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Whose word is truth, as sacred and rever'd
As Heaven's own oracles from altars heard.
Wonder of kings! like whom, to mortal eyes,
None e'er has risen, and none e'er shall rise.
Just in one instance, be it yet confest,
Your people, sir, are partial in the rest;
Foes to all living worth except your own,
And advocates for folly dead and gone.
Authors, like coins, grow dear as they grow old; 35
It is the rust we value, not the gold.
Chaucer's worst ribaldry is learn'd by rote,
And beastly Skelton heads of houses quote.
One likes no language but the Faery Queen;
A Scot will fight for Christ's Kirk the Green;
And each true Briton is to Ben so civil,
He swears the Muses met him at the Devil.
Though justly Greece her eldest sons admires,
Why should not we be wiser than our sires?
In every public virtue we excel;
We build, we paint, we sing, we dance as well;
And learned Athens to our art must stoop,
Could she behold us tumbling through a hoop.
If time improve our wit as well as wine,
Say at what age a poct grows divine?
Shall we, or shall we not, account him so
Who died, perhaps, an hundred years ago?
End all dispute; and fix the year precise
When British bards began t' immortalize?
Who lasts a century can have no flaw;
I hold that wit a classic good in law.'
Suppose he wants a year, will you compound? And shall we deem him ancient, right, and sound,
Or damn to all eternity at once
At ninety-nine a modern and a dunce?
'We shall not quarrel for a year or two;
By courtesy of England he
Then by the rule that made the horse-tail bare,
I pluck out year by year, as hair by hair,
And melt down ancients like a heap of snow,
While you, to measure merits, look in Stowe,
And estimating authors by the year,
Bestow a garland only on a bier.
Shakspeare (whom you and every play-house bill
Style the divine, the matchless, what you will)
For gain, not glory, wing'd his roving flight,
And grew immortal in his own despight.
Ben, old and poor, as little seem'd to heed
The life to come in every poet's creed.
Who now reads Cowley? if he pleases yet,
His moral pleases, not his pointed wit:
Forgot his Epic, nay, Pindaric art;
But still I love the language of his heart.
Yet surely, surely these were famous men!
What boy but hears the sayings of old Ben?
In all debates where critics bear a part,
Not one but nods, and talks of Jonson's art,
Of Shakspeare's nature, and of Cowley's wit;
How Beaumont's judgment check'd what Fletcher
How Shadwell hasty, Wycherley was slow;
But for the passion, Southern, sure, and Rowe!
These, only these, support the crowded stage,
From eldest Heywood down to Cibber's age.'
All this may be; the people's voice is odd;
It is, and it is not, the voice of God.
To Gammer Gurton if it gives the bays,
And yet deny the Careless Husband praise,
Or say our fathers never broke a rule,
Why then, I say, the public is a fool.
But let them own that greater faults than we
They had, and greater virtues, I'll agree.
Spenser himself affects the obsolete,
And Sydney's verse halts ill on Roman feet;
Milton's strong pinion now not Heaven can bound,
Now, serpent-like, in prose he sweeps the ground;
In quibbles angel and archangel join,
And God the father turns a school-divine.
Not that I'd lop the beauties from his book,
Like slashing Bentley with his desperate hook;
Or damn all Shakspeare, like th' affected fool
At court, who hates whate'er he read at school.
But for the wits of either Charles's days,
The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease;
Sprat, Carew, Sedley, and a hundred more,
(Like twinkling stars the miscellanies o'er;)
One simile that solitary shines
In the dry desert of a thousand lines,
Or lengthen'd thought, that gleams through many a page,
Has sanctified whole poems for an age.
I lose my patience, and I own it too,
When works are censur'd not as bad, but new;
While if our elders break all reason's laws,
These fools demand not pardon but applause.
On Avon's bank, where flowers eternal blow, If I but ask if any weed can grow;
One tragic sentence if I dare deride,
Which Betterton's grave action dignified,
Or well-mouth'd Booth with emphasis proclaims,
(Though but perhaps a muster-roll of names)
How will our fathers rise up in a rage,
And swear all shame is lost in George's age!
You'd think no fools disgrac'd the former reign,
Did not some grave examples yet remain,
Who scorn a lad should teach his father skill,
And having once been wrong will be so still.
He who, to seem more deep than you or I,
Extols old bards, or Merlin's Prophecy,
Mistake him not; he envies, not admires;
And to debase the sons exalts the sires.
Had ancient times conspir'd to disallow
What then was new, what had been ancient now?
Or what remain'd, so worthy to be read
By learned critics of the mighty dead?
In days of ease, when now the weary sword
Was sheath'd, and luxury with Charles restor❜d, 140 In every taste of foreign courts improv'd,
All by the king's example liv'd and lov'd.'