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Dennis’s first attack on Pope
Happy that Author whose correct Essay
Repairs so well our old Horatian way.
There is nothing more wrong, more low, or more incorrect than this Rhapsody
upon Criticism. The Author all along taxes others with Faults of which he is
more guilty himself. He tells us in the very two first Lines, that
’Tis hard to say if greater want of Skill
Appear in writing, or in judging ill.
Now whereas others have been at some Pains and Thought to shew each of these
wants of Skill separately and distinctly, his comprehensive Soul hath most
ingeniously contriv’d to shew them both in a supreme Degree together.
Secondly, While this little Author struts and affects the Dictatorian Air, he
plainly shews that at the same time he is under the Rod; and that while he
pretends to give Laws to others, he is himself a pedantick Slave to Authority and
But a third infallible mark of a young Author, is, that he hath done in this
Essay what School-boys do by their Exercises, he hath borrow’d both from
Living and Dead, and particularly from the Authors of the two famous Essays
upon Poetry and Translated Verse; but so borrow’d, that he seems to have the
very Reverse of Midas’s noble Faculty. For as the coursest and the dullest
Metals, were upon the touch of that Lydian Monarch immediately chang’d into
fine Gold; so the finest Gold upon this Author’s handling it, in a moment loses
both its lustre and its weight, and is immediately turn’d to Lead.
A fourth thing that shews him a young man, is the not knowing his own mind,
and his frequent Contradictions of himself. His Title seems to promise an Essay
upon Criticism in general, which afterwards dwindles to an Essay upon Criticism
in Poetry. And after all, he is all along giving Rules, such as they are, for Writing
rather than Judging. In the beginning of the 8th Page the Rules are nothing but
These Rules of old discover’d, not devis’d,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodiz’d. [ll. 88–9]
But no sooner is he come to the 10th Page, but the Rules and Nature are two
1 [Roscommon’s Essay on Translated Verse (1684) begins by praising Mulgrave’s Essay
upon Poetry (1682)]
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE 67
When first great Maro, in his boundless mind,
A Work t’ outlast immortal Rome design’d,
Perhaps he seem’d above the Critick’s Law,
And but from Nature’s Fountains scorn’d to draw.
But in the last Line of this very Paragraph they are the same things again.
Learn hence for ancient Rules a just Esteem,
To copy Nature is to copy them. [ll. 139–40]
But to this he will answer, That he is guilty of no Contradiction, that he is only
shewing that Virgil was guilty of Error and Ignorance; who first absurdly began
to write his Ỉneis, and afterwards sate down to learn the Rules of Writing; which
when he began to write that Poem, he took to be things distinct from Nature; but
that after he had wrote part of it, he fell to the reading of Homer, and that
undeceiv’d him. That while he is talking of Virgil’s Error and Ignorance, he is
making a Parade of his own incomparable Wisdom and Knowledge; and not
contradicting himself, but Virgil, or rather making him appear inconsistent with
and contradicting himself: for that tho’ Virgil took the Rules and Nature to be
distinct from each other, for his own part he is wiser, and knows better things.
Now is not this a very modest and a very judicious Gentleman?…
But now, my dear Friend, if I had young Mr. Bays here, I would desire that I
might ask him one Question, and he not be angry. And that is, what he means by
There are whom Heav’n has bless’d with store of Wit,
Yet want as much again to manage it.2 [ll. 80–1]
But let us go on, and see if ‘tis possible to find it out without him.
For Wit and Judgment ever are at strife,
Tho’ meant each others, are like Man and Wife.1
[In 1713 Pope altered the first two lines to meet Dennis’s strictures. See Twickenham, i.
254n, 483. There is a manuscript memorandum by Pope detailing his response to the
strictures of Dennis and others]
2 [In 1744 Pope altered this couplet to read: ‘Some, to whom Heav’n in wit has been
profuse, /Want as much more, to turn it to its use’]
That is as much as to say, there are People who have that which they call Wit,
without one dram of Judgment. Is not this another wonderful Discovery? But I
fancy that Mr. Bays has the Misfortune to be wrong in the first Verse of the
For Wit and Judgment ever are at strife.
