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and, perhaps, have had fancy enough to give a supper in the Apollo, that they might be called his sons*: And, because they were drawn in to be laughed at in those times, they think themselves now sufficiently entitled to laugh at ours. Learning I never saw in any of them; and wit no more than they could remember. In short, they were unlucky to have been bred in an unpolished age, and more unlucky to live to a refined one. They have lasted beyond their own, and are cast behind ours; and, not contented to have known little at the age of twenty, they boast of their ignorance at threescore.
Now, if they ask me, whence it is that our conversation is so much refined ? I must freely, and without flattery, ascribe it to the court; and, in it, particularly to the king, whose example gives a law to it. His own misfortunes, and the nation's, afforded him an opportunity, which is rarely allowed to sovereign princes, I mean of travelling, and being conversant in the most polished courts of Europe; and, thereby, of cultivating a spirit which was formed by nature to receive the impressions of a gallant and generous education. At his return, he found a nation lost as much in barbarism as in rebellion : And, as the excellency of his nature forgave the one, so the excellency of his manners reformed the other.
* The Apollo was Ben Jonson's favourite club-room in the Devil Tavern. The custom of adopting his admirers and imitators, by bestowing upon them the title of Son, is often alluded to in his works. In Dryden's time, the fashion had so tar changed, that the poetical progeny of old Ben seem to have incurred more ridicule than honour by this ambitious distinction. Oldwit, in Shadwell's play, called Bury Fair, is described as “a paltry oldfashioned wit and punner of the last age, that pretends to have been one of Ben Jonson's sons, and to have seen plays at the Blackfriars."
The desire of imitating so great a pattern first awakened the dull and heavy spirits of the English from their natural reservedness ; loosened them from their stiff forms of conversation, and made them easy and pliant to each other in discourse. Thus, insensibly, our way of living became more free; and the fire of the English wit, which was before stifled under a constrained, melancholy way of breeding, began first to display its force, by mixing the solidity of our nation with the air and gaiety of our neighbours * This being granted to be true, it would be a wonder if the poets, whose work is imitation, should be the only persons in three kingdoms who should not receive advantage by it; or, if they should not more easily imitate the wit and conversation of the present age than of the past.
Let us therefore admire the beauties and the heights of Shakespeare, without falling after him into a carelessness, and, as I may call it, a lethargy of thought, for whole scenes together. Let us imitate, as we are able, the quickness and easiness of Fletcher, without proposing him as a pattern to us, either in the redundancy of his matter, or the incorrectness of his language. Let us admire his wit and sharpness of conceit; but let us at the same time acknowledge, that it was seldom so fixed, and made proper to his character, as that the same things might not be spoken by any person in the play. Let us applaud his scenes of love; but let
* This passage, though complimentary to Charles, contains much sober truth : Having considerable taste for the Belles Lettres, he cultivated them during his exile, and was naturally swayed by the French rules of composition, particularly as applicable to the Theatre. These he imported with him at his Restoration ; and hence arose the Heroic Drama, so much cultivated by our author. us confess, that he understood not either greatness or perfect honour in the parts of any of his women. In fine, let us allow, that he had so much fancy, as when he pleased he could write wit; but that he wanted so much judgment, as seldom to have written humour, or described a pleasant folly. Let us ascribe to Jonson, the height and accuracy of judgment in the ordering of his plots, his choice of characters, and maintaining what he had chosen to the end: But let us not think him a perfect pattern of imitation, except it be in humour; for love, which is the foundation of all comedies in other languages, is scarcely mentioned in any of his plays : And for humour itself, the poets of this age will be more wary than to imitate the meanness of his persons. Gentlemen will now be entertained with the follies of each other; and, though they allow Cobb and Tib to speak properly, yet they are not much pleased with their tankard, or with their rags : And surely their conversation can be no jest to them on the theatre, when they would avoid it in the street.
To conclude all, let us render to our predecessors what is their due, without confining ourselves to a servile imitation of all they writ; and, without assuming to ourselves the title of better poets, let us ascribe to the gallantry and civility of our age the advantage which we have above them, and, to our knowledge of the customs and manners of it, the happiness we have to please beyond them.
The bold Epilogue, which is here defended with so much ani. mation, and the censure which it threw on the fathers of the stage, seems to have given great offence. It is thus severely assailed by Rochester:
But does not Dryden find even Jonson dull ?
It is a bold, perhaps a presumptuous task, to attempt to separate the true from the false criticism in the foregoing essay; for who is qualified to be umpire betwixt Shakespeare and Dryden? Nevertheless, our knowledge of the manners of the respective ages which these extraordinary men adorned, and the remoteness of our own from both, may enable us, with impartiality at least, to sift the grounds of Dryden's censure. The nature of the stage in the days of Shakespeare has been ascertained, by the sedulous exertions of his commentators. A variety of small theatres, all of them accessible to the lowest of the people, poor and rude in all the arts of decoration, were dispersed through London when Shakespeare and Jonson wrote for the stage. It was a natural consequence, that the writings of these great men were biassed by the taste of those, for whom they wrote;
For those, who live to please, must please, to live.
Art was not demanded ; and when used by Jonson, he complains it was not duly appreciated. Men of a middle rank were then probably worse educated than our mere vulgar. But the good old time bore rough and manly spirits, who came prepared with a tribute of tears and laughter, to bursts of pathos, or effusions of 230
humour, although incapable of receiving the delights which a cultivated mind derives from the gradual developement of a story, the just dependence of its parts upon each other, the minute beauties of language, and the absence of every thing incongruous or indecorous. Dryden, on the other hand, wrote for a stage patronized by a monarch and his courtiers, who were professed judges of dramatic composition ; while the rigour of religious prejudice, and perhaps a just abhorrence of the licentious turn of the drama, banished from the theatres a great proportion of the middle classes, always the most valuable part of an audience ; because, with a certain degree of cultivation, they unite an unhacknied energy of feeling. Art, therefore, became, in the days of Dryden, not only a requisite qualification, but even the principal attribute of the dramatic poet. He was to address himself to the heads and judgments of his audience, on the acuteness of which they piqued themselves; not to their feelings, stupified, probably, by selfish dissipation. Even the acquisition and exercise of critical knowledge tends to blunt the sense of natural beauties, as a refined harmonist becomes indifferent to the strains of simple melody. Hence the sacrifices which Shakespeare made, without being aware, to the taste of his age, were amply compensated by his being called upon, and, as it were, compelled, by the nature of his audience, to rouse them with his thunder, and to melt them with his dew. I question much if the age of Charles II. would have borne the introduction of Othello or Falstaff. We may find something like Dryden's self-complacent opinion expressed by the editor of Cor. neille, where he civilly admits, “ Corneille etoit inegal comme Shakespeare, et plein de gerie comme lui : mais le genie de Corneille etoit a celui de Shakespeare ce qu'un seigneur est a l'egard d'un homme de peuple, né avec le meme esprit que lui." In other words, the works of the one retain the rough, bold tints of nature and originality, while those of the other are qualified by the artificial restraints which fashion imposes upon the homme de condition. It is, therefore, unjustly, that Dryden dwells so long on Shakespeare's irregularities, amongst which I cannot help suspecting he includes some of his greatest beauties. While we do not defend his quibbles and carwitchets, as Bibber would have termed them, we may rejoice that he purchased, at so slight a sacrifice, the power and privilege of launching into every subject with a liberty as unbounded as his genius;
As there is music, uninformed by art,