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Containing two days.
An essay to prove that an author will write the better, for baving some knowledge of the subject on which he writes.
S several gentlemen in these times, by the wonderful force of genius only, without the least assistance of learning, perhaps, without being well able to read, have made a considerable figure in the republic of letters; the modern critics, I am told, have lately begun to assert, that all kind of learning is entirely useless to a writer; and, indeed, no other than a kind of fetters on the natural spriteliness and activity of the imagination, which is thus weighed down, and prevented from soaring to those high flights which otherwise it would be able to reach.
This doctrine, I am afraid, is, at present, carried much too far: for why should writing differ so much from all other arts? The nimbleness of a dancing-master is not at all prejudiced by being taught to move; nor doth any mechanic, I believe, exercise his tools the worse by knowing how to use them. For my own part, I cannot con
ceive that Homer or Virgil would have writ with more fire, if, instead of being masters of all the learning of their times, they had really been as ignorant as most of the authors of the present age. Nor do I believe that all the imagination, fire, and judgment of Pitt could have produced those orations that have made the senate of England in these our times a rival in eloquence to Greece and Rome, if he had not been so well read in the writings of Demosthenes and Cicero, as to have transfused their whole spirit into his speeches, and with their spirit, their knowledge too.
I would not here be understood to insist on the same fund of learning in any of my brethren, as Cicero perswades us is necessary to the composition of an orator. On the contrary, very little reading is, I conceive, necessary to the poet, less to the critic, and the least of all to the politician. For the first, perhaps, Bysse's Art of Poetry, and a few of our modern poets, may suffice; for the second, a moderate heap of plays; and for the last, an indifferent collection of political journals.
To say the truth, I require no more than that a man should have some little knowledge of the subject on which he treats, according to the old maxim of law, quam quisque norit artem in eâ se exerceat. With this alone a writer may sometimes do tolerably well; and indeed without this, all the other learning in the world will stand him in little stead.
For instance, let us suppose that Homer and Virgil, Aristotle and Cicero, Thucydides and Livy could have met all together, and have clubbed their several talents to have composed a treatise on the art of dancing; I believe it will be readily agreed they could not have equalled the excellent treatise which Mr. Essex hath given us
on that subject, entitled, The Rudiments of genteel Education. And, indeed, should the excellent Mr. Broughton be prevailed on to set fist to paper, and to complete the abovesaid rudiments, by delivering down the true principles of athletics, I question whether the world will have any cause to lament, that none of the great writers, either antient or modern, have ever treated about that noble and useful art.
To avoid a multiplicity of examples in so plain a case, and to come at once to my point, I am apt to conceive, that one reason why many English writers have totally failed in describing the manners of upper life, may possibly be, that in reality they know nothing of it.
This is a knowledge unhappily not in the power of many authors to arrive at. Books will give us a very imperfect idea of it; nor will the stage a much better: the fine gentleman formed upon reading the former will almost always turn out a pedant, and he who forms himself upon the latter, a coxcomb.
Nor are the characters drawn from these models better supported. Vanbrugh and Congreve copied nature; but they who copy them draw as unlike the present age, as Hogarth would do if he was to paint a rout or a drum in the dresses of Titian and of Vandyke. In short, imitation here will not do the business. The picture must be after nature herself. A true knowledge of the world is gained only by conversation, and the manners of every rank must be seen in order to be known.
Now it happens that this higher order of mortals is not to be seen, like all the rest of the human species, for nothing, in the streets, shops, and coffee-houses: nor are they shewn like the upper rank of animals, for so much a piece. In short, this is a sight to which no persons are ad