What a Devil, Mr. Bays, they cannot be at strife sure, after they are parted, after
Wit has made an Elopement, or has been barbarously forsaken by Judgment, or
turn’d to separate maintenance! Much less can they be at strife where they never
came together, which is the Case in the Essay. But now we talk of Man and Wife,
let us consider the Yoke-fellow to the former Rhime.
Tho’ meant each others, and like Man and Wife.
Now cannot I for my Soul conceive the reciprocal Aid that there is between Wit
and Judgment. For tho’ I can easily conceive how Judgment may keep Wit in her
Senses, yet cannot I possibly understand how Wit can controul, or redress, or be
a help to Judgment.
If Mr. Bays in that Couplet
There are whom Heav’n has bless’d with store of Wit,
Yet want as much again to manage it.
Intended to say that People have sometimes store of false Wit without Judgment
to manage it, he intended nothing but what all the World knew before.2 But if he
meant to say this of true Wit, nothing can be more mistaken; for I cannot
conceive how any one can have store of Wit without Judgment. I believe that
Father Bouhours has given a tolerable Description of Wit in his Treatise upon
that Subject, C’es un solide qui brille: ‘Tis a shining Solid, like a Diamond,
which the more solid it is, is always the more glittering; and derives its height of
Lustre from its perfect Solidity.’ Now how any thing in the Works of the Mind
can be solid without Judgment, I leave Mr. Bays to consider….
In the 20th Page we have another Simile, and consequently another Absurdity.
But true Expression, like th’ unchanging Sun,
[Dennis misquotes: 1. 83 should read ‘other’s Aid’. A few lines later Dennis gives
‘others, and’. In 1744 Pope altered 1. 82 to read, ‘For Wit and Judgment often are at strife’.
See J.V.Guerinot, Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope 1711–1744 (1969), p. 8]
2 [In the second edition (1713) Pope altered this to read, ‘And speak, tho’ sure, with
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE 69
Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon. [ll. 315–16]
Which is borrow’d from the Essay on Poetry.
True Wit is everlasting like the Sun,1
But awkwardly borrow’d, and utterly spoil’d in the removal. For what can
Expression be properly said to shine upon? True Wit, or Genius; for that the
noble Author means, as is plain from several parts of his Poem, shines thro’ and
discovers it self by the Expression; but Expression, at the very best, can but shine
with a borrow’d Light, like the Moon and the rest of the Planets, whereas Genius
shines and flames with its own Celestial Fire….
Wherever this Gentleman talks of Wit, he is sure to say something that is very
foolish, as Page 29.
What is this Wit that does our Cares employ,
The Owner’s Wife that other Men enjoy?
The more his Trouble as the more admir’d,
Where wanted scorn’d, and envy’d where acquir’d.2
Here again I desire leave to ask two or three Questions. First, how can Wit be
scorn’d where it is not? Is not this a Figure frequently employ’d in Hibernian
Land? The Person who wants this Wit may indeed be scorn’d; but such a
Contempt declares the Honour that the Contemner has for Wit. But secondly,
what does he mean by acquir’d Wit? Does he mean Genius by the word Wit, or
Conceit and Point? If he means Genius, that is certainly never to be acquir’d; and
the Person who should pretend to acquire it, would be always secure from Envy.
But if by Wit he means Conceit and Point, those are things that ought never to be
in Poetry, unless by chance sometimes in the Epigram, or in Comedy, where it is
proper to the Character and the Occasion; and ev’n in Comedy it ought always to
give place to Humour, and ev’n to be lost and absorp’d in that, according to the
Precept of the noble Author of the Essay of Poetry.
