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I understand the danger of gratifying you on these terms. Yet, whatever it be, I have no power to excuse myself from any attempt, by which, you tell me at least, I may be able to gratify you. I will do my best then to draw together such observations, as 1 have sometimes thought, in reading the poets, most material for the certain discovery of Imitations. And I address them to You, not only as You are the properest judge of the subject; You, who understand so well in what manner the Poets are used to imitate each other, and who yourself so finely imitate the best of them; but as I would give You this small proof of my affection, and have perhaps the ambition of publishing to the world in this way the entire friendship that subsists between us.
Yqu tell me I have succeeded not amiss in explaining the difficulty of detecting Imitations. The materials of poetry, You own, fie so much in common amongst all writers, and the several ways of employing them are so much under the controul of common sense, that writings will in many respects be similar, where there is no thought or design of Imitating. I take advantage of this c»ni cession, ceflion, to conclude from it, That we can seldom pronounce with certainty of Imitations without some external proof to assist us in the discovery. You will understand me to mean, by these external proofs, the previous knowledge we have, from considerations not respecting the nature of the work itself, of the writer's ability or inducements to imitate. Our first enquiry then will be, concerning the Age, Character, and Education, of the supposed Imitator.
We can determine with little certainty, how far the principal Greek writers have! been indebted to Imitation. We trace the waters of Helicon no higher than to their source. And we acquiesce* with reason, in the device of the old painter, You know of, who somewhat rudely indeed, but not absurdly, drew the figure of Homer with A fountain streaming out of his mouth, and the other poets watering at . .
Hither, as to their fountain, other Stars • (. ''Repairing, in their golden urns draw light.
The Greek writers then were, or, for any thing we can fay, might be, Original.
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But we can rarely affirm this of any other. And the reason is plain. When a taste for letters prevailed in any country, if It arose at first from the efforts. of original thinking, it was immediately cherished and cultivated by . the study of the old writers. You are too well ac* quainted with the progress of antient and modern wit, to doubt of this fact. Rome adorned itself in the spoils of Greece. And both assisted in dressing up the later European poetry. What else do You find in the Italian or French Wits, but the old matter, worked over again; only presented to us in a new form, and embellished perhaps with a conceit or two of mere modern invention?
But the English, You say, or rather your fondness for Your Masters leads You to suppose, are original thinkers. It is true, Nature has taken a pleasure to Ihew as what she could do, by the production of One Prodigy. But the rest are what we admire them for, not indeed without Genius, perhaps with a larger share of it than has fallen to the lot of others, yet directly and chiefly by the discipline of art and the helps of imitation.
The golden times of the English Poetry were, undoubtedly, the reigns of our two Queens. Invention was at its height in the me, and Correctness in the other. In both, the manners of a court refined, without cither breaking or corrupting, the spirit of our poets. But do you forget that ElizaBeth read Greek and Latin almost as easily as our Professors? and can you doubt that what she knew so well would be known, admired, and imitated, by every other? Or say, that the writers of her time were, some of them, ignorant enough of the learned languages to be inventors •, can you suppose, from what you know of the fashion of thac age, that their fancies would not be sorinkled, and their wits refreshed, by theesleaces of the Italian poetry?
I scarcely need say a word of our Other Queen, whose reign was unquestionably the æra of classic imitation and of classic taste; Even they, who had never been as far as Greece or Italy to warm their imaginations or stock their memories, might do both to a tolerable degree in France; which, though it bowed to our country's arms, had almost the ascendant in point of letters.
I mention these things only to put you in mind that hardly one of our poets has been in a condition to do without, or certainly be above, the suspicion of learned imitation. And the observation is so true, that even in this our age, when good letters, they fay, are departing from us, the Greek or Roman stamp is still visible in every work of genius that has taken with the publick. Do you think one needed to be told in the titlepage, that a late Drama, or some later Odes were formed on the antient model?
The drift of all this, you will fay, is to overturn the former discourse; for that now I pretend every degree of likeness to a preceding writer is an argument of imitatson. Rather, if you please, conclude that, in my opinion, every degree of likeness is exposed to the suspicion of imitation. To convert this suspicion into a proof, it is not enough to fay, that a writer might, but that his circumstances make it plain, or probable at least, that he did imitate. .. ,.
Of these circumstances then, the first I should think deserving our attention, is the Age in which the writer. lived. One should know if it were an age addicted to much. study,