« PreviousContinue »
That people live and die, I knew
Drink fine champaigne, or muddled port.
"For Plato's fancies what care I?
"Dear Drift, to set our matters righ
few to read it. It is harder for him to speak of his own writings. An author is in the condition of a culprit: the public are his judges: by allowing too much, and condescending too far, he may injure his own cause, and become a kind of felo de se; and, by pleading and asserting too boldly, he may displease the court that sits upon him: his apology may only heighten his accusation. I would avoid these extremes; and though, I grant, it would not be very civil to trouble the reader with a long preface, before he enters upon an indifferent poem : I would say something to persuade him to take it as it is, or to excuse it for not being better.
The noble images and reflections, the profound reasonings upon human actions, and excellent precepts for the government of life, which are found in the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and other books commonly attributed to Solomon, afford subjects for finer poems in every kind, than have, I think, as yet appeared in the Greek, Latin, or any modern language: how far they were verse in their original is a dissertation not to be entered into at present.
Out of this great treasure, which lies heaped up together in a confused magnificence, above all' order, I had a mind to collect and digest such observations and apophthegms, as most particularly tend to the proof of that great assertion, laid down in the beginning of the Ecclesiastes, All is vanity.
Upon the subject thus chosen, such various images present themselves to a writer's mind, that he must find it easier to judge what should be rejected, than what ought to be received. The difficulty lies in drawing and disposing; or (as the painters term it) in grouping such a multitude of different objects, preserving still the justice and conformity of style and colouring, the "simplex duntaxat & unum," which Horace prescribes, as requisite to make the whole picture beautiful and perfect.
As precept, however true in theory, or useful in practice, would be but dry and tedious in verse, especially if the recital be long, I found it necessary to form some story, and give a kind of body to the poem. Under what species it may be comprehended, whether didascalic or heroic, I leave to the judgment of the critics, desiring them to be favourable in their censure; and not solicitous what the poem is called, provided it may be accepted.
The chief personage, or character, in the epic to carry on the narration and the moral. Homer is always proportioned to the design of the work, intended to show us, in his Iliad, that dissensions amongst great men obstruct the execution of the noblest enterprizes, and tend to the ruin of a state or kingdom. His Achilles therefore is haughty and passionate, impatient of any restraint by laws, and arrogant in arms. In his Odysseïs, the same Poet endeavours to explain, that the hardest fortune restored after the severest afflictions. difficulties may be overcome by labour, and our Ulysses therefore is valiant, virtuous and patient. Virgil's design was to tell us, how, from a small colony established by the Trojans in Italy, the families Augustus (who was his prince and patron) Roman empire rose; and from what ancient
descended. His hero therefore was to fight his way to the throne, still distinguished and pro
tected by the favour of the gods. The poet to this end takes off from the vices of Achilles, and adds to the virtues of Ulysses; from both perfecting a character proper for his work in the person of Æneas.
I presume this poetical liberty may be very justly allowed me on so solemn an occasion.
In my description I have endeavoured to keep to the notions and manners of the Jewish nation at the time when Solomon lived: and, where i allude to the customs of the Greeks, I believe I may justified by the strictest chronology; though a poet is not obliged to the rules that confine an historian. Virgil has anticipated two hundred years; or the Trojan Hero and Carthaginian queen could not have been brought together: and without the same anachronism several of the finest parts of his neis must have been omitted. Our countryman Milton goes yet further. He takes up many of his material images some thousands of years after the fall of man: nor could he otherwise have written, or we read, one of the sublimest pieces of invention that was ever yet produced. This likewise takes off the objection, that some names of countries, terms of art, and notions in natural philosophy, are otherwise expressed than can be warranted by the geography or astronomy of Solomon's time. Poets are allowed the same liberty in their descriptions and comparisons, as painters in their draperies and ornaments: their personages may be dressed, not exactly in the same habits which they wore, but in such as make them appear most graceful. In this case probability must atone for the want of truth. This liberty has indeed been abused by masters in either science. Raphael and Tasso have shown their discretion, where Paul Veronese and Ariosto are to answer for their· extravagances. It is the excess, not the thing itself, that is blameable.
