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any love to it ever since, I am not able, from any experience of my own, to give you those instructions you desire; neither will I declare (for I love to conceal my passions) how much I lament my neglect of poetry in those periods of my life which were properest for improvements in that ornamental part of learning; besides, my age and infirmities might well excuse me to you, as being unqualified to be your writing-master, with spectacles on and a shaking hand. However that I may not be altogether wanting to you in an affair of so much importance and credit to your happiness, I shall here give you some scattered thoughts upon the subject, such as I have gathered by reading and observation.
There is a certain little instrument, the first of those in use with scholars, and the meanest, considering the materials of it, whether it be a joint of wheaten straw (the old Arcadian pipe) or just three inches of slender wire, or a stripped feather, or a corking-pin. Furthermore, this same diminutive tool, for the posture of it, usually reclines its head on the thumb of the right hand, sustains the foremost finger upon its breast, and is itself supported by the second. This is commonly known by the name of a fescue; I shall here, therefore, condescend to be this little elementary guide, and point out some particulars, which may be of use to you in your horn-book of poetry.
In the first place, I am not yet convinced that it is at all necessary for a modern poet to believe in God, or have any serious sense of religion; and in this article you must give me leave to suspect your capacity; because religion being what your mother taught you, you will hardly find it possible, at least not easy, all at once to get over those early prejudices, so far as to think it better to be a great wit than a good Christian, though herein the general practice is against you; so that if, upon inquiry, you find in yourself any such softnesses, owing to the nature of your education, my advice is, that you forthwith lay down your pen, as having no further business with it in the way of poetry; unless you will be content to pass for an insipid, or will submit to be hooted at by your fraternity, or can disguise your religion, as well-bred men do their learning, in complaisance to company.
For poetry, as it has been managed for some years past by such as make a business of it (and of such only I speak here, for I do not call him a poet that writes for his diversion, any more than that gentleman a fiddler who amuses himself with a violin,) I say, our poetry of late has been altogether disengaged from the narrow
notions of virtue and piety, because it has been found by experience of our professors, that the smallest quantity of religion, like a single drop of malt liquor in claret, will muddy and discompose the brightest poetical genius.
Religion supposes heaven and hell, the word of God, and sacraments, and twenty other circumstances, which, taken seriously, are a wonderful check to-wit and humor, and such as a true poet cannot possibly give in to, with a saving to his poetical license; but yet it is necessary for him that others should believe those things seriously, that his wit may be exercised on their wisdom for so doing; for though a wit need not have religion, religion is necessary to a wit, as an instrument is to the hand that plays upon it; and for this the moderns plead the example of their great idol Lucretius, who had not been by half so eminent a poet (as he truly was) but that he stood tiptoe on religion, Religio pedibus subjecta, and, by that rising ground, had the advantage of all the poets of his own or following times, who were not mounted on the same pedestal.
Besides, it is further to be observed, that Petronius, another of their favorites, speaking of the qualifications of a good poet, insists chiefly on the liber spiritus; by which I have been ignorant enough heretofore to suppose he meant a good invention, or great compass of thought or a sprightly imagination; but I have learned a better construction, from the opinion and practice of the moderns; and, taking it literally for a free spirit, i. e. a spirit, or mind, free or disengaged from all prejudices concerning God, religion, and another world, it is to me a plain account why our present set of poets are, and hold themselves obliged to be, freethinkers.
But, although I cannot recommend religion upon the practice of some of our most eminent English poets, yet I can justly advise you, from their example, to be conversant in the Scriptures, and, if possible, to make yourself entirely master of them; in which, however, I intend nothing less than imposing upon you a task of piety. Far be it from me to desire you to believe them, or lay any great stress upon their authority; in that you may do as you think fit; but to read them as a piece of necessary furniture for a wit and a poet; which is a very different view from that of a Christian.
For I have made it my observation, that the greatest wits have been the best textuaries: our modern poets are all, to a man, almost as well read in the Scriptures as some of our divines, and often abound more with the phrase. They have read them historically, critically, musically, comically, poetically, and every other way ex
cept religiously, and have found their account in doing so. For the Scriptures are undoubtedly a fund of wit, and a subject for wit. You may, according to the modern practice, be witty upon them, or out of them; and, to speak the truth, but for them, I know not what our playwrights would do for images, allusions, similitudes, examples, or even language itself. Shut up the sacred books, and I would be bound our wit would run down like an alarum, or fall as the stocks did, and ruin half the poets in these kingdoms. And if that were the case, how would most of that tribe, (all, I think, but the immortal Addison, who made a better use of his Bible, and a few more,) who dealt so freely in that fund, rejoice that they had drawn out in time, and left the present generation of poets to be the bubbles.
But here I must enter one caution, and desire you to take notice that in this advice of reading the Scriptures, I had not the least thought concerning your qualification that way for poetical orders; which I mention, because I find a notion of that kind advanced by one of our English poets; and is, I suppose, maintained by the He says to Spenser, in a pretended vision,
- With hands laid on, ordain me fit For the great cure and ministry of wit."
