Prince Arthur: An Heroick Poem in Ten Books: Preface

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Prince Arthur: An Heroick Poem in Ten Books: Preface

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   To what ill purposes soever Poetry has been abus'd, its true and genuine End is by universal Confession, the Instruction of our Minds, and Regulation of our Manners; for which 'tis furnish'd with so many excellent Advantages. The Delicacy of its Strains, the Sweetness and Harmony of its Numbers, the lively and admirable manner of its Painting or Representation, and the wonderful Force of its Eloquence, cannot but open the Passages to our Breasts, triumph over our Passions, and leave behind them very deep Impressions. 'Tis in the power of Poetry to insinuate into the inmost Recesses of the Mind, to touch any Spring that moves the Heart, to agitate the Soul with any sort of Affection, and transform it into any Shape or Posture it thinks fit. 'Tis therefore no wonder that so wise a State, as that of Athens, should retain the Poets on the side of Religion and the Government. The Stage there was set up to teach the People the Scheme of their Religion, and those Modes of Worship the Government thought fit to encourage, to convey to them such Ideas of their Deities, and Divine Providence, as might engage their Minds to a Reverence of superiour, invisible Beings, and to observe and admire their Administration of humane Affairs. The Poets were look'd on as Divine, not only upon the account of that extraordinary Fury and Heat of Imagination, wherewith they were thought to be inspir'd, but likewise upon the account of their Profession and Imployment, their Business being to represent Vice as the most odious, and Virtue as the most desirable thing in the World.

   Tragedy was at its first Institution a part of the Ancient Pagans Divine Service, when the
Chorus which originally was so great a part, contain'd many excellent Lessons of Piety and Morality, and was wholly imploy'd in rectifying their mistakes about the Gods, and their Government of the World, in moderating their Passions, and purging their Minds from Vice and Corruption. This was the noble Design of the Chorus. And the Representation of great and illustrious Characters, gradually afterwards introduc'd, their Impious, or their Generous Actions, and the different Event that attended them, was to deter Men from Vice and Impiety, and encourage them to be Generous and Virtuous, be shewing them the Vengeance that at last overtook the one, and the Rewards and Praises that crown'd the other. The End of Comedy was the same, but pursu'd in another way. The business of Comedy being to render Vice ridiculous, to expose it to publick Derision and Contempt, and to make Men asham'd of Vile and Sordid Actions.

   Tragedy design'd to Scare Men, Comedy to Laugh them out of their Vices. And 'tis very plain, that Satyr is intended for the same End, the Promotion of Virtue, and exposing of Vice; which it pursues by sharp Reproaches, vehement and bitter Invectives, or by a Courtly, but not less cutting Raillery. The Odes of the Lyric Poet were chiefly design'd for the Praises of their Gods, their Heroes and extraordianry Persons, to draw Men to an Admiration and Imitation of them.

   But above all other kinds,
Epick Poetry, as it is first in Dignity, so it mostly conduces to this End. In an Epick Poem, where Characters of the first Rank and Dignity, Illustrious for their Birth or high Employment are introduc'd, the Fable, the Action, the particular Episodes are so contriv'd and conducted, or at least ought to be, that either Fortitude, Wisdom, Piety, Moderation, Generosity, some or other Nobel and Princely Virtues shall be recommended with the highest Advantage, and their contrary Vices made as odious. To give Men right and just Conceptions of Religion and Virtue, to aid their Reason in restraining their Exorbitant Appetites and Impetuous Passions, and to bring their Lives under the Rules and Guidance of true Wisdom, and thereby to promote the publick Good of Mankind, is undoubtedly the End of all Poetry.

   'Tis true indeed, that one End of Poetry is to give Men Pleasure and Delight; but this is but a subordinate, subaltern End, which is it self a Means to the greater, and ultimate one before mention'd. A Poet should imploy all his Judgment and Wit, exhaust all the Riches of his Fancy, and abound in Beautiful and Noble Expression, to divert and entertain others; but then it must be with this Prospect, that he may hereby engage their Attention, insinuate more easily into their Minds, and more effectually convey to them wise Instructions. 'Tis below the Dignity of a true Poet to take his Aim at any inferiour End. They are Men of little Genius, of mean and poor Design, that imploy their Wit for no higher Purpose, than to please the Imagination of vain and wanton People.

