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Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of oc an hear;
It is a common, but, I believe, a very unjust assertion, that this is not the age of genius. I make no doubt but that every age and every country has some portion, though perhaps not an equal one, of the heavenly fire: why this burns brighter at one time, and in one place, than another, is not so much from the difference of genius as of encouragement. I am sorry to say that the whole circle of polite arts are neglected in England, at present, to a degree of barbarism but shall in this essay confine myself to poetry; the most pleasing, and, in the judgment of the wisest and best ages, the most noble and truly inspired of them all.
That the seeds of this divine art are every where, is a truth which cannot be contested (the wild Indians have their songs of war and love; and even Lapland, if Scheffer is to be credited, has produced odes full of inspiration); but to make them grow to any great perfection, the
warm beams of favour are necessary: they may sprout in an unkindly soil, by an extraordinary effort of nature, even without the necessary culture; but their growth will be slow and languid, and the greatest part will never put forth at all.
Why did the courts of Augustus, of Leo the Tenth, our two glorious Queens Elizabeth and Anne, and of Lewis the Fourteenth, abound with poets whose works will be immortal? Why, but because they were sought for and encouraged. Fame and fortune then attended the Muses' steps; they led their raptured votaries into the cabinets of princes, who distinguished them by honours and rewards, and were by them, in return, crowned with wreaths of immortality.
This is so far from being the case in our age, that the daring mortal, who, in defiance of poverty, envy, and contempt, will deserve well of his country as a writer, must be content to have his life a perpetual warfare: he must bear to be traduced, ridiculed, despised; and, as to profit, he must be very successful indeed, if, after neglecting every other means of raising a fortune, and devoting his days to the most painful labour, that of the mind, he gets a support equal to that which recompenses the toil of the meanest artisan: nay, what to one of a liberal turn of think
ing is ten thousand times more dreadful than this kind of distress, he will become contemptible for that very poverty which ought only to reflect on the nation which suffers him to be poor:
Want is the scorn of ev'ry wealthy fool,
And wit in rags is turn'd to ridicule.
There is nothing which an embroidered beau pronounces with such disdain, as, a fellow that writes for bread, when almost all mankind are 'pursuing the same end, though not all of them by means so laudable. Indeed, this particular mode of expression is more applicable to authors than to any other body of men, since the most fortunate of them seldom arrive at more than bread, and few even at that.
It seems to be the received opinion, that poverty is so truly the sister of poetry that they ought to be inseparable. I have often wondered how such a connexion came to be thought of. Surely the man who is blest with ease and influence has more chance to write well, than he whose mind is torn by continual anxiety, and who, perhaps, when he should be thinking how to wind up the catastrophe of his poem, is considering how he shall get a dinner. One argument, indeed, there is for continuing to starve poets; that the muses delight in solitude; and
all who know the world, will allow that being poor, is the most infallible means of being alone. I doubt not but this Gothic contempt of the most charming of all arts has buried many a noble genius in oblivion; and unless some redress is speedily applied, poetry in Britain will soon be at its last gasp.
I know a very sensible man, who, finding some excellent poetical compositions of his son's, threw them all into the fire, charged him, on his blessing, to abandon all studies of that kind, and bound him clerk to an attorney; and, as a man of the world, he did right: he well knew the greater his merit as a poet was, the more likely he was, from the modesty inseparable from true genius, to starve; and he is now possessed of a good estate, which, in the judgment of the great part of mankind, comprehends every thing desirable.
That all genius is not extinct, might be proved by the mention of some writings of authors now living; but, as I will not by praise, however just, bribe the applause of any, I will only say, that we have now poets who in lyric, elegiac, didactic, and dramatic compositions, have shewn that they are capable, if properly encouraged, of rivalling ancient Greece and Rome. When I say dramatic, I would not be understood to
mean, that our modern theatrical pieces are really equal to those of the last age; but that it is not from want of fire in some of the writers that they fall short of them; but from particular circumstances which I may, perhaps, endeavour to explain in another paper.
It indulges my pride, as a woman, to reflect, that the two bright æras of wit and learning in England were female reigns; reigns which not only in this respect, but in all others, will be the admiration of posterity; when arts, arms, and liberty, were in their highest perfection. Even in the last years of Queen Anne, embarrassed as she was by the fury of contending parties, she gave not up the protection of genius and learning however she varied in other things, she kept this point steadily in view to the last : and both her ministries, fired by her example, strove as eagerly for the honour of protecting the liberal arts as for power.
Since our present great men are so shamefully, I may add so impoliticly, negligent; I recommend it to my own sex to take poetry under their protection. Beauty, even in this age, will give them influence; and they cannot employ it better than in raising the drooping muses, and restoring them to that esteem which they have been of late so unjustly deprived of. The