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Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet, 50
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.
Nature to all things fix'd the limits fit,
And wisely curb'd proud man's pretending wit.
As on the land while here the ocean gains,
In other parts it leaves wide sandy plains; 55
Thus in the soul while memory prevails,
The solid pow'r of understanding fails ;
Where beams of warm imagination play,
The memory's soft figures melt away.
One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit:
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those confin’d to single parts.
Like kings we lose the conquests gain'd before,
By vain ambition still to make them more: 65
Each might his sev'ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.
First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature! still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang'd, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test, of art.
Art from that fund each just supply provides,
Works without show, and without pomp presides :
In some fair body thus th' informing soul 76
With spirits feeds, with vigour fills, the whole;
Each motion guides, and ev'ry nerve sustains,
Itself unseen, but in th’ effects remains.
Some to whom heav'n in wit has been profuse, 80
Want as much more to turn it to its use;
For wit and judgment often are at strife,
Tho' meant each other's aid, like man and wife.
'Tis more to guide than spur the Muses' steed,
Restrain his fury than provoke his speed :
The winged courser, like a gen'rous horse,
Shows most true mettle when you check his course.
Those rules of old, discover'd, not devis'd,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodiz'd:
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain'd
90 By the same laws which first herself ordain'd.
Hear how learn'd Greece her useful rules indites, When to repress, and when indulge our flights : High on Parnassus' top her sons she show'd, And pointed out those arduous paths they trod; Held from afar, aloft, th’ immortal prize, And urg'd the rest by equal steps to rise. Just precepts thus from great examples givin, She drew from them what they deriv'd from heav'n; The gen'rous critic fann'd the poets fire, . 100 And taught the world with reason to admire.
Then Criticism the Muse's handmaid prov'd,
To dress her charms, and make her more belov'd;
But following wits, from that intention stray'd;
Who could not win the mistress woo'd the maid;
Against the poets their own arms they turn'd, 106
Sure to hate most the men from whom they learn’d.
So modern 'pothecaries, taught the art
By doctor's bills to play the doctor's part,
Bold in the practice of mistaken rules,
Prescribe, apply, and call their masters fools.
Some on the leaves of ancient authors prey;
Nor time nor moths e'er spoild so much as they:
Some dryly plain, without invention's aid,
Write dull receipts how poems may be made; 115
These leave the sense their learning to display,
And those explain the meaning quite away.
You then whose judgment the right course would
steer, know well each ancient's proper character; His fable, subjects, scope in ev'ry page;
120 Religion, country, genius of his age: Without all these at once before your eyes, Cavil you may, but never criticise; Be Homer's works your study and delight, Read them by day, and meditate by night; 125 Thence form your judgment, thence your maxims
bring, And trace the Muses upward to their spring.
Still with itself compard his text peruse;
And let your comment be the Mantuan Muse.
When first young Maro in his boundless mind 130
A work t' outlast immortal Rome design'd,
Perhaps he seem'd above the critic's law,
And but from Nature's fountains scorn'd to draw:
But when t.examine ev'ry part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same. 135
Convinc'd, amaz’d, he checks the bold design,
And rules as strict his labour'd work confine
As if the Stagirite o'erlook'd each line.
Learn hence from ancient rules a just esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy them.
140 Some beauties yet no precepts can declare, For there's a happiness as well as care. Music resembles poetry; in each Are nameless graces, which no methods teach, And which a master-hand alone can reach. 145 If, where the rules not far enough extend, (Since rules were made but to promote their end,) Such lucky license answer to the full Th' intent propos'd, that license is a rule. Thus Pegassus, a nearer way to take,
150 May boldly deviate from the common track. Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend, And rise to faults true critics dare not mend;
From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,
And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art, 155
Which, without passing thro' the judgment, gains
The heart, and all its end at once attains.
In prospects thus some objects please our eyes,
Which out of Nature's common order rise,
The shapeless rock, or hanging precipice. 160
But tho' the ancients thus their rules invade,
(As kings dispense with laws themselves have made,)
Moderns, beware! or if you must offend
Against the precept, ne'er transgress its end;
Let it be seldom, and compell’d by need;
And have at least their precedent to plead;
The critic else proceeds without remorse,
Seizes your fame, and puts his laws in force.
I know there are, to whose presumptuous thoughts
Those freer beauties ev'n in them seem faults. 170
Some figures monstrous and mis-shap'd appear,
Consider'd singly or beheld too near,
Which but proportion’d to their light or place,
Due distance reconciles to form and grace.
A prudent chief not always must display
175 His pow'rs in equal ranks and fair array, But with th' occasion and the place comply, Conceal his force, nay seem sometimes to fly. Those oft are stratagems which errors seem; Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream. 180