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proof of my affection, and have perhaps the ambition of publishing to the world in this way the entire friendship, that fubfifts between us.
You tell me I have fucceeded not amiss in explaining the difficulty of detecting Imitations, The materials of poetry, You own, lie so much in common amongst all writers, and the feveral ways of employing them are so much under the controul of common fenfe, that writings will in many refpects be fimilar, where there is no thought or defign of Imitating. I take advantage of this conceffion to conclude from it, That we can feldom pronounce with certainty of Imitations without fome external proof to affift us in the discovery. You will understand me to mean by these external proofs, the previous knowledge we have, from confiderations not refpecting the Nature of the work itself, of the writer's ability or inducements to imitate. Our first enquiry, then, will be, concerning the Age, Character, and Education of the fuppos'd Imitator.
We can determine with little certainty, how far the principal Greek writers have been indebted to Imitation. We trace the waters of Helicon no higher than to their fource. And we acquiefce, with reason, in the device of the old painter, You know of, who somewhat rudely indeed, but not abfurdly, drew the figure of Homer with a fountain streaming out of his mouth, and the other poets watering at it.
Hither, as to their fountain, other Stars Repairing, in their golden urns draw light. The Greek writers then were, or for any thing we can say, might be Original.
But we can rarely affirm this of any other. And the reafon is plain. When a tafte for letters prevail'd in any country, if it arose at first from the efforts of original thinking, it was immediately che rifh'd and cultivated by the ftudy of the old writers. You are too well acquainted with the progrefs of antient and modern wit to doubt of this fact. Rome adorn'd itself in the spoils of Greece. And both asfifted in dreffing up the later European poetry. What else do You find in the Italian or French Wits, but the old matter, work'd over again; only presented to us in a new form, and embellifh'd perhaps with a conceit or two of mere modern inven. tion?
But the English, You fay, or rather your fondness for Your Masters leads You to suppose, are original thinkers. 'Tis true, Nature has taken a pleasure to fhew us what she could do, by the production of ONE Prodigy. But the reft are what we admire them for, not indeed without Genius, perhaps with a larger fhare of it than has fallen to the lot of others, yet directly and chiefly by the discipline of art and the helps of Imitation.
There is however a diftinction to be made. When the fathers of the English poefy appear'd, antient literature was not fufficiently known, and at another period
period it was not fufficiently confider'd, to produce a ftrict and ftudied Imitation. But the first of these Poets, tho' You refpect them for their age and for their real merits, are not your favourites. And the other you despise for writing fo ill in their own way, when the models, they had in their hands, would have taught them to excell in a better.
To come then to the golden times of our two Queens, when the Muses, they say, went to court, and, which fome may account the greater wonder, were not debauch'd there. Indeed the poetry of these Reigns is the nobleft we have to boaft of. Invention was at it's height in the one; and Correctness in the other. In both, the manners of a court refin'd, without either breaking or corrupting the spirit of our Poets. But do you forget that ELIZABETH read Greek and Latin almost as easily as our Profeffors? And can you doubt that what the knew fo well, would be known, admired, and imitated by every other? or fay, that the writers of her time were, fome of them, ignorant enough of the learned languages to be inventors; can you suppose, from what you know of the fashion of that age, that their fancies would not be sprinkled, and their wits refreshed by the effences of the Italian poetry?
I fcarcely need fay a word of our other Queen, whofe reign was unquestionably the æra of claffic imitation and of claffic tafte. Even they, who had never been as far as Greece or Italy, to warm their imaginations or flock their memories, might do both to a tolerable degree in France; which tho' it bow'd to
our country's arms, had almoft the afcendant in point of letters.
I mention these things only to put you in mind that hardly one of our poets has been in a condition to do without, or certainly to be above the fufpicion of learned imitation. And the obfervation is fo true, that even in this our age, when good letters, they fay, are departing from us, the Greek or Roman ftamp is still visible in every work of genius, that has taken with the public. Do you think one needed to be told in the title-page, that a late DRAMA, or fome later ODES were form'd on the ancient model?
The drift of all this, you will fay, is to overturn the former difcourfe; for that now I pretend, every degree of likeness to a preceding writer is an argument of imitation. Rather, if you please, conclude that, in my opinion, every degree of likeness is exposed to the fufpicion of imitation. To convert this fufpicion into a proof, it is not enough to say, that a writer might, but that his circumstances make it plain or probable at leaft, that he did imitate.
Of these circumstances then, the first I should think deferving our attention, is the AGE in which the writer lived. One fhould know if it were an age addicted to much study, and in which it was creditable for the best writers to make a shew of their reading. Such especially was the age fucceeding to that memorable æra, the revival of letters in these western countries. The fashion of the time was to interweave as much of antient wit as poffible in every new work.
work. Writers were fo far from affecting to think and speak in their own way, that it was their pride to make the admired antients think and fpeak for them. This humour continued very long, and in fome fort even ftill continues; with this difference indeed, that, then, the antients were introduced to do the honours, fince to do the drudgery of the entertainment. But feveral caufes confpired to carry it to its height in England about the beginning of the last century. You may be fure then, the writers of that period abound in imitations. The best poets boasted of them as their sovereign excellence. And you will cafily credit, for inftance, that B. Johnson was a fervile imitator, when you find him on fo many occa fions little better than a painful translator.
I foresee the occafion I shall have, in the course of this letter, to weary you with citations; and would not therefore go out of my way for them. Yet, amidst a thousand instances of this fort in Johnson, the following, I fancy, will entertain you. The Latin verfes, you know, are of Catullus.
Ut flos in feptis fecretus nafcitur hortis,
Ignotus pecori, nullo convulfus aratro,
Idem, quum tenui carptus defloruit ungui,
It came in Johnson's way, in one of his masks, to tranflate this paffage; and obferve with what industry