Damnant quod non intelligunt. CIC.
They condemn what they do not understand.
Euripides, having presented Socrates with the writings of Heraclitus, a philosopher famed for involution and obscurity, inquired afterwards his opinion of their merit. “What I understand,” said Socrates, “I find to be excellent; and, therefore, believe that to be of equal value which I cannot understand.”
The reflection of every man who reads this passage will suggest to him the difference between the practice of Socrates, and that of modern criticks: Socrates, who had, by long observation upon himself and others, discovered the weakness of the strongest, and the dimness of the most enlightened intellect, was afraid to decide hastily in his own favour, or to conclude that an author had written without meaning, because he could not immediately catch his ideas; he knew that the faults of books are often more justly imputable to the reader, who sometimes wants attention, and sometimes penetration; whose understanding is often obstructed by prejudice, and often dissipated by remissness; who comes sometimes to a new study, unfurnished with knowledge previously necessary; and finds difficulties insuperable, for want of ardour sufficient to encounter them.
Obscurity and clearness are relative terms: to some readers scarce any book is easy, to others not many are difficult: and surely they, whom neither any exuberant praise bestowed by others, nor any eminent conquests over stubborn problems, have entitled to exalt themselves above the common orders of mankind, might condescend to imitate the candour of Socrates; and where they find incontestable proofs of superior genius, be content to think that there is justness in the connexion which they cannot trace, and cogency in the reasoning which they cannot comprehend.
This diffidence is never more reasonable than in the perusal of the authors of antiquity; of those whose works have been the delight of ages, and transmitted as the great inheritance of mankind from one generation to another: surely, no man can, without the utmost arrogance, imagine that he brings any superiority of understanding to the perusal of these books which have been preserved in the devastation of cities, and snatched up from the wreck of nations; which those who fled before barbarians have been careful to carry off in the hurry of migration, and of which barbarians have repented the destruction. If in books thus made venerable by the uniform attestation of successive ages, any passages shall appear unworthy of that praise which they have formerly received, let us not immediately determine, that they owed their reputation to dulness or bigotry; but suspect at least that our ancestors had some reasons for their opinions, and that our ignorance of those reasons makes us differ from them.
It often happens that an author’s reputation is endangered in succeeding times, by that which raised the loudest applause among his contemporaries: nothing is read with greater pleasure than allusions to recent facts, reigning opinions, or present controversies; but when facts are forgotten, and controversies extinguished, these favourite touches lose all their graces; and the author in his descent to posterity must be left to the mercy of chance, without any power of ascertaining the memory of those things, to which he owed his luckiest thoughts and his kindest reception.
On such occasions, every reader should remember the diffidence of Socrates, and repair by his candour the injuries of time: he should impute the seeming defects of his author to some chasm of intelligence, and suppose that the sense which is now weak was once forcible, and the expression which is now dubious formerly determinate.
How much the mutilation of ancient history has taken away from the beauty of poetical performances, may be conjectured from the light which a lucky commentator sometimes effuses, by the recovery of an incident that had been long forgotten: thus, in the third book of Horace, Juno’s denunciations against, those that should presume to raise again the walls of Troy, could for many ages please only by splendid images and swelling language, of which no man discovered the use or propriety, till Le Fevre, by showing on what occasion the Ode was written, changed wonder to rational delight. Many passages yet undoubtedly remain in the same author, which an exacter knowledge of the incidents of his time would clear from objections. Among these I have always numbered the following lines:
Aurum per medios ire satellites,
Et perrumpere amat saxa, potentius
Ictu fulmineo. Concidit auguris
Argivi domus ob lucrum
Demersa exitio. Diffidit urbium
Portas vir Macedo, et subruit aemulos
Regis muneribus: Munera navium
Saevos illaqueant duces. HOR. Lib. iii. Ode xvi. 9.
Stronger than thunder’s winged force,
All-powerful gold can spread its course,
Thro’ watchful guards its passage make,
And loves thro’ solid walls to break:
From gold the overwhelming woes
That crush’d the Grecian augur rose:
Philip with gold thro’ cities broke,
And rival monarchs felt his yoke;
Captains of ships to gold are slaves,
Tho’ fierce as their own winds and waves. FRANCIS.