That silly thing Men call sheer Wit avoid,
1 [Earl of Mulgrave, Essay on Poetry (1682), Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century,
ed. J.E.Spingarn (1908), ii. 294]
2 [Pope altered these lines. The 1744 version reads, ‘Then most our Trouble still when
most admir’d, /And still the more wee give, the more requir’d’. See Twickenham, i. 295,
483, and J.V.Guerinot, Pamphlet Attacks on Pope 1711–1744 (1969), pp. 8–9]
With which our Age so nauseously is cloy’d;
Humour is all, Wit should be only brought
To turn agreeably some proper Thought.1
In the beginning of the 33d Page there is a Couplet of Advice, the first line of
which is very impertinent, and the second very wrong.
Be silent always when you doubt your Sense. [l. 566]
Now who are the Persons to whom he is giving Advice here? Why, to Poets or
Criticks, or both; but the Persons to whom he ought to be speaking are Criticks,
that is, People who pretend to instruct others. But can any man of common Sense
want to be told, that he ought not to pretend to instruct others, as long as he
doubts of the Truth of his own Precepts?
But what can be more wrong or more absurd than the latter Verse of the
Speak when you’re sure, yet speak with Diffidence.2 [l. 567]
Now I should think that when a man is sure, ’tis his Duty to speak with a modest
Assurance; since in doing otherwise he betrays the Truth, especially when he
speaks to those who are guided more by Imagination than they are by Judgment,
which is the Case of three parts of the World, and three parts of the other Part….
Thus are his Assertions, and his Precepts frequently false or trivial, or both,
his Thoughts very often crude and abortive, his Expressions absurd, his Numbers
often harsh and unmusical, without Cadence and without Variety, his Rhimes
trivial and common. He dictates perpetually, and pretends to give Law without
any thing of the Simplicity or Majesty of a Legislator, and pronounces Sentence
without any thing of the Plainness or Clearness, or Gravity of a Judge. Instead of
Simplicity we have little Conceit and Epigram, and Affectation. Instead of
Majesty we have something that is very mean, and instead of Gravity we have
something that is very boyish. And instead of Perspicuity and lucid Order, we
have but too often Obscurity and Confusion….
[Earl of Mulgrave, Essay upon Poetry, loc. cit.]
[See Twickenham, i. 305, 483, and]. V.Guerinot, op. cit., p. 9]
Addison on An Essay on Criticism
Joseph Addison, The Spectator, no. 253, 20 December 1711, ed.
D.Bond (1965), ii. 481–6.
Indignor quicquam reprehendi, non quia crassè
Compositum, illepidève putetur, sed quia nuper.1
THERE is nothing which more denotes a great Mind, than the abhorrence of
Envy and Detraction. This Passion reigns more among Bad Poets, than among
any other Set of Men.
As there are none more ambitious of Fame, than those who are conversant in
Poetry, it is very natural for such as have not succeeded in it to depreciate the
Works of those who have. For since they cannot raise themselves to the
Reputation of their Fellow-Writers, they must endeavour to sink it to their own
Pitch, if they would still keep themselves upon a Level with them.
The greatest Wits that ever were produced in one Age, lived together in so
good an Understanding, and celebrated one another with so much Generosity,
that each of them receives an additional Lustre from his Contemporaries, and is
more famous for having lived with Men of so extraordinary a Genius, than if he
had himself been the sole Wonder of the Age. I need not tell my Reader, that I
here point at the Reign of Augustus, and I believe he will be of my Opinion, that
neither Virgil nor Horace would have gained so great a Reputation in the World,
had they not been the Friends and Admirers of each other. Indeed all the great
Writers of that Age, for whom singly we have so great an Esteem, stand up
together as Vouchers for one another’s Reputation. But at the same time that
Virgil was celebrated by Gallus, Propertius, Horace, Varius, Tucca and Ovid, we
know that Bavius and Mœvius were his declared Foes and Calumniators.
