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description obscure, they are defects incident to all mankind, which however are not too rashly to be imputed to the authors, being sometimes perhaps more justly chargeable on the translator.
In this translation, if it may be so called, great liberties have been taken, which, whether justifiable or not, shall be fairly confessed, and let the judicious part of mankind pardon or condemn them.
In the first part the greatest freedom has been used, in reducing the narration into a narrow compass; so that it is by no means a translation, but an epitome, in which, whether every thing either useful or entertaining be comprised, the compiler is least qualified to determine.
In the account of Abyssinia, and the continuation, the authors have been followed with more exactness ; and as a few passages appeared either insignificant or tedious, few have been either shortened or omitted.
The dissertations are the only part in which an exact translation has been attempted ; and even in those, abstracts are sometimes given instead of literal quotations, particularly in the first ; and sometimes other parts have been contracted.
Several memorials and letters, which are printed at the end of the dissertations, to secure the credit of the foregoing narrative, are entirely left out.
It is hoped that after this confession, whoever shall compare this attempt with the original, if he shall find no proofs of fraud or partiality, will candidly overlook any failure of judgment. VOL, II
THOUGH criticism has been cultivated in every age of learning, by men of great abilities and extensive knowledge, till the rules of writing are become rather burdensome than instructive to the mind ; though almost every species of competition has been the subject of particular treatises, and given birth to definitions, distinctions, precepts, and illustrations ; yet no critic of note, that has fallen within my observation, has hitherto thought sepulchral inscriptions, worthy of a minute exainination, or pointed out with proper accuracy their beauties and defects.
The reasons of this neglect it is useless to inquire, and perhaps impossible to discover; it might be justly expected that this kind of writing would have been the favourite topic of criticism, and that self love might have
* This was one of the numerous small pieces Dr. Johnson wrote for the Gentleman's Magazine, and appeared there in 1740.
produced some regard for it, in those authors that have crowded libraries with elaborate dissertations upon Homer ; since to afford a subject for heroic poems is the privilege of very few, but every man may expect to be recorded in an epitaph, and therefore finds some interest in providing that his memory may not suffer by an unskilful panegyric.
If our prejudices in favour of antiquity deserve to have any part in the regulation of our studies, EPITAPHS seem entitled to more than common regard, as they are probably of the same age with the art of writing. The most ancient structures in the world, the Pyramids, are supposed to be sepulchral monuments, which either pride or gratitude erected; and the same passions which incited men to such laborious and expensive methods of preserving their own memory, or that of their benefactors, would doubtless incline them not to neglect any easier means by which the same ends might be obtained. Nature and reason have dictated to every nation, that to preserve good actions from oblivion, is both the interest and duty of mankind; and therefore we find no people acquainted with the use of letters, that omitted to grace the tombs of their heroes and wise men with panegyrical inscriptions.
To examine, therefore, in what the perfection of Epitaphs consists, and what rules are to be observed in composing them, will be at least of as much use as other critical inquiries; and for assigning a few hours to such disquisitions, great examples at least, if not strong reasons, may be pleaded,
An EPITAPH, as the word itself implies, is an inscristion on the tomb, and in its most extensive import may admit indiscriminately satire or praise. But as malice has seldom produced monuments of defamation, and the tombs hitherto raised have been the work of friendship and benevolence, custom has contracted the original latitude of the word, so that it signifies in the general acceptation, an inscription engraven on a tomb in honour of the person deceased.
As honours are paid to the dead in order to incite others to the imitation of their excellencies, the principal intention of Epitaphs is to perpetuate the examples of virtue, that the tomb of a good man may supply the want of his presence, and veneration for his memory produce the same effect as the observation of his life. Those EPITAPHS, are therefore, the most perfect, which set virtue in the strongest light, and are best adapted to exalt the reader's ideas and rouse his emulation.
To this end it is not always necessary to recount the actions of a hero, or enumerate the writings of a philosopher ; to imagine such informations necessary, is to detract from their characters, or to suppose their works mortal, or their achievements in danger of being forgotten. The bare name of such men answers every purpose of a long inscription.
Had only the name of Sir Isaac NEWTON been subjoined to the design upon his monument, instead of a long detail of his discoveries, which no philosopher can want, and which none but a philosopher can understand, those, by whose direction it was raised, had done more honour both to him and to themselves,
This indeed in a commendation which it requires no genius to bestow, but which can never become vulgar or contemptible, if bestowed with judgment; because no single age produces many men of merit superior to panegyric. None but the first names can stand unassisted against the attacks of time; and if men raised to reputation by accident or caprice, have nothing but their names engraved on their tombs, there is danger lest in a few years the inscription require an interpreter. Thus have their expectations been disappointed who honoured Picus of Mirandola with this pompous epitaph;
Hic situs est PICUS MIRANDOLA, cætera nount
His name, then celebrated in the remotest corners of the earth, is now almost forgotten; and his works, then studied, admired, and applauded, are now mouldering in obscurity.
Next in dignity to the bare name is a short character, simple and unadorned, without exaggeration, superlatives, or rhetoric. Such were the inscriptions in use among the Romans, in which the victories gained by their emperors were commemorated by a single epithet; as Cesar Germanicus, Cesar Dacicus, Germanicus, Illyricus. Such would be this epitaph, ISAACUS NEWTONUS, naturæ legibus investigatis, hic quiescit.
But to far the greatest part of mankind a longer encomium is necessary for the publication of their virtues, and the preservation of their memories; and in the composition of these it is that art is principally required, and precepts therefore may be useful.