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How strange, how curious, is the critic's art!
În this curious age, the following letter cannot fail of being an entertainment to the public.
Mr. Having for twenty years last past been very busily employed, I think it now incumbent on me to acquaint the world what I have been doing: ‘for as every private man takes the liberty of examining the public conduct, most certainly the public has an equal right to be informed how
every private man disposes of himself. You must then know, that, with infinite labour and assiduity, I have been turning over and examining whole cart-loads of comments, expositions, vocabularies, explanatory notes, and indexes, collating manuscripts, and settling their various readings ; and all this with an intent to improve the noble art of criticism, and clear up those obscurities in ancient authors, which either length of time, or the negligence of transcribers, has been the cause of. Whereby I have attained such a perfect knowledge in things of this nature,
that I flatter myself no writer can come amiss to
And having most at heart the honour of my own country, I have employed this skill chiefly to restore such old English authors as are neglected and almost lost for want of being duly understood; and send you, as a specimen, an essay on a little poem, which our forefathers esteemed so highly, that they seldom failed to implant it in the memory of their children so soon as they could speak; though the bard who wrote it, and the age wherein he lived, cannot certainly be found out; but there is good reason to believe it must have been some time between the Conquest and the Reformation.
As this piece has never yet been attempted, though it may move the envy of my brother critics, it will, I doubt not, be greatly useful and entertaining to the world; and according to its success, I shall suppress or publish above 100 volumes, which, with inexpressible pains, and equal candour, I have compiled for the service of my country.
Once I was a bachelor, and lived by myself,
The wheel-barrow broke, and my wife had a fall;
Once I was à bachelor,
It is the general opinion of all the commentators I have yet seen, that the ingenious author of this poem was, even at the time he wrote, a married man: and indeed they bring some tolerable reasons for that belief, from the last line of the piece itself; as I shall shew in my observations on it. But, whether or no this important point can be determined, two things seem evident from the passage now before us': first, that he was a man of learning; and, secondly, that he was an admirer of those lines which were originally before the Æneids of Virgil, till taken away by Varus: for does he not exactly begin in the same manner as 6 Ille ego.qui quondam.”
And lived by myself.
This phrase is very ambiguous, and has caused much dispute. Some make it imply his dwelling in a house all alone, without any mortal in it but himself: others again insist, there is no necessity to take the literal sense so strictly; for they say, a man may be said to live by himself, who has only a servant or two about him, which cannot be
called company. Another sort suppose it only means, his living in a private manner, and perhaps in a lonely house, without paying or receiving visits: and there are again others, who reject all the above opinions entirely, and make living by himself to signify, that he lived, or subsisted, or got a livelihood, by his own care and industry; id est, without the assistance of any body.-I shall not take upon me to determine in this nice case, but leave it to the judicious : however, I must not conceal that some manuscripts have it differently (viz. and lay by myself); which is indeed a much plainer sense, could it be proved genuine ; but as it appears in none of the early copies, it was probably introduced into some later ones, with design to get rid of the difficulty abovementioned : and the text, as I have given it, seems, according to my judgment, much more coherent with what immediately comes after.
And all the victuals that I had I put upon a shelf.
Much time and learning have been spent to explain the meaning of the word victuals. Some make it signify, all kinds of food in general; others affix it to particulars, such as sirloin of beef, Westphalia ham, venison pasty, gammon of bacon, &c. according, I suppose, to every one's
different taste. But, for my own part, I apprehend, that every word is to be understood accord. ing to the subject about which it is employed; as for instance, in this before us; victuals, when speaking of a country squire's table, may signify buttock of beef, chine of pork, &c.; when applied to a fine lady, ortolan, or leg of a lark; but when used in mentioning a city feast, must always mean fowls and bacon, haunch of venison, powdered goose, and custard. And this will shew us the true explanation of it in this place : for are we not speaking of a bachelor? and will not every child tell us that bread and cheese and kisses are the fare (i.e. the victuals) of a bachelor? ergo, it must signify bread and cheese, and nothing else : for though kisses were added by the way of sauce, they could not be put upon a shelf, as we are told this was. And hereby may be seen how easily truth is found out, when sought after without pride or prejudice. The diet of our present bachelors is indeed very different, for they make whole meals of the sauce only; but in the early days of simplicity when our author wrote, without doubt his way of speak. ing was so intelligible that no one could mistake his meaning.
As to the shelf here mentioned, the learned are at a loss, whether it was a hanging-shelf, or