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Aaron Hill ‘improves’ An Essay on Criticism

Aaron Hill ‘improves’ An Essay on Criticism

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the head of her squadrons, or pursuing the disarray of an enemy; and, in a

moment, it becomes elegant to say, she is scouring the plain; because military

rapidity, including ideas of insult and hostility, must be supposed to lay waste,

while it passes; so that what, in one case, is propriety, becomes but obstruction,

in the other, being mis-applied to velocity, independent of force; where it ought

to have been simply considered as swiftness. A writer of your rank, will never be

capable of condemning such instances as these, under the thin plausibility of

their being trifling, and verbal remarks; for, since your only design, in the place

this is drawn from, was to instruct, by an example, how to paint things in words;

such a word as defaces the very idea, you proposed to imprint, was an error, in

the actual foundation, and must, in consequence, throw down the building.

Besides, as the chief point here in view, was the structure or sound of your verse,

with purpose to make it, in your own fine expression, an echo to the sense; the

minutest exactness of choice, in the words, seems to have been of double demand

and necessity.

Be so good, therefore, to tell me (and believe I ask it sincerely, for the sake of

instruction) whether I am mistaken or not, when I think you rather contented

yourself with the general idea, than examined into the coherence of particular

parts, in one of the liveliest poetical pictures that ever was drawn; yet, additional

whereto, I am under an unlucky necessity of sending you some, still too faint and

imperfect new colourings; because, without taking that extraordinary liberty

(liable as it is, to the appearance of something the reverse of my modester

meaning), I know not, how to explain to you, within any reasonable compass of a

letter, in what parts of the piece I was of opinion, so much happier a hand as

your own, should have given it a more heightened resemblance than that glowing

one, you bestowed on it.

Soft, breathes the whisp’ring verse—if zephir plays:

Flows the stream smooth?—still smoother glide the lays,

Where high-swoln surges sweep the sounding shore,

Roll the rough verse, hoarse, like the torrent’s rore:

When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,

The line too lab’ring, each dragg’d word moves slow.

Livelier, the light Camilla skims the plain,

Shoots o’er th’ unbending corn, nor shakes th’ unconscious grain.1

It would be offering an indignity to a temper and genius, like yours, to apprehend

(from a freedom I had but only the private curiosity to use) any danger of being

mistaken for coxcomb enough, to have thought of so empty a vanity, as that of

comparing my numbers. The simple truth is, I amused myself, at that time, for

my own satisfaction; but I now recommend to your reconsideration, one of your

most admired great master-pieces of poetical harmony, with the honest and

friendly intention of convincing you, by an instance, derived from yourself, that


there appears still too much room, for a more verbal exactness of propriety, even

in the works of our first class of writers.

I am afraid of growing tedious, if I should particularise all my reasons for

imagining, you could have carried much farther than you did, the above noble

likeness, between your verse and your images: Such as, that the word strain, in

your first line, requiring a stretch’d and impressive pronunciation, suits not the

softness of the epithet.—As also, that, both in sound and acceptation there arises,

from your expression blows, at the end of the verse, a kind of ruffling air of

windyness, too discomposing for the breath of a zephyr.2

Add to these, that as, in the fourth line, you seem to have designed, in the first

four words, a gloomy picture of high billows, rising, rolling, and swelling, while

they are yet in their approach to the strand, the fifth word (as it gives beginning to

the cadence of that verse) ought to have brought on a burst, like the hoarseness

of those billows in their breaking—The rushing of a watery sound—a kind of

hollow, washy murmur, like the workings of a surfy tide, repulsed and struggling

amongst pebbles. But, I hope, it may be enough, to acquit me of im-pertinence, if

I only say something more largely, concerning any one verse of the eight; for,

while I shall be busy in so doing, I am sure, your apprehension will preclude, and

run before my justification, so as to make needless either reasonings or apology.

The line too labours,—and the words move slow.

I have wondered very often, how it happened to be possible, to so cultivated an

ear as your own, not to distinguish, in the second division of this verse, a certain

declination to improper quickness, that runs down hill, too current, and

unincumbered, for the labour and resistance of the image. According to my poor

perception, three words, at least of the five (which, I am sure, you must have

meant, should move most slowly, because they convey both the rule and the

example) dance away upon the tongue, with a tripping and lyrical lightness. And

if such, in reality, is the case, then, from a want of that unpliant repugnance, that

obtundity, or bluntness of structure, which you thought, you had sufficiently

given them, and which would have kept them stubbornly distinct and inflexible,

they incorporate into a numerous fluidity, that expresses not the idea in your




[Hill’s revision of An Essay on Criticism, ll. 366–72]

[Ibid., l. 366]


Two contrasting views

1736, 1741

(a) Sir Thomas Hanmer (?), extract from Some Remarks on the Tragedy of

Hamlet…(1736), pp. vi-vii (reprinted with an introduction by C.Thorpe,

Augustan Reprint Society, Series III, No. 3 [Los Angeles, 194?]).

