Page images

letters, is his confidant of state, and made privy to the most weighty affairs of the Roman senate. And the same respect which was paid by Tully to Atticus, we find returned to him afterwards by Caesar, on a like occasion, who, answering his book in praise of Cato, made it not so much his business to condemn Cato, as to praise Cicero.

But that I may decline some part of the encounter with my adversaries, whom I am neither willing to combat, nor well able to resist; I will give your lordship the relation of a dispute betwixt some of our wits on the same subject, in which they did not only speak of plays in verse, but mingled, in the freedom of discourse, some things of the ancient, many of the modern, ways of writing; comparing those with these, and the wits of our nation with those of others. It is true they differed in their opinions, as it is probable they would: neither do I take upon me to reconcile, but to relate them; and that, as Tacitus professes of himself, Sine studio partium, aut ira, without passion, or interest; leaving your lordship to decide it in favour of which part you shall judge most reasonable, and withal, to pardon the many errors of

Your lordship's

Most obedient humble servant,


THE drift of the ensuing discourse was chiefly to vindicate the honour of our English writers, from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French before them. This I intimate, lest any should think me so exceeding vain, as to teach others an art which they understand much better than myself. But if this incorrect Essay, written in the country, without the help of books, or advice of friends, shall find any acceptance in the world, I promise to myself a better success of the Second Part, wherein I shall more fully treat of the virtues and faults of the English poets, who have written either in this, the epic, or the lyric way.*

• This promise our author never fully performed, although the " Essay on Epic Poetry," and other parts of his critical works, exhibit the materials of the proposed Second Part.


Ir was that memorable day, in the first summer of the late war, when our navy engaged the Dutch; a day wherein the two most mighty and best-appointed fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the globe, the commerce of nations, and the riches of the universe; while these vast floating bodies, on either side, moved against each other in parallel lines, and our countrymen, under the happy conduct of his Royal Highness,† went breaking, by little and little, into the line of the enemies; the noise of the cannon from both navies reached our ears about the city; so that all men being alarmed with it, and in a dreadful suspense of the event, which they knew was then deciding, every one went following the sound as his fancy led him; and leaving the town almost empty, some took towards the Park, some across the river, others down it; all seeking the noise in the depth of silence.

[blocks in formation]

own curiosity with a strict silence, it was not long ere they perceived the air to break about them like the noise of distant thunder, or of swallows in a chimney; those little undulations of sound, though almost vanishing before they reached them, yet still seeming to retain somewhat of their first horror which they had betwixt the fleets. After they had attentively listened till such time as the sound by little and little went from them,* Eugenius, lifting up his head, and taking notice of it, was the first who congratulated to the rest that happy omen of our nation's victory; adding, that we had but this to desire in confirmation of it, that we might hear no more of that noise which was now leaving the English coast. When the rest had concurred in the same opinion, Crites, a person of a sharp judgment, and somewhat too delicate a taste in wit, which the world hath mistaken in him for ill nature,† said, smiling to us, that if the concernment of this battle had not been so exceeding great, he could scarce have wished the victory at the price he knew he must pay for it, in being subject to the reading and hearing of so many ill verses as he was sure would be made on that subject. Adding, that no argument could 'scape some of those eternal rhymers, who watch a battle with more diligence than the ravens and birds of prey; and the worst of them surest to be first in upon the quarry; while the better able, either out of modesty writ not at all, or set that due value upon their poems, as to let them be often desired, and long expected. There are some of those impertinent people of whom you speak, answered Lisideius, who, to my knowledge, are already so provided, either way, that they can produce not only a panegyric upon the vic

There is something very striking in this description, which was doubtless copied from reality. + This is a favourable representation of the character of Sir Robert Howard, who is described by his contemporaries as very vain, obstinate, and opinionative, and as such was ridiculed by Shadwell under the Character of Sir Positive Atall, in the "Impertinents."

