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Dry morals the court-poet blush'd to sing:
Th' extremes of wit and meanness join'd in thee? Flames that could mount, and gain their kindred skies, Low creeping in the putrid sink of vice;
A Muse whom wisdom woo'd, but woo'd in vain,
The pimp of power, the prostitute to gain;
More happy France: immortal BOILEAU there
But see at length the British Genius smile,
Here Vice, dragg'd forth by Truth's supreme decree, Beholds and hates her own deformity:
While self-seen Virtue in the faithful line
But oh, what thoughts, what numbers shall I find,
Who yonder star's effulgence can display,
Who paint a God, unless the God inspire?
And bless mankind with virtue's sacred store;
A nobler joy than wit can give, impart;
And pour a moral transport o'er the heart.
And, like a meteor, while we gaze, expires;
Wit kindled by the sulphurous breath of vice,
Like the blue lightning, while it shines, destroys: 490
But Genius, fired by Truth's eternal ray,
Burns clear and constant, like the source of day;
Like this, its beam prolific and refined,
Feeds, warms, inspirits, and exalts the mind;
Mildly dispels each wintry passion's gloom,
Where matchless wit but wins the second praise,
Error like this even truth can scarce reprove; 'Tis almost virtue when it flows from love.
Ye deathless names, ye sons of endless praise,
But if her giddy eye should vainly quit
Thy sacred paths, to run the maze of wit;
If her apostate heart should e'er incline
To offer incense at corruption's shrine;
Urge, urge thy power, the black attempt confound,
In the preceding works of Pope, whether descriptive, moral, critical, or didactic, his subjects are extraneous, and are drawn either from mankind in general, or from the persons with whom he was acquainted, and the scenes and circumstances by which he was surrounded; but in the present volume, and particularly in the Prologue and Epilogue to the Satires, he has engaged in a more hazardous undertaking, and has spoken of himself; a task of peculiar difficulty; and which has seldom been attempted without incurring the imputation either of vanity on the one hand, or of false modesty and affectation on the other. It must however be acknowledged, that when a person can divest himself of that morbid sensibility which trembles at the touch of praise or censure, and has the courage and the honesty to represent his own character with impartiality and truth, there are no productions in which we are more deeply interested, or by which we are more agreeably instructed. On these occasions an author opens to us his whole mind, and renders us the confidants of his thoughts, his feelings, and his opinions. It is in this way only, that we can be said to have become really acquainted with him, and to perceive ourselves bound by the best and finest associations of our nature, to those whom we have never seen, or who have passed away long before we came into existence.
But, if we are to judge of the difficulty or merit of any undertaking from the infrequency with which it has been accomplished, there are few efforts of human ability greater than that which enables an individual to speak of himself with freedom, impartiality, and ease. Amongst the ancients, those who are the most remarkable for this talent, are perhaps Cicero and Horace; amongst the moderns, Ariosto and Montaigne. Whether the character of the great Orator has, upon the whole, been exalted or lowered by the manner in which he has laid it open to us, may perhaps admit of a doubt. In attempting to give us too lofty an idea of his own achievements, importance, and dignity, he sometimes betrays a weakness which counteracts his purpose; whilst his more successful countryman, by a free and unguarded acknowledgment of his faults and his foibles, raises himself in our opinion, and becomes the object of our attachment and regard. It must, however, be acknowledged, that the liberty in which the Roman poet indulges, has at times been carried to licentiousness, and that there are but too many passages which disgrace the writer, and disgust the reader. Between these extremes, Pope has in the following Epistles steered with considerable skill; and, whilst he openly prides himself on those parts of his character which are entitled to admiration, takes care not to debase himself by any thing that is vulgar, indecorous, or contemptible.
In one of his letters to Lady M. W. Montagu, after observing that what folly we have will infallibly buoy up at some time or other, in spite of all our art to keep it down, Pope expresses a wish to extend the project of Momus, of having windows in our breasts, by making those windows