It is with pleasure I hear that you have procured a correct copy of ‘The Dunciad,’ which the many surreptitious ones have rendered so necessary; and it is yet with more, that I am informed it will be attended with a commentary; a work so requisite, that I cannot think the author himself would have omitted it, had he approved of the first appearance of this poem.
Such notes as have occurred to me I herewith send you: you will oblige me by inserting them amongst those which are, or will be, transmitted to you by others; since not only the author’s friends but even strangers appear engaged by humanity, to take some care of an orphan of so much genius and spirit, which its parent seems to have abandoned from the very beginning, and suffered to step into the world naked, unguarded, and unattended.
It was upon reading some of the abusive papers lately published, that my great regard to a person, whose friendship I esteem as one of the chief honours of my life, and a much greater respect to truth, than to him or any man living, engaged me in inquiries, of which the enclosed notes are the fruit.
I perceived that most of these authors had been (doubtless very wisely) the first aggressors. They had tried till they were weary, what was to be got by railing at each other; nobody was either concerned or surprised, if this or that scribbler was proved a dunce. But every one was curious to read what could be said to prove Mr Pope one, and was ready to pay something for such a discovery; a stratagem which, would they fairly own it, might not only reconcile them to me, but screen them from the resentment of their lawful superiors, whom they daily abuse, only (as I charitably hope) to get that by them, which they cannot get from them.
I found this was not all. Ill success in that had transported them to personal abuse, either of himself, or (what I think he could less forgive) of his friends. They had called men of virtue and honour bad men, long before he had either leisure or inclination to call them bad writers; and some had been such old offenders, that he had quite forgotten their persons as well as their slanders, till they were pleased to revive them.
Now what had Mr Pope done before to incense them? He had published those works which are in the hands of everybody, in which not the least mention is made of any of them. And what has he done since? He has laughed, and written ‘The Dunciad.’ What has that said of them? A very serious truth, which the public had said before, that they were dull; and what it had no sooner said, but they themselves were at great pains to procure, or even purchase, room in the prints to testify under their hands to the truth of it.
I should still have been silent, if either I had seen any inclination in my friend to be serious with such accusers, or if they had only meddled with his writings; since whoever publishes, puts himself on his trial by his country. But when his moral character was attacked, and in a manner from which neither truth nor virtue can secure the most innocent; in a manner which, though it annihilates the credit of the accusation with the just and impartial, yet aggravates very much the guilt of the accusers; I mean by authors without names; then I thought, since the danger was common to all, the concern ought to be so; and that it was an act of justice to detect the authors, not only on this account, but as many of them are the same who, for several years past, have made free with the greatest names in Church and State, exposed to the world the private misfortunes of families, abused all, even to women, and whose prostituted papers (for one or other party, in the unhappy divisions of their country) have insulted the fallen, the friendless, the exiled, and the dead.
Besides this, which I take to be a public concern, I have already confessed I had a private one. I am one of that number who have long loved and esteemed Mr Pope; and had often declared it was not his capacity or writings (which we ever thought the least valuable part of his character), but the honest, open, and beneficent man, that we most esteemed, and loved in him. Now if what these people say were believed, I must appear to all my friends either a fool, or a knave; either imposed on myself, or imposing on them; so that I am as much interested in the confutation of these calumnies as he is himself.
I am no author, and consequently not to be suspected either of jealousy or resentment against any of the men, of whom scarce one is known to me by sight; and as for their writings, I have sought them (on this one occasion) in vain, in the closets and libraries of all my acquaintance. I had still been in the dark if a gentleman had not procured me (I suppose from some of themselves, for they are generally much more dangerous friends than enemies) the passages I send you. I solemnly protest I have added nothing to the malice or absurdity of them; which it behoves me to declare, since the vouchers themselves will be so soon and so irrecoverably lost. You may in some measure prevent it, by preserving at least their titles, and discovering (as far as you can depend on the truth of your information) the names of the concealed authors.
The first objection I have heard made to the poem is, that the persons are too obscure for satire. The persons themselves, rather than allow the objection, would forgive the satire; and if one could be tempted to afford it a serious answer, were not all assassinates, popular insurrections, the insolence of the rabble without doors, and of domestics within, most wrongfully chastised, if the meanness of offenders indemnified them from punishment? On the contrary, obscurity renders them more dangerous, as less thought of: law can pronounce judgment only on open facts; morality alone can pass censure on intentions of mischief; so that for secret calumny, or the arrow flying in the dark, there is no public punishment left, but what a good writer inflicts.
The next objection is, that these sort of authors are poor. That might be pleaded as an excuse at the Old Bailey for lesser crimes than defamation (for ’tis the case of almost all who are tried there), but sure it can be none: for who will pretend that the robbing another of his reputation supplies the want of it in himself? I question not but such authors are poor, and heartily wish the objection were removed by any honest livelihood. But poverty is here the accident, not the subject: he who describes malice and villany to be pale and meagre, expresses not the least anger against paleness or leanness, but against malice and villany. The apothecary in Romeo and Juliet is poor; but is he therefore justified in vending poison? Not but poverty itself becomes a just subject of satire, when it is the consequence of vice, prodigality, or neglect of one’s lawful calling; for then it increases the public burden, fills the streets and highways with robbers, and the garrets with clippers, coiners, and weekly journalists.
But admitting that two or three of these offend less in their morals than in their writings, must poverty make nonsense sacred? If so, the fame of bad authors would be much better consulted than that of all the good ones in the world; and not one of a hundred had ever been called by his right name.
