'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill

Part 1

'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill

Appear in writing or in judging ill;

But of the two less dangerous is the offense

To tire our patience than mislead our sense.

Some few in that, but numbers err in this,

Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;

A fool might once himself alone expose,

Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none

Go just alike, yet each believes his own.

In poets as true genius is but rare,

True taste as seldom is the critic's share;

Both must alike from Heaven derive their light,

These born to judge, as well as those to write.

Let such teach others who themselves excel,

And censure freely who have written well.

Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,

But are not critics to their judgment too?

Yet if we look more closely, we shall find

Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind:

Nature affords at least a glimmering light;

The lines, though touched but faintly, are drawn right.

But as the slightest sketch, if justly traced,

Is by ill coloring but the more disgraced,

So by false learning is good sense defaced:

Some are bewildered in the maze of schools,

And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.

In search of wit these lose their common sense,

And then turn critics in their own defense:

Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,

Or with a rival's or an eunuch's spite.

All fools have still an itching to deride,

And fain would be upon the laughing side.

If Maevius scribble in Apollo's spite,

There are who judge still worse than he can write.

Some have at first for wits, then poets passed,

Turned critics next, and proved plain fools at last.

Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,

As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.

Those half-learn'd witlings, numerous in our isle,

As half-formed insects on the banks of Nile;

Unfinished things, one knows not what to call,

Their generation's so equivocal:

To tell them would a hundred tongues require,

Or one vain wit's, that might a hundred tire.

But you who seek to give and merit fame,

And justly bear a critic's noble name,

Be sure yourself and your own reach to know,

How far your genius, taste, and learning go;

Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,

And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.

Nature to all things fixed the limits fit,

And wisely curbed proud man's pretending wit.

As on the land while here the ocean gains,

In other parts it leaves wide sandy plains;

Thus in the soul while memory prevails,

The solid power of understanding fails;

Where beams of warm imagination play,

The memory's soft figures melt away.

One science only will one genius fit,

So vast is art, so narrow human wit.

Not only bounded to peculiar arts,

But oft in those confined to single parts.

Like kings we lose the conquests gained before,

By vain ambition still to make them more;

Each might his several province well command,

Would all but stoop to what they understand.

First follow Nature, and your judgment frame

By her just standard, which is still the same;

Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,

One clear, unchanged, and universal light,

Life, force, and beauty must to all impart,

At once the source, and end, and test of art.

Art from that fund each just supply provides,

Works without show, and without pomp presides.

In some fair body thus the informing soul

With spirits feeds, with vigor fills the whole,

Each motion guides, and every nerve sustains;

Itself unseen, but in the effects remains.

Some, to whom Heaven in wit has been profuse,

Want as much more to turn it to its use;

For wit and judgment often are at strife,

Though meant each other's aid, like man and wife.

'Tis more to guide than spur the Muse's steed,

Restrain his fury than provoke his speed;

The winged courser, like a generous horse,

Shows most true mettle when you check his course.

Those rules of old discovered, not devised,

Are Nature still, but Nature methodized;

Nature, like liberty, is but restrained

By the same laws which first herself ordained.

Hear how learn'd Greece her useful rules indites,

When to repress and when indulge our flights:

High on Parnassus' top her sons she showed,

And pointed out those arduous paths they trod;

Held from afar, aloft, the immortal prize,

And urged the rest by equal steps to rise.

Just precepts thus from great examples given,

She drew from them what they derived from Heaven.

The generous critic fanned the poet's fire,

And taught the world with reason to admire.

Then criticism the Muse's handmaid proved,

To dress her charms, and make her more beloved:

But following wits from that intention strayed,

Who could not win the mistress, wooed the maid;

Against the poets their own arms they turned,

Sure to hate most the men from whom they learned.

So modern 'pothecaries, taught the art

By doctors's bills to play the doctor's part,

Bold in the practice of mistaken rules,

Prescribe, apply, and call their masters fools.

Some on the leaves of ancient authors prey,

Nor time nor moths e'er spoiled so much as they.

Some dryly plain, without invention's aid,

Write dull receipts how poems may be made.

These leave the sense their learning to display,

And those explain the meaning quite away.

You then whose judgment the right course would steer,

Know well each ancient's proper character;

His fable, subject, scope in every page;

Religion, country, genius of his age:

Without all these at once before your eyes,

Cavil you may, but never criticize.

Be Homer's works your study and delight,

Read them by day, and meditate by night;

Thence form your judgment, thence your maxims bring,

And trace the Muses upward to their spring.