   I think these Poets, if they must be called so, whose Wit as they manage it, is altogether unuseful are justly reproach'd; but I am sure those others are highly to be condemned, who use all their Wit in
Opposition to Religion, and to the Destruction of Virtue and good Manners in the World. There have been in all Ages such ill Men that have perverted the right Use of Poetry, but never so many, or so bold or mischievous as in ours. Our Poets seem engag'd in a general Confederacy to ruin the End of their own Art, to expose Religion and Virtue, and bring Vice and Corruption of Manners into Esteem and Reputation. The Poets that write for the Stage (at least a great part of 'em) seem deeply concern'd in this Conspiracy. These are the Champions that charge Religion with such desperate Resolution, and have given it so many deep and ghastly Wounds. The Stage was an Outwork or Fort rais'd for the Protection and Security of the Temple, but the Poets that kept it, have revolted, and basely betray'd it, and what is worse, have turn'd all their Force and discharg'd all their Artillery against the Place their Duty was to defend. If any Man thinks this an unjust Charge, I desire him to read any of our modern Comedies, and I believe he will soon be convinc'd of the Truth of what I have said.

   The Man of Sense and the Fine Gentleman in the Comedy, who as the chiefest Person propos'd to the Esteem and Imitation of the Audience, is enrich'd with all the Sense and Wit the Poet can bestow; this Extraordinary Person you will find to be a Derider of Religion, a great Admirer of Lucretius, not so much for his Learning, as his Irreligion, a Person wholly Idle, dissolv'd in Luxury, abandon'd to his Pleasures, a great Debaucher of Women, profuse and extravagant in his Expences, and in short, this Finish'd Gentleman will appear a Finish'd Libertine.

   The Young Lady that must support the Character of a Vertuous, Well-manner'd Sensible Woman, the most perfect Creature that can be, and the very Flower of her Sex, this Accomplish'd Person entertains the Audience with confident Discourses, immodest Repartees, and prophane Raillery. She is throughly instructed in Intreagues and Assignations, a great Scoffer at the prudent Reservedness and Modesty of the best of her Sex, She despises the wise Instructions of her Parents or Guardians, is disobedient to their Authority, and at last, without their Knowledge or Consent, marries her self to the Fine Gentleman above mentioned. And can any one imagine, but that our Young Ladies and Gentlemen are admirably instructed by such Patterns of Sense and Virtue? If a Clergy-man be introduc'd, as he often is, 'tis seldome for any other purpose, but to abuse him, to expose his very Character and Profession: He must be a Pimp, a Blockhead, a Hypocrite; some wretched Figure he must make, and almost ever be so manag'd, as to bring his very Order into Contempt. This indeed is a very common, but yet so gross an Abuse of Wit, as was never endur'd on a Pagan Theater, at least in the ancient, primitive Times of Poetry, before its Purity and Simplicity became corrupted with the Inventions of after Ages. Poets then taught Men to reverence their Gods, and those who serv'd them. None had so little Regard for his Religion, as to expose it publickly, or if any had, their Govenments were too wise to suffer the Worship of their Gods to be treated on the Stage with Contempt.

   In our Comedies the Wives of Citizens are highly encourag'd to despise their Husbands, and to make great Friendship with some such Vertuous Gentleman and Man of Sense as is above describ'd. This is their Way of recommending Chastity and Fidelity. And that Diligence and Frugality may be sufficiently expos'd, tho' the two Virtues that chiefly support the Being of any State, to deter Men from being Industrious and Wealthy, the Diligent, Thriving Citizen is made of the most Wretched, Contemptible Thing in the World: and as the Alderman that makes the best Figure in the City, makes the worst on the Stage, so under the Character of a Justice of Peace, you have all the Prudence and Virtues of the Country, most unmercifully insulted over.