As Virgil copied after Homer, other epic poets have copied after them both. Tasso's Gierrusa-be lemme Liberata is directly Troy town sacked; with this difference only, that the two chief characters in Homer, which the Latin poet had joined in one, the Italian has separated in his Godfrey and Rinaldo: but he makes them both carry on his work with very great success. Ronsard's Franciade (incomparably good as far as it goes) is again Vigil's Aneis. His Hero comes from a foreign country, settles a colony, and Jays the foundation of a future empire. 1 instance in these, as the greatest Italian and French poets in the epic. In our language, Spenser has not contented himself with this submissive manner of imitation: he lanches out into very flowery paths, which still seem to conduct him into one great road. His Fairy Queen | (had it been finished) must have ended in the account which every knight was to give of his adventures, and in the accumulated praises of his heroine Gloriana. The whole would have been an heroic poem, but in another cast and figure than any that ever had been written before. Yet it is observable, that every hero (as far as we can judge by the books still remain-eminent ing) bears his distinguished character, and represents some particular virtue conducive to the whole design.
To bring this to our present subject. The pleasures of life do not compensate the miseries: age steals upon us unawares; and death, as the only cure of our ills, ought to be expected, but not feared. This instruction is to be illustrated by the action of some great person. Who therefore more proper for the business, than Solomon himself? And why may he not be supposed now to repeat what, we take it for granted, he acted almost three thousand years since? If, in the fair situation where this prince was placed, he was acquainted with sorrow; if, endowed with the greatest perfections of nature, and possessed of all the advantages of external condition, he could not find happiness: the rest of mankind may safely take the monarch's word for the truth of what he asserts. And the author, who would persuade that we should bear the ills of life patiently, merely because Solomon felt the same, has a better argument than Lucretius had, when, in his imperious way, he at once convinces and commands, that we ought to submit to death without repining, because Epicurus died.
The whole poem is a soliloquy: Solomon is the person that speaks: he is at once the hero and the author, but he tells us very often what others say to him. Those chiefly introduced are his rabbies and philosophers in the first book; and his women and their attendants in the second: with these the sacred history mentions him to have conversed; as likewise with the angel brought down in the third book, to help him out of his difficulties, or at least to teach him how to overcome them.
Nec Deus intersit nisi dignus vindice node--
I would say one word of the measure in whick this and most poems of the age are written. Heroic with continued rhyme, as Donne and his contemporaries used it, carrying the sense of one verse most commonly into another, was found too dissolute and wild, and came very often too near prose. As Davenant and Waller corrected, and Dryden perfected it, it is too confined: it cuts off the sense at the end of every first line, which must always rhyme to the next following; and consequently produces too frequent an identity in the sound, and brings every couplet to the point of an epigram. It is indeed too broken and weak, to convey the sentiments and represent the images proper for epic. And, as it tires the writer while he composes, it must do the same to the reader while he repeats; especially in a poem of any considerable length.
If striking out into blank verse, as Milton did, (and in this kind Mr. Phillips, had he lived, would have excelled), or running the thought into alternate and stanza, which allows a greater variety, and still preserve the dignity of the verse, as Spenser and Fairfax have done; if either of these, I say, be a proper remedy for my poetical complaint, or if any other may be found, I dare not determine; I am only inquiring in order to be better informed, without presuming to direct the judgment of others. And, while I am speaking of the verse itself, I give all just praise to many of my friends now living, who have in epic carried the harmony of their numbers as far as the nature of this measure will permit. But, once more: he, that writes in rhymes, dances in
fetters; and, as his chain is more extended, he may certainly take larger steps.
I need make no apology for the short digressive panegyric upon Great Britain in the first book. I am glad to have it observed, that there appears throughout all my verses a zeal for the honour of my country: and I had rather be thought a good Englishman, than the best poet, or the greatest scholar that ever wrote.
"I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” Ver. 16.
"He spake of trees, from the cedar-tree that is in
"I know, that whatsoever God doeth, it shall be .
