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begin to be understood anong ourselves; and that I can acquaint the publick, we may soon expect very elegant editions of Fletcher, and Milton's Paradise Lost from gentlemen of distinguished abilities and learning. But this interval of good sense, as it may be short, is indeed but new. For I remember to have heard of a very learned man, who, not long since, formed a design of giving a more correct edition of Spenser; and, without doubt, would have performed it well; but he was dissuaded from his purpose by his friends, as beneath the dignity of a professor of the occult sciences. Yet these very friends, I suppose, would have thought it had added lustre to his high station, to have new-furnished out some dull northern chronicle, or dark Sibylline ænigma. But let it not be thought, that what is here said insinuates any thing to the discredit of Greek and Latin criticism. If the follies of particular men were sufficient to bring any branch of learning into disrepute, I do not know any that would stand in a worse situation than that for which I now apologize. For I hardly think there ever appeared, in any learned language, so execrable a heap of nonsense, under the name of commentaries, as hath been lately given us on a certain satirick poet, of the last age, by his editor and coadjutor*.
I am sensible how unjustly the very best classical criticks have been treated. It is said, that our great
* This alludes to Dr. Grey's edition of Hudibras, published in 1744. REED.
philosopher * spoke with much contempt of the two finest scholars of this age, Dr. Bentley and Bishop Hare, for squabbling, as he expressed it, about an old play-book; meaning, I suppose, Terence's come: dies. But this story is unworthy of him: though well enough suiting the fanatick turn of the wild writer that relates it; such censures are amongst the follies of men immoderately given over to one science, and ignorantly undervaluing all the rest. Those learned criticks might, and perhaps did, laugh in their turn (though still, sure, with the same indecency and indiscretion) at that incomparable man, for wearing out a long life in poring through a telescope. Indeed, the weaknesses of such are to be mentioned with reverence. But who can bear, without indignation, the fashionable cant of every trifling writer, whose insipidity passes, with himself, for politeness, for pretending to be shocked, forsooth, with the rude and savage air of vulgar criticks; meaning such as Muretus, Scaliger, Casaubon, Salmasius, Spanheim, Bentley! When, had it not been for the deathless labours of such as these, the western world, at the revival of letters, had soon fallen back again into: a state of ignorance and barbarity, as deplorable as that from which Providence had just redeem, ed it.
* Sir Isaac Newton. See Whiston's Historical Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Clarke, 1748, 8vo. p. 113. REED.
To concluc'e with an observation of a fine writer and great pl ilosopher of our own; which I would gladly bind, though with all honour, as a phylactery, on the brow of every awful grammarian, to teach him at once the use and limits of his art: WORDS ARE THE MONEY OF FOOLS, AND THE COUNTERS OF
PRE FIXED TO Mr. STEEVENS's Edition of Twenty of the old
Quarto Copies of SHAKSPERE, &c. in 4. Vols. 8vo. 1766.
The plays of SHAkspere have been so often republished, with every seeming advantage which the joint labours of men of the first abilities could procure for them, that one would hardly imagine they could Stand in need of any thing beyond the illustration of soine few dark passages. Modes of expression must remain in obscurity, or be retrieved from time to time, as chance may throw the books of that age into the hands of criticks who shall make a proper use of them. Many have been of opinion that his language will continue difficult to all those who are unacquainted with the provincial expressions which they suppose him to have used; but, for ny own part, I cannot believe but that those which are now local may once have been universal, and must have been the language of those persons before whom his plays were represented.
However, it is certain that the instances of obscurity from this source are very few.
Some have been of opinion that even a particular syntax prevailed in the time of Shakspere; but, as I do not recollect that any proofs were ever brought in support of that sentiment, I own I am of the contrary opinion.
In his time, indeed, a different arrangement of syllables had been introduced in imitation of the Latin, as we find in Ascham; and the verb was very frequently kept back in the sentence; but in Shaksperè no marks of it are discernible: and though the rules of syntax were more strictly observed by the writers of that age than they have been since, he of all the number is perhaps the most ungrammatical. To make his meaning intelligible to his audience seems to have been his only care, and with the ease of conversation he has adopted its incorrectness.
The past editors, eminently qualified as they were by genius and learning for this undertaking, wanted industry; to cover which they published catalogues, transcribed at random, of a greater number of old copies than ever they can be supposed to have had in their possession; when, at the sanie time, they never examined the few which we know they had, with any degree of accuracy. The last editor alone has dealt fairly with the world in this particular; he professes to have made use of no more than he had really seen, and has annexed a list of such to every play, together with a complete one of those supposed to be in being,