tory, but, if need be, a funeral elegy on the duke; wherein, after they have crowned his valour with many laurels, they will at last deplore the odds under which he fell, concluding, that his courage deserved a better destiny. All the company smiled at the conceit of Lisideius; but Crites, more eager than before, began to make particular exceptions against some writers, and said, the public magistrate ought to send betimes to forbid them; and that it concerned the peace and quiet of all honest people, that ill poets should be as well silenced as seditious preachers. In my opinion, replied Eugenius, you pursue your point too far; for as to my own particular, I am so great a lover of poesy, that I could wish them all rewarded, who attempt but to do well; at least, I would not have them worse used than one of their brethren was by Sylla the dictator: Quem in concione vidimus, (says Tully,) cum ei libellum malus poeta de populo subjecisset, quod epigramma in eum fecisset tantummodo alternis versibus longiusculis, statim ex iis rebus quas tunc vendebat jubere ei præmium tribui, sub ea conditione ne quid postea scriberet. I could wish with all my heart, replied Crites, that many whom we know were as bountifully thanked upon the same condition, that they would never trouble us again. For amongst others, I have a mortal apprehension of two poets, whom this victory, with the help of both her wings, will never be able to escape. 'Tis easy to guess whom you intend, said Lisideius; and without naming them, I ask you if one of them does not perpetually pay us with clenches upon words, and a certain clownish kind of raillery ?* If now and then he does not offer at a catachresis or Cleivelandism,† wresting and torturing a word into another meaning; fine, if he be not one

• This was certainly Dr. Robert Wild; an allusion to whose "Iter Boreale" occurs a little below. It is written in a harsh and barbarous style, filled with "clenches and carwitchets," as the time called them; which having been in fashion in the reign of James I. and his unfortunate son, now revived after the Restoration. One of these poets would perhaps have told us, in rugged verse, that the Muse having been long in mourning, it was no wonder that her gayer dress should appear unfashionable when resumed. The other scribbler, Mr. Malone thinks, might be Flecnoe. Or it may have been Samuel Holland, a great scribbler on public occasions.

of those whom the French would call un mauvars buffon; one who is so much a well-willer to the satire, that he intends at least to spare no man; and though he cannot strike a blow to hurt any, yet he ought to be punished for the malice of the action; as our witches are justly hanged, because they think themselves to be such; and suffer deservedly for believing they did mischief, because they meant it.* You have described him, said Crites, so exactly, that I am afraid to come after you with my other extremity of poetry; he is one of those, who, having had some advantage of education and converse, knows better than the other what a poet should be, but puts it into practice more unluckily than any man. His style and matter are every while alike; he is the most calm, peaceable writer you ever read; he never disquiets your passions with the least concernment, but still leaves you in as even a temper as he found you; he is a very leveller in poetry: he creeps along with ten little words in every line, and helps out his numbers with For to, and Unto, and all the pretty expletives he can find, till he drags them to the end of another line, while the sense is left tired half-way behind it; he doubly starves all his verses, first, for want of thought, and then of expression. His poetry neither has wit in it, nor seems to have it; like him in Martial:

+ Cleiveland, being a violent Cavalier, had a sort of claim to become a model after the Restoration. He has such notable conceits as the following comparison of a weeping mistress, to the angel in the scripture who moved the pool of Bethesda, the first passage which occurred at opening the book: -pious Julia, angel-wise, Moves the Bethesda of her trickling eyes, To cure the spittal world of maladies.

Cleiveland's Vindicia, 1677, p. 10.

Pauper videri Cinna vult, et est pauper.

He affects plainness, to cover his want of imagination; when he writes the serious way, the highest flight of his fancy is some miserable antithesis or seeming contradiction; and in the comic, he is still reaching at some thin conceit, the ghost of a jest, and that too flies before him, never to be caught. These swallows which we see before us on the Thames, are the just resemblance of his wit; you may observe how near the water they stoop, how many proffers they make to dip, and yet how seldom they touch it; and when they do, 'tis but the surface: they skim over it but to catch a gnat, and then mount into the air and leave it.-Well, gentlemen, said Eugenius, you may speak your pleasure of these authors; but though I and some few more about

• This was an absurd and cruel doctrine of the English lawyers of the time, who had begun to disbelieve in witchcraft, and were yet willing to justify the execution of witches. One of them says, that if a man firmly believes that, by whirling his hat round his head, and crying bo, he could occasion the death of an enemy, he becomes, by performing that ceremony, guilty of murder, Observe that, unless in virtue of special statute, he could not be capitally punished, if, instead of this whimsical device, he had actually fired a gun, and missed the person he aimed at.

