I look upon the Play-house as a World within it self. They have lately furnished the Middle Region of it with a new Sett of Meteors, in order to give the Sublime to many modern Tragedies. I was there last Winter at the first Rehearsal of the new Thunder , which is much more deep and sonorous than any hitherto made use of. They have a Salmoneus behind the Scenes, who plays it off with great Success. Their Lightnings are made to flash more briskly than heretofore; their Clouds are also better furbelow'd, and more voluminous; not to mention a violent Storm locked up in a great Chest that is designed for the Tempest. They are also provided with above a Dozen Showers of Snow, which, as I am informed, are the Plays of many unsuccessful Poets artificially cut and shreaded for that Use. Mr. Rimer's Edgar is to fall in Snow at the next acting of King Lear, in order to heighten, or rather to alleviate, the Distress of that unfortunate Prince; and to serve by way of Decoration to a Piece which that great Critick has written against.
I do not indeed wonder that the Actors should be such professed Enemies to those among our Nation who are commonly known by the Name of Criticks, since it is a Rule among these Gentlemen to fall upon a Play, not because it is ill written, but because it takes. Several of them lay it down as a Maxim, That whatever Dramatick Performance has a long Run, must of Necessity be good for nothing; as though the first Precept in Poetry were not to please. Whether this Rule holds good or not, I shall leave to the Determination of those who are better Judges than my self: If it does, I am sure it tends very much to the Honour of those Gentlemen who have established it; few of their Pieces having been disgraced by a Run of three Days, and most of them being so exquisitely written, that the Town would never give them more than one Night's Hearing.
I have a great Esteem for a true Critick, such as Aristotle and Longinus among the Greeks, Horace and Quintilian among the Romans, Boileau and Dacier among the French. But it is our Misfortune, that some who set up for professed Criticks among us are so stupid, that they do not know how to put ten Words together with Elegance or common Propriety, and withal so illiterate, that they have no Taste of the learned Languages, and therefore criticise upon old Authors only at second-hand. They judge of them by what others have written, and not by any Notions they have of the Authors themselves. The Words Unity, Action, Sentiment, and Diction, pronounced with an Air of Authority, give them a Figure among unlearned Readers, who are apt to believe they are very deep, because they are unintelligible. The Ancient Criticks are full of the Praises of their Contemporaries; they discover Beauties which escaped the Observation of the Vulgar, and very often find out Reasons for palliating and excusing such little Slips and Oversights as were committed in the Writings of eminent Authors. On the contrary, most of the Smatterers in Criticism who appear among us, make it their Business to vilifie and depreciate every new Production that gains Applause, to descry imaginary Blemishes, and to prove by far-fetch'd Arguments, that what pass for Beauties in any celebrated Piece are Faults and Errors. In short, the Writings of these Criticks compared with those of the Ancients, are like the Works of the Sophists compared with those of the old Philosophers.
Envy and Cavil are the natural Fruits of Laziness and Ignorance; which was probably the Reason, that in the Heathen Mythology Momus is said to be the Son of Nox and Somnus, of Darkness and Sleep. Idle Men, who have not been at the Pains to accomplish or distinguish themselves, are very apt to detract from others; as ignorant Men are very subject to decry those Beauties in a celebrated Work which they have not Eyes to discover. Many of our Sons of Momus, who dignify themselves by the Name of Criticks, are the genuine Descendants of these two illustrious Ancestors. They are often led into those numerous Absurdities, in which they daily instruct the People, by not considering that, 1st, There is sometimes a greater Judgment shewn in deviating from the Rules of Art, than in adhering to them; and, 2dly, That there is more Beauty in the Works of a great Genius who is ignorant of all the Rules of Art, than in the Works of a little Genius, who not only knows, but scrupulously observes them.
First, We may often take Notice of Men who are perfectly acquainted with all the Rules of good Writing, and notwithstanding chuse to depart from them on extraordinary Occasions. I could give Instances out of all the Tragick Writers of Antiquity who have shewn their Judgment in this Particular; and purposely receded from an established Rule of the Drama, when it has made way for a much higher Beauty than the Observation of such a Rule would have been. Those who have surveyed the noblest Pieces of Architecture and Statuary both ancient and modern, know very well that there are frequent Deviations from Art in the Works of the greatest Masters, which have produced a much nobler Effect than a more accurate and exact way of Proceeding could have done. This often arises from what the Italians call the Gusto Grande in these Arts, which is what we call the Sublime in Writing.
In the next Place, our Criticks do not seem sensible that there is more Beauty in the Works of a great Genius who is ignorant of the Rules of Art, than in those of a little Genius who knows and observes them. It is of these Men of Genius that Terence speaks, in Opposition to the little artificial Cavillers of his Time;
'Quorum ámulari exoptat negligentiam Potiùs, quàm istorum obscuram diligentiam.'
A Critick may have the same Consolation in the ill Success of his Play, as Dr. South tells us a Physician has at the Death of a Patient, That he was killed secundum artem. Our inimitable Shakespear is a Stumbling-Block to the whole Tribe of these rigid Criticks. Who would not rather read one of his Plays, where there is not a single Rule of the Stage observed, than any Production of a modern Critick, where there is not one of them violated? Shakespear was indeed born with all the Seeds of Poetry, and may be compared to the Stone in Pyrrhus's Ring, which, as Pliny tells us, had the Figure of Apollo and the Nine Muses in the Veins of it, produced by the spontaneous Hand of Nature, without any Help from Art.
[Footnote 1: John Dennis's invention, of which he said with exultation, 'That's my thunder.']Translation of motto: