David Mallet

Of Verbal Criticism

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Among the numerous fools, by Fate design'd
Oft to disturb, and oft divert, mankind,
The reading coxcomb is of special note,
By rule a poet, and a judge by rote:
Grave son of idle Industry and Pride,
Whom learning but perverts, and books misguide.
O fam'd for judging, as for writing well,
That rarest science, where so few excel;
Whose life, severely scann'd, transcends thy lays,
For wit supreme is but thy second praise:
'Tis thine, O Pope, who choose the better part,
To tell how false, how vain, the scholiast's art,
Which nor to taste, nor genius has pretence,
In errour obstinate, in wrangling loud,
For trifles eager, positive, and proud;
Deep in the darkness of dull authors bred,
With all their refuse lumber'd in his head,
What every dunce from every dunghill drew
Of literary offals, old or new,
Forth steps at last the self-aplauding wight,
Of points and letters, chaff and straws, to write:
Sagely resolv'd to swell each bulky piece
With venerable toys, from Rome and Greece;
How oft, in Homer, Paris curl'd his hair;
If Aristotle's cap were round or square;
If in the cave, where Dido first was sped,
To Tyre she turn'd her heels, to Troy her head.
Such the choice anecdotes, profound and vain
That store a Bentley's and a Burman's brain:
Hence, Plato quoted, or the Stagyrite,
To prove that flame ascends, and snow is white:
Hence, much hard study, without sense or breeding;
And all the grave impertinence of reading.
If Shakespeare says, the noon-day Sun is bright,
His scholiast will remark, it then was light;
Turn Caxton, Winkin, each old Goth and Hun,
To rectify the reading of a pun.
Thus, nicely trifling, accurate dull,
How one may toil,and toil --to be a fool!
But is there then no honour due to age?
No reverence to great Shakespeare's noble page:
And he, who half a life has read him o'er,
His mangled points and commas to restore,
Meets he such slight regard in nameless lays,
Whom Bufo treats and lady Would-be pays.
Pride of his own, and wonder of this age,
Who first created, and yet rules, the stage,
Bold to design, all-powerful to express,
Shakespeare each passion drew in every dress:
Great above rule, and imitating none;
Rich without borrowing, Nature was his own.
Yet is his sense debas'd by gross allay:
As gold in mines lies mix'd with dirt and clay.
Now, eagle-wing'd, his heavenward flight he takes;
The big stage thunders, and the soul awakes:
Now, low on earth, a kindred reptile creeps;
Sad Hamlet quibbles, and the hearer sleeps.
Condemn'd to dig and dung a barren soil,
Where hardly tares will grow with care and toil,
He, with low industry, goes gleaning on
From good, from bad, from mean, neglecting none:
His brother book-work so, in shelf or stall,
Will feed alike on Woolston and on Paul.
By living clients hopeless now of bread,
He pettyfogs a scrap from authors dead:
See him on Shakespeare pore, intent to steal
Poor farce, by fragments, for a third-day meal.
Such that grave bird in northern seas is found
Whose name a Dutchman only knows to sound.
Where'er the king of fish moves on before,
This humble friend attends from shore to shore;
With eye still earnest, and with bill inclin'd,
He picks up what his patron drops behind,
With those choice cates his palate to regale,
And is the careful Tibbald of a whale.1
Blest genius! who bestows his oil and pains
On each dull passage, each dull book contains;
The toil more grateful, as the task more low:
So carrion is the quarry of a crow.
Where his fam'd author's page is flat and poor,
There, most exact the reading to restore;
By dint of plodding, and by sweat of face,
A bull to change, a blunder to replace:
Whate'er is refuse critically gleaning,
And mending nonsense into doubtful meaning.
For this, dread Dennis, (and who can forbear,
Dunce or not dunce,2 relating it, to stare?)
His head though jealous, and his years fourscore,
Ev'n Dennis praises,3 who ne'er prais'd before!
For this, the scholiast claims his share of fame,
And, modest, prints his own with Shakespeare's name:
Which may be dull, and therefore should be true.
A prelate, fam'd for clearing each dark text,
Who sense with sound, and truth with rhetoric mixt,
Once, as his moving theme to rapture warm'd,
Inspir'd himself, his happy hearers charm'd.
The sermon o'er, the crowd remain'd behind,
And freely, man or woman, spoke their mind:
All said they lik'd the lecture from their soul,
And each, remembering something, prais'd the whole.
At last an honest sexton join'd the throng;
(For as the theme was large, their talk was long)
"neighbours," he cry'd, "my conscience bids me tell,
Though 'twas the doctor preach'd--I toll'd the bell."
In this the critic's folly most is shown:
Is there a genius all-unlike his own,
With learning elegant, with wit well bred,
And, as in books, in men and manners read;
Himself with poring erudition blind,
Unknowing, as unknown of human kind;
That writer he selects, with aukward aim
His sense at once, to mimic and to maim.