They mistake the whole matter: it is not charity to encourage them in the way they follow, but to get them out of it; for men are not bunglers because they are poor, but they are poor because they are bunglers.
Is it not pleasant enough to hear our authors crying out on the one hand, as if their persons and characters were too sacred for satire; and the public objecting on the other, that they are too mean even for ridicule? But whether bread or fame be their end, it must be allowed, our author, by and in this poem, has mercifully given them a little of both.
There are two or three who, by their rank and fortune, have no benefit from the former objections, supposing them good; and these I was sorry to see in such company. But if, without any provocation, two or three gentlemen will fall upon one, in an affair wherein his interest and reputation are equally embarked, they cannot, certainly, after they have been content to print themselves his enemies, complain of being put into the number of them.
Others, I am told, pretend to have been once his friends. Surely they are their enemies who say so, since nothing can be more odious than to treat a friend as they have done. But of this I cannot persuade myself, when I consider the constant and eternal aversion of all bad writers to a good one.
Such as claim a merit from being his admirers, I would gladly ask, if it lays him under a personal obligation? At that rate, he would be the most obliged humble servant in the world. I dare swear for these in particular, he never desired them to be his admirers, nor promised in return to be theirs: that had truly been a sign he was of their acquaintance; but would not the malicious world have suspected such an approbation of some motive worse than ignorance in the author of the Essay on Criticism? Be it as it will, the reasons of their admiration and of his contempt are equally subsisting, for his works and theirs are the very same that they were.
One, therefore, of their assertions I believe may be true — ‘That he has a contempt for their writings.’ And there is another, which would probably be sooner allowed by himself than by any good judge beside — ‘That his own have found too much success with the public.’ But as it cannot consist with his modesty to claim this as justice, it lies not on him, but entirely on the public, to defend its own judgment.
There remains what in my opinion might seem a better plea for these people than any they have made use of. If obscurity or poverty were to exempt a man from satire, much more should folly or dulness, which are still more involuntary; nay, as much so as personal deformity. But even this will not help them: deformity becomes an object of ridicule when a man sets up for being handsome; and so must dulness when he sets up for a wit. They are not ridiculed because ridicule in itself is, or ought to be, a pleasure, but because it is just to undeceive and vindicate the honest and unpretending part of mankind from imposition, because particular interest ought to yield to general, and a great number who are not naturally fools ought never to be made so, in complaisance to a few who are. Accordingly we find that in all ages, all vain pretenders, were they ever so poor or ever so dull, have been constantly the topics of the most candid satirists, from the Codrus of Juvenal to the Damon of Boileau.
Having mentioned Boileau, the greatest poet and most judicious critic of his age and country, admirable for his talents, and yet perhaps more admirable for his judgment in the proper application of them, I cannot help remarking the resemblance betwixt him and our author, in qualities, fame, and fortune, in the distinctions shown them by their superiors, in the general esteem of their equals, and in their extended reputation amongst foreigners; in the latter of which ours has met with the better fate, as he has had for his translators persons of the most eminent rank and abilities in their respective nations. But the resemblance holds in nothing more than in their being equally abused by the ignorant pretenders to poetry of their times, of which not the least memory will remain but in their own writings, and in the notes made upon them. What Boileau has done in almost all his poems, our author has only in this: I dare answer for him he will do it in no more; and on this principle, of attacking few but who had slandered him, he could not have done it at all, had he been confined from censuring obscure and worthless persons, for scarce any other were his enemies. However, as the parity is so remarkable, I hope it will continue to the last; and if ever he shall give us an edition of this poem himself, I may see some of them treated as gently, on their repentance or better merit, as Perrault and Quinault were at last by Boileau.
In one point I must be allowed to think the character of our English poet the more amiable. He has not been a follower of fortune or success; he has lived with the great without flattery — been a friend to men in power, without pensions, from whom, as he asked, so he received no favour but what was done him in his friends. As his satires were the more just for being delayed, so were his panegyrics; bestowed only on such persons as he had familiarly known, only for such virtues as he had long observed in them, and only at such times as others cease to praise, if not begin to calumniate them — I mean, when out of power or out of fashion. A satire, therefore, on writers so notorious for the contrary practice, became no man so well as himself; as none, it is plain, was so little in their friendships, or so much in that of those whom they had most abused — namely, the greatest and best of all parties. Let me add a further reason, that, though engaged in their friendships, he never espoused their animosities; and can almost singly challenge this honour, not to have written a line of any man, which, through guilt, through shame, or through fear, through variety of fortune, or change of interests, he was ever unwilling to own.
I shall conclude with remarking, what a pleasure it must be to every reader of humanity to see all along, that our author in his very laughter is not indulging his own ill-nature, but only punishing that of others. As to his poem, those alone are capable of doing it justice, who, to use the words of a great writer, know how hard it is (with regard both to his subject and his manner) vetustis dare novitatem, obsoletis nitorem, obscuris lucem, fastiditis gratiam. — I am
Your most humble servant,
ST JAMES’S, Dec. 22, 1728.
1 This gentleman was of Scotland, and bred at the university of Utrecht, with the Earl of Mar. He served in Spain under Earl Rivers. After the peace, he was made one of the Commissioners of the Customs in Scotland, and then of Taxes in England, in which having shewn himself for twenty years diligent, punctual, and incorruptible, though without any other assistance of fortune, he was suddenly displaced by the minister in the sixty-eighth year of his age, and died two months after, in 1741. — P.
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