An Essay on Poetry (Sheffield)

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An Essay on Poetry  (1709) 
by John Sheffield




By the Right Honourable the


Coopers-Hill (page 4 crop).jpg


Printed and Sold by H. Hills, in Black-fryars, near the Water-side, 1709.






OF Things in which Mankind does most excel,
Nature's chief Master-piece is Writing well;
And of all sorts of Writing none there are
That can the least with Poetry compare:
No kind of work requires so nice a touch,
And if well finish'd, nothing shines so much;
But Heav'n forbid we should be so profane,
To grace the Vulgar with that Sacred Name;
'Tis not a Flash of Fancy which sometimes
Dazling our minds, sets off the slightest Rhimes;
Bright as a Blaze, but in a Moment done;
True Wit is everlasting, like the Sun;
Which tho' sometimes behind a cloud retir'd,
Breaks out again, and is by all admir'd.

Number, and Rhime, and that harmonious Sound,
Which never does the Ear with Harshness wound,
Are necessary, yet but vulgar Arts,
For all in vain these superficial parts
Contribute to the Structure of the whole
Without a Genius too, for that's the Soul;
A Spirit whch inspires the Work throughout,
As that of Nature moves this World about;
A Heat that glows in every word that's writ,
Tis something of Divine, and more than Wit;
It self unseen, yet all things by it shown,
Describing all Men, but describ'd by none.
Where dost thou dwell? what Caverns of the Brain
Can such a vast, and mighty thing contain?
When I, at idle Hours, in vain thy abssence mourn,
O where dost thou retire? and why dost thou return,
Sometimes with powerful charms to hurry me away
From Pleasures of the Night and Business of the Day?
Ev'n now to far transported, I am fain
To check thy Course, and use the needful Rein.
As all is Dulness, when the Fancy's bad,
So without Judgment Fancy is but mad;
And Judgment has a bouneless Influence,
Not only in the choice of Words or Sense,
But on the World, of Manners, and on Men;
Fancy is but the Feather of the Pen;

Reason is that substantial, useful part,
Which gains the Head, while 'tother wins the Heart.
Here I should all the various sorts of Verse,
And the whole Art of Poetry rehearse,
But who that task can after Horace do?
The best of Masters and Examples too!
Ecchoes at best, all we can say is vain,
Dull the Design, and fruitless were the pain;
'Tis true, the Ancients we may rob with ease,
But who with that sad shift himself can please,
Without an Actors pride? A Player's Art
Is above his, who writes a borrowed part.
Yet modern Laws are made for later Faults,
And new Absurdities inspire new Thoughts;
What need has Satyr then to live on Theft
When so much fresh occasion still is left?
Fertile our Soil, and full of rankest Weeds,
And Monsters worse than ever Nilus breeds.
But hold, the Fools shall have no cause to fear,
'Tis Wit add Sense that is the subject here
Defects of witty Men deserve a Cure,
And those who are so, will ev'n this endure.
First then of Songs, that now so much abound,
Without his Song no Fop is to be found,Songs.
A most offensive Weapon which he draws
On all he meets, against Appollo's Laws:
Tho' nothing seems more easie, yet no part
Of Poetry requires a nicer Art;

For as in rows of richest Pearl there lies
Many a Blemish that escapes our Eyes,
The least of which Defects is plainly shewn
In some small Ring, and brings the value down:
So Songs should be to just Perfection wrought;
Yet where can we see one without a fault;
Exact Propriety of Words and Thought?
Expression easie, and the Fancy high,
Yet that not seem to creep, nor this to fly;
No words transpos'd, but in such order all,
As, tho' hard wrought, may seem by chance to fall;
Here, as in all things else, is most unfit
Bare Ribaldry, that poor Pretence to Wit;
Such nauseous Songs by a late Author made,
Call an unwilling Censure on his Shade.
Not that warm Thoughts of the transporting Joy,
Can shock the chastest or the nicest cloy;
But obscene Words, too gross to move Desire,
Like Heaps of Fewel do but choak the Fire.
On other Themes he well deserves our Praise,
Who palls that Appetite he meant to raise.
Next, Elegy, of sweet but solemn Voice,Elegy.
And of a Subject grave exacts the Choice,
The Praise of Beauty, Valor, Wit contains,
And there too oft despairing Love complains;
In vain alas, for who by Wit is moved,
That Phœnix-she deserves to be beloved;

But noisy Nonsence, and such Fops as vex
Mankind, take most with that Fantastick Sex.
This to the Praise of those who better knew;
The Many raise the value of the Few.
But here, as all our Sex too oft have try'd,
Women have drawn my wandering Thoughts aside.
Their greatest Fault who in this kind have writ,
Is not defect in words, nor want of Wit;
But should this Muse harmonious Numbers yield,
And every Couplet be with Fancy fill'd,
If yet a just Coherence be not made
Between each Thought, and the whole Model laid
So right, that every step may higher rise,
Like goodly Mountains, till they reach the Skies?
Trifles like such perhaps of late have past,
And may be lik'd a while, but never last;
'Tis Epigram, 'tis Point, 'tis what you will,
But nor an Elegy, nor Writ with Skill,
No [1]Panegyrick, nor a [2]Coopers-Hill.
A higher Flight, and of a happier Force
Are [3]Odes, the Muses most unruly Horse;
That bounds so fierce, the Rider has no rest,
But foams at Mouth, and speaks like one possest.
The Poet here must be indeed inspired,
With Fury too, as well as Fancy fired.

