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NUMB. 95. Tuesday, Oétober 2, -1753.
IT is often charged upon writers, that with all
1 their pretensions to genius and discoveries, they do Little more than copy one another; and that compositions obtruded upon the world with the pomp of novelty, contain only tedious repetitions of common sentiments, or at best exhibit a transposition of known images, and give a new appearance to truth only by some slight difference of dress and decoration.
The allegation of resemblance between authors, is indisputably true; but the charge of plagiarism, which is raised upon it, is not to be allowed with equal readiness. A coincidence of sentiment may easily happen without any communication, since there are many occasions in which all reasonable men will nearly think alike. Writers of all ages have had the same sentiments, because they have in all ages had the same objects of speculation ; the interests and passions, the virtues and vices of mankind, have been diversified in different times, only by unessential and casual varieties; and we must, therefore, expect in the works of all those who attempt to describe them, such a likeness as we find in
is, indeed, in all his pastorals a strain of versification which it is vain to seek in any other poet; but if we except the firft and the tenth, they seem liable either wholly or in part to considerable objections.
The second, though we should forget the great charge against it, which I am afraid can never be refuted, might, I think, have perished, without any diminution of the praise of its author; for I know not that it contains one affecting sentiment or pleasing description, or one passage that strikes the imagination or awakens the passions.
The third contains a contest between two shepherds, begun with a quarrel of which some particulars might well be spared, carried on with sprightliness and elegance, and terminated at last in a reconciliation : but, furely, whether the invectives with which they attack each other be true or false, they are too much degraded from the dignity of pastoral innocence; and instead of rejoicing that they are both victorious, I should not have grieved could they have been both defeated.
The poem to Pollio is, indeed, of another kind : it is filled with images at once splendid and pleasing, and is elevated with grandeur of language worthy of the first of Roman poets; but I am not able to reconcile myself to the disproportion, between the performance and the occasion that produced it: that the golden age should return because Pollio had a son, appears so wild a fiction, that I am ready to sufpect the poet of having written, for some other purpose, what he took this opportunity of producing to the publick.
The · The fifth contains a celebration of Daphnis, which has ftood to all succeeding ages as the model of paltoral elegies. To deny praise to a performance which so many thousands have laboured to imitate; would be to judge with too little deference for the opinion of mankind: yet whoever shall read it with impartiality, will find that most of the images are of the mythological kind, and, therefore, easily invented; and that there are few sentiments of rational praise or natural lamentation.
In the Silenus le again rises to the dignity of philofophick fentiments and heroic poetry. The address to Varus is eminently beautiful: but fince the compliment paid to Gallus fixes the transaction to his own time, the fiction of Silenus seems injudicious ; nor has any sufficient reason yet been found, to juftify his choice of those fables that make the subject of the song.
The seventh exhibits another contest of the tuneful shepherds : and, furely, it is not without some reproach to his inventive power, that of ten paltorals Virgil has written two upon the same plan. One of the shepherds now gains an acknowledged victory, but without any apparent superiority, and the reader, when he fees the prize adjudged, is not able to discover how it was deserved.
Of the eighth paftoral, so little is properly the work of Virgil, that he has no claim to other praise or blame than that of a translator.
Of the ninth, it is scarce poflible to discover the design or tendency: it is said, I know not upon what authority, to have been composed from fraga
the pictures of the fame person drawn in different periods of his life.
It is necessary, therefore, that before an author be charged with plagiarism, one of the most reproachful, though, perhaps, not the most atrocious of literary crimes, the subject on which he treats should be carefully considered. We do not wonder, that historians, relating the same facts, agree in their narration; or that authors, delivering the elements of science, advance the same theorems, and lay down the same definitions : yet it is not wholly without use to mankind, that books are multiplied, and that different authors lay out their labours on the fame subject; for there will always be some reason why one should on particular occafions, or to particular persons, be preferable to another ; some will be clear where others are obscure, fome will please by their style and others by their method, fome by their embellishments and others by their fimplicity, fome by closeness and others by diffusion.
The same indulgence is to be shewn to the writers of morality : right and wrong are immutable; and those, therefore, who teach us to distinguish them, if they all teach us right, must agree with one another. The relations of social life, and the duties resulting from thein, must be the same at all times and in all nations: fome petty differences may be, indeed, produced, by forms of government or arbitrary customs; but the general doctrine can receive no alteration.
Yet it is not to be desired, that morality should be considered as interdicted to all future writers;
men will always be tempted to deviate from their duty, and will, therefore, always want a monitor to recall them; and a new book often seizes the attention of the publick, without any other claim than that it is new. There is likewise in composition, as in other things, a perpetual vicissitude of fashion; and truth is recommended at one time to regard, by appearances which at another would expose it to neglect; the author, therefore, who has judgment to discern the taste of his contemporaries, and skill to gratify it, will have always an opportunity to deserve well of mankind, by conveying instruction to them in a grateful vehicle.
There are likewise many modes of composition, by which a moralist may deserve the name of an · original writer : he may familiarise his system by dialogues after the manner of the ancients, or subtilize it into a series of fyllogistic arguments : he may enforce his doctrine by seriousness and folemnity, or enliven it by sprightliness and gaiety; he may deliver his sentiments in naked precepts, or illustrate them by historical examples; he may detain the studious by the artful concatenation of a continued discourse, or relieve the busy by short strictures, and unconnected essays.
To excel in any of these forms of writing, will require a particular cultivation of the genius; whoever can attain to excellence, will be certain to engage a set of readers, whom no other method would have equally allured; and he that communicates truch with fuccefs, must be numbered among the first benefactors to mankind.