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AN ESSAY ON THE DRAMATICK POETRY OF THE
The promises of Authors, that they will write again, are, in effect, a threatening of their readers with some new impertinence; and they who perform not what they promise, will have their pardon on easy terms. It is from this consideration that I could be glad to spare you the trouble which I am now giving you, of a Postscript, if I were not obliged by many reasons to write somewhat concerning our present Plays, and those of our predecessors on the English stage.'
9 It appears from the original copy, which here reads Preface, instead of Postscript, that the author at first intended to prefix this Essay to his play as a preliminary discourse. As it relates to the Epilogue, it was with more propriety subjoined to it.
1“ In the Epilogue to the Second Part of The CONQUEST OF GRANADA, Dryden indulges his favourite pleasure in
The truth is, I have so far engaged myself in a bold Epilogue to this play, wherein I have somewhat taxed the former writing, that it was necessary for me either not to print it, or to show that I could defend it. Yet I would so maintain my opinion of the present age, as not to be wanting in my veneration for the past ; I would ascribe to dead authors their just praises, in those things wherein they have excelled us; and in those wherein we contend with them for the pre-eminence, I would acknowledge our advantages to the age, and claim no victory from our wit. This being what I have proposed to myself, I hope I shall not be thought arrogant, when I enquire into their errours. For
discrediting his predecessors; and this Epilogue he has defended by a long Postscript. He had promised a Second Dialogue, in which he should more fully treat of the virtues and faults of the English poets, who have written in the dramatick, epick, or lyrick way. [See p.32.] This promise was never formally performed ; but with respect to the dramatick writers, he has given in his prefaces, and in this Postscript, something equivalent ; but his purpose being to exalt himself by the comparison, he shews faults distinctly, and only praises excellence in general terms.”—Johnson's Life of DRYDEN.
Langbaine informs us, that he had seen the two parts of THE CONQUEST OF GRANADA acted with great ap. plause, His continuator, Gildon, however, adds a curious circumstance; that “ the success of these plays was not owing to the excellency of the poet's performance, but to the extravagance; for he had always observed them to have the effect of comedy on the audience."
we live in an age so sceptical, that as it determines little, so it takes nothing from antiquity on trust ; and I profess to have no other ambition in this Essay, than that poetry may not go backward, when all other arts and sciences are advancing. Whoever censures me for this enquiry, let him hear his character from Horace :
Ingeniis non ille favet, plauditque sepultis, Nostra sed impugnat ; nos nostraque lividus odit. He favours not dead wits, but hates the living. It was upbraided to that excellent poet, that he was an enemy to the writings of his predecessor Lucilius, because he had said, Lucilium lutulentum fuere, that he ran muddy; and that he ought to have retrenched from his Satires many unnecessary verses. But Horace makes Lucilius himself to justify him from the imputation of envy, by telling you that he would have done the same, had he lived in an age which was more refined :
Si foret hoc nostrum fato delapsus in avum,
Perfectum traheretur : &c. And, both in the whole course of that Satire, and in his most admirable Epistle to Augustus, he makes it his business to prove that antiquity alone is no plea for the excellency of a poem ; but that one age learning from another, the last (if we can suppose an equality of wit in the writers,) has the advantage of knowing more and better than the former. And this I think is the state of the question in dispute. It is therefore my part to make it clear, that the language, wit, and conversation of our age, are improved and refined above the last; and then it will not be difficult to infer, that our plays have received some part of those advantages.
In the first place, therefore, it will be necessary to state in general, what this refinement is, of which we treat; and that I think will not be defined amiss, An improvement of our Wit, Language, and Conversation ; or, an alteration in them for the better.
To begin with Language. That an alteration is lately made in ours, or since the writers of the last 'age, in which I comprehend Shakspeare, Fletcher, and Jonson,) is manifest. Any man who reads those excellent poets, and compares their language with what is now written, will see it almost in every line. But, that this is an improvement of the language, or an alteration for the better, will not so easily be granted. For many are of a contrary opinion, that the English tongue was then in the height of its perfection; that from Jonson's time to ours it has been in a continual declination ; like that of the Romans from the age of Virgil to Statius, and so downward to Claudian : of which, not only Petronius, but Quintilian’ himself so much complains, under the
2. Who the author of this deservedly admired Dialogue was, has long been a question among the learned. Beside person of Secundus, in his famous Dialogue De Causis corrupta Eloquentia.
But to shew that our language is improved, and that those people have not a just value for the age in which they live, let us consider in what the refinement of a language principally consists : that is, either in rejecting such old words or phrases
Quintilian, it has been attributed to Suetonius, and to Tacitus; and Mr. Melmoth, the elegant translator of this piece, is decidedly of opinion that it was not the pro. duction of any one of those celebrated writers. It was, however, undoubtedly written by Tacitus ; as is proved decisively by a slight circumstance, not noticed by any of the ancient criticks, and first pointed out by my learned friend, Dr. Joseph Stock, formerly fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, in his excellent edition of Tacitus, in four volumes, 8vo. 1788. This proof is derived from the following passages in the Dialogue on Oratory, compared with one of Pliny's Epistles.
In the ninth section of the Dialogue, we find these words:
“ Adjice, quod poetis, si modo dignum aliquid elaborare et effingere velint, relinquenda conversatio amicorum, et jucunditas urbis, deserenda cætera officia, atque ut ipsi dicunt, in nemora et lucos, id est, in solitudinem receden. dum est.”
Again, in sect. 12.
“ Nemora vero et luci, et secretum iter, quod Aper increpabat, tantam mihi afferunt voluptatem, ut inter præcipuos carminum fructos numerem.”
Pliny, ('EPIST. lib. ix. ep. 10.) in a letter to TACITUS, evidently referring to the foregoing passages, thus ad. dresses him :-“ Itaque poemata quiescunt, que tu inter nemora et lucos commodissime perfici putas."