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I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
And what follows. To me they appear untranslatable; and if this be the case, our language is greatly degenerated. However, the affectation of imitating Shakspeare may doubtless be carried too far; and is no sort of excuse for sentiments ill-suited, or speeches ill-timed, which I believe is a little the case with me. I guess the most faulty expressions may be these—silken son of dalliance—drowsier pretensions—wrinkled beldams— arched the hearer's brow and riveted his eyes in fearful ecstasy. These are easily altered or omitted: and indeed if the thoughts be wrong or superfluous, there is nothing easier than to leave out the whole. The first ten or twelve lines are, I believe, the best;” and as for the rest, I was betrayed into a good deal of it by Tacitus; only what he has said in five words, I imagine I have said in fifty lines: such is the misfortune of imitating the inimitable. Now, if you are of my opinion, una litura may do the business better than a dozen; and you need not fear unravelling my web. I am a sort of spider; and have little else to do but spin it over again, or creep to some other place and spin there. Alas! for one who has nothing to do but amuse himself, I believe my amusements are as little amusing as most folks. But no matter; it makes the hours pass, and is better than #v duatiq kai duovaig karasbuoval. Adieu !
v. M.R. west To M.R. GRAY. To begin with the conclusion of your letter, which is Greek, I desire that you will quarrel no more with your
* The lines which he means here are from-Thus ever grave and undisturb’d re
flection—to Rubellius lives. For the part of the scene, which he sent in his former letter, began there.
manner of passing your time. In my opinion it is irreproachable, especially as it produces such excellent fruit; and if I, like a saucy bird, must be pecking at it, you ought to consider that it is because I like it. No una litura I beg you, no unravelling of your web, dear Sir! only pursue it a little further, and then one shall be able to judge of it a little better. You know the crisis of a play is in the first act; its damnation or salvation wholly rests there. But till that first act is over, every body suspends his vote; so how do you think I can form, as yet, any just idea of the speeches in regard to their length or shortness? The connexion and symmetry of such little parts with one another must naturally escape me, as not having the plan of the whole in my head; neither can I decide about the thoughts whether they are wrong or superfluous; they may have some future tendency which I perceive not. The style only was free to me, and there I find we are pretty much of the same sentiment: for you say the affectation of imitating Shakspeare may doubtless be carried too far; I say as much and no more. For old words we know are old gold, provided they are well chosen. Whatever Ennius was, I do not consider Shakspeare as a dunghill in the least; on the contrary, he is a mine of ancientore, where all our great modern poets have found their advantage. I do not know how it is; but his old expressions* have more energy in them than ours, and are even more adapted to poetry; certainly, where they are judiciously and sparingly inserted, they add a certain grace to the composition; in the same manner as Poussin gave a beauty to his pictures by his knowledge in the ancient proportions: but should he, or any other painter, carry the imitation too far, and neglect that best of models Nature, I am afraid it would prove a very flat performance. To finish this long criticism: I have this further notion about old words revived, (is not this a pretty way of finishing?) I think them of excellent use in tales; they add a certain drollery to the comic, and a romantic gravity to the serious, which are both charming in their kind; and this way of charming Dryden understood very well. One need only read Milton to acknowledge the dignity they give the epic. But now comes my opinion that they ought to be used in tragedy more sparingly, than in most kinds of poetry. Tragedy is designed for public representation, and what is designed for that should be certainly most intelligible. I believe half the audience that come to Shakspeare's plays do not understand the half of what they hear.— But finissons ensin.—Yet one word more.—You think the ten or twelve first lines the best, now I am for the fourteen last;* add, that they contain not one word of ancientry. I rejoice you found amusement in Joseph Andrews. But then I think your conceptions of Paradise a little upon the Bergerac. Les lettres du Seraphim R. a Madame la Cherubinesse de Q. What a piece of extravagance would there be! And now you must know that my body continues weak and enervate. And for my animal spirits, they are in perpetual fluctuation: some whole days I have no relish, no attention for any thing; at other times I revive, and am capable of writing a long letter, as you see; and though I do not write speeches, yet I translate them. When you understand what speech, you will * He means the conclusion of the firs scene—But here and throughout his criticism on old words, he is not so consistent as his correspondent; for he here insists
* Shakspeare's energy does not arise so much from these old expressions (most of which were not old in his time), but from his artificial management of them. This artifice in the great poet is developed with much exactness by Dr. Hurd in his excellent note on this passage in Horace's Ep. ad Pisones.
