Grammatici certunt, et adhuc sub judice lis est. HOR. Ar. Poet. 78.
—Criticks yet contend,
And of their vain disputings find no end. FRANCIS.
Criticism, though dignified from the earliest ages by the labours of men eminent for knowledge and sagacity, and, since the revival of polite literature, the favourite study of European scholars, has not yet attained the certainty and stability of science. The rules hitherto received are seldom drawn from any settled principle or self-evident postulate, or adapted to the natural and invariable constitution of things; but will be found, upon examination, the arbitrary edicts of legislators, authorised only by themselves, who, out of various means by which the same end may be attained, selected such as happened to occur to their own reflection, and then, by a law which idleness and timidity were too willing to obey, prohibited new experiments of wit, restrained fancy from the indulgence of her innate inclination to hazard and adventure, and condemned all future flights of genius to pursue the path of the Meonian eagle.
This authority may be more justly opposed, as it is apparently derived from them whom they endeavour to control; for we owe few of the rules of writing to the acuteness of criticks, who have generally no other merit than that, having read the works of great authors with attention, they have observed the arrangement of their matter, or the graces of their expression, and then expected honour and reverence for precepts which they never could have invented; so that practice has introduced rules, rather than rules have directed practice.
For this reason the laws of every species of writing have been settled by the ideas of him who first raised it to reputation, without inquiry whether his performances were not yet susceptible of improvement. The excellencies and faults of celebrated writers have been equally recommended to posterity; and, so far has blind reverence prevailed, that even the number of their books has been thought worthy of imitation.
The imagination of the first authors of lyrick poetry was vehement and rapid, and their knowledge various and extensive. Living in an age when science had been little cultivated, and when the minds of their auditors, not being accustomed to accurate inspection, were easily dazzled by glaring ideas, they applied themselves to instruct, rather by short sentences and striking thoughts, than by regular argumentation; and, finding attention more successfully excited by sudden sallies and unexpected exclamations, than by the more artful and placid beauties of methodical deduction, they loosed their genius to its own course, passed from one sentiment to another without expressing the intermediate ideas, and roved at large over the ideal world with such lightness and agility, that their footsteps are scarcely to be traced.
From this accidental peculiarity of the ancient writers the criticks deduce the rules of lyrick poetry, which they have set free from all the laws by which other compositions are confined, and allow to neglect the niceties of transition, to start into remote digressions, and to wander without restraint from one scene of imagery to another.
A writer of later times has, by the vivacity of his essays, reconciled mankind to the same licentiousness in short dissertations; and he therefore who wants skill to form a plan, or diligence to pursue it, needs only entitle his performance an essay, to acquire the right of heaping together the collections of half his life without order, coherence, or propriety.
In writing, as in life, faults are endured without disgust when they are associated with transcendent merit, and may be sometimes recommended to weak judgments by the lustre which they obtain from their union with excellence; but it is the business of those who presume to superintend the taste or morals of mankind, to separate delusive combinations and distinguish that which may be praised from that which can only be excused. As vices never promote happiness, though, when overpowered by more active and more numerous virtues, they cannot totally destroy it; so confusion and irregularity produce no beauty, though they cannot always obstruct the brightness of genius and learning. To proceed from one truth to another, and connect distant propositions by regular consequences, is the great prerogative of man. Independent and unconnected sentiments flashing upon the mind in quick succession, may, for a time, delight by their novelty, but they differ from systematical reasoning, as single notes from harmony, as glances of lightning from the radiance of the sun.
When rules are thus drawn, rather from precedents than reason, there is danger not only from the faults of an author, but from the errours of those who criticise his works; since they may often mislead their pupils by false representations, as the Ciceronians of the sixteenth century were betrayed into barbarisms by corrupt copies of their darling writer.
It is established at present, that the proemial lines of a poem, in which the general subject is proposed, must be void of glitter and embellishment. “The first lines of Paradise Lost,” says Addison, “are perhaps as plain, simple, and unadorned, as any of the whole poem, in which particular the author has conformed himself to the example of Homer, and the precept of Horace.”
This observation seems to have been made by an implicit adoption of the common opinion, without consideration either of the precept or example. Had Horace been consulted, he would have been found to direct only what should be comprised in the proposition, not how it should be expressed; and to have commended Homer in opposition to a meaner poet, not for the gradual elevation of his diction, but the judicious expansion of his plan; for displaying unpromised events, not for producing unexpected elegancies.
—Specivsa dehinc miracula prouiat;
Antiphaten, Scyllamque, et cum Cyclope Charybdim. Hon. Ar. Poet. 146.
But from a cloud of smoke he breaks to light,
And pours his specious miracles to sight;
Antiphates his hideous feast devours,
Charybdis barks, and Polyphemus roars. FRANCIS.
If the exordial verses of Homer be compared with the rest of the poem, they will not appear remarkable for plainness or simplicity, but rather eminently adorned and illuminated:
Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropon, os mala polla
Plagchthae, epei Troiaes ieron ptoliethron eperse;
Pollon d anthropon iden astea, kai noon egno;
Polla d og en pontps pathen algea on kata thumon,
Arnumenos aen te psuchaen kai noston etairon;
All oud os etarous errusato, iemenos per;
Auton gar spheteraesin atasthaliaesin olonto.
Naepioi, oi kata bous uperionos Aeelioio
Aesthion; autar o toisin apheileto vostimon aemao;
Ton amothen ge, thea, thugater Dios, eipe kai eamin.]
The man, for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,
Long exercised in woes, O muse! resound.
Who, when his arms had wrought the destin’d fall
Of sacred Troy, and raz’d her heav’n-built wall,
Wandering from clime to clime, observant stray’d,
The manners noted, and their states survey’d.
On stormy seas unnumber’d toils he bore,
Safe with his friends to gain his natal shore:
Vain toils! their impious folly dar’d to prey
On herds devoted to the god of day;
The god vindictive doom’d them never more
(Ah! men unbless’d) to touch that natal shore.
O snatch some portion of these acts from fate,
Celestial muse! and to our world relate. POPE.
The first verses of the Iliad are in like manner particularly splendid, and the proposition of the Aeneid closes with dignity and magnificence not often to be found even in the poetry of Virgil.
The intent of the introduction is to raise expectation, and suspend it; something therefore must be discovered, and something concealed; and the poet, while the fertility of his invention is yet unknown, may properly recommend himself by the grace of his language.
He that reveals too much, or promises too little; he that never irritates the intellectual appetite, or that immediately satiates it, equally defeats his own purpose. It is necessary to the pleasure of the reader, that the events should not be anticipated, and how then can his attention be invited, but by grandeur of expression?