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I am appointed to act a part in the new tragedy called The Distrest Mother. It is the celebrated grief of Orestes which I am to personate ; but I shall not act it as I ought, for I shall feel it too intimately to be able to utter it. I was last night repeating a paragraph to myself, which I took to be an expression of rage, and in the middle of the sentence there was a stroke of self-pity which quite unmanned me. Be pleased, sir, to print this letter, that when I am oppressed in this manner at such an interval, a certain part of the audience may not think I am out; and I hope, with this allowance, to do it with satisfaction.
* As I was walking the other day in the Park, I saw a gentleman with a very short face; I desire to know whether it was you. Pray inform me as soon as you can, lest I become the most heroic Hecatissa's rival. • Your humble servant to command,
• It is not me you are in love with, for I was very ill, and kept my chamber all that day.
Your most humble servant, T.
No 291. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 1711-12.
-Ubi plura nitent in carmine, non ego paucis
Hor. Ars. Poet. ver. 351.
But in a poem elegantly writ,
I have now considered Milton's Paradise Lost under those four great heads of the fable, the characters, the sentiments, and the language; and have shewn that he excels in general, under each of these heads. I hope that I have made several discoveries which may appear new, even to those who are versed in critical learning. Were I indeed to choose my readers, by whose judgment I would stand or fall, they
should not be such as are acquainted only with the French and Italian critics, but also with the ancient and modern who have written in either of the learned languages. Above all, I would have them well versed in the Greek and Latin poets, without which a man very often fancies that he understands a critic, when in reality he does not comprehend his meaning
It is in criticism as in all other sciences and speculations; one who brings with him any implicit notions and observations, which he has made in his reading of the poets, will find his own reflections methodized and explained, and perhaps several little hints that had passed in his mind, perfected and im
proved in the works of a good critic; whereas one who has not these previous lights is very often an utter stranger to what he reads, and apt to put a wrong interpretation upon it.
Nor is it sufficient that à man, who sets up for a judge in criticism, should have perused the authors above mentioned, unless he has also a clear and logical head. Without this talent he is perpetually puzzled and perplexed amidst his own blunders, mistakes the sense of those he would confute, or, if he chances to think right, does not know how to convey his thoughts to another with clearness and
perspicuity. Aristotle, who was the best critic, was also one of the best logicians that ever appeared in the woild.
Mr. Locke's Essay on Human Understanding would be thought a very odd book for a man to make himself master of, who would get a reputation by critical writings; though at the same time it is very certain, that an author who has not learned the art of distinguishing between words and things, and of ranging his thoughts and setting them in proper lights, whatever notions he may have, will lose hiinself in confusion and obscurity. I might further observe that there is not a Greek or Latin critic, who has not shewn, even in the style of his criticisms, that he was a master of all the elegance and delicacy of his native tongue.
The truth of it is, there is nothing more absurd, than for a man to set up for a critic, without a good insight into all the parts of learning; whereas many of those, who have endeavoured to signalize themselves by works of this nature, among our English writers, are not only defective in the above-mentioned particulars, but plainly discover, by the phrases which they make use of, and by their confused way of thinking, that they are not acquainted with the most
common and ordinary systems of arts and sciences A few general rules extracted out of the French authors, with a certain cant of words, has sometimes set up an illiterate heavy writer for a most judicicious and formidable critic.
One great mark, by which you may discover a critic who has neither taste nor learning, is this, that he seldom ventures to praise any passage in an author which has not been before received and applauded by the public, and that his criticism turns wholly upon little faults and errors. This part of a critic is so very easy to succeed in, that we find every ordinary reader, upon the publishing of a new poem, has wit and ill-nature enough to turn several passages of it into ridicule, and very often in the right place. This Mr. Dryden has very agreeably remarked in these two celebrated lines :
Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;
excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation. The most exquisite words, and finest strokes of an author, are those which very often appear the most doubtful and exceptionable to a man who wants a relish for polite learning; and they are these, which a sour undistinguishing critic generally attacks with the greatest violence. Tully observes, that it is very easy to brand or fix a mark upon what he calls verbum ardens, or as it may be rendered into English, “a glowing bold expression, and to turn it into ridicule by a cold illnatured criticism. A little wit is equally capable of exposing a beauty and of aggravating a fault: and though such a treatment of an author naturally produces indignation in the mind of an understanding
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reader, it has however its effect among
generality of those whose hands it falls into, the rabble of mankind being very apt to think that every thing which is laughed at, with any mixture of wit, is ridiculous in itself.
Such a mirth as this is always unseasonable in a critic, as it rather prejudices the reader than convinces him, and is capable of making a beauty,as well as a blemish, the subject of derision. A man who cannot write with wit on a proper subject,is dull and stupid; but one who shews it in an improper place, is as impertinent and absurd. Besides,a man who has the gift of ridicule is apt to find fault with any thing that gives him an opportunity of exerting his beloved talent,and very often censures a passage,not because there is any fault in it, but because he can be merry upon it. Such kinds of pleasantry are very unfair and disingenuous in works of criticism, in which the greatest masters, both ancient and modern, have always appeared with a serious and instructive air.
As I intend in my next paper to shew the defects in Milton's Paradise Lost, I thought fit to promise these few particulars, to the end that the reader may know I enter upon it as on a very ungrateful work, and that I shall just point at the imperfections without endeavouring to inflame them with ridicule. I must also observe with Longinus, that the productions of a great genius, with manylapses and inadvertencies, are infinitely preferable to the works of an inferior kind of author, which are scrupulously exact, and conformable to all the rules of correct writing.
I shall conclude my paper with a story out of Boccalini, which sufficiently shews us the opinion thatjudicious author entertained of the sort of critics I have been here mentioning. A famous critic, says he, having gathered together all the faults of an eminent poet, made a present of them to Apollo,