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AN ACCOUNT

OF THE

GREATEST ENGLISH POETS.

TO MR. H. S.1 APRIL 3, 1694.

SINCE, dearest Harry, you will needs request
A short account of all the muse-possest,

That, down from Chaucer's days to Dryden's times,
Have spent their noble rage in British rhymes;
Without more preface, writ in formal length,
To speak the undertaker's want of strength.
I'll try to make their several beauties known,
And show their verses' worth, though not my own.

1 The initials H. S. have generally been considered to refer to the famous Dr. Henry Sacheverell, whose story and trial are well known. Whether, however, it was to that individual that Addison addressed these verses, is made a question by some information which Sir John Hawkins obtained from a letter he found among Johnson's papers. This letter, dated January 1784, from a lady in Wiltshire, states, "that these verses were not addressed to Dr. H. Sacheverell, but to a very ingenious gentleman of the same name, who died young, supposed to be a Manksman, for that he wrote the History of the Isle of Man.” See JOHNSON'S WORKS, Oxford edition, vol. vii. p. 422.

Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,
Nor felt the raptures of the tuneful nine;
Till Chaucer first, a merry bard, arose,
And many a story told in rhyme and prose.
But age has rusted what the poet writ,
Worn out his language, and obscur'd his wit:
In vain he jests in his unpolish'd strain,
And tries to make his readers laugh in vain.
Old Spenser 2 next, warm'd with poetic rage,
In ancient tales amus'd a barb'rous age;
An age that yet uncultivate and rude,
Where'er the poet's fancy led, pursued

Through pathless fields, and unfrequented floods,
To dens of dragons, and enchanted woods.
But now the mystic tale, that pleas'd of yore,
Can charm an understanding age no more;
The long-spun allegories fulsome grow,
While the dull moral lies too plain below.
We view well pleas'd at distance all the sights
Of arms and palfreys, battles, fields, and fights,
And damsels in distress, and courteous knights.
But when we look too near, the shades decay,
And all the pleasing landscape fades away.

Great Cowley then, a mighty genius, wrote,
O'errun with wit, and lavish of his thought:
His turns too closely on the reader press;
He more had pleas'd us, had he pleas'd us less.

2 Dr. Johnson states, on the authority of Spence, that when Addison wrote this very confident and discriminative character of Spenser he had never read his works.

VOL. I.

E

One glitt❜ring thought no sooner strikes our eyes
With silent wonder, but new wonders rise.
As in the milky way a shining white

O'erflows the heav'ns with one continued light;
That not a single star can show his rays,
Whilst jointly all promote the common blaze.
Pardon, great poet, that I dare to name

Th' unnumber'd beauties of thy verse with blame;
Thy fault is only wit in its excess,

But wit like thine in any shape will please.
What muse but thine can equal hints inspire,
And fit the deep-mouth'd Pindar to thy lyre?
Pindar, whom others in a labour'd strain,
And forc'd expression, imitate in vain!

Well pleas'd in thee he soars with new delight,

And plays in more unbounded verse, and takes a noblerflight. Blest man! whose spotless life and charming lays

Employ'd the tuneful prelate in thy praise:

Blest man! who now shalt be for ever known,

In Sprat's successful labours and thy own.

But Milton next, with high and haughty stalks, Unfetter'd in majestic numbers walks;

No vulgar hero can his muse engage;

Nor earth's wide scene confine his hallow'd rage.
See! see! he upward springs, and tow'ring high
Spurns the dull province of mortality,
Shakes heaven's eternal throne with dire alarms,
And sets th' Almighty thunderer in arms.
Whate'er his pen describes I more than see,
Whilst ev'ry verse, array'd in majesty,

Bold, and sublime, my whole attention draws,
And seems above the critic's nicer laws.

How are you struck with terror and delight,
When angel with archangel copes in fight!
When great Messiah's outspread banner shines,
How does the chariot rattle in his lines!

What sounds of brazen wheels, what thunder, scare,
And stun the reader with the din of war!
With fear my spirits and my blood retire,
To see the seraphs sunk in clouds of fire;
But when, with eager steps, from hence I rise,
And view the first gay scenes of paradise;
What tongue, what words of rapture, can express
A vision so profuse of pleasantness.

Oh had the poet ne'er profan'd his pen,
To varnish o'er the guilt of faithless men!
His other works might have deserv'd applause.
But now the language can't support the cause;
While the clean current, though serene and bright,
Betrays a bottom odious to the sight.

But now, my muse, a softer strain rehearse,
Turn ev'ry line with art, and smooth thy verse;
The courtly Waller next commands thy lays:
Muse, tune thy verse, with art, to Waller's praise.
While tender airs and lovely dames inspire
Soft melting thoughts, and propagate desire;
So long shall Waller's strains our passion move,
And Sacharissa's beauties kindle love.
Thy verse, harmonious bard, and flatt'ring song,
Can make the vanquish'd great, the coward strong;
Thy verse can show ev'n Cromwell's innocence,
And compliment the storms that bore him hence.
Oh had thy muse not come an age too soon,
But seen great Nassau on the British throne!

How had his triumphs glitter'd in thy page,

And warm'd thee to a more exalted rage!

What scenes of death and horror had we view'd,
And how had Boyne's wide current reek'd in blood!
Or if Maria's charms thou wouldst rehearse,

In smoother numbers and a softer verse:

Thy pen had well describ'd her graceful air,
And Gloriana would have seem'd more fair.

Nor must Roscommon pass neglected by,
That makes e'en rules a noble poetry:

Rules whose deep sense and heavenly numbers show
The best of critics and of poets too.

Nor, Denham, must we e'er forget thy strains,
While Cooper's Hill commands the neighb'ring plains.
But see where artful Dryden next appears

Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev'n in years.
Great Dryden next, whose tuneful muse affords
The sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs

She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
If satire or heroic strains she writes,

Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.

From her no harsh unartful numbers fall,
She wears all dresses, and she charms in all.
How might we fear our English poetry,

That long has flourish'd, should decay with thee;
Did not the muses' other hope appear,
Harmonious Congreve, and forbid our fear:
Congreve! whose fancy's unexhausted store
Has given already much, and promis'd more.
Congreve shall still preserve thy fame alive,
And Dryden's muse shall in his friend survive.

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