In our own Country a Man seldom sets up for a Poet, without attacking the
Reputation of all his Brothers in the Art. The Ignorance of the Moderns, the
[Horace, Epistles, II. i. 76–77: ‘I hate a Fop should scorn a faultless Page, /Because ’tis
New, nor yet approv’d by Age’ (Creech)]
Scriblers of the Age, the Decay of Poetry are the Topicks of Detraction, with
which he makes his Entrance into the World: But how much more noble is the
Fame that is built on Candour and Ingenuity, according to those Beautiful Lines
of Sir John Denham, in his Poem on Fletcher’s Works.
But whither am I straid? I need not raise
Trophies to thee from other Mens Dispraise;
Nor is thy Fame on lesser Ruins built,
Nor needs thy juster Title the foul Guilt
Of Eastern Kings, who to secure their Reign
Must have their Brothers, Sons, and Kindred Slain.1
I am sorry to find that an Author, who is very justly esteemed among the best
Judges, has admitted some Stroaks of this Nature into a very fine Poem, I mean
The Art of Criticism, which was published some Months since, and is a Masterpiece in its kind. The Observations follow one another like those in Horace’s Art
of Poetry, without that Methodical Regularity which would have been requisite
in a Prose Author. They are some of them uncommon, but such as the Reader
must assent to, when he sees them explained with that Elegance and Perspicuity
in which they are delivered. As for those which are the most known, and the most
received, they are placed in so beautiful a Light, and illustrated with such apt
Allusions, that they have in them all the Graces of Novelty, and make the Reader,
who was before acquainted with them, still more convinced of their Truth and
Solidity. And here give me leave to mention what Monsieur Boileau has so very
well enlarged upon in the Preface to his Works, that Wit and fine Writing doth
not consist so much in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are
known an agreeable Turn.1 It is impossible, for us who live in the later Ages of
the World, to make Observations in Criticism, Morality, or in any Art or
Science, which have not been touched upon by others. We have little else left us,
but to represent the common Sense of Mankind in more strong, more beautiful, or
more uncommon Lights. If a Reader examines Horace’s Art of Poetry, he will
find but very few Precepts in it, which he may not meet with in Aristotle, and
which were not commonly known by all the Poets of the Augustan Age. His way
of Expressing and Applying them, not his Invention of them, is what we are
chiefly to admire.
For this reason I think there is nothing in the World so tiresom as the Works of
those Criticks, who write in a positive Dogmatick Way, without either
Language, Genius or Imagination. If the Reader would see how the best of the
Latin Criticks writ, he may find their manner very beautifully described in the
Characters of Horace, Petronius, Quintilian and Longinus, as they are drawn in
the Essay of which I am now speaking.
[‘On Mr John Fletcher’s Works’, ll. 19–24]
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE 73
Since I have mentioned Longinus, who in his Reflections has given us the
same kind of Sublime, which he observes in the several Passages that occasioned
them;2 I cannot but take notice, that our English Author has after the same
manner exemplified several of his Precepts in the very Precepts themselves. I
shall produce two or three Instances of this kind. Speaking of the insipid
Smoothness which some Readers are so much in love with, he has the following
These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho’ oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line.3
The gaping of the Vowels in the second Line, the Expletive do in the third, and
the ten Monosyllables in the fourth, give such a Beauty to this Passage, as would
have been very much admired in an Ancient Poet. The Reader may observe the
following Lines in the same View.
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow Length along.4
’Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephir gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rock’s vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
[Cf. the Preface to Boileau’s Œuvres (1701) (Œuvres, ed. Berriat-Saint-Prix, [Paris,
1837], i. 19–20)]
2 [Cf. the Preface to Boileau’s translation of Longinus (1674) and The Spectator, no. 103]
3 [An Essay on Criticism, ll. 344–7]
4 [Ibid., ll. 356–7]
The beautiful Distich upon Ajax in the foregoing Lines, puts me in mind of a
Description in Homer’s Odyssey,1 which none of the Criticks have taken notice
of.2 It is where Sisiphus is represented lifting his Stone up the Hill, which is no
sooner carried to the Top of it, but it immediately tumbles to the Bottom. This
double Motion of the Stone is admirably described in the Numbers of these
Verses. As in the four first it is heaved up by several Spondees, intermixed with
proper Breathing-places, and at last trundles down in a continued Line of Dactyls.