Dixeris egregiè, notum si callida verbum
See Hurd's Horace, vol. first, edit. fourth, p. 49.
that all ancientry should be struck out, and in a former passage he admits it may be used sparingly.
own that it is a bold and perhaps a dull attempt. In three words, it is prose, it is from Tacitus, it is of Germanicus. Peruse, perpend, pronounce.*
VI. M. R. GRAY TO MR. WEST.
I should not have failed to answer your letter immediately, but I went out of town for a little while, which hindered me. Its length (besides the pleasure naturally accompanying a long letter from you) affords me a new one, when I think it is a symptom of the recovery of your health, and flatter myself that your bodily strength returns in proportion. Pray do not forget to mention the progress you make continually. As to Agrippina, I begin to be of your opinion; and find myself (as women are of their children) less enamoured of my productions the older they grow. Shef is laid up to sleep till next summer; so bid her good night. I think you have translated Tacitus very justly, that is, freely; and accommodated his thoughts to the turn and genius of our language; which, though I commend your judgment, is no commendation of the English tongue, which is too diffuse, and daily grows more and more enervate. One shall never be more sensible of this, than in turning an author like Tacitus. I have been trying it in some parts of Thucydides (who has a little resemblance of him in his conciseness) and endeavoured to do it closely, but found it produced mere nonsense. If you have any inclination to see what figure Tacitus makes in Italian, I have a Tuscan translation of Davanzati, much esteemed in Italy; and will send you the same speech you sent me; that is, if you care for it. In the mean time accept of Propertius.f * * *
* This speech I omit to print, as I have generally avoided to publish mere translations either of Mr. Gray or his friend.
t He never after awakened her; and I believe this was occasioned by the strictures which his friend had made on his dramatic style; which (though he did not think them well founded, as they certainly were not) had an effect which Mr. West, we may believe, did not intend them to have. I remember some years after I was also the innocent cause of his delaying to finish his fine Ode on the Progress of Poetry. I told him, on reading the part he shewed me, that “though I admired it greatly, and thought that it breathed the very spirit of Pindar, yet I suspected it would by no means hit the public taste.” Finding afterward that he did not proceed in finishing it, I often expostulated with him on the subject; but he always replied, “No, you have thrown cold water upon it.” I mention this
little anecdote, to shew how much the opinion of a friend, even when it did not convince his judgment, affected his inclination.
VII. M. R. W. EST TO M R. G. R. A. Y. -
Without any preface I come to your verses, which I read over and over with excessive pleasure, and which are at least as good as Propertius. I am only sorry you follow the blunders of Broukhusius, all whose insertions are nonsense. I have some objections to your antiquated words, and am also an enemy to Alexandrines; at least I do not like them in Elegy. But after all, I admire your translation so extremely, that I cannot help repeating I long to shew you some little errors you are fallen into by following Broukhusius. * * * Were I with you now, and Propertius with your verses lay upon the table between us, I could discuss this point in a moment; but there is nothing so tiresome as spinning out a criticism in a letter; doubts arise, and explanations follow, till there swells out at least a volume of undigested observations: and all because you are not with him whom you want to convince. Read only the letters between Pope and Cromwell in proof of this; they dispute without end. Are you aware now that I have an interest all this while in banishing criticism from our correspondence? Indeed I have; for I am going to write down a little Ode (if it deserves the
t A translation of the first elegy of the second book in English rhyme; omitted for the reason given in the last note but one.
t I have omitted here a paragraph or two, in which different lines of the Elegy were quoted, because I had previously omitted the translation of it.