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That Prince Arthur found many readers is certain; for in 70 years it had three editions; a very uncommon instance of favourable reception, at a time when literary curiosity was, yet confined to particular classes of the nation. Such success naturally raised animosity; and Dennis attacked it by a formal criticism, more tedious and disgusting than the work which he condemns. To this censure may be opposed the approbation of Locke and the admiration of Molineux, which are found in their printed letters. Molineux is particularly delighted with the song of Mopas, which is therefore subjoined to this narrative.
It is remarked by Pope, that what “raises the hero, often sinks the man." Of Blackmore it may be said, that, as the poet sinks, the man rises; the animadversions of Dennis, insolent and contemptuous as they were, raised in him no implacable resentment: he and his critic were afterwards friends; and, in one of bis latter works, he praises Dennis as equal to Boileau in poetry, and superior to him in critical abilities.”
He seems to have been more delighted with praise than pained by censure, and, instead of slackening, quickened his career. Having, in two years, produced ten books of Prince Arthur, in two years more, (1697), he sent into the world King Arthur, in twelve. The provocation was now doubled, and the resentment of wits and critics may be supposed to have increased in proportion. He found, however, advantages more than equivalent to all their outrages; he was this year made one of the physicians in ordinary to king William, and advanced by him to the honour of knighthood, with the present of a gold chain and a medal.
The malignity of the wits attributed his knighthood to his new poem; but king William was not very studious of poetry; and Blackmore perhaps had other merit; for he says, in his dedication to Alfred, that “ he had a greater part in the succession of the house of Hanover than ever he had boasted.”
What Blackmore could contribute to the succession, or what he imagined himself to have contributed, cannot now be known. That he had been of considerable use, I doubt not but he believed, for I hold him to have been very honest; but he might easily make a false estimate of his own importance: those whom their virtue restrains from deceiving others, are often disposed, by their vanity, to deceive themselves. Whether he promoted the succession or not, he at least approved it, and adhered invariably to his principles and party through his whole life.
His ardour of poetry still continued; and, not long after, (1700), he published A paraphrase on the book of Job, and other parts of the scripture. This performance Dryden, who pursued him with great malignity, lived long enough to ridicule in a prologue.
The wits easily confederated against him, as Dryden, whose favour they almost all courted, was his professed adversary. He had besides given them reason for resentment, as, in his preface to Prince Arthur, he had said of the dramatic writers almost all that was alleged afterwards by Collier; but Blackmore's censure was cold and general, Collier's was personal and ardent; Blackmore taught his reader to dislike what Collier incited him to abhor.
In his preface to King Arthur he endeavoured to gain at least one friend, and propitiated Congreve by higher praise of his Mourning Bride than it has obtained from any other critic.
The same year he published a satire on wit; a proclamation of defiance which united the poets almost all against him, and which brought upon him lampoons and ridicule from every side. This he doubtless foresaw, and evidently despised; nor should his dignity of mind be without its praise, had he not paid the homage to greatness which he denied to genius, and degraded himself, by conferring that authority over the national taste, which he takes from the poels, upon men of high rank and wide influence, but of less wit, and not greater virtue.
Here is again discovered the inhabitant of Cheapside, whose head cannot keep his poetry unmingled with trade. To hinder that intellectual bankruptcy which he affects to fear, he will erect a bank for wit.
In this poem he justly censured Dryden's impurities, but praised his powers; though in a subsequent edition he retained the satire, and omitted the praise. What was bis reason I know not; Dryden then was no longer in his way. His head still teemed with heroic poetry; and (1705) he published Eliza, in ten books. I am afraid that the world was now weary of contending about Blackmore's heroes; for I do not remember that by any author, serious or comical, I have found Eliza either praised or blamed. She
dropped," as it seems, “ dead-born from the press.” It is never mentioned, and was never seen by me till I borrowed it for the present occasion. Jacob says, “it is cor. rected and revised for another impression;" but the labour of revision was thrown away.
From this time he turned some of his thoughts to the celebration of living characters; and wrote a poem on the kit-cat club, and advice to the poets how to celebrate the duke of Marlborough; but, on occasion of another year of success, thinking himself qualified to give more instruction, be again wrote a poem of advice to a weaver of tapestry. Steele was then publishing the Tatler; and, looking round him for something at which he might laugh, unluckily lighted on sir Richard's work, and treated it with such contempt, that, as Fenton observes, he put an end to the species of writers that gave advice to painters.