Cowley might boast to have performed this part,
Had he with Nature joyn'd the Rules of Art;
But ill Expression gives sometimes Allay
To that rich Fancy, which can ne'er decay:
Tho all appear in Heat and Fury done,
The Language still must soft and easie run.
These Laws may seem a little too severe,
But Judgment yields, and Fancy governs there;
Which, tho' extravagant, this Muse allows,
And makes the work much easier than it shews.
Of all the Ways that wisest Men could findSatyr.
To mend the Age, and mortifie Mankind,
Satyr well writ has most successful prov'd,
And cures, because the Remedy is lov'd.
'Tis hard to write on such a subject more,
Without repeating Things said oft before.
Some vulgar Errors only we remove,
That stain this Beauty which so much we love.
Of well chose Words some take not care enough,
And think they should be as the Subject rough;
This great work must be more exactly made,
And sharpest Thoughts in smoothest words convey'd:
Some think, if sharp enough, they cannot fail,
As if their only Business was to rail;
But human Frailty nicely to unfold,
Distinguishes a Satyr from a Scold.

Rage you must hide, and Prejudice lay down,
A Satyr's Smile is sharper than his Frown;
So while you seem to slight some Rival Youth,
Malice it self may pass sometimes for Truth.
The [4]Laureat here may justly claim our Praise,
Crown'd by [5]Mac-Fleckno with immortal Bays;
Tho' prais'd and punish'd for another's [6]Rhimes,
His own deserve as great Applause sometimes;
But once his Pegasus has born dead weight,
Rid by some lumpish Minister of State.
Here rest, my Muse, suspend my Cares a while,
A greater Enterprise attends thy toil;
And as some Eagle that designs to fly
A long unwonted Journey through the Sky.
Considers all the dangerous way before,
Over what Lands and Seas she is to soar,
Doubts her own strength so far, and justly fears
That lofty Road of Airy Travellars;
But yet incited by some fair Design,
That does her Hopes beyond her Fears incline,
Prunes every Feather, views her self with Care,
At last resolved, she cleaves the yielding Air.
Away she flies, so strong, so high, so fast,
She lessons to us, and is lost at last.

So (but too weak for such a weighty thing)
The Muse inspires a sharper Note to sing;
And why should Truth offend when only told
To guide the Ignorant, and warn the Bold;
On then my Muse, adventrously engage,
To give Instructions that concern the Stage.
The Unities of Action, Time, and Place,Plays
Which if observed, give Plays so great a Grace,
Are, tho but little practis'd, too well known
To be taught here, where we pretend alone
From nicer Faults to purge the present Age,
Less obvious Errors of the English Stage.
First then, Soliloques had we be few,
Extremely short, and spoke in passion too;
Our Lovers talking to themselves for want,
Of others, make the Pit their Confidant;
Nor is the matter mended yet, if thus
They trust a Friend, only to tell it us;
Th' occasion should as naturally fall,
As when [7]Bellario confesses all.
Figures of Speech, which Poets think so fine,
Art's needless Varnish to make Nature shine,
Are all but Paint upon a beauteous Face,
And in Description only claim a place.
But to make Rage declaim, and Grief Discourse,
From Lovers in despair fine things to force,

Must needs succeed, for who can chuse but pity
A dying Hero miserably witty?
But oh, the Dialogues, where jest, and mock
Is held up like a Rest at Shittle-cock!
Or else like Bells, eternally they chime,
They sigh in Simile, and die in Rhime.
What Things are these who would be, Poets thought,
By Nature not inspir'd, nor Learning taught?
Some Wit they have, and therefore may deserve
A better Course than this by which they starve;
But to write Plays! why, 'tis a bold pretence
To Judgment, Breeding, Wit and Eloquence;
Nay more; for they must Look within to find
Those secret Turns of Nature in the Mind;
Without this part in vain would be the whole,
And but a Body all without a Soul:
All this together yet is but a part
Of Dialogue, that great and powerful Art,
Now almost lost, which the old Grecians knew,
From whence the Romans Fainter Copies drew,
Scarce comprehended since but by a few:
Plato and Lucian are the best Remains
Of all the Wonders which this Art contains;
Yet to our selves, we Justice must allow,
Shakespear and Fletcher are the Wonders now:
Consider them, and read them o'er and o'er,
Go see them play'd, then read them as before,

For tho in many things they grosly fail,
Over our passions still they so prevail,
That our own Grief by theirs is rock'd asleep,
The Dull are forc'd to feel, the wise to weep.
Their Beauties imitate, avoid their Faults;
First on a Plot employ thy careful Thoughts:
Turn it with time a thousand several ways,
This oft alone has given success to Plays:
Reject that vulgar Error which appears
So fair, of making perfect Characters;
There's no such thing in Nature, and you'll draw
A faultless Monster, which the World ne'er saw:
Some Faults must be that his Misfortunes drew,
But such as may deserve Compassion too.
Besides the main Design composed with Art,
Each moving Scence must be a Plot a part:
Contrive each little turn, mark every place,
As Painters first chalk out the future Face:
Yet be not fondly your own Slave for this,
But change hereafter what appears amiss.
Think not so much where shining thoughts to place,
As what a Man would say in such a Case.
Neither in Comedy will this suffice,
The Player too must be before your Eyes,
And tho 'tis Drudgery to stoop so low,
To him you must your utmost meaning show.

Expose no single Fop, but lay the Load
More equally, and spread the Folly broad:
The other way is vulgar oft we see
A fool derided by as bad as he;
Hawks fly at nobler Game; but in this low way,
A very Owl may prove a Bird of Prey:
All Poets so will one poor Fop devour;
But to collect, like Bees from every Flower,
Ingredients to compose that precious Juice
Which serves the World for Pleasure and for use,
In spite of Faction this will Favour get:
But [8]Falstaff seems unimitable yet.
Another Fault which often does befal,
Is when the Wit of some great Poet shall
So overflow, that is, be none at all,
That all his Fools speak Sence, as if possest,
And each by Inspiration breaks his Jest;
If once the Justness of each part be lost,
Well may we laugh, but at the Poets Cost.
That silly thing, Men call Sheer wit, avoid,
With which our Age so nauceously is cloy'd;
Humour is all, Wit, should be only brought
To turn agreeably some proper Thought.
But since the Poet we of late have known,
Shine in no Dress so well as in their own,

The better by Example to convince,
Cast but a view on this wrong side of Sence.
First a Soliloquy is calmly made,
Where every Reason is exactly weigh'd;
Which once perform'd, most opportunely comes
A Hero frighted at the Noise of Drums
For her sweet sake, whom at first sight he loves,
And all in Metaphor his passion proves;
But some sad accident, tho yet unknown,
Parting this Pair, to leave the Swain alone,
He streight grows jealous, yet we know not why,
And to oblige his Rival needs will dye;
But first he makes a Speech, wherein he tells
The absent Nymph how much his Flame excels,
And yet bequeaths her generously now
To that dear Rival whom he does not know,
Who streight appears (but who can Fate withstand?)
Too late alas to hold his hasty Hand,
That just hast giv'n himself the cruel Stroke,
At which this very Stranger's Heart is broke;
He, more to his new Friend than Mistress kind,
Most sadly mourns at being left behid,
Of such a Death prefers the pleasing Charms
To Love, and living in a Lady's Arms.
How shameful, and what monstrous things are these?
And then they rail at those they cannot please,

Conclude us only partial for the Dead,
And grudge the Sign of old Ben. Johnson's Head;
When the intrinsick value of the Stage;
Can scarce be judg'd but by the following Age;
For Dances, Flutes, Italian Songs, and Rhime
May keep up sinking Nonsence for a time.
But that will fail, which now so much o'r-rules,
And Sence no longer will submit to Fools.
By painful steps we are at last got upEpick Poetry.
Parnassus Hill on whose bright Airy Top
The Epick Poets so divinely show,
And with just Pride behold the rest below.
Heroick Poems have a just pretence
To be the utmost reach of human Sence,
A Work of such inestimable Worth,
There are but two the World has yet brought forth,
Homer and Virgil: with what awful sound
Do those meer Words the Ears of Poets wound!
Just as a Changeling seems below the rest
Of Men, or rather is a two legg'd Beast,
So those Gigantick Souls amaz'd we find
As much above the rest of human kind.
Nature's whole strength united! endless Fame,
And universal Shouts attend their Name.
Read Homer once, and you can read no more,
For all things else appear so dull and poor.

Verse will seem Prose, yet often upon him look,
And you will hardly need another Book.
Had [9]Bossu never writ, the World had still,
Like Indians, view'd this wondrous piece of Skill,
As something of Divine the Work admired,
Not hoped to be Instructed, but Inspired;
But he disclosing sacred Mysteries,
Has shown where all the mighty Magick lies,
Describ'd the Seeds, and in what order sown,
That have to such a vast proportion grown;
Sure from some Angel he the Secret knew,
Who through this Labyrinth has given the Clue!
But what alas, avails it poor Mankind
To see this promised Land, yet stay behind?
The way is shewn, but who has strength to go?
Who can all Sciences exactly know?
Whose Fancy flies beyond weak Reason's Sight,
And yet has Judgment to direct it right?
Whose just Discernment, Virgil like, is such,
Never to say too little, or too much?
Let such a man begin without delay,
But he must do much more than I can say,
Must above Cowley, nay and Milton too prevail,
Succeed where great Torquato, and our greater Spencer fail.


  1. Waller's
  2. Denham's
  3. Pindarick Odes
  4. Mr. D———n.
  5. A famous Satyrical Poem of his.
  6. A Libel, for which he has both applauded and wounded, tho intirely innocent of the whole matter.
  7. Philaster. A Play of Beaument and Fletcher.
  8. An admirably Character in a Play of Shakespear's.
  9. A late author,

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.