the town may give you a peaceable hearing, yet assure yourselves, there are multitudes who would think you malicious, and them injured; especially him whom you first described. He is the very Withers of the city:* they have bought more editions of his works than would serve to lay under all their pies at the Lord Mayor's Christmas. When his famous poem first came out in the year 1660,† I have seen them reading it in the midst of change-time; nay, so vehement they were at it, that they lost their bargain by the candies' ends. But what will you say if he has been received amongst great persons? I can assure you he is, this day, the envy of one, who is lord in the art of quibbling; and who does not take it well, that any man should intrude so far into his province. All I would wish, replied Crites, is, that they who love his writings, may still admire him, and his fellow poet : Qui Bavium non odit, &c. is curse sufficient. And farther, added Lisideius, I believe there is no man who writes well, but would think he had hard measure, if their admirers should praise any thing of his Nam quos contemnimus, eorum quoque laudes contemnimus. There are so few who write well in this age, said Crites, that methinks any praises should be welcome; they neither rise to the dignity of the last age, nor to any of the ancients and we may cry out of the writers of this time, with more reason than Petronius of his, Pace vestra liceat dixisse, primi omnium eloquentiam perdidistis: you have debauched the true old poetry so far, that nature, which is the soul of it, is not in any of your writings.

If your quarrel (said Eugenius) to those who now write, be grounded only on your reverence to antiquity, there is no man more ready to adore those great Greeks and Romans than I am: but, on the other side, I cannot think so contemptibly of the age in which I live, or so dishonourably of my own country, as not to judge we equal the ancients in most kinds of poesy, and in some surpass them; neither know I any reason why I may not be as zealous for the reputation of our age, as we find the ancients themselves were in reverence to those who lived before them. For you hear your Horace saying

Indignor quidquam reprehendi, non quia crassa Compositum, illepidè ve putetur, sed quia nuper. And after,

Si meliora dies, ut vina, poemata reddit,
Scire velim, pretium chartis quotus arroget annus ?
But I see I am engaging in a wide dispute,

A voluminous author of the reign of Charles I. The Iter Boreale.

One mode of sale by auction.

where the arguments are not like to reach close on either side; for poesy is of so large an extent, and so many, both of the ancients and moderns, have done well in all kinds of it, that in citing one against the other, we shall take up more time this evening, than each man's occasions will allow him: therefore I would ask Crites to what part of poesy he would confine his arguments, and whether he would defend the general cause of the ancients against the moderns, or oppose any age of the moderns against this of ours.

Crites, a little while considering upon this demand, told Eugenius, that if he pleased he would limit their dispute to Dramatic Poesy; in which he thought it not difficult to prove, either that the ancients were superior to the moderns, or the last age to this of ours.*

Eugenius was somewhat surprised when he heard Crites make choice of that subject. For aught I see, said he, I have undertaken a harder province than I imagined; for, though I never judged the plays of the Greek or Roman poets comparable to ours, yet, on the other side, those we now see acted come short of many which were written in the last age. But my comfort is, if we are overcome, it will be only by our own countrymen; and if we yield to them in this one part of poesy, we more than surpass them in all the other; for in the epic or lyric way, it will be hard for them to show us one such amongst them, as we have many now living, or who lately were. They can produce nothing so courtly writ, or which expresses so much the conversation of a gentleman, as Sir John Suckling; nothing so even, sweet, and flowing, as Mr. Waller; nothing so majestic, so correct, as Sir John Denham; nothing so elevated, so copious, and full of spirit, as Mr. Cowley. As for the Italian, French, and Spanish plays, I can make evident, that those who now write, surpass them; and that the drama is wholly ours.

All of them were thus far of Eugenius his opinion, that the sweetness of English verse was never understood or practised by our fathers; even Crites himself did not much oppose it: and every one was willing to acknowledge how much our poesy is improved, by the happiness of some writers yet living; who first taught us to mould our thoughts into easy and signifi

If Crites be really Sir Robert Howard, as there is every reason to believe, Dryden heré represents him as supporting a point which he gives up in his preface; for he censures both the plots and diction of the ancients, and concludes that, upon Horace's rules, "our English plays may justly challenge the pre-eminence." See preface to his Plays in folio,


cant words, to retrench the superfluities of expression, and to make our rhyme so properly a part of the verse, that it should never mislead the sense, but itself be led and governed by it.

