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L ET TER XVII.
OUR observation, that there is a fatality
which attends the reputation of authors, as well as other human affairs, is undoubtedly juft. How else shall we account for Milton's immortal poem lingering so flowly into fame, while the most vapid productions of fome of his cotemporaries acquired an instant celebrity, as wide as it was ill-founded?
Dubos has given us a curious theory of the manner in which works of merit attain their due reputation. His reflections, like those of other French critics, are fpecious without value, and maffy without folidity. Let us strike against them : perhaps the truth will fly out.
• New productions,' says he, ' are at first appreciated by judges of very different charac• ters; people of the trade, and the public. They would be very soon estimated at their
just value, if the public was as capable of * defending its opinion, and making it weigh * properly, as it knows how to take the just • side. But it has the easiness to allow its judg
ment to be embarrassed by persons who pro· fess the art to which the new production be
longs. These persons are often apt to make * a false report, for reasons which we will ex.
plain. They obfcure the truth in such a 'manner, that the public remains for some
time in uncertainty, or in error. It does not • know precisely what title the new work me• rits. The public remains undecided on the
question, if it is good, or bad, on the whole : • and it even sometimes believes people of the
profession, who deceive it; but it only be• lieves them for a very short time.
• That first period being elapsed, the public " appreciates a work at its just value; and gives • it the rank which it deserves, or condemns it * tò utter oblivion. It is never deceived, be'cause it judges disinterestedly, and because it judges by sentiment.
Şuch are the reflections of the Abbé du Bos, whom I will readily allow to be the most judicious of the French critics, if that is any praise. Truth is against them. Let us examine their justice by an illustrious instance.
PARADISE Lost was sold by John Milton to his bookseller on the twenty-seventh day of April 1667, during the witty and ingenious reign of Charles II. when Dryden was at the head of poetry and criticism. Did it instantly astonish the world as if a new fuu had arisen ? No. Three years passed, changes of titles, and other bookselling arts, were employed ere a small impression could be sold, tho not one of the trade of poetry perplexed the public opinion. Dryden, who was at the head of that trade, was the first to perceive and to applaud its beauties. Criticism was the general pursuit of that age, which was fully as enlightened on that head as the present. What happened then would have happened now: in the year 1767 Milton's divine poem would have met exactly the same reception as in 1667. And why? The answer is evident: the work was in a style of poetry above the popular conception ;
and the judgment of true judges, tho it always prevails, yet prevails with as much slowness as certainty.
In this lies the grand mistake of du Bos. He supposes the public judges for itself: it is always led by peculiar opinions, and the rectitude of its sentiments depends entirely upon tho-superiority of its leaders being founded in truth, or merely in fashion. By the public, I understand with him, people of some knowlege and some reading. A man who reads for his amusement books in his own language, and can talk a little on what he reads, may afford a kind of abstract idea of what is meant by the public. Now I will venture to compute from real observation, that not 99 out of 100, who pretend to admire Milton, are capable of understanding that writer. Why then has he a place in their libraries? Because he is mentioned with high applause by writers of reputation.
HAD not Addison written his superficial criticism on Milton, which is indeed adapted to the meanest capacity, other men of learning
would have brought him into vogue: for a
Witness the Comus, L'Allegro, Il Pense. roso, the exquisite productions of the same author; which remained a feast for the learned alone, for near a century after their publica: tion. They were published in 1645, and were taken 110 notice of. The Comus, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, were taken no notice of at a period when we sometimes find the tenth edition upon masses of metrical nonsense that are now unknown to have existed! Let the public after this judge for itself. A fecond edition of these divine poems did not appear till 1673; and even then they were not republished, because they were called for, but because they made a sizeable volume with his Paradise Regained, then first published.
What is the reason of such poems falling into filence? Is it not because those learned men who happened to see and admire them had no opportunity of recommending them to public notice