No. 291. Saturday, February 2, 1712. Addison.

Ubi plura nitent in carmine, non ego paucis Offendor maculis, quas aut Incuria fudit, Aut Humana parum cavit Natura.

I have now considered Milton's Paradise Lost under those four great Heads of the Fable, the Characters, the Sentiments, and the Language; and have shewn that he excels, in general, under each of these Heads. I hope that I have made several Discoveries which may appear new, even to those who are versed in Critical Learning. Were I indeed to chuse my Readers, by whose Judgment I would stand or fall, they should not be such as are acquainted only with the French and Italian Criticks, but also with the Ancient and Moderns who have written in either of the learned Languages. Above all, I would have them well versed in the Greek and Latin Poets, without which a Man very often fancies that he understands a Critick, when in Reality he does not comprehend his Meaning.

It is in Criticism, as in all other Sciences and Speculations; one who brings with him any implicit Notions and Observations which he has made in his reading of the Poets, will find his own Reflections methodized and explained, and perhaps several little Hints that had passed in his Mind, perfected and improved in the Works of a good Critick; whereas one who has not these previous Lights is very often an utter Stranger to what he reads, and apt to put a wrong Interpretation upon it.

Nor is it sufficient, that a Man who sets up for a Judge in Criticism, should have perused the Authors above mentioned, unless he has also a clear and Logical Head. Without this Talent he is perpetually puzzled and perplexed amidst his own Blunders, mistakes the Sense of those he would confute, or if he chances to think right, does not know how to convey his Thoughts to another with Clearness and Perspicuity. Aristotle, who was the best Critick, was also one of the best Logicians that ever appeared in the World.

Mr. Locks Essay on Human Understanding [1] would be thought a very odd Book for a Man to make himself Master of, who would get a Reputation by Critical Writings; though at the same time it is very certain, that an Author who has not learned the Art of distinguishing between Words and Things, and of ranging his Thoughts, and setting them in proper Lights, whatever Notions he may have, will lose himself in Confusion and Obscurity. I might further observe, that there is not a Greek or Latin Critick who has not shewn, even in the Style of his Criticisms, that he was a Master of all the Elegance and Delicacy of his Native Tongue.

The Truth of it is, there is nothing more absurd, than for a Man to set up for a Critick, without a good Insight into all the Parts of Learning; whereas many of those who have endeavoured to signalize themselves by Works of this Nature among our English Writers, are not only defective in the above-mentioned Particulars, but plainly discover, by the Phrases which they make use of, and by their confused way of thinking, that they are not acquainted with the most common and ordinary Systems of Arts and Sciences. A few general Rules extracted out of the French Authors, [2] with a certain Cant of Words, has sometimes set up an Illiterate heavy Writer for a most judicious and formidable Critick.

One great Mark, by which you may discover a Critick who has neither Taste nor Learning, is this, that he seldom ventures to praise any Passage in an Author which has not been before received and applauded by the Publick, and that his Criticism turns wholly upon little Faults and Errors. This part of a Critick is so very easie to succeed in, that we find every ordinary Reader, upon the publishing of a new Poem, has Wit and Ill-nature enough to turn several Passages of it into Ridicule, and very often in the right Place. This Mr. Dryden has very agreeably remarked in those two celebrated Lines,

Errors, like Straws, upon the Surface flow; He who would search for Pearls must dive below. [3]

A true Critick ought to dwell rather upon Excellencies than Imperfections, to discover the concealed Beauties of a Writer, and communicate to the World such things as are worth their Observation. The most exquisite Words and finest Strokes of an Author are those which very often appear the most doubtful and exceptionable to a Man who wants a Relish for polite Learning; and they are these, which a sower undistinguishing Critick generally attacks with the greatest Violence. Tully observes, that it is very easie to brand or fix a Mark upon what he calls Verbum ardens, [4] or, as it may be rendered into English, a glowing bold Expression, and to turn it into Ridicule by a cold ill-natured Criticism. A little Wit is equally capable of exposing a Beauty, and of aggravating a Fault; and though such a Treatment of an Author naturally produces Indignation in the Mind of an understanding Reader, it has however its Effect among the Generality of those whose Hands it falls into, the Rabble of Mankind being very apt to think that every thing which is laughed at with any Mixture of Wit, is ridiculous in it self.

Such a Mirth as this is always unseasonable in a Critick, as it rather prejudices the Reader than convinces him, and is capable of making a Beauty, as well as a Blemish, the Subject of Derision. A Man, who cannot write with Wit on a proper Subject, is dull and stupid, but one who shews it in an improper Place, is as impertinent and absurd. Besides, a Man who has the Gift of Ridicule is apt to find Fault with any thing that gives him an Opportunity of exerting his beloved Talent, and very often censures a Passage, not because there is any Fault in it, but because he can be merry upon it. Such kinds of Pleasantry are very unfair and disingenuous in Works of Criticism, in which the greatest Masters, both Ancient and Modern, have always appeared with a serious and instructive Air.

