The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 8/The History of Poetry, in a Letter to a Friend

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IN obedience to your commands, I here send you the following short essay toward a History of Poetry in England and Ireland. At first it was a science we only began to chaw sir. A hundred years after, we attempted to translate out of the Psalms, but could not our stern-hold. In queen Elizabeth's reign, I think, there was but one di-spenser of good verses; for his patron, though a great man, is hid nigh by the length of time. Yet, a little before her death, we attempted to deal in tragedy, and began to shake spears; which was pursued under king James the First by three great poets, in one of them many a line so strong, that you might make a beam ont; the second, indeed, gives us sometimes but flat cheer, and the third is ben-ding a little to stiffness.

In the reign of king Charles the First, there was a new succession of poets; one of them, though seldom read, I am very fond of; he has so much salt in his compositions, that you would think he had been used to suck-ling: as to his friend the author of Gondibert, i'd ave an aunt write better. I say nothing against your favourite, though some censure him for writing too cooly; but he had a rival whose happier genius made him stand like a wall or a pillar against censure.

During the usurpation, we fell into burlesque; and I think whoever reads Hudibras, cannot but leer. I have cot one more, who travestied Virgil, though not equal to the former.

After the Restoration, poets became very numerous: the chief, whose fame is louder than a mill-tone, must never be forgot. And here I must observe, that poets in those days loved retirement so much, that sometimes they lived in dens. One of them in a dry-den: another called his den his village, or den-ham; and I am informed that the sorry fellow, who is now laureat, affects to use-dens still: but, to return from this digression, we were then famous for tragedy and comedy; the author of Venice Preserved is seldom o't away; yet he who wrote the Rival Queens, before he lost his senses, sometimes talked mad-lee. Another, who was of this kingdom, went into England, because it is more southern; and he wrote tolerably well. I say nothing of the Satirist, with his old-dam' verses. As for comedy, the Plain Dealer, w'ich early came into credit, is allowed on all hands an excellent piece: he had a dull contemporary, who sometimes showed humour; but his colouring was bad, and he could not shade-well. Sir George, in my opinion, outdid them all, and was sharp at either-edge. The duke is also excellent, who took a book in game, and turned into ridicule, under the name of The Rehearsal. It is, indeed, no wonder to find poetry thrive under the reign of that prince; when, by one of his great favourites, who was likewise an excellent poet, there was a dore-set open for all men of wit. Perhaps you will-mutt'er, that I have left out the earl of Rochester; but I never was one of his admirers.

Upon the revolution, poetry seemed to decline; however, I shall pry o'r as many poets as I can remember. Mr. Montague affected to be a patron of wit, and his house was the poets hall-i-fax for several years, which one of them used to step-nigh every day. Another of them, who was my old acquaintance, succeeded well in comedy, but failed when he began to con grave subjects. The rest came in a row.

The author of the Dispensary had written nothing else valuable, and therefore is too small in the garth. But may not a man be allowed to add is own friend to the number? I mean, the author of Cato.

To mention those who are now alive, would be endless; I will therefore only venture to lay down one maxim, that a good poet, if he designs to tickle the world, must be gay and young; but, if he proposes to give us rational pleasure, he must be as grave as a pope.

I am, sir, yours, &c.

  1. This has been printed as the Dean's, and is likely to be genuine. See the letters to lord Pembroke, &c. vol. XVI, p. 243—249.