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[Written in the Year 1709.]
Introduction. That it is as great a fault to judge ill as to write ill, and a more dangerous one to the public. That a true taste is as rare to be found as a true genius.-That most men are born with some taste, but spoiled by a false education.-The multitude of critics and causes of them.-That we are to study our own taste, and know the limits of it.-Nature the best guide of judgment.Improved by arts and rules, which are but methodized Nature.-Rules derived from the practice of the ancient poets.-That therefore the ancients are necessary to be studied by a critic, particularly Homer and Virgil.--Of licenses, and the use of them by the ancients.-Reverence due to the ancients, and praise of them.
"T13 hard to say if greater want of skill
Appear in writin or in judging ill;
But of the two less dangerous is th' offence
To tire our patience than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once alone himself expose,
- Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own;
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic's share:
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light,
These born to judge, as well as those to write.
Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true;
But are not critics to their judgment too?
Yet if we look more closely, we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind:
Nature affords at least a glimmering light;
The lines, though touch'd but faintly, are drawn
But as the slightest sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill-colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false learning is good sense defac'd;
Some are bewilder'd in the maze of schools,
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools:
In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence:
Each burns alike, who can or cannot write,
Or with a rival's or an eunuch's spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.
If Mævius scribble in Apollo's spite,
There are who judge still worse than he can write.
Some have at first for wits, then poets past;
Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last.
Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,
As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
Those would be witlings, numerous in our isle,
As half-form'd insects on the banks of Nile;
Unfinish'd things, one knows not what to call,
Their generation's so equivocal;
To tell 'em would a hundred tongues require,
Or one vain wit's, that might a hundred tire.
But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic's noble name,
Be sure yourself and your own reach to know,
How far your genius, taste, and learning go:
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.
Nature to all things fix'd the limits fit,
And wisely curb'd proud man's pretending wit.
As on the land while here the ocean gains,
In other parts it leaves wide sanay piains :
Thus in the soul while memory prevails,
The solid pow'r of understanding fails;
Where beams of warm imagination play,
The memory's soft figures melt away.
One science only will one genius fit,
So vast is art, so narrow human wit;
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those confin'd to single parts.
Like kings we lose the conquests gain'd before,
By vain ambition still to make them more;
Each might his several province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.
First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang'd, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test of art.
Art from that fund each just supply provides,
Works without show, and without pomp presides:
In some fair body thus th' informing soul
With spirits feeds, with vigour fills, the whole;
Each motion guides, and every nerve sustains,
Itself unseen, but in th' effects remains.
Some, to whom Heav'n in wit has been profuse, Want as much more to turn it to its use;
For wit and judgment often are at strife,
Though meant each other's aid, like man and wife.
'Tis more to guide than spur the Muses' steed,
Restrain his fury than provoke his speed:
The winged courser, like a generous horse,
Shows most true mettle when you check his course.
Those rules ofold, discover'd not devis'd,
Are nature still, but nature methodiz'd:
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain'd
By the same laws which first herself ordain'd.
Hear how learn'd Greece her useful rules indites,
When to repress and when indulge our flights:
High on Parnassus' top her sons she show'd,
And pointed out those arduous paths they trod;
Held from afar, aloft, th' immortal prize,
And urg'd the rest by equal steps to rise.
Just precepts thus from great examples giv'n,
She drew from them what they deriv'd from Heav'n.
The generous critic fann'd the poet's fire,
And taught the world with reason to admire.
Then Criticism the Muses' handmaid prov'd,
To dress her charms, and make her more belov'd:
But following wits from that intention stray'd;
Who could not win the mistress woo'd the maid;
Against the poets their own arms they turn'd,
Sure to hate most the men from whom they learn'd.
So modern 'pothecaries taught the art
By doctors' bills to play the doctor's part,
Bold in the practice of mistaken rules,
Prescribe, apply, and call their masters fools.
Some on the leaves of ancient authors prey;
Nor time nor moths e'er spoil'd so much as they :
Some drily plain, without invention's aid,
Write dull receipts how poems may be made;
These leave their sense their learning to display,
And those explain the meaning quite away.
You then whose judgment the right course would
Know well each ancient's proper character;
His fable, subject, scope in every page;
Religion, country, genius of his age:
Without all these at once before your eyes,
Cavil you may, but never criticize.
Be Homer's works your study and delight,
Read them by day, and meditate by night:
Thence form your judgment, thence your maxims
And trace the Muses upward to their spring.
Still with itself compar'd, his text peruse;
And let your comment be the Mantuan Muse.
When first young Maro in his boundless mind
A work t' outlast, immortal Rome designed,
Perhaps he seem'd above the critic's law,
And but from nature's fountains scorn to draw:
But when t'examine every part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.
Convinc'd, amaz'd, he checks the bold design,
And rules as strict his labour'd work confine
As if the Stagirite o'erlooked each line.
Learn hence for ancient rulés a just esteem; -
To copy Nature is to copy them.
Some beauties yet no precepts can declare,
For there's a happiness as well as care.
Music resembles poetry; in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach, ~
And which a master-hand alone can reach.
If, where the rules not far enough extend,
(Since rules were made but to promote their end) Some lucky license answer to the full
Th' intent propos'd, that license is a rule. Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take, May boldly deviate from the common track. From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part, And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art, Which, without passing through the judgment gains, "The heart, and all its end at once attains. In prospects thus some objects please our eyes, Which out of nature's common order rise, The shapeless rock, or hanging precipice. Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend, And rise to faults true critics dare not mend; But though the ancients thus their rules invade, (As kings dispense with laws themselves have made) Moderns, beware! or if you must offend Against the precept, ne'er transgress its end; Let it be seldom, and compell'd by need; And have at least the precedent to plead; The critic else proceeds without remorse, Seizes your fanie and puts his laws in force.
I know there are to whose presumptuous thoughts Those freer beauties ev'n in them, seem faults. Some figures monstrous and mis-shap'd appear, Consider'd singly, or beheld too near,
Which, but proportion'd to their light or place,
Due distance reconciles to form and grace.
A prudent chief not always must display
His power's in equal ranks and fair array,
But with th' occasion and the place comply,
Conceal his force, nay seem sometimes to fly.
Those oft are stratagems which errors seem,
Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream.
Still green with bays each ancient altar stands
Above the reach of sacreligious hands,
Secure from flames, from envy's fiercer rage,
Destructive war, and all-involving age.
Sce from each clime the learn'd their incense
Hear in all tongues consenting pæans ring!
In praise so just let every voice be join'd,
And fill the general chorus of mankind.