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BOOK II. EPISTLE I.
The reflections of Horace, and the judgments passed in his epistle to Augustus, seemed so seasonable to the present times, that I could not help applying them to the use of my own country. The author thought them considerable enough to address them to his prince, whom he paints with all the great and good qualities of a monarch upon whom the Romans depended for the increase of an absolute empire but to make the poem entirely English, I was willing to add one or two of those which contribute to the happiness of a free people, and are more consistent with the welfare of our neighbours.
This epistle will show the learned world to have fallen into two mistakes: one, that Augustus was a patron of poets in general; whereas he not only prohibited all but the best writers to name him, but recommended that care even to the civil magistrate; Admonebat prætores, ne paterentur nomen suum obsolefieri, &c.; the other, that this piece was only a general discourse of poetry; whereas it was an apology for the poets, in order to render Augustus more their patron. Horace here pleads the cause of his contemporaries; first, against the taste of the town, whose humour it was to magnify the authors of the preceding age; secondly, against the court and nobility, who encouraged only the writers for the theatre; and, lastly, against the emperor himself, who had conceived them of little use to the government. He shows (by a view of the progress of learning, and the change of taste among the Romans,) that the introduction of the polite arts of Greece had given the writers of his time great advantages over their predecessors; that their morals were much improved, and the license of those ancient poets restrained; that satire and comedy were become more just and useful; that whatever extravagances were left on the stage were owing to the ill taste of the nobility; that poets, under due regulations, were in many respects useful to the state; and concludes,
that it was upon them the emperor himself must depend for his fame with posterity.
We may further learn from this epistle, that Horace made his court to this great prince, by writing with a decent freedom towards him, with a just contempt of his low flatterers, and with a manly regard to his own character.
WHILE you, great patron of mankind! sustain
Whose word is truth, as sacred and revered
Chaucer's worst ribaldry is learn'd by rote,
He swears the Muses met him at the Devil.
We build, we paint, we sing, we dance, as well;
Suppose he wants a year, will you compound? And shall we deem him ancient, right, and sound, Or damn to all eternity at once
At ninety-nine a modern and a dunce?
We shall not quarrel for a year or two; By courtesy of England he may do.'
Then by the rule that made the horse-tail bare, I pluck out year by year, as hair by hair, And melt down ancients like a heap of snow, While you, to measure merits, look in Stowe, And estimating authors by the year, Bestow a garland only on a bier.
Shakspeare (whom you and every playhouse bill Style the divine! the matchless! what you will,) For gain, not glory, wing'd his roving flight, And grew immortal in his own despite. Ben, old and poor, as little seem'd to heed The life to come in every poet's creed, Who now reads Cowley? if he pleases yet, His moral pleases, not his pointed wit: Forgot his Epic, nay Pindaric art,
But still I love the language of his heart.
Yet surely, surely these were famous men ! What boy but hears the sayings of old Ben? In all debates where critics bear a part,
Not one but nods, and talks of Jonson's art,
But let them own that greater faults than we
And Sidney's verse halts ill on Roman feet;
And God the Father turns a school-divine.
In the dry desert of a thousand lines,
Or lengthen'd thought, that gleams through many
When works are censured, not as bad, but new ;
And swear all shame is lost in George's age!