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You know, my lord, how low he laid the foundations of só great a work; that he began it with a grammar and a dictionary; without which all those remarks and observations, which have since been made, had been performed to as little purpose, as it would be to consider the furniture of the rooms, before the contrivance of the house. Propriety must first be stated, ere any measures of elegance can be taken. Neither is one Vaugelas sufficient for such a work *. It was the employment of the whole academy for many years; for the perfect knowledge of a tongue was never attained by any single person. The court, the college, and the town, must be joined in it. And as our English is a composition of the dead and living tongues, there is required a perfect
knowledge, not only of the Greek and Latin, but of the old German, the French, and the Italian; and, to help all these, a conversation with those authors of our own, who have written with the fewest faults in prose and verse. But how barbarously we yet write and speak, your lordship knows, and I am sufficiently sensible in my own English. For I am often put to a stand, in considering whether what I write be the idiom of the tongue, or false grammar, and nonsense couched beneath that specious name of Anglicism; and have no other way to clear my doubts, but by translating my English, into Latin, and thereby trying what sense the words will bear in a more stable language. I am desirous, if it were possible, that we might all write with the same certainty of words, and purity of phrase, to which the Italians first arrived, and after them the French ; at least that we might advance so far, as our tongue is capable of such a standard. It would mortify an
* Author of a treatise on the French language.
Englishman to consider, that from the time of Boccace and of Petrarch, the Italian has varied very little; and that the English of Chaucer, their contemporary, is not to be understood without the help of an old dictionary. But their Goth and Vandal had the fortune to be grafted on a Roman stock; ours has the disadvantage to be founded on the Dutch* We are full of monosyllables, and those clogged with consonants, and our pronunciation is effeminate; all which are enemies to a sounding language. It is true, that to supply our poverty, we have trafficked with our neighbour nations; by which means we abound as much in words, as Amsterdam does in religions; but to order them, and make them useful after their admission, is the difficulty. A greater progress has been made in this, since his majesty's return, than, perhaps, since the conquest to his time. But the better part of the work remains unfinished ; and that which has been done already, since it has only been in the practice of some few writers, must be digested into rules and method, before it can be profitable to the general. Will your lordship give me leave to speak out at last? and to acquaint the world, that from your encouragement and patronage, we may one day expect to speak and write a language, worthy of the English wit, and which foreigners may not disdain to learn ? Your birth, your education, your natural endowments, the former employments which you have had abroad, and that which, to the joy of good men you now exercise at home, seem all to conspire to this design : the genius of the nation seems to call you out as it were by name, to polish and adorn your native language, and to take from it the reproach of its barbarity. It is upon this
* Dutch is here used generally for the High Dutch or German.
encouragement that I have adventured on the following critique, which I humbly present you, together with the play; in which, though I have not had the leisure, nor indeed the encouragement, to proceed to the principal subject of it, which is the words and thoughts that are suitable to tragedy; yet the whole discourse has a tendency that way, and is preliminary to it. In what I have already done, I doubt not but I have contradicted some of my former opinions, in my loose essays of the like nature ; but of this, I dare affirm, that it is the fruit of my riper age and experience, and that selflove, or envy have no part in it. The application to English authors is my own, and therein, perhaps, I may have erred unknowingly; but the foundation of the rules is reason, and the authority of those living critics who have had the honour to be known to you abroad, as well as of the ancients, who are not less of your acquaintance. Whatsoever it be; I submit it to your lordship's judgment, from which I never will appeal, unless it be to your good nature, and your candour. If you can allow an hour of leisure to the perusal of it, I shall be fortunate that I could so long entertain you; if not, I shall at least have the satisfaction to know, that your time was more usefully employed upon the public. I am,
Your Lordship’s most Obedient,
The poet Æschylus was held in the same veneration by the Athenians of after-ages, as Shakespeare is by us; and Longinus has judged, in favour of him, that he had a noble boldness of expression, and that his imaginations were lofty, and heroic; but, on the other side, Quintilian affirms, that he was daring to extravagance. It is certain, that he affected pompous words, and that his sense was obscured by figures; notwithstanding these imperfections, the value of his writings after his decease was such, that his countrymen ordained an equal reward to those poets, who could alter his plays to be acted on the theatre, with those whose productions were wholly now, and of their own.
The case is not the same in England; though the difficulties of altering are greater, and our reverence for Shakespeare much more just, than that of the Grecians for Æschylus. In the age of that poet, the Greek tongue was arrived to its full perfection; they had
then amongst them an exact standard of writing and of speaking: the English language is not capable of such a certainty; and we are at present so far from it, that we are wanting in the very foundation of it, a perfect grammar. Yet it must be allowed to the present age, that the tongue in
general is so much refined since Shakespeare's time, that many of his words, and more of his phrases, are scarce intelligible. And of those which we understand, some are ungrammatical, others coarse; and his whole style is so pestered with figurative expressions, that it is as affected as it is obscure. It is true, that in his latter plays he had worn off somewhat of the rust; but the tragedy, which I have undertaken to correct, was in all probability one of his first endeavours on the stage.
The original story was written by one Lollius a Lombard, in Latin verse, and translated by Chaucer into English; intended, I suppose, a satire on the inconstancy of women: I find nothing of it among the ancients; not so much as the name Cressida once mentioned. Shakespeare, (as I hinted) in the apprenticeship of his writing, modelled it into that play, which is now called by the name of “ Troilus and Cressida,” but so lamely is it left to us, that it is not divided into acts; which fault I ascribe to the actors who printed it after Shakespeare's death; and that too so carelessly, that a more uncorrected copy I never saw. For the play itself, the author seems to have begun it with some fire; the characters of Pandarus and Thersites, are proinising enough; but as if he grew weary of his task, after an entrance or two, he lets them fall: and the latter part of the tragedy is nothing but a confusion of drums and trumpets, excursions and alarms. The chief persons, who give name to the tragedy, are left alive; Cressida is false, and is not