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hardly think there ever appeared, in any
learned Language, fo execrable a heap of nonsense, under the name of Commentaries, as hath been lately given us on a certain satiric Poet, of the last Age, by his Editor and Coadjutor.
I am sensible how unjustly the very best clasical Critics have been treated. It is said, that our great Philofopher spoke with much contempt of the two finest Scholars of this Age, Dr. Bentley and Bishop Hare, for squabbling, as he expressed it, about an old Play-book meaning, I suppose, Terence's Comedies. But this Story is unworthy of him; tho' well enough suiting the fanatic turn of the wild Writer that relates it ; fuch censures are amongst the follies of men immoderately given over to one Science, and ignorantly undervaluing all the rest. Those learned Critics might, and perhaps did, laugh in their turn, (tho’ still, sure, with the fame indecency and indiscretion) at that incomparable Man, for wearing out a long Life in poring through a Telescope. Indeed, the weaknesses of Such are to be mentioned with reverence. But who can bear, without indignation, the fashionable cant of every trifling Writer, whose infipidity passes, with himself, for politeness, for pretending to be shocked, forsooth, with the rude and savage air of vulgar Critics ; meaning such as Muretus, Scaliger, Casaubon, Salmafius, Spanheim, Bentley. When, had it not been for the deathless labours of such as these,
the western World, at the revival of Letters, had foon faln back again into a state of ignorance and barbarity as deplorable as that from which Providence had just redeemed it.
To conclude with an observation of a fine Writer and great Philosopher of our own ; which I would gladly bind, tho' with all honour, as a Phylactery, on the Brow of every awful Grammarian, to teach him at once, the Use, and Limits of his art: WORDS ARE MONEY FOOLS, AND THE COUNTERS OF WISE MEN.
T is not my design to enter into a Criticism upon this Author ; tho' to do it effectually and not superficially, would be the best occasion that any just Writer
could take, to form the judgment and taste of our nation. For of all English Poets ShakeSpear must be confessed to be the fairest and fullest subject for Criticism, and to afford the most numerous, as well as most conspicuous instances, both of Beauties and Faults of all sorts. But this far exceeds the bounds of a Preface, the business of which is only to give an account of the fate of his Works, and the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us. We shall hereby extenuate many faults which are his, and clear him from the imputation of many which are not: A design, which tho' it can be no guide to future Criticks to do him justice in one way, will at least be sufficient to prevent their doing him an injustice in the other.
I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristic Excellencies, for which notwithstanding his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other Dramatick Writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occasion of doing it.
If ever any Author deserved the name of an Original, it was Shakespear. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of Nature, it proceeded thro' Ægyptian ftrainers and channels, and came to him not without fome tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The Poetry of Shakespear was Inspiration indeed : he is not so much an Imitator, as an Instrument, of Nature; and 'tis not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks thro' him.
His Characters are so much Nature herself, that 'tis a sort of injury to call them by fo distant a name as Copies of her. Thofe of other Poets have a conftant resemblance, which shews that they receiv'd them from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image: each picture like a mock-rainbow is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every single character in Shakespear is as much an Individual, as those in Life it self; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will upon comparison be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of Character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is such throughout his Plays, that had all the Speeches been printed without the very names of the Persons, I believe one might have apply'd them with certainty to every speaker.
The Power over our Paffions was never poffefs'd in a more eminent degree, or display'd in so different instances. Yet all along, there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them ; no preparation to guide our guess to the effect, or be perceiv'd to lead toward it : But the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places : We are surpriz'd the moment we
wept at that
weep ; and yet upon reflection find the passion fo just, that we shou'd be surpriz’d if we had not wept, and
very moment. How astonishing is it again, that the Passions directly opposite to these, Laughter and Spleen, are no less at his command! that he is not more a master of the Great than of the Ridiculous in human nature ; of our noblest tendernesses, than of our vainest foibles ; of our strongest emotions, than of our idlest fenfations!
Nor does he only excel in the Passions: In the coolness of Reflection and Reasoning he is full as admirable. His Sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but by a talent very peculiar, something between Penetration and Felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a Man of no education or experience in those great and publick scenes of life which are usually the subject of his thoughts : So that he seems to have known the world by Intuition, to have look'd thro' human nature at one glance, and to be the only Author that gives ground for a very new opinion, That the Philosopher and even the Man of the world, may be Born, as well as the Poet.
It must be own'd that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other. But I think I can in some measure account for these defects, from several causes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that fo large and so enlighten'd a mind could ever have been susceptible of them. That all these Contingencies should unite to his disadvantage seems to me almost as singularly unlucky, as that so many va