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must have heard much, though I dare believe you have never seen one of his plays performed. The last of them that I remember to have been acted is Love for Love, which is certainly one of his worst. The plays of Congreve, like those of Jonson, are deficient in plot: the characters too are not well discriminated; they are only depicted in the sentiment, for they all speak the same language. They abound in wit, and but little in what is properly called humour. They are, at the same time, disgraced occasionally by gross obscenity.
Farquhar and Vanburgh had both better notions of what a comedy should be than Congreve; yet they are well characterised by Pope....
"What pert, low dialogue has Farquhar writ!
One comedy of Vanburgh's, however, which was corrected by Cibber, and therefore passes under their joint names, is excellent, and that is "The Provoked Husband," which is unexceptionable in every respect, except in having a double plot.
The comedies of Mrs. Centlivre are lively and interesting; and it is no small commendation to say, that even at this distance of time two of hers still continue to be popular, "The Wonder," and "A Bold Stroke for a Wife."
Sir Richard Steele must rank among our best comic writers. The hint of his Conscious Lovers is taken from Terence; but how infinitely it is improved! Mr. Addison too succeeded better in comedy than in tragedy; and his Drummer is, in my opinion, one of the very best that ever was written conformably to the rules of Aristotle. I
Of the modern stage it would be, in some measure, indecorous to speak; yet I cannot conclude my letter without naming one author of singular merit....you anticipate the name of Sheridan. Perhaps no man since the days of Shakspeare ever possessed equal powers for the drama. We have several other writers, who, if
they do not write for posterity, at least contribute to the entertainment of the present age, and are lively and spirited. Of the translations from the German (so much in fashion) I have seen but one, and that is the Stranger, and I confess it has left me not the slightest wish to see any more from the same manufactory. In its plot it is immoral, and very deficient both in humour and character.
EPIC POETRY....HOMER....APOLLONIUS RHODIUS....VIR
GIL....LUCAN.....TASSO... CAMOENS....ERECILLA....VOL. TAIRE...MILTON.
MY DEAR JOHN,
THE day of epic poetry seems in a great measure to be passed by; and it is to be apprehended that no modern epic poem will have any permanent success; the rules, therefore, which I have to lay down, and the criticisms I shall have to advance, will rather respect the past than either the present or the future. In what has been done however, there is an immense field opened for admiration, and it is ever a most pleasing exercise of the mind to review the highest exertions of the human imagination, and to enumerate the triumphs of human genius.
Men destitute of taste may pass by with a supercilious contempt the petty wars between a few piratical states of Greece, and a town (so contemptible that the ruins are not even extant) on the opposite shore. But the work of Homer, which could make great things out of small, must still be contemplated, like the pyramids of Egypt, as an object which, being the work of man, cannot fail to interest us, while we feel we are men. No person in his senses believes the fabulous voyage of Eneas from Troy to Italy, much less the descent of the Cæsars from Ascanius; but every line of the poem which celebrates these imaginary topics contains fine poetical beauty; and while we read, in opposition to conviction, we involuntarily
"Hold each strange tale devoutly true."
Such is the charm of real poetry, and may I ever be such an intellectual epicure as to relish heartily these mental illusions!
"Perish that critic pride, which oft has hurl'd
To be diffuse in precepts for what I deem almost impracticable, you must perceive would be absurd. Or if we admit that some genius of a superior cast should hereafter appear, he will be able to make laws for himself. A second Bonaparte, he will establish a new code of legislation for other nations of the world.
An epic poem is a representation, and in part a dramatic representation, of some important action.* Yet it essentially differs from all pieces composed for scenic exhibition. Dramatic compositions distinguish characters by the passions, epic poems by the actions. In an epic poem, however, there are three objects to be considered, the action, actors, and narrative. First, it is necessary that the ACTION should be one. I have had occasion` often to shew the necessity of unity of action in every composition; and I may add, that this makes a fuller impression on the hearers than a number of incidents which have no connexion with one another. The unity of action has particularly been expected in this kind of composition, even since Aristotle's time, who first took particular notice of it; but it must not be a slight unity, as the action of one man, but a strict connection, a train of means pointing to some end; so the main end of the Æneid is the establishment of Æneas in Italy. In the Odyssey, it is the return of Ulysses to Ithaca; and in the Iliad, the effects of the resentment
* Οτι δε της μυθος καθαπερ εν ταις τραγωδίας συνιςαναι δραματικές. ARIST. ПEpi ToiTins, c. 3. TRAPP, Prelect. Lec. xxix.
of Achilles. Though it is not so sensible in the Odyssey, as the poet begins in the middle of the subject, yet it is more pleasant than in the Iliad, where we must always look back for the causes of the action to the commencement of the poem. Milton is very accurate as to unity. By closely adhering to unity, I do not however mean that every event should be exactly narrated according to the order of time, or that the poet should be always confined to one single action; he may, consistently with unity, introduce several episodes into his poem, but these must not be digressions from the main end and action, but lesser acts or inferior incidents. The word episode is derived from tragedy; the song of the chorus was the original part of that performance, and all the speeches which are introduced to give some respite to the chorus, were called episodes. The word, however, is employed in a different sense by the moderns; for by them it is something not essential to the main action, but related or connected with it. Thus the adventures of Ulysses with Polyphemus, Circe, the Syrens, &c. are episodes. They have all some tendency to carry on the chief design; yet they are not so essentially necessary, but that any of them might be taken away without breaking in upon the chief action. Such are the adventures of Nisus and Euryalus, and the funeral games in Virgil. The descent of Æneas into hell is one part of the main action; but all things which happen there, except consulting his father, are episodes. It has been established as a general rule, that episodes ought never to be foreign to the main design, and that they ought not to be too long. As they are intended to diversify the poem, their chief design is ornament, and therefore they should be particularly elegant and finished. An epic poem on the whole should be entire or complete, according to Aristotle, and should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, which certainly is nonsense when applied to epic poetry exclusively, as it may serve for every composition which is not the raving of a madman. Again, the action must be great and interesting, and such as may justify the apparatus the poet