« AnteriorContinua »
sunk in his merit as an author. This was not owing so much to the evident superiority on the part of Addison, as to the unnatural efforts which Steele made to equal or eclipse him. This emulation destroyed that genuine flow of diction which is discoverable in all his former compositions.
Whilst their writings engaged attention and the favour of the public, reiterated but unsuccessful endeavours were made towards forming a grammar of the English language. The authors of those efforts went upon wrong principles. Instead of endeavouring to retrench the absurdities of our language, and bringing it to a certain criterion, their grammars were no other than a collection of rules attempting to naturalize those absurdities, and bring them under a regular system.
Somewhat effectual, however, might have been done towards fixing the standard of the English language, had it not been for the spirit of party. For both Whigs and Tories being ambitious to stand at the head of so great a design, the queen's death happened before any plan of an academy could be resolved on.
Meanwhile the necessity of such an institution became every day more apparent. The periodical and political writers, who then swarmed, adopted the very worst manner of L'Estrange, till not only all-decency, but all propriety of language, was lost in the nation. Leslie, a pert writer, with some wit and learning, insulted the government every week with the grossest abuse. His style and manner, both of which were illiberal, were imitated by Ridpath, De Foe, Duntan, and others of the opposite party, and Toland pleaded the cause of atheism
and immorality in much the same strain; his subject seemed to debase his diction, and he ever failed most in one, when he grew most licentious in the other.
Towards the end of queen Anne's reign, some of the greatest men in England devoted their time to party, and then a much better manner obtained in political writing. Mr. Walpole, Mr. Addison, Mr. Mainwaring, Mr. Steele, and many members of both houses of parliament, drew their pens for the Whigs; but they seem to have been overmatched, though not in argument, yet in writing, by Bolingbroke, Prior, Swift, Arbuthnot, and the other friends of the opposite party. They who oppose a ministry have always a better field for ridicule and reproof than those who defend it.
Since that period our writers have either been encouraged above their merits or below them. Some who were possessed of the meanest abilities acquired the highest preferments, while others, who seemed born to reflect a lustre upon their age, perished by want and neglect. More, Savage, and Amherst, were possessed of great abilities, yet they were suffered to feel all the miseries that usually attend the ingenious and the imprudent, that attend men of strong passions, and no phlegmatic reserve in their command.
At present, were a man to attempt to improve his fortune or increase his friendship by poetry, he would soon feel the anxiety of disappointment. The press lies open, and is a benefactor to every sort of literature but that alone.
I am at a loss whether to ascribe this falling off
of the public to a vicious taste in the poet, or in them. Perhaps both are to be reprehended. The poet either drily didactive gives us rules, which might appear abstruse even in a system of ethics, or triflingly volatile, writes upon the most unworthy subjects; content, if he can give music instead of sense; content, if he can paint to the imagination without any desires or endeavours to affect; the public therefore with justice discard such empty sound, which has nothing but a jingle, or, what is worse, the unmusical flow of blank verse to recommend it. The late method also, into which our newspapers have fallen, of giving an epitome of every new publication, must greatly damp the writer's genius. He finds himself in this case at the mercy of men who have neither abilities nor learning to distinguish his merit. He finds his own composition mixed with the sordid trash of every daily scribbler. There is a sufficient specimen given of his work to abate curiosity, and yet so mutilated as to render him contemptible. His first, and perhaps his second work, by these means sink, among the crudities of the age, into oblivion. Fame he finds begins to turn her back; he therefore flies to Profit, which invites him; and he enrols himself in the lists of Dulness and of Avarice for life.
Yet there are still among us men of the greatest abilities, and who in some parts of learning have surpassed their predecessors: justice and friendship might here impel me to speak of names which will shine out to all posterity, but prudence restrains me from what I should otherwise eagerly embrace. Envy might rise against every honoured name I
should mention, since scarcely one of them has not those who are his enemies, or those who despise him, &c.
OF THE OPERA IN ENGLAND.
THE rise and fall of our amusements pretty much resemble that of empire. They this day flourish without any visible cause for such vigour; the next they decay, without any reason that can be assigned for their downfall. Some years ago the Italian opera was the only fashionable amusement among our nobility. The managers of the playhouses dreaded it as a mortal enemy, and our very poets listed themselves in the opposition; at present the house seems deserted, the castrati sing to empty benches, even prince Vologese himself, a youth of great expectations, sings himself out of breath, and rattles his chain to no purpose.
To say the truth, the opera, as it is conducted among us, is but a very humdrum amusement; in other countries the decorations are entirely magnificent, the singers all excellent, and the burlettas or interludes quite entertaining; the best poets compose the words, and the best masters the music: but with us it is otherwise; the decorations are but trifling and cheap; the singers, Matei only excepted, but indifferent. Instead of interlude, we have those sorts of skipping dances which are calculated for the galleries of the theatre. Every performer sings his favourite song, and the music is only a medley of old Italian airs, or some meager modern Capricio.
When such is the case, it is not much to be won.. dered at if the opera is pretty much neglected: the lower orders of people have neither taste nor fortune to relish such an entertainment; they would find more satisfaction in the Roast Beef of Old England than in the finest closes of an eunuch; they sleep amidst all the agony of recitative: on the other hand, people of fortune or taste can hardly be pleased, where there is a visible poverty in the decorations, and an entire want of taste in the composition.
Would it not surprise one, that when Metastasio is so well known in England, and so universally admired, the manager or the composer should have recourse to any other operas than those written by him? I might venture to say, that written by Metastasio, put up in the bills of the day, would alone be sufficient to fill a house, since thus the admirers of sense as well as sound might find entertainment.
The performers also should be entreated to sing only their parts, without clapping in any of their own favourite airs. I must own, that such songs are generally to me the most disagreeable in the world. Every singer generally chooses a favourite air, not from the excellency of the music, but from the difficulty; such songs are generally chosen to surprise rather than please, where the performer may show his compass, his breath, and his volubility.
Hence proceed those unnatural startings, those unmusical closings, and shakes lengthened out to a painful continuance; such indeed may show a voice, but it must give a truly delicate ear the utmost uneasiness. Such tricks are not music; neither Corelli nor Pergolesi ever permitted them, and they begin