« PreviousContinue »
came to be king. What Spenser never lived to perform, it is my design in some measure to supply, and in the short intervals of my leisure from
, the fatigues of the bar, to finish an heroic poem on the excellence of our Constitution, and the character of a perfect king of England.
When this idea first presented itself to my mind, I found myself obliged, though unwillingly, to follow the advice of Bossu, who insists, that a poet should choose his subject in the abstract, and then search in the wide field of universal history for a hero exactly fitted to his purpose. My hero was not easy to be found; for the story of King Arthur, which might have been excellent in the sixteenth century, has lost its dignity in the eighteenth; and it seemed below a writer of any genius to adopt entirely a plan chalked out by others; not to mention, that Milton had a design in his youth, of making Arthur his hero; that Dryden has given us a sketch of his intended poem on the same subject; and that even Blackmore had taken the same story; whose steps it were a disgrace to follow.
It only remains, therefore, to have recourse to allegory and tradition; and to give the poem a double sense; in the first of which, its subject is simply this, the discovery of our island by the Tyrian adventurers, who first gave it the name of Britain; in the second, or allegorical sense, it exhibits the character above mentioned, of a perfect king of this country,-a character the most gloPP 2
rious and beneficial of any that the warmest ima. gination can form. It represents the danger to which a king of England must necessarily be exposed, the vices which he must avoid, and the virtues and great qualities with which he must be adorned. On the whole, Britain Discovered, is intended as a poetical panegyric on our excellent Constitution, and as a pledge of the author's attachment to it; as a national epic poem, like those of Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Camoëns, designed to celebrate the honours of his Country, to display in a striking light the most important principles of politics and morality, and to inculcate these grand maxims, that nothing can shake our state, while the true liberty of the subject remains united with the dignity of the sovereign, and that, in all states, virtue is the only sure basis of private and public happiness.
A work of this nature might indeed have been written in
either in the form of a treatise, after the example of Aristotle, or of a dialogue, in the manner of Tully, whose six books on government are now unhappily lost; or perhaps in imitation of Lord Bolingbroke, who has left us something of the same kind in his idea of a pa. triot king: but as poetry has the allowed advantage over mere prose, of instilling moral precepts in a manner more lively and entertaining, it was thought proper to deliver the whole subject in regular measure, under the fiction of an heroic adventure.
poem will be written in rhyme, like the translation of the Iliad by Pope, and of the Eneid by Dryden; since it has been found by experience, that the verses of those poets not only make a deeper impression on the mind, but are more easily retained in the memory, than blank verse, which must necessarily be too diffuse, and in general can only be distinguished from prose by the affectation of obsolete or foreign idioms, inversions, and swelling epithets, all tending to destroy the beauty of our language, which consists in a natural sweetness and unaffected perspicuity: not to insist that a writer who finds himself obliged to confine his sentiments in a narrow circle, will be less liable to run into luxuriance, and more likely to attain that roundness of diction so justly admired by the ancients. As to the monotony which many people complain of in our English rhymes, that defect, which is certainly no small one, if we admit only those endings which are exactly similar; must be compensated by a judicious variation of the
pauses, an artful diversity of modulation, and chiefly by avoiding too ncar a return of the same endings.
The machinery is taken partly from the Socraticdoctrine of attendant spirits, or benevolent angels, like Thyrsis in the Masque of Comus; and partly from the Scriptural account of evil spirits worshipped in Asia, under the names of Baal, Astarte, Nisroc, Dagon, Mammon, Moloch, and in ancient Europe, where Cadmus introduced them under those of Jupiter, Venus, ' Mars, Neptune,
Vulcan, Pluto.-If any objection be made to these machines, they may be considered as allegorical, like Spenser's knights and paynims; the good spirits may be said to represent the virtues, and the evil ones the vices.
The action, or story of the piece, is raised upon the tradition before mentioned, that the Phænicians first discovered the island of Britain ; but the rest must be wholly supplied by invention.
A prince of Tyre, therefore, whom we may name Britanus or Britan, shocked at the cruelty of his countrymen in sacrificing their prisoners to idols, and at their impiety in paying divine honours to evil spirits, had meditated a voyage to some distant coast; with which intent, pretending to prepare for an expedition against some rival nation, he had built a number of barques, and secured to his interests a company of enterprizing youths, but was doubtful whither he should direct his course, till his attendant spirit, Ramiel, appeared to him in a vision, commending his pious resolution, and advising him to seek a beautiful isle in the west, where, after a variety of dangers on earth and sea, he would reign in peace, and be the progenitor of a noble race, who would profess a true and benevolent religion, and excel all other nations in learning, arts, and valour. At the same time, the spirit shewed him the picture of a lovely nymph who then ruled the island, attended by damsels of her own nature. The prince, animated by this vision, and deeply enamoured with the
idea of the nymph, who, in the allegorical sense, represents Liberty, left the coast of Phænicia, and sailed towards Egypt.
These circumstances, being previous to the action, are not related till the second book : for, at the opening of the poem, after the usual introduction, the prince is brought with his companions to the mouth of the Nile; he lands, and advances towards the city of Memphis, but is met in a forest by Ramiel, in the shape of a venerable sage, who conducts him to the palace of the Egyptian king, where he sees the temple of science, the pyramids (then just begun), and other amazing edifices. After a splendid repast, he is desired to relate the motives of his voyage.-The subject of the next book has been already explained; but it will be diversified, like all the rest, with several speeches, descriptions, and episodes. The third book begins with a consultation of the evil deities worshipped in Phænicia; whose yarious characters are delineated. The debate is opened by Baal, who, in a furious speech, complains of the insult offered to their temples, by the expedition of the Tyrians, and discourses with malignity on the future happiness of their descendants. Various strątagems are proposed, to obstruct their progress. At last, Astartè offers to allure the chief with the love of pleasure; Mammon, to tempt him with riches; Dagon promises to attack his fleet, Nisrog to engage him in a desperate war, Moloch to assist his enemies by his enchantment, and Baal