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they cannot express their meaning in English, because they would put off to us some French phrase of the last edition ; without considering that, for aught they know, we have a better of our own. But these are not the men who are to refine us; their talent is to prescribe fashions, not words : at best they are only serviceable to a writer, so as Ennius was to Virgil. He may aurum ex stercore Golligere ; for it is hard if, amongst many insignificant phrases, there happen not something worth preserving; though they themselves, like Indians, know not the value of their own commodity.
There is yet another way of improving language, which poets especially have practised in all ages; that is, by applying received words to a new signification ; and this, I believe, is meant by Horace, in that precept which is so variously construed by expositors :
Dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum
Reddiderit junctura novum. And, in this way, he himself had a particular happiness ; using all the tropes, and particular metaphors, with that grace which is observable in his Odes; where the beauty of expression is often greater than that of thought; as in that one example, amongst an infinite number of others, et vultus nimium lubricus aspici.
And therefore, though he innovated little, he may justly be called a great refiner of the Roman tongue. This choice of words, and heightening of
their natural signification, was observed in him by the writers of the following ages; for Petronius says of him-et Horatii curiosa felicitas. By this graffing, as I may call it, on old words, has our tongue been beautified by the three fore-mentioned poets, Shakspeare, Fletcher, and Jonson, whose excellencies I can never enough admire ; and in this they have been followed, especially by Sir John Suckling and Mr. Waller, who refined upon them. Neither have they who succeed them, been wanting in their endeavours to adorn our mother tongue; but it is not so lawful for me to praise my living contemporaries, as to admire my dead predecessors.
I should now speak of the refinement of Wit : but I have been so large on the former subject, that I am forced to contract myself in this. I will therefore only observe to you, that the wit of the last age was yet more incorrect than their language. Shakspeare, who many times has written better than any poet in any language, is yet so far from writing wit always, or expressing that wit according to the dignity of the subject, that he writes in many places below the dullest writers of ours or of any precedent age. Never did any author precipitate himself from such heights of thought to so low expressions, as he often does. He is the very Janus of poets ; he wears almost every where two faces; and you have scarce begun to admire the one, ere you
despise the other. Neither is the luxuriance of Fletcher, which his friends have taxed in him, a less fault than the carelessness of Shakspeare. He does not well always ; and, when he does, he is a true Englishman,-he knows not when to give over. If he wakes in one scene, he commonly slumbers in another; and if he pleases you in the first three acts, he is frequently so tired with his labour, that he goes heavily in the fourth, and sinks under his burthen in the fifth,
2 Very few readers, I believe, will agree with our author in this unfounded depreciation of our great dra. matick poet. He has undoubtedly often written wit, at least, what in his own time was considered wit. The prevalent opinions of the age should always, in such cases, be kept in view. Sir John Harrington was by the unanimous consent of his own age, considered as a man of extraordinary wit; yet, his writings would not at this day gain him so high a reputation. They prove, however, decisively, that what Dryden would call clenches, was then considered as sterling wit. But Shakspeare is not to be defended on this ground alone; for he has given us many dialogues which even the more scrupulous and refined taste of the present age must acknowledge to be witty. By wit, it should be remembered, our author means sharpness of conceit;, as he afterwards expressly tells us.
In these critical Essays, he is not always consistent with himself; for in the Preface to The Mock ASTROLOGER, he charges Shakspeare with a superfluity and waste of wit.
3 Langbaine “ Account of the English Dramatick Poets,” 1690, p. 144,) tells us, that he had either read, or For Ben Jonson, the most judicious of poets, he always writ properly, and as the character required ; and I will not contest farther with my friends who call that wit: it being very certain, that even folly itself, well represented, is wit in a larger signification ; and that there is fancy, as well as judgment in it, though not so much, or noble : because all poetry being imitation, that of folly is a lower exercise of fancy, though perhaps as difficult as the other; for it is a kind of looking downward in the poet, and representing that part of mankind which is below him. • In these low characters of vice and folly, lay the excellency of that inimitable writer ; who, when at any time he aimed at wit in a stricter sense, that is, sharpness of conceit, was forced either to borrow from the ancients, as to my knowledge he did very much from Plautus; or, when he trusted himself alone, often fell into meanness of expression.Nay, he was not free from the lowest and most groveling kind of wit, which we call clenches ; of which EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOUR is infinitely full, and, which is worse, the wittiest persons in
been informed, “ that it was generally Fletcher's practice, after he had finished three acts of a play, to shew them to the actors; and when they had agreed on terms, he huddled up the two last, without that care that behoved him.” His information on this subject appears to have been perfectly correct; for I find, from several manuscript letters of the dramatick poets of that time, that to sell an unfinished play was a common practice.
the drama speak them. His other comedies are not exempted from them. Will you give me leave to name some few? Asper, in which character he personates himself, (and he neither was, nor thought himself a fool,) exclaiming against the ignorant judges of the age, speaks thus :
How monstrous and detested is't, to see
In snuff, &c.
I marvel whose wit 'twas to put a prologue in yond Sackbut's mouth. They might well think he would be out of tune, and yet you'd play upon him too.Will you have another of the same stamp?
O, I cannot abide these limbs of sattin, or rather Satan.
But it may be you will object that this was Asper, Macilente, or Carlo Buffone: you shall, therefore, hear him speak in his own person, and that, in the two last lines or sting of an epigram: it is inscribed to Fine Grand, who, he says, was indebted to him for many things, which he reckons there ; and concludes thus :
Forty things more, dear Grand, which you know true,
For which, or pay me quickly, or I'll pay you.* This was then the mode of wit, the vice of the
+ I doubt whether our author was aware, that to pay signified to beat, as well as to discharge a debt. If he