   And as these Characters are set up on purpose to ruin all Opinion and Esteem of Virtue, so the Conduct throughout, the Language, the Fable, and Contrivance seem evidently design'd for the same Noble End. There are few Fine Conceipts, few Strains of Wit or extraordinary Pieces of Raillery, but are either immodest or irreligious, and very few Scenes but have some spiteful and envious Stroke at Sobriety and Good Manners, whence the Youth of the Nation have apparently receiv'd very bad Impressions. The universal Corruption of Manners and irreligious Disposition of Mind that infects the Kingdom, seems to have been in a great Measure deriv'd from the Stage, or has at least been highly promoted by it. And 'tis great Pitty that those in whose Power it is, have not yet restrain'd the Licentiousness of it, and oblig'd the Writers to observe more Decorum. It were to be wish'd that Poets, as Preachers are in some Countries, were paid and licens'd by the State, and that none were suffer'd to write in Prejudice of Religion and the Government, but that all such Offenders, as publick Enemies of Mankind should be silenc'd and duly punish'd. Sure some Effectual Care should be taken that these Men might not be suffr'd by Debauching our Youth, to help on the Destruction of a brave Nation.

   Some of these
Poets, to excuse their Guilt, alledge for themselves, that the Degeneracy of the Age makes their leud way of Writing necessary; they pretend the Auditors will not be pleas'd, unless they are thus entertain'd from the Stage; and to please they say is the chief business of the Poet. But this is by no means a just Apology; 'tis not true, as was said before, that the Poet's chief business is to please. His chief business is to instruct, to make Mankind Wiser and Better; and in order to this, his Care should be to please and entertain the Audience with all the Wit and Art, he is Master of. Aristotle and Horace, and all their Criticks and Commentators, all Men of Wit and Sense agree, that this is the End of Poetry. But they say 'tis their Profession to Write for the Stage; and that Poets must Starve if they will not in this way humour the Audience. The Theater will be as unfrequented, as the Churches, and the Poet and the Parson equally neglected. Let the Poet then abandon his Profession, and take up some honest, lawful Calling, where joyning Industry to his great Wit, he may soon get above the Complaints of Poverty, so common among these ingenious Men, and lye under no necessity of prostituting his Wit to any such vile Purposes as are here censur'd. This will be a course of Life more Profitable and Honourable to himself, and more useful to others. And there are among these Writers some, who think they might have risen to the highest Dignities in other Professions, had they imploy'd their Wit in those Ways. 'Tis a mighty Dishonour and Reproach to any Man, that is capable of being useful to the World in any Liberal and Virtuous Profession, to lavish out his Life and Wit in propagating Vice and Corruption of Manners, and in battering from the Stage the strongest Entrenchments and best Works of Religion and Virtue. Whoever makes this his Choice, when the other was in his Power, may he go off the Stage unpity'd, complaining of Neglect and Poverty, the just Punishments of his Irreligion and Folly.

   'Tis no dishonour to be a true Poet, if indeed a Man be one; that is, a noble Genius well cultivated, and employ'd in Writing in such a way, as reaches the End of his Art, and by discouraging Vice, promotes the Good of Mankind. But 'tis a mighty Dishonour and Shame, to employ excellent Faculties and abundance of Wit, to humour and please Men in their Vices and Follies. Such a one is more hateful, as an ill Man, than valuable, as a good Poet. The great Enemy of Mankind, notwithstanding his Wit and Angelick Faculties, is the most odious Being of the whole Creation.

   Nor is this Abuse confin'd to the Stage, the same Strain runs thro' the other kinds of Poetry. What monstrous leud and irreligious Books of Poems, as they are call'd, have been of late days publish'd, and what is the greater wonder, receiv'd in a Civiliz'd and Christian Kingdom, with
Applause and Reputation? The sweetness of the Wit, makes the Poison go down with Pleasure, and the Contagion spreads without Opposition. Young Gentlemen and Ladies are generally pleas'd and diverted with Poetry, more than by any other way of Writing; but there are few Poems they can fix on, but they are like to pay too dear for their Entertainment. Their Fancies are like to be fill'd with impure Ideas and their Minds engag'd in hurtful Passions, which are the more lasting, by being convey'd in lively Expressions, and all the Address of an artful Poet.