Criticism in general, is what few of our Countrymen have succeeded in: In

that respect, our Neighbours have got the better of us; altho’ we can justly boast

of the compleatest Essay on that Subject that has been publish’d in any

Language, in which almost every Line, and every Word, convey such Images,

and such Beauties, as were never before found in so small a Compass, and of

whose Author it may properly be said, in that respect,

He is himself that great Sublime he draws.

(b) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, remark made to Rev. Joseph Spence,

January–February 1741, Anecdotes, i. 304. Lady Mary (1689– 1762) and Pope

had been on particularly close terms when they first met, but by 1725 their

relationship cooled. For the causes of their enmity, see Twickenham, iv. pp. xv–

xvi, Robert Halsband, Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1956), pp. 113–14,

129–32, and Peter Quennell, Alexander Pope (1968), pp. 136–8, 171–3, 232–4.

See also Nos 77, 88b.

I admired Mr Pope’s Essay on Criticism at first very much, because I had not

then read any of the ancient critics and did not know that it was all stolen.


14 May 1712


Steele’s comments


Sir Richard Steele, extract from letter to Pope, 1 June 1712,

Corresp., i. 146.

Steele (1672–1729), essayist and pamphleteer, was friendly

towards Pope, and the ‘Messiah’ first appeared in The Spectator, no.

378, which was written by Steele. In response to Steele’s comments,

Pope revised the couplet,

Before him Death, the grisly Tyrant flies;

He wipes the Tears for ever from our Eyes.

It reads as follows in 1717,

No Sigh, no Murmur the wide World shall hear,

From ev’ry Face he wipes off ev’ry Tear.

In adamantine Chains shall Death be bound,

And Hell’s grim Tyrant feel th’eternal Wound. (ll. 45–8)

See Twickenham, i. 99–100, 117.

... I have turn’d to every verse and chapter, and think you have preserv’d the

sublime and heavenly spirit throughout the whole, especially at—Hark a glad

voice [l. 29]—and—the lamb with wolves shall graze [l. 77]—There is but one

line which I think below the original,

He wipes the tears for ever from our eyes.

You have express’d it with a good and pious, but not with so exalted and

poetical a spirit as the prophet. The Lord God will wipe away tears from off all

faces. If you agree with me in this, alter it by way of paraphrase or otherwise, that

when it comes into a volume it may be amended. Your poem is already better

than the Pollio [of Virgil].


7 March 1713


Dennis’s opinion


John Dennis, a letter to Barton Booth, dated 18 December 1714,

which Dennis did not print until he attacked Pope in Remarks upon

Mr. Pope’s… Homer (1717), Critical Works, ii. 135–7.


You are in the right of it: Windsor Forest is a wretched Rhapsody, not worthy the

Observation of a Man of Sense. I shall only take Occasion from it to display the

Beauties of Cooper’s-Hill, in Emulation of which it was impudently writ. The

Cooper’s-Hill of Sir JOHN DENHAM is a Poem upon the Prospect which that Hill

affords us. Cooper’s-Hill, is a Hill in Windsor-Forest, about a Mile from Egham

in Surrey, about Half a Mile from the Thames, and Three Miles from Windsor.

The Conduct of Sir JOHN DENHAM in his Cooper’ s-Hill, is as admirable, as

that of the Author of Windsor Forest, is despicable. Sir JOHN DENHAM

presents no Object to his Reader, but what is truly in the Compass of his Subject.

Whereas Half the Poem of Windsor Forest has nothing in it, that is peculiar to

Windsor Forest. The Objects that are presented to the Reader in this latter Poem,

are for the most part trivial and trifling, as Hunting, Fishing, Setting, Shooting,

and a thousand common Landskips. Whereas of a thousand Objects that

Cooper’s-Hill presents to the View, Sir JOHN DENHAM chuses only the most

Instructive, the most Noble, and the most Magnificent; and which, at the same

time, are the most Noble, and most Magnificent, which Great Britain can show:

As St. Paul’s, London, Windsor, Thames, the Side of Cooper’s-Hill that is next

to the Thames, and Runny-Mead between them, ennobled by the Grant of the

Great Charter there to the People of England.

