he made for himself at the bar of the house of lords, before he was sent into exile, is void of eloquence, though he has been cried up by his friends to such a degree, that his enemies have sufferèd it to pass uncensured.
The philosophical manner of lord Shaftesbury's writing is nearer to that of Cicero than any English author has yet arrived at, but perhaps had Cicero writ
ten in English, his composition would have greatly exceeded that of our countryman. The diction of the latter is beautiful, but such beauty, as upon nearer inspection, carries with it evident symptoms of affectation. This has been attended with very disagreeable consequences. Nothing is so easy to copy as affectation, and his lordship's rank and fame have procured him more imitators in Britain than any other writer I know; all faithfully preserving his blemishes, but unhappily not one of his beauties.
Mr. Trenchard and Dr. Davenant were political writers of great abilities in diction, and their pamphlets are now standards in that way of writing. They were followed by Dean Swift, who, though in other respects far their superior, never could arise to that manliness and clearness of diction in political writing, for which they were so justly famous.
They were all of them exceeded by the late lord Bolingbroke, whose strength lay in that province; for as a philosopher and a critic he was ill qualified, being destitute of virtue for the one, and of learning for the other. His writings against sir Robert Walpole are incomparably the best part of his works. sonal and perpetual antipathy he had for that family, to whose places he thought his own abilities had a right, gave a glow to his style, and an edge to his manner, that never yet have been equalled in political writing. His misfortunes and disappointments gave his mind a turn, which his friends mistook for philosophy, and at one time of his life he had the art to impose the same belief upon some of his enemies. His Idea of a patriot King, which I reckon (as indeed it was) amongst his writings against sir Robert Walpole, is a master-piece of diction. Even in his other works his style is excellent; but where a man either does not, or will not un derstand the subject he writes on, there must always be
a deficiency. In politics he was generally master of what he undertook, in morals never.
Mr. Addison for a happy and natural style will be always an honour to British literature. His diction indeed wants strength, but it is equal to all the subjects he undertakes to handle, as he never (at least in his finished works) attempts any thing either in the argumentative or demonstrative way.
Though sir Richard Steele's reputation as a public writer was owing to his connexions with Mr. Addison, yet after their intimacy was formed, Steele sunk in his merit as an author. This was not owing so much to the evident superiority on the part of Addison, as to the unnatural efforts which Steele made to equal or eclipse him. This emulation destroyed that genuine How of diction which is discoverable in all his former compositions.
Whilst their writings engaged attention and the favour of the public, reiterated but unsuccessful endeavours were made towards forming a grammar of the English language. The authors of those efforts went upon wrong principles. Instead of endeavouring to retrench the absurdities of our language, and bringing it to a certain criterion, their grammars were no other than a collection of rules attempting to naturalize those absurdities, and bring them under a regular system.
Somewhat effectual however might have been done towards fixing the standard of the English language, had it not been for the spirit of party. For both whigs and tories being ambitious to stand at the head of so great a design, the queen’s death happened before any plan of an academy could be resolved on.
Meanwhile the necessity of such an institution became every day more apparent. The periodical and a political writers who then swarmed, adopted the very
worst manner of L'Estrange, till not only all decency, but all propriety of language, was lost in the nation. Leslie, a pert writer, with some wit and learning, insulted the government every week with the grossest abuse. His style and manner, both of which were illiberal, was imitated by Ridpath, De Foe, Dunton, and others of the opposite party, and Toland pleaded the cause of atheism and immorality in much the same strain ; his subject seemed to debase his diction, and he ever failed most in one, when he grew most licentious in the other.
Towards the end of queen Anne's reign, some of the greatest men in England devoted their time to party, and then a much better manner obtained in political writing. Mr. Walpole, Mr. Addison, Mr. Mainwaring, Mr. Steele, and many members of both houses of parliament, drew their pens for the whigs; but they seem to have been overmatched, though not in argument yet in writing, by Bolingbroke, Prior, Swift, Arbuthnot, and the other friends of the opposite party. They, who oppose a ministry, have always a better field for ridicule and reproof than they who defend it.
Since that period, our writers have either been encouraged above their merits or below them. Some who were possessed of the meanest abilities acquired the highest preferments, while others, who seemed born to reflect a lustre upon their age, perished by want and neglect. More, Savage, and Amherst were possessed of great -abilities, yet they were suffered to feel all the miseries that usually attend the ingenious and the imprudent, that attend men of strong passions, and no phlegmatic reserve in their command.
At present, were a man to attempt to improve his fortune, or increase his friendship by poetry, he would soon feel the anxiety of disappointment. The press lies open, and is a benefactor to every sort of literature but that alone.
I am at a loss whether to ascribe this falling off of the public to a vicious taste in the poet, or in them.