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THE RIGHT HONOURABLE
EARL OF CHESTERFIELD, &c.*
have too much injured my great author, to ex-
I CANNOT begin my address to your lordship translated him; but, according to the literal better than in the words of Virgil:
French and Italian phrases, I fear I have traduced him. It is the fault of many a well-meaning man, to be officious in a wrong place, and do a prejudice where he had endeavoured to do a service. Virgil wrote his Georgics in the full strength and vigour of his age, when his judgment was at the height, and before his fancy was declining. He had (according to our homely saying) his full swing at this poem, beginning it about the age of thirty-five, and scarce concluding it before he arrived at forty. It is observed, both of him and Horace, (and I believe it will hold in all great poets,) that, though they wrote before with a certain heat of genius which inspired them, yet that heat was not perfectly digested. There is required a continuance of warmth, to ripen the best and noblest fruits. Thus Horace, in his First and Second Book of Odes, was still rising, but came not to his meridian till the Third; after which, his judgment was an overpoise to his imagination: he grew too cautious to be bold enough; for he descended in his Fourth by slow degrees, and, in his Satires and Epistles, was more a philosopher and a critic than a poet. In the beginning of summer, the days are almost at a stand, with little variation of length or shortness, because at that time the diurnal motion of the sun partakes more of a right line than of a spiral. The same is the method of nature in the frame of man. He seems at forty to be fully in his summer tropic; somewhat before, and
Quod optanti divûm promittere nemo Auderet, volvenda dies, en, attulit ultro.
Seven years together I have concealed the longing which I had to appear before you: a time as tedious as Eneas passed in his wandering voyage, before he reached the promised Italy. But I considered, that nothing which my meanness could produce was worthy of your patronage. At last this happy occasion offered, of presenting to you the best poem of the best poet. If I balked this opportunity, I was in despair of finding such another; and, if I took it, I was still uncertain whether you would vouchsafe to accept it from my hands. It was a bold venture which I made, in desiring your permission to lay my unworthy labours at your feet. But my rashness has succeeded beyond my hopes; and you have been pleased not to suffer an old man to go discontented out of the world, for want of that protection, of which he had been so long ambitious. I have known a gentleman in disgrace, and not daring to appear before King Charles the Second, though he much desired it: at length he took the confidence to attend a fair lady to the court, and told his majesty, that, under her protection, he had presumed to wait on him. With the same humble confidence, I present myself before your lordship, and, attending on Virgil, hope a gracious reception. The gentleman succeeded, because the powerful lady was his friend; but I
Philip Stanhope, second Earl of Chesterfield, born in 1634. He was a man of considerable talent and political activity; was active in forwarding the Restoration; and enjoyed at the court of Charles II. several offices, but was now retired. He died in 1713.
somewhat after, he finds in his soul but small increases or decays. From fifty to three-score, the balance generally holds even, in our colder climates: for he loses not much in fancy; and judgment, which is the effect of observation, still increases. His succeeding years afford him little more than the stubble of his own harvest yet, if his constitution be healthful, his mind may still retain a decent vigour; and the gleanings of that Ephraim, in comparison with others, will surpass the vintage of Abiezer. I have called this somewhere, by a bold metaphor, a green old age; but Virgil has given me his authority for the figure
Jam senior; sed cruda Deo, viridisque senectus. Among those few who enjoy the advantage of a latter spring, your lordship is a rare example; who, being now arrived at your great climacteric, yet give no proof of the least decay of your excellent judgment and comprehension of all things which are within the compass of human understanding. Your conversation is as easy as it is instructive; and I could never observe the least vanity, or the least assuming, in any thing you said, but a natural unaffected modesty, full of good sense, and well digested; a clearness of notion, expressed in ready and unstudied words. No man has complained, or even can, that you have discoursed too long on any subject; for you leave us in an eagerness of learning more; pleased with what we hear, but not satisfied, because you will not speak so much as we could wish. I dare not excuse your lordship from this fault; for, though it is none in you, it is one to all who have the happiness of being known to you. I must confess, the critics make it one of Virgil's beauties, that, having said what he thought convenient, he always left somewhat for the imagination of his readers to supply; that they might gratify their fancies, by finding more in what he had written, than at first they could; and think they had addded to his thought, when it was all there beforehand, and he only saved himself the expense of words. However it was, I never went from your lordship, but with a longing to return, or without a hearty curse to him who invented ceremonies in the world, and put me on the necessity of withdrawing, when it was my interest, as well as my desire, to have given you a much longer trouble. I cannot imagine, (if your lordship will give me leave to speak my thoughts,) but you have had a more than ordinary vigour in your youth; for too much of heat is required at first, that there may not too little be left at last. A prodigal fire is only capable of large remains; and yours, my lord, still burns
the clearer in declining. The blaze is not so fierce as at the first; but the smoke is wholly vanished; and your friends, who stand about you, are not only sensible of a cheerful warmth, but are kept at an awful distance by its force. In my small observations of mankind, I have ever found, that such as are not rather too full of spirit when they are young, degenerate to dulness in their age. Sobriety in our riper years is the effect of a well-concocted warmth: but, where the principles are only phlegm, what can be expected from the waterish matter, but an insipid manhood, and a stupid old infancy— discretion in leading-strings, and a confirmed ignorance on crutches? Virgil, in his Third Georgic, when he describes a colt, who promises a courser for the race, or for the field of battle, shows him the first to pass the bridge, which trembles under him, and to stem the torrent of the flood. His beginnings must be in rashness -a noble fault; but time and experience will correct that error, and tame it into a deliberate and well-weighed courage, which knows both to be cautious and to dare, as occasion offers. Your lordship is a man of honour, not only so unstained, but so unquestioned, that you are the living standard of that heroic virtue; so truly such, that if I would flatter you, I could not. It takes not from you, that you were born with principles of generosity and probity; but it adds to you, that you have cultivated nature, and made those principles the rule and measure of all your actions. The world knows this, without my telling; yet poets have a right of recording it to all posterity:
Dignum laude virum Musa vetat mori. Epaminondas, Lucullus, and the two first Cæsars, were not esteemed the worse commanders, for having made philosophy and the liberal arts their study. Cicero might have been their equal, but that he wanted courage. To have both these virtues, and to have improved them both with a softness of manners and a sweetness of conversation-few of our nobility can fill that character. One there is, and so conspicuous by his own light, that he needs not
Digito monstrari, et dicier, "Hic est !"
