The Art of Poetry

by John Dryden

John Dryden

Canto I

Rash author, 'tis a vain presumptuous crime
To undertake the sacred art of rhyme,
If at thy birth the stars that ruled thy sense
Shone not with a poetic influence:
In thy strait genius thou wilt still be bound,
Find Phoebus deaf, and Pegasus unsound.
You then, that burn with the desire to try
The dangerous course of charming poetry,
Forbear in fruitless verse to lose your time,
Or take for genius the desire of rhyme:
Fear the allurements of a specious bait,
And well consider your own force and weight.
Nature abounds in wits of every kind,
And for each author can a talent find:
One may in verse describe an amorous flame,
Another sharpen a short epigram;
Waller a hero's mighty acts extol,
Spenser sing Rosalind in pastoral;
But authors that themselves too much esteem
Lose their own genius, and mistake their theme.
Thus in times past Du Bartas vainly writ,
Allaying sacred truth with trifling wit,
Impertinently, and without delight
Described the Israelites' triumphant flight,
And following Moses o'er the sandy plain,
Perished with Pharaoh in th' Arabian main.
Whate'er you write of, pleasant or sublime,
Always let sense accompany your rhyme.
Falsely they seem each other to oppose:
Rhyme must be made with reason's laws to close,
And when to conquer her you bend your force,
The mind will triumph in the noble course;
To reason's yoke she quickly will incline,
Which far from hurting, renders her divine;
But if neglected, will as easily stray,
And master reason, which she should obey.
Love reason then, and let whate'er you write
Borrow from her its beauty, force and light.
Most writers, mounted on a resty Muse,
Extravagant and senseless objects choose;
They think they err, if in their verse they fall
On any thought that's plain or natural.
Fly this excess, and let Italians be
Vain authors of false glitt'ring poetry.
All ought to aim at sense, but most in vain
Strive the hard pass and slipp'ry path to gain:
You drown, if to the right or left you stray;
Reason to go has often but one way.
Sometimes an author, fond of his own thought,
Pursues his object till it's overwrought:
If he describes a house, he shows the face,
And after walks you round from place to place;
Here is a vista, there the doors unfold,
Balconies here are balustered with gold:
Then counts the rounds and ovals in the halls,
" The festoons, friezes, and the astragals".
Tired with his tedious pomp, away I run,
And skip o'er twenty pages to be gone.
Of such descriptions the vain folly see,
And shun their barren superfluity.
All that is needless carefully avoid,
The mind once satisfied is quickly cloyed.
He cannot write who knows not to give o'er:
To mend one fault he makes a hundred more.
A verse was weak: you turn it much too strong,
And grow obscure for fear you should be long.
Some are not gaudy, but are flat and dry;
Not to be low, another soars too high.
Would you of everyone deserve the praise?
In writing, vary your discourse and phrase.
A frozen style, that neither ebbs nor flows,
Instead of pleasing, makes us gape and doze.
Those tedious authors are esteemed by none
Who tire us, humming the same heavy tone.
Happy, who in his verse can gently steer
From grave to light, from pleasant to severe:
His works will be admired wherever found,
And oft with buyers will be compassed round.
In all you write, be neither low nor vile:
The meanest theme may have a proper style.
The dull burlesque appeared with impudence,
And pleased by novelty, in spite of sense.
All except trivial points grew out of date,
Parnassus spoke the cant of Billingsgate:
Boundless and mad disordered rhyme was seen,
Disguised Apollo changed to harlequin.
This plague, which first in country towns began,
Cities and kingdoms quickly overran;
The dullest scribblers some admirers found,
And the Mock Tempest was a while renown'd:
But this low stuff the town at last despised,
And scorned the folly that they once had prized,
Distinguished dull from natural and plain,
And left the villages to Flecknoe's reign.
Let not so mean a style your Muse debase,
But learn from Butler the buffooning grace,
And let burlesque in ballads be employed,
Yet noisy bombast carefully avoid;
Nor think to raise (though on Pharsalia's plain)
" Millions of mourning mountains of the slain":
Nor with Du Bartas bridle up the floods,
And periwig with wool the bald-pate woods.
Choose a just style, be grave without constraint,
Great without pride, and lovely without paint.
Write what your reader may be pleased to hear,
And for the measure have a careful ear.
On easy numbers fix your happy choice;
Of jarring sounds avoid the odious noise.
The fullest verse and the most laboured sense
Displease us if the ear once take offence.
Our ancient verse, as homely as the times,
Was rude, unmeasured, only tagged with rhymes:
Number and cadence, that have since been shown,
To those unpolished writers were unknown.
Fairfax was he, who in that darker age
By his just rules restrained poetic rage;
Spenser did next in pastorals excel,
And taught the noble art of writing well;
To stricter rules the stanza did restrain,
And found for poetry a richer vein.
Then Davenant came, who with a new-found art
Changed all, spoiled all, and had his way apart:
His haughty Muse all others did despise,
And thought in triumph to bear off the prize,
Till the sharp-sighted critics of the times
In their mock- Gondibert exposed his rhymes;
The laurels he pretended did refuse,
And dashed the hopes of his aspiring Muse.
This head-strong writer, falling from on high,
Made following authors take less liberty.
Waller came last, but was the first whose art
Just weight and measure did to verse impart,
That of a well-placed word could teach the force,
And showed for poetry a nobler course.
His happy genius did our tongue refine,
And easy words with pleasing numbers join.
His verses to good method did apply,
And changed harsh discord to soft harmony.
All owned his laws, which, long approved and tried,
To present authors now may be a guide.
Tread boldly in his steps, secure from fear,
And be, like him, in your expressions clear.
If in your verse you drag, and sense delay,
My patience tires, my fancy goes astray,
And from your vain discourse I turn my mind,
Nor search an author troublesome to find.
There is a kind of writer pleased with sound,
Whose fustian head with clouds is compassed round;
No reason can disperse 'em with its light.
Learn then to think ere you pretend to write.
As your idea's clear, or else obscure,
Th' expression follows perfect, or impure.
What we conceive, with ease we can express,
Words to the notions flow with readiness.
Observe the language well in all you write,
And swerve not from it in your loftiest flight.
The smoothest verse and the exactest sense
Displease us if ill English give offence:
A barb'rous phrase no reader can approve,
Nor bombast, noise or affectation love.
In short, without pure language what you write
Can never yield us profit or delight.
Take time for thinking; never work in haste,
And value not yourself for writing fast.
A rapid poem with such fury writ
Shows want of judgement, not abounding wit.
More pleased we are to see a river lead
His gentle streams along a flowery mead,
Than from high banks to hear loud torrents roar
With foamy waters on a muddy shore.
Gently make haste, of labour not afraid;
A hundred times consider what you've said.
Polish, repolish, every colour lay,
And sometimes add, but oft'ner take away.
'Tis not enough, when swarming faults are writ,
That here and there are scattered sparks of wit;
Each object must be fixed in the due place,
And differing parts have corresponding grace,
Till by a curious art disposed, we find
One perfect whole, of all the pieces joined.
Keep to your subject close in all you say,
Nor for a sounding sentence ever stray.
The public censure for your writings fear,
And to yourself be critic most severe.
Fantastic wits their darling follies love,
But find you faithful friends that will reprove,
That on your works may look with careful eyes,
And of your faults be zealous enemies.
Lay by an author's pride and vanity,
And from a friend a flatterer descry,
Who seems to like, but means not what he says:
Embrace true counsel, but suspect false praise.
A sycophant will everything admire,
Each verse, each sentence sets his soul on fire:
" All is divine! There's not a word amiss!"
He shakes with joy, and weeps with tenderness;
He overpowers you with his mighty praise.
Truth never moves in those impetuous ways:
A faithful friend is careful of your fame,
And freely will your heedless errors blame;
He cannot pardon a neglected line,
But verse to rule and order will confine;
Reproves of words the too affected sound:
" Here the sense flags, and your expression's round,
Your fancy tires, and your discourse grows vain,
Your terms improper: make them just and plain."
Thus 'tis a faithful friend will freedom use,
But authors, partial to their darling Muse,
Think to protect it they have just pretence,
And at your friendly counsel take offence.
" Said you of this that the expression's flat?
Your servant, sir; you must excuse me that",
He answers you. " This word has here no grace.
Pray leave it out." " That, sir, 's the prop' rest place."
" This turn I like not." " 'Tis approved by all."
Thus, resolute not from a fault to fall,
If there's a syllable of which you doubt,
'Tis a sure reason not to blot it out.
Yet still he says you may his faults confute,
And over him your power is absolute.
But of his feigned humility take heed:
'Tis a bait laid to make you hear him read;
And when he leaves you, happy in his Muse,
Restless he runs some other to abuse,
And often finds: for in our scribbling times
No fool can want a sot to praise his rhymes.
The flattest work has ever in the court
Met with some zealous ass for its support;
And in all times a forward, scribbling fop
Has found some greater fool to cry him up.

