Thursday, July 26, 2007

Jonathan Swift Expounds

To Thomas Beach*
12 April 1735

After the fate of all poets, you are no favourite of fortune; for your letter of March 31st did not come to my hands till two days after Sir William Fownes's death, who, having been long afflicted with the stone and other disorders, besides great old age, died about nine days ago. If he had recovered, I should certainly have waited on him with your poem, and recommended it and the author very heartily to his favour. I have seen fewer good panegyrics than any other sort of writing, especially in verse, and therefore I much approve the method you have taken; I mean, that of describing a person who possesseth every virtue, and rather waiving that Sir William Fownes was in your thoughts, than that your picture was like in every part. He had indeed a very good natural understanding, nor wanted a talent for poetry; but his education denied him learning, for he knew no other language except his own; yet he was a man of taste and humour, as well as a wise and useful citizen, as appeared by some little treatises for regulating the government of this city; and I often wished his advice had been taken.

I read your poem several times, and showed it to three or four judicious friends, who all approved of it, but agreed with me, that it wanted some corrections; upon which I took the number of lines, which are in all two hundred and ninety-nine, the odd number being occasioned by what they call a triplet, which was a vicious way of rhyming, wherewith Dryden abounded, and was imitated by all the bad versifiers in Charles the Second's reign. Dryden, though my near relation, is one I have often blamed as well as pitied. He was poor, and in great haste to finish his plays, because by them he chiefly supported his family, and this made him so very uncorrect; he likewise brought in the Alexandrine verse at the end of the triplets. I was so angry at these corruptions, that above twenty-four years ago I banished them all by one triplet,** with the Alexandrine, upon a very ridiculous subject. I absolutely did prevail with Mr. Pope, and Gay, and Dr. Young, and one or two more, to reject them. Mr. Pope never used them till he translated Homer, which was too long a work to be so very exact in; and I think in one or two of his last poems he hath, out of laziness, done the same thing, though very seldom. . . .

* Thomas Beach, wine-merchant of Wrexham, author of Eugenio.
** The last three lines of A Description of a City Shower.

-from Poets Through Their Letters: Volume 1 by Martin Seymour-Smith (London: Constable, 1969) p. 183-184.

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