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AN ESSAY ON THE DRAMATIC POETRY
OF THE LAST AGE.
Tue promises of authors, that they will write again, are, in effect, a threatening of their readers with some new impertinence; and they, who perform not what they promise, will have their pardon on easy terms.
It is from this consideration, that I could be glad to spare you the trouble, which I am now giving you, of a postscript, if I were not obliged, by many reasons, to write somewhat concerning our present plays, and those of our predecessors on the English stage. The truth is, I have so far engaged myself in a bold epilogue to this play, wherein I have somewhat taxed the former writing, that it was necessary for me either not to print it, or to show that I could defend it. Yet I would so maintain my opinion of the present age, as not to be wanting in my veneration for the past: I would ascribe to dead authors their just praises in those things wherein they have excelled us; and in those wherein we contend with them for the
preeminence, I would acknowledge our advantages to the
age, and claim. no victory from our wit. This being what I have proposed to myself, I hope I shall not be thought arrogant when I enquire into their errors : For we live in an age so sceptical, that as it determines little, so it takes nothing from antiquity on trust; and I profess to have no other ambition in this essay, than that poetry may not go backward, when all other arts and sciences are advancing. Whoever censures me for this inquiry, let him hear his character from Horace:
Ingeniis non ille favet, plauditque sepultis,
He favours not dead wits, but hates the living. It was upbraided to that excellent poet, that he was an enemy to the writings of his predecessor Lucilius, because he had said, Lucilium lutulentum fluere, that he ran muddy; and that he ought to have retrenched from his satires many unnecessary
Put Horace makes Lucilius himself to justify him from the imputation of envy, by telling you that he would have done the same, had he lived in an age which was more refined:
Si foret hoc nostrum fato delapsus in ævum,
And, both in the whole course of that satire, and in his most admirable Epistle to Augustus, he makes it his business to prove, that antiquity alone is no plea for the excellency of a poem; but that, one age learning from another, the last (if we can suppose an equality of wit in the writers,) has the advantage of knowing more and better than the former. And this, I think, is the state of the question in dispute. It is therefore my part to make it clear, that the language, wit, and conversation of our age, are improved and refined above the last; and then it will not be difficult to infer, that our plays have received some part of those advantages.
In the first place, therefore, it will be necessary to state, in general, what this refinement is, of which we treat; and that, I think, will not be defined amiss,“ “ An improvement of our Wit, Language, and Conversation; or, an alteration in them for the better."
To begin with Language. That an alteration is lately made in ours, or since the writers of the last age (in which I comprehend Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Jonson), is manifest. Any man who reads those excellent poets, and compares their language with what is now written, will see it almost in every line; but that this is an improvement of the language, or an alteration for the better, will not so easily be granted. For many are of a contrary opinion, that the English tongue was then in the height of its perfection; that from Jonson's time to ours it has been in a continual declination, like that of the Romans from the age of Virgil to Statius, and so downward to Claudian; of which, not only Petronius, but Quintilian himself so much complains, under the person of Secundus, in his famous dialogue De Causis corrupte Eloquentia.
But, to shew that our language is improved, and that those people have not a just value for the age in which they live, let us consider in what the refinement of a language principally consists: that is, “ either in rejecting such old words, or phrases, which are ill sounding, or improper; or in admit
ting new, which are more proper, more sounding, and more significant.”
The reader will easily take notice, that when I speak of rejecting improper words and phrases, I mention not such as are antiquated by custom only, and, as I may say, without any fault of theirs. For in this case the refinement can be but accidental; that is, when the words and phrases, which are rejected, happen to be improper. Neither would I be understood, when I speak of impropriety of language, either wholly to accuse the last age, or to excuse the present, and least of all myself; for all writers have their imperfections and failings : but I may safely conclude in the general, that our improprieties are less frequent, and less gross than theirs. One testimony of this is undeniable, that we are the first who have observed them; and, certainly, to observe errors is a great step to the correcting of them. But, malice and partiality set apart, let any man, who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakespeare and Fletcher, and I dare undertake, that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense*; and yet these men are reverenced, when we are not forgiven. That their wit is great, and many times their expressions noble, envy itself cannot deny.
Neque ego illis detrahere ausim Hærentem capiti multâ cum laude coronam. But the times were ignorant in which they lived. Poetry was then, if not in its infancy among us, at least not arrived to its vigour and maturity : Wit
In mitigation of the censure which must be passed on our author for this hasty and ill-considered judgment, let us remember the
very inaccurate manner in which Shakespeare's plays were printed in the early editions.
ness the lameness of their plots; many of which, especially those which they writ first (for even that age refined itself in some measure), were made up of some ridiculous incoherent story, which in one play many times took up the business of an age. I suppose I need not name “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” nor the historical plays of Shakespeare : besides many of the rest, as the “Winter's Tale,”. “ Love's Labour Lost,” “ Measure for Measure, which were either grounded on impossibilities, or at least so meanly written, that the comedy neither caused your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment* If I would expatiate on this subject, I could easily demonstrate, that our admired Fletcher, who wrote after him, neither understood correct plotting, nor that which they call “ the decorum of the stage.” I would not search in his worst plays for examples : He who will consider his “ Philaster,” his “ Humorous Lieutenant,” his “ Faithful Shepherdess,” and many others which I could name, will find them much below the applause which is now given them. He will see Philaster wounding his mistress, and afterwards his boy, to save himself; not to mention the Clown, who enters immediately, and not only has the advantage of the combat against the hero, but diverts you from your serious concernment, with his ridiculous and absurd raillery. In his “Humorous Lieutenant,” you find his Demetrius and Leontius staying in the midst of a routed army, to hear the cold mirth of the Lieutenant; and Demetrius afterwards appearing with
* Mr Malone has judiciously remarked, that Dryden seems to have been ignorant of the order in which Shakespeare wrote his plays; and there will be charity in believing, that he was not intimately acquainted with those he so summarily and unjustly cen