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The criticks upon ancient authors have conducted themselves with great diffidence upon this point. For what is the long catalogue of rhetorical and poetical figures, that are taught us in our youth, but a respectful enumeration of the anomalies into which distinguished writers have fallen, which are received with submission, and even imitated with confidence, when they come recommended to us by the sanction of such authority? But, in truth, there are, in every language, certain peculiarities which constitute its idiom, which no precepts can teach, and to which no one, who is a foreigner, can ever attain. Dr. Beattie has observed, in one of his letters, that there is a charm in genuine English, as written by a native, which is wanting even in the most correct and eloquent productions which have issued from Scotland, because in these it must, in a great measure, be gathered from books, and consequently the language loses that free and unfettered character which it assumes from the pen of one who has derived it from unstudied practice.

The late Mr. Burke carried this notion to a very remarkable extent. Amidst some of the most splendid specimens of eloquence which the world has ever seen, he would sometimes, it is known, indulge himself in the utmost extreme of colloquial familiarity. In his Thoughts on a Regicide Peace, he had spoken of our conquests in the West Indies, if intended to promote our views in Europe, as a “ terribly roundabout way.” To this Mr. Malone objected as a vulgarism. My dear Sir (was the answer), I love these phrases, they are the idiom of the language.” When censuring the improprieties of speech, into which our ancestors have fallen, we should recollect that we are in the daily habit of uttering what is equally objectionable. No phrase is of more frequent occurrence, than this day se'ennight;' but it would not be easy to pronounce with certainty, what this singular ellipsis

Does it signify, that day which will arrive




when seven nights have elapsed ? or, when seven nights shall have elapsed after this day? Yet no one hesitates in using this expression; and probably the substitution of any other would subject the person who employed it, to the charge of pedantry or affectation. Let us try another phrase. • John drank many glasses of wine, and was drunk. Translate this literally into any other language, and it would convey the meaning that the toper was at last, by a sort of lex talionis, swallowed up himself, like the pilgrims by Garagantua. Yet it is, unquestionably, very good English.

Mr. Steevens, who, in his later editions, has sometimes adopted, and at other times contented himself with proposing, the most unwarrantable alterations in the text of Shakspeare, does not, indeed, directly controvert the mode of arguing on the subject which I have here laid down; he admits that contemporary authority will justify a phrase; but he makes this concession with so many qualifications, that it is almost impracticable for his antagonist to employ it to any purpose. In 1778 Mr. Steevens described himself as one more desirous to support old readings, than to claim the merit of introducing new ones; and has assigned the reason why he has omitted several communications from correspondents, which, he adds, might have proved of great advantage to a more daring commentator. “ The majority of these were founded on the supposition, that Shakspeare was, originally, an author correct in the utmost degree; but maimed and interpolated by the neglect or presumption of the players. In consequence of this belief, alterations have been proposed wherever a verse could be harmonized, an epithet exchanged for one more apposite, or a sentiment rendered less perplexed.” Such were the canons of criticism resisted by the commentator of 1778. In 1785, a new edition appeared, nominally conducted by Mr. Reed, but submitted throughout to the approbation of Mr.

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Steevens. In this there was no retractation of the doctrine he had formerly held, nor any attempt made to set at nought the authority of the old copies. But when Mr. Malone, in 1790, by a more scrupulous collation, had shown how much might still be added, in point of accuracy, to the labours of his predecessors, Mr. Steevens assumed that courage which he had formerly declared to form no part of his critical character, and became the most “ daring commentator” that has ever undertaken the task of editing our great poet. We were now told that he was maimed and interpolated in almost every page, and that the utmost liberties might safely be taken in rendering his sentiments less

perplexed, or harmonizing his versification. If an attempt was made to justify the anomalies to be found in his text, by contemporary usage, it is met by the following tirade:

“ To revive the anomalies, barbarisms, and blunders of some ancient copies, in preference to the corrections of others almost equally old, is likewise a circumstance by no means honourable to our author, however secure respecting ourselves. For what is it, under

pretence of restoration, but to use him as he has used the Tinker in The Taming of a Shrew,—to re-clothe him in his pristine rags ? To assemble parallels in support of all these deformities, is no insuperable labour; for if we are permitted to avail ourselves of every typographical mistake, and every provincial vulgarism and offence against established

grammar, that may be met with in the coeval productions of irregular humourists and ignorant sectaries and buffoons, we may aver that every casual combination of syllables may be tortured into meaning, and every species of corruption exemplified by corresponding depravities of language: but not of such language as Shakspeare, if compared with himself, where he is perfect, can be supposed to have written.”

If an author is quoted who does not answer the description here given, some circumstance is disco

vered in his history, which may supply a topick of ridicule: thus, Stowe, the chronicler, was neither an humourist, a sectary, nor buffoon—but he had been a tailor, and might, therefore, have been suffered to mend Shakspeare's hose, but not to patch his text: if similar phraseology is produced from the poets of that time, we are called upon to recollect that there was then no regular superintendence of the press ; and that, therefore, one typographical blunder may be supported by another, proceeding from equal ignorance in all the printers of the age: if Shakspeare is made to illustrate himself, by showing that in a multitude of instances he has expressed himself in the same manner as in the passage under consideration, it is answered, that we have no proof that any one of them is exhibited as it came from the pen of our author, but that they were all corruptions introduced by Heminge and Condell

. Where, then, are we to seek for authority, which will be admitted as having any weight? Mr. Steevens shall inform us. “ The genuine idiom of our language, at its different periods, can only be ascertained by reference to contemporary writers, whose works were skilfully revised as they passed through the press, and are therefore unsuspected of corruption. A sufficient number of such books are before us.” I know not that a number of books, of which it can, with certainty, be said that they were skilfully revised, are to be met with. But if there were, does it follow, that no idiomatick phraseology could have been correct, which they do not contain? A certain laxity of speech is so far from being a blemish in the dialogue of a drama, that it brings it nearer to the conversation of real life ; but this is not to be expected, nor would it be fitting in those graver performances, which the author would

be likely

to superintend with a view to secure its perfect accuracy. We must, therefore, content ourselves with such authority as we can find, and such evidence as the nature of the case will admit of; and if we can discover

in the dramas of others, as they have come down to us, examples of the same incorrectness of language, judging of it according to our present usage, as are to be found in the plays of Shakspeare, we may fairly conclude that there was not a conspiracy among all the printers of that period, to introduce the same violation of grammar, but that the error, if such it be, is to be ascribed to the poet himself. The probability of this conclusion will be strengthened, if we concur in the opinion which has, I believe, universally prevailed, that Shakspeare, with all his transcendent excellence, was a rapid and careless writer; inattentive often to matters of much more importance than the correct construction of a sentence ; regardless of fame, and solicitous only for the immediate effect which he could produce upon the stage before a popular audience. But it is not against obsolete anomalies alone that Mr. Steevens has directed his hostility: he is such a purist in style, that he is desirous to exclude from the text phraseology which is not only to be met with perpetually in the present day, but of which the impropriety may admit of a question. In King John, Act II. Sc. I. vol. xv. p. 224, we meet with this line :

“ With them a bastard of the king's deceased.” This the modern editors altered to “ the king deceased ;” and Mr. Steevens ascribes the old reading to the error of an illiterate compositor. Mr. Malone does not contend for its accuracy, but states, what is not denied, that Shakspeare has the same phraseology elsewhere. If it be faulty at all, it is an error which might be countenanced by half of the writers even now existing ; but it has the express sanction of Dr. Lowth, in his grammar. “ Both the sign and the preposition seem sometimes to be used;” as “ a soldier of the king's;” but here are really two possessives; for it means - one of the soldiers of the king.'

I shall more than once have occasion to refer to the


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