Canto II


As a fair nymph, when rising from her bed,
With sparkling diamonds dresses not her head,
But without gold, or pearl, or costly scents
Gathers from neighb'ring fields her ornaments:
Such, lovely in its dress, but plain withal,
Ought to appear a perfect pastoral:
Its humble method nothing has of fierce,
But hates the rattling of a lofty verse:
There native beauty pleases and excites,
And never with harsh sounds the ear affrights.
But in this style a poet often spent
In rage throws by his rural instrument,
And vainly, when disordered thoughts abound,
Amidst the eclogue makes the trumpet sound:
Pan flies alarmed into the neighb'ring woods
And frighted nymphs dive down into the floods.
Opposed to this, another, low in style,
Makes shepherds speak a language base and vile:
His writings flat and heavy, without sound,
Kissing the earth, and creeping on the ground;
You'd swear that Randal in his rustic strains
Again was quav'ring to the country swains,
And changing, without care of sound or dress,
Strephon and Phyllis into Tom and Bess.
'Twixt these extremes 'tis hard to keep the right:
For guides take Virgil, and read Theocrite.
Be their just writings, by the gods inspired,
Your constant pattern, practised and admired.
By them alone you'll eas'ly comprehend
How poets without shame may condescend
To sing of gardens, fields, of flowers and fruit,
To stir up shepherds, and to tune the flute;
Of love's rewards to tell the happy hour,
Daphne a tree, Narcissus made a flower,
And by what means the eclogue yet has power
To make the woods worthy a conqueror:
This of their writings is the grace and flight,
Their risings lofty, yet not out of sight.


