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ON POSTHUMOUS PUBLICATIONS.
I ESTEEM myself less prejudiced by the publication of a bad work in my name which I never composed, than by the publication of some things of mine without my consent or knowledge, and those so mangled and imperfect that I could neither with honour acknowledge, nor with honesty quite disavow them.
From that which has happened to myself I began to reflect on the fortune of almost all writers, and especially poets, whose works (commonly printed after their death,) we find stuffed out either with counterfeit pieces, like false money put in to fill up the bag, though it add nothing
to the sum; or with such, which, though of their own coin, they would have called in themselves, for the baseness of the alloy. Whether this proceeds from the indiscretion of their friends, who think a vast heap of stones and rubbish a better monument than a little tomb of marble, or by the unworthy avarice of some stationers, who are content to diminish the value of the author, so they may increase the value of the book; and like vintners, with sophisticated mixtures, spoil the whole vessel of wine, to make it yield more profit.
This has been the case with Shakespear, Fletcher, Jonson, and many others; part of whose poems I should take the boldness to prune and lop away, if the care of regulating them did belong to me. Neither would I make any scruple to cut off from some the unnecessary young suckers, and from others the old withered branches. For a great wit is no more tied down to live in a vast volume, than in a gigantic body; on the contrary it is generally more vigorous, the less space it animates. And as Statius says of little Tydeus,
Totos infusa per artus
Whose little body lodged a mighty mind.
I am not ignorant that by saying this of others,
I expose myself to some raillery for not using the same severe discretion in my own case, where it concerns me nearer. But although I have published more than in strict wisdom I ought to have done, yet I have suppressed and cast away more than I have published; and for the ease of myself and others, have lost I believe more than both. Upon these considerations I have been persuaded overcome all the just repugnances of my own modesty, and to produce my poems to the light and view of the world, not as a thing I approved of in itself, but as a less evil; which I chose rather than to stay till it was done for me by somebody else, either surreptitiously before, or avowedly after my death: and this will be more excusable, when the reader shall know in what respects he may look upon me as dead, or at least a dying person, and upon my muse in this action, as appearing like the emperor Charles the Fifth, and assisting at her own funeral.
To make myself absolutely dead in a poetical capacity, my resolution at present is, never to exercise any more that faculty. It is, I confess, but seldom seen that the poet dies before the man, for when we once fall in love with that bewitching art, we do not use to court it as a mistress, but marry it as a wife, and take it for better for worse, as an inseparable companion of our whole
life. But as the marriages of infants do but rarely prosper, so no man ought to wonder at the diminution or decay of my affections to poesy, to which I had contracted myself so much under age, and so much to my own prejudice in regard to those more profitable matches, which I might have made among the richer sciences. As for the portion which this brings of fame, it is an estate (if it be any, for men are not oftener deceived in their hopes of widows, than in their opinion of Exegi monumentum ære perennius") that hardly ever comes in, while we are living to enjoy it, but is a fantastical kind of reversion to our own selves; neither ought any man to envy poets this posthumous and imaginary happiness, since they find commonly so little in present, that it may be truly applied to them, what St. Paul speaks of the first Christians, "If their reward be in this life, they are of all men the most miserable."
And, if in quiet and flourishing times they meet with so small encouragement, what are they to expect in rough and troubled ones! If wit be such a plant, that it scarce receives heat enough to preserve it alive even in the summer of our cold climate, how can it chuse but wither in a long and sharp winter! A warlike, various, and tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in.
Neither is the present constitution of my mind more proper than that of the times for this exercise, or rather diversion. There is nothing that requires so much serenity and cheerfulness of spirit; it must not be either overwhelmed with the cares of life, or overcast with the clouds of melancholy and sorrow, or shaken and disturbed with the storms of injurious fortune; it must, like the halcyon, have fair weather to breed in. The soul must be filled with bright and delightful ideas when it undertakes to communicate delight to others, which is the main end of poesy. One may see through the style of Ovid de Tristibus, the humbled and dejected condition of spirit with which he wrote it; there scarce remains any footstep of that genius, which produced his Metamorphoses, and which he concludes
Jamque opus exegi quod nec Jovis ira, nec ignes, Nec poterunt ferrum, nec edax abolere vetustas, &c.*
The cold of the country had stricken through all his faculties, and benumbed the very feet of his verses. He is himself, methinks, one of the stones of his own Metamorphoses; and though there remains some weak resemblance of Ovid at Rome, it is but, as he says of Niobe,
In vultu color est sine sanguine: lumina moestis,
I have raised a work which neither the wrath of
Jove, nor fire, nor age can destroy.