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ALEXANDER POPE, Efq.
MONG the chief beauties of a famous Italian poem, is the following allegory, fo just and ingenious in the opinion of a great philofopher, that he has borrowed it to illuftrate and adorn a general principle in one of his more capital works Attached to the thread of every man's life, fays the noble allegorift, is a little medal, whereon each man's name is infcribed, which TIME, waiting on the fhears of FATE, catches up, as they fall from the inexorable fteel, and bears to the river LETHE; into which, were it not for certain birds which keep flying about its banks, they would be immediately immerged. But these seize the medals ere they fall, and bear them for a while up and down in their beaks, with much noife and flutter; but careless of their charge, or unable to fupport it, they most of
of them foon drop their fhining prey one after another into the oblivious ftream. Neverthe lefs among thefe heedlefs carriers of fame, are a few fwans, who, when they catch a medal, convey it carefully to the Temple of IMMORTALITY, where it is confecrated.
Thefe fwans, of later ages, have indeed been rarae aves: What innumerable names have been dropped into the dark fiream of oblivion, for one that has been confecrated in the bright temple of immortality!
When it is confidered that the faculties which men receive from Nature, are perhaps nearly equal* and that so few diftinguish themselves by the difplay of any fuperior talents, we are curious to become acquainted with the hiftory of thofe, who by their merits have transmitted their names to pofterity; and are anxious to discover by what means they attained that degree of excellence, which immortalized their memories.
* It would be too much to conclude with fome fyftematical writers, that all men properly organized, are equally capable of the greatest efforts of genius: and that the inequality of talents is owing altogether to the difference of education. This is contradicted by daily experience. Education contributes moftly, but not wholly. Among youth, fome are found to receive inftruction with uncommon quickness of perception; while others, under the fame preceptor, betray a flownefs of apprehenfion, which evidently marks a conftitutional difference between their mental faculties.
It is indeed difficult, to affign the reafons why talents equally promifing, fhould, even under the like early cultivation, bear fuch unequal crops of fame. But if we attend minutely to the caufes by which men have acquired renown, we fhall find that perhaps the far greater part owed their reputation to adventitious circumftances, concurring to excite their emulation, and render application grateful.
Genius is not forward to endure the toil of perfevering study. It is afpiring and impatient. Unless animated by the early dawn of enlivening hope, it will foon become torpid and supine: or at best only break forth by fudden and unequal starts. Praise and renown, are the rich rewards it covets. Praife, as POPE obferves, is to a young wit, like rain to a tender flower. If it is not occafionally revived by refreshing fhowers of applaufe, it will fhrink and wither.
The fruits of genius can only be matured by a conftant and affiduous culture; without it, excelling parts may now and then produce a momentary blaze, but will never diffufe that ftrong and steady fplendor, which fhines to lateft pofterity.
*The display of genius feems to depend on the power of attention, which is greater or lefs according to the ftrength of the paffion which excites it: and this again in a great measure depends on certain conftitutional, though unknown, differences in the ftructure of our minds.
As fuch affiduity alone, can procure and eternize the glory of public applause, so it is the best title from whence we can derive the heartfelt pleasures of felf-commendation. To be proud of the gifts of nature, is a prepofterous vanity. Our improvements only, are what we can properly call our own, and which afford the most rational ground of inward approba
Various circumftances however frequently occur to check the habit of improvement. The fame exquisite fenfibility, and ftrong glow of fpirits, which warms the genius, fires the libertine; and opens to every mode of diffipation. The blandishments of beauty, the joys of feftivity, the attractions of pleasure, under all its alluring forms, confpire to withdraw the mind from great and noble pursuits. These allurements have greater or less ascendancy, in proportion as the objects of ambition are more or lefs diftant. The habit of application will be vigorous or faint, as the reward proposed is great or small, near or remote. When genius wanders without a friendly guide to direct its steps, and encourage its progrefs; when it views but a faint prospect of reaping the rich rewards to which it afpires, then it too often becomes defpondent *; and refigns itself to the fatal in
* We now and then, it is true, meet with a rare inftance, where the paffion which infpires a genius, is fo ftrong and irrefiftible, as to rife fuperior to all difcouragements and oppofitions.
toxication of the fofter pleasures. Thus in many, the latent powers of the mind remain unknown even to the poffeffor; and to thefe, among other reasons, it may be imputed that fo many stop short in the career of glory, and that their names never reach posterity.
Among the few diftinguished characters, however, whose names are refcued from oblivion, and enrolled in the bright annals of fame, they stand in the moft confpicuous line, who have reaped the harvest of glory, in the active fcenes of life. The bulk of mankind, are more folicitous to learn the history of statesmen and warriors, than to be acquainted with the calm and tranquil pursuits of poets and philofophers.
The regular and uniform tenor of a ftudious life, affords little variety for the entertainment of those who are more amufed by a fucceffion of glaring incidents, which gratify idle curiofity; than affected by a hiftory, which might tend to enlarge the fund of useful knowledge.
It is nevertheless of more general importance to be acquainted with what, in fome degree, concerns men of every rank, than with that which can only be interesting to a few, who move in the higher ftations. It is more effential to reflect on the means by which an obfcure man made his way to fame, through the ftill paths of life, than to pry into the intrigues of minifters, or gape at the atchievements of heroes.