Not long after, (1712), he published Creation, a philosophical poem, which has been, by my recommendation, inserted in the late collection. Whoever judges of this by any other of Blackmore's performances, will do it injury. The praise given it by Addison (Spectator, 339) is too well known to be transcribed; but some notice is due to the testimony of Dennis, who calls it a philosophical poem, which has equalled that of Lucretius in the beauty of its versification, and infinitely surpassed it in the solidity and strength of its reasoning."
Why an author surpasses himself, it is natural to inquire. I have heard from mr. Draper, an eminent bookseller, an account received by bim from Ambrose Philips, “ That Blackmore, as he proceeded in this poem, laid his manuscript from time to time before a club of wits with whom he associated; and that every man contributed, as he could, either improvement or correction; so that,” said Philips, “there are perhaps no where in the book thirty lines together that now stand as they were Originally written."
The relation of Philips, I suppose, was true; but, when all reasonable, all credible, allowance is made for this friendly revision, the author will still retain an ample dividend of praise; for to him must always be assigned the plan of the work, the distribution of its parts, the choice of topics, the train of argument, and, what is yet more, the general predominance of philosophical judgment and poetieal spirit. Correction seldom effects more than the suppression of faults: a happy line, or a single elegance, may perhaps be added; but, of a large work, the general character must always remain; the original constitution oan be very little helped by local remedies; inherent and radical dulness will never be much invigorated by extrinsic animation.
This poem, if he had written nothing else, would have transmitted him to posterity among the first favourites of the English muse; but to make verses was his transcendant pleasure, and, as he was not deterred by censure, he was not satiated with praise.
He deviated, however, sometimes into other tracks of literature, and condescended to entertain his readers with plain prose. When the Spectator stopped, he considered the polite world as destitute of entertainment; and, in concert with mr. Hughes, who wrote every third paper, published three times a week the Lay Monastery, founded on the supposition that some literary men, whose characters are described, had retired to a house in the country to enjoy philosophical leisure, and resolved to instruct the public, by communicating their disquisitions and amusements. Whether any real persons were concealed under fictitious names, is not known. The hero of the club is one-mr. Johnson; such a constellation of excellence, that his character shall not be suppressed, though there is no great genius in the design, nor skill in the delineation :
“ The first I shall name is mr. Johnson, a gentleman that owes to nature excellent faculties and an elevated genius, and to industry and application many acquired accomplishments. His taste is distinguishing, just, and delicate: his judgment clear, and his reason strong, accompanied with an imagination full of spirit, of great compass, and
stored with refined ideas. He is a critic of the first rank; and, what is his peculiar ornament, he is delivered from the ostentation, malevolence, and supercilious temper, that so often blemish men of that character. His remarks result from the nature and reason of things, and are formed by a judgment free, and unbiassed by the authority of those who have lazily followed each other in the same beaten track of thinking, and are arrived only at the reputation of acute grammarians and commentators; men who have been copying one another many hundred years, without any improvement; or, if they have ventured farther, have only applied in a mechanical manner the rules of ancient critics to modern writings, and, with great labour, discovered nothing but their own want of judgment and capacity. As mr. Johnson penetrates to the bottom of his subject, by which means his observations are solid and natural, as well as delicate, so his design is always to bring to light some. thing useful and ornamental; whence his character is the rererse to theirs who have eminent abilities in insignificant knowledge, and a great felicity in finding out trifles. He is no less industrious to search out the merit of an author, than sagacious in discerning his errors and defects; and takes more pleasure in commending the beauties, than exposing the blemishes, of a laudable writing: like Horace, in a long work he can bear some deformities, and justly lay them on the imperfection of human nature, which is incapable of faultless productions. When an excellent drama appears in publie, and by its intrinsic worth attracts a general applause, he is not stung with envy and spleen; nor does he express a savage nature in fastening upon the celebrated author, dwelling upon his imaginary defects, and passing over his conspicuous excellencies. He treats all writers upon the same impartial footing ; and is not, like the little critics, taken up entirely in finding out only the beauties of the ancient, and nothing but the errors of the modern, writers. Never did any one express more kindness and good-nature to young and unfinished authors; he promotes their interests, protects their reputation, extenuates their faults, and sets off their virtues, and, by his candour, guards them from the severity of his judgment.