Page images
[ocr errors]

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 com→ munis.' 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 éditions of Fletcher and Milton's Paradife Loft, from gentlemen of diftinguished abilities and learning. But this interval of good fense, 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 thefe very friends, I fuppofe, would have thought it added luftre to his high ftation, to have newfurnished 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 situation than that for which I now apologize. For I hardly think there ever ap-· peared, in any learned language, fo execrable a heap of nonfenfe, under the name of commentaries, as

[ocr errors]

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 beft 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. Those learned criticks might, and perhaps did, laugh in their turn (though ftill, fure, with the fame indecency and indifcretion,) at that incomparable man, for wearing out a long life in poring through a telefcope. 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 himself, for politenefs, for pretending to be thocked, 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 deathless labours of fuch as these, the western world, at the revival of letters, had foon fallen back again into a ftate 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.

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.



[ocr errors]

THAT 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 thofe, who, being forced by disappointment upon confolatory expedients, are willing to hope from pofterity what the prefent age refufes, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at laft bestowed by time.

Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries

5 First printed in 1765.

that reverence it, not from reafon, but from prejudicé. Some seem 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 past than prefent excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the fhades of age, as the eye furveys the fun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism 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 efteem. What mankind have long poffeffed they have often examined and compared, and if they perfift to value the poffeffion, it is because 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 firft building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined

that it was round or fquare; but whether it was fpacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean fcale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to tranfcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than tranfpofe his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrafe his fentiments.

The reverence due to writings that have long fubfifted arifes therefore not from any credulous confidence in the fuperior wifdom of paft ages, or gloomy perfuafion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the confequence of acknowledged and indubitable pofitions, that what has been longest known has been moft confidered, and what is moft confidered is beft understood.

The poet, of whofe works I have undertaken the revifion, may now begin to affume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of an established fame and preferiptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the teft of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from perfonal allufions, local cuftoms, or temporary opinions, have for many years been loft; and every topick of merriment or motive of forrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obfcure the scenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendfhips and his enmities has perifhed; his works. fupport no opinion with arguments, nor fupply

• "Eft vetus atque probus, centum qui perficit annos." Hor. STEEVENS.

« PreviousContinue »