The elegy, that loves a mournful style,
With unbound hair weeps at a funeral pile;
It paints the lover's torments and delights,
A mistress flatters, threatens and invites.
But well these raptures if you'll make us see,
You must know love, as well as poetry.
I hate those lukewarm authors whose forced fire
In a cold style describes a hot desire;
That sigh by rule, and raging in cold blood
Their sluggish Muse whip to an amorous mood:
Their feigned transports appear but flat and vain,
They always sigh, and always hug their chain,
Adore their prison, and their suff'rings bless,
Make sense and reason quarrel as they please.
'Twas not of old in this affected tone
That smooth Tibullus made his amorous moan;
Nor Ovid, when instructed from above
By nature's rules he taught the art of love.
The heart in elegies forms the discourse.


The ode is bolder, and has greater force.
Mounting to heaven in her ambitious flight,
Amongst the gods and heroes takes delight;
Of Pisa's wrestlers tells the sinewy force,
And sings the dusty conqueror's glorious course;
To Simois' streams does fierce Achilles bring,
And makes the Ganges bow to Britain's King.
Sometimes she flies like an industrious bee,
And robs the flowers by nature's chemistry,
Describes the shepherds' dances, feasts and bliss,
And boasts from Phyllis to surprise a kiss,
When gently she resists with feigned remorse,
That what she grants may seem to be by force:
Her generous style at random oft will part,
And by a brave disorder shows her art.
Unlike those fearful poets whose cold rhyme
In all their raptures keep exactest time,
That sing th' illustrious hero's mighty praise
(Lean writers!) by the terms of weeks and days,
And dare not from least circumstances part,
But take all towns by strictest rules of art.
Apollo drives those fops from his abode,
And some have said that once the humorous god,
Resolving all such scribblers to confound,
For the short sonnet ordered this strict bound,
Set rules for the just measure, and the time,
The easy running, and alternate rhyme;
But above all, those licences denied
Which in these writings the lame sense supplied,
Forbad an useless line should find a place,
Or a repeated word appear with grace.
A faultless sonnet, finished thus, would be
Worth tedious volumes of loose poetry.
A hundred scribbling authors without ground
Believe they have this only phoenix found,
When yet th' exactest scarce have two or three
Among whole tomes from faults and censure free.
The rest, but little read, regarded less,
Are shovelled to the pastry from the press.
Closing the sense within the measured time,
'Tis hard to fit the reason to the rhyme.


The epigram, with little art composed,
Is one good sentence in a distich closed.
These points, that by Italians first were prized,
Our ancient authors knew not, or despised;
The vulgar, dazzled with their glaring light,
To their false pleasures quickly they invite,
But public favour so increased their pride,
They overwhelmed Parnassus with their tide.
The madrigal at first was overcome,
And the proud sonnet fell by the same doom;
With these grave tragedy adorned her flights,
And mournful elegy her funeral rites;
A hero never failed 'em on the stage,
Without his point a lover durst not rage;
The amorous shepherds took more care to prove
True to their point than faithful to their love.
Each word, like Janus, had a double face,
And prose as well as verse allowed it place;
The lawyer with conceits adorned his speech,
The parson without quibbling could not preach.
At last affronted reason looked about,
And from all serious matters shut 'em out:
Declared that none should use 'em without shame,
Except a scattering in the epigram,
Provided that by art, and in due time,
They turned upon the thought, and not the rhyme.
Thus in all parts disorders did abate,
Yet quibblers in the court had leave to prate:
Insipid jesters and unpleasant fools,
A corporation of dull punning drolls.
'Tis not but that sometimes a dexterous Muse
May with advantage a turned sense abuse,
And on a word may trifle with address,
But above all avoid the fond excess,
And think not, when your verse and sense are lame,
With a dull point to tag your epigram.
Each poem his perfection has apart:
The British round in plainness shows his art;
The ballad, though the pride of ancient time,
Has often nothing but his humorous rhyme;
The madrigal may softer passions move,
And breathe the tender ecstasies of love.


Desire to show itself, and not to wrong,
Armed virtue first with satire in its tongue.
Lucilius was the man who, bravely bold,
To Roman vices did this mirror hold,
Protected humble goodness from reproach,
Showed worth on foot, and rascals in the coach.
Horace his pleasing wit to this did add,
And none uncensured could be fool or mad;
Unhappy was that wretch whose name might be
Squared to the rules of their sharp poetry.
Persius, obscure, but full of sense and wit,
Affected brevity in all he writ;
And Juvenal, learned as those times could be,
Too far did stretch his sharp hyperbole;
Though horrid truths through all his labours shine,
In what he writes there's something of divine;
Whether he blames the Caprian debauch,
Or of Sejanus' fall tells the approach,
Or that he makes the trembling Senate come
To the stern tyrant to receive their doom,
Or Roman vice in coarsest habits shows,
And paints an empress reeking from the stews:
In all he writes appears a noble fire.
To follow such a master then desire.
Chaucer alone, fixed on this solid base,
In his old style conserves a modern grace,
Too happy if the freedom of his rhymes
Offended not the method of our times.
The Latin writers decency neglect,
But modern readers challenge our respect,
And at immodest writings take offence
If clean expression cover not the sense.
I love sharp satire, from obsceneness free,
Not impudence that preaches modesty.
Our English, who in malice never fail,
Hence in lampoons and libels learned to rail;
Pleasant detraction, that by singing goes
From mouth to mouth, and as it marches grows!
Our freedom in our poetry we see,
That child of joy begot by liberty.
But, vain blasphemer, tremble when you choose
God for the subject of your impious Muse:
At last those jests which libertines invent
Bring the lewd author to just punishment.
Ev'n in a song there must be art and sense,
Yet sometimes we have seen that wine or chance
Have warmed cold brains, and given dull writers mettle,
And furnished out a scene for Mr S — — .
But for one lucky hit that made thee please,
Let not thy folly grow to a disease,
Nor think thyself a wit: for in our age
If a warm fancy does some fop engage,
He neither eats nor sleeps till he has writ,
But plagues the world with his adulterate wit.
Nay, 'tis a wonder if, in his dire rage,
He prints not his dull follies for the stage,
And in the front of all his senseless plays
Makes David Loggan crown his head with bays.

