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King Arthur: An Heroick Poem in Twelve Books: Preface

Go to King Arthur: Part 1.
Go to King Arthur: Part 2.

   When I had written Prince Arthur, a Poem that came abroad two years ago, I was so diffident of the Performance, that I continu'd unresolv'd for many Weeks, whether I should let it appear, or wholly suppress it, till the Judgment of others, for which I had a great Deference, determin'd me to make it Publick. The Favour and Approbation it met with, was much greater, and far more Universal, even among great Names, and establish'd, uncontested Judges, than I had ever the Vanity to expect. Nor was I in the least surpriz'd or troubled, that it met with some Opposers. For I must have been extreamly ignorant of the nature of Humane Passions, if I had not certainly foreseen, that not only the Design of the Poem, but likewise the Provoking Preface to it, must needs have engag'd a Considerable Party, among whom were several Men of Wit and Parts, to use their utmost Endeavours to sink its Reputation; if indeed it should deserve any.
   Besides, when I consider'd that I was so great a stranger to the Muses, and by no means free of the Poets Company, having never Kiss'd their Governour's hands, nor made the least Court to the Committee that sits in Convent Garden; and that therefore mine was not so much as a Permission Poem, but a pure, downright Interloper, it was but natural to conclude, that those Gentlemen, who by Assisting, Crying up, Excusing and Complementing one another, carry on their Poetical Trade in a Joynt-stock, would certainly do what they could to sink and ruin an unlicens'd Adventurer; notwithstanding I disturb'd none of their Factorys, nor imported any Goods they had ever dealt in. I knew that I ran a very great Risk while I was so hardy to venture abroad Naked and Unguarded, when none of the Company went out without a notable Convoy of Criticks and Applauders, who were constantly in their Service; Men tho' singly of no great Force, yet when united, considerable for their Numbers. Accordingly when the Poem came forth they attack'd it, tho' perhaps not with all the Discretion, yet with all the Fury Imaginable; But all their Strokes were lost, and all their Efforts made in vain. Impartial Readers, with great Generosity, protected the strange Muse from their rude Insults; and rescu'd her from their Noise and Violence. For their Character and Temper, as well as the Grounds and Reasons of their Outcrys and Opposition were so well known, that they could by no means pass for unbyass'd and Disinterested Judges; and therefore all their Attempts either prov'd Unsuccessful, or produc'd a quite contrary Effect, and instead of lessening the Credit of the Poem, in many Instances they very much advanc'd it.
   These Gentlemen pretend to be displeas'd with Prince Arthur, because they have discover'd so many Faults in it: But there is good reason to believe they would have been more displeas'd, if they had discover'd fewer. But they say, they have very nicely and carefully compar'd this Poem with Virgil's, and they find that famous Roman has abundantly the advantage of Prince Arthur. This they are Confident of, and are ready to maintain against all Mankind what I must confess, I never in the least doubted of. But in the mean time, the making of that Comparison, and the very starting of the Debate, is a greater Honour done to the Poem than could have been expected from the enemys of it. But they seem to have given it yet a greater Reputation, inasmuch as they have not adventur'd to say or maintain, that either Homer himself the Prince and Father of the Epick Poets, or any of his Successors, Virgil excepted, has shewn a more regular Conduct, or a more perfect Model, how much greater Genius soever do's appear in their Writings.
   After all it must be acknowledg'd, that setting aside abundance of Frivolous, Frolicksom, and Groundless Objections which the Enemys of Prince Arthur have made, that several considerable Defects are to be found in that Poem. I was conscious to my self, that the Second and Third Books were too long before I publish'd them, tho' they were not made before the First, as some have imagin'd, but hoping that they would not prove tedious to any impartial Readers, and that it might be an useful Entertainment to many, I was contented to let that Indecorum pass. And several Friends to Prince Arthur did very early convince me, that in several Instances the Descriptions, Digressions, and Similes, were lyable to the same Objection. I was likewise soon after the Publishing satisfy'd, that I had not well consider'd the Recital made by Lucius in the Fourth Book; and particularly that it began too high; as likewise of many other Faults and Indecencies of less Importance.