   For this End among others, I undertook the writing of this Poem, hoping I might be able to please and entertain, not only wthout hurting the Reader, but to his advantage. I was willing to make one
Effort towards the rescuing the Muses out of the hands of these Ravishers, to restore them to their sweet and chast Mansions, and to engage them in an Employment suitable to their Dignity. If I succeed not my self in this good Design, I hope at least I shall awaken the Courage and Compassion of some other brave Adventurers; that may more happily attempt this honorable Work.

   To write an Epick Poem is a work of that Difficulty, that no one for near seventeen hundred years past has succeeded in it; and only those two great Wits
Homer and Virgil before. That the modern Poets have been so unsuccessful, has not, I imagin, proceeded so much from want of Genius, as from their Ignorance of the Rules of writing such a Poem; or at least, from their want of attending to them. Tho' Aristotle's excellent Rules of Poetry were early publish'd by Victorius at Florence, and soon after farther illustrated by the Comments of several Italian Criticks, yet we do not find that Ariosto or Tasso either, were very careful to observe them. And indeed our modern Writers neither seem to have attended to those incomparable Rules, nor carefully to have consider'd the great Models that Homer and Virgil had left them. Some Readers that are not vers'd in this matter, imagin every thing written in Heroick Verse, is an Heroick Poem; but these have not consider'd the Nature of such a Work, nor look'd into the Criticks, who have written on this Subject. I shall therefore give the Definition of an Epick or Heroick Poem, that those that have it not already, may now have a true Idea of its Nature.

   An Epick Poem is a feign'd or devis'd Story of an
Illustrious Action, related in Verse, in an Allegorical, Probable, Delightful and Admirable manner, to cultivate the Mind with Instructions of Virtue. 'Tis a feign'd or devis'd Discourse; that is, a Fable; and so it agrees with Tragedy and Comedy. The word Fable at first signified indifferently a true or false Story, therefore Cicero for distinction, uses Fictas Fabulas in his Book de Finibus. But afterwards Custom obtain'd to use the word always for a feign'd Discourse. And in the first Ages, especially in the Eastern World, great use was made by Learned and Wise Men of these feign'd Discourses, Fables, or Apologues, to teach the ruder and more unpolish'd Part of Mankind. Theologians, Philosophers, and great Law-givers, every where fell into this way of instructing and cultivating the People in the Knowledge of Religion, Natural Philosophy, and Moral and Political Virtues. So Thales, Orpheus, Solon, Homer, and the rest of the great Men in those Ages have done, and the famous Philosopher Socrates is by some affirm'd to be the Author of many of the Fables that pass under Æsop's name. Most of them made their Fables in Verse, that by the addition of Harmony and Numbers they might the better attain their End. Strabo and Plutarch greatly commend this way of teaching the People; and these Reasons may be given for the usefulness of it. Naked Philosophical Precepts and Doctrines are of themselves harsh and dry, hardly attended to, and ungratefully entertain'd. If the Hearers are rude and course, or very vicious, there is no hope of gaining them by a grave and solemn Discourse of Virtue, and even the better and more civiliz'd Auditors are hardly kept attentive to it. Man is naturally a lover of Pleasure, and if you would do him Good, it must be, by pleasing him; you must give him Delight, and keep his Mind in a constant agreeable Agitation, else he will not attend to the most useful Counsel and Instruction. He is pleas'd already with the Notions and Habitudes, howsoever false or vicious, that have the present Possession of him, and you must give him a great deal of Pleasure and Entertainment to engage him to hear you, when you would perswade him to the trouble, of becoming Wiser and Better. Now the first Wise Men that undertook to civilize and polish the barbarous World, found this way of Fables especially in Verse, to be mighty Acceptable to the People: The Contrivance gave them Delight, and the Novelty rais'd their Admiration. They could learn them perfectly, and repeat them often, by which means the Instructions of Virtue covertly contain'd in them, were inculcated on their Minds.

   And we find, that many Ages after Orpheus, Solon, Homer, &c. the Divine Law-giver of the Christians thought fit to teach the People by Apologues, Parables or Fables, under which he cover'd and disguis'd his Heavenly Instructions.

