WRITERS who have been unsuccessful in original composition have their other productions immediately decried, whatever merit they might once have been allowed to possess. Yet this is very unjust; an author who has given a wrong direction to his literary powers may perceive at length where he can more securely point them. Experience is as excellent a mistress in the school of literature as in the school of human life. Blackmore’s epics are insufferable; yet neither Addison nor Johnson erred when they considered his philosophical poem as a valuable composition. An indifferent poet may exert the art of criticism in a very high degree; and if he cannot himself produce an original work, he may yet be of great service in regulating the happier genius of another. This observation I shall illustrate by the characters of two French critics; the one is the Abbé d’Aubignac, and the other Chapelain.
Boileau opens his Art of Poetry by a precept which though it be common is always important; this critical poet declares, that “It is in vain a daring author thinks of attaining to the height of Parnassus if he does not feel the secret influence of heaven, and if his natal star has not formed him to be a poet.” This observation he founded en the character of our Abbé; who had excellently written on the economy of dramatic composition. His Pratique du Théâtre gained him an extensive reputation. When he produced a tragedy, the world expected a finished piece; it was acted, and reprobated. The author, however, did not acutely feel its bad reception; he everywhere boasted that he, of all the dramatists, had most scrupulously observed the rules of Aristotle. The Prince de Guemené, famous for his repartees, sarcastically observed, “I do not quarrel with the Abbé D’Aubignac for having so closely followed the precept of Aristotle; but I cannot pardon the precepts of Aristotle, that occasioned the Abbé D’Aubignac to write so wretched a tragedy.”
The Pratique du Théâtre is not, however, to be despised, because the Tragedy of its author is despicable.
Chapelain’s unfortunate epic has rendered him notorious. He had gained, and not undeservedly, great reputation for his critical powers. After a retention of above thirty years, his Pucelle appeared. He immediately became the butt of every unfledged wit, and his former works were eternally condemned! Insomuch that when Camusat published, after the death of our author, a little volume of extracts from his manuscript letters, it is curious to observe the awkward situation in which he finds himself. In his preface he seems afraid that the very name of Chapelain will be sufficient to repel the reader.
Camusat observes of Chapelain, that “He found flatterers who assured him his Pucelle ranked above the Æneid; and this Chapelain but feebly denied. However this may be, it would be difficult to make the bad taste which reigns throughout this poem agree with that sound and exact criticism with which he decided on the works of others. So true is it, that genius is very superior to a justness of mind which is sufficient to judge and to advise others.” Chapelain was ordered to draw up a critical list of the chief living authors and men of letters in France, for the King. It is extremely impartial, and performed with an analytical skill of their literary characters which could not have been surpassed by an Aristotle or a Boileau.
The talent of judging may exist separately from the power of execution. An amateur may not be an artist, though an artist should be an amateur. And it is for this reason that young authors are not to contemn the precepts of such critics as even the Abbé D’Aubignac, and Chapelain. It is to Walsh, a miserable versifier, that Pope stands indebted for the hint of our poetry then being deficient in correctness and polish; and it is from this fortunate hint that Pope derived his poetical excellence. Dionysius Halicarnassensis has composed a lifeless history; yet, as Gibbon observes, how admirably has he judged the masters, and defined the rules of historical composition! Gravina with great taste and spirit has written on poetry and poets, but he composed tragedies which give him no title to be ranked among them.
¶ This article is revised and abridged from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. D’Israeli continued earlier versions of the piece thus:
Amongst the manuscript letters preserved in the British Museum, I have taken the following extract from one of Randal Minshull’s, who was librarian to the Earl of Oxford. His observations, though coarsely expressed, are not wholly unappropriated to the subject under discussion.July 20, 1729.
“I think with humble submission to your Lordship, that Aldus was a man of great judgment, as well as learning, which when they happen together in one man, they render him compleat. A man with sound judgment, though small learning of literature, may lay an excellent foundation for a building, and may also erect a very good house, though the rooms may not be painted in fresco; but a man brimful of letters, and with slender judgment, is like a man that builds his house upon the sands, the winds and tides will soon demolish it; besides, his writings are like sand without lime, they will not hold together, nor make good mortar.”