Page images

yet, whatever they touched of that kind, was with abundance of caution, adventuring no farther than mythology and hieroglyphic. This, I suppose, gave ground to superficial readers, for urging the silence of authors, against the antiquity of the true critic, though the types are so apposite, and the applications so necessary and natural, that it is not easy to conceive how any reader of a modern eye and taste could overlook them. I shall venture from a great number to produce a few, which, I am very confident, will put this question beyond dispute.

It well deserves considering, that these ancient writers, in treating enigmatically upon the subject, have generally fixed upon the very same hieroglyph, varying only the story, according to their affections, or their wit. For first; Pausanias is of opinion, that the perfection of writing correct was entirely owing to the institution of critics; and, that he can possibly mean no other than the true critic, is, I think, manifest enough from the following description. He says, they were a race of men, who delighted to nibble at the superfluities, and excrescencies of books; which the learned at length observing, took warning, of their own accord, to lop the luxuriant, the rotten, the dead, the sapless, and the overgrown branches from their works. But now, all this he cunningly shades under the following allegory; that the Nauplians in Argos* learned the art of pruning their vines, by observing, that when an ASS had browsed upon one of them, it thrived the better, and bore fairer fruit. But Herodotus, holding the very same hieroglyph, speaks much plainer, and almost in terminis. He has been so bold as to tax the true critics of ignorance

+ Argia. Ed. I.


† Lib. 4-Note in Ed. 1.


and malice; telling us openly, for I think nothing can be plainer, that in the western part of Lybia, there were ASSES with horns: upon which relation Ctesias * yet refines, mentioning the very same animal about India, adding, that whereas all other ASSES wanted a gall, these horned ones were so redundant in that part, that their flesh was not to be eaten, because of its extreme bitterness.

Now, the reason why those ancient writers treated this subject only by types and figures, was, because they durst not make open attacks against a party so potent and terrible, as the critics of those ages were; whose very voice was so dreadful, that a legion of authors would tremble, and drop their pens at the sound; for so Herodotus + tells us expressly in another place, how a vast army of Scythians was put to flight in a panic terror, by the braying of an ASS. From hence it is conjectured by certain profound philologers, that the great awe and reverence paid to a true critic, by the writers of Britain, have been derived to us from those our Scythian ancestors. In short, this dread was so universal, that in process of time, those authors, who had a mind to publish their sentiments more freely, in describing the true critics of their several ages, were forced to leave off the use of the former hieroglyph, as too nearly approaching the prototype, and invented other terms instead thereof, that were more cautious and mystical so, Diodorus, speaking to the same purpose, ventures no farther, than to say, that in the mountains of Helicon, there grows a certain weed, which bears a flower of so damned a scent, as to poison those who offer to smell it. Lucretius gives exactly the same relation:

* Vide excerpta ex eo apud Photium.-Note in Ed. 1.
† Lib. 4.-Note in Ed. 1.

Est etiam in magnis Heliconis montibus arbos,
Floris odore hominem tetro consueta necare.


Lib. 5.

But Ctesias, whom we lately quoted, has been a great deal bolder; he had been used with much. severity by the true critics of his own age, and therefore could not forbear to leave behind him, at least one deep mark of his vengeance against the whole tribe. His meaning is so near the surface, that I wonder how it possibly came to be overlooked by those who deny the antiquity of true critics. For, pretending to make a description of many strange animals about India, he has set down these remarkable words: Among the rest, says he, there is a serpent that wants teeth, and consequently cannot bite; but if its vomit, to which it is much addicted, happens to fall upon anything, a certain rottenness or corruption ensues: these serpents are generally found among the mountains, where jewels grow, and they frequently emit a poisonous juice: whereof whoever drinks, that person's brains fly out of his nostrils.

There was also among the ancients a sort of critics, not distinguished in species from the former, but in growth or degree, who seem to have been only the tyros or junior scholars; yet, because of their differing employments, they are frequently mentioned as a sect by themselves. The usual exercise of these younger students, was, to attend constantly at theatres, and learn to spy out the worst parts of the play, whereof they were obliged carefully to take note, and render a rational account to their tutors. Fleshed at these smaller sports, like young wolves, they grew up in time to be

* Near Helicon, and round the learned hill,
Grow trees, whose blossoms with their odour kill.

nimble and strong enough for hunting down large game. For it has been observed, both among ancients and moderns, that a true critic has one quality in common with a whore and an alderman, never to change his title or his nature; that a gray critic has been certainly a green one, the perfections and acquirements of his age being only the improved talents of his youth; like hemp, which some naturalists inform us is bad for suffocations, though taken but in the seed. I esteem the invention, or at least the refinement of prologues, to have been owing to these younger proficients, of whom Terence makes frequent and honourable mention, under the name of malevoli.

Now, it is certain, the institution of the true critics was of absolute necessity to the commonwealth of learning. For all human actions seem to be divided, like Themistocles and his company; one man can fiddle, and another can make a small town a great city; and he that cannot do either one or the other, deserves to be kicked out of the creation. The avoiding of which penalty, has doubtless given the first birth to the nation of critics; and withal, an occasion for their secret detractors to report, that a true critic is a sort of mechanic, set up with a stock and tools for his trade, at as little expense as a tailor; and that there is much analogy between the utensils and abilities of both: that the tailor's hell is the type of a critic's common-place book, and his wit and learning held forth by the goose; that it requires at least as many of these to the making up of one scholar, as of the others to the composition of a man; that the valour of both is equal, and their weapons near of a size. Much may be said in answer to those invidious reflections; and I can positively affirm the first to be a falsehood: for, on the contrary, nothing is more certain, than that it

[ocr errors]

requires greater layings out, to be free of the critic's company, than of any other you can name. For, as to be a true beggar, it will cost the richest candidate every groat he is worth; so, before one can commence a true critic, it will cost a man all the good qualities of his mind; which, perhaps for a less purchase, would be thought but an indifferent bargain.

Having thus amply proved the antiquity of criticism, and described the primitive state of it, I shall now examine the present condition of this empire, and shew how well it agrees with its ancient self. A certain author, whose works have many ages since been entirely lost, does, in his fifth book, and eighth chapter, say of critics, that their writings are the mirrors of learning. This I understand in a literal sense, and suppose our author must mean, that whoever designs to be a perfect writer, must inspect into the books of critics, and correct his invention there, as in a mirror. Now, whoever considers, that the mirrors of the ancients were made of brass, and sine mercurio, may presently apply the two principal qualifications of a true modern critic, and consequently must needs conclude, that these have always been, and must be for ever the same. For brass is an emblem of duration, and, when it is skilfully burnished, will cast reflections from its own superficies, without any assistance of mercury from behind. All the other talents of a critic will not require a particular mention, being included, or easily reducible to these. However, I shall conclude with three maxims, which may serve both as characteristics to distinguish a true modern critic from a pretender, and will be also of admirable use to those

* A quotation after the manner of a great author. Vide Bentley's Dissertation, &c.-Original.

« PreviousContinue »