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N offering to the Public a new English version of Persius, my object has rather been to express his meaning clearly, than either to translate his words literally, or to copy his manner servilely. The sentiments of this satirist are indeed admirable, and deserve to be better known than they are; but his poetry cannot be praised for its elegance, nor his language for its urbanity. It is one thing, to esteem the excellent sense of an author, and another, to propose his style as a model of imitation.
The defects of Persius, considered with respect to composition, cannot perhaps be easily defended. Even Casaubon, his fondest admirer, and most successful interpreter, admits that his style is obscure. If, however, any apology can be made for
this first sin against good writing, it is in the case of a satirist, and above all, of a satirist who dared to reprobate the crimes, and to ridicule the follies of a tyrant. If Persius be obscure, let it be remembered, he lived in the time of Nero.
But it has been remarked, that this author is not obscure, only when he lashes and exposes the Roman emperor. It was very well, it has been said, to employ hints, and to speak in half sentences, while he censured the vices of a cruel and luxurious despot; but there could be no occasion for enveloping himself in obscurity, while he expounded the doctrines of the Stoics to his friend Cornutus, or expatiated to the poet Bassus on the true use of riches.
But those who blame Persius for his obscurity, ought to reflect, that of all the various kinds of poetry satire is that which loses most, by being read at a period very distant from the time of its composition. Just observations upon men and manners will indeed be esteemed in every age, when taste and literature flourish; and well de scribed characters will always interest readers of
judgment and feeling. But it is not the nature of satire to dwell upon general topics, without allusion to existing circumstances, or without reference to particular, and even familiar, examples.
But it may be asked, if vice and folly would not be exposed with perhaps greater effect by the delineation of fictitious characters, and by general observations upon manners, than by dwelling upon the absurdity of a temporary fashion, or upon the guilt or weakness of an obscure individual. To this question the satirist may justly reply, that his aim is not only to censure vice, but to punish those who practice it. If example teach at all, it teaches most where it applies best. The principle upon which punishment is justly inflicted, is for the sake of example; and the punishment, which we dread because it may be ours, seems terrible even when it falls upon others. General and abstract reasoning upon virtue and morality, may delight the wise and the good; but it rarely corrects the foolish, or reforms the profligate.
As the moralist treats generally of virtue and of
wisdom, of the influence of reason, and of the subordination of the passions; so the satirist remarks and censures those private and individual deviations from good sense or good conduct, which it does not fall within the province of the moralist to observe. The moralist displays the variety of the human character, as it exists in all ages and nations; the satirist marks its shades and its defects in particular instances.
While, therefore, I fully admit the charge of obscurity, which has been brought against Persius, I cannot allow to it that weight, which it would have in most other cases. Indeed, we may as well complain of the rust on an ancient coin, as of the obscurity of an ancient satire. Nature, it is true, always holds up the same mirror, but prejudice, habit, and education, are continually changing the appearance of the objects seen in it.
The objections which have been made to my Author in some other respects, are more difficult to answer. His unpolished verses, his coarse comparisons, and his ungraceful transitions from one subject to another, manifest, it is said, either