Eugenius was going to continue this discourse, when Lisideius told him, that it was necessary, before they proceeded further, to take a standing measure of their controversy; for how was it possible to be decided, who wrote the best plays, before we know what a play should be? but, this once agreed on by both parties, each might have recourse to it, either to prove his own advantages, or to discover the failings of his adversary.

He had no sooner said this, but all desired the favour of him to give the definition of a play; and they were the more importunate, because neither Aristotle nor Horace, nor any other who had writ of that subject, had ever done it.

Lisideius, after some modest denials, at last confessed he had a rude notion of it; indeed rather a description than a definition; but which served to guide him in his private thoughts, when he was to make a judgment of what others writ: that he conceived a play ought to be, "A just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind."

This definition (though Crites raised a logical objection against it-that it was only à genere et fine, and so not altogether perfect) was yet well received by the rest: and after they had given order to the watermen to turn their barge, and row softly, that they might take the cool of the evening in their return, Crites being desired by the company to begin, spoke on behalf of the ancients in this manner :

If confidence presage a victory, Eugenius, in his own opinion, has already triumphed over the ancients: nothing seems more easy to him, than to overcome those whom it is our greatest praise to have imitated well; for we do not only build upon their foundations, but by their models. Dramatic Poesy had time enough, reckoning from Thespis (who first invented it) to Aristophanes, to be born, to grow up, and to flourish in maturity. It has been observed of arts and sciences, that in one and the same century they have arrived to great perfection; and no wonder, since every age has a kind of universal genius, which inclines those that live in it to some particular studies: the work then being pushed on by many hands, must of necessity go forward.

Is it not evident, in these last hundred years, (when the study of philosophy has been the business of all the virtuosi in Christendom)

that almost a new nature has been revealed to us? that more errors of the school have been detected, more useful experiments in philosophy have been made, more noble secrets in optics, medicine, anatomy, astronomy, discovered, than in all those credulous and doting ages from Aristotle to us?-so true it is, that nothing spreads more fast than science, when rightly and generally cultivated.

Add to this, the more than common emulation that was in those times of writing well; which, though it be found in all ages, and all persons that pretend to the same reputation, yet poesy being then in more esteem than now it is, had greater honours decreed to the professors of it, and consequently the rivalship was more high between them. They had judges ordained to decide their merit, and prizes to reward it: and historians have been diligent to record of Æschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Lycophron, and the rest of them, both who they were that vanquished in these wars of the Theatre, and how often they were crowned; while the Asian kings and Grecian commonwealths scarce afforded them a nobler subject, than the unmanly luxuries of a debauched court, or giddy intrigues of a factious city:—Alit æmulatio ingenia, (says Paterculus,) et nunc invidia, nunc admiratio incitationem accendit: Emulation is the spur of wit; and sometimes envy, sometimes admiration, quickens our endeavours.

But now since the rewards of honour are taken away, that virtuous emulation is turned into direct malice; yet so slothful, that it contents itself to condemn and cry down others, without attempting to do better: 'tis a reputation too unprofitable, to take the necessary pains for it; yet wishing they had it, that desire is incitement enough to hinder others from it. And this, in short, Eugenius, is the reason, why you have now so few good poets, and so many severe judges. Certainly, to imitate the ancients well, much labour and long study is required; which pains, I have already shown, our poets would want encouragement to take, if yet they had ability to go through the work. Those ancients have been faithful imitators, and wise observers of that nature which is so torn and ill represented in our plays; they have handed down to us a perfect resemblance of her, which we, like ill copiers, neglecting to look on, have rendered monstrous and disfigured. But, that you may know how much you are indebted to those your masters, and be ashamed to have so ill requited them, I must remember you, that all the rules by which we practise the drama at this day, (either such as relate to the justness and symmetry of the plot, or the episodical orna

« EelmineJätka »