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THE FIRST EPISTLE
While you, great patron of mankind ! sustain
Edward and Henry, now the boast of fame,
3 In arms abroad defend. A sarcasm on George II. ; the object of violent clamor, for enduring what were then termed the insults of Spain to our commerce. The poem was written in 1737 : the war was not commenced till 1739 : its beginning was fortunate, and Porto Bello was taken; but the scene was rapidly reversed; and Walpole, guilty of the heaviest crime of a minister, that of yielding up his judgment to popular passion, was driven from power in 1742. The war soon languished in the west; the bloody struggle of the Austrian succession began; and the king, after suffering heavy losses on the continent, was forced to defend himself at home from the invasion of the pretender in 1745. In 1748, this ill-omened war was happily closed by the peace of Aix la Chapelle.
Closed their long glories, with a sigh, to find
20 Oppress'd we feel the beam directly beat; Those suns of glory please not till they set.
To thee the world its present homage pays; The harvest early, but mature the praise : Great friend of liberty! in kings a name 25 Above all Greek, above all Roman fame: Whose word is truth, as sacred and revered, As Heaven's own oracles from altars heard. Wonder of kings! like whom, to mortal eyes None e'er has risen, and none e'er shall rise. 30
Just in one instance, be it yet confess’d, Your people, sir, are partial in the rest : Foes to all living worth except your own, And advocates for folly dead and gone. Authors, like coins, grow dear as they grow old ; It is the rust we value, not the gold.
36 Chaucer's worst ribaldry is learn’d by rote, And beastly Skelton heads of houses quote;
36 And beastly Skelton. Poet laureat to Henry VIII.; a volume of whose poems had been just published, exhibiting a very degraded mind. Warton, though quoting the pleasantry, that 'a poet laureat, in the modern idea, is a gentleman who has an annual stipend for reminding us of the new year and the birth-day,'tries to deal tenderly with the office; (his brother was laureat) and affects to prove, in an elaborate note, that formerly a poet laureat was a real university graduate.'
One likes no language but the Fairy Queen;
Though justly Greece her eldest sons admires,
If time improve our wit as well as wine,
• Who lasts a century can have no flaw; 55 I hold that wit a classic, good in law.'
Suppose he wants a year, will you compound? And shall we deem him ancient, right, and
sound; Ridicule has been thrown on the laureatship from its employment; but a much stronger ridicule might be thrown on it from its salary. Nothing can be more to the honor of the continental courts, than the various provision made for literary eminence: in England, the nation patronises politics alone. France protected literature, and richly profited by the protection: for her letters gave her the supremacy of European opinion. England, with the most vigorous natural intellect in the world, and with the deepest necessity for its employment;-England, whose mind is strength, and whose strength is mind,-has one, and but one, office, for literature; and that office sustained by the imperial liberality of one hundreds pounds a year!
40 Christ's Kirk of the Green. A ballad written by James I. of Scotland.
Or damn to all eternity at once,
• We shall not quarrel for a year or two; By courtesy of England, he may do.'
Then, by the rule that made the horse-tail bare, I pluck out year by year, as hair by hair; And melt down ancients like a heap of snow: 65 While you, to measure merits, look in Stowe; And, estimating authors by the year, Bestow a garland only on a bier. Shakspeare, whom you and every play-house
bill Style the divine, the matchless, what you will; 70 For gain, not glory, wing'd his roving flight, And grew immortal in his own despite.
63 The horse-tail bare. The story is told of the brave and dexterous Sertorius. To teach his rude soldiery the value of perseverance, he bade one of them stand forth and pull off his horse's tail: the soldier grasped the intire at once, and pulled; but pulled, of course, in vain : he then bade another pluck it away hair by hair. The success of the latter expedient visibly established the maxim, that patience and skill succeed where force must fail.
72 Immortal in his own despite. Nothing can be clearer than that Shakspeare was singularly negligent of posthumous fame. By leaving no memoirs of himself, he abandoned his personal character to chance: by leaving his works to the caprice of the players, he abandoned the still dearer part of himself, his fame, to mutilation. But the life of Shakspeare, wbile he continued in London, must have been one of intense occupation. The stupendous labor of producing five-and-thirty plays in five-and-twenty years, the proverbial anxieties of theatrical management, and the whirl of existence round him, might well account for his negligence of all things but the moment. When at last he retired, but two years lay between him and the grave: he left London in 1614, and died in 1616.
Bowles quotes Foote's pleasantry of him, that. Shakspeare meant only to write farces, but the poetry he threw in gratis.'
Ben, old and poor, as little seem'd to heed
• Yet surely, surely, these were famous men!
writ; How Shadwell hasty, Wycherley was slow; 85 But, for the passions, Southern sure and Rowe. These, only these, support the crowded stage, From eldest Heywood down to Cibber's age.'
All this may be; the people's voice is odd; It is, and it is not, the voice of God.
90 To Gammer Gurton if it give the bays, And yet deny the Careless Husband praise, Or say our fathers never broke a rule ;Why then, I say, the public is a fool: But let them own, that greater faults than we 95 They had, and greater virtues, I'll agree. Spenser himself affects the obsolete, And Sidney's verse halts ill on Roman feet: Milton's strong pinion now not heaven can
bound; Now serpent-like, in prose he sweeps the ground;
91 Gammer Gurton. One of the first printed plays in English, written by Still, of Christ's-college, Cambridge; afterwards bishop of Bath and Wells.