Since, dearest Harry, you will needs requestA short account of all the muse possess'd;That, down from Chaucer's days to Dryden's times,Have spent their noble rage in British rhymes;Without more preface, wrote in formal length,To speak the undertaker's want of strength,I'll try to make their sev'ral beauties known,And show their verses' worth, though not my own.
Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,Nor felt the raptures of the tuneful Nine;Till Chaucer first, a merry bard, arose;And many a story told in rhyme 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 Spenser next, warm'd with poetic rage,In antic tales amus'd a barb'rous age;An age that yet uncultivate and rude,Where-e'er the poet's fancy led, pursu'dThrough pathless fields, and unfrequented floods,To dens of dragons, and enchanted woods.But now the mystic tale, that pleas'd of yore,Can charm an understanding age no more;The long-spun allegories fulsome grow,While the dull moral lies too plain below.We view well-pleas'd at distance all the sightsOf arms and palfreys, battles, fields and fights,And damsels in distress, and courteous knights.But when we look too near, the shades decay,And all the pleasing landscape fades away.
Great Cowley then (a mighty genius) wrote;O'errun 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 eyesWith silent wonder, but new wonders rise.As in the Milky Way a shining whiteO'erflows the heav'ns with one continu'd light;That not a single star can show his rays,Whilst jointly all promote the common blaze.Pardon, great poet, that I dare to nameTh' 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 could 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 laysEmploy'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 hero can his muse engage;Nor Earth's wide scene confine his hallow'd rage.See! see, he upward springs, and tow'ring highSpurns the dull province of mortality;Shakes Heav'n's eternal throne with dire alarms,And sets the Almighty Thunderer in arms.Whate'er his pen describes I more than see,Whilst ev'ry verse, array'd in majesty,Bold, and sublime, my whole attention draws,And seems above the critics' nicer laws.How are you struck with terror and delight,When angel with arch-angel copes in fight!When great Messiah's outspread banner shines,How does the chariot rattle in his lines!What sounds of brazen wheels, what thunder, soar,And stun the reader with the din of war!With fear my spirits and my blood retireTo 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 expressA 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, though serene and bright,Betrays a bottom odious to the sight.
But now my muse a softer strain rehearse.Turn ev'ry 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 inspireSoft melting thoughts, and propagate desires;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 complement the storms that bore him hence.Oh had thy muse not come an age too soon,But seen great Nassau 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 horror had we view'd,And how had Boyne's wide current reek'd in blood!Or if Maria's charms thou would'st rehearse,In smoother numbers and a softer verse;Thy pen had well describ'd her graceful air,And Gloriana would have seem'd more fair.
Nor must Roscommon pass neglected by,That makes ev'n rules a noble poetry:Rules whose deep sense and heav'nly numbers show,The best of critics, 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 rhyme, but charming ev'n in years.Great Dryden next! whose tuneful muse affordsThe sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.Whether in comic sounds or tragic airsShe forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.If satire or heroic strains she writes,Her hero 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, should decay with thee,Did not the Muses' other hope appear,Harmonious Congreve, and forbid our fear.Congreve! whose fancies' unexhausted storeHas 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 rhyming, and would fain give o'er,But justice still demands one labour more:The noble Montagu 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.Now negligently graceful he unreinsHis verse, and writes in loose familiar strains;How Nassau's godlike acts adorn his lines,And all the hero in full glory shines.We see his army set in just array,And Boyne's dy'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,Though gods and heroes fought, promiscuous in their streams.But now, to Nassau's secret councils rais'd,He aids the hero, whom before he prais'd.
I've done, at length, and now, dear friend, receiveThe last poor present that my muse can give.I leave the arts of poetry and verseTo 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.