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DEFENCE OF THE EPILOGUE;
AN ESSAY ON THE DRAMATIC POETRY
OF THE LAST AGE
The promises of authors, that they will write again, are, in effect, a threatening of their readers with some new impertinence; and they, who perform not what they promise, will have their pardon on easy terms. 5 It is from this consideration, that I could be glad to spare you the trouble, which I am now giving you, of a postscript, if I were not obliged, by many reasons, to write somewhat concerning our present plays, and
those of our predecessors on the English stage. The 10 truth is, I have so far engaged myself in a bold Epilogue
to this play, wherein I have somewhat taxed the former writing, that it was necessary for me either not to print it, or to show that I could defend it. Yet I would so
maintain my opinion of the present age, as not to be 15 wanting in my veneration for the past : I would ascribe
to dead authors their just praises in those things wherein they have excelled us; and in those wherein we contend with them for the pre-eminence, I would acknowledge
our advantages to the age, and claim no victory from 20 our wit. This being what I have proposed to myself,
I hope I shall not be thought arrogant when I inquire
into their errors. For we live in an age so sceptical, that as it determines little, so it takes nothing from antiquity on trust; and I profess to have no other ambition in this Essay, than that poetry may not go backward, when all other arts and sciences are ad- 5 vancing. Whoever censures me for this inquiry, let him hear his character from Horace:
Ingeniis non ille favet, plauditque sepultis,
It was upbraided to that excellent poet, that he was an enemy to the writings of his predecessor Lucilius, because he had said, Lucilium lutulentum fluere, that he ran muddy; and that he ought to have retrenched from his satires many unnecessary verses.
But Horace 15 makes Lucilius himself to justify him from the imputation of envy, by telling you that he would have done the same, had he lived in an age which was more refined:
Si foret hoc nostrum fato delapsus in aevum,
And, both in the whole course of that satire, and in his most admirable Epistle to Augustus, he makes it his business to prove, that antiquity alone is no plea for 25 the excellency of a poem; but that, one age learning from another, the last (if we can suppose an equality of wit in the writers) has the advantage of knowing more and better than the former. And this, I think, is the state of the question in dispute. It is therefore my 30 part to make it clear, that the language, wit, and conversation of our age, are improved and refined above the last; and then it will not be difficult to infer, that our plays have received some part of those advantages.
In the first place, therefore, it will be necessary to state, in general, what this refinement is, of which we treat; and that, I think, will not be defined amiss : An improvement of our Wit, Language, and Conversation ; 5 or, an alteration in them for the better.
To begin with Language. That an alteration is lately made in ours, or since the writers of the last age (in which I comprehend Shakespeare, Fletcher,
and Johnson), is manifest. Any man who reads those 10 excellent poets, and compares their language with what
is now written, will see it almost in every line; but that this is an improvement of the language, or an alteration for the better, will not so easily be granted.
For many are of a contrary opinion, that the English 15 tongue was then in the height of its perfection; that
from Johnson's time to ours it has been in a continual declination, like that of the Romans from the age of Virgil to Statius, and so downward to Claudian; of
which, not only Petronius, but Quintilian himself so 20 much complains, under the person of Secundus, in his famous dialogue de Causis corruptae Eloquentiae.
But, to show that our language is improved, and that those people have not a just value for the age in which
they live, let us consider in what the refinement of a 25 language principally consists: that is, either in rejecting
such old words, or phrases, which are ill sounding, or improper; or in admitting new, which are more proper, more sounding, and more significant.
The reader will easily take notice, that when I speak 30 of rejecting improper words and phrases, I mention
not such as are antiquated by custom only, and, as I may say, without any fault of theirs. For in this case the refinement can be but accidental; that is, when the
words and phrases, which are rejected, happen to be 35 improper. Neither would I be understood, when I
speak of impropriety of language, either wholly to accuse the last age, or to excuse the present, and least of all myself; for all writers have their imperfections and failings: but I may safely conclude in the general, that our improprieties are less frequent, and less gross 5 than theirs. One testimony of this is undeniable, that we are the first who have observed them; and, certainly, to observe errors is a great step to the correcting of them. But, malice and partiality set apart, let any man, who understands English, read diligently the 10 works of Shakespeare and Fletcher, and I dare undertake, that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense; and yet these men are reverenced, when we are not forgiven. That their wit is great, and many times their expres- 15 sions noble, envy itself cannot deny:
Neque ego illis detrahere ausim Haerentem capiti multâ cum laude coronam. But the times were ignorant in which they lived. Poetry was then, if not in its infancy among us, at least not 20 arrived to its vigour and maturity : witness the lameness of their plots; many of which, especially those which they writ first (for even that age refined itself in some measure), were made up of some ridiculous incoherent story, which in one play many times took 25 up the business of an age. I suppose I need not name Pericles, Prince of Tyre, nor the historical plays of Shakespeare: besides many of the rest, as the Winter's Tale, Love's Labour Lost, Measure for Measure, which were either grounded on impossibilities, or at least so 30 meanly written, that the comedy neither caused your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment. If I would expatiate on this subject, I could easily demonstrate, that our admired Fletcher, who writ after him, neither understood correct plotting, nor that which they 35
call the decorum of the stage. I would not search in his worst plays for examples : he who will consider his Philaster, his Humorous Lieutenant, his Faithful Shepherdess, and many others which I could name, will find 5 them much below the applause which is now given
them. He will see Philaster wounding his mistress, and afterwards his boy, to save himself; not to mention the Clown, who enters immediately, and not only has the
advantage of the combat against the hero, but diverts 10 you from your serious concernment, with his ridiculous
and absurd raillery. In his Humorous Lieutenant, you find his Demetrius and Leontius staying in the midst of a routed army, to hear the cold mirth of the
Lieutenant; and Demetrius afterwards appearing with 15 a pistol in his hand, in the next age to Alexander
the Great. And for his Shepherd, he falls twice into the former indecency of wounding women. But these absurdities, which those poets committed, may more
properly be called the age's fault than theirs : for, 20 besides the want of education and learning (which was
their particular unhappiness), they wanted the benefit of converse : but of that I shall speak hereafter, in a place more proper for it. Their audiences knew no
better; and therefore were satisfied with what they 25 brought. Those, who call theirs the Golden Age of
Poetry, have only this reason for it, that they were then content with acorns before they knew the use of bread, or that ädcs Opvòs was become a proverb. They
had many who admired them, and few who blamed 30 them; and certainly a severe critic is the greatest help
to a good wit : he does the office of a friend, while he designs that of an enemy; and his malice keeps a poet within those bounds, which the luxuriancy of his fancy
would tempt him to overleap. 35 But it is not their plots which I meant principally to