Canto III


There's not a monster bred beneath the sky
But, well disposed by art, may please the eye:
A curious workman, by his skill divine,
From an ill object makes a good design.
Thus, to delight us, tragedy in tears
For Oedipus provokes our hopes and fears;
For parricide Orestes asks relief,
And, to increase our pleasure, causes grief.
You then that in this noble art would rise,
Come, and in lofty verse dispute the prize.
Would you upon the stage acquire renown,
And for your judges summon all the town?
Would you your works for ever should remain,
And, after ages past, be sought again?
In all you write, observe with care and art
To move the passions, and incline the heart.
If in a laboured act the pleasing rage
Cannot our hopes and fears by turns engage,
Nor in our mind a feeling pity raise,
In vain with learned scenes you fill your plays:
Your cold discourse can never move the mind
Of a stern critic, naturally unkind,
Who, justly tired with your pedantic flight,
Or falls asleep or censures all you write.
The secret is attention first to gain,
To move our minds, and then to entertain,
That from the very opening of the scenes
The first may show us what the author means.
I'm tired to see an actor on the stage
That knows not whether he's to laugh or rage,
Who, an intrigue unravelling in vain,
Instead of pleasing keeps my mind in pain:
I'd rather much the nauseous dunce should say
Downright, " My name is Hector in the play",
Than with a mass of miracles ill joined
Confound my ears, and not instruct my mind:
The subject's never soon enough expressed.
Your place of action must be fixed, and rest.
A Spanish poet may, with good event,
In one day's space whole ages represent;
There oft the hero of a wandering stage
Begins a child, and ends the play of age;
But we, that are by reason's rules confined,
Will that with art the poem be designed,
That unity of action, time and place
Keep the stage full, and all our labours grace.
Write not what cannot be with ease conceived:
Some truths may be too strong to be believed.
A foolish wonder cannot entertain;
My mind's not moved if your discourse be vain.
You may relate what would offend the eye;
Seeing, indeed, would better satisfy:
But there are objects that a curious art
Hides from the eyes, yet offers to the heart.
The mind is most agreeably surprised
When a well-woven subject, long disguised,
You on a sudden artfully unfold,
And give the whole another face and mould.
At first the tragedy was void of art,
A song, where each man danced and sung his part,
And of god Bacchus roaring out the praise
Sought a good vintage for their jolly days.
Then wine and joy were seen in each man's eyes,
And a fat goat was the best singer's prize.
Thespis was first, who, all besmeared with lee,
Began this pleasure for posterity,
And with his carted actors and a song
Amused the people as he passed along.
Next Aeschylus the different persons placed,
And with a better mask his players graced;
Upon a theatre his verse expressed,
And showed his hero with a buskin dressed.
Then Sophocles, the genius of his age,
Increased the pomp and beauty of the stage,
Engaged the chorus' song in every part,
And polished rugged verse by rules of art.
He in the Greek did those perfections gain
Which the weak Latin never could attain.
Our pious fathers, in their priest-rid age,
As impious and profane abhorred the stage;
A troop of silly pilgrims, as 'tis said,
Foolishly zealous, scandalously played
(Instead of heroes and of love's complaints)
The angels, God, the Virgin and the saints.
At last right reason did his laws reveal,
And showed the folly of their ill-placed zeal,
Silenced those nonconformists of the age,
And raised the lawful heroes of the stage.
Only th' Athenian mask was laid aside,
And chorus by the music was supplied.
Ingenious love, inventive in new arts,
Mingled in plays, and quickly touched our hearts.
This passion never could resistance find,
But knows the shortest passage to the mind.
Paint then, I'm pleased my hero be in love,
But let him not like a tame shepherd move.
Let not Achilles be like Thyrsis seen,
Or for a Cyrus show an Artamen,
That struggling oft, his passions we may find
The frailty, not the virtue, of his mind.
Of romance heroes shun the low design,
Yet to great hearts some human frailties join:
Achilles must with Homer's heat engage:
For an affront I'm pleased to see him rage.
Those little failings in your hero's heart
Show that of man and nature he has part.
To leave known rules you cannot be allowed:
Make Agamemnon covetous and proud,
Aeneas in religious rites austere;
Keep to each man his proper character.
Of countries and of times the humours know;
From different climates differing customs grow:
And strive to shun their fault who vainly dress
An antique hero like some modern ass,
Who make old Romans like our English move,
Show Cato sparkish, or make Brutus love.
In a romance those errors are excused:
There 'tis enough that, reading, we're amused.
Rules too severe would then be useless found,
But the strict scene must have a juster bound.
Exact decorum we must always find.
If then you form some hero in your mind,
Be sure your image with itself agree,
For what he first appears he still must be.
Affected wits will naturally incline
To paint their figures by their own design.
Your bully poets bully heroes write:
Chapman in Bussy D'Ambois took delight,
And thought perfection was to huff and fight.
Wise nature by variety does please;
Clothe differing passions in a differing dress:
Bold anger in rough, haughty words appears,
Sorrow is humble, and dissolves in tears.
Make not your Hecuba with fury rage,
And show a ranting grief upon the stage,
Or tell in vain how the rough Tanais bore
His seven-fold waters to the Euxine shore.
These swoll'n expressions, this affected noise
Shows like some pedant that declaims to boys.
In sorrow you must softer methods keep,
And to excite our tears yourself must weep.
Those noisy words with which ill plays abound
Come not from hearts that are in sadness drowned.
The theatre for a young poet's rhymes
Is a bold venture in our knowing times:
An author cannot eas'ly purchase fame;
Critics are always apt to hiss and blame:
You may be judged by every ass in town,
The privilege is bought for half a crown.
To please, you must a hundred changes try,
Sometimes be humble, then must soar on high;
In noble thoughts must everywhere abound,
Be easy, pleasant, solid and profound.
To these you must surprising touches join,
And show us a new wonder in each line,
That all in a just method well designed
May leave a strong impression in the mind.
These are the arts that tragedy maintain.

