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to me a plain account why our present set of poets are, and hold themselves obliged to be, freethinkers.
But, although I cannot recommend religion upon the practice of some of our most eminent English poets, yet I can justly advise you, from their example, to be conversant in the Scriptures, and, if possible, to make yourself entirely master of them ; in which, however, I intend nothing less than imposing upon you a task of piety. Far be it from me to desire you to believe them, or lay any great stress upon their authority; in that you may do as you think fit; but to read them as a piece of necessary
furniture for a wit and a poet ; which is a very different view from that of a Christian. For I have made it my observation, that the greatest wits have been the best textuaries : our modern poets are, all to a man, almost as well read in the Scriptures as some of our divines, and often abound more with the phrase. They have read them historically, critically, musically, comically, poetically, and every other way except religously, and have found their account in doing so. For the Scriptures are undoubtedly a fund of wit, and a subject for wit. You may, according to the modern practice, be witty upon them, or out of them; and, to speak the truth, but for them, I know not what our playwrights would do for images, allusions, similitudes, examples, or even language itself. Shut up the sacred books, and I would be bound our wit would run down like an alarum, or fall as the stocks did, and ruin half the poets in these kingdoms. And if that were the case, how would most of that tribe, (all, I think, but the immortal Addison, who made a better use of his Bible, and a few more,) who dealt so freely in that fund, rejoice that they had drawn out in time, and left the present generation of poets to be the bubbles !
But here I must enter one caution, and desire you to take notice, that in this advice of reading the Scriptures, I had not the least thought concerning your qualification that way for poetical orders; which I mention, because I find a notion of that kind advanced by one of our English poets; and is, I suppose, maintained by the rest. He says to Spenser, in a pretended vision,
-With hands laid
fit For the great cure and ministry of wit.”
Which passage is, in my opinion, a notable allusion to the Scriptures; and, making but reasonable allowances for the small circumstance of profaneness, bordering close upon blasphemy, is inimitably fine; beside some useful discoveries made in it, as, that there are bishops in poetry, that these bishops must ordain young poets, and with laying on hands; and that poetry is a cure of souls; and, consequently speaking, those who have such cures ought to be poets, and too often are so: and indeed, as of old poets and priests were one and the same function, the alliance of those ministerial offices is to this day happily maintained in the same persons; and this I take to be the only justifiable reason for that appellation which they so much affect, I mean the modest title of divine poets. However, having never been present at the ceremony of ordaining to the priesthood of poetry, I own I have no notion of the thing, and shall say the less of it here. · The Scriptures then being generally both the fountain and subject of modern wit, I could do no less than give them the preference in your reading. After a thorough acquaintance with them, I would advise you to turn your
thoughts to human literature, which yet I say more in compliance with vulgar opinions, than according to my own sentiments.
For, indeed, nothing has surprised me more, than to see the prejudices of mankind as to this matter of human learning, who have generally thought it necessary to be a good scholar, in order to be a good poet; than which nothing is falser in fact, or more contrary to practice and experience. Neither will I dispute the matter if any man will undertake to shew me one professed poet now in being, who is anything of what may be justly called a scholar; or is the worse poet for that, but perhaps the better, for being so little encumbered with the pedantry of learning : it is true, the contrary was the opinion of our forefathers, which we of this age have devotion enough to receive from them on their own terms, and unexamined, but not sense enough to perceive it was a gross mistake in them. So Horace has told us :
Scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons,
Hor. de Art. Poet. 309.
But, to see the different casts of men's heads, some, not inferior to that poet in understanding, (if take their own word for it,) do see no consequence in this rule, and are not ashamed to declare themselves of a contrary opinion. Do not many men write well in common account, who have nothing of that principle ? Many are too wise to be poets, and others too much poets to be wise. Must a man, forsooth, be no less than a philosopher to be a poet, when it is plain that some of the greatest idiots of the age are our prettiest performers that way? And for this, I appeal to the judgment and observation of mankind. Sir P. Sidney’s notable remark upon
that fountain of the Muse's art, Let the strong page of Socrates impart.
this nation, may not be improper to mention here. He says, “ In our neighbour country, Ireland, where true learning goes very bare, yet are their poets held in devout reverence;" which shews, that learning is no way necessary either to the making of a poet, or judging of him. And farther, to see the fate of things, notwithstanding our learning here is as bare as ever, yet are our poets not held, as formerly, in devout reverence; but are, perhaps, the most contemptible race of mortals now in this kingdom, which is no less to be wondered at than lamented.
Some of the old philosophers were poets, as, according to the forementioned author, Socrates and Plato were: which, however, is what I did not know before; but that does not say that all poets are, or that any need be, philosophers, otherwise than as those are so called who are a little out at the elbows. In which sense the great Shakespeare might have been a philosopher ; but was no scholar, yet was an excellent poet. Neither do I think a late most judicious critic so much mistaken, as others do, in advancing this opinion, that “ Shakespeare had been a worse poet, had he been a better scholar:" and Sir W. Davenant is another instance in the same kind. Nor must it be forgotten, that Plato was an avowed enemy to poets ; which is, perhaps, the reason why poets have been always at enmity with his profession; and have rejected all learning and philosophy, for the sake of that one philosopher. As I take the matter, neither philosophy, nor any part of learning, is more necessary to poetry, (which, if you will believe the same author, is “ the sum of all learning,") than to know the theory of light, and the several proportions and diversifications of it in particular colours, is to a good painter.
Whereas, therefore, a certain author, called Petronius Arbiter, going upon the same mistake, has confidently declared, that one ingredient of a good poet, is
mens ingenti literarum flumine inundata ;" I do on the contrary declare, that this his assertion, (to speak of it in the softest terms,) is no better than an invidious and unhandsome reflection on all the gentlemen poets of these times : for, with his good leave, much less than a flood, or inundation, will serve the turn; and, to my certain knowledge, some of our greatest wits in your poetical way, have not as much real learning as would cover a sixpence in the bottom of a basin; nor do I think the worse of them; for, to speak my private opinion, I am for every man's working upon his own materials, and producing only what he can find within himself, which is commonly a better stock than the owner knows it to be. I think flowers of wit ought to spring, as those in a garden do, from their own root and stem, without foreign assistance. I would have a man's wit rather like a fountain, that feeds itself invisibly, than a river, that is supplied by several streams from abroad.
Or, if it be necessary, as the case is with some barren wits, to take in the thoughts of others in order to draw forth their own, as dry pumps will not play till water is thrown into them ; in that necessity, I would recommend some of the approved standard authors of antiquity for your perusal, as a poet and a wit; because, maggots being what you look for, as monkeys do for vermin in their keepers' heads, you will find they abound in good old authors, as in rich old cheese, not in the new;