So Florio is a fop, with half a nose:
So fat West Indian planters dress at beaux.
thus, gay Petronius was a Dutchman's choice,
And Horace, strange to say, tun'd Bentley's voice.
Horace, whom all the Graces taught to please,
Mix'd mirth with morals, eloquence with ease;
His genius social, as his judgment clear;
When frolic, prudent; smiling when severe;
Secure, each temper, and each taste to hit,
His was the curious happiness of wit.
Skill'd in that noblest science, how to live;
Which learning may direct, but Heaven must give;
Grave with Agrippa, with Mæcenas gay;
Among the fair, but just as wise as they:
First in the friendships fo the great enroll'd,
The St. Johns, Boyles, and Lytteltons, of old.
While Bentley, long to wrangling schools confin'd,
And, but by books, acquainted with mankind,
Dares, in the fulness of the pendant's pride
Rhyme, though no genius; though no judge, decide.
Yet he, prime pattern of the captious art,
Out-tibbalding poor Tibbald, tops his part:
Holds high the scourge o'er each fam'd author's head;
Nor are their graves a refuge for the dead.
To Milton lending sense, to Horace wit,
He makes them write what never poet writ:
The Roman Muse arigns his mangling pen;
And Paradise, by him, is lost again.4
Such was his doom impos'd by Heaven's decree,
With ears that hear not, eyes that shall not see,
The low to swell, to level the sublime,
To blast all beauty, and beprose all rhyme.
Great eldest-born of Dullness, blind and bold!
Tyrant! more cruel than Procrustes old;
Who, to his iron-bed, by torture, fits,
Their nobler part, the souls of suffering wits.
Such is the man, who heaps his head with bays,
And calls on human kind to sound his praise,
For points transplac'd with curious want of skill,
For flatten'd sound, and sense amended ill.
So wise Caligula, in days of yore,
his helmet fill'd with pebbles on the shore,
Swore he had rifled Oceans's rich spoils,
And claim'd a trophy for his martial toils.
Yet be his merits, with his faults, confest:
Fair-dealing, as the plainest, is the best.
Long lay the critic's work, with trifles stor'd,
Admir'd in Latin, but in Greek ador'd.
Men, so well read, who confidently wrote,
Their readers could have sworn, were men of note:
To pass upon the crowd for great or rare,
Aim not to make them knowing, make them stare.
For these blind votaries good Bentley griev'd,
Writ english notes --- and mankind undeceiv'd,
Ev'n thou, Browne Willis, thou may'st see the jest.
But what can cure our vanity of mind,
Deaf to reproof, and to discovery blind?
Let Crooke, a brother scholiast Shakespeare call,
Tibbald, to Hessiod-Cooke returns the ball.
So runs the circle still: in this, we see
The lackies of the great and learn'd agree.
If Britain's nobles mix in high debate,
Whence Europe, in suspense, attends her fate;
In mimic session their grave footmen meet,
Reduce an army or equip a fleet:
And, rivaling the critic's lofty style,
Mere Tom and Dick are Stanhope and Argyll.
Yet those, whom pride and dulness join to blind,
To narrow cared in narrow space confin'd,
Though with big titles each his fellow greets,
Are but to wits, as scavengers to streets:
The humble black-guards of a Pope or Gay,
To brush off dust, and wipe their spots away.
Or, if not trivial, harmful is their art;
Fume to the head, or poison to the heart.
Where ancient authors hint at things obscene,
The scholiast speaks out broadly what they mean.
Disclosing each dark vice, well lost to fame,
And adding fuel to redundant flame,
He, sober pimp to Lechery, explains
What Capræ's Isle, or V---'s Alcove contains:
Why Paulus, for his sordid temper known,
Was lavish, to his father's wife alone:
Why those fond female visits duly paid
To tuneful Incuba; and what her trade:
How modern love has made so many martyrs,
And which keeps oftenest, lady C--, or Chartres.
But who their various follies can explain?
The tale is infinite, the task were vain.
'Twere to read new-year odes in search of thought;
To sum the libels Pryn or Withers wrote;
To guess, ere one epistle saw the light,5
How many dunces met, and club'd their mite;
To vouch for truth what Welsted prints of Pope,
Or from the brother-boobies steal a trope.
That be the part of persevering Wass,6
With pen of lead; or, Arnall, thine of brass;
A text for Henley, or a gloss for Hearne,
Who loves to teach, what no man cares to learn.
How little, knowledge reaps from toils like these!
Too doubtful to direct, too poor to please.
Yet, critics, would your tribe deserve a name,
And, fairly useful, rise to honest fame;
First, from the head, a load of lumber move,
And, from the volume, all yourselves approve:
For patch'd and pilfer'd fragments, give us sense,
Or learning, clear from learn'd impertinence,
Where moral meaning, or where taste presides,
And wit enlivens but what reason guides:
Great without swelling, without meanness plain,
Serious, not silly; sportive, but not vain;
On trifles slight, on things of use profound,
In quoting sober, and in judging sound.

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David Mallet