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any subject not handled before', JOHNSON. “He means, that it is difficult to appropriate to particular persons qualities which are common to all mankind, as Homer has done.”
My very pleasant friend himself, as well as others who remember old stories, will, no doubt, be surprised when I observe, that John Wilkes here shows himself to be of the Warburtonian school. It is nevertheless true, as appears from Dr. Hurd the bishop of Worcester’s very elegant commentary and notes on the Epistola ad Pisones.
It is necessary to a fair consideration of the question, that the whole passage in which the words occur should be kept in view.
Si quid inexpertum scenæ committis, et audes
Unde pedem proferre pudor vetet, aut operis lex. The commentary thus illustrates it : “But the formation of quite new charucters is a work of great difficulty and hazard. For here there is no generally received and fixed archetype to work after, but every one judges of common right, according to the extent and comprehension of his own idea ; therefore he advises to labour and refit old characters and subjects, particularly those made known and authorised by the practice of Homer and the epick writers.”
The note is,
“ Difficile est proprie communia dicere.” Lambin's comment is, “ Communia hoc loco appellat Horatius argumenta fabularum a nullo adhuc tractata : et ita, quæ cuivis exposita sunt et in medio quodammodo posita, quasi vacua et a nemine occupata.” And that this is the true meaning of communia is evidently fixed by the words ignota indictaque, which are explanatory of it; so that the sense given it in the commentary is unquestionably the right one. Yet, notwithstanding the clearness of the case, a late critick has this strange passage: “ Difficile quidem esse proprie communia dicere, hoc est, materiem vulgarem, notam et e medio petitam, ita immutare atque exornare, ut nova et scriptori propria videatur, ultro concedimus; et maximi procul dubio ponderis ista est observatio. Sed omnibus utrinque collatis, et tum difficilis tum venusti, tam judicii quam ingenii ratione habita, major videtur esse gloria fabulam formare penitus novam, quam veterem, utcunque mutatum de novo exhibere.” (Poet. Præl. v. ii. p. 164.) Where, having first put a wrong construction on the word communia, he employs it to introduce an impertinent criticism. For where does the poet prefer the glory of refitting old subjects to that of inventing new ones? The contrary is implied in what he urges about the superiour difficulty of the
WILKES. “ We have no city poet now: that is an office which has gone into disuse. The last was Elkanah Settle. There is something in names which one cannot help feeling. Now Elkanab Settle sounds so queer, who can expect much from that name? We should have no
latter, from which he dissuades his countrymen, only in respect of their abilities and inexperience in these matters; and in order to cultivate in them, which is the main view of the epistle, a spirit of correctness, by sending them to the old subjects treated by the Greek writers."
For my own part, (with all deference for Dr. Hurd, who thinks the case clear,) I consider the passage,“ Difficile est proprie communia dicere,” to be a crua for the criticks on Horace.
The explication which my lord of Worcester treats with so much contempt, is nevertheless countenanced by authority which I find quoted by the learned Baxter, in his edition of Horace," Difficile est proprie communia dicere, h. e. res vulgares disertis verbis enarrare, vel humile thema cum dignitate tractare. Difficile est communes res propriis explicare verbis. Vet. Schol.” I was much disappointed to find that the great critick, Dr. Bentley, has no note upon this very difficult passage, as from his vigorous and illuminated mind, I should have expected to receive more satisfaction than I have yet had.
Sanadon thus treats of it : “ Proprie communia dicere ; c'est-à-dire, qu'il n'est pas aisé de former à ces personnages d'imagination, des caractères particuliers et cependant vraisemblables. Comme l'on a été le maître de les former tels qu'on a voulu, les fautes que l'on fait en cela sont moins pardonnables. C'est pour quoi Horace conseille de prendre toujours des sujets connus, tels que sont par exemple ceux que l'on peut tirer des poëmes d'Homère.”
And Dacier observes upon it: "Après avoir marqué les deux qualités qu'il faut donner aux personnages qu'on invente, il conseille aux poëtes tragiques, de n’user pas trop facilement de cette liberté qu'ils ont d'en inventer, car il est très difficile de réussir dans ces nouveaux caractères. Il est mal aisé, dit Horace, de traiter proprement, c'est-à-dire convenablement, des sujets communs ; c'est-à-dire, des sujets inventés, et qui n'ont aucun fondement ni dans l'histoire ni dans la fable ; et il les appelle communs, parce qu'ils sont en disposition à tout le monde, et que tout le monde a le droit de les inventer, et qu'ils sont, comme on dit, au premier occupant.” See his observations at large on this expression and the following.
After all, I cannot help entertaining some doubt whether the words “ Difficile est proprie communia dicere,” may not have been thrown in by Horace to form a separate article in a choice of difficulties which a poet has to encounter, who chooses a new subject; in which case it must be uncertain which of the various explanations is the true one, and every reader has a right to decide as it may strike his own fancy. And even should the words be understood, as they generally are, to be connected both with what goes before and what comes after, the exact sense cannot be absolutely ascertained ; for instance, whether proprie is meant to signify in an appropriated manner, as Dr. Johnson here
hesitation to give it for John Dryden, in preference to Elkanah Settle, from the names only, without knowing their different merits.” Johnson. “ I suppose, sir, Settle did as well for aldermen in his time, as John Home could do now. Where did Beckford and Trecothick learn English ?"
Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they should choose it: JOHNSON, “Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren.” BOSWELL. “Come, come, he is flattering the English. You have now been in Scotland, sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there." JOHNSON. “Why yes, sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home.” All these quick and lively sallies were said sportively, quite in jest, and with a smile, which showed that he meant only wit. Upon this topick he and Mr. Wilkes could perfectly assimilate : here was a bond of union between them; and I was conscious that as both of them had visited Caledonia, both were fully satisfied of the strange narrow ignorance of those who imagine that it is a land of famine. But they amused themselves with persevering in the old jokes. When I claimed a superiority for Scotland over England in one respect, that no man can be arrested there for a debt merely because another swears it against him; but there must first be the judgement of a court of law ascertaining its justice; and that a seizure of the person, before judgement is obtained, can take place only if his creditor should swear that he is about to fly from the country, or, as it is technically expressed, is “in meditatione fugæ.” WILKES. “ That, I
understands it, or, as it is often used by Cicero, with propriety, or elegantly. In short, it is a rare instance of a defect in perspicuity in an admirable writer, who, with almost every species of excellence, is peculiarly remarkable for that quality. The length of this note perhaps requires an apology. Many of my readers, I doubt not, will admit that a critical discussion of a passage in a favourite classick is very engaging.–Boswell.
should think, may be safely sworn of all the Scotch nation.” JOHNSON, (to Mr. Wilkes.) “ You must know, sir, I lately took my friend Boswell, and showed him genuine civilized life in an English provincial town. I
might see for once real civility: for you know he lives among savages in Scotland, and among rakes in London.” WILKES. “ Except when he is with grave, sober, decent
we ashamed of him.”
They were quite frank and easy. Johnson told the story of his asking Mrs. Macaulay to allow her footman to sit down with them, to prove the ridiculousness of the argument for the equality of mankind; and he said to me afterwards, with a nod of satisfaction, “ You saw Mr. Wilkes acquiesced.” Wilkes talked with all imaginable
neral, diabolus regis;' adding, “ I have reason to know something about that officer, for I was prosecuted for a libel.” Johnson, who many people would have supposed must have been furiously angry at hearing this talked of so lightly, said not a word. He was now, indeed, “a good-humoured fellow.”
After dinner we had an accession of Mrs. Knowles, the quaker lady, well known for her various talents, and of Mr. Alderman Lee. Amidst some patriotick groans, somebody, (I think the alderman,) said, “ Poor old England is lost.” JOHNSON. “Sir, it is not so much to be lamented that old England is lost, as that the Scotch have found it p." WILKES. “ Had lord Bute governed Scotland only, I should not have taken the trouble to write bis eulogy, and dedicate Mortimer to him.”
Mr. Wilkes held a candle to show a fine print of a beautiful female figure which hung in the room, and pointed out the elegant contour of the bosom with the finger of an arch connoisseur. He afterwards, in a con
p It would not become me to expatiate on this strong and pointed remark, in which a very great deal of meaning is condensed.—Boswell.
versation with me, waggishly insisted, that all the time Johnson showed visible signs of a fervent admiration of the corresponding charms of the fair quaker.
This record, though by no means so perfect as I could wish, will serve to give a notion of a very curious interview, which was not only pleasing at the time, but had the agreeable and benignant effect of reconciling any animosity, and sweetening any acidity, which, in the various bustle of political contest, had been produced in the minds of two men who, though widely different, had so many things in common-classical learning, modern literature, wit and humour, and ready repartee—that it would have been much to be regretted if they had been for ever at a distance from each other.
Mr. Burke gave me much credit for this successful negotiation; and pleasantly said, that “there was nothing equal to it in the whole history of the corps diplomatique.””
I attended Dr. Johnson home, and had the satisfaction to hear him tell Mrs. Williams how much he had been pleased with Mr. Wilkes's company, and what an agreeable day he had passed.
I talked a good deal to him of the celebrated Margaret Caroline Rudd, whom I had visited, induced by the fame of her talents, address, and irresistible power of fascination. To a lady who disapproved of my visiting her, he said on a former occasion, “ Nay, madam, Boswell is in the right: I should have visited her myself, were it not that they have now a trick of putting every thing into the newspapers.” This evening he exclaimed, “I envy him his acquaintance with Mrs. Rudd.”
I mentioned a scheme which I had of making a tour to the Isle of Man, and giving a full account of it; and that Mr. Burke had playfully suggested as a motto,
The proper study of mankind is MAN. JOHNSON. “Sir, you will get more by the book than the jaunt will cost you: so you will have your diversion for nothing, and add to your reputation.”