Page images
[blocks in formation]

[Goldsmith was scarcely critical in the modern sense of the word, and he had strong prejudices. His account of poetry under Anne and George the First, and the short notes here reprinted were probably written without much premeditation. But they are inter esting as representing his off-hand opinions upon the subject, as distinguished from those which he might have expressed with fuller detail, or even with variations, had he been engaged in sustaining an argument, or stating the results of special study. It is notable that in 1767 it was possible to put forth a representative selection of Beauties of English Poesy in which Shakespeare, Spenser, Chaucer and Herrick have no part, while there are specimens of Smollett, Shenstone, Savage, and the fabulist Edward Moore.]




[The following is an extract from Letter XVI, Vol. ii, of An History of England in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to his Son, which was published by John Newbery in two volumes in June, 1764.]

BUT, of all the other arts, poetry in this age was carried to the greatest perfection. The language, for some ages, had been improving, but now it seemed entirely divested of its roughness and barbarity. Among the poets of this period we may place John Philips, author of several poems, but of none more admired than that humourous one entitled, The splendid Shilling; he lived in obscurity, and died just above want. William Congreve deserves also particular notice; his comedies, some of which were but coolly received upon their first appearance, seemed to mend upon repetition; and he is, at present, justly allowed the foremost in that species of dramatic poesy. His wit is ever just and brilliant; his sentiments new and lively; and his elegance equal to his regularity. Next him Vanbrugh is placed, whose humour seems more natural, and characters more new; but he owes too many obligations to the French, entirely to pass for an original; and his total disregard to decency, in a great measure, impairs his merit. Farquhar is still more lively, and, perhaps, more entertaining than either; his pieces still continue the favourite performances of the stage, and bear frequent repetition without satiety; but he often mistakes pertness for wit, and seldom strikes his characters with proper force or originality. However, he died very young; and it is remarkable, that he continued to improve as he grew older; his last play, entitled The Beau[x] Stratagem, being the best of his productions. Addison, both as a poet and prose writer, deserves the highest regard and imitation. His Campaign, and letter to Lord Halifax from Italy, are masterpieces in the former, and his Essays published in the Spectator are inimitable specimens of the latter. Whatever he treated of was handled with elegance and precision; and that virtue which was taught in his writings, was enforced by his example. Steele was Addison's friend and admirer;

[blocks in formation]

his comedies are perfectly polite, chaste, and genteel; nor were his other works contemptible; he wrote on several subjects, and yet it is amazing, in the multiplicity of his pursuits, how he found leisure for the discussion of any. Ever persecuted by creditors, whom his profuseness drew upon him, or pursuing impracticable schemes, suggested by ill-grounded ambition. Dean Swift was the professed antagonist of both Addison and him. He perceived that there was a spirit of romance mixed with all the works of the poets who preceded him; or, in other words, that they had drawn nature on the most pleasing side. There still therefore was a place left for him, who, careless of censure, should describe it just as it was, with all its deformities; he therefore owes much of his fame, not so much to the greatness of his genius, as to the boldness of it. He was dry, sarcastic, and severe; and suited his style exactly to the turn of his thought, being concise and nervous. In this period also flourished many of subordinate fame. Prior was the first who adopted the French elegant easy manner of telling a story; but if what he has borrowed from that nation be taken from him, scarce anything will be left upon which he can lay claim to applause in poetry. Rowe was only outdone by Shakespeare and Otway as a tragic writer; he has fewer absurdities than either; and is, perhaps, as pathetic as they ; but his flights are not so bold, nor his characters so strongly marked. Perhaps his coming later than the rest may have contributed to lessen the esteem he deserves. Garth had success as a poet; and, for a time, his fame was even greater than his desert. In his principal work, the Dispensary, his versification is negligent; and his plot is now become tedious; but whatever he may lose as a poet, it would be improper to rob him of the merit he deserves for having written the prose dedication and preface to the poem already mentioned; in which he has shown the truest wit, with the most refined elegance. Parnell, though he has written but one poem, namely, the Hermit, yet has found a place among the English first-rate poets. Gay, likewise, by his Fables and Pastorals, has acquired an equal reputation. But of all who have added to the stock of English poetry, Pope, perhaps, deserves the first place. On him foreigners look as one of the most successful writers of his time; his versification is the most harmonious, and his correctness the most remarkable of all our poets. A noted contemporary of his own, calls the English the finest writers on moral topics, and Pope the noblest moral writer of all the English. Mr. Pope has somewhere named himself the last English Muse; and,

« PreviousContinue »