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VANITY OF THE WORLD,
It is hard for a man to speak of himself with any tolerable satisfaction or success: he can be no more pleased in blaming himself, than in reading a satire made on him by another; and though he may justly desire that a friend should praise him, yet, if he makes his own panegyric, he will get very few to read it. It is harder for him to speak of his own writings. An author is in the condition of a culprit; the public are his judges: by allowing too much, and condescending too far, he may injure his own cause, and become a kind of felo de se; and by pleading and asserting too boldly, he may displease the court that sits upon him: his apology may only heighten his accusation. I would avoid these extremes; and though, I grant, it would not be very civil to trouble the reader with a long preface before he enters upon an indifferent poem, I would say something to persuade him to take it as it is, or to excuse it for not being better.
The noble images and reflections, the profound reasonings upon human actions, and excellent precepts for the government of life, which are found in the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and other books commonly attributed to Solomon, afford subjects for finer poems in every kind than have, I think, as yet appeared in the Greek, Latin, or any modern language : how far they were verse in their original, is a dissertation not to be entered into at present.
Out of this great treasure, which lies heaped up together in a confused magnificence, above all order, I had a mind to collect and digest such observations and apothegms as most particularly tend to the proof of that great assertion, laid down in the beginning of the Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity.'
Upon the subject thus chosen, such various images present themselves to a writer's mind, that he must find it easier to judge what should be rejected, than what ought to be received. The difficulty lies in drawing and disposing, or (as the painters term it) in grouping such a multitude of different objects, preserving still the justice and conformity of style and colouring, the simplex duntaxat et unum, which Horace prescribes as requisite to make the whole picture beautiful and perfect.
As precept, however true in theory, or useful in practice, would be but dry and tedious in verse, especially if the recital be long; I found it necessary to form some story, and give a kind of body to the Poem. Under what species it may be comprehended, whether Didascalic or Heroic, I leave
to the judgment of the critics, desiring them to be favourable in their censure, and not solicitous what the poem is called, provided it may be accepted,
The chief personage or character in the Epic is always proportioned to the design of the work, to carry on the narration and the moral. Homer intended to show us, in his Iliad, that dissentions amongst great men obstruct the execution of the noblest enterprises, and tend to the ruin of a state or kingdom: his Achilles, therefore, is haughty and passionate, impatient of any restraint by laws, and arrogant in arms. In his Odysses the same poet endeavours to explain, that the hardest difficulties. may be overcome by labour, and our fortune restored after the severest afflictions: Ulysses, therefore, is valiant, virtuous, and patient. Virgil's design was to tell us, how, from a small colony established by the Trojans in Italy, the Roman empire rose, and from what ancient families Augustus (who was his prince and patron) descended. His hero, therefore, was to fight his way to the throne, still distinguished and protected by the favour of the gods. The poet, to this end, takes off from the vices of Achilles, and adds to the virtues of Ulysses; from both perfecting a character proper for his work in the person of Æneas.
As Virgil copied after Homer, other Epic poets have copied after them both. Tasso's Gierusalemme Liberata is directly Troy-town sacked, with this difference only, that the two chief characters in Homer, which the Latin poet had joined in one, the Italian has separated in his Godfrey and Rinaldo ; but he makes them both carry on his work with very great success. Ronsard's Franciade, (in
comparably good as far as it goes) is again Virgil's Æneis. His hero comes from a foreign country, settles a colony, and lays the foundation of a future empire. I instance in these as the greatest Italian and French poets in the Epic. In our language Spenser has not contented himself with this submissive manner of imitation; he launches out into very flowery paths, which still seem to conduct him into one great road. His Fairy-Queen (had it been finished) must have ended in the account which every knight was to give of his adventures, and in the accumulated praises of his heroine Gloriana. The whole would have been an heroic poem, but in another cast and figure than any that had ever been written before. Yet it is observable that every hero (as far as we can judge by the books still remaining) bears his distinguished character, and represents some particular virtue conducive to the whole design.
To bring this to our present subject. The pleasures of life do not compensate the miseries : age steals upon us unawares; and death, as the only cure of our ills, ought to be expected, but not feared. This instruction is to be illustrated by the action of some great person. Who, therefore, more proper for the business than Solomon himself? And why may he not be supposed now to repeat what, we take it for granted, he acted almost three thousand years since? If, in the fair situation where this prince was placed, he was acquainted with sorrow; if, endowed with the greatest perfections of Nature, and possessed of all the advantages of external condition, he could not find happiness; the rest of mankind may safely take
the Monarch's word for the truth of what he asserts. And the author who would persuade that we should bear the ills of life patiently, merely because Solomon felt the same, has a better argument than Lucretius had, when, in his imperious way, he at once convinces and commands that we ought to submit to death without repining, because Epicurus died.
The whole Poem is a soliloquy: Solomon is the person that speaks : he is at once the hero and the author; but he tells us very often what others say to him. Those chiefly introduced, are his Rabbies and Philosophers in the first book; and his Women and their Attendants, in the second: with these the Sacred History mention him to have conversed, as likewise with the angel brought down, in the third book, to help him out of his difficulties, or at least to teach him how to overcome them:
I presume this poetical liberty may be very justly allowed me on so solemn an occasion.
In my description, I have endeavoured to keep to the notions and manners of the Jewish nation at the time when Solomon lived; and where I allude to the customs of the Greeks, I believe I may be justified by the strictest chronology, though a poet is not obliged to the rules that confine an historian. Virgil has anticipated two hundred years, or the Trojan hero and Carthaginian queen could not • have been brought together: and without the same anachronism several of the finest parts of his Æneis must have been omitted. Our countryman, Mil