An Account Of The Greatest English Poets

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Since, dearest Harry, you will needs request
A short account of all the Muse possest,
That, down from Chaucer's days to Dryden's Times,
Have spent their Noble Rage in British Rhimes;
Without more Preface, wrote in Formal length,
To speak the Undertakers want of strength,
I'll try to make they're sev'ral Beauties known,
And show their Verses worth, tho' not my Own.

Long had our dull Fore-Fathers slept Supine,
Nor felt the Raptures of the Tuneful Nine;
Till Chaucer first, the merry Bard, arose;
And many a Story told in Rhime and Prose.
But Age has Rusted what the Poet writ,
Worn out his Language, and obscur'd his Wit:
In vain he jests in his unpolish'd strain,
And tries to make his Readers laugh in vain.

Old Spencer next, warm'd with Poetick Rage,
In Antick Tales amus'd a Barb'rous Age;
An Age that yet uncultivate and Rude,
Where-e'er the Poet's Fancy led, pursu'd
Through pathless Fields, and unfrequented Floods,
To Dens of Dragons and Enchanted Woods.
But now the Mystick Tale, that pleas'd of Yore,
Can Charm an understanding Age no more;
The long-spun Allegories fulsom grow,
While the dull Moral lies too plain below.
We view well-pleas'd at distance all the sights
Of Arms and Palfreys, Battle's, Fields, and Fights,
And Damsels in Distress, and Courteous Knights.
But when we look too near, the Shades decay,
And all the pleasing Lan-skip fades away.

Great Cowley then (a mighty Genius) wrote;
O'er-run with Wit, and lavish of his Thought:
His Turns too closely on the Reader press;
He more had pleas'd us, had he pleas'd us less.
One glitt'ring Thought no sooner strikes our Eyes
With silent wonder, but new wonders rise.
As in the Milky way a shining White,
O'er-flows the Heav'ns, with one continu'd Light;
That not a single Star can shew his Rays,
Whilst joyntly all promote the Common-Blaze.
Pardon, Great Poet, that I dare to name
Th' unnumber'd Beauties of thy Verse with blame;
Thy fault is only Wit in its Excess,
But Wit like thine in any shape will please.
What Muse but thine cou'd equal Hints inspire,
And fit the Deep-Mouth'd Pindar to thy Lyre:
Pindar, whom others in a Labour'd strain
And forc'd Expression, imitate in vain?
Well-pleas'd in thee he Soars with new delight,
And Plays in more unbounded Verse, and takes a nobler flight.

Blest Man! whose spotless Life and Charming Lays
Employ'd the Tuneful Prelate in thy Praise:
Blest Man! who now shall be for ever known
In Sprat's successful Labours and thy own.

But Milton next, with high and haughty stalks,
Unfetter'd in Majestic Numbers walks;
No vulgar Heroe can his Muse ingage;
Nor Earth's wide Scene confine his hallow'd Rage.
See! see, he upward Springs, and Tow'ring high,
Spurns the dull Province of Mortality;
Shakes Heav'ns Eternal Throne with dire Alarms,
And sets the Almighty Thunderer in Arms.
What-e'er his Pen describes I more then see,
Whilst ev'ry Verse array'd in Majesty,
Bold, and sublime, my whole attention draws,
And seems above the Criticks nicer Laws.
How are you struck with Terrour and Delight,
When Angel with Arch-Angel Cope's in Fight!
When Great Messiah's out-spread Banner shines,
How does the Chariot Rattel in his Lines!
What sounds of Brazen Wheels, what Thunder, scare,
And stun the Reader with the Din of War!
With Fear my Spirits and my Blood retire,
To see the Seraphs sunk in Clouds of Fire;
But when, with eager steps, from hence I rise,
And view the first gay Scenes of Paradise;
What Tongue, what words of Rapture, can express
A Vision so profuse of pleasantness.
Oh had the Poet ne'er profan'd his Pen,
To varnish o'er the Guilt of Faithless Men,
His other works might have deserv'd applause!
But now the Language can't support the Cause;
While the clean Current, tho' serene and bright,
Betray's a bottom odious to the sight.

But now my Muse, a softer strain rehearse.
Turn every Line with Art, and smooth thy Verse;
The Courtly Waller next commands thy Lays:
Muse Tune thy Verse, with Art, to Waller's Praise.
While tender Airs and lovely Dames inspire
Soft melting Thoughts, and propagate Desire;
So long shall Waller's strains our Passion move,
And Sacharissa's Beauties kindle Love.
Thy Verse, Harmonious Bard, and flatt'ring Song,
Can make the Vanquish'd Great, the Coward strong.
Thy Verse can show ev'n Cromwell's innocence,
And Compliment the Storms that bore him hence.
Oh had thy Muse not come an Age too soon,
But seen Great Nassaw on the British Throne!
How had his Triumphs glitter'd in thy Page,
And warm'd Thee to a more Exalted Rage!
What Scenes of Death and Horrour had we viewd,
And how had Boine's wide Current Reek'd in Blood!
Or if Maria's Charms thou wou'dst rehearse,
In smoother Numbers and a softer Verse,
Thy Pen had well describ'd her Graceful Air,
And Gloriana wou'd have seem'd more Fair.

Nor must Roscommon pass neglected by,
That makes ev'n Rules a noble Poetry:
Rules who's deep Sense and Heav'nly Numbers show
The best of Critticks, and of Poets too.
Nor Denham must we e'er forget thy Strains,
While Cooper's Hill commands the neighb'ring Plains.

But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in Rhime, but Charming ev'n in Years.
Great Dryden next! whose Tuneful Muse affords
The sweetest Numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in Comick sounds or Tragick Airs
She form's her voice, she moves our Smiles or Tears.
If Satire or Heroick Strains she writes,
Her Heroe pleases, and her Satire Bites.
From her no harsh, unartful Numbers fall,
She wears all Dresses, and she Charms in all:
How might we fear our English Poetry,
That long has flourish'd, shou'd decay with Thee;
Did not the Muses other Hope appear,
Harmonious Congreve, and forbid our Fear.
Congreve! whose Fancies unexhausted Store
Has given already much, and promis'd more.
Congreve shall still preserve thy Fame alive
And Dryden's Muse shall in his Friend survive.

I'm tir'd with Rhiming, and wou'd fain give o'er,
But Justice still demands one Labour more:
The Noble Montague remains unnam'd,
For Wit, for Humour, and for Judgment fam'd;
To Dorset he directs his Artful Muse,
In numbers such as Dorset's self might use.
How negligently Graceful he unrein's
His Verse, and writes in loose Familiar strains;
How Nassau's Godlike Acts adorn his Lines,
And all the Heroe in full Glory Shines.
We see his Army set in just Array,
And Boine's Di'd Waves run purple to the Sea.
Nor Simois chok'd with men, and Arms, and Blood;
Nor rapid Xanthus' celebrated Flood:
Shall longer be the Poet's highest Themes.
Tho' Gods and Heroes fought, Promiscuous in they're streams.
But now, to Nassau's secret Councils rais'd,
He Aids the Heroe, whom before he Prais'd.

I've done, at length, and now, Dear Friend, receive
The last poor Present that my Muse can give.
I leave the Arts of Poetry and Verse
To them that practise 'em with more success.
Of greater Truths I'll now prepare to tell,
And so at once, Dear Friend and Muse, Farewell.

© Joseph Addison