As I intend in my next Paper to shew the Defects in Milton's Paradise Lost, I thought fit to premise these few Particulars, to the End that the Reader may know I enter upon it, as on a very ungrateful Work, and that I shall just point at the Imperfections, without endeavouring to enflame them with Ridicule. I must also observe with Longinus, [5] that the Productions of a great Genius, with many Lapses and Inadvertencies, are infinitely preferable to the Works of an inferior kind of Author, which are scrupulously exact and conformable to all the Rules of correct Writing.

I shall conclude my Paper with a Story out of Boccalini [6] which sufficiently shews us the Opinion that judicious Author entertained of the sort of Criticks I have been here mentioning. A famous Critick, says he, having gathered together all the Faults of an eminent Poet, made a Present of them to Apollo, who received them very graciously, and resolved to make the Author a suitable Return for the Trouble he had been at in collecting them. In order to this, he set before him a Sack of Wheat, as it had been just threshed out of the Sheaf. He then bid him pick out the Chaff from among the Corn, and lay it aside by it self. The Critick applied himself to the Task with great Industry and Pleasure, and after having made the due Separation, was presented by Apollo with the Chaff for his Pains. [7]


[Footnote 1: First published in 1690.]

[Footnote 2: Dryden accounted among critics the greatest of his age to be Boilean and Rapin. Boileau was the great master of French criticism. René Rapin, born at Tours in 1621, taught Belles Lettres with extraordinary success among his own order of Jesuits, wrote famous critical works, was one of the best Latin poets of his time, and died at Paris in 1687. His Whole Critical Works were translated by Dr. Basil Kennett in two volumes, which appeared in 1705. The preface of their publisher said of Rapin that

he has long dictated in this part of letters. He is acknowledged as the great arbitrator between the merits of the best writers; and during the course of almost thirty years there have been few appeals from his sentence.

(See also a note on p. 168, vol. i. [Footnote 3 of No. 44.]) René le Bossu, the great French authority on Epic Poetry, born in 1631, was a regular canon of St. Genevieve, and taught the Humanities in several religious houses of his order. He died, subprior of the Abbey of St. Jean de Cartres, in 1680. He wrote, besides his Treatise upon Epic Poetry, a parallel between the philosophies of Aristotle and Descartes, which appeared a few months earlier (in 1674) with less success. Another authority was Father Bouhours, of whom see note on p. 236, vol. i. [Footnote 4 of No. 62.] Another was Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. called by Voltaire the most universal genius of his age. He was born at Rouen in 1657, looking so delicate that he was baptized in a hurry, and at 16 was unequal to the exertion of a game at billiards, being caused by any unusual exercise to spit blood, though he lived to the age of a hundred, less one month and two days. He was taught by the Jesuits, went to the bar to please his father, pleaded a cause, lost it, and gave up the profession to devote his time wholly to literature and philosophy. He went to Paris, wrote plays and the Dialogues of the Dead, living then with his uncle, Thomas Corneille. A discourse on the Eclogue prefixed to his pastoral poems made him an authority in this manner of composition. It was translated by Motteux for addition to the English translation of Bossu on the Epic, which had also appended to it an Essay on Satire by another of these French critics, André Dacier. Dacier, born at Castres in 1651, was educated at Saumur under Taneguy le Févre, who was at the same time making a scholar of his own daughter Anne. Dacier and the young lady became warmly attached to one another, married, united in abjuring Protestantism, and were for forty years, in the happiest concord, man and wife and fellow-scholars. Dacier and his wife, as well as Fontenelle, were alive when the Spectator was appearing; his wife dying, aged 69, in 1720, the husband, aged 71, in 1722. André Dacier translated and annotated the Poetics of Aristotle in 1692, and that critical work was regarded as his best performance.]

[Footnote 3: Annus Mirabilis, st. 39.]

[Footnote 4: Ad Brutum. Orator. Towards the beginning:

Facile est enim verbum aliquod ardens (ut ita dicam) notare, idque restinctis jam animorum incendiis, irridere.]

[Footnote 5: On the Sublime, § 36.]

[Footnote 6: Trajan Boccalini, born at Rome in 1554, was a satirical writer famous in Italy for his fine criticism and bold satire. Cardinals Borghese and Cajetan were his patrons. His Ragguagli di Parnasso and la Secretaria di Parnasso, in which Apollo heard the complaints of the world, and dispensed justice in his court on Parnassus, were received with delight. Afterwards, in his Pietra di Parangone, he satirized the Court of Spain, and, fearing consequences, retired to Venice, where in 1613 he was attacked in his bed by four ruffians, who beat him to death with sand-bags. Boccalini's Ragguagli di Parnasso has been translated into English, in 1622, as News from Parnassus. Also, in 1656, as Advertisements from Parnassus, by H. Carey, Earl of Monmouth. This translation was reprinted in 1669 and 1674, and again in 1706 by John Hughes, one of the contributors to the Spectator.]

[Footnote 7: To this number of the Spectator, and to several numbers since that for January 8, in which it first appeared, is added an advertisement that, The First and Second Volumes of the SPECTATOR in 8vo are now ready to be delivered to the subscribers by J. Tonson, at Shakespeare's Head, over-against Catherine Street in the Strand.]

Translation of motto:
HOR. Ars Poet. ver. 351.
'But in a poem elegantly writ,
I will not quarrel with a slight mistake,
Such as our nature's frailty may excuse.'