"For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that
"And further, by these, my son, be admonished : of making many books there is no end: and much study is a weariness of the flesh." Ch. xin
And now as to the publishing of this piece, though I have in a literal sense observed Horace's Nonum prematur in annum; yet have I by no means obeyed our poetical lawgiver, according to the spirit of the precept. The poem has indeed been written and laid aside much longer than the term prescribed; but in the meantime I had little leisure, and less inclination, to revise or print it. The frequent interruptions I have met with in my private studies, and great variety of public life in which I have been employed, my thoughts (such. as they are) having generally been expressed in foreign language, and even formed by a habitude very different from what the beauty and elegance of English poetry requires: all these, and some other circumstances which we had as good pass by at present, do justly contribute to make my excuse in this behalf very plausible. Far indeed fron designing to print, I had locked up these papers in my scritoire, there to lie in peace till my executors might have taken them out. altered this design, or how my scritoire came to be unlocked before my coffin was nailed, is the question, The true reason I take to be the best: many of my friends of the first quality, finest learning, and greatest understanding, have wrested the key from my hands by a very kind and irresistible violence: and the poem is published, not without my consent indeed, but a little against my opinion; and with an implicit submission to the partiality of their judgment. As I give up here the fruits of many of any vacant hours to their amusement and pleasure, I shall always think myself happy, if I may dedicate my most serious endeavours to their interest and service. And I am proud to finish this preface by saying, that the violence of many enemies, whom I never justly offended, is abundantly recompensed by the goodness of more friends, whom I can never sufficiently oblige. And if I here assume the liberty of mentioning my lord Harley and lord Bathurst as the authors of this amicable confederacy, among all those whose names do me great honbur at the beginning of my book; these two only ought to be angry with me: for I disobey their positive order, whilst I make even this small acknowledgment of their particular kindness.
THE FIRST BOOK.
SOLOMON, seeking happiness from knowledge, convenes the learned men of his kingdom; requires them to explain to him the various operations and effects of Nature; discourses of vegetables, animals, and man; proposes some questions. concerning the origin and situation of the habitable Earth; proceeds to examine the system of the visible Heaven; doubts if there may not be a plurality of worlds; inquires into the nature of spirits and angels; and wishes to be more fully informed as to the attributes of the Supreme Being. He is imperfectly answered by the rabbins and doctors; blames his own curiosity; and concludes, that, as to human science, All is vanity.
Ye sons of men, with just regard attend, Observe the preacher, and believe the friend, Whose serious Muse inspires him to explain, That all we act, and all we think, is vain; That, in this pilgrimage of seventy years, O'er rocks of perils, and through vales of tears, Destin'd to march, our doubtful steps we tend, Tir'd with the toil, yet fearful of its end: That from the womb we take our fatal shares Of follies, passions, labours, tumults, cares; And, at approach of Death, shall only know "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of The truth, which from these pensive numbers flow, vanities, all is vanity." Ver..2.
CRIEPLY ALLUDED TO IN BOOK L
"THE words of the Preacher the son of David, king of Jerusalem." Eccles. chap. i. ver. 1.
1 As subscribers to the edition in folio, 1718.
That we pursue false joy, and suffer real woe.
Of my pursuing verse, ideal shade,
Born, as I was, great David's favourite son,
I said; and sent my edict through the land:
"I know not why the beech delights the glade
"Whence does it happen, that the plant, which well
We name the Sensitive, should move and feel?
Take but the humblest lily of the field;
"Of fishes next, my friends, I would inquire:
To that Leviathan, who o'er the seas
How in small flights they know to try their young,
"Of beasts and creeping insects shall we trace
How from the thicken'd mist, and setting sun,
And, O thou sluggard, tell me why the ant, 'Midst summer's plenty, thinks of winter's want,
By constant journies careful to prepare
The marks of thought, contrivance, hope, and fear.
They show their passions by their acts, like thee:
"For potent Nature loves a various act,
The straight looks crooked, and the square grows
"Thus, while with fruitless hope and weary pain,
And endless shapes, which the mysterious queen
On secret rapine bent, and midnight fraud;
By what immediate cause they are inclin'd, In many acts, 'tis hard, I own, to find.
I see in others, or I think I see,
That strict their principles and ours agree.
That reason guides our deed, and instinct theirs
For tell ine, when the empty boaster's word
"The combatant too late the field declines,
"Consider with me this ethereal space,
166 May not the pleasure of Omnipotence
And praise the neighbouring Sun, whose constant
Enlightens them with seasons still the same
Of day and night, disparted through the year?