Page images
PDF
EPUB

BOOK II. EPISTLE I.

Advertisement. The reflections of Horace, and the judgments passed in his

epistle to Augustus, seemed so seasonable to the present times, that I could not help applying them to the use of my own country. The author thought them considerable enough to address them to his prince, whom he paints with all the great and good qualities of a monarch upon whom the Romans depended for the increase of an absolute empire : but to make the poem entirely English, I was willing to add one or two of those which contribute to the happiness of a free people, and are more consistent

with the welfare of our neighbours. This epistle will show the learned world to have fallen into

two mistakes: one, that Augustus was a patron of poets in general ; whereas he not only prohibited all but the best writers to name him, but recommended that care even to the civil magistrate ; Admonebat prætores, ne paterentur nomen suum obsolefieri, &c.; the other, that this piece was only a general discourse of poetry; whereas it was an apology for the poets, in order to render Augustus more their patron. Horace here pleads the cause of his contemporaries; first, against the taste of the town, whose humour it was to magnify the authors of the preceding age; secondly, against the court and nobility, who encouraged only the writers for the theatre; and, lastly, against the emperor himself, who had conceived them of little use to the government. He shows (by a view of the progress of learning, and the change of taste among the Romans,) that the introduction of the polite arts of Greece had given the writers of his time great advantages over their predecessors; that their morals were much improved, and the license of those ancient poets restrained; that satire and comedy were become more just and useful; that whatever extravagances were left on the stage were owing to the ill taste of the nobility; that poets, under due regulations, were in many respects useful to the state ; and conclades,

4

that it was upon them the emperor himself must depend

for his fame with posterity. We may further learn from this epistle, that Horace made his

court to this great prince, by writing with a decent freedom towards him, with a just contempt of his low flatterers, and with a manly regard to his own character.

a

To Augustus.
WHILE you, great patron of mankind ! sustain
The balanced world, and open all the main ;
Your country, chief in arms, abroad defend,
At home with morals, arts, and laws amend ;
How shall the Muse, from such a monarch, steal
An hour, and not defraud the public weal?

Edward and Henry, now the boast of fame,
And virtuous Alfred, a more sacred name,
After a life of generous toils endured,
The Gaul subdued, or property secured,
Ambition humbled, mighty cities storm'd,
Or laws establish'd, and the world reform'd;
Closed their long glories with a sigh, to find
The' unwilling gratitude of base mankind !
All human virtue, to its latest breath,
Finds envy never conquer'd but by Death.
The great Alcides, every labour past,
Had still this monster to subdue at last:
Sure fate of all, beneath whose rising ray
Each star of meaner merit fades away!
Oppress'd we feel the beam directly beat;
Those suns of glory please not till they set.

To these the world its present homage pays,
The harvest early, but mature the praise:
Great friend of liberty! in kings a name
Above all Greek, above all Roman fame;

Whose word is truth, as sacred and revered
As Heaven's own oracles from altars heard.
Wonder of kings ! like whom, to mortal eyes,
None e'er has risen, and none e'er shall rise.

Just in one instance, be it yet confess'd
Your people, sir, are partial in the rest;
Foes to all living worth, except your own,
And advocates for folly dead and gone.
Authors, like coins, grow dear as they grow old;
It is the rust we value, not the gold.
Chaucer's worst ribaldry is learn'd by rote,
And beastly Skelton heads of houses quote.
One likes no language but the Faery Queene;
A Scot will fight for Christ's Kirk o'the Green;
And each true Briton is to Ben so civil,
He swears the Muses met him at the Devil.

Though justly Greece her eldest sons admires, Why should not we be wiser than our sires ? In every public virtue we excel, We build, we paint, we sing, we dance, as well; And learned Athens to our art must stoop, Could she behold us tumbling through a hoop.

If time improve our wit as well as wine, Say at what age a poet grows divine ? Shall we, or shall we not, account him so Who died, perhaps, a hundred years ago ? End all dispute; and fix the year precise When British bards began to' immortalize?

• Who lasts a century can have no flaw; I hold that wit a classic, good in law.' Suppose he wants a year,

you compound? And shall we deem him ancient, right, and sound, Or damn to all eternity at once At ninety-nine a modern and a dunce ?

will

a

• We shall not quarrel for a year or two; By courtesy of England he may do.'

Then by the rule that made the horse-tail bare, I pluck out year by year, as hair by hair, And melt down ancients like a heap of snow, While you, to measure merits, look in Stowe, And estimating authors by the year, Bestow a garland only on a bier.

Shakspeare (whom you and every playhouse bill Style the divine! the matchless! what you will,) For gain, not glory, wing’d his roving flight, And grew immortal in his own despite. Ben, old and poor, as little seem'd to heed The life to come in every poet's creed, Who now reads Cowley? if he pleases yet, His moral pleases, not his pointed wit: Forgot his Epic, nay Pindaric art, But still I love the language of his heart.

• Yet surely, surely these were famous men!
What boy but hears the sayings of old Ben?
In all debates where critics bear a part,
Not one but nods, and talks of Jonson's art,
Of Shakspeare's nature, and of Cowley's wit;
How Beaumont's judgment check'd what Fletcher
How Shadwell hasty, Wycherley was slow; (writ;
But for the passions, Southern, sure, and Rowe!
These, only these, support the crowded stage,
From eldest Heywood down to Cibber's age.'

All this may be; the people's voice is odd;
It is, and it is not, the voice of God.
To Gammer Gurton if it give the bays,
And yet deny the Careless Husband praise,
Or say our fathers never broke a 'rule;
Why then, I say, the public is a fool.

a

a

But let them own that greater faults than we
They had, and greater virtues, I'll agree.
Spenser himself affects the obsolete,
And Sidney's verse halts ill on Roman feet;
Milton's strong pinion now not Heaven can bound,
Now, serpent-like, in prose he sweeps the ground;
In quibbles angel and archangel join,
And God the Father turns a school-divine.
Not that I'd lop the beauties from his book,
Like slashing Bentley with his desperate hook;
Or damn all Shakspeare, like the affected fool
At court, who hates whate'er he read at school.

But for the wits of either Charles's days,
The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease;
Sprat, Carew, Sedley, and a hundred more,
(Like twinkling stars the miscellanies o’er)
One simile that solitary shines
In the dry desert of a thousand lines,
Or lengthen'd thought, that gleams through many
Has sanctified whole poems for an age. [a page,
I lose my patience, and I own it too,
When works are censured, not as bad, but new;
While, if our elders break all reason's laws,
These fools demand not pardon, but applause.

On Avon's bank, where flowers eternal blow, If I but ask if any weed can grow; One tragic sentence if I dare deride, Which Betterton's grave action dignified, Or well-mouth'd Booth with emphasis proclaims, (Though but perhaps a muster-roll of names) How will our fathers rise up in a rage, And swear all shame is lost in George's age ! You'd think no fools disgraced the former reign, Did not some grave examples yet remain,

а

« PreviousContinue »