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On Mr. GAY.
Striking their pensive bosoms Here lies GAY! As Gay was the favourite of our Author, this epitaph was probably written with an uncommon degree of attention; yet it is not more successfully executed than the rest, for it will not always happen that the success of a poet is proportionate to his labour. The same observation may be extended to all works of imagination, which are often influenced by, causes wholly out of the performer's power, by hints of which he perceives not the origin, by sudden elevations of mind which he cannot produce in himself, and which sometimes rise when he expects them least.
The two parts of the first line are only echoes of each other; gentle manners and mild affections, if they mean any thing, must mean the same.
That Gay was a man in wit is a very frigid commendation; to have the wit of a man is not much for a poet. The wit of man, and the simplicity of a child, make a poor and vulgar contrast, and raise no ideas of excellence either intellectual or moral.
In the next couplet rage is less properly introduced after the mention of mildness and gentleness, which are made the constituents of his character; for a man so mild and gentle to temper
rage was not difficult. The next line is inharmonious in its sound and mean in its conception; the opposition is obvious, and the word lash, used absolutely, and without any modification, is gross
To be above temptation in poverty, and free from corruption among the great, is indeed such a peculiarity as deserved notice.
But to be a safe companion is a praise merely negative, arising not from possession of virtue, but the absence of vice, and that one of the most odious.
As little can be added to his character by asserting that he was lamented in his end. Every man that dies is, at least by the writer of his epitaph, supposed to be lamented; and therefore this general lamentation does no honour to Gay.
The first eight lines have no grammar; the adjectives are without any substantive, and the epithets without a subject.
The thought in the last line, that Gay is buried in the bosoms of the worthy and the good, who are distinguished only to lengthen the line, is so dark that few understand it; and so harsh, when it is explained, that still fewer approve.
Hoc marmor fatetur.
God said, Let Newton be! And all was light. Of this epitaph, short as it is, the faults seem not to be very few. Why part should be Latin, and part English, it is not easy to discover. In the Latin the opposition of Immortalis and Mortalis is a mere sound, or a mere quibble; he is not immortal in any sense contrary to that in which he is mortal.
In the verses the thought is obvious, and the words night and light are too nearly allied.
If modest youth, with cool reflection crown'd,
In whom a race, for courage fam'd and art,
Pays the last tribute of a saint to Heaven. This epitaph Mr. Warburton prefers to the rest; but I know not for what reason. To crown with reflection is surely a mode of speech approaching to nonsense. Opening virtues blooming round is something like tautology: the six following lines are poor and prosaic.
Art is in another couplet used for arts, that a rhyme may be had to heart. The six last lines are the best, but not excellent.
The rest of his sepulchral performances hardly deserve the notice of criticism. The contemptible “Dialogue” between He and She should have been suppressed for the Author's sake.
In his last epitaph on himself, in which he attempts to be jocular upon one of the few things that make wise men serious, he confounds the living man with the dead:
Under this stone, or under this sill,
Or under this turf, &c. When a man is once buried, the question, under what he is buried, is easily decided. He forgot that, though he wrote the epitaph in a state of uncertainty, yet it could not be laid over him till his grave was made. Such is the folly of wit when it is ill employed.
The world has but little new; even this wretchedness seems to have been borrowed from the following tuneless lines:
Ludovici Areosti humantur ossa
Olim siquod haberet is sepulchrum. Surely Ariosto did not venture to expect that his trifle would have ever had such an illustrious imitator,
CHRISTOPHER PITT, of whom, whatever I shall relate, more than has been already published, I owe to the kind communication of Dr. Warton, was born in 1699, at Blandford, the son of a physician
much esteemed. He was, in 1714, received as a scholar into Winchester College, where he was distinguished by exercises of uncommon elegance, and, at his removal to New College, in 1719, presented to the electors, as the product of his private and voluntary studies, a complete version of Lucan's poem, which he did not then know to have been translated by Rowe.
This is an instance of early diligence, which well deserves to be recorded. The suppression of such a work, recommended by such uncommon circumstances, is to be regretted. It is indeed culpable to load libraries with superfluous books; but incitements to early excellence are never superfluous, and from this example the danger is not great of many imitations.
When he had resided at his college three years, he was presented to the rectory of Pimpern, in Dorsetshire (1722), by his relation, Mr. Pitt, of Stratfield Say, in Hampshire; and, resigning his fellowship, continued at Oxford two years longer, till he became master of arts (1724).
He probably about this time translated Vida's “Art of Poetry," which Tristram's splendid edition had then made popular. In his translation he distinguished himself, both by its general elegance, and by the skilful adaptation of his numbers to the images expressed; a beauty which Vida has with great ardour enforced and exemplified.
He then retired to his living, a place very pleasing by its situation, and therefore likely to excite the imagination of a poet; where he passed the rest of his life, reverenced for his virtue, and beloved for the softness of his temper, and the easiness of his manners. Before strangers he had something of the scholar's timidity or distrust; but, when he became familiar, he was, in a very high degree, cheerful and entertaining. His general benevolence procured general respect; and he passed a life placid and honourable, neither too
great for the kindness of the low, nor too low for the notice of the great.
At what time he composed his “Miscellany," published in 1727, it is not easy or necessary to know: those which have
dates appear to have been very early productions; and I have not observed that any rise above mediocrity.
The success of his “Vida" animated him to a higher undertaking; and in his thirtieth year he published a version of the first book of the “Eneid.” This being, I suppose, commended by his friends, he some time afterwards added three or four more, with an advertisement, in which he represents himself as translating with great indifference, and with a progress
of which himself was hardly conscious. This can hardly be true, and, if true, is nothing to the reader.
At last, without any farther contention with his modesty, or any awe of the name of Dryden, he gave us a complete English “Eneid,” which I am sorry not to see joined in this publication with his other poems. It would have been pleasing to have an opportunity of comparing the two best translations that perhaps were ever produced by one nation of the same author.
Pitt, engaging as a rival with Dryden, naturally observed his failures, and avoided them; and, as he wrote after Pope's “Iliad,” he had an example of an exact, equable, and splendid versification. With these advantages, seconded by great diligence, he might successfully labour particular passages and escape many errors. If the two versions are compared, perhaps the result would be, that Dryden leads the reader forward by his general vigour and sprightliness, and Pitt often stops him to contemplate the excellence of a single couplet: that Dryden's faults are forgotten in the hurry of delight, and that Pitt's beauties are neglected in the languor of a cold and listless perusal, that Pitt pleases the critics, and Dryden the people; that Pitt is quoted, and Dryden read.
He did not long enjoy the reputation which this great work deservedly conferred; for he left the world in 1748, and lies buried under a stone at Blandford, on which is this inscription:
In Memory of
and yet more
He lived innocent;