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unlucky lads do their old fathers, and make no conscience of picking their pockets and pillaging them. Your business is not to steal from them, but to improve upon them, and make their sentiments your own; which is an effect of great judgment; and, though difficult, yet very possible, without the scurvy imputation of filching; for I humbly conceive, though I light my candle at my neighbor's fire, that does not alter the property, or make the wick, the wax, or the flame, or the whole candle, less my own.
Possibly you may think it a very severe task, to arrive at a competent knowledge of so many of the ancients as excel in their way; and it would indeed be really so, but for the short and easy method lately found out, of abstracts, abridgments, summaries, &c., which are admirable expedients for being very learned with little or no reading; and have the same use with burning-glasses, to collect the diffused rays of wit and learning in authors, and make them point with warmth and quickness upon the reader's imagination. And to this is nearly related that other modern device of consulting indexes, which is to read books Hebraically, and begin where others usually end. And this is a compendious way of coming to an acquaintance with authors; for authors are to be used like lobsters, you must look for the best meat in the tails, and lay the bodies back again in the dish. Your cunningest thieves (and what else are readers, who only read to borrow, i. e. to steal) use to cut off the portmanteau from behind, without staying to dive into the pockets of the owner. Lastly, you are taught thus much in the very elements of philosophy; for one of the finest rules in logic is, Finis est primus in intentione.
The learned world is therefore most highly indebted to a late painful and judicious editor of the classics, who has labored in that new way with exceeding felicity. Every author, by his management, sweats under himself, being overloaded with his own index, and carries, like a north-country pedlar, all his substance and furniture upon his back, and with as great variety of trifles. To him let all young students make their compliments for so much time and pains saved in the pursuit of useful knowledge; for whoever shortens a road, is a benefactor to the public, and to every particular person who has occasion to travel that way.
But to proceed, I have lamented nothing more in my time than the disuse of some ingenious little plays in fashion with young folks when I was a boy, and to which the great facility of that age, above ours, in composing, was certainly owing: and if anything has brought
a damp upon the versification of these times, we have no further than this to go for the cause of it. Now, could these sports be happily revived, I am of opinion your wisest course would be to apply your thoughts to them, and never fail to make a party when you can, in those profitable diversions. For example, crambo is of extraordinary use to good rhyming, and rhyming is what I have ever accounted the very essential of a good poet; and in that notion I am not singular; for the aforesaid sir P. Sidney has declared "That the chief life of modern versifying consists in the like sounding of words, which we call rhyme;" which is an authority, either without exception, or above any reply. Wherefore, you are ever to try a good poem as you would sound a pipkin; and if it rings well upon the knuckle, be sure there is no flaw in it. Verse without rhyme, is a body without a soul, (for the "chief life consisteth in the rhyme,") or a bell without a clapper; which, in strictness, is no bell, as being neither of use nor delight. And the same ever honored knight, with so musical an ear, had that veneration for the tunableness and chiming of verse, that he speaks of a poet as one that has "the reverend title of a rhymer." Our celebrated Milton has done these nations great prejudice in this particular, having spoiled as many reverend rhymers, by his example, as he has made real poets.
For which reason I am overjoyed to hear that a very ingenious youth of this town is now upon the useful design (for which he is never enough to be commended) of bestowing rhyme upon Milton's "Paradise Lost," which will make the poem, in that only defective, more heroic and sonorous than it hitherto has been. I wish the gentleman success in the performance; and, as it is a work in which a young man could not be more happily employed, or appear in with greater advantage to his character, so I am concerned that it did not fall out to be your province.
With much the same view, I would recommend to you the witty play of pictures and mottoes, which will furnish your imagination with great store of images and suitable devices. We of these kingdoms have found our account in this diversion, as little as we consider or acknowledge it; for to this we owe our eminent felicity in posies of rings, mottoes of snuff-boxes, the humors of sign-posts, with their elegant inscriptions, &c.; in which kind of productions not any nation in the world, no not the Dutch themselves, will presume to rival us.
For much the same reason it may
for you to have some
insight into the play called, "What is it like?" as of great use in common practice to quicken slow capacities, and improve the quickest; but the chief end of it is to supply the fancy with varieties of similies for all subjects. It will teach you to bring things to a likeness, which have not the least imaginable conformity in nature, which is properly creation, and the very business of a poet, as his name implies; and let me tell you, a good poet can no more be without a stock of similies by him than a shoemaker without his lasts. He should have them sized, and ranged, and hung up in order in his shop, ready for all customers, and shaped to the feet of all sorts of verse; and here I could more fully (and I long to do it) insist upon the wonderful harmony and resemblance between a poet and a shoemaker in many circumstances common to both; such as the binding of their temples, the stuff they work upon, and the paring-knife they use, &c., but that I would not digress, nor seem to trifle in so serious a matter.