Which passage is, in my opinion, a notable allusion to the Scriptures; and, making but reasonable allowances for the small circumstance of profaneness, bordering close upon blasphemy, is inimitably fine ; beside some useful discoveries made in it, as, that there are bishops in poetry, that these bishops must ordain young poets, and with laying on hands; and that poetry is a cure of souls; and, consequently speaking, those who have such cures ought to be poets, and too often are so: and indeed, as of old, poets and priests were one and the same function, the alliance of those ministerial offices is to this day happily maintained in the same persons; and this I take to be the only justifiable reason for that appellation which they so much affect, I mean the modest title of divine poets. However, having never been present at the ceremony of ordaining to the priesthood of poetry, I own I have no notion of the thing, and shall say the less of it here.
The Scriptures then being generally both the fountain and subject of modern wit, I could do no less than give them the preference in your reading. After a thorough acquaintance with them, I would advise you to turn your thoughts to human literature, which yet I say more in compliance with vulgar opinions than according to my own sentiments.
For, indeed, nothing has surprised me more than to see the prejudices of mankind as to this matter of human learning, who have generally thought it necessary to be a good scholar, in order to be a good poet; than which nothing is falser in fact, or more contrary to practice and experience. Neither will I dispute the matter if any man will undertake to show me one professed poet now in being who is anything of what may be justly called a scholar; or is the worse poet for that, but perhaps the better, for being so little encumbered with the pedantry of learning: it is true the contrary was the opinion of our forefathers, which we of this age have devotion enough to receive from them on their own terms, and unexamined, but not sense enough to perceive it was a gross mistake in them. So Horace has told us:
Scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons,
Rem tibi Socraticæ poterunt ostendere chartæ.
But to see the different casts of men's heads, some, not inferior to that poet in understanding, (if you will take their own word for it,) do see no consequence in this rule, and are not ashamed to declare themselves of a contrary opinion. Do not many men write well in common account, who have nothing of that principle? Many are too wise to be poets, and others too much poets to be wise. Must a man, forsooth, be no less than a philosopher to be a poet, when it is plain that some of the greatest idiots of the age are our prettiest performers that way? And for this I appeal to the judgment and observation of mankind. Sir P. Sidney's notable remark upon this nation may not be improper to mention here. He says, "In our neighbor country, Ireland, where true learning goes very bare, yet are their poets held in devout reverence;" which shows, that learning is no way necessary either to the making of a poet, or judging of him. And further, to see the fate of things, notwithstanding our learning here is as bare as ever, yet are our poets not held, as formerly, in devout reverence; but are, perhaps, the most contemptible race of mortals now in this kingdom, which is no less to be wondered at than lamented.
Some of the old philosophers were poets, as, according to the forementioned author, Socrates and Plato were: which, however, is what I did not know before; but that does not say that all poets are, or that any need be, philosophers, otherwise than as those are so called who are a little out at the elbows. In which sense the great Shakspeare might have been a philosopher; but was no scholar, yet was an excellent poet. Neither do I think a late most
judicious critic so much mistaken, as others do, in advancing this opinion, that "Shakespeare had been a worse poet, had he been a better scholar:" and sir W. Davenant is another instance in the same kind. Nor must it be forgotten that Plato was an avowed enemy to poets; which is, perhaps, the reason why poets have been always at enmity with his profession; and have rejected all learning and philosophy, for the sake of that one philosopher. As I take the matter, neither philosophy, nor any part of learning is more necessary to poetry (which, if you will believe the same author, is "the sum of all learning") than to know the theory of light and the several proportions and diversifications of it in particular colors is to a good painter.
Whereas, therefore, a certain author, called Petronius Arbiter, going upou the same mistake, has confidently declared, that one ingredient of a good poet is "mens ingenti literarum flumine inundata;" I do on the contrary declare, that this his assertion (to speak of it in the softest terms) is no better than an invidious and unhandsome reflection on all the gentlemen poets of these times: for, with his good leave, much less than a flood or inundation will serve the turn; and, to my certain knowledge, some of our greatest wits in your poetical way have not as much real learning as would cover a sixpence in the bottom of a basin; nor do I think the worse of them; for, to speak my private opinion, I am for every man's working upon his own materials, and producing only what he can find within himself, which is commonly a better stock than the owner knows it to be. I think flowers of wit ought to spring, as those in a garden do, from their own root and stem, without foreign assistI would have a man's wit rather like a fountain, that feeds itself invisibly, than a river that is supplied by several streams from abroad.
Or if it be necessary, as the case is with some barren wits, to take in the thoughts of others in order to draw forth their own, as dry pumps will not play till water is thrown into them; in that necessity, I would recommend some of the approved standard authors of antiquity for your perusal, as a poet and a wit, because, maggots being what you look for, as monkeys do for vermin in their keepers' heads, you will find they abound in good old authors, as in rich old cheese, not in the new; and for that reason you must have the classics, especially the most worm-eaten of them, often in your hands.
But with this caution, that you are not to use those ancients, as