To be nobly born, and of an ancient family, is in the extremes of fortune, either good or bad; for virtue and descent are no inheritance. A long series of ancestors shows the native with great advantage at the first; but, if he any way degenerate from his line, the least spot is visible on ermine. But, to preserve this whiteness in its original purity, you, my lord, have, like that ermine, forsaken the common track of busi
ness, which is not always clean: you have chosen for yourself a private greatness, and will not be polluted with ambition. It has been observed in former times, that none have been so greedy of employments, and of managing the public, as they who have least deserved their stations. But such only merit to be called patriots, under whom we see their country flourish. I have laughed sometimes, (for who would always be a Heraclitus?) when I have reflected on those men, who from time to time have shot themselves into the world. I have seen many successions of them; some bolting out upon the stage with vast applause, and others hissed off, and quitting it with disgrace. But, while they were in action, I have constantly observed, that they seemed desirous to retreat from business: greatness, they said, was nauseous, and a crowd was troublesome: a quiet privacy was their ambition. Some few of them, I believe, said this in earnest, and were making a provision against future want, that they might enjoy their age with ease. They saw the happiness of a private life, and promised to themselves a blessing, which every day it was in their power to possess. But they deferred it, and lingered still at court, because they thought they had not yet enough to make them happy: they would have more, and laid in, to make their solitude luxurious: - a wretched philosophy, which Epicurus never taught them in his garden. They loved the prospect of this quiet in reversion, but were not willing to have it in possession: they would first be old, and make as sure of health and life, as if both of them were at their dispose. But put them to the necessity of a present choice, and they preferred continuance in power; like the wretch who called Death to his assistance, but refused him when he came. The great Scipio was not of their opinion, who indeed sought honours in his youth, and endured the fatigues with which he purchased them. He served his country when it was in need of his courage and conduct, till he thought it was time to serve himself; but dismounted from the saddle when he found the beast which bore him began to grow restiff and ungovernable. But your lordship has given us a better example of moderation. You saw betimes, that ingratitude is not confined to commonwealths; and therefore, though you were formed alike for the greatest of civil employments and military commands, yet you pushed not your fortune to rise in either, but contented yourself with being capable, as much as any whosoever, of defending your country with your sword, or assisting it with your counsel, when
you were called.* For the rest, the respect and love which was paid you, not only in the province where you live, but generally by all who had the happiness to know you, was a wise exchange for the honours of the court-a place of forgetfulness, at the best, for well-deservers. It is necessary, for the polishing of manners, to have breathed that air; but it is infectious, even to the best morals, to live always in it. It is a dangerous commerce, where an honest man is sure at the first of being cheated, and he recovers not his losses, but by learning to cheat others. The undermining smile becomes at length habitual; and the drift of his plausible conversation is only to flatter one, that he may betray another. Yet it is good to have been a looker on, without venturing to play; that a man may know false dice another time, though he never means to use them. I commend not him who never knew a court, but him who forsakes it because he knows it. A young man deserves no praise, who, out of melancholy zeal, leaves the world before he has well tried it, and runs headlong into religion. He who carries a maidenhead into a cloister, is sometimes apt to lose it there, and to repent of his repentance. He only is like to endure austerities, who has already found the inconvenience of pleasures: for almost every man will be making experiments in one part or another of his life; and the danger is the less when we are young; for, having tried it early, we shall not be apt to repeat it afterwards. Your lordship therefore may properly be said to have chosen a retreat, and not to have chosen it till you had maturely weighed the advantages of rising higher, with the hazards of the fall.
Res, non parta labore, sed relicta, was thought by a poet to be one of the requisites to a happy life. Why should a reasonable man put it into the power of Fortune to make him miserable, when his ancestors have taken care to release him from her? Let him venture, says Horace, qui zonam perdidit. He, who has nothing, plays securely; for he may win, and cannot be poorer if he loses: but he who is born to a plentiful estate, and is ambitious of offices at court, sets a stake to Fortune, which she can seldom answer. If he gains nothing, he loses all, or part of what was once his own; and, if he gets, he cannot be certain but he may refund.
*Dryden's praise, though often hyperbolical, is always founded on some circumstances appropriate to its object. Lord Chesterfield, who had enjoyed offices of honour at the court of Charles II., now lived in retirement at an elegant villa, according to Mr. Malone, near Twickenham.