William Taylor Collins
An Epistle Addressed To Sir Thomas Hanmer, On His Edition Of Shakspeare's Works
WHILE, born to bring the Muse's happier days,
A patriot's hand protects a poet's lays,
While nurs'd by you she sees her myrtles bloom,
Green and unwither'd o'er his honour'd tomb;
Excuse her doubts, if yet she fears to tell
What secret transports in her bosom swell.
With conscious awe she hears the critic's fame,
And blushing hides her wreath at Shakespeare's name.
Hard was the lot those injur'd strains endur'd,
Unown'd by Science, and by years obscur'd;
Fair Fancy wept; and echoing sighs confess'd
A fixt despair in every tuneful breast.
Not with more grief the afflicted swains appear,
When wintry winds deform the plenteous year;
When ling'ring frosts the ruin'd seats invade
Where Peace resorted, and the Graces play'd.
Each rising art by just gradation moves,
Toil builds on toil and age on age improves:
The Muse alone unequal dealt her rage,
And grac'd with noblest pomp her earliest stage.
Preserv'd through time, the speaking scenes impart
Each changeful wish of Phædra's tortured heart;
Or paint the curse that mark'd the Theban's (1) reign,
A bed incestuous, and a father slain.
With kind concern our pitying eyes o'erflow;
Trace the sad tale and own another's woe.
To Rome remov'd, with wit secure to please,
The comic Sisters kept their native ease;
With jealous fear, declining Greece beheld
Her own Menander's art almost excell'd;
But every Muse essay'd to raise in vain
Some labour'd rival of her tragic strain:
Illyssus' laurels, though transferr'd with toil,
Droop'd their fair leaves, nor knew the unfriendly soil.
As Arts expir'd, resistless Dullness rose;
Goths, priests, or Vandals—all were Learning's foes,
Till Julius (2) first recall'd each exil'd maid;
And Cosmo owned them in the Etrurian shade:
Then, deeply skill'd in love's engaging theme,
The soft Provençal pass'd to Arno's stream:
With graceful ease the wanton lyre he strung;
Sweet flow'd the lays—but love was all he sung.
The gay description could not fail to move;
For, led by Nature, all are friends to love.
But Heaven, still various in its works, decreed
The perfect boast of time should last succeed.
The beauteous union must appear at length,
Of Tuscan fancy, and Athenian strength:
One greater Muse Eliza's reign adorn,
And even a Shakespeare to her fame be born!
Yet ah! so bright her morning's opening ray,
In vain our Britain hop'd an equal day!
No second growth the western isle could bear,
At once exhausted with too rich a year.
Too nicely Jonson knew the critic's part;
Nature in him was almost lost in art.
Of softer mould the gentle Fletcher came,
The next in order as the next in name.
With pleas'd attention, 'midst his scenes we find
Each glowing thought that warms the female mind;
Each melting sigh, and every tender tear;
The lover's wishes, and the virgin's fear.
His (3) every strain the Smiles and Graces own;
But stronger Shakespeare felt for man alone:
Drawn by his pen, our ruder passions stand
The unrivall'd picture of his early hand.
With (4) gradual steps and slow, exacter France
Saw Art's fair empire o'er her shores advance:
By length of toil a bright perfection knew,
Correctly bold, and just in all she drew:
Till late Corneille, with Lucan's (5) spirit fir'd,
Breath'd the free strain, as Rome and he inspir'd:
And classic judgment gain'd to sweet Racine,
The temperate strength of Maro's chaster line.
But wilder far the British laurel spread,
And wreaths less artful crown our Poet's head.
Yet he alone to every scene could give
The historian's truth, and bid the manners live.
Wak'd at his call I view, with glad surprise,
Majestic forms of mighty monarchs rise.
There Henry's trumpets spread their loud alarms;
And laurell'd Conquest waits her hero's arms.
Here gentle Edward claims a pitying sigh,
Scarce born to honours, and so soon to die!
Yet shall thy throne, unhappy infant, bring
No beam of comfort to the guilty king:
The time (6) shall come when Glo'ster's heart shall bleed,
In life's last hours, with horror of the deed;
When dreary visions shall at last present
Thy vengeful image in the midnight tent:
Thy hand unseen the secret death shall bear;
Blunt the weak sword, and break th' oppressive spear!
Where'er we turn, by Fancy charm'd, we find
Some sweet illusion of the cheated mind.
Oft, wild of wing, she calls the soul to rove
With humbler nature, in the rural grove;
Where swains contented own the quiet scene,
And twilight fairies tread the circled green:
Dress'd by her hand, the woods and valleys smile;
And Spring diffusive decks th' enchanted isle.
O more than all in powerful genius blest,
Come, take thine empire o'er the willing breast!
Whate'er the wounds this youthful heart shall feel,
Thy songs support me, and thy morals heal!
There every thought the Poet's warmth may raise;
There native music dwells in all the lays.
O might some verse with happiest skill persuade,
Expressive picture to adopt thine aid!
What wondrous draught might rise from every page!
What other Raphaels charm a distant age!
Methinks e'en now I view some free design
Where breathing Nature lives in every line;
Chaste and subdu'd the modest lights decay,
Steal into shades, and mildly melt away.
And see where Antony, (7) in tears approv'd,
Guards the pale relics of the chief he lov'd;
O'er the cold corse the warrior seems to bend,
Deep sunk in grief, and mourns his murder'd friend!
Still as they press, he calls on all around,
Lifts the torn robe, and points the bleeding wound.
But who (8) is he whose brows exalted bear
A wrath impatient and a fiercer air?
Awake to all that injur'd worth can feel,
On his own Rome he turns th' avenging steel;
Yet shall not war's insatiate fury fall
(So heaven ordains it) on the destin'd wall.
See the fond mother, 'midst the plaintive train,
Hung on his knees, and prostrate on the plain!
Touch'd to the soul, in vain he strives to hide
The son's affection, in the Roman's pride;
O'er all the man conflicting passions rise;
Rage grasps the sword, while Pity melts the eyes.
Thus generous Critic, as thy Bard inspires,
The sister Arts shall nurse their drooping fires;
Each from his scenes their stores alternate bring;
Blend the fair tint, or wake the vocal string;
Those Sibyl-leaves, the sport of every wind,
(For Poets ever were a careless kind)
By thee dispos'd, no farther toil demand,
But, just to Nature, own thy forming hand.
So spread o'er Greece, the harmonious whole unknown,
E'en Homer's numbers charmed by parts alone.
Their own Ulysses scarce had wander'd more,
By winds and waters cast on every shore:
When, rais'd by fate, some former Hanmer join'd
Each beauteous image of the boundless mind;
And bade, like thee, his Athens ever claim
A fond alliance with the Poet's name.
1 The Oedipus of Sophocles.
2 Julius II, the immediate predecessor of Leo X.
3 Their characters are thus distinguished by Mr. Dryden.
4 About the time of Shakspeare, the poet Hardy was in great repute in France. He wrote, according to Fontenelle, six hundred plays. The French poets after him applied themselves in general to the correct improvement of the stage, which was almost totally disregarded by those
of our own country, Jonson excepted.
5 The favourite author of the elder Corneille.
6 Turno tempus erit, magno cum optaverit emptum
Intactum Pallanta, &c. Virg.
7 See the Tragedy of Julius Cæsar.
8 Coriolanus. See Mr. Spence's Dialogue on the Odyssey.
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