The Epic

But the heroic claims a loftier strain.
In the narration of some great design,
Invention, art and fable all must join;
Here fiction must employ its utmost grace,
All must assume a body, mind and face.
Each virtue a divinity is seen,
Prudence is Pallas, beauty Paphos' Queen.
'Tis not a cloud from whence swift lightnings fly,
But Jupiter that thunders from the sky;
Nor a rough storm that gives the sailor pain,
But angry Neptune ploughing up the main.
Echo's no more an empty airy sound,
But a fair nymph that weeps, her lover drowned.
Thus in the endless treasure of his mind
The poet does a thousand figures find;
Around the work his ornaments he pours,
And strows with lavish hand his opening flowers.
'Tis not a wonder if a tempest bore
The Trojan fleet against the Libyan shore;
From faithless Fortune this is no surprise,
For every day 'tis common to our eyes;
But angry Juno, that she might destroy
And overwhelm the rest of ruined Troy,
That Aeolus with the fierce goddess joined
Opened the hollow prisons of the wind,
Till angry Neptune, looking o'er the main,
Rebukes the tempest, calms the waves again,
Their vessels from the dang'rous quicksands steers:
These are the springs that move our hopes and fears.
Without these ornaments before our eyes
Th' unsinewed poem languishes and dies;
Your poet in his art will always fail
And tell you but a dull insipid tale.
In vain have our mistaken authors tried
These ancient ornaments to lay aside,
Thinking our God, and prophets that he sent,
Might act like those the poets did invent,
To fright poor readers in each line with hell,
And talk of Satan, Ashtaroth and Bel.
The mysteries which Christians must believe
Disdain such shifting pageants to receive;
The gospel offers nothing to our thoughts
But penitence, or punishment for faults,
And mingling falsehoods with those mysteries
Would make our sacred truths appear like lies.
Besides, what pleasure can it be to hear
The howlings of repining Lucifer,
Whose rage at your imagined hero flies,
And oft with God himself disputes the prize?
Tasso, you'll say, has done it with applause:
It is not here I mean to judge his cause,
Yet though our age has so extolled his name,
His works had never gained immortal fame
If holy Godfrey in his ecstasies
Had only conquered Satan on his knees,
If Tancred, and Armida's pleasing form,
Did not his melancholy theme adorn.
'Tis not that Christian poems ought to be
Filled with the fictions of idolatry,
But in a common subject to reject
The gods, and heathen ornaments neglect,
To banish Tritons who the seas invade,
To take Pan's whistle, or the Fates degrade,
To hinder Charon in his leaky boat
To pass the shepherd with the man of note,
Is with vain scruples to disturb your mind,
And search perfection you can never find.
As well they may forbid us to present
Prudence or Justice for an ornament,
To paint old Janus with his front of brass,
And take from Time his scythe, his wings and glass,
And everywhere, as 'twere idolatry,
Banish descriptions from our poetry.
Leave 'em their pious follies to pursue,
But let our reason such vain fears subdue,
And let us not, amongst our vanities,
Of the true God create a god of lies.
In fable we a thousand pleasures see,
And the smooth names seem made for poetry:
As Hector, Alexander, Helen, Phyllis,
Ulysses, Agamemnon and Achilles:
In such a crowd the poet were to blame
To choose King Chilperic for his hero's name.
Sometimes the name being well or ill applied
Will the whole fortune of your work decide.
Would you your reader never should be tired?
Choose some great hero, fit to be admired,
In courage signal, and in virtue bright,
Let ev'n his very failings give delight;
Let his great actions our attention bind,
Like Caesar, or like Scipio frame his mind,
And not like Oedipus his perjured race.
A common conqueror is a theme too base.
Choose not your tale of accidents too full —
Too much variety may make it dull:
Achilles' rage alone, when wrought with skill,
Abundantly does a whole Iliad fill.
Be your narrations lively, short and smart;
In your descriptions show your noblest art:
There 'tis your poetry may be employed,
Yet you must trivial accidents avoid.
Nor imitate that fool who, to describe
The wondrous marches of the chosen tribe,
Placed on the sides, to see their armies pass,
The fishes staring through the liquid glass;
Described a child, who with his little hand
Picked up the shining pebbles from the sand.
Such objects are too mean to stay our sight:
Allow your work a just and nobler flight.
Be your beginning plain, and take good heed
Too soon you mount not on the airy steed,
Nor tell your reader in a thundering verse:
" I sing the conqueror of the universe".
What can an author after this produce?
The labouring mountain must bring forth a mouse.
Much better are we pleased with his address
Who, without making such vast promises,
Says in an easier style and plainer sense:
" I sing the combats of that pious prince
Who from the Phrygian coast his armies bore,
And landed first on the Lavinian shore."
His opening Muse sets not the world on fire,
And yet performs more than we can require:
Quickly you'll hear him celebrate the fame
And future glory of the Roman name;
Of Styx and Acheron describe the floods,
And Caesar's wandering in th' Elysian woods;
With figures numberless his story grace,
And everything in beauteous colours trace.
At once you may be pleasing and sublime:
I hate a heavy, melancholy rhyme.
I'd rather read Orlando's comic tale
Than a dull author always stiff and stale,
Who thinks himself dishonoured in his style
If on his works the Graces do but smile.
'Tis said that Homer, matchless in his art,
Stole Venus' girdle to engage the heart;
His works indeed vast treasures do unfold,
And whatsoe'er he touches turns to gold:
All in his hands new beauty does acquire,
He always pleases, and can never tire.
A happy warmth he everywhere may boast,
Nor is he in too long digressions lost.
His verses without rule a method find,
And of themselves appear in order joined;
All without trouble answers his intent,
Each syllable is tending to th' event.
Let his example your endeavours raise:
To love his writings is a kind of praise.
A poem where we all perfections find
Is not the work of a fantastic mind:
There must be care, and time, and skill and pains,
Not the first heat of unexperienced brains.
Yet sometimes artless poets, when the rage
Of a warm fancy does their minds engage,
Puffed with vain pride presume they understand,
And boldly take the trumpet in their hand;
Their fustian Muse each accident confounds,
Nor can she fly, but rise by leaps and bounds,
Till their small stock of learning quickly spent,
Their poem dies for want of nourishment.
In vain mankind the hot-brained fools decries,
No branding censures can unveil their eyes;
With impudence the laurel they invade,
Resolved to like the monsters they have made.
Virgil, compared to them, is flat and dry,
And Homer understood not poetry.
Against their merit if this age rebel,
To future times for justice they appeal;
But waiting till mankind shall do 'em right,
And bring their works triumphantly to light,
Neglected heaps we in by-corners lay,
Where they become to worms and moths a prey;
Forgot, in dust and cobwebs let 'em rest,
Whilst we return from whence we first digressed.