Now, I say, if you apply yourself to these diminutive sports (not to mention others of equal ingenuity, such as draw gloves, cross purposes, questions and commands, and the rest), it is not to be conceived what benefit (of nature) you will find by them, and how they will open the body of your invention. To these devote your spare hours, or rather spare all your hours to them, and then you will act as becomes a wise man, and make even diversions an improvement; like the inimitable management of the bee, which does the whole business of life at once, and at the same time both feeds, and works, and diverts itself.
Your own prudence will, I doubt not, direct you to take a place every evening among the ingenious, in the corner of a certain coffeehouse in this town, where you will receive a turn equally right as to wit, religion, and politics; as likewise to be as frequent at the playhouse as you can afford without selling your books. For, in our chaste theatre, even Cato himself might sit to the falling of the curtain besides, you will meet sometimes with tolerable conversation among the players: they are such a kind of men as may pass, upon the same sort of capacities, for wits off the stage, as they do for fine gentlemen upon it. Besides that, I have known a factor deal in as good ware, and sell as cheap, as the merchant himself that employs him.
Add to this the expediency of furnishing out your shelves with a choice collection of modern miscellanies, in the gayest edition; and of reading all sorts of plays, especially the new, and above all,
those of our own growth, printed by subscription; in which article of Irish manufacture, I readily agree to the late proposal, and am altogether for "rejecting and renouncing everything that comes from England." To what purpose should we go thither for coals or poetry, when we have a vein within ourselves equally good and more convenient? Lastly,
A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that "great wits have short memories;" and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day's reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant), but such of other men's as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there. For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit as a merchant has for your money when you are in his.
By these few and easy prescriptions (with the help of a good genius), it is possible you may, in a short time, arrive at the accomplishments of a poet, and shine in that character. As for your manner of composing, and choice of subjects, I cannot take upon me to be your director; but I will venture to give you some short hints, which you may enlarge upon at your leisure. Let me entreat you, then, by no means to lay aside that notion peculiar to our modern refiners in poetry, which is, that a poet must never write or discourse as the ordinary part of mankind do, but in number and verse, as an oracle; which I mention the rather, because, upon this principle, I have known heroes brought into the pulpit, and a whole sermon composed and delivered in blank verse, to the vast credit of the preacher, no less than the real entertainment and great edification of the audience; the secret of which I take to be this: when the matter of such discourses is but mere clay, or, as we usually call it, sad stuff, the preacher, who can afford no better, wisely moulds, and polishes, and dries, and washes this piece of earthenware, and then bakes it with poetic fire; after which it will ring like any pancrock, and is a good dish to set before common guests, as every congregation is that comes so often for entertainment to one place.
There was a good old custom in use, which our ancestors had, of invoking the muses at the entrance of their poems; I suppose, by way of craving a blessing: this the graceless moderns have in a
great measure laid aside, but are not to be followed in that poetical impiety; for, although to nice ears such invocations may sound harsh and disagreeable (as tuning instruments is before a concert,) they are equally necessary. Again, you must not fail to dress your muse in a forehead cloth of Greek or Latin; I mean, you are always to make use of a quaint motto to all your compositions; for, beside that this artifice bespeaks the reader's opinion of the writer's learning, it is otherwise useful and commendable. A bright passage in the front of a poem is a good mark, like a star in a horse's face; and the piece will certainly go off the better for it. The os magna sonaturum, which, if I remember right, Horace makes one qualification of a good poet, may teach you not to gag your muse, or stint yourself in words or epithets which cost you nothing, contrary to the practice of some few out-of-the-way writers, who use a natural and concise expression, and affect a style like unto a Shrewsbury cake, short and sweet upon the palate; they will not afford you a word more than is necessary to make them intelligible, which is as poor and niggardly as it would be to set down no more meat than your company will be sure to eat up. Words are but lackeys to sense, and will dance attendance without wages or compulsion; Verba non invita sequentur.
Furthermore, when you set about composing, it may be necessary for your ease, and better distillation of wit, to put on your worst clothes, and the worse the better; for an author, like a limbeck, will yield the better for having a rag about him: besides that, I have observed a gardener cut the outward rind of a tree (which is the surtout of it) to make it bear well; and this is a natural account of the usual poverty of poets, and is an argument why wits, of all men living, ought to be ill clad. I have always a sacred veneration for any one I observe to be a little out of repair in his person, as supposing him either a poet or a philosopher; because the richest minerals are ever found under the most ragged and withered surface of the earth.
As for your choice of subjects, I have only to give you this caution: that as a handsome way of praising is certainly the most difficult point in writing or speaking, I would by no means advise any young man to make his first essay in panegyric beside the danger of it for a particular encomium is ever attended with more ill-will than any general invective, for which I need give no reasons; wherefore my counsel is, that you use the point of your pen, not the feather: let your first attempt be a coup d'éclat in the way of a