[Quotes in Greek, Odyssey, xi. 593–8]
It would be endless to quote Verses out of Virgil which have this particular
kind of Beauty in the Numbers; but I may take an Occasion in a future Paper to
shew several of them which have escaped the Observation of others.
I cannot conclude this Paper without taking notice that we have three Poems in
our Tongue, which are of the same Nature, and each of them a Master-piece in
its kind; the Essay on Translated Verse, the Essay on the Art of Poetry, and the
Essay upon Criticism.3
[This passage, Odyssey, xi. 593–8, is discussed by Campbell (No. 124) and Johnson, pp.
2 [Bond points out that Pope wrote to Addison on 10 October 1714, and cited a discussion
of the passage by Dion of Halicarnassus]
3 [I.e. Essay on Translated Verse (1684) by Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon, and
the Essay upon Poetry (1682) by John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham]
Gildon’s first attack on Pope
Charles Gildon, extract from British Mercury, 24 December 1711,
quoted by J.Honoré, ‘Charles Gildon redacteur du British Mercury
(1711–12): les attaques contre Pope, Swift et les Wits’, Études
Anglaises, xv (1962), 356–7.
Gildon (1665–1724) was a hack writer, whose connection with the
British Mercury was not known until Honoré discovered manuscript
evidence. The ‘thing on Wycherley’ which started Pope’s animosity
towards Gildon’s ‘venal quill’ is probably an attack in the issue for
21 January 1712 (see Honoré, op. cit., p. 357).
In the passage given here Gildon replies to Addison’s praise of An
Essay on Criticism (No. 11). For another attack by Gildon, see No.
[Horace is complaining to Apollo of the affront to his art contained in Addison’s
praise of Pope]
But unweary’d with provoking us, he, with his wonted Air of intimate
Acquaintance with us, has drawn me in against my self in the Motto to his last
Thursday’s Harangue. For whereas I condemn’d those Coxcombs of my Time,
who despis’d the best Performances only because new, he, in my Words, would
commend a Poem that was read only for being new; and by an overflowing good
Nature, stretches the Maxim of speaking well of the Dead, to a Panegyric on the
Damn’d. And this, without the Fear either of you his Sovereign Lord, or the
Censure of the Plain-dealer on my Lord Plausible, as being so fond of Flattery,
that rather than not flatter, he would flatter the Poets of the Age, whom no Body
else will flatter.1 He endeavours, in this Libel on me, to shelter this Poem, call’d
An Essay on Criticism, under my Protection, for a few good Lines (if we allow
those quoted to be so) tho’ he might have remembered what I said of Choerilus.
[William Wycherley, The Plain Dealer, II. i. In fact, spoken by Olivia about Novel]
Sic, mihi qui multum cessat, fit Choerilus ille
Quem bis terque bonum, cum Risu miror.1
I fear, if his Friend were to stand the Test of that Poetaster, the Vanity of this
Panegyric would vanish in the Apprehension of the Buffets; which would so
vastly outnumber the Pieces of Gold, that these would scarcely pay for the Cure:
But the Notions of the Athenians and the Spectator, seem extreamly unlike. They
would not suffer the Number of his ill Verses, to rob him of the Reward of six
Pieces of Gold for his six good Verses; nor would they let the six good Verses
save the Poem from merited Damnation, or the Poetaster from a Buffet for every
bad one. If a few good Lines, among a Crowd of bad ones, made a Poet, why are
Taylor and Cleeveland excluded the Number?