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For a person of only twenty years old to have produced such an Essay, so replete with a knowledge of life and manners, such accurate observations on men and books, such variety of literature, such strong good sense, and refined taste and judgment, has been the subject of frequent and of just admiration. It may fairly entitle him to the character of being one of the first of critics, though surely not of Poets, as Dr. Johnson asserts.
Dr. Warburton, endeavouring to demonstrate, what Addison could not discover, nor what Pope himself, according to the testimony of his intimate friend, Richardson, ever thought of or intended, that this Essay was written with a methodical and systematical regularity, has accompanied the whole with a long and laboured commentary, in which he has tortured many passages to support this groundless opinion. Warburton had certainly wit, genius, and much miscellaneous learning; but was perpetually dazzled and misled by the eager desire of seeing every thing in a new light unobserved before, into perverse interpretations and forced comments. His passion being (as Longinus expresses it) το ξενας νοησεις αιει κινεν. It is painful to see such abilities wasted on such unsubstantial objects_accordingly his notes on Shakspeare have been totally demolished by Edwards and Malone ; and
; Gibbon has torn up by the roots his fanciful and visionary interpretation of the sixth book of Virgil: and but few readers, I believe, will be found that will cordially subscribe to an opinion lately delivered, that his notes on Pope's Works are the very best ever given on any classic whatever. For to instance no other, surely the attempt to reconcile the doctrines of the Essay on Man, to the doctrines of Revelation, is the rashest adventure in which ever critic yet engaged ; this is, in truth, to divine, rather than to explain an author's meaning.
For these reasons, it is not thought proper to accompany this Essay with a perpetual commentary—a poem, as hath been well observed, that consists of precepts, is so far arbitrary and immethodical, that many of the paragraphs may change places with no apparent inconvenience; for of two or more positions, depending on some remote principle, there is seldom any cogent reason, why one should precede the other.
Of the general excellence of the Essay on Criticism all its Commentators are agreed. Johnson says, that “ if Pope had written nothing else, it would have placed him among the first critics and the first poets ; as it exhibits every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignify didactic composition-selection of matter, novelty of arrangement, justness of precept, splendour of illustration, and propriety of digression."-But with regard to its order and arrangement, as well as in some other respects, very different opinions have been entertained. Dr. Warburton, dissatisfied with the Critique of Addison in the Spectator (No. 235.) where it is said that the observations in the Essay follow one another without that methodical regularity that would have been requisite in a prose writer, has asserted that it is a regular piece, written on an uniform and consistent plan ; which he has endeavoured to prove by a Commentary, published by him in the lifetime of Pope, and highly commended by him. This idea Dr. Warton has strenuously controverted; contending that Pope never intended to write this Essay with a systematical regularity, and that Warburton had tortured many passages, in order to give it a meaning which it otherwise had not. To these observations it might perhaps be sufficient to reply, that although the Essay on Criticism is not professedly written on a regular plan, yet it cannot be denied that a certain degree of order and succession prevails, which leads the reader through the most important topics connected with the subject; thereby uniting the charm of variety with the regularity of art. That Warburton has with great labour and ingenuity traced the thread that connects the whole, is in no degree injurious to the work;
but on the contrary, serves to explain the author's meaning, and exemplify his precepts, on many occasions, where the nature of poetry, which abhors nothing so much as the appearance of formality and restraint, would not permit him to do it himself. “ As the end of method is perspicuity," says Johnson, " that series is sufficiently regular that avoids obscurity ; and where there is no obscurity, it will not be difficult to discover method.” The Commentary of Warburton may therefore be considered as calculated to render the precepts of the poem applicable to general use. To which it may be added, that if this Commentary were only a perverse and forced interpretation, as Warton insinuates, it is scarcely likely that Pope would have approved of it so highly, as not only to speak of it in the warmest terms of admiration ; but to allow it to accompany his own edition of the poem. To assert that Pope was not the best judge of his own meaning, is an insult not only to his understanding but to common sense; and to discard the Commentary of Warburton, as Warton has done in his edition, in order to replace it by a series of notes, intended to impress the reader with his own opinions, is a kind of infringement on those rights, which had already been decided on by the only person who was entitled to judge on the subject. For these reasons I have thought it advisable, in this edition, to restore the Commentary of Warburton intire, which has only been partially done by Mr. Bowles ; conceiving that it is as injurious, if not more so, to the Commentator, whose object it is to demonstrate the order and consistency of the poem, to deprive him of a portion of his remarks, as it is to deprive him of them altogether. At the same time it must be allowed, that the notes of Dr. Warton on this Essay are, in general, excellent, and add greatly to its value.