« PreviousContinue »
fashion have made upon nature and the fimplicity of wisdom. Menage, the greatest name in France for all kinds of philologick learning, prided himself in writing critical notes on their best lyrick poet Malherbe: and our greater Selden, when he thought it might reflect credit on his country, did not difdain even to comment a very ordinary poet, one Michael Drayton. But the English tongue, at this juncture, deferves and demands our particular regard. It hath, by means of the many excellent works of different kinds compofed in it, engaged the notice, and become the study, of almost every curious and learned foreigner, fo as to be thought even a part of literary accomplishment. This must needs make it deferving of a critical attention and its being yet destitute of a test or standard to apply to, in cafes of doubt or difficulty, fhows how much it wants that attention. For we have neither GRAMMAR nor DICTIONARY, neither chart nor compafs, to guide us through this wide fea of words. And indeed how fhould we? fince both are to be compofed and finifhed on the authority of our best established writers. But their authority can be of little ufe, till the text hath been correctly fettled, and the phrafeology critically
our greater Selden, when he thought he might reflect credit on his country, did not difdain to comment a very ordinary poet, one Michael Drayton.] This compliment to himself for condescending to write notes on Shakspeare, Warburton copied from Pope, who facrificed Drayton to gratify the vanity of this flattering editor: "I have a particular reafon (fays Pope in a Letter to Warburton) to make you intereft yourself in me and my writings. It will caufe both them and me to make a better figure to pofterity. A very mediocre poet, one Drayton, is yet taken notice of becaufe Selden writ a few notes on one of his poems." Pope's Works, Vol. IX. p. 350, 8vo. 1751.
examined. As, then, by these aids, a Grammar and Dictionary, planned upon the best rules of logick and philofophy (and none but fuch will deferve the name,) are to be procured; the forwarding of this will be a general concern: for, as Quintilian obferves, "Verborum proprietas ac differentia omnibus, qui fermonem curæ habent, debet effe communis.' By this way, the Italians have brought their tongue to a degree of purity and stability, which no living language ever attained unto before. It is with pleasure I obferve, that these things now begin to be understood among ourselves; and that I can acquaint the publick, we may foon expect very elegant editions of Fletcher and Milton's Paradife Loft, from gentlemen of diftinguifhed abilities and learning. But this interval of good fenfe, as it may be fhort, is indeed but new. For I remember to have heard of a very learned man, who, not long fince, formed a defign, of giving a more correct edition of Spenfer; and, without doubt, would have performed it well; but he was diffuaded from his purpose by his friends, as beneath the dignity of a profeffor of the occult fciences. Yet these very friends, I fuppofe, would have thought it added luftre to his high ftation, to have newfurbished out fome dull northern chronicle, or dark Sibylline ænigma. But let it not be thought that what is here faid infinuates any thing to the difcredit of Greek and Latin criticifm. If the follies of particular men were fufficient to bring any branch of learning into difrepute, I do not know any that would ftand in a worse fituation than that for which I now apologize. For I hardly think there ever appeared, in any learned language, fo execrable a heap of nonfenfe, under the name of commentaries, as
hath been lately given us on a certain fatyrick poet, of the laft age, by his editor and coadjutor.3
I am fenfible how unjustly the very best classical criticks have been treated. It is faid, that our great philofopher 4 fpoke with much contempt of the two fineft fcholars of this age, Dr. Bentley and Bishop Hare, for fquabbling, as he expreffed it, about an old play-book; meaning, I fuppofe, Terence's comedies. But this story is unworthy of him; though well enough fuiting the fanatick turn of the wild writer that relates it; fuch cenfures are amongst the follies of men immoderately given over to one science, and ignorantly undervaluing all the reft. Thofe learned criticks might, and perhaps did, laugh in their turn (though ftill, fure, with the fame indecency and indiscretion,) at that incomparable man, for wearing out a long life in poring through a telescope. Indeed, the weakneffes of fuch are to be mentioned with reverence. But who can bear, without indignation, the fashionable cant of every trifling writer, whofe infipidity paffes, with himfelf, for politenefs, for pretending to be fhocked, forfooth, with the rude and favage air of vulgar criticks; meaning fuch as Muretus, Scaliger, Cafaubon, Salmafius, Spanheim, Bentley! When, had it not been for the deathlefs labours of fuch as thefe, the western world, at the revival of letters, had foon fallen back again into a state of ignorance and barbarity, as deplorable as that from which Providence had juft redeemed it.
3 This alludes to Dr. Grey's edition of Hudibras published in 1744. REED.
4 Sir Ifaac Newton. See Whifton's Hiftorical Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Clarke, 1748, 8vo. p. 113. REED.
To conclude with an obfervation of a fine writer and great philofopher of our own; which I would gladly bind, though with all honour, as a phylactery, on the brow of every awful grammarian, to teach him at once the ufe and limits of his art: WORDS ARE THE MONEY OF FOOLS, AND THE COUNTERS OF WISE MEN.
HAT praises are without reafon lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by thofe, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the herefies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon confolatory expedients, are willing to hope from pofterity what the present age refufes, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries
s First printed in 1765.
that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some feem to admire indifcriminately whatever has been long preferved, without confidering that time has fometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour paft than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the fhades of age, as the eye surveys the fun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticifm is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living, we estimate his powers by his worft performance; and when he is dead, we rate them by his best.
To works, however, of which the excellence is not abfolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonftrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to obfervation and experience, no other teft can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long poffeffed they have often examined and compared, and if they perfift to value the poffeffion, it is becaufe frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains, and many rivers; fo in the production of genius, nothing can be ftyled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the fame kind. Demonftration immediately difplays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is difcovered in a long fucceffion of endeavours. Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined