Page images

found, and by which he gave his enemy no opportunity of exerting the only power in which he was fuperiour.

When Eneas is fent by Virgil to the fhades, he meets Dido the queen of Carthage, whom his perfidy had hurried to the grave; he accofts her with tendernefs and excuses; but the lady turns away like Ajax in mute difdain. She turns away like Ajax; but she resembles him in none of thofe qualities which give either dignity or propriety to filence. She might, without any departure from the tenour of her conduct, have burst out, like other injured women, into clamour, reproach, and denunciation; but Virgil had his imagination full of Ajax, and therefore could not prevail on himself to teach Dido any other mode of refentment.

If Virgil could be thus feduced by imitation, there will be little hope that common wits fhould escape; and accordingly we find that, befides the univerfal and acknowledged practice of copying the ancients, there has prevailed in every age a particular fpecies of fiction. At one time, all truth was conveyed in allegory; at another, nothing was feen but in a vision; at one period, all the poets followed fheep, and every event produced a pastoral; at another, they bufied themselves wholly in giving directions to a painter.

It is indeed easy to conceive why any fashion should become popular, by which idleness is favoured, and imbecility affifted; but furely no man of genius can much applaud himself for repeating a tale with which the audience is already tired, and which could bring no honour to any but its inventor.


There are, I think, two schemes of writing, on which the laborious wits of the prefent time employ their faculties. One is the adaptation of fenfe to all the rhymes which our language can fupply to fome word that makes the burden of the stanza; but this, as it has been only used in a kind of amorous burlefque, can scarcely be cenfured with much acrimony. The other is the imitation of Spenfer, which, by the influence of fome men of learning and genius, feems likely to gain upon the age, and therefore deferves to be more attentively confidered.

To imitate the fictions and fentiments of Spenfer can incur no reproach, for allegory is perhaps one of the most pleasing vehicles of inftruction. But I am very far from extending the fame refpect to his diction or his ftanza. His ftyle was in his own time allowed to be vicious, fo darkened with old words and peculiarities of phrafe, and fo remote from common use, that Johnson boldly pronounces him to have written no language. His ftanza is at once difficult and unpleafing; tirefome to the ear by its uniformity, and to the attention by its length. It was at first formed in imitation of the Italian poets, without due regard to the genius of our language. The Italians have little variety of termination, and were forced to contrive such a stanza as might admit the greatest number of fimilar rhymes; but our words end with fo much diverfity, that it is feldom convenient for us to bring more than two of the fame found together. If it be juftly obferved by Milton, that rhyme obliges poets to exprefs their thoughts in improper terms, thefe improprieties must always

be multiplied, as the difficulty of rhyme is increased by long concatenations.

The imitators of Spenfer are indeed not very rigid cenfors of themselves, for they feem to conclude that, when they have disfigured their lines with a few obfolete fyllables, they have accomplished their de fign, without confidering that they ought not only to admit old words, but to avoid new. The laws of imitation are broken by every word introduced fince the time of Spenfer, as the character of Hector is violated by quoting Ariftotle in the play. It would indeed be difficult to exclude from a long poem all modern phrases, though it is easy to fprinkle it with gleanings of antiquity. Perhaps, however, the ftyle of Spenfer might by long labour be juftly copied; but life is furely given us for higher purposes than to gather what our ancestors have wisely thrown away, and to learn what is of no value, but because it has been forgotten.

NUMB. 122. SATURDAY, May 18, 1751.

Nefcio qua natale folum dulcedine cunos



By fecret charms our native land attracts.

NOTHING is more fubject to mistake and disappointment than anticipated judgment concerning the eafinefs or difficulty of any undertaking, whether we form our opinion from the performance of others, or from abftracted contemplation of the thing to be attempted.

Whatever is done fkilfully appears to be done with ease; and art, when it is once matured to habit, vanishes from obfervation. We are therefore more powerfully excited to emulation, by thofe who have attained the highest degree of excellence, and whom we can therefore with least reason hope to equal.

In adjusting the probability of fuccefs by a previous confideration of the undertaking, we are equally in danger of deceiving ourselves, It is never eafy, nor often poffible, to comprise the series of any process with all its circumftances, incidents, and variations, in a fpeculative fcheme. Experience foon fhews us the tortuofities of imaginary rectitude, the complications of fimplicity, and the afperities of fmoothness. Sudden difficulties often start up from the ambushes of art, ftop the career of activity, reprefs the gaiety of confidence, and, when we imagine Y4


ourselves almost at the end of our labours, drive us back to new plans and different measures.

There are many things which we every day fee others unable to perform, and perhaps have even ourselves miscarried in attempting; and yet can hardly allow to be difficult; nor can we forbear to wonder afresh at every new failure, or to promise certainty of fuccefs to our next effay; but when we try, the fame hindrances recur, the fame inability is perceived, and the vexation of disappointment must again be fuffered.

Of the various kinds of speaking or writing, which ferve neceffity, or promote pleasure, none appears fo artless or easy as fimple narration; for what fhould make him that knows the whole order and progress of an affair unable to relate it? Yet we hourly find fuch as endeavour to entertain or inftruct us by recitals, clouding the facts which they intend to il. luftrate, and lofing themselves and their auditors in wilds and mazes, in digreffion and confufion. When we have congratulated ourselves upon a new oppor tunity of inquiry, and new means of information, it often happens that, without defigning either deceit or concealment, without ignorance of the fact, or unwillingness to disclose it, the relator fills the ear with empty founds, haraffes the attention with fruit. lefs impatience, and disturbs the imagination by a tumult of events, without order of time, or train of confequence.

It is natural to believe, upon the fame principle, that no writer has a more eafy task than the hiftorian. The philofopher has the works of omnifcience to examine; and is therefore engaged in

« PreviousContinue »