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THE YEAR OF WONDERS, M.DC.LXVI.
AN HISTORICAL POEM.
AN ACCOUNT OF THE
In a Letter to the Hon. Sir Robert Howard.
SIR, I am so many ways obliged to you, and so little able to
return your favours, that like those wh owe too much, I can only live by getting farther into your debt. You have not only been careful of my fortune, which was the effect of your nobleness, but you have been solicitous of my reputation, which is that of your kindness. It is not long since I gave you the trouble of perusing a play for me, and now, instead of an acknowledgment, I have given you a greater, in the correction of a Poem. But since you are to bear this persecution, I will at least give you the encouragement of a martyr;—, you could never suffer in nobler cause. For I have chosen the most heroic subject which any Poet could desire: I have taken upon me to describe the motives, the beginning, progress, and successes, of a most just and necessary war; in it, the care, managenient, and prudence of onr King ; the conduct and valour of a royal admiral', and of two incomparable generals ?; the invincible courage of our captains and seamen; and three glorious victories, the result of all. After this, I have in the fire 3 the most deplorable, but, withal, the greatest argument that can be imagined; the destruction being so swift, so sudden, so vast and miserable, as nothing can parallel in story. The former part of this Poem, relating to the war, is but a due expiation for my not serving my king and country in it. All gentlemen are almost obliged to it; and I know no reason we should give that advantage to the commonalty of England, to be foremost in brave actions, which the nobles of France would never suffer in their peasants. I should not have written this, but to a person who has been ever forward to appear in all employments whither bis honour and generosity have called him. The latter part of my Poem, which describes the fire, I owe first to the piety and fatherly affection of our Monarch to his suffering subjects; and, in the second place, to the courage, loyalty, and magnanimity of the City: both which were so conspicuous, that I have wanted words to celebrate them as they deserve.
I have called my Poen Historical, not Epic; though both the actions and actors are as much heroic as any poem can contain. But, since the
James, Duke of York.
Prince Rupert, and the Duke of Albemarle. $ The fire of London, which destroyed more than 13,000
action is not properly one, nor that accomplished in the last successes, I have judged it too bold a title for a few stanzas, which are little more in number than a single Iliad, or the longest of the Æneids. For this reason (I mean not of length, but broken action, tied too severely to the laws of History) I am apt to agree with those who rank Lucan rather among Historians in verse, than Epic poets; in whose room, if I am not deceived, Silius Italicus, though a worse writer, may more justly be admitted
I have chosen to write my Poem in quatrains, or stanzes of four in alternate rhyme, because I have ever judged them more noble, and of greater dignity, both for the sound and number, than any otber verse in use amongst us; in which I am sure I have your approbation. The learned languages have, certainly, a great advantage of us, in not being tied to the slavery of any rhyme, and were less constrained in the quantity of every syllable, which they might vary with spondees or dactyls, besides so many other helps of grammatical figures, for the lengthening or abbreviation of them, than the modern are in the close of that one syllable, which often confines and more often corrupts the sense of all the rest. But in this necessity of our rhymes, I have always found the couplet verse most easy, (though not so proper for this occasion) for there the work is sooner at an end, every two lines concluding the labour of the poet; but in quatrains he is to carry it farther on; and not only $0, but to bear along in his head the troublesome sense of four lines together. For those who write correctly in this kind must needs acknowledge, that the last line of the stanza is to be considered in the composition of the first. Neither can we give ourselves the liberty of making any part of a verse for the sake of rhyme, or concluding with a word which is not current English, or using the variety of female rhymes 4, all which our fathers practised: and for the female rhymes, they are still in use amongst other nations; with the Italian in every line, with the Spaniard promiscuously, with the French alternately; as those who have read the Alarique, the Pucelle, or any of their later poems, will agree with me. And besides this, they write in Alexandrines, or verses of six feet; such as amongst us is the old translation of Homer by Chapman; all which, by lengthening of their chain, makes the sphere of their activity the larger.
I have dwelt too long upon the choice of my stanza, which, you may remember, is much better defended in the preface to Gondibert; and therefore I will hasten to acquaint you with my endeavours in the writing. In general, I will only say, I have never yet seen the description of any naval fight in the proper terms which are used at sea : and if there be any such, in another language, as that of Lucan in the Third of his Pharsalia, yet I could not avail myself of it in the English ; the terms of art in every tongue bearing more of the idiom of it than any other words. We hear, indeed, among our poets, of the thundering of guns, the smoke, the disorder, and the slaughter; but all these are common notions. And, certainly, as those who, in a logical dispute, keep in general terms, would hide a fallacy; so those, who do it in any poetical description, would veil their igno
4 By female rhymes,' says Mr. Malone, Dryden means double rhymes. See Prose Works, vol, ii.
Descriptas servare vices, operuinque colores,
For my own part, if I had little knowledge of the sea, yet I have thought it no shame to learn; and if I have made some few mistakes, 'tis only, as you can bear me witness, because I have wanted opportunity to correct them; the whole Poem being first written, and now sent you from a place, where I have not so much as the converse of any seamen. Yet, though the trouble I had in writing it was great, it was more than recompensed by the pleasure. I found myself so warm in celebrating the praises of military men, two such especially as the Prince and General, that it is no wonder if they inspired me with thoughts above my ordinary level. And I am well satisfied that, as they are incomparably the best subject I ever had, excepting only the Royal Family; so also, that this I have written of them is much better than what I have performed on any other. I have been forced to help out other arguments, but this has been bountiful to me; they have been low and barren of praise, and I have exalted them, and made them fruitful; but here— Omnia sponte suâ reddit justissima tellus.' I have had a large, a fair, and a pleasant field ; so fertile, that, without my cultivating, it has given me two harvests in a summer, and in both oppressed the reaper. All other greatness in subjects is only counterfeit: it will not endure the test of danger;