   'Tis certain, that none could expect from me an Epick Poem in all degrees of Perfection, there is no faultless Writer of that Kind, has ever appear'd in the World, not Virgil himself excepted, tho' his Poem was a labour'd Piece, the Work of great part of his Life; and after revis'd by two Eminent Criticks Tucca and Varius. And as for the great Homer, if any Gentleman is pleas'd to read Rapin's Comparison of him with Virgil, he will be soon convinc'd that the Poems of this Wonderful Man have many considerable Defects. But the Criticks, and particularly the famous Longinus have an Apology that will easily get him off: They say of Writers of the first Rank, such as Homer and Demosthenes, that one or two of their extraordinary and admirable Thoughts will Atone for all their Faults, and that a great Man is uncapable of attending with anxious Care to matters of little Importance.
   And if a sour, pragmatical
Critick would spend a Years time in searching after Objections to either of these Authours, he might perhaps find a great deal to say; but nothing that would lessen their Reputation.
   The faults in Prince Arthur proceeded partly from defect of Judgment and Genius equal to, and sufficient for so great and difficult an Undertaking; partly from want of Leisure and Retirement, to consider coolly ever part of that Writing, and partly from the hasty Dispatch of it; it having been Begun, Carry'd on and Compleated, as in the Preface was Suggested, in less than two years time, and by such catches and starts, and in such occasional, uncertain hours, as the Business of my Profession would afford me. And therefore for the greatest part that Poem was written in Coffee-houses, and in passing up and down the Streets; because I had little leisure elsewhere to apply to it.
   Another reason of the Defects that appear in that writing is this, That when I undertook it I had been long a stranger to the Muses. I had read but little Poetry throughout my whole Life, and in fifteen years before, I had not, as I can remember, wrote a hundred Lines in Verse, excepting a Copy of Latine Verses in honour of a Friend's Book.
   As this Apology will perhaps take off the severity of the Reader's Censure as to Prince Arthur, so I hope it may likewise have the same Effect, as to the following Poem; for all the same things, except the last, can be said to excuse the Defects that shall appear in this. And if it shall be demanded why it was so hastily publish'd, all that I shall say is this, that the Judicious Reader will soon find in the Poem it self, the true Reason why I could keep it no longer by me; which if I could have done, it would, perhaps, have appear'd with more Advantages.
   The Reasons which induc'd me to make the former, did likewise engage me in this second Attempt in Epick Poetry; and among the rest, particularly this, that the young Gentlemen and Ladys who are delighted with Poetry might have a useful, at least a harmless Entertainment, which in our Modern Plays and Poems cannot ordinarily be found. The Candor of the Age has made my Design in a great measure successful, whereby I am abundantly convinc'd that those Poets are under a great mistake, that think there is no other, but that leud and abominable way of writing which was encourag'd in the late Reigns, that will please the Nation. This is a meer Pretence of ill Poets, whose Imaginations are fill'd only with base and contemptible Ideas; Men of a poor and narrow Genius, scarce above the level of Writers of Farce, who would not have Images enough left in their Minds to furnish out a Poem, if the prophane and obscene ones were struck out. And tho' these mischievous ways of Writing are still endur'd, to the great prejudice of Religion and good Manners, yet if ever the English Nation recovers it's ancient Vertue, and a just Tast of these Matters, I do not doubt but most of those Writers who have been esteem'd and applauded in the late loose and vicious Times, will be rejected with Indignation and Contempt, as the Dishonour of the Muses, and the Underminers of the Publick Good. But I am carry'd on to a Subject of which I have spoken enough heretofore.
