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where there is no thought or design of Imitating. I take advantage of this concession to conclude from it, That we can seldom. pronounce with certainty of Imitations without some external proof to assist us in the discovery. You will understand me to mean by these external proofs, the previous knowledge we have, from considerations not respecting the Nature of the work itself, of the writer's ability or inducements to imitate. Our first enquiry, then, will be, concerning the Age, Character, and Education of the supposed Imitator.
We can determine with little certainty, how far the principal Greek writers have been indebted to Imitation. We trace the waters of Helicon no higher than to their source. And we acquiesce, with reason, in the device of the old painter, you know of, who somewhat rudely indeed, but not absurdly, drew the figure of Homer with a fountain streaming out of his mouth, and the other poets watering at it.
Hither, as to their fountain, other Stars
The Greek writers then were, or, for any thing we can say, might be Original.
But we can rarely affirm this of
other. And the reason is plain. When a taste for letters prevailed in any country, if it arose at first from the efforts of original thinking, it was immediately cherished and cultivated by the study of the old writers. You are too well acquainted with the progress of ancient and modern wit to doubt of this fact. Rome adorned itself in the spoils of Greece. And both assisted in dressing up the later European poetry. What else do you find in the Italian or French Wits, but the old matter, worked over again ; only presented to us in a new form, and embellished perhaps with a conceit or two of mere modern invention?
But the English, you say, or rather your fondness for your Masters leads you to suppose, are original thinkers. 'Tis true, Nature has taken a pleasure to shew us what she could do, by the production of one Prodigy. But the rest are what we admire them for, not indeed without Genius, perhaps with a larger share of it than has fallen to the lot of others, yet directly and chiefly by the discipline of art and the helps of imitation.
The golden times of the English Poetry vere, undoubtedly, the reigns of our two
Queens. Invention was at its height, in the one; and Correctness, in the other. In both, the manners of a court refin’d, without either breaking or corrupting the spirit of our poets. But do you forget that ELIZABETH read Greek and Latin almost as easily as our Professors ? And can you doubt that what she knew so well, would be known, admired, and imitated by every other? Or say, that the writers of her time were, some of them, ignorant enough of the learned languages to be inventors; can you suppose, from what you know of the fashion of that age, that their fancies would not be sprinkled, and their wits refreshed by the essences of the Italian poetry?
I scarcely need say a word of our OTHER Queen, whose reign was unquestionably the æra of classic imitation and of classic taste. Even they, who had never been as far as Greece or Italy, to warm their imaginations or stock their memories, might do both to a tolerable degree in France; which, though it bowed to our country's arms, had almost the ascendant in point of letters.
I mention these things only to put you
in mind that hardly one of our poets has been in a condition to do without, or certainly be above,
the suspicion of learned imitation. And the observation is so true, that even in this our age, when good letters, they say, are departing from us, the Greek or Roman stamp is still visible in every work of genius, that has taken with the public. Do you
think one needed to be told in the title-page, that a late Drama, or some later Odes were formed on the ancient model?
The drift of all this, you will say, is to overturn the former discourse; for that now I
pretend, every degree of likeness to a preceding writer is an argument of imitation. Rather, if you please, conclude that, in my opinion, every degree of likeness is exposed to the suspicion of imitation. To convert this suspicion into a proof, it is not enough to say, that a writer might, but that his circumstances make it plain or probable at least, that he did, imi
Of these circumstances then, the first I should think deserving our attention, is the AGE in which the writer lived. One should know if it were an age addicted to much study, and in which it was creditable for the best writers to make a shew of their reading. Such especially was the age sụcceeding to that memorable æra, the revival of letters in these western countries. The fashion of the time was to interweave as much of ancient wit as possible in every new work. Writers 'were so far from affecting to think and speak in their own way, that it was their pride to make the admired ancient think and speak for them. This humour continued very long, and in some sort even still continues : with this difference indeed, that, then, the ancients were introduced to do the honours, since, to do the drudgery of the entertainment. But several causes conspired to carry it to its height in England about the beginning of the last century. You
may be sure, then, the writers of that period abound in imitations. The best poets boasted of them as their sovereign excellence. And
you will easily credit, for instance, that B. Jonson' was a servile imitator, when you find him'on so many occasions little better than a painful translator.
I foresee the occasion I shall have, in the course of this letter, to weary you with citations: and would not therefore go out of my
Yet, amidst a thousand instances of this sort in Jonson, the following, I fancy, will entertain you. The Latin verses, you know, are of Catullus.
way for them.