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I am afraid this extreme zeal on both sides is illplaced, poetry and criticism being by no means the universal concern of the world; but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.
Yet sure, upon the whole, a bad author deserves better usage than a bad critic; for a writer's endeavour, for the most part, is to please his readers, and he fails merely through the misfortune of an ill judgment; but such a critic's is to put them out of humour; a design he could never go upon without both that, and an ill temper.
I think a good deal may be said to extenuate the faults of bad poets. What we call a Genius is hard to be distinguished by a man himself from a strong inclination; and if his genius be ever so great, he cannot at first discover it any other way than by giving way to that prevalent propensity which renders him the more liable to be mistaken. The only method he has is to make the experiment by writing, and appealing to the judgment of others; now, if he happens to write ill (which is certainly no sin in itself,) he is immediately made an object of ridicule. I wish we had the humanity to reflect, that even the worst authors might, in their endeavour to please us, deserve something at our hands. We have no cause to quarrel with them but for their obstinacy in persisting to write; and this, too, may admit of alleviating circumstances. Their particular friends may be either ignorant or insincere, and the rest of the world in general is too well-bred to shock them with a truth, which generally their booksellers are the first that inform them of. This happens not till they have spent too much of their time to apply to any profession which might better fit their talents, and till such talents as they have are so far discredited as to be but of small service to them.— For (what is the hardest case imaginable) the reputation of a man generally depends upon the first steps he makes in the world; and people will establish their opinion of us from what we do at the season when we have least judgment to direct us.
On the other hand, a good poet no sooner communicates his works with the same desire of information, but it is imagined he is a vain young creature, given up to the ambition of fame, when perhaps the poor man is all the while trembling with the fear of being ridiculous. If he is made to hope he may please the world, he falls under very unlucky circumstances: for, from the moment he prints, he must expect to hear no more truth than if he were a prince, or a beauty. If he has not very good sense (and indeed there are twenty men of wit for one man of sense.) his living thus in a course of (lattery may put him in no small danger of becoming a coxcomb; if he has, he will, consequently, have so muchdilfidei ce as not to reap any great sat sfaction from his praise; since, if it be given to his face, it can scarce be distinguished frcm flattery; and if in his absence, it is hard to be certain of it. Were he sure to be commended by the best and most knowing, he is as sure of being envied by the worst and most ignorant, which are the majority: for it iswith a fine genius as with a fine fashion, all those are displeased at it who are not able to follow it; and it is to be feared, that esteem will seldom do any man so much good as ill-will does him harm. Then there is a third class of people, who make the largest part of mankind, those of ordinary or indifferent capacities, and these, to a man, will hate or suspect him; a hundred Innest gentlemen will dread him as a wit, and a hundred innocent women as a satirist. In a vcorJ, whatever be his fate in poetry, it is ten to one but he must give up all the reasonable aims of life for it. There are indeed some advantages accruing from a genius to poetry, and they are all I can think of; the agreeable power of self-amusement when a man is idle or alone; the privilege of being admitted into the best company; and the freedom of saying as many careless things as other people, without being so severely remarked upon.
I believe if any one, early in his life, should tontempla e the dangerous fate of authors, he would scarce be of their number on any condderation. The life of a wit is a warfare upon earth? and the present spirit of the learned world is such, that to attempt to serve it, any way, one must have the constancy of a martyr, and a resolution to sutler for its sake. I could wish people would believe, what I am pretty certain they will not, that I have been much less concerned about fame than I durst declare till this occasion; when, methinks, I should find more credit than I could heretofore, since my writings have had their late already, and it is too late to think of prepossessing the reader in their favour. I would plead it as some merit in me, that the world has never been prepared for these trifles by prefaces, biassed by recommendation, dazzled with the names of great patrons, wheedled with fine reasons and pretences, or troubled with excuses. I confess it was want of consideration that made me an author; I writ, because it amused me; I corrected, because it was as pleasant to me to correct as to write; and I published, because I was told I might please such as it was a credit to please. To what degree I have done this, I am really ignorant; I had too much fondness for my productions to judge of them at first, and too much judgment to be pleased with them at last; but I have reason to think they can have no reputation which will continue long, or which deserves to do so: for they have always fallen short, not only of what I read of others, but even of my own ideas of poetry.
If any one should imagine I am not in earnest, I desire him to reflect, that the Ancients (to say the lesst of them) had as much genius as we; and that to take more pains, and employ more time, cannot fail to produce more complete pieces. They constantly applied themselves not only to that art, but to that single branch of an art to which their talent was most powerfully bent; and it was the business of
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their lives to correct and finish their works for posterity. If we can pretend to have used the same industry, let us expect the same immortality; though, if we took the same care, we should still lay under a further misfortune; they writ in languages that became universal and everlasting, while ours are extremely limited both in extent and in duration. A mighty foundation for our pride! when the utmost we can hope is to be read but in one island, and to be thrown aside at the end of one age.
All that is left us is to recommend our productions by the imitation of the Ancients; and it will be found true, that, in every age, the highest character for tense and learning has been obtained by those who have been most indebted to them. For, to say truth, whatever is very good sense must have been common sense in a:l times; and what we call Learning, is but the knowledge of the sense of our predecessors. Therefore they who say our thoughts are not our own, because they resemble the Ancients may as well say our faces are not our own, because they are like our fathers: and indeed it is very unreasonable that people should expect us to be scholars, and yet be angry to find us so.
I fairly confess that I have served myself all I could by reading; that I made use of the judgment of authors dead and living; that I omitted no means in my power to be informed of my errors, both by my friends and enemies: but the true reason these pieces are not more cor.ect is owing to the considera