     Since the writing of this, I have seen a Tragedy call'd the Mourning Bride; which I think my self oblig'd to take notice of in this place. This Poem has receiv'd, and in my Opinion very justly, Universal Applause; being look'd on as the most perfect Tragedy that has been wrote in this Age. The Fable, as far as I can judge at first sight, is a very Artful and Masterly Contrivance. The Characters are well chosen, and well delineated. That of Zara is admirable. The Passions are well touch'd, and skillfully wrought up. The Diction is Proper, Clear, Beautiful, Noble, and diversify'd agreeably to the variety of the Subject. Vice, as it ought to be, is punish'd, and Opprest Innocence at last Rewarded. Nature appears very happily imitated, excepting one or two doubtful Instances, thro' the whole Piece, in all which there are no immodest Images or Expressions, no wild, unnatural Rants, but some few Exceptions being allow'd, all things are Chast, Just, and Decent. This Tragedy, as I said before, has mightily obtain'd; and that without the unnatural and foolish mixture of Farce and Buffoonry, without so much as a Song, or Dance to make it more agreeable. By this it appears, that as a sufficient Genius can recommend it self, and furnish out abundant matter of Pleasure and Admiration without the paultry helps above nam'd, so likewise that the Tast of the Nation is not so far deprav'd, but that a Regular and Chast Play will not only be forgiven, but highly Applauded. And now there is some reason to hope that our Poets will follow this excellent Example, and that hereafter no slovenly Writer will be so hardy as to offer to our Publick Audiences his obscene and prophane Pollutions, to the great Offence of all Persons of Vertue and good Sense. The common pretence that the Audience will not be otherwise pleas'd, is now wholly remov'd; for here is a notorious Instance to the contrary. And it must be look'd on hereafter as the Poet's fault, and not the People's, if we have not better Performances. All men must now conclude that 'tis for want of Wit and Judgment to support them, that our Poets for the Stage apply themselves to such low and unworthy ways to recommend their Writings; and therefore I cannot but conceive Great Hopes that every good Genius for the fuutre will look on it self debas'd by condescending to Write in that leud Manner, that has been of late years introduc'd, and too long Encourag'd. And if this comes to pass the Writers in the late Reigns will be asham'd of their own Works, and wish they had their Plays in again, as well as their fulsome Dedications.
     Some Persons have demanded the Reason, seeing I had a Fancy to be an Author, why I had not written on some useful Subject in Physic or Philosophy: this they imagin'd would have became me better than the engaging my Thoughts on a Subject so far distant from the Business of my Profession. I desire these Gentlemen to receive this answer; First, That the writing of this, as well as the former Poem was not Business, but Diversion and Recreation; an Innocent Amusement to entertain me in such leisure hours which were usually past away before in Conversation, and unprofitable hearing and telling of News. But if I had set my self to writing on matters of Physic or Philosophy, this would not have been a Recreation, but another Business and Labour, for which I was unfit, and that requir'd the Liberty of my Books and Closet, and some sort of Retirement, which the Continual Dutys of my Profession would not allow me. But I have also another Reason to give to the Persons who ask the Question above mention'd; and that is, that I am so far faln out with all Hyphotheses in Philosophy, and all Doctrines of Physic which are built upon them, that in such matters I am almost reduc'd to a Sceptical Despair. The Almighty's Creation is like his Providence, unsearchable; his Works, and his Ways are equally past finding out; the raising of an Hypotheses in Philosophy obtains little more Credit with me, that the erecting a Scheme in Astrology; and the Judgments and Decisions that are given upon them seem to me alike Precarious and uncertain. I was once enamour'd with the Cartesian System, but the warmth of my Passion is quite extinguish'd. It may indeed make a Man capable of entertaining and amusing others, but not of quieting and satisfying himself. All Knowledge is valuable according to it's degree of Usefulness, as it do's more or less promote the benefit of Mankind, and for this Reason 'tis a great mortification to consider how little the Pains and Time I have bestow'd in Philosophical Enquirys, have contributed to my knowledge in Curing Diseases. I am now inclin'd to think, that 'tis an Injury to a Man of good sense and natural Sagacity, to be hamper'd with any Hypothesis before he comes to the Practice of Physic. For this prepossession obstructs the Freedom of his Judgement, puts a strong Byass on his Thoughts, and obliges him to make all the Observations that occur to him in his Practise, to comply with, and humour his pre-conceived Opinions; whereas in Reason, his Observations on Nature should be first made, before any Hypotheses should be establish'd. A clear and penetrating Understanding, Cultivated and Matur'd by repeated, Diligent Observation, will in my Opinion, make a more able and accomplish'd Physitian, than any Philosophical Scheme that has yet obtain'd in the World. And what useful Knowledge, I have gain'd this way in my Profession, may perhaps sometime be made Publick.
   I look on my self to have greater obligations to the Studies of Logic and Metaphysicks, wherein I was carefully instructed in the University, which improve and advance our reasoning Faculty, teach us to think clearly and distinctly, to speak pertinently, closely, and justly; and thereby fit a Man for any kind of Business or Profession, than to all the Searches which I have made after the Reasons and Causes of Natural Phænomena.