The great success which tragic writers found
In Athens first the comedy renowned;
Th' abusive Grecian there by pleasing ways
Dispersed his natural malice in his plays:
Wisdom and virtue, honour, wit and sense
Were subject to buffooning insolence;
Poets were publicly approved, and sought,
That vice extolled and virtue set at nought;
And Socrates himself in that loose age
Was made the pastime of a scoffing stage.
At last the public took in hand the cause,
And cured this madness by the power of laws,
Forbad at any time or any place
To name the person or describe the face.
The stage its ancient fury thus let fall,
And comedy diverted without gall,
By mild reproofs recovered minds diseased,
And, sparing persons, innocently pleased.
Each one was nicely shown in this new glass,
And smiled to think he was not meant the ass:
A miser oft would laugh the first to find
A faithful draft of his own sordid mind,
And fops were with such care and cunning writ
They liked the piece for which themselves did sit.
You then that would the comic laurels wear,
To study nature be your only care:
Whoe'er knows man, and by a curious art
Discerns the hidden secrets of the heart,
He who observes, and naturally can paint
The jealous fool, the fawning sycophant,
A sober wit, an enterprising ass,
A humorous Otter, or a Hudibras,
May safely in these noble lists engage,
And make 'em act and speak upon the stage.
Strive to be natural in all you write,
And paint with colours that may please the sight.
Nature in various figures does abound,
And in each mind are different humours found:
A glance, a touch, discovers to the wise,
But every man has not discerning eyes.
All-changing time does also change the mind,
And different ages different pleasures find.
Youth, hot and furious, cannot brook delay,
By flattering vice is eas'ly led away;
Vain in discourse, inconstant in desire,
In censure rash, in pleasures all on fire.
The manly age does steadier thoughts enjoy,
Power and ambition do his soul employ;
Against the turns of fate he sets his mind,
And by the past the future hopes to find.
Decrepit age, still adding to his stores,
For others heaps the treasure he adores;
In all his actions keeps a frozen pace,
Past times extols, the present to debase;
Incapable of pleasures youth abuse,
In others blames what age does him refuse.
Your actors must by reason be controlled:
Let young men speak like young, old men like old.
Observe the town, and study well the court,
For thither various characters resort.
Thus 'twas great Jonson purchased his renown,
And in his art had born away the crown,
If less desirous of the people's praise
He had not with low farce debased his plays,
Mixing dull buffoon'ry with wit refined,
And Harlequin with noble Terence joined.
When in The Fox I see the tortoise hissed,
I lose the author of The Alchemist .
The comic wit, born with a smiling air,
Must tragic grief and pompous verse forbear,
Yet may he not, as on a market place,
With bawdy jests amuse the populace.
With well-bred conversation you must please,
And your intrigue unravelled be with ease:
Your action still should reason's rules obey,
Nor in an empty scene may lose its way.
Your humble style must sometimes gently rise,
And your discourse sententious be, and wise:
The passions must to nature be confined,
And scenes to scenes with artful weaving joined.
Your wit must not unseasonably play,
But follow business, never lead the way.
Observe how Terence does this error shun:
A careful father chides his amorous son;
Then see that son, whom no advice can move,
Forget those orders and pursue his love.
'Tis not a well-drawn picture we discover,
'Tis a true son, a father and a lover.
I like an author that reforms the age,
And keeps the right decorum of the stage,
That always pleases by just reason's rule;
But for a tedious droll, a quibbling fool,
Who with low nauseous bawdry fills his plays,
Let him be gone, and on two trestles raise
Some Smithfield stage where he may act his pranks,
And make Jack Puddings speak to mountebanks.

