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When first that sun too pow’rful beams displays, It draws up vapours which obscure its rays; 471 But ev’n those clouds at last adorn its way, Reflect new glories, and augment the day.
Be thou the first true merit to befriend; His praise is lost, who stays till all commend. 475
COMMENTARY. Ver. 474. Be thou the first, 8c.] The poet having now gone through the last cause of wrong Judgment, and the root of all the resi, PARTIALITY; and ended his remarks upon it with a detection of the two rankest kinds, those which arise out of PARTY-RAGE and Envy; takes the occasion, which this affords him, of closing his second division in the most graceful manner, [from ver. 473 to 560.] by concluding from the premises, and calling upon the TRUE CRITIC to be careful of his charge, which is the protection and support of Wit. For, the defence of it from malevolent censure is its true protection; and the illustration of its beauties, is its true support.
He first shews, the Critic ought to do this service without loss of time: and on these motives. 1. Out of regard to himself: for
have at length been reduced to borrow from him, imitate his manner, and reflect what they could of his splendor, merely to keep themselves in some little credit. Nor hath the poet been less artful, to insinuate what is sometimes the cause. A youthful genius, like the sun rising towards the meridian, displays too strong and powerful beams for the dirty temper of inferior writers, which occasions their gathering, condensing, and blackening. But as he descends from the meridian (the time when the sun gives its gilding to the surrounding clouds) his rays grow milder, his heat more benign, and then “ Ev'n those clouds at last adorn its
way, Reflect new glories and augment the day.” Warburton. Ver. 474. Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
His praise is lost, who stays till all commend.] When Thomson published his Winter, 1726, it lay a long time neglected, till Mr. Spence made honourable mention of it in his
Essay VOL. III.
Short is the date, alas, of modern rhymes,
COMMENTARY. there is some merit in giving the world notice of an excellence ; but little or none, in pointing, like an Index, to the beaten road of admiration. 2. Out of regard to the Poen: for the short duration of modern works requires, that they should begin to live betimes. He compares the life of modern Wit, (which, in a changeable dialect, must soon pass away) and that of the ancient, (which survives in an universal language) to the difference between the Patriarchal
age and our own: and observes, that while the ancient writings live for ever as it were, in brass and marble, the modern are but like Paintings, which, of how masterly a hand soever, have no sooner gained their requisite perfection by the softening and ripening of their tints, which they do in a very few years, but they begin to fade and die away. 3. Lastly, our Author shews, that the Critic ought in justice, to do this service out of regard to the Poet, when he considers the slender dowry the Muse brings along with her: in youth 'tis only a vain and short-lived pleasure; and in maturer years, an accession of care and labour, in proportion to the weight of reputation to be sustained, and of the increase of envy to be opposed : and therefore, concludes his reasoning on this head, with that pathetic and insinuating address to the Critic, from ver. 508 to 526.
“ Ah! let not learning," &c.
Essay on the Odyssey ; which becoming a popular book, made the poem universally known. Thomson always acknowledged the use of this recommendation; and from this circumstance an intimacy commenced between the critic and the poet, which lasted till the lamented death of the latter, who was of a most amiable and benevolent temper. I have before me a letter of Mr. Spence to Pitt, earnestly begging him to subscribe to the quarto edition of Thomson's Seasons, and mentioning a design which Thomson had formed of writing a descriptive poem on Blenheim ; a subject that would have shone in his hands. It was some time after publication, before the Odes of Gray were relished and admired. They were even burlesqued by two men of wit and genius, who, however, once owned to me, that they repented of the attempt. The Hecyra
No longer now that golden age appears,
of Terence, the Misanthrope of Moliere, the Phædra of Racine, the Way of the World of Congreve, the Silent Woman of Ben Jonson, were ill received on their first exhibitions. Out of an hundred comedies written by Menander, eight only obtained the prize; and only five of Euripides out of the seventy tragedies he wrote. Our author seems to be eminently fortunate, who never, from his early youth, published a piece that did not meet with immediate approbation, except, perhaps, the first Epistle of the Essay on Man.
Warton. Ver. 476. Short is the date,] “All living languages are liable to change. The Greek and Latin, though composed of more durable materials than ours, were subject to perpetual vicissitude, till they ceased to be spoken. The former is, with reason, believed to have been more stationary than any other; and indeed a very particular attention was paid to the preservation of it; yet between Spenser and Pope, Hooker and Sherlock, Raleigh and Smollett, a difference of dialect is not more perceptible, than between Homer and Apollonius, Xenophon and Plutarch, Aristotle and Antoninus. In the Roman authors, the change of language is still more remarkable. How different, in this respect, is Ennius from Virgil, Lucilius from Horace, Cato from Columella, and even Catullus from Ovid! The Laws of the Twelve Tables, though studied by every Roman of condition, were not perfectly understood, even by antiquarians, in the time of Cicero, when they were not quite four hundred years old. Cicero himself, as well as Lucretius, made several improvements in the Latin tongue; Virgil introduced some new words; and Horace asserts his right to the same privilege; and from his remarks upon it, appears to have considered the immutability of living language as an impossible thing. It were vain then to flatter ourselves with the hope of permanency any of the modern tongues of Europe; which, being more ungrammatical than the Latin and Greek, are exposed to more dangerous, because less discernible, innovations. Our want of tenses and cases makes a multitude of auxiliary verbs necessary; and to these the unlearned are not attentive, because they look upon them as the least important parts of language; and hence
Now length of Fame (our second life) is lost, 480
they come to be omitted or misapplied in conversation, and afterwards in writing. Besides, the spirit of commerce, manufacture, and naval enterprize, so honourable to modern Europe, and to Great Britain in particular, and the free circulation of arts, sciences, and opinions, owing, in part, to the use of printing, and to our improvements in navigation, must render the modern tongues, and especially the English, more variable than the Greek or Latin."~Beattie.
Warton. Ver. 482. failing language] " In England (says an ingenious Italian) the Translation of the Bible is the standard of their language; in Italy the standard is, the Decamerone of Boccacio."
Warton. 484. So when, &c.] This similitude from painting, in which our author discovers (as he always does on that subject) real science, has still a more peculiar beauty, as at the same time that it.confesses the just superiority of ancient writings, it insinuates one advantage the modern have above them; which is this, that in these latter, our more intimate acquaintance with the occasion of writing, and with the manners described, lets us into those living and striking graces which may be well compared to that perfection of imitation given only by the pencil. While the ravages of time, amongst the monuments of former ages, have left us but the gross substance of ancient wit; so much only of the form and fashion of bodies as may be expressed in brass or marble. Warburton.
The treach'rous colours the fair art betray,
Unhappy Wit, like most mistaken things,
If Wit so much from Ign’rance undergo, Ah let not learning too commence its foe! Of old, those met rewards who could excell, 510 And such were prais’d who but endeavour'd well:
Ver. 508. If Wit so much from Ign’rance undergo,] Boileau going one day to receive his pension, and the treasurer reading these words in his order, “ the pension we have granted to Boileau, on account of the satisfaction his works have given us," asked him of what kind were his works ; “ Of masonry (replied the Poet), I am a builder !" Racine used to relate, that an old magistrate, who had never been at a play, was carried, one day, to his Andromaque. This magistrate was very attentive to the tragedy, to which was added the Plaideurs; and going out of the theatre, he said to the author, “I am extremely pleased, Sir, with your Andromaque: I am only amazed that it ends so gaily; j'avois d'abord eu quelque envie de pleurer, mais la vue des petits chiens m'a fait rire.”