In Windsor Forest, though a Poem of above Four hundred Lines, there is no

manner of Design, nor any Artful and Beautiful Disposition of Parts.1 Whereas

Sir JOHN has both an Admirable Design, and a Beautiful Disposition of Parts….

Thus have I endeavour’d to set before you, in a full Light, the admirable Art

and Contrivance that are to be found in the Cooper’s-Hill, in order to make the

Rhapsody call’d Windsor Forest, appear the more contemptible. I have already

exceeded the Bounds which I prescrib’d to my self. Otherwise, I should set

several of the Parts of these Two Poems in Parallel against one another; by which


it would appear, that the Knight has more the Advantage of this little ’Squire of

Parnassus, in the Beauty of the Parts, than he has in the Admirable Contrivance

of the Whole. I would say something likewise of the Expression and the

Harmony, and would pretend to show, that as Sir JOHN DENHAM perpetually

thinks clearly, he always expresses himself perspicuously; that the Language in his

boldest Flights, is almost always sacred to him; that he is Bold, without

Rashness; Plain, without Meanness; High, without Pride; and Charming, without

Meretricious Arts: But that the Author of Windsor Forest has almost every


Absurd Expressions, crude, abortive Thoughts,

All the lewd Legion of exploded Faults.2

That he is Obscure, Ambiguous, Affected, Temerarious, Barbarous: And, lastly,

That there is as much Difference between the Harmony of one Poem, and that of

the other Piece, as there is between a Piece of Musick, which is Dead and Flat,

and barely Mathematical; and one in which to the Truth of Composition, is added

a Fine and a Charming Air. I know not but that I may prevail upon my self to do

this another time, provided that you are entertained by what I at present send you.



[See Johnson’s reply to this point, p. 492 below]

Roscommon on Translated Verse.


Another comparison with Cooper’s Hill


William Bond (‘Henry Stanhope’), extract from The Progress of

Dulness. By an Eminent Hand. Which will Serve for an Explanation

of the Dunciad (1728), pp. 5–7. This pamphlet, advertised on 11 June

1728, was a Curll publication occasioned by The Dunciad. In the

same volume appeared Dennis’s attacks upon Windsor Forest and

The Temple of Fame. All three pieces had been written much earlier,

and The Progress of Dulness bears the date 6 June 1720.

Who hopes to Please, shall strive to Please by Pains,

Shall gaining Fame, earn hard whatever he gains,

And DENHAM’S Morals, join to DENHAM’S Strains.

Here Paint the Thames1 When running to the Sea

Like Mortal Life to meet Eternity.

There show both Kings and Subjects one excess,

Makes both, by striving to be Greater, Less.

Shall climb, and sweat, and falling, climb up still,

Before he gains the height of Cooper’s Hill.

In Windsor-Forest,2 if some trifling Grace,

Gives, at first Blush, the whole a pleasing Face,

’Tis Wit, ’tis true; but then ’tis Common Place.

The Landscape-Writer, branches out a Wood,

Then digging hard for’t, finds a Silver Flood.

Here paints the Woodcock quiv’ring in the Air,

And there, the bounding Stag and quaking Hare.

Describes the Pheasant’s Scarlet-circled Eye,

And next the slaught’ring-Gun, that makes him Die.

From common Epithets that Fame derives,


By which his most uncommon Merit lives.

’Tis true! if finest Notes alone could show,

(Tun’d justly high, or regularly low,)

That we should Fame to these mere Vocals give,

POPE more, than we can offer, should receive.

For, when some gliding River is his Theme,

His Lines run smoother, than the smoothest Stream;

Not so, when thro’ the Trees fierce Boreas blows,

The Period blustring with the Tempest grows.

But what Fools Periods read, for Periods sake?

Such Chimes improve not Heads, but make ‘em Ach;

Tho’ strict in Cadence on the Numbers rub,

Their frothy Substance is Whip-Syllabub;

With most Seraphic Emptiness they roll,

Sound without Sense, and Body without Soul.



See Cooper’s Hill

See, Pope’s String of Verses, upon this Subject, without any Connection.


2 March 1714

The first version of The Rape of the Lock which appeared in 1712 consisted of

only two cantos and lacked the ‘machinery’ of the sylphs. It attracted little

attention. The publication of the enlarged version in 1714 is treated here as the

first appearance of the poem.

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