Canto IV

In Florence dwelt a doctor of renown,
The scourge of God, and terror of the town,
Who all the cant of physic had by heart,
And never murdered but by rules of art.
The public mischief was his private gain:
Children their slaughtered parents sought in vain;
A brother here his poisoned brother wept;
Some bloodless died, and some by opium slept.
Colds at his presence would to frenzies turn,
And agues like malignant fevers burn.
Hated, at last his practice gives him o'er:
One friend, unkilled by drugs, of all his store,
In his new country house affords him place:
'Twas a rich abbot, and a building ass.
Here first the doctor's talent came in play;
He seems inspired, and talks like Wren or May:
Of this new portico condemns the face,
And turns the entrance to a better place;
Designs the staircase at the other end.
His friend approves, does for his mason send;
He comes; the doctor's arguments prevail.
In short, to finish this our humorous tale,
He Galen's dangerous science does reject,
And from ill doctor turn good architect.
In this example we may have our part:
Rather be mason ('tis an useful art!)
Than a dull poet; for that trade accursed
Admits no mean betwixt the best and worst.
In other sciences, without disgrace
A candidate may a fill a second place;
But poetry no medium can admit,
No reader suffers an indifferent wit:
The ruined stationers against him bawl,
And Herringman degrades him from his stall.
Burlesque at least our laughter may excite,
But a cold writer never can delight.
The Counter-Scuffle has more wit and art
Than the stiff, formal style of Gondibert .
Be not affected with that empty praise
Which your vain flatterers will sometimes raise,
And when you read, with ecstasy will say,
" The finished piece! The admirable play!",
Which, when exposed to censure and to light,
Cannot endure a critic's piercing sight.
A hundred authors' fates have been foretold,
And Sh — — ll's works are printed, but not sold.
Hear all the world, consider every thought:
A fool by chance may stumble on a fault.
Yet when Apollo does your Muse inspire,
Be not impatient to expose your fire,
Nor imitate the Settles of our times,
Those tuneful readers of their own dull rhymes,
Who seize on all th' acquaintance they can meet,
And stop the passengers that walk the street.
There is no sanctuary you can choose
For a defence from their pursuing Muse.
I've said before, be patient when they blame:
To alter for the better is no shame.
Yet yield not to a fool's impertinence:
Sometimes conceited sceptics, void of sense,
By their false taste condemn some finished part,
And blame the noblest flights of wit and art.
In vain their fond opinions you deride,
With their loved follies they are satisfied,
And their weak judgement, void of sense and light,
Thinks nothing can escape their feeble sight.
Their dangerous counsels do not cure, but wound;
To shun the storm they run your verse aground,
And thinking to escape a rock, are drowned.
Choose a sure judge to censure what you write,
Whose reason leads, and knowledge gives you light,
Whose steady hand will prove your faithful guide,
And touch the darling follies you would hide:
He in your doubts will carefully advise,
And clear the mist before your feeble eyes;
'Tis he will tell you to what noble height
A generous Muse may sometimes take her flight,
When, too much fettered with the rules of art,
May from her stricter bounds and limits part.
But such a perfect judge is hard to see,
And every rhymer knows not poetry;
Nay, some there are, for writing verse extolled,
Who know not Lucan's dross from Virgil's gold.
Would you in this great art acquire renown?
Authors, observe the rules I here lay down.
In prudent lessons everywhere abound;
With pleasant join the useful and the sound.
A sober reader a vain tale will slight:
He seeks as well instruction as delight.
Let all your thoughts to virtue be confined,
Still offering noble figures to our mind.
I like not those loose writers who employ
Their guilty Muse good manners to destroy,
Who with false colours still deceive our eyes,
And show us vice dressed in a fair disguise.
Yet do I not their sullen Muse approve
Who from all modest writings banish love,
That strip the playhouse of its chief intrigue,
And make a murderer of Roderigue.
The lightest love, if decently expressed,
Will raise no vicious motions in our breast.
Dido in vain may weep, and ask relief;
I blame her folly, whilst I share her grief.
A virtuous author, in his charming art,
To please the sense needs not corrupt the heart;
His heat will never cause a guilty fire.
To follow virtue then be your desire.
In vain your art and vigour are expressed;
Th' obscene expression shows th' infected breast.
But above all, base jealousies avoid,
In which detracting poets are employed.
A noble wit dares liberally commend,
And scorns to grudge at his deserving friend.
Base rivals who true wit and merit hate,
Caballing still against it with the great,
Maliciously aspire to gain renown
By standing up, and pulling others down.
Never debase yourself by treacherous ways,
