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Tragdies; and shall, from time to time, impart my notions of Comedy, as I think they may tend to its refinement and perfection. I find by my bookseller, that these papers of criticism, with that upon humour, have met with a more kind reception than indeed I could have hoped for from such subjects; for which reason I shall enter upon my present undertaking with greater cheerfulness.
In this, and one or two following papers, I shall trace out the history of false wit, and distinguish the several kinds of it as they have prevailed in different ages of the world. This I think the inore necessary at present, because I observed there were attempts on foot last winter to revive some of those antiquated modes of wit that have been long exploded out of the commonwealth of letters. There were several satires and panegyrics handed about in acrostic, by which means some of the most arrant and undisputed blockheads about the town began to entertain ambitious thoughts, and to set up for polite authors. I shall therefore describe at length those many arts of false wit, in which a writer does not shew himself a man of a beautiful genius, but of great industry.
The first species of false wit which I have met with is very vererable for its antiquity, and has produced several pieces which have lived very near as long as the Iliad itself: I mean those short poems printed among the minor Greek poets, which resemble the figure of an egg, a pair of wings, an ax, a shepherd's pipe, and an altar.
As for the first, it is a little oval poem, and may not improperly be called a scholar's egg. I would endeavour to hatch it, or, in more intelligible language, to translate it into English, did I not find the interpretation of it very difficult; for the author seems to have been more intent upon the figure of his poem than upon the sense of it.
T'he pair of wings consist of twelve verses, or rather feathers, every verse decreasing gradually in its measure according to its situation in the wing. The subject of it, as in the rest of the poems which follow, bears some remote affinity with the figure, for it describes a God of love, who is always painted with wings.
The ax, methinks, would have been a good figure for a lampoon, had the edge of it consisted of the most satirical parts of the work; but as it is in the original, I take it to have been nothing else but the poesy of an ax, which was consecrated to Minerva, and was thought to have been the same that Epeus made use of in the building of the Trojan horse: which is a hint I shall leave to the consideration of the critics. I am apt to think that this poesy was written originally upon the ax, like those which our modern cutlers inscribe upon their knives; and that therefore the poesy still remains in its ancient shape; though the ax itself is lost.
The shepherd's pipe may be said to be full of music; for it is composed of nine different kinds of verses, which by their several lengths resemble the nine stops of the old musical instrument, that is likewise the subject of the poem.
The altar is inscribed with the epitaph of Troilus the son of Hecuba; which, by the way, makes me believe that these false pieces of wit are much more ancient than the authors to whom they are generally ascribed ; at least I will never be persuaded, that so fine a writer as Theocritus could have been the author of any such simple works.
It was impossible for a man to succeed in these performances who was not a kind of painter, or at least a designer: he was first of all to draw the outline of the subject wliich he intended to write upon, and afterwards conform the description to the figure of his subject. The poetry was to contract or dilate itself according to the mould in which it was cast. In a word, the verses were to be cramped or extended to the dimensions of the frame that was prepared for them; and to undergo the fate of those persons whom the tyrant Procrustes used to lodge in his iron bed: if they were too short, he stretched them on a rack, and if they were too long, chopped off a part of their legs, till they fitted the couch which he had prepared for them.
Mr. Dryden hints at this obsolete kind of wit in one of the following verses in his Mac Flecno; which an English reader cannot understand, who does not know that there are those little poems above mentioned in the shape of wings and altars :
.....Choose for thy command
This fashion of false wit was revived by several poets of the last age, and in particular it may be met with among Mr. Herbert's poems; and if I am not mistaken, in the translation of Du Bartas. I do not remember any other kind of work among the moderns which more resembles the performances I have mentioned, than that famous picture of king Charles the First, which has the whole book of Psalms written in the lines of the face and the hair of the head. When I was last at Oxford, I perused one of the whiskers; and was reading the other, but could not go so far in it as I would have done, by reason of the impatience of my friends and fellow-travellers, who all of them pressed to see such a piece of curiosity. I have since heard, that there is now an eminent writing-master in town, who has transcribed all the Old Testament in a full
bottomed periwig; and if the fashion should introduce the thick kind of wigs which were in vogue some years ago, he promises to add two or three sue pernumerary locks, that shall contain all the Apocrypha. He designed his wig originally for King William, having disposed of the two books of Kings in the two forks of the foretop; but that glorious monarch dying before the wig was finished, there is a space left in it for the face of any one that has a mind to purchase it.
But to return to our ancient poems in picture ; I would humbly propose, for the benefit of our modern smatterers in poetry, that they would imitate their brethren among the ancients in those ingenious devices. I have communicated this thought to a young poetical lover of my acquaintance, who intends to present his mistress with a copy of verses in the shape of her fan; and, if he tells me true, he has already finished the three first sticks of it. He has likewise promised me to get the measure of his mistress's marriage-finger, with a design to make a poesy in the fashion of a ring, which shall exactly fit it. It is so very easy to enlarge upon a good hint, that I do not question but my ingenious reader will apply what I have said to many other particulars; and that we shall see the town filled in a very little time with poetical tippets, handkerchiefs, snuff-boxes, and the like fe. male ornaments. I shall therefore conclude with a word of advice to those admirable English authors who call themselves Pindaric writers, that they would apply themselves to this kind of wit without loss of time, as being provided better than any other poets with verses of all sizes and dimensions.
No. LIX. TUESDAY, MAY 8.
Operose nihil agunt. SENECA.
Busy about nothing.
THERE is nothing more certain, than that every man would be a wit if he could ; and notwithstanding pedants of a pretended depth and solidity are apt to decry the writings of a polite author, as Flash and Froth, they all of them shew upon occasion, that they would spare no pains to arrive at the character of those whom they seem to despise. For this reason we of. ten find them endeavouring at works of fancy, which cost them infinite pangs in the production. The truth of it is, a man had better be a galley-slave than a wit, were one to gain that title by those elaborate trifles which have been the inventions of such authors as were often masters of great learning, but no genius.
In my last paper I mentioned some of those false wits among the ancients, and in this shall give the reader two or three species of them, that flourished in the same early ages of the world. The first I shall produce are the Lipogramatists or Letter droppers of antiquity, that would take an exception, without any reason, against some particular letter in the alphabet, so as not to admit it once in a whole poem. One Tryphiodorus was a great master in this įkind of writing. He composed an odyssey, or epic poem, on the adventures of Ulysses, consisting of four-andtwenty books, having entirely banished the letter A from his first book, which was called Alpha, as Lucus à non Lucendo, because there was not an Alpha in it. His second book was inscribed Beta, for the same reason. In short, the poet excluded the whole four-and twenty letters in their turns, and shewed them, one