   I am very sensible, that these Studies are in great Contempt with many Ingenious Men; the subject of much Raillery, and the great Abomination of the Wits. But I am likewise very sensible, that these merry Men very rarely become eminently useful in any sort of Profession; for the most part they continue Triflers all their Days; and a meer Jester, when he comes abroad into the World, makes a very mean Figure among Men of Business. 'Tis remarkable that those Idle, and almost illiterate Young Men, that are call'd Wits in our Universities, are very inconsiderable Things elsewhere; for Mankind will never be perswaded to have those Men, who can only make them laugh, in equal Esteem with those that can do them Good.
   Thus much in answer to those who have demanded, Why a Physician instead of communicating his Knowledge and Experience in his Profession, busys himself in Writing Heroic Poems.
     As to the following Performance, tho' the Hero be the same, yet 'tis another entire Poem, distinct from the former: For 'tis the Diversity of the Action, and not of the Hero, that diversifies the Poem. And that the Reader may better observe whence the Action of this takes its Rise, I will tell in short King Arthur's Story, as 'tis related by Geofry of Monmouth. That there was about the end of the Fourth, or the beginning of the Fifth Century, a King of Britain nam'd Arthur; a Prince of extraordinary Qualities, and Famous for his Martial Atchievements, who succeeeded his Father Uter Pendragon, all our Historians agree; and the eminently learned Bishop of Worcester in his Origines Britannicæ, do's acknowledge it. And tho' the above-cited Geofry of Monmouth is indeed a Fabulous Author, yet his Authority, especially considering that there was such a Warlike Prince as Arthur, is a sufficient Foundation for an Epick Poem. This Author says, that after King Arthur had Conquer'd the Saxons, who being call'd in by Vortigern to protect him against the Incursions and Depredations of the Scots and Picts, took the advantage, and settled themselves in this Island; he prepar'd a Royal Navy, Embark'd his Troops, and directed his Course to the Coasts of Norway; then called, according to Cluverius, Nerigon, or the Western Part of Scandinavia. This Kingdom being subdued, he carried his Arms into the Country now call'd Denmark, then inhabited by the Cimbri: And by the Writers of the Age in which Geofry of Monmouth liv'd, call'd commonly, but erroneously, Dacia. This Kingdom he likewise quickly overrun: For it seems nothing could stand before him. This done, he return'd home in Triumph, and having for a while, entertain'd at his Court with great Splendor and Magnificence, multitudes of Foreign Princes, and Knights famous for Chivalry, who came to signalize their Valour at the Justs and Tournaments which King Arthur had proclaim'd; He Embark'd his Army to Invade Gallia, sate down before Lutetia, once the Capital City of the Parisij, and in Arthur's days of the Franci, and soon made himself Master of the Place. This Expedition, and the Conquest of Lutetia, is the Subject of the following Poem.
   The Model of it is New, and therfore now I hope I shall not be Censur'd for an Imitator, tho' I must confess, I cannot believe my Imitation of Virgil in the former Poem to be the least dishonour. Would the famous Sir Godfry Kneller think it a Reproach if any should say, that his Pencil too nearly follow'd that of Raphael Urbin? Or can it be imagin'd, that Sir Christopher Wren would be offended, if it should be objected to him, that in his building of St. Paul's Church he too much imitated Michael Angelo.
   And as I had not my Eye upon any other Model, so I am not conscious to my Self of having us'd any Authour's Thoughts or Expressions, excepting two or three Images taken from Homer, and a few allusions to some Inventions of Milton, whom I took on as a very Extraordinary Genius. If there be any other Thoughts that are not my own, they are taken from the Sacred Writers of the Bible, which I hope I shall not be condemn'd for. I have in the Sixth Book adventur'd on an Allegory, finding Homer has done the like in his Story of Circe. His Example, I imagin, as well as the Nature and Design of Epick Poetry will justify that Attempt, especially since I have not dwelt long upon it.
