Letters concerning the English Nation/Letter XXIII
That ought to be shown to
Men of Letters.
NEITHER the English, nor any other People have Foundations establish'd in favour of the polite Arts like those in France. There are Universities in most Countries, but 'tis in France only that we meet with so beneficial an Encouragement for Astronomy, and all Parts of the Mathematicks, for Physick, for Researches into Antiquity, for Painting, Sculpture and Achitecture. Lewis the Fourteenth has immortaliz'd his Name by these several Foundations, and this Immortality did not cost him two hundred thousand Livres a Year.
I must confess that one of the Things I very much wonder at, is, that as the Parliament of Great-Britain have promis'd a Reward of twenty thousand Pounds Sterling to any Person who may discover the Longitude, they should never have once thought to imitate Lewis the Fourteenth in his Munificence with regard to the Arts and Sciences.
Merit indeed meets in England with Rewards of another kind, which redound more to the Honour of the Nation. The English have so great a Veneration for exalted Talents, that a Man of Merit in their Country is always sure of making his Fortune. Mr. Addison in France would have been elected a Member of one of the Academies, and, by the Credit of some Women, might have obtain'd a yearly Pension of twelve hundred Livres; or else might have been imprison'd in the Bastile upon Pretence that certain Strokes in his Tragedy of Cato had been discover'd, which glanc'd at the Porter of some Man in Power. Mr. Addison was rais'd to the Post of Secretary of State in England. Sir Isaac Newton was made Warden of the Royal Mint. Mr. Congreve had a considerable Employment. Mr. Prior was Plenipotentiary. Dr. Swift is Dean of St. Patrick in Dublin, and is more rever'd in Ireland than the Primate himself. The Religion which Mr. Pope professes excludes him indeed from Preferments of ev'ry kind, but then it did not prevent his gaining two hundred Thousand Livres by his excellent Translation of Homer. I my self saw a long Time in France the Author of Rhadamistus ready to perish for Hunger: And the Son of one of the greatest Men our Country ever gave Birth to, and who was beginning to run the noble Career which his Father had set him, would have been reduc'd to the Extremes of Misery, had he not been patroniz'd by Monsieur Fagon.
But the Circumstance which mostly encourages the Arts in England, is the great Veneration which is paid them. The Picture of the prime Minister hangs over the Chimney of his own Closet, but I have seen that of Mr. Pope in twenty Noblemens Houses. Sir Isaac Newton was rever'd in his Life-time, and had a due respect paid to him after his Death; the greatest Men in the Nation disputing who shou'd have the Honour of holding up his Pall. Go into Westminster-Abbey, and you'll find that what raises the Admiration of the Spectator is not the Mausoleums of the English Kings, but the Monuments which the Gratitude of the Nation has erected, to perpetuate the Memory of those illustrious Men who contributed to its Glory. We view their Statues in that Abbey in the same Manner, as those of Sophocles, Plato and other immortal Personages were view'd in Athens; and I am persuaded, that the bare Sight of those glorious Monuments has fir'd more than one Breast, and been the Occasion of their becoming great Men.
The English have even been reproach'd with paying too extravagant Honours to mere Merit, and censured for interring the celebrated Actress Mrs. Oldfield in Westminster-Abbey, with almost the same Pomp as Sir Isfaac Newton. Some pretend that the English had paid her thesfe great Funeral Honours, purposely to make us more strongly sensible of the Barbarity and Injustice which they object to us, for having buried Mademoiselle le Couvreur ignominiously in the Fields.
But be assur'd from me, that the English were prompted by no other Principle, in burying Mrs. Oldfield in Westminster-Abbey, than their good Sense. They are far from being so ridiculous as to brand with Infamy an Art which has immortaliz'd an Euripides and a Sophocles; or to exclude from the Body of their Citizens a Sett of People whose Business is to set off with the utmost Grace of Speech and Action, those Pieces which the Nation is proud of.
Under the Reign of Charles the First, and in the Beginning of the Civil Wars rais'd by a Number of rigid Fanaticks, who at last were the Victims to it; a great many Pieces were publish'd against Theatrical and other Shews, which were attack'd with the greater Virulence, because that Monarch and his Queen, Daughter to Henry the Fourth of France, were passionately fond of them.
One Mr. Prynne, a Man of most furiously scrupulous Principles, who wou'd have thought himself damn'd had he wore a Cassock instead of a short Cloak, and have been glad to see one half of Mankind cut the other to Pieces for the Glory of God, and the Propaganda Fide; took it into his Head to write a most wretched Satyr against some pretty good Comedies, which were exhibited very innocently every Night before their Majesties. He quoted the Authority of the Rabbis, and some Passages from St. Bonaventure, to prove that the Œdipus of Sophocles was the Work of the evil Spirit; that Terence was excommunicated ipso facto; and added, that doubtless Brutus, who was a very severe Jansenist, assassinated Julius Cæsar, for no other Reason, but because he, who was Pontifex Maximus, presum'd to write a Tragedy the Subject of which was Œdipus. Lastly, he declar'd that all who frequented the Theatre were excommunicated, as they thereby renounc'd their Baptism. This was calling the highest Insult on the King and all the Royal Family; and as the English lov'd their Prince at that Time, they cou'd not bear to hear a Writer talk of excommunicating him, tho' they themselves afterwards cut his Head off. Prynne was summon'd to appear before the Star-Chamber; his wonderful Book, from which Father Le Brun stole his, was sentenc'd to be burnt by the common Hangman, and himself to lose his Ears. His Tryal is now extant.
The Italians are far from attempting to cast a Blemish on the Opera, or to excommunicate Signior Senesino or Signora Cuzzoni. With regard to my self, I cou'd presume to wish that the Magistrates wou'd suppress I know not what contemptible Pieces, written against the Stage. For when the English and Italians hear that we brand with the greatest Mark of Infamy an Art in which we excell; that we excommunicate Persons who receive Salaries from the King; that we condemn as impious a Spectacle exhibited in Convents and Monasteries; that we dishonour Sports in which Lewis the Fourteenth, and Lewis the Fifteenth perform'd as Actors; that we give the Title of the Devil's Works to Pieces which are receiv'd by Magistrates of the most severe Character, and represented before a virtuous Queen; when, I say, Foreigners are told of this insolent Conduct, this Contempt for the Royal Authority, and this Gothic Rusticity which some presume to call Christian Severity; what an Idea must they entertain of our Nation? And how will it be possible for 'em to conceive, either that our Laws give a Sanction to an Art which is declar'd infamous, or that some Persons dare to stamp with Infamy an Art which receives a Sanction from the Laws, is rewarded by Kings, cultivated and encourag'd by the greatest Men, and admir'd by whole Nations? And that Father Le Brun's impertinent Libel against the Stage, is seen in a Bookseller's Shop, standing the very next to the immortal Labours of Racine, of Corneille, of Moliere, &c.