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discourse, if it were not a little relieved by the uncouth terms and phrases, as well as accent and gesture, peculiar to that country, would be hardly tolerable. It is not a fault in company to talk much; but to continue it long is certainly one; for, if the majority of those who are got together be naturally silent or cautious, the conversation will flag, unless it be often renewed by one among them, who can start new subjects, provided he does not dwell upon them, that leave room for answers and replies.
A LETTER OF ADVICE
A YOUNG POET.
TOGETHER WITH A PROPOSAL FOR THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF
POETRY IN IRELAND.
Sic honor et nomen divinis vatibus atque
HOR. DE ART. POET. 400.
Dec. 1, 1720. SIR, As I have always professed a friendship for you,
and have therefore been more inquisitive into your conduct and studies than is usually agreeable to young men ; so I must own I am not a little pleased to find, by your
last account, that you have entirely bent your thoughts to English poetry, with design to make it your profession and business. Two reasons incline me to encourage you in this study; one, the narrowness of your present circumstances; the other, the great use of poetry to mankind and society, and in every employment of life. Upon these views, I cannot but commend your wise resolution to withdraw so early from other unprofitable and severe studies, and betake yourself to that, which, if you have good luck, will advance your fortune, and make you an ornament to your friends and your country. It may be your justification, and farther encouragement, to consider, that history, ancient or modern, cannot furnish you an instance of one person, eminent in any station, who was not in some measure versed in poetry, or at least a well-wisher to the professors of it; neither would I despair to prove, if legally called thereto, that it is impossible to be a good soldier, divine, or lawyer, or even so much as an eminent bellman, or ballad-singer, without some taste of poetry, and a competent skill in versification ; but I say the less of this, because the renowned Sir P. Sidney has exhausted the subject befor me, in his defence of poesie, on which I shall make no other remark but this, that he argues there as if he really believed himself.
* So verse became divine, and poets gain'd applause.
For my own part, having never made one verse since I was at school, where I suffered too much for my blunders in poetry to have any love to it ever since, I am not able, from any experience of my own, to give you those instructions you desire; neither will I declare (for I love to conceal my passions) how much I lament my neglect of poetry in those periods of my life which were properest for improvements in that ornamental part of learning; besides, my age and infirmities might well excuse me to you, as being unqualified to be your writing-master, with spectacles on, and a shaking hand. However, that I may not be altogether wanting to you in an affair of so much importance to your credit and happiness, I shall here give you some scattered thoughts upon the subject, such as I have gathered by reading and observation.
There is a certain little instrument, the first of those in use with scholars, and the meanest, considering the materials of it, whether it be a joint of wheaten straw (the old Arcadian pipe) or just three inches of slender wire, or a stripped feather, or a corking-pin. Farthermore, this same diminutive tool, for the posture of it, usually reclines its head on the thumb of the right hand, sustains the foremost finger upon its breast, and is itself supported by the second. This is commonly known by the name of a fescue; I shall here, therefore, condescend to be this little elementary guide, and point out some particulars, which may be of use to you in your hornbook of poetry.
In the first place, I am not yet convinced, that it is at all necessary for a modern poet to believe in God, or have any serious sense of religion ; and in this article you must give me leave to suspect your capacity; because, religion being what your mother taught you, you will hardly find it possible, at least not easy, all at once to get over those early prejudices, so far as to think it better to be a great wit than a good Christian, though herein the general practice is against you ; so that, if, upon inquiry, you find in yourself any such softnesses, owing to the nature of your education, my advice is, that you forthwith lay down your pen, as having no farther business with it n the way of poetry ; unless you will be content to pass for an insipid, or will submit to be hooted at by your fraternity, or can disguise your religion, as well-bred men do their learning, in complaisance to company.
For, poetry, as it has been managed for some years past, by such as make a business of it, (and of such only I speak here, for I do not call him a poet that writes for his diversion, any more than that gentleman a fiddler who amuses himself with a violin,) I say, our poetry of late has been altogether disengaged from the narrow notions of virtue and piety, because it has been found, by experience of our professors, that the smallest quantity of religion, like a single drop of malt liquor in claret, will muddy and discompose the brightest poetical genius.
Religion supposes heaven and hell, the word of God, and sacraments, and twenty other circumstances, which, taken seriously, are a wonderful check to wit and humour, and such as a true poet cannot possibly give in to, with a saving to his poetical licence; but yet it is necessary
for him, that others should believe those things seriously, that his wit may be exercised on their wisdom for so doing; for though a wit need not have religion, religion is necessary to a wit, as an instrument is to the hand that plays upon it; and for this, the moderns plead the example of their great idol Lucretius, who had not been by half so eminent a poet (as he truly was) but that he stood tiptoe on religion, Religio pedibus subjecta, and, by that rising ground, had the advantage of all the poets of his own or following times, who were not mounted on the same pedestal.
Besides, it is farther to be observed, that Petronius, another of their favourites, speaking of the qualifications of a good poet, insists chiefly on the liber spiritus ; by which I have been ignorant enough heretofore, to suppose he meant, a good invention, or great compass of thought, or a sprightly imagination : but I have learned a better construction, from the opinion and practice of the moderns; and, taking it literally for a free spirit, i.e. a spirit, or mind, free or disengaged from all prejudices concerning God, religion, and another world, it is