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Fortune, that with malicious joy
Does man, her slave, oppress,
Is seldom pleased to bless :
Promotes, degrades, delights in strife,
And makes a lottery of life.
And shakes her wings, and will not stay,
I puff the prostitute away:
Content with poverty, my soul I arm;
What is't to me,
If the mast split, and threaten wreck?
For his ill-gotten gain;
His wealth into the main.
And running with a merry gale,
And see the storm ashore. The prose of Dryden, however, is superior to his poetry, and richly deserves all the commendation it has received. His style is clear, vigorous, eloquent. « No writer, indeed,” says Dr. Drake, “ seems to have studied the genius of our language with happier success. If in elegance and grammatical precision he has since been exceeded, to none need he give way, in point of vigor, variety, richness, and spirit.” His chief prose compositions are his « Essay on Satire,” his Prefaces, and his “ Essay on Dramatic Poetry.” Of the latter, Dr. Johnson says, that it “was the first regular and valuable treatise on the art of writing. His portraits of the English dramatists are wrought with great spirit and diligence. The account of Shakspeare may stand as a perpetual model of encomiastic criticism; being lofty without exaggeration. In a few lines is exhibited a character so extensive in its comprehension and so curious in its limitations, that nothing can be added, diminished, or reformed; nor can the editors and admirers of Shakspeare, in all their emulation and reverence, boast of much more than of having diffused and paraphrased this epitome of excellence, of having changed Dryden's gold for baser metal, of lower value though of greater bulk.”?
1 The highest compliment ever paid to his diction has been recorded by Mr. Malone; namely, THB IMITATION OF EDMUND BURKE, "who," says the critic, "had very diligently read all his miscellaneous essays, which he held in high estimation, not only for the instruction which they contain, but on account of the rich and numerous prose in whicb that instruction is conveyed.”
To begin, then, with Shakspeare. He was the man, who, of
, all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily: when he describes any thing, you more than see it-you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation : he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is everywhere alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid ; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great when some great occasion is presented to him ; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,
Quantùm lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.1 The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of Eaton say, that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare; and however others are now generally preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had contemporaries with him, Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them to him in their esteem: and in the last king's court, when Ben's reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakspeare far above him.
As for Jonson, to whose character I am now arrived, if we look upon him while he was himself, (for his last plays were but his dotages,) I think him the most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had. He was a most severe judge of himself, as well as others. One cannot say he wanted wit, but rather that he was frugal of it. In his works you find little to retrench or alter. Wit, and language, and humor, also in some measure, we had before him; but something of art was wanting to the drama, till he came. He managed his strength to more advantage than any preceded him. You seldom find him making love in any of his scenes, or endeavoring to move the passions; his genius was too sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully, especially when he knew he came after those who had performed both to such a height. Humor was his proper sphere; and in that he delighted most to represent mechanic people. He was deeply conversant in the ancients, both Greek and Latin, and he borrowed boldly from
1 "As the cypresses are wont to do among the slender shrubs."
them; there is scarce a poet or historian among the Roman authors of those times, whom he has not translated in Sejanus and Catiline. But he has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch ; and what would be theft in other poets, is only victory in him. With the spoils of these writers he so represents old Rome to us, in his rites, ceremonies, and customs, that if one of their poets had written either of his tragedies, we had seen less of it than in him. If there was any fault in his language, 'twas that he weaved it too closely and laboriously, in his comedies especially: perhaps, too, he did a little too much Romanize our tongue, leaving the words which he translated almost as much Latin as he found them; wherein, though he learnedly followed their language, he did not enough comply with the idiom of ours. If I would compare him with Shakspeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakspeare the greater wit. Shakspeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets : Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing: I admire him, but I love Shakspeare.
CHAUCER AND COWLEY.
In the first place, as he is the father of English poetry, so I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense, learned in all sciences, and therefore speaks properly on all subjects. As he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off; a continence which is practised by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace. One of our late great poets? is sunk in his reputation, because he could never forgive any conceit which came in his way; but swept, like a drag-net, great and small. There was plenty enough, but the dishes were ill-sorted; whole pyramids of sweet-meats for boys and women, but little of solid meat for men. All this proceeded not from any want of knowledge, but of judgment. Neither did he want that in discerning the beauties and faults of other poets, but only indulged himself in the luxury of writing ; and perhaps knew it was a fault, but hoped the reader would not find it. For this reason, though he must always be thought a great poet, he is no longer esteemed a good writer; and for ten impressions, which his works have had in so many successive years, yet at present a hundred books are scarcely purchased once a twelve-month; for, as my last Lord Rochester said, though somewhat profanely, Not being of God, he could not stand.
Chaucer followed nature everywhere ; but was never so bold to go beyond her: and there is a great difference of being poeta,
and nimis poeta," if we may believe Catullus, as much as betwixt a modest behavior and affectation. The verse of Chaucer, I confess, is not harmonious to us; but it is like the eloquence of one whom Tacitus commends—it was auribus istius temporis accommodata. They who lived with him and sometime after him, thought it musical, and it continues so even in our judgment, if compared with the numbers of Lydgate and Gower, his contemporaries: there is the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect. It is true, I cannot go so far as he who published the last edition of him ;8 for he would make us believe the fault is in our ears, and that there were really ten syllables in a verse, where we find but nine. But this opinion is not worth confuting; it is so gross and obvious an error, that common sense (which is a rule in every thing but matters of faith and revelation) must convince the reader, that equality of numbers in every verse which we call heroic, was either not known, or not always practised in Chaucer's age. It were an easy matter to produce some thousands of his verses, which are lame for want of half a foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only say, that he lived in the infancy of our poetry, and that nothing is brought to perfection at the first. We must be children, before we grow men. There was an Ennius, and in process of time a Lucilius and a Lucretius, before Virgil and Horace. Even after Chaucer, there was a Spenser, a Harrington, a Fairfax, before Waller and Denham were in being; and our numbers were in their nonage till these last appeared.
THE HEATHEN-REASON AND REVELATION.
It has always been my thought, that heathens who never did, nor without miracle could, hear of the name of Christ, were yet in a possibility of salvation. Neither will it enter easily into my belief, that before the coming of our Saviour, the whole world, excepting only the Jewish nation, should lie under the inevitable necessity of everlasting punishment, for want of that revelation, which was confined to so small a spot of ground as that of Palestine. Among the sons of Noah we read of one only who was ac
ursed; and if a blessing in the ripeness of time was reserved for Japhet, (of whose progeny we are,) it seems unaccountable to me, why so many generations of the same offspring as preceded our Saviour in the flesh, should be all involved in one common con
1 "A poet and too much of a poet:" by the latter expression is meant conceit and affectation in poetry. 2 " Adapted to the ears of the times."
3 Speght, in 1597. 4 This position, however, has been completely disproved by Mr. Tyrwhitt, who, in his edition of the Canterbury Tales, has admirably explained the versification and language of Chaucer, and shows the former to be in general correct.
demnation, and yet that their posterity should be entitled to the hopes of salvation : as if a bill of exclusion had passed only on the fathers, which debarred not the sons from their succession. Or that so many ages had been delivered over to hell, and so many reserved for heaven, and that the devil had the first choice, and God the next. Truly, I am apt to think, that the revealed religion which was taught by Noah to all his sons, might continue for some ages in the whole posterity. That afterwards it was included wholly in the family of Sem, is manifest ; but when the progenies of Cham and Japhet swarmed into colonies, and those colonies were subdivided into many others, in process of time their descendants lost by little and little the primitive and purer rites of divine worship, retaining only the notion of one deity; to which succeeding generations added others, for men took their degrees in those ages from conquerors to gods. Revelation being thus eclipsed to almost all mankind, the light of nature, as the next in dignity, was substituted ; and hat is it which St. Paul concludes to be the rule of the heathens, and by which they are hereafter to be judged. If my supposition be true, then the consequence which I have assumed in my poem may be also true; namely, that Deism, or the principles of natural worship, are only the faint remnants or dying flames of revealed religion in the posterity of Noah: and that our modern philosophers, nay, and some of our philosophizing divines, have too much exalted the faculties of our souls, when they have maintained that, by their force, mankind has been able to find out that there is one supreme agent or intellectual being, which we call God: that praise and prayer are his due worship; and the rest of those deducements, which I am confident are the remote effects of revelation, and unattainable by our discourse; I mean as simply considered, and without the benefit of divine illumination. So that we have not lifted up
ourselves to God, by the weak pinions of our reason, but he has been pleased to descend to us; and what Socrates said of him, what Plato writ, and the rest of the heathen philosophers of several nations, is all no more than the twilight of revelation, after the sun of it was set in the race of Noah. That there is something above us, some principle of motion, our reason can apprehend, though it cannot discover what it is by its own virtue. And indeed it is very improbable, that we, who by the strength of our faculties cannot enter into the knowledge of any Being, not so much as of our own, should be able to find out, by them, that supreme nature, which we cannot otherwise define than by saying it is infinite ; as if infinite were definable, or infinity a subject for our narrow understanding. They who would prove religion by reason, do but weaken the cause which they endeavor to support : it is to take away the pillars from our faith, and to prop it only with a twig;