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THE freedom of criticism has seldom been carried to a more unjustifiable excess, than in the remarks of Dr. Johnson, originally published in a periodical work called The Universal Visitor, on the following Epitaphs.
When a critic divests himself of candour, there is no composition, however perfect, that may not become the subject of ridicule. That this was the case with Johnson almost every Epitaph affords a proof. At the same time it must be acknowledged, that his criticisms are intermixed with many acute and judicious remarks, which are deserving of particular notice and selection.
On the whole, it must be admitted that no subject of literary composition is so difficult as that of an Epitaph; insomuch that it would scarcely be possible to produce one of any extent, to which some substantial objection might not be made. Of this the ancients were so sensible, that they seldom attempted more, than to record the event in the most simple and impressive terms. But the more ambitious claims of modern times call for greater efforts; and every exertion of fancy, and every turn of sentiment, have been resorted to, in order to produce, from the commemoration of the dead, a more striking and beneficial effect,—consolatory, pathetic, or instructive,—on the minds of the living. That in this respect the productions of Pope are, upon the whole, equal to those of any other writer, will scarcely be denied; whilst in the polish of style, and harmonious flow of versification, they greatly excel them all.
ON CHARLES EARL OF DORSET.
IN THE CHURCH OF WITHYAM, IN SUSSEX.
DORSET, the Grace of Courts, the Muses' Pride,
DORSET, the grace of Courts, &c.] "The first distich of this Epitaph," says Dr. Johnson, " contains a kind of information which few would want; that the man for whom the tomb was erected, died. There are indeed some qualities worthy of praise ascribed to the dead, but none that were likely to exempt him from the lot of man, or incline us much to wonder that he should die."-But surely these remarks cannot prevent our perceiving
the impressive effect produced in the opening of the Epitaph, by announcing-not merely that an individual was dead-which would indeed have been an insipid truism-but that a person who had added grace to a Court, of whom the Muses were proud, who had patronized the arts, and was a Judge of nature, was dead; which is as much as to say, in a more concise and striking form, that the highest accomplishments of humanity cannot preserve their possessor from the common lot; a reflection eminently calculated to recall us to a due sense of the uncertainty of life, and which is in fact a beautiful imitation of the fine expression in scripture,
"Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man this day fallen in Israel?"
Ver. 2. Judge of nature,] What is meant by "Judge of nature," is not easy to say. Nature is not the object of human judgment; for it is in vain to judge where we cannot alter. If by nature is meant what is commonly called nature by the critics, a just representation of things really existing, and actions really performed, nature cannot be properly opposed to art, nature being in this sense only the best effect of art." Johnson.
Can we suppose that Johnson meant to say, that because it is not in our power to alter the works of nature, which is far from being in all cases true, it is of no use or advantage to us to study them, and to form the best judgment in our power respecting them? Is there any employment more suitable to us, more consistent with our true dignity, improvement and happiness, than the contemplation of the works of nature? or, in other words, of that immense universe which the Creator of all has given us faculties in a great degree to comprehend, and has offered to our inquiry and admiration? and is it not the highest honour that can be conferred on a mortal, to say that he was a judge❞ of this wonderful system? When such are the observations with which the learned critic commences his remarks on these epitaphs, it will not be difficult for the reader to form an idea of the spirit in which they are, for the most part, written.