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WHEN I was lately in the country, and entirely taken up with other kind of affairs, I received a letter from my honest bookfeller in Town, informing me, that a new edition of Shakespeare was just published by Mr. Warburton, who had taken occafion, fome where or other in that work of bis, to mention me with fome fort of abuse for thofe Critical Obfervations I had fometime before written, as well to do justice to this our ancient dramatic poet, as to put fome stop, if poffible, to the vague and licentious fpirit of criticism.
Perhaps all attempts, to reduce fo irregular an art to any regular method, might deserve a place among the many impracticable fchemes with which our nation abounds. But yet while I perceived critics fo numerous, (for who more or less does not criticize?) and found every one appealing to a Standard and a taft, where could be the abfurdity of enquiring, whether, or no, there really is in nature any foundation for the thing itself; or whether the whole does not depend on meer whim, caprice, or fafbion? Befide, I began to be apprehenfive for the fate of fome of my most favourite English authors. A 3
We have few books in our language that merit a critical regard; and when by chance any of these have been taken out of the bands of meer correctors of printing preffes, and esteemed worthy of fome more learned commentator's care and revifal; the commentator, by I know not what kind of fatality, has forgot his province, and the author himself has been arbitrarily altered, and reduced to fuch a fancied plan of perfection, as the corrector, within himfelf, has thought proper to establish.
But of this I have fully spoken; and methinks what I have spoken deferves a serious notice. 'Twas therefore a matter of furprize, at first, when I received my bookfeller's kind information: but upon a fecond confideration, which, they fay, is the beft, my furprize entirely vanished: for, as it seems, this was the gentleman, who formerly affifted Mr. Theobald in his edition of Shakespeare; and to write of Shakespeare without praifing this coadjutor, was a crime unpardonable.Hinc illæ lacrimæ. But if praife comes not fairly in my way, I will never go out of my way either to give it, or to gain it ; at least I will never prostitute it at the expence both of my judgment and learning.
While I was revolving in my mind fuch thoughts as thefe, down came the new edition of Shakespeare; which as foon as I opened, the following paffage,
like the famous Virgilian lots, appeared full in my view,
"Why, Phaeton, for thou art Merop's fon, "Wilt thou afpire to guide the heavenly car, "And with thy daring folly burn the world ?”
Why, Phaeton, for thou art MEROP'S SON.] Merop's fon, i. e. A BASTARD, base-born." Mr. W.
The poet's words I thought a good farcafm on his bad editor. But what fall we fay of the judicious remark fubjoined? I was told, formerly, that Merops and Clymene were husband and wife; and that if Phaeton was MEROP'S SON he was a legitimate off-fpring, and no BASTARD. Now the comment on this paffage, if it requires any, should be, "Why "Phaeton wilt thou, of low birth, and who
vainly vaunteft thyself to be the son of Phabus, afpire to guide, &c. "THOU,
Tumidus genitoris imagine falfi."
Miftakes of this kind I never should have made matter for triumph. Some errors are owing to haft and carelefnefs, and others to the common infirmity of buman nature. But when I red on farther, and found errors of all kinds, ftill increafing upon me, fuck
fuch as even the most inveterate enemy would pity, did not an unusual infolence deftroy every degree of it; then I thought it high time, and but common justice to Shakespeare, to endeavour to check, if poffible, the daring folly of fuch a Phaeton: and a fair opportunity now offered, for my bookfeller told me he would reprint, if I thought proper, my obfervations on Shakespeare, with fuch additions and alterations, as I should make.
But the reader is mistaken if he thinks that ei ther in this preface, or in the following work the bundredth part of our critics errors are corrected. No: I have given the reader bis proper cue, and to perfue it farther, leave it in his power. But where to begin, and when I bave once begun how to leave off I know not the faults are fo many, and of fo many forts, that the variety binders all judgment of this kind.
However if I can out of thefe furnish for my learned reader any entertainment, while at the fame time I am doing but common juftice to our poet, I shall not think my pains ill bestowed.-One obfervation, I now plainly perceive, will naturally lead on another, fo that 'tis of no great importance where I begin, the difficulty will be where to end. Let us then hear the pathetic invocation of King Lear at the fight of bis ungrateful daughter.