Still with itself compared, his text peruse;

And let your comment be the Mantuan Muse.

When first young Maro in his boundless mind

A work to outlast immortal Rome designed,

Perhaps he seemed above the critic's law,

And but from Nature's fountains scorned to draw;

But when to examine every part he came,

Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.

Convinced, amazed, he checks the bold design,

And rules as strict his labored work confine

As if the Stagirite o'erlooked each line.

Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;

To copy Nature is to copy them.

Some beauties yet no precepts can declare,

For there's a happiness as well as care.

Music resembles poetry, in each

Are nameless graces which no methods teach,

And which a master hand alone can reach.

If, where the rules not far enough extend

(Since rules were made but to promote their end)

Some lucky license answers to the full

The intent proposed, that license is a rule.

Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take,

May boldly deviate from the common track.

From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,

And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,

Which without passing through the judgment, gains

The heart, and all its end at once attains.

In prospects thus, some objects please our eyes,

Which out of Nature's common order rise,

The shapeless rock, or hanging precipice.

Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend,

And rise to faults true critics dare not mend;

But though the ancients thus their rules invade

(As kings dispense with laws themselves have made)

Moderns, beware! or if you must offend

Against the precept, ne'er transgress its end;

Let it be seldom, and compelled by need;

And have at least their precedent to plead.

The critic else proceeds without remorse,

Seizes your fame, and puts his laws in force.

I know there are, to whose presumptuous thoughts

Those freer beauties, even in them, seem faults.

Some figures monstrous and misshaped appear,

Considered singly, or beheld too near,

Which, but proportioned to their light or place,

Due distance reconciles to form and grace.

A prudent chief not always must display

His powers in equal ranks and fair array,

But with the occasion and the place comply,

Conceal his force, nay seem sometimes to fly.

Those oft are stratagems which errors seem,

Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream.

Still green with bays each ancient altar stands

Above the reach of sacrilegious hands,

Secure from flames, from envy's fiercer rage,

Destructive war, and all-involving age.

See, from each clime the learn'd their incense bring!

Here in all tongues consenting paeans ring!

In praise so just let every voice be joined,

And fill the general chorus of mankind.

Hail, bards triumphant! born in happier days,

Immortal heirs of universal praise!

Whose honors with increase of ages grow,

As streams roll down, enlarging as they flow;

Nations unborn your mighty names shall sound,

And worlds applaud that must not yet be found!

Oh, may some spark of your celestial fire,

The last, the meanest of your sons inspire

(That on weak wings, from far, pursues your flights,

Glows while he reads, but trembles as he writes)

To teach vain wits a science little known,

To admire superior sense, and doubt their own!

Part 2

Of all the causes which conspire to blind

Man's erring judgment, and misguide the mind,

What the weak head with strongest bias rules,

Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.

Whatever Nature has in worth denied,

She gives in large recruits of needful pride;

For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find

What wants in blood and spirits swelled with wind:

Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defense,

And fills up all the mighty void of sense.

If once right reason drives that cloud away,

Truth breaks upon us with resistless day.

Trust not yourself: but your defects to know,

Make use of every friend--and every foe.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.

Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,

While from the bounded level of our mind

Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;

But more advanced, behold with strange surprise

New distant scenes of endless science rise!

So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,

Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,

The eternal snows appear already past,

And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;

But, those attained, we tremble to survey

The growing labors of the lengthened way,

The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,

Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

A perfect judge will read each work of wit

With the same spirit that its author writ:

Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find

Where Nature moves, and rapture warms the mind;

Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,

The generous pleasure to be charmed with wit.

But in such lays as neither ebb nor flow,

Correctly cold, and regularly low,

That, shunning faults, one quiet tenor keep,

We cannot blame indeed--but we may sleep.

In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts

Is not the exactness of peculiar parts;

'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,

But the joint force and full result of all.

Thus when we view some well-proportioned dome

(The world's just wonder, and even thine, O Rome!),

No single parts unequally surprise,

All comes united to the admiring eyes:

No monstrous height, or breadth, or length appear;

The whole at once is bold and regular.

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,

Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.

In every work regard the writer's end,

Since none can compass more than they intend;

And if the means be just, the conduct true,

Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.

As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit,

To avoid great errors must the less commit,

Neglect the rules each verbal critic lays,

For not to know some trifles is a praise.

Most critics, fond of some subservient art,

Still make the whole depend upon a part:

They talk of principles, but notions prize,

And all to one loved folly sacrifice.

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