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His purple pinions op'ning to the sun,
He rais'd his azure wand, and thus begun.
Ye Sylphs and Sylphids, to your chief give ear! Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves, and Demons, hear! Ye know the spheres, and various tasks assign'd 75. By laws eternal to th' aërial kind.
Ver. 75. Ye know] Those who are fond of tracing images and sentiments to their source, may, perhaps, be inclined to think, that the hint of ascribing tasks and offices to such imaginary beings, is taken from the Fairies, and the Ariel of Shakespear; let the impartial critic determine, which has the superiority of fancy. The employment of Ariel in the Tempest, is said to be "To tread the ooze
Of the salt deep ;
To run upon the sharp wind of the north;
To dive into the fire; to ride
On the curl'd clouds."
"In the deep nook, where once
Thou call'dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still vext Bermoothes."
Nor must I omit that exquisite song, in which his favourite and peculiar pastime is expressed:
"Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry;
On the bat's back I do fly,
After sun-set, merrily;
Merrily, merrily, shall I live now,
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough."
With what wildness of imagination, but yet with what propriety, are the amusements of the fairies pointed out in the Midsummer Night's Dream; amusements proper for none but fairies!
Some in the fields of purest ether play,
And bask and whiten in the blaze of day.
Some guide the course of wand'ring orbs on high,
Or dip their pinions in the painted bow,
Or brew fierce tempests on the wintry main,
"For the third part of a minute, hence:
Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds :
The clamourous owl, that nightly hoots, and wonders
Shakespear only could have thought of the following gratifications for Titania's lover; and they are fit only to be offered to her lover by a fairy-queen.
"Be kind and courteous to this gentleman,
And pluck the wings from painted butterflies,
To fan the moon-beams from his sleeping eyes."
If it should be thought that Shakespear has the merit of being the first who assigned proper employments to imaginary persons, in the foregoing lines, yet it must be granted that by the addition of the most delicate satire to the most lively fancy, Pope, in a following passage (ver. 91) has equalled any thing in Shakespear, or perhaps in any other author.
Others on earth o'er human race preside,
Watch all their ways, and all their actions guide :
To draw fresh colours from the vernal flow'rs; 95
This day, black omens threat the brightest Fair That e'er deserv'd a watchful spirit's care; Some dire disaster, or by force, or slight;
But what, or where, the fates have wrapt in night. Whether the Nymph shall break Diana's law, 105 Or some frail China jar receive a flaw;
Ver. 90. And guard with Arms] The Poet was too judicious to desire this should be understood as a compliment. He intended it for a mere piece of raillery; such as he more openly pursues on another occasion; when he says,
"Where's now the Star which lighted Charles to rise?
With that which follow'd Julius to the skies.
Angels, that watch'd the Royal Oak so well,
Ver. 105. Whether the nymph, &c.] The disaster, which makes the subject of this poem, being a trifle, taken seriously; it naturally led the Poet into this fine satire on the female estimate of human mischances. Warburton.
Or stain her honour, or her new brocade;
To fifty chosen Sylphs, of special note,
Ver. 112. Zephyretta] The names of his Sylphs are happily chosen. Castelvetro mentions an odd circumstance, that the names which Boiardo gave to his heroes in his Orlando Inamorato, were only the names of some of the principal tenants and peasants on his estate of Scandiano. Warton.
Ver. 118. the Petticoat :] It is impossible here not to recollect that matchless piece of raillery and exquisite humour, of Addison, in the 127th Spectator, on this important part of female dress. Warton.
Ver. 119. clypei dominus septemplicis Ajax.-OVID.
Ver. 121. about the silver bound,] In allusion to the shield of Achilles :
"Thus the broad shield complete the Artist crown'd,
With his last hand, and pour'd the Ocean round:
In living silver seem'd the waves to roll,
And beat the Buckler's verge, and bound the whole.”
Whatever spirit, careless of his charge,
His post neglects, or leaves the fair at large,
Or wedg'd, whole ages, in a bodkin's eye:
Ver. 125. Shall feel sharp Vengeance] Our Poet still rises in the delicacy of his satire, where he employs, with the utmost judgment and elegance, all the implements and furniture of the toilet, as instruments of punishment to those spirits, who shall be careless of their charge; of punishment, such as Sylphs alone could undergo.
If Virgil has merited such perpetual commendation for exalting his bees by the majesty and magnificence of his diction, does not Pope deserve equal praises, for the pomp and lustre of his language on so trivial a subject.