   Whether the Fable of this Poem be a regular Contrivance, whether there be but One, Unbroken, Compleat Action, whether the Choice, the Conduct, Connexion, and Extension of the Episodes, and whether the Diction and Narration be such as the Rules of Epick Poetry require, must be left to the Decision of the Judicious Reader. It would be a wild Imagination to think of pleasing all the Criticks who are no better agreed among themselves. Till the Rules of Writing are Setled by some Infallible Judge of Controversys among Poets, there will be different Opinions and disagreeing Sects in Parnassus, who will always treat and persecute one another as Obstinate Hereticks. The Essential and Fundamental Articles, for want of which a Poet is justly condemn'd, are very few. There are Abundance of probable Doctrines which the Schoolmen of Parnassus and the Poets in Speculation may hold affirmatively or negatively, as they please, and yet be look'd on as very good Sons of the Muses. If there appears enough in this Poem to Entertain those candid Readers who were not displeas'd with the Former, I shall be abundantly satisfy'd, and easily pass by the Censures of those who are declared Enemys before hand. The Ingenuous part of Mankind will not fall unmercifully on a Writer of Epick Poetry, wherein only two Men, I mean Homer and Virgil have succeeded. Whatever Genius others have discover'd, none have left any Thing that came near to a perfect Model, but these two great Masters: and I do not think it amiss in this place to make a Comparison between them, with which I shall end this Preface.
   Homer excels in Genius, Virgil in Judgment. Homer as conscious of his great Riches and Fullness entertains the Reader with great Splendor and Magnificent Profusion. Virgil's Dishes are well chosen, and tho not Rich and Numerous, yet serv'd up in great Order and Decency. Homer's Imagination is Strong, Vast and Boundless, an unexhausted Treasure of all kinds of Images; which made his Admirers and Commentators in all Ages affirm, that all sorts of Learning were to be found in his Poems. Virgil's Imagination is not so Capacious, tho' his Ideas are Clear, Noble, and of great Conformity to their Objects. Homer has more of the Poetical Inspiration. His Fire burns with extraordinary Heat and Vehemence, and often breaks out in Flashes, which Surprise, Dazle and Astonish the Reader: Virgil's is a clearer and a chaster Flame, which pleases and delights, but never blazes in that extraordinary and surprising manner. Methinks there is the same Difference between these two great Poets, as there is between their Heros. Homer's Hero, Achilles, is Vehement, Raging and Impetuous. He is always on Fire, and transported with an immoderate and resistless Fury, performs every where Miraculous Atchievements, and like a rapid Torrent overturns all things in his way. Æneas, the Hero of the Latine Poet, is a calm, Sedate Warriour. He do's not want Courage, neither has he any to spare: and the Poet might have allowed him a little more Fire, without overheating him. As for Invention, 'tis evident the Greek Poet has mightily the advantage. Nothing is more Rich and Fertile than Homer's Fancy. He is Full, Abundant, and Diffusive above all others. Virgil on the other hand is rather dry, than fruitful. 'Tis plain the Latin Poet in all his famous Æneis, has very little, if any Design of his own. The Recital of the Destruction of Troy, and the Story of the Wooden Horse, Macrobius says, is almost word for word taken from Pisander. The Navigation of Æneas; and his Dangers and Adventures by Sea, are drawn from the example of Homer's Ulysses. His Descent into Hell, which makes the Noble Sixth Book, is likewise in Imitation of the Hero before nam'd. The Shield of Æneas is form'd by that of Achilles. The Battels in the Æneis very much resemble those in the Ilias. A great many of the Pictures are taken from thence, and abundance of the Warriours are the same with those who fought before the Walls of Troy.
   And tho 'tis true the Story of Æneas and Dido is not to be trac'd in Homer's Works, yet Macrobius tells us in his Saturnalia, that this likewise is borrow'd from what is said of Jason and Medea in the Fourth Book of Apollonius his Argonautica. Those who are willing to see how much Virgil is indebted to Homer, and the rest of the Greek Poets, and also to the Latins themselves, as Ennius, Lucretius, Varius, & c. from whom he has taken his Designs, or his particular Images; or whose very Lines he has Translated almost word for word, of which an Incredible number of Instances may be given, may consult the before nam'd Macrobius in his Saturnalia, Fulvius Ursinus his Comparatio Virgilij cum Scriptoribus Græcis & Guellius, his Comments on this great Poet. They will then see plainly that Virgil's Materials were all borrow'd, tho' the Noble Structure be his own. The Excellency of this Extraordinary Man lay in his Judicious Contrivance, Regular Conduct, the Skilful Accomodation of other Mens Conceptions to his own Purpose, and in the Propriety, Decency, Beauty and Majesty of his Expression, which in the finish'd Parts of his Poem are Admirable and Inimitable. If therefore the Question be, who had the greater Genius, Homer or Virgil, there is no doubt but Homer must be Prefer'd? But if it be whether Virgil's be a more Regular, Artful and Judicious Poem than either of Homers, then Virgil must be acknowledg'd to have the advantage?

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