The close of this passage, by which every reader is now disappointed and offended, was probably the delight of the Roman Court: it cannot be imagined, that Horace, after having given to gold the force of thunder, and told of its power to storm cities and to conquer kings, would have concluded his account of its efficacy with its influence over naval commanders, had he not alluded to some fact then current in the mouths of men, and therefore more interesting for a time than the conquests of Philip. Of the like kind may be reckoned another stanza in the same book:
—Jussa coram non sine conscio
Surgit marito, seu vocat institor,
Seu navis Hispanae magister,
Dedecorum pretiosus emptor. HOR. Lib. iii. Ode. vi. 29.
The conscious husband bids her rise,
When some rich factor courts her charms,
Who calls the wanton to his arms,
And, prodigal of wealth and fame,
Profusely buys the costly shame. FRANCIS.
He has little knowledge of Horace who imagines that the factor, or the Spanish merchant, are mentioned by chance: there was undoubtedly some popular story of an intrigue, which those names recalled to the memory of his reader.
The flame of his genius in other parts, though somewhat dimmed by time, is not totally eclipsed; his address and judgment yet appear, though much of the spirit and vigour of his sentiment is lost: this has happened in the twentieth Ode of the first book:
Vile potabis modicis Sabinum
Cantharis, Graecâ quod ego ipse testâ
Conditum levi, datus in theatro
Cum tibi plausus,
Care Maecenas eques: ut paterni
Fluminis ripae, simul et jocosa
Redderet laudes tibi Vaticani
A poet’s beverage humbly cheap,
(Should great Maecenas be my guest,)
The vintage of the Sabine grape,
But yet in sober cups shall crown the feast:
‘Twas rack’d into a Grecian cask,
Its rougher juice to melt away;
I seal’d it too—a pleasing task!
With annual joy to mark the glorious day,
When in applausive shouts thy name
Spread from the theatre around,
Floating on thy own Tiber’s stream,
And Echo, playful nymph, return’d the sound. FRANCIS.
We here easily remark the intertexture of a happy compliment with an humble invitation; but certainly are less delighted than those, to whom the mention of the applause bestowed upon Maecenas, gave occasion to recount the actions or words that produced it.
Two lines which have exercised the ingenuity of modern criticks, may, I think, be reconciled to the judgment, by an easy supposition: Horace thus addresses Agrippa:
Scriberis Vario fortis, et hostium Victor, Maeonii carminis alite. HOR. Lib. i. Ode vi. 1.
Varius, a swan of Homer’s wing,
Shall brave Agrippa’s conquests sing.
That Varius should be called “A bird of Homeric song,” appears so harsh to modern ears, that an emendation of the text has been proposed: but surely the learning of the ancients had been long ago obliterated, had every man thought himself at liberty to corrupt the lines which he did not understand. If we imagine that Varius had been by any of his contemporaries celebrated under the appellation ofMusarum ales, “the swan of the Muses,” the language of Horace becomes graceful and familiar; and that such a compliment was at least possible, we know from the transformation feigned by Horace of himself.
The most elegant compliment that was paid to Addison, is of this obscure and perishable kind;
When panting Virtue her last efforts made,
You brought your Clio to the virgin’s aid.
These lines must please as long as they are understood; but can be understood only by those that have observed Addison’s signatures in the Spectator.
The nicety of these minute allusions I shall exemplify by another instance, which I take this occasion to mention, because, as I am told, the commentators have omitted it. Tibullus addressed Cynthia in this manner:
Te spectem, suprema mihi cum venerit hora,
Te teneam moriens deficiente manu. Lib. i. El. i. 73.
Before my closing eyes dear Cynthia stand,
Held weakly by my fainting trembling hand.
To these lines Ovid thus refers in his Elegy on the death of Tibullus:
Cynthia discedens, Felicius, inquit, amata
Sum tibi; vixisti dum tuus ignis eram.
Cui Nemesis, quid, ait, tibi sint mea damna dolori?
Me tenuit moriens deficiente manu. Am. Lib. in. El. ix. 56.
Blest was my reign, retiring Cynthia cry’d;
Not till he left my breast, Tibullus dy’d.
Forbear, said Nemesis, my loss to moan,
The fainting trembling hand was mine alone.
The beauty of this passage, which consists in the appropriation made by Nemesis of the line originally directed to Cynthia, had been wholly imperceptible to succeeding ages, had chance, which has destroyed so many greater volumes, deprived us likewise of the poems of Tibullus.