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offspring of pedantry, and a blind fondness for antiquity; or rather, if your readers can endure the sight of so much Greek, though ever so Attic; [ may, perhaps, trouble you again with a few reflections on the character of Menander.
N° 90. SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 1753.
Concretam exemit labem, purumque reliquit
-By length of time,
The scurf is worn away of each committed crime;
But the pure æther of the soul remains. DRYDEN,
TO THE ADVENTURER.
NOTHING Sooner quells the ridiculous triumph of human vanity, than reading those passages of the greatest writers, in which they seem deprived of that noble spirit that inspires them in other parts; and where, instead of invention and grandeur we meet with nothing but flatness and insipidity.
The pain I have felt in observing a lofty genius thus sink beneath itself, has often made me wish, that these unworthy stains could be blotted from their works, and leave them perfect and immaculate.
I went to bed a few nights ago, full of these thoughts, and closed the evening, as I frequently do, with reading a few lines in Virgil. I accidentally
opened that part of the sixth book, where Anchises recounts to his son the various methods of purgation which the soul undergoes in the next world, to cleanse it from the filth it has contracted by its connexion with the body, and to deliver the pure etherial essence from the vicious tincture of mortality. This was so much like my evening's speculation, that it insensibly mixed and incorporated with it, and as soon as I fell asleep, formed itself into the following dream.
I found myself in an instant in the midst of a temple, which was built with all that magnificent simplicity that distinguishes the productions of the ancients. At the east end was raised an altar, on each side of which stood a priest, who seemed preparing to sacrifice. On the altar was kindled a fire, from which arose the brightest flame I had ever beheld. The light which it dispensed, though remarkably strong and clear, was not quivering and dazzling, but steady and uniform, and diffused a purple radiance through the whole edifice, not unlike the first appearance of the morning.
While I stood fixed in admiration, my attention was awakened by the blast of a trumpet that shook the whole temple; but it carried a certain sweetness in its sound, which mellowed and tempered the natural shrillness of that instrument. After it had sounded thrice, the being who blew it, habited according to the description of Fame by the ancients, issued a proclamation to the following purpose: By command of Apollo and the Muses, all who have ever made any pretensions to fame by their writings, are enjoined to sacrifice upon the altar in this temple, those parts of their works, which have hitherto been preserved to their infamy, that their names may descend spotless and unsullied to posterity. For this purpose Aristotle and Longinus are appointed chief priests, who are
to see that no improper oblations are made, and no proper ones concealed; and for the more easy performance of this office, they are allowed to choose as their assistants, whomsoever they shall think worthy of the function.'
As soon as this proclamation was made, I turned my eyes with inexpressible delight towards the two priests; but was soon robbed of the pleasure of looking at them by a crowd of people running up to offer their service. These I found to be a group of French critics; but their offers were rejected by both priests with the utmost indignation, and their whole works were thrown on the altar, and reduced to ashes in an instant. The two priests then looked round, and chose, with a few others, Horace and Quintilian from among the Romans, and Addison from the English, as their principal assistants.
The first who came forward with his offering, by the loftiness of his demeanor, was soon discovered to be Homer. He approached the altar with great majesty, and delivered to Longinus those parts of his Odyssey which have been censured as improbable fictions, and the ridiculous narratives of old age. Longinus was preparing for the sacrifice, but observing that Aristotle did not seem willing to assist him in the office, he returned them to the venerable old bard with great deference, saying, that they were, indeed, the tales of old age, but it was the old age of Homer.'
Virgil appeared next, and approached the altar with a modest dignity in his gait and countenance peculiar to himself; and to the surprise of all, committed his whole Æneid to the flames. But it was immediately rescued by two Romans, whom I found to be Tucca and Varius, who ran with precipitation to the altar, delivered the poem from destruction, and carried off the author between them, repeating
that glorious boast of about forty lines at the beginning of the third Georgic:
-Tentanda via est; qua me quoque possim
Tollere humo, victorque virûm volitare per ora,
After him most of the Greek and Roman authors proceeded to the altar, and surrendered with great modesty and humility the most faulty part of their works. One circumstance was observable, that the sacrifice always increased in proportion as the author had ventured to deviate from a judicious imitation of Homer. The latter Roman authors, who seemed almost to have lost sight of him, made so large offerings, that some of their works, which were before very voluminous, shrunk into the compass of a primer.
It gave me the highest satisfaction to see Philosophy thus cleared from erroneous principles, History purged of falsehood, Poetry of fustian, and nothing left in each but Genius, Sense, and Truth.
I marked with particular attention the several offerings of the most eminent English writers. Chaucer gave up his obscenity, and then delivered his works to Dryden, to clear them from the rubbish that encumbered them. Dryden executed his task with great address, and,' as Addison says of Virgil in his Georgics, tossed about his dung with an air of gracefulness' he not only repaired the injuries of time, but threw in a thousand new graces. He then advanced towards the altar himself, and delivered up a large packet, which contained many plays, and some poems. The packet had a label affixed to it, which bore this inscription, To Poverty.'
Shakspeare carried to the altar a long string of puns, marked, The Taste of the Age,' a small parcel of bombast, and a pretty large bundle of incorrectness. Notwithstanding the ingenuous air with which
he made this offering, some officiates at the altar accused him of concealing certain pieces, and mentioned the London Prodigal, Sir Thomas Cromwell, the Yorkshire Tragedy, &c. The poet replied, that as those pieces were unworthy to be preserved, he should see them consumed to ashes with great pleasure: but that he was wholly innocent of their original. The two chief priests interposed in this dispute, and dismissed the poet with many compliments; Longinus observing that the pieces in question could not possibly be his, for that the failings of Shakspeare were like those of Homer, 'whose genius whenever it subsided, might be compared to the ebbing of the ocean, which left a mark upon its shores, to shew to what a height it was sometimes carried.' Aristotle concurred in this opinion, and added, 'that although Shakspeare was quite ignorant of that exact œconomy of the stage, which is so remarkable in the Greek writers, yet the mere strength of his genius had in many points carried him infinitely beyond them.'
Milton gave up a few errors in his Paradise Lost, and the sacrifice was attended with great decency by Addison. Otway and Rowe threw their comedies upon the altar, and Beaumont and Fletcher the two last acts of many of their pieces. They were followed by Tom Durfey, Etherege, Wycherly, and several other dramatic writers, who made such large contributions, that they set the altar in a blaze.
Among these I was surprised to see an author with much politeness in his behaviour, and spirit in his countenance, tottering under an unwieldy burden. As he approached I discovered him to be Sir John Vanbrugh, and could not but smile, when, on his committing his heavy load to the flames, it proved to be His skill in Architecture.'
Pope advanced towards Addison, and delivered with great humility those lines written expressly