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He now busied his mind with literary projects, and formed the plan of a society for refining our language and fixing its standard; “in imitation,” says Fenton, “ of those learned and polite societies with which he had been acquainted abroad.” In this design his friend Dryden is said to have assisted him.
The same design, it is well known, was revived by Dr. Swift, in the ministry of Oxford; but it has never since been publickly mentioned, though, at that time, great expectations were formed, by some, of its establishment and its effects. Such a society might, perhaps, without much difficulty, be collected; but that it would produce what is expected from it, may be doubted.
The Italian academy seems to have obtained its end. The language was refined, and so fixed that it has changed but little. The French academy thought they had refined their language, and, doubtless, thought rightly; but the event has not shown that they fixed it; for the French of the present time is very different from that of the last century.
In this country an academy could be expected to do but little. If an academician's place were profitable, it would be given by interest; if attendance were gratuitous, it would be rarely paid, and no man would endure the least disgust. Unanimity is impossible, and debate would separate the assembly.
But suppose the philological decree made and promulgated, what would be its authority ? In absolute governments, there is, sometimes, a general reverence paid to all that has the sanction of power,
and the countenance of greatness. How little this is the state of our country needs not to be told. We live in an age in which it is a kind of publick sport to refuse all respect that cannot be enforced. The edicts of an English academy would, probably, be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them.
That our language is in perpetual danger of corruption cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found ? The present manners of the nation would deride authority; and, therefore, nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.
All hopes of new literary institutions were quickly suppressed by the contentious turbulence of king James's reign; and Roscommon, foreseeing that some violent concussion of the state was at hand, purposed to retire to Rome, alleging, that "it was best to sit near the chimney when the chamber smoked;" a sentence, of which the application seems not very clear.
His departure was delayed by the gout; and he was so impatient either of hinderance or of pain, that he submitted himself to a French empirick, who is said to have repelled the disease into his bowels.
At the moment in which he expired, he uttered, with an energy of voice, that expressed the most fervent devotion, two lines of his own version of Dies Ira:
My God, my father, and my friend,
He died in 1684; and was buried, with great pomp, in Westminster Abbey.
His poetical character is given by Mr. Fenton:
“In his writings,” says Fenton,“we view the image of a mind which was naturally serious and solid; richly furnished and adorned with all the ornaments of learning, unaffectedly disposed in the most regular and elegant order. His imagination might have probably been more fruitful and sprightly, if his judgment had been less severe. But that severity, delivered in a masculine, clear, succinct style, contributed to make him so eminent in the didactical manner, that no man, with justice, can affirm, he was ever equalled by any of our nation, without confessing, at the same time, that he is inferiour to none. In some other kinds of writing his genius seems to have wanted fire to attain the point of perfection; but who can attain it?"
From this account of the riches of his mind, who would not imagine that they had been displayed in large volumes and numerous performances ? Who would not, after the perusal of this character, be surprised to find that all the proofs of this genius, and knowledge, and judgment, are not sufficient to form a single book, or to appear otherwise than in conjunction with the works of some other writer of the same petty size?! But thus it is that characters are
They were published, together with those of Duke, in an octavo volume, in 1717. The editor, whoever he was, professes to have taken great care to procure and insert all of his lordship's poems that are truly genuine. The truth of this assertion is flatly denied by the author of an
written: we know somewhat, and we imagine the rest. The observation, that his imagination would, probably, have been more fruitful and sprightly, if his judgment had been less severe, may be answered, by a remarker somewhat inclined to cavil, by a contrary supposition, that his judgment would, probably, have been less severe, if his imagination had been more fruitful. It is ridiculous to oppose judgment to imagination; for it does not appear that men have necessarily less of one, as they have more of the other.
We must allow of Roscommon, what Fenton has not mentioned so distinctly as he ought, and what is yet very much to his honour, that he is, perhaps, the only correct writer in verse, before Addison; and that, if there are not so many or so great beauties in his compositions as in those of some contemporaries, there are, at least, fewer faults. Nor is this his highest praise; for Mr. Pope has celebrated him, as the only moral writer of king Charles's reign:
Unhappy Dryden! in all Charles's days,
Roscommon only boasts unspotted lays. His great work is his Essay on Translated Verse; of which Dryden writes thus, in the preface to his Miscellanies:
“It was my lord Roscommon's Essay on Translated Verse,” says Dryden, “which made me unaccount of Mr. John Pomfret, prefixed to his Remains; who asserts, that the Prospect of Death was written by that person, many years after lord Roscommon's decease; as also, that the paraphrase of the Prayer of Jeremy was written by a gentleman of the name of Southcourt, living in the year 1724. H.
easy, till I tried whether or no I was capable of following his rules, and of reducing the speculation into practice. For many a fair precept in poetry is like a seeming demonstration in mathematicks, very specious in the diagram, but failing in the mechanick operation. I think I have generally observed his instructions: I am sure my reason is sufficiently convinced both of their truth and usefulness; which, in other words, is to confess no less a vanity than to pretend that I have, at least, in some places, made examples to his rules.”
This declaration of Dryden will, I am afraid, be found little more than one of those cursory civilities which one author pays to another; for when the sum of lord Roscommon's precepts is collected, it will not be easy to discover how they can qualify their reader for a better performance of translation than might have been attained by his own reflections.
He that can abstract his mind from the elegance of the poetry, and confine it to the sense of the precepts, will find no other direction than that the author should be suitable to the translator's genius; that he should be such as may deserve a translation; that he who intends to translate him should endeavour to understand him; that perspicuity should be studied, and unusual and uncouth names sparingly inserted; and that the style of the original should be copied in its elevation and depression. These are the rules that are celebrated as so definite and important; and for the delivery of which to mankind so much honour has been paid. Roscom