   The Action must be
Illustrious and Important; Illustrious in respect of the Person, who is the Author of it, who is always some Valiant, or Wise, or Pious Prince or great Commander: But let his Character be what it will in other respects (for there is no Necessity the Hero should be a good or a wise Person) 'tis always necessary he should have Courage; which single Quality is sufficient to make the Hero. And the Action must be important, both in respect of its Object and its End. 'Tis the Action of some great Person, about some noble and weighty Affair. 'Tis true, there are many other Persons concern'd, but tis the Action of the chief Person that gives the Being and Denomination to the Poem. This Action must be but one; when it ceases, the Poem is ended; and if it be reviv'd, and taken up again, 'tis a new Poem begins. Action is Motion; and if it ceases cannot be reviv'd, so as to be numerically the same. There are indeed many other Actions besides the Principal one, but they all depend on, and have relation to that which is Principal, with the Unity of which, the Unity of the Poem stands or falls. If this principal Action be broken, the Poem is broken too, if there be any other Action coordinate and independent on this, the Poem is monstrous, and has as many Heads, as there are found independent Actions. The Narration therefore of many Actions successively of one great Person, or the History of his Life related in Verse, is by no means an Heroick Poem, any one great action being sufficient for that. That which makes the Unity of the Action, is the regular Succession of one Part or Episode to another, not only as Antecedents and Consequents, but as it were Causes and Effects, wherein the Reader may discern that the former Episode makes the following necessary, and the Connection between them is such, that they assist and support each other, as the Members of the Body do, no Episode being out of its place, of a disproportion'd size to the Rest, or that could be spar'd from its place, without maiming, or at least deforming the Whole. If this order of the Episodes be preserv'd, and there appears none but what naturally and probably results from the principal Action, then the Action may be look'd on as one.

   The Action must be related in an
Allegorical manner; and this Rule is best observ'd, when as Divines speak; there is both a Literal Sense obvious to every Reader, and that gives him satisfaction enough if he sees no farther; and besides another Mystical or Typical Sense, not hard to be discover'd by those Readers that penetrate the matter deeper. Virgil seems most happy in this Conduct, whose Poem all along contains this double Sense, Homer has often only an Allegorical Sense without the Literal, and therefore is not so well accommodated to this Age, as he was not to that of Augustus. But Ariosto and Spencer, however great Wits, not observing this judicious Conduct of Virgil, nor attending to any sober Rules, are hurried on with a boundless, impetuous Fancy over Hill and Dale, till they are both lost in a Wood of Allegories. Allegories so wild, unnatural, and extravagant, as greatly displease the Reader. This way of writing mightily offends in this Age; and 'tis a wonder how it came to please in any. There is indeed a way of writing purely Allegorical, as when Vices and Virtues are introduc'd as Persons, the first as Furies, the other as Divine Persons or Goddesses, which still obtains, and is well enough accommodated to the present Age. For the Allegory is presently discern'd, and the Reader is by no means impos'd on, but sees it immediately to be an Allegory, and is both delighted and instructed with it. The devis'd Story must be related in a probable manner; without this all things will be harsh, unnatural, and monstrous; and consequently most odious and offensive to the Judicious. Probability must be in the Action, the Conduct, the Manners; and where humane means cannot, Machines are introduc'd to support it. Nothing is more necessary then Probability; no Rule more chastly to be observ'd.

