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HAT praises are without reafon lavished on
the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by thofe, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the herefies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon confolatory expedients, are willing to hope from pofterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at laft bestowed by time.
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some feem to admire indifcriminately whatever has been long preserved, without confidering that time has fometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than prefent excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye furveys [A]
the fun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticifm is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an authour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we rate them by his best.
To works, however, of which the excellence is not abfolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonftrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to obfervation and experience, no other teft can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long poffeffed they have often examined and compared, and if they perfift to value the poffeffion, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; fo in the productions of genius, nothing can be ftiled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the fame kind. Demonftration immediately difplays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental muft be eftimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is difcovered in a long fucceffion of endeavours. Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or fquare, but whether it was
fpacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean fcale of numbers was at once difcovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer wé yet know not to tranfcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than tranfpofe his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrafe his fentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long fubfifted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the fuperior wifdom of paft ages, or gloomy perfuafion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the confequence of acknowledged and indubitable pofitions, that what has been longest known has been moft confidered, and what is moft confidered is best understood.
The Poet, of whofe works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to affume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the teft of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from perfonal allufions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been loft; and every topick of merriment or motive of forrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obfcure the scenes which they once illuminated. The ef[A 2]
fects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perifhed; his works fupport no opinion with arguments, nor fupply any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity nor gratify malignity, but are read without any other reason than the defire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unaffisted by interest or paffion, they have past through variations of tafte and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every tranfmiffion.
But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just reprefentations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that novelty of which the common fatiety of life fends us all in queft; but the pleafures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repofe on the stability of truth.