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He is introduced into this collection only as a poet; and, if we credit the testimony of his contemporaries, he was a poet of no vulgar rank. But favour and flattery are now at an end; criticism is no longer softened by his bounties or awed by his splendour, and, being able to take a more steady view, discovers him to be a writer that sometimes glimmers, but rarely shines, feebly la. borious, and at best but pretty. His songs are upon common topics; he hopes, and grieves, and repents, and despairs, and rejoices, like any other maker' of little stanzas : to be great, he hardly tries; to be gay, is hardly in his power.
In his “ Essay on Satire," he was always supposed to have had the help of Dryden. His “ Essay on Poetry" is the great work for which he was praised by Roscommon, Dryden, and Pope ; and doubtless by many more whose eulogies have perished.
Upon this piece he appears to have set a high value; for he was all his life-time improving it by successive revisals, so that there is scarcely any poem to be found of which the last edition differs more from the first. Amongst other changes, men. tion is made of some compositions of Dryden, which were written after the first appearance of the Essay.
At the time when this work first appeared, Mil. ton's fame was not yet fully established, and therefore Tasso and Spenser were set before him. The two last lines were these. The epic poet, says he, Must above Milton's lofty flights prevail, Succeed where great Torquato, and where greater
Spenser fail. The last line in succeeding editions was shortened, and the order of names continued; but now Milton is at last advanced to the highest place, and the passage thus adjusted : Must above Tasso's lofty fights prevail, Succeed where Spenser, and ev'n Milton fail.
Amendments are seldom made without some token of a rent ; lofty does not suit Tasso so well as Milton.
One celebrated line seems to be borrowed. The Essay calls a perfect character
A faultless monster which the world ne'er saw. Scaliger, in his poems, terms Virgil sine labe mon. strum. Sheffield can scarcely be supposed to have read Scaliger's poetry; perhaps he found the words in a quotation.
Of this Essay, which' Dryden has exalted so highly, it may be justly said that the precepts are judicious, sometimes new, and often happily expressed; but there are, after all the emendations, many weak lines, and some strange appearances of negligence; as, when he gives the laws of elegy, he insists upon connexion and coherence; without which, says he,
'Tis epigram, 'tis point, 'tis what you will:
No Panegyric, nor a Cooper's Hill. Who would not suppose that Waller's “ Panegyric" and Denham's “ Cooper's Hill” were elegies ?
His verses are often insipid, but his memoirs are lively and agreeable; he had the perspicuity and elegance of an historian, but not the fire and fancy
of a poet.
END OP VOL. I.
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