Nor by such abject methods seek for praise.
Let not your only business be to write:
Be virtuous, just, and in your friends delight.
'Tis not enough your poems be admired,
But strive your conversation be desired.
Write for immortal fame, nor ever choose
Gold for the object of a generous Muse.
I know a noble wit may, without crime,
Receive a lawful tribute for his time;
Yet I abhor those writers who despise
Their honour, and alone their profit prize,
Who their Apollo basely will degrade,
And of a noble science make a trade.
Before kind reason did her light display,
And government taught mortals to obey,
Men, like wild beasts, did nature's laws pursue,
They fed on herbs, and drink from rivers drew;
Their brutal force, on lust and rapine bent,
Committed murders without punishment.
Reason at last, by her all-conquering arts,
Reduced these savages, and tuned their hearts;
Mankind from bogs, and woods, and caverns calls,
And towns and cities fortifies with walls:
Thus fear of justice made proud rapine cease,
And sheltered innocence by laws and peace.
These benefits from poets we received,
From whence are raised those fictions since believed,
That Orpheus by his soft harmonious strains
Tamed the fierce tigers of the Thracian plains;
Amphion's notes, by their melodious powers,
Drew rocks and woods, and raised the Theban towers.
These miracles from numbers did arise,
Since which in verse heaven taught his mysteries,
And by a priest possessed with rage divine
Apollo spoke from his prophetic shrine.
Soon after, Homer the old heroes praised,
And noble minds by great examples raised;
Then Hesiod did his Grecian swains incline
To till the fields, and prune the bounteous vine.
Thus useful rules were by the poets' aid
In easy numbers to rude men conveyed,
And pleasingly their precepts did impart,
First charmed the ear, and then engaged the heart.
The Muses thus their reputation raised,
And with just gratitude in Greece were praised;
With pleasure mortals did their wonders see,
And sacrificed to their divinity;
But want at last base flatt'ry entertained,
And old Parnassus with this vice was stained.
Desire of gain dazzling the poets' eyes,
Their works were filled with fulsome flatteries.
Thus needy wits a vile revenue made,
And verse became a mercenary trade.
Debase not with so mean a vice thy art:
If gold must be the idol of thy heart,
Fly, fly th' unfruitful Heliconian strand;
Those streams are not enriched with golden sand.
Great wits, as well as warriors, only gain
Laurels and honours for their toil and pain.
But what? " An author cannot live on fame,
Or pay a reck'ning with a lofty name;
A poet to whom Fortune is unkind,
Who when he goes to bed has hardly dined,
Takes little pleasure in Parnassus dreams,
Or relishes the Heliconian streams.
Horace had ease and plenty when he writ,
And free from cares for money or for meat
Did not expect his dinner from his wit."
'Tis true; but verse is cherished by the great,
And now none famish who deserve to eat.
What can we fear, when virtue, arts and sense
Receive the stars' propitious influence,
When a sharp-sighted Prince by early grants
Rewards your merits, and prevents your wants?
Sing then his glory, celebrate his fame,
Your noblest theme is his immortal name.
Let mighty Spenser raise his reverend head,
Cowley and Denham start up from the dead,
Waller his age renew, and off'rings bring,
Our monarch's praise let bright-eyed virgins sing;
Let Dryden with new rules our stage refine,
And his great models form by this design.
But where's a second Virgil, to rehearse
Our hero's glories in his epic verse?
What Orpheus sing his triumphs o'er the main,
And make the hills and forests move again,
Show his bold fleet on the Batavian shore,
And Holland trembling as his cannons roar;
Paint Europe's balance in his steady hand,
Whilst the two worlds in expectation stand
Of peace or war, that wait on his command?
But, as I speak, new glories strike my eyes,
Glories which heaven itself does give and prize,
Blessings of peace, that with their milder rays
Adorn his reign, and bring Saturnian days.
Now let rebellion, discord, vice and rage
That have in patriots' forms debauched our age,
Vanish with all the ministers of hell;
His rays their pois'nous vapours shall dispel.
'Tis he alone our safety did create,
His own firm soul secured the nation's fate,
Opposed to all the boutefeux of the state.
Authors, for him your great endeavours raise,
The loftiest numbers will but reach his praise.
For me, whose verse in satire has been bred,
And never durst heroic measures tread,
Yet you shall see me in that famous field
With eyes and voice my best assistance yield,
Offer you lessons that my infant Muse
Learned when she Horace for her guide did choose,
Second your zeal with wishes, heart and eyes,
And afar off hold up the glorious prize.
But pardon, too, if zealous for the right,
A strict observer of each noble flight,
From the fine gold I separate th' allay,
And show how hasty writers sometimes stray:
Apter to blame than knowing how to mend,
A sharp, but yet a necessary friend.

Last updated October 14, 2022