   An Epick Poem must likewise be
delightful and admirable; and to make it so, must concur sublime Thoughts, clear and noble Expression, Purity of Language, a just and due Proportion, Relation, and Dependance between the Parts, and a beautiful and regular Structure and Connection discernable in the Whole. Without these it will not be capable of giving Delight, or raising Admiration. Admiration is the Formal Object of an Epick Poem, nothing is to be admitted there, but as it is admirable; and by this it is discriminated from all other sorts of Poetry. Every kind endeavours to please and delight, but this only attempts to please by astonishing and amazing the Reader. In an Epick Poem every thing should appear great and wonderful, the Thoughts cannot be too much Elevated, the Episodes too Noble, the Expression too Magnificent, nor the Action too Wonderful and Surprising, if Probability be preserv'd. No Riches of Fancy, no Pomp of Eloquence can be laid out too much on such a Work where the Design is throughout to raise our Admiration. To render the Action the more Admirable, Homer and Virgil have introduc'd the Gods, and engag'd them every where as Parties; and tho' I cannot say this is Essential and Necessary to an Epick Poem, yet 'tis evident, that interesting Heaven and Hell in the matter, does mightily raise the Subject, and makes the Action appear more wonderful. The Pagan Poets had in this a great advantage, their Theology was such, as would easily mix it self with their Poems, from whence they receiv'd their greatest Beauties. Homer indeed to raise his Subject by his frequent Machines, seems to have debas'd his Religion. Virgil's Conduct, in my Opinion, is more careful and chast. But some of our modern Criticks have believ'd 'tis scarce possible for a Christian Poet to make use of this advantage, of introducing Superiour, Indivisible Powers into the Action, and therefore seem to despair of seeing an Heroick Poem written now, that shall reach to the Dignity of those of the Pagans. They think the Christian Religion is not so well accommodated to this matter, as the Pagan was; and that if any Attempt be made this way, Religion is not so well accommodated to this matter, as the Pagan was; and that if any Attempt be made this way, Religion will suffer more, than the Poem will gain by it. My Opinion has always differ'd from these Gentlemen's, I believe a Christian Poet has as great advantages as the Pagan had; and that our Theology may enter into an Epick Poem, and raise the Subject without being it self debas'd. And this indeed was a second Reason why I undertook this Work, so full of Difficulty and Hazard. I was willing to give an Instance wherein it might appear, that the Assertion I have advanc'd, is actually true.

   In the Definition which I have given of an Heroick Poem, according to the Sense and Judgment of the
best Criticks, I have said, its End is to convey some Instruction of Virtue. But of this, I have discours'd at large at the beginning of this Preface, and there is no need of repeating it.

   'Tis not for me to proceed to Censure other Mens Performances of this Kind; whoever will be at the Pains to read the Commentators on Aristotle, and Horace's Rules of Poetry; or that will but carefully consider Rapin, Dacier, and Bossu, those great Masters among the French, and the Judicious Remarks of our own excellent Critick Mr. Rymer, who seems to have better consider'd these matters, and to have seen farther into them, than any of the English Nation; will be soon able to see wherein the Heroick Poems that have been publish'd since Virgil by the Italian, French, and English Wits have been defective, by comparing them with the Rules of Writing set down by those great Masters. Whether I have succeeded better, must be left to the determination of the Judicious Reader.

   In this Work I have endeavour'd mostly to form my self on
Virgil's Model, which I look on, as the most just and perfect, and which is most easily accommodated to the present Age, supposing the Christian Religion in the place of the Pagan. I do not make any Apology for my Imitation of Virgil in so many places of this Poem; for the same great Master has imitated Homer as frequently and closely; and I do not find that any of his Criticks have condemn'd him for his doing so. Nor is it at all improbable, but that the Greek Poet himself imitated his Predecessors of the same Nation, tho' no doubt he wonderfully improv'd their Model. Homer was not the first Writer of an Epick Poem. We find Aristotle in his Book of the Art of Poetry, makes mention of several before him: He tells us of an Epick Poem, intituled, The Little Ilias, and another the Cyprica; and censures them both, as containing many perfect, distinct, and independent Actions. The last of these Poems is likewise mention'd by Herodotus in Euterpe, by Athenæus and Pausanias. And 'tis likely many more such Poems were written before Homer's time, who might be well suppos'd to have imitated them in what they had done well, as well as to have improv'd them in avoiding many of their Errors.

   What
Homer and Virgil have perform'd with Honour and universal Applause, I have attempted: What they have been able, I have been willing to do. If I have not succeeded, my disappointment will be the less, in that Poetry has been so far from being my Business and Profession, that it has imploy'd but a small part of my Time; and then, but as my Recreation, and the Entertainment of my idle hours. If this Attempt succeeds so far, as to excite some other Person that has a noble Genius, Leisure, and Application, to Honour his Country with a just Epick Poem, I shall think the Vacancies and Intervals that for about two years past, I have had from the Business of my Profession; which notwithstanding was then greater then at any time before, have been very well imploy'd.

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