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naturalize those absurdities, and bring them under a regular system.") Somewhat effectual, however, might have been done towards fixing the standard of the English language, had it not been for the spirit of party. For both Whigs and Tories being ambitious to stand at the head of so great a design, the Queen's death happened before any plan of an academy could be resolved on. Meanwhile, the necessity of such an institution became every day more apparent. The periodical and political writers who then swarmed, adopted the very worst manner of L'Estrange, till not only all decency, but all propriety of language, was lost in the nation. Leslie, a pert writer, with some wit and learning, insulted the government every week with the grossest abuse.” His style and manner, both of which were illiberal, was imitated by Ridpath,” De Foe, Dunton,” and others of the opposite party; and Toland(*)
(1) [See Swift's ‘Proposal for correcting, improving, and ascertaining the English Tongue, in a Letter to the Earl of Oxford and Mortimer. “It was Swift's object,” says Sir Walter Scott, “to limit and fix the English tongue by a general standard, to be ascertained by a society resembling the French Academy. Various answers were published to his proposal, all tending to impugn the authority of the institution, ere it was yet embodied, and several intimating, with the usual candour of disputants, that the chief purpose of the author was to create for himself an office of power and of profit. Meanwhile the Lord Treasurer gave fair promises, but nothing more: and thus fell to the ground a proposal in which, as in many other cases, an inadequate remedy is proposed for an evil, which, if indeed it be a real one, is inherent in the progressive state of society.”—Prose Works, vol. ii. p. 133.] (2) [Charles (second son of John Leslie, fifty years bishop of Clogher), author of the “Short Method with the Deists,’ &c. He died in 1722.] (3) [Author of a Whig journal, called the ‘Flying Post,'— “'Tis the same rope at different ends they twist; To Dulness Ridpath is as dear as Mist.”—Pope.] (4) [John Dunton, bookseller and miscellaneous writer. He projected the ‘Athenian Mercury, and wrote his own “Life and Errors,' a work which was reprinted, in 1818, by Mr. Nichols.]
pleaded the cause of atheism and immorality in much the same strain; his subject seemed to debase his diction, and he ever failed most in one, when he grew most licentious in the other. Towards the end of Queen Anne's reign, some of the greatest men in England devoted their time to party, and then a much better manner obtained in political writing. Mr. Walpole, Mr. Addison, Mr. Mainwaring, Mr. Steele, and many members of both houses of parliament, drew their pens for the Whigs; but they seem to have been overmatched, though not in argument yet in writing, by Bolingbroke, Prior, Swift, Arbuthnot, and the other friends of the opposite party. They who oppose a ministry, have always a better field for ridicule and reproof, than they who defend it. Since that period, our writers have either been encouraged above their merits or below them. Some who were possessed of the meanest abilities acquired the highest preferments, while others who seemed born to reflect a lustre upon their age, perished by want and neglect. More," Savage, and Amhurst,” were possessed of great abilities; yet they were suffered to feel all the miseries that usually attend the ingenious and the imprudent, that attend men of strong passions and no phlegmatic reserve in their command. At present, were a man to attempt to improve his fortune, or increase his friendship by poetry, he would soon feel the anxiety of disappointment. The press lies open, and is a benefactor to every sort of literature but that alone. I am at a loss whether to ascribe this falling off of the public to a vicious taste in the poet, or in them. Perhaps both are to be reprehended. The poet either drily didactive
(1) [James More, author of the ‘Rival Modes,' a periodical paper entitled the “Inquisitor,’ and one of the heroes of the Dunciad.]
