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For you hear your Horace saying, Indignor quidquam reprehendi, non quia crassé Compositum, illepidève putetur, sed quia nuper [I bristle when something is condemned, not because it is badly or obscurely written, but just because it is new—ed.].
but, this once agreed on by both Parties, each might have recourse to it, either to prove his own advantages, or discover the failings of his Adversary.
He had no sooner said this, but all desired the favor of him to give the definition of a Play; and they were the more importunate, because neither Aristotle, nor Horace, nor any other, who writ of that Subject, had ever done it.
“In my opinion,” replied Eugenius, “you pursue your point too far; for as to my own particular, I am so great a lover of Poesy, that I could wish them all rewarded who attempt but to do well; at least I would not have them worse used than Sylla the Dictator did one of their brethren heretofore: cum ei libellum malus poeta de populo subjecisset, quod epigramma in eum fecisset tantummodo alternis versibus longiuculis, statim ex iis rebus quæ tunc vendebat jubere ei præmium tribui, sub ea conditione ne quid postea scriberet.” [We saw him once in an assembly, when out of the crowd a bad poet offered him an epigram in elegiac verse that he had just written as an attack on Sylla; he immediately ordered that the poet be given a reward out of the articles that he was selling, with the condition that he never again write anything—ed.] “I could wish with all my heart,” replied Crites, “that many whom we know were as bountifully thanked upon the same condition, that they would never trouble us again.
For amongst others, I have a mortal apprehension of two Poets, whom this victory with the help of both her wings will never be able to escape.” “’Tis easy to guess whom you intend,” said Lisideius; “and without naming them, I ask you if one of them does not perpetually pay us with clenches upon words and a certain clownish kind of raillery?
The group has taken refuge on a barge during a naval battle between the English and the Dutch fleets.
The four gentlemen, Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander (all aliases for actual Restoration critics and the last for Dryden himself), begin an ironic and witty conversation on the subject of poetry, which soon turns into a debate on the virtues of modern and ancient writers.Lisideius, after some modest denials, at last confessed he had a rude Notion of it; indeed rather a Description than a Definition: but which served to guide him in his private thoughts, when he was to make a judgment of what others writ: that he conceived a Play ought to be, [that is, too broadly, according to category and purpose—as though one defined “shirt” as “a garment to keep one warm”—ed.], and so not altogether perfect; was yet well received by the rest: and after they had given order to the Water-men to turn their Barge, and row softly, that they might take the cool of the Evening in their return; Crites, being desired by the Company to begin, spoke on behalf of the Ancients, in this manner: “If Confidence presage a Victory, Eugenius, in his own opinion, has already triumphed over the Ancients; nothing seems more easy to him, than to overcome those whom it is our greatest praise to have imitated well: for we do not only build upon their foundation; but by their models.Dramatic Poesy had time enough, reckoning from Thespis (who first invented it) to Aristophanes, to be born, to grow up, and to flourish in Maturity.When his famous Poem first came out in the year, I have seen them reading it in the midst of Change-time; many so vehement they were at it, that they lost their bargain by the Candles ends: but what will you say, if he has been received amongst the great Ones?I can assure you he is, this day, the envy of a great person, who is Lord in the Art of Quibbling; and who does not take it well, that any man should intrude so far into his Province.” “All I would wish,” replied Crites, “is, that they who love his Writings, may still admire him, and his fellow Poet: [who does not hate Bavius—ed.] is curse sufficient.” “And farther,” added Lisideius, “I believe there is no man who writes well, but would think himself very hardly dealt with, if their Admirers should praise anything of his: [For we detest praise that comes from those we detest—ed.]” “There are so few who write well in this Age,” said Crites, “that methinks any praises should be welcome; then neither rise to the dignity of the last Age, nor to any of the Ancients; and we may cry out of the Writers of this time, with more reason than Petronius of his, [If I may be permitted to say so, you were, of all, the first to lose the old eloquence]: you have debauched the true old Poetry so far, that Nature, which is the soul of it, is not in any of your Writings.” “If your quarrel,” said Eugenius, “to those who now write, be grounded only upon your reverence to Antiquity, there is no man more ready to adore those great Greeks and Romans than I am: but on the other side, I cannot think so contemptibly of the Age I live in, or so dishonorably of my own Country, as not to judge we equal the Ancients in most kinds of Poesy, and in some surpass them; neither know I any reason why I may not be as zealous for the Reputation of our Age, as we find the Ancients themselves in reference to those who lived before them.” Crites a little while considering upon this Demand, told Eugenius he approved his Propositions, and, if he pleased, he would limit their Dispute to Dramatic Poesy; in which he thought it not difficult to prove, either that the Ancients were superior to the Moderns, or the last Age to this of ours.Eugenius was somewhat surprised, when he heard Crites make choice of that Subject; “For ought I see,” said he, “I have undertaken a harder Province than I imagined; for though I never judged the Plays of the Greek or Roman Poets comparable to ours; yet on the other side those we now see acted, come short of many which were written in the last Age: but my comfort is if we are o’ercome, it will be only by our own Countrymen: and if we yield to them in this one part of Poesy, we more surpass them in all the other; for in the Epic or Lyric way it will be hard for them to show us one such amongst them, as we have many now living, or who lately were so.During this final speech, the barge docks at the Somerset-Stairs, and the four friends go their separate ways, content with their evening.Text and notes, unless otherwise indicated, are adapted from It was that memorable day, in the first Summer of the late War, when our Navy engaged the Dutch: a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed Fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the Globe, the commerce of Nations, and the riches of the Universe.When the rest had concurred in the same opinion, Crites, a person of a sharp judgment, and somewhat too delicate a taste in wit, which the world have mistaken in him for ill nature, said, smiling to us, that if the concernment of this battle had not been so exceeding great, he could scarce have wished the Victory at the price he knew must pay for it, in being subject to the reading and hearing of so many ill verses as he was sure would be made upon it; adding, that no Argument could scape some of those eternal Rhymers, who watch a Battle with more diligence than the Ravens and birds of Prey; and the worst of them surest to be first in upon the quarry, while the better able, either out of modesty writ not at all, or set that due value upon their Poems, as to let them be often called for and long expected!“There are some of those impertinent people you speak of,” answered Lisideius, “who to my knowledge, are already so provided, either way, that they can produce not only a Panegyric upon the Victory, but, if need be, a funeral elegy upon the Duke: and after they have crowned his valor with many Laurels, at last deplore the odds under which he fell, concluding that his courage deserved a better destiny.” All the company smiled at the conceit of Lisideius, but Crites, more eager than before, began to make particular exceptions against some Writers, and said the public Magistrate ought to send betimes to forbid them; and that it concerned the peace and quiet of all honest people, that ill Poets should be as well silenced as seditious Preachers.