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tion, do still acknowledge the renowned JACK for their author and founder. Of whose original, as well as principles, I am now advancing to gratify the world with a very particular account.
-Melleo contingens cuncta lepore.
A DIGRESSION IN PRAISE OF DIGRESSIONS.
I HAVE Sometimes heard of an Iliad in a nutshell; but it has been my fortune to have much oftener seen a nutshell in an Iliad. There is no doubt that human life has received most wonderful advantages from both; but to which of the two the world is chiefly indebted, I shall leave among the curious, as a problem worthy of their utmost inquiry. For the invention of the latter, I think the commonwealth of learning is chiefly obliged to the great modern improvement of digressions: the late refinements in knowledge, running parallel to those of diet in our nation, which, among men of a judicious taste, are dressed up in various compounds, consisting in soups and olios, fricassees, and ragouts.
It is true, there is a sort of morose, detracting, ill-bred people, who pretend utterly to disrelish these polite innovations; and as to the similitude from diet, they allow the parallel, but are so bold to pronounce the example itself, a corruption and degeneracy of taste. They tell us that the fashion of jumbling fifty things together in a dish, was at first introduced, in compliance to a depraved and
debauched appetite, as well as to a crazy constitution and to see a man hunting through an olio, after the head and brains of a goose, a widgeon, or a woodcock, is a sign he wants a stomach and digestion for more substantial victuals. Farther, they affirm, that digressions in a book are like foreign troops in a state, which argue the nation to want a heart and hands of its own, and often either subdue the natives, or drive them into the most unfruitful
But, after all that can be objected by these supercilious censors, it is manifest, the society of writers would quickly be reduced to a very inconsiderable number, if men were put upon making books, with the fatal confinement of delivering nothing beyond what is to the purpose. It is acknowledged, that were the case the same among us, as with the Greeks and Romans, when learning was in its cradle, to be reared, and fed, and clothed by invention, it would be an easy task to fill up volumes upon particular occasions, without farther expatiating from the subjects, than by moderate excursions, helping to advance or clear the main design. But with knowledge it has fared as with a numerous army, encamped in a fruitful country, which, for a few days, maintains itself by the product of the soil it is on; till, provisions being spent, they are sent to forage many a mile, among friends or enemies, it matters not. Meanwhile, the neighbouring fields, trampled and beaten down, become barren and dry, affording no sustenance but clouds of dust.
The whole course of things being thus entirely changed between us and the ancients, and the moderns wisely sensible of it, we of this age have discovered a shorter, and more prudent method, to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking. The most accomplished
way of using books at present, is two-fold; either, first, to serve them as some men do lords, learn their titles exactly, and then brag of their acquaintance. Or, secondly, which is indeed the choicer, the profounder, and politer method, to get a thorough insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail. For, to enter the palace of learning at the great gate, requires an expense of time and forms; therefore men of much haste, and little ceremony, are content to get in by the backdoor. For the arts are all in flying march, and therefore more easily subdued by attacking them in the rear. Thus physicians discover the state of the whole body, by consulting only what comes from behind. Thus men catch knowledge, by throwing their wit on the posteriors of a book, as boys do sparrows with flinging salt upon their tails. Thus human life is best understood, by the wise man's rule, of regarding the end. Thus are the sciences found, like Hercules's oxen, by tracing. them backwards. Thus are old sciences unravelled, like old stockings, by beginning at the foot. Beside all this, the army of the sciences has been of late, with a world of martial discipline, drawn into its close order, so that a view or a muster may be taken of it with abundance of expedition. For this great blessing we are wholly indebted to systems and abstracts, in which the modern fathers of learning, like prudent usurers, spent their sweat for the ease of us their children. For labour is the seed of idleness, and it is the peculiar happiness of our noble age to gather the fruit.
Now, the method of growing wise, learned, and sublime, having become so regular an affair, and so established in all its forms, the number of writers must needs have increased accordingly, and to a pitch that has made it of absolute necessity for
them to interfere continually with each other. Besides, it is reckoned, that there is not at this present, a sufficient quantity of new matter left in nature, to furnish and adorn any one particular subject, to the extent of a volume. This I am told by a very skilful computer, who has given a full demonstration of it from rules of arithmetic.
This perhaps may be objected against by those who maintain the infinity of matter, and therefore will not allow, that any species of it can be exhausted. For answer to which, let us examine the noblest branch of modern wit or invention, planted and cultivated by the present age, and which, of all others, has borne the most and the fairest fruit. For, though some remains of it were left us by the ancients, yet have not any of those, as I remember, been translated or compiled into systems for modern use. Therefore we may affirm to our own honour, that it has, in some sort, been both invented and brought to perfection by the same hands. What I mean, is, that highly celebrated talent among the modern wits, of deducing similitudes, allusions, and applications, very surprising, agreeable, and apposite, from the pudenda of either sex, together with their proper uses. And truly, having observed how little invention bears any vogue, beside what is derived into these channels, I have sometimes had a thought, that the happy genius of our age and country was prophetically held forth by that ancient typical description of the Indian pigmies; whose stature did not exceed above two foot; sed quorum pudenda crassa, et ad talos usque pertingentia. Now, I have been very curious to inspect the late productions, wherein the beauties of this kind have most prominently
* Ctesiæ fragm. apud Photium.
appeared; and although this vein has bled so freely, and all endeavours have been used in the power of human breath to dilate, extend, and keep it open; like the Scythians,* who had a custom, and an instrument, to blow up the privities of their mares, that they might yield the more milk: yet I am under an apprehension it is near growing dry, and past all recovery; and that either some new fonde of wit should, if possible, be provided, or else, that we must even be content with repetition here, as well as upon all other occasions.
This will stand as an incontestable argument, that our modern wits are not to reckon upon the infinity of matter for a constant supply. What remains therefore, but that our last recourse must be had to large indexes, and little compendiums? quotations must be plentifully gathered, and booked in alphabet; to this end, though authors need be little consulted, yet critics, and commentators, and lexicons, carefully must. But above all, those judicious collectors of bright parts, and flowers, and observandas, are to be nicely dwelt on, by some called the sieves and boulters of learning; though it is left undetermined, whether they dealt in pearls or meal; and consequently, whether we are more to value that which passed through, or what staid behind.
By these methods, in a few weeks, there starts up many a writer, capable of managing the profoundest and most universal subjects. For, what though his head be empty, provided his commonplace book be full; and if you will bate him but the circumstances of method, and style, and grammar, and invention; allow him but the common privileges of transcribing from others, and digressing from
*Herodot. L. 4.