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Poets, a race long unconfined and free,
Received his laws, and stood convinced 'twas fit
They judge with fury, but they write with phlegm:
Thee, bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire,
Learning and Rome alike in empire grew,
As that the body, this enslaved the mind;
But see! each Muse in Leo's golden days
But soon by impious arms from Latium chased, Their ancient bounds the banish'd Muses pass'd; Thence arts o'er all the northern world advance, But critic-learning flourish'd most in France; The rules a nation born to serve obeys, And Boileau still in right of Horace sways. But we, brave Britons, foreign laws despised, And kept unconquer'd and uncivilized;
Fierce for the liberties of wit, and bold,
The learn'd reflect