(2) [Nicholas Amhurst, author of “Terræ Filius, and a contributor to the “Craftsman.' He died in 1742.]
gives us rules, which might appear abstruse even in a system of ethics, or triflingly volatile writes upon the most unworthy subjects: content, if he can give music instead of sense; content, if he can paint to the imagination without any desires or endeavours to effect; the public, therefore, with justice discard such empty sound, which has nothing but a jingle, or, what is worse, the unmusical flow of blank verse to recommend it. The late method, also, into which our newspapers have fallen of giving an epitome of every new publication, must greatly damp the writer's genius. He finds himself in this case at the mercy of men, who have neither abilities nor learning to distinguish his merit. He finds his own composition mixed with the sordid trash of every daily scribbler. There is a sufficient specimen given of his work to abate curiosity, and yet so mutilated as to render him contemptible. His first, and perhaps his second work, by these means sink among the crudities of the age into oblivion. Fame, he finds, begins to turn her back: he therefore flies to profit which invites him, and he enrols himself in the lists of dulness and of avarice for life. Yet there are still among us men of the greatest abilities; and who, in some parts of learning, have surpassed their predecessors. Justice and friendship might here impel me to speak of names which will shine out to all posterity, but prudence restrains me from what I should otherwise eagerly embrace. Envy might rise against every honoured name I should mention; since scarcely one of them has not those who are his enemies, or those who despise him.
OF THE OPERA. IN ENGLAND. The rise and fall of our amusements pretty much resemble
that of empire. They this day flourish without any visible cause for such vigour; the next they decay without any reason that can be assigned for their downfall. Some years ago the Italian opera was the only fashionable amusement among our nobility. The managers of the playhouses dreaded it as a mortal enemy, and our very poets listed themselves in the opposition; at present the house seems deserted, the castrati sing to empty benches, even Prince Vologeso") himself, a youth of great expectations, sings himself out of breath, and rattles his chain to no purpose. To say the truth, the opera, as it is conducted among us, is but a very humdrum amusement: in other countries, the decorations are entirely magnificent, the singers all excellent, and the burlettas or interludes quite entertaining; the best poets compose the words, and the best masters the music ; but with us it is otherwise; the decorations are but trifling and cheap; the singers, Mattei only excepted, but indifferent. Instead of interlude, we have those sorts of skipping dances, which are calculated for the galleries of the theatre. Every performer sings his favourite song, and the music is only a medley of old Italian airs, or some meagre modern capriccio. When such is the case, it is not to be wondered if the opera is pretty much neglected: the lower orders of people have neither taste nor fortune to relish such an entertainment; they would find more satisfaction in the ‘Roast Beef of Old England” than in the finest closes of an eunuch ; they sleep amidst all the agony of recitative: on the other hand, people of fortune or taste can hardly be pleased, where there is a visible poverty in the decorations, and an entire want of taste in the composition. Would it not surprise one, that when Metastasio is so well known in England, and so universally admired, the manager or the composer should have recourse to any other operas than those written by him. I might venture to say,
that “written by Metastasio” put up in the bills of the day, would alone be sufficient to fill a house; since thus the admirers of sense as well as sound might find entertainment. The performers also should be entreated to sing only their parts, without clapping in any of their own favourite airs. I must own, that such songs are generally to me the most disagreeable in the world. Every singer generally chooses a favourite air, not from the excellency of the music, but from the difficulty ; such songs are generally chosen as surprize rather than please, where the performer may show his compass, his breath, and his volubility. Hence proceed those unnatural startings, those unmusical closings, and shakes lengthened out to a painful continuance: such, indeed, may show a voice, but it must give a truly delicate ear the utmost uneasiness. Such tricks are not music; neither Corelli nor Pergolesi ever permitted them, and they begin even to be discontinued in Italy, where they first had their rise. And now I am upon the subject; our composers also should affect greater simplicity: let their bass cliff have all the variety they can give it ; let the body of the music (if I may so express it) be as various as they please, but let them avoid ornamenting a barren ground-work; let them not attempt, by flourishing, to cheat us of solid harmony. The works of M. Rameau are never heard without a surprising effect. I can attribute it only to this simplicity he every where observes, insomuch that some of his finest harmonies are often only octave and unison. This simple manner has greater powers than is generally imagined; and were not such a demonstration misplaced, I think, from the principles of music, it might be proved to be most agreeable.