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a pistol in his hand, in the next age to Alexander the Great f. And for his Shepherd, he falls twice into the former indecency of wounding women. But these absurdities, which those poets committed, may more properly be called the age's fault than theirs. For, besides the want of education and learning, (which was their particular unhappiness) they wanted the benefit of converse: But of that I shall speak hereafter, in a place more proper for it. Their audiences knew no better; and therefore were satisfied with what they brought. Those, who call theirs the golden age of poetry, have only this reason for it, that they were then content with acorns before they knew the use of bread; or that "Anis Spvós was become a proverb. They had many who admired them, and few who blamed them; and certainly a severe critic is the greatest help to a good wit: he does the office of a friend, while he designs that of an enemy; and his malice keeps a poet within those bounds, which the luxuriancy of his fancy would tempt him to overleap.
But it is not their plots which I meant principally to tax; I was speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together which is correct in both. As for Ben Jonson, I am loth to name him, because he is a most judicious writer; yet he very often falls into these errors : and I once more beg the reader's pardon for accusing him of them. Only let him consider, that I live in an age where my least faults are severely censured; and that I have no way left.
+ In these criticisms, we see the effects of the refinement which our stage had now borrowed from the French. It is probable, that, in the age of heroic plays, any degree of dulness, or extravagance, would have been tolerated in the dialogue, rather than an offence against the decorum of the scene,
to extenuate my failings, but by showing as great in those whom we admire:
Cædimus, inque vicem præbemus crura sagittis. I cast my eyes but by chance on Catiline; and in the three or four last pages, found enough to conclude that Jonson writ not correctly.
Let the long-hid seeds
In reading some bombast speeches of Macbeth, which are not to be understood, he used to say that it was horror; and I am much afraid that this is so.
Thy parricide late on thy only son,
Which gained thee at once a daughter and a wife. The sense is here extremely perplexed; and I doubt the word they is false grammar.
And be free Not heaven itself from thy impiety. A synchysis, or ill-placing of words, of which Tully so much complains in oratory.
The waves and dens of beasts could not receive
The bodies that those souls were frighted from. The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observed in my own writings.
What all the several ills that visit earth,
Here are both the former faults: for, besides that the preposition unto is placed last in the verse, and at the half period, and is redundant, there is the former synchysis in the words “the sword, nor surfeits,” which in construction ought to have been placed before the other.
Catiline says of Cethegus, that for his sake he
Go on upon the gods, kiss lightning, wrest
At face of a full cloud, and stand his ire. To “ go on upon,” is only to go on twice*. To “ give fire at face of a full cloud,” was not understood in his own time; “and stand his ire,” besides the antiquated word ire, there is the article his, which makes false construction : and giving fire at the face of a cloud, is a perfect image of shooting, however it came to be known in those days to Catilinė.
Others there are,
Ones, in the plural number: but that is frequent with him; for he says, not long after,
Cæsar and Crassus, if they be ill men,
Though heaven should speak with all his wrath at once,
† Jonson seems to have used it for to go on against.
His is ill syntax with heaven; and by unfeared he means unafraid: Words of a quite contrary signification.
« The ports are open.” He perpetually uses ports for gates; which is an affected error in him, to introduce Latin by the loss of the English idiom; as, in the translation of Tully's speeches, he usually does.
Well-placing of words, for the sweetness of pronunciation, was not known till Mr Waller introduced it; and, therefore, it is not to be wondered if Ben Jonson has many such lines as these :
" But being bred up in his father's needy fortunes; brought up in's sister's prostitution,” &c.
But meanness of expression one would think not to be his error in a tragedy, which ought to be more high and sounding than any other kind of poetry; and yet, amongst others in “ Catilinę,” I find these four lines together :
So Asia, thou art cruelly even
Thus by thy vices ruined be, Be there is false English for are; though the rhyme hides it.
But I am willing to close the book, partly out of veneration to the author, partly out of weariness to pursue an argument which is so fruitful in so small a compass. And what correctness, after this, can be expected from Shakespeare or from Fletcher, who wanted that learning and care which Jonson had? I will, therefore, spare my own trouble of enquiring into their faults; who, had they lived now, had doubtless written more correctly. I suppose it will be enough for me to affirm, (as I think I safely may) that these, and the like errors, which I taxed in the
Language is f bullion
by their admi
most correct of the last age, are such into which we do not ordinarily fall. I think few of our present writers would have left behind them such a line as this:
Contain your spirit in more stricter bounds. But that gross way of two comparatives was then ordinary; and, therefore, more pardonable in Jonson.
As for the other part of refining, which consists in receiving new words and phrases, I shall not insist much on it. It is obvious that we have admitted many, some of which we wanted, and therefore our language is the richer for them, as it would be by importation of bullion: Others are rather ornamental than necessary; yet, by their admission, the language is become more courtly, and our thoughts are better drest. These are to be found scattered in the writers of our age, and it is not my business to collect them. They, who have lately written with most care, have, I believe, taken the rule of Horace for their guide; that is, not to be too hasty in receiving of words, but rather stay till custom has made them familiar to us:
• Quem penes arbitrium est, et jus, et norma loquendi. For I cannot approve of their way of refining, who corrupt our English idiom by mixing it too much with French : That is a sophistication of language, not an improvement of it; a turning English into French, rather than a refining of English by French. We meet daily with those fops, who value themselves on their travelling, and pretend they cannot express their meaning in English, because they would put off to us some French phrase of the last edition; without considering, that, for aught they know, we have a better of our own.