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to poetry alone. There is in his prose writings an ease and elegance, that have never yet been so well united in works of taste or criticism.
The English language owes very little to Otway, though, next to Shakespeare, the greatest genius England ever produced in tragedy. His excellencies lay in painting directly from nature, in catching every emotion just as it rises from the soul, and in all the powers of the moving and pathetic. He appears to have had no learning, no critical knowledge, and to have lived in great distress. When he died (which he did in an obscure house near the Minories), he had 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. The upper galleries, by the prevalence of party-spirit, were courted with great assiduity, and a horse-laugh following ribaldry was the highest in, stance 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 despatches of Sir Richard Fanshaw, 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 Stillingfleet, 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 an 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
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 it has been cried up by his friends to such a degree, that his enemies have suffered 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 written 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. The personal 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 understand the subject he writes on, there must always be a deficiency. In politics he was generally master of what he undertook, in morals ne
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 de
stroyed that genuine flow of diction which is discoverable in all his former compositions.
Whilst their writings engaged attention and the favour of the publick, 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 be fore any plan of an academy could be resolved on.
Meanwhile the necessity of such an institution became every day more apparent. The periodical and 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,