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This is a very curious and entertaining miscellany of critical remarks and literary history. Though the book promises nothing but observations on the writings of Pope, yet no opportunity is neglected of introducing the character of any other writer, or the mention of any performance or event in which learning is interested. From Pope, however, he always takes his hint, and to Pope he returns again from his digressions. The facts which he mentions, though they are seldom anecdotes in a rigorous sense, are often such as are very little known, and such as will delight more readers than naked criticism.
As he examines the works of this great poet in an order nearly chronological, he necessarily begins with his pastorals, which considered as representations of any kind of life, he very justly censures; for there is in them a mixture of Grecian and English, of ancient and modern images. Windsor is coupled with Hybla, and Thames with Pactolus. He then compares some passages which Pope has imitated or translated with the imitation or ver
sion, and gives the preference to the originals, perhaps not always upon convincing arguments.
Theocritus makes his lover wish to be a bee, that he might creep among the leaves that form the chaplet of his mistress. Pope's enamoured swain longs to be made the captive bird that sings in his fair one's bower, that she might listen to his songs, and reward them with her kisses. The critick prefers the image of Theocritus as more wild, more delicate, and more uncommon.
It is natural for a lover to wish that he might be any thing that could come near to his lady. But we more naturally desire to be that which she fondles and caresses, than that which she would avoid, at least would neglect. The superior delicacy of Theocritus I cannot discover, nor can indeed find, that either in the one or the other image there is any want of delicacy. Which of the two images was less common in the time of the poet who used it, for on that consideration the merit of novelty depends, I think it is now out of any critick's
He remarks, I am afraid with too much justice, that there is not a single new thought in the pastorals; and with equal reason declares, that their chief beauty consists in their correct and musical versification, which has so influenced the English ear, as to render every moderate rhymer harmonious.
In his examination of the Messiah, he justly observes some deviations from the inspired author, which weaken the imagery, and dispirit the expression.
On Windsor-forest, he declares, I think without proof, that descriptive poetry was by no means the
power to decide.
excellence of Pope: he draws this inference from the few images introduced in this poem, which would not equally belong to any other place. He must inquire whether Windsor-forest has in reality any thing peculiar.
The Stag-chase is not, he says, so full, so animated, and so circumstantiated as Somerville's. Barely to say, that one performance is not so good as another, is to criticise with little exactness. But Pope has directed that we should in every work regard the author's end. The Stag-chase is the main subject of Somerville, and might therefore be properly dilated into all its circumstances; in Pope it is only incidental, and was to be dispatched in a few lines.
He makes a just observation, “ that the description of the external beauties of nature is usually the first effect of a young genius, before he hath studied nature and passions.
Some of Milton's most early as well as most exquisite pieces are his Lycidas, l’ Allegro, and Il Penseroso, if we may except his ode on the Nativity of CHRIST, which is indeed prior in order of time, and in which a penetrating critick might have observed the seeds of that boundless imagination which was one day to produce the Paradise Lost."
Mentioning Thomson and other descriptive poets, he remarks, that writers fail in their copies for want of acquaintance with originals, and justly ridicules those who think they can form just ideas of valleys, mountains, and rivers, in a garret of the Strand. For this reason I cannot regret with this author, that Pope laid aside his design of writing American pastorals; for as he must have painted
scenes which he never saw, and manners which he never knew, his performance, though it might have been a pleasing amusement of fancy, would have exhibited no representation of nature or of life.
After the pastorals, the critick considers the lyrick poetry of Pope, and dwells longest on the ode of St Cecilia's day, which he, like the rest of mankind, places next to that of Dryden, and not much below it. He remarks after Mr Spence, that the first stanza is a perfect concert. The second he thinks a little flat; he justly commends the fourth, but without notice of the best line in that stanza or in the poem :
Transported demigods stood round,
And men grew heroes at the sound. In the latter part of the ode he objects to the stanza of triumph;
song could reveal, &c. as written in a measure ridiculous and burlesque, and justifies his answer by observing that Addison uses the same numbers in the scene of Rosamond, between Grideline and Sir Trusty :
How unhappy is he, &c. That the measure is the same in both passages must be confessed, and both poets perhaps chose their numbers properly; for they both meant to express a kind of airy hilarity. The two passions of merriment and exaltation are undoubtedly different; they are as different as a gambol and a triumph, but each is a species of joy; and poetical measures have not in any language been so far refined as to provide for the subdivisions of passions
They can only be adapted to general purposes ; but the particular and minuter propriety must be sought only in the sentiment and language. Thus the numbers are the same in Colin's complaint, and in the ballad of Derby and Joan, though in one sadness is represented, and in the other tranquillity ; so the measure is the same of Pope's Unfortunat e Lady and the Praise of Voiture.
He observes very justly, that the odes both of Dryden and Pope conclude unsuitably and unna. turally with epigram.
He then spends a page upon Mr Handel's music to Dryden's ode, and speaks of him with that regard which he has generally obtained among the lovers of sound. He finds something amiss in the air “ With ravished ears,” but has overlooked or forgotten the grossest fault in that composition, which is that in this line:
Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries. He has laid much stress upon the two latter words, which are merely words of connection, and ought in music to be considered as parenthetical.
From this ode is struck out a digression on the nature of odes, and the comparative excellence of the ancients and moderns. He mentions the chorus which Pope wrote for the duke of Buckingham ; and thence takes occasion to treat of the chorus of the ancients. He then comes to another ode of “ The dying Christian to his Soul,” in which finding an apparent imitation of Flatman, he falls into a pleasing and learned speculation on the resembling passages to be found in different poets.
He mentions with great regard Pope's ode on Solitude, written when he was but twelve years old,