Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

1

DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON's

P R E F A C E.

THAI

WHAT praises are without reason lavished on the dead,

and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by. those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the herefres of paradox; or those, who, bem ing forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from pofterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regård which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time,

Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than present ex. celleace; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the fun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients.

ap

While an author is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we rate them by his beft.

To works, however, of which the excellence is not abso, lute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but pealing wholly to observation and experience, no other teft can be applied, than length of duration and continuance of efteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they perlift to value the posfeffion, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of neture no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers ; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be ftiled excellent, till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. Demonftration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the Aux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is difcovered in a long succession of endeavours. Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or square, but whether it was spacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the su. perior wisdom of fast ages, or gloomy persuasion of the de

[ocr errors]

generacy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been mott confidered, and what is moft confidered is best understood.

The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege, of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive frùm perfonal aliufions, local cuftoms, or temporary opinions, have for many years been left; and every topick of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perished ; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity, but are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained ; yet, thus unaslisted by intereft or paffion, they have past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.

But becaufe human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and apprebation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation, of prejudice or fashion ; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence Shakesp.are has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.

Nothing can please many, and please long, but just reprefentations of general nature.

Particular manners can be

[ocr errors]
« ПредишнаНапред »