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Every gift of the gods is sometimes abused; but wit and fine talents by a natural law gravitate towards virtue: accidents may drive them out of their proper direction; but such accidents are a sort of prodigies, and like other pro digies, it is an alarming omen, and dire portent to the times. For if virtue cannot keep to her allegiance those men, who in their hearts confess her divine right, and know the value of her laws, on whose fidelity and obedience can she depend? May such geniuses never descend to flatter vice, encourage folly, or propagate irreligion; but exert all their powers in the service of virtue, and celebrate the noble choice of those, who like Hercules, prefer her to pleasure. ESSAY 53.
ON THE CHARACTER OF POETS.
I FANCY the character of a poet is in every country the same, fond of enjoying the present, careless of the future; his conversation that of a man of sense, his actions those of a fool! of fortitude able to stand unmoved at the bursting of an earthquake, yet of sensibility to be affected by the breaking of a tea-cup; such is his cliaracter, which considered in every light, is the very opposite of that which leads to riches.
The poets are in general as remarkable for their indigence as for their genius; and yet among the numerous hospitals designed to relieve the poor, I have heard but of one erected for the benefit of decayed authors. This was founded by pope Urban VIII. and called The Retreat of the Incurables, intimating that it was equally impossible to reclaim the patients who sued for reception from poverty as from poetry. To be sincere, were I to give an account of the lives of the poets, either antient or modern, I fancy I should appear to be employed in collecting materials for an history of human wretchedness.
Homer is the first poet and beggar of note among the antients; he was blind, and sung his ballads about the streets, but it is observed, that his mouth was more frequently filled with verses thap with bread. Plautus the comic poet was better off; he had two trades, he was a poet for his diversion, and helped to turn a mill in order to gain a livelihood. Terence was a slave, and Boëthius died in gaol.
Among the Italians Paulo Borghese, almost as good a poet as Tasso, knew fourteen different trades, and yet died because he could get employment in none. Tasso hiniself, who had the most amiable character of all poets, has often been obliged to borrow a crown from some friend, in order to pay for a month's subsistence. He has left us a pretty sonnet addressed to a cat, in which he begs the light of her eyes to write by, being too poor to afford himself a candle. But Bentivoglio, poor Bentivoglio! chiefly demands our pity. His comedies will last with the Italian language; he dissipated a noble fortune in acts of charity and benevolence, but falling into misery in his old age, was refused to be admitted into an hospital which he himself had erected.'
In Spain, it is said, the great Cervantes died of hunger, and it is certain that the famous Ca. moens (the author of the Lusiad) ended his days in an hospital
If we turn to France, we shall there find even stronger instances of the ingratitude of the public. Vaugelas, one of the politest writers, and one of the honestest men of his time, was surnamed the Owl from his being obliged to keep within all day, and venture out only by night, through fear of his creditors. His last will is very remarkable: after having bequeathed all his worldly substance to the payment of his debts, he goes on thus: But as there still may remain some creditors, unpaid even after all my property is disposed of, in such a case it is my last will, that my body should be sold to the surgeons to the best advantage ; and that the purchase should help to discharge those debts which I owe to society; so that if I could not, while living, at least when dead, I may be useful.
But the sufferings of the poet in other countries is nothing when compared with his distresses here ; the names of Spenser and Otway, Butler and Dryden, are daily mentioned as a national reproach; some of them lived in a state of preca.
rious indigence, and others literally died of hunger.
At present, however, the few poets in England no longer depend on the great for subsistence, they have now no other patrons but the public, and the public, collectively considered, is a good and generous master. It is indeed too frequently mistaken, as to the merits of every candidate for favour; but to make amends, it is never mistaken long. A performance may be forced for a time into reputation, but destitute of real merit it soon sinks; time, the touchstone of what is truly valuable, will soon discover the fraud, and an author should never arrogate to himself any share of success, till his works bave been read at least ten years with satisfaction.
A man of letters at present, whose works are valuable, is perfectly sensible of their value. Every polite member of the community, by bnying what he writes, contributes to reward him. The ridicule therefore of living in a garret, might have been wit in the last age, but continues so no longer, because no longer true. A writer of real merit now may easily be rich, if his heart be şet only on fortune, and for those who have no merit, it is but fit that such should remain in merited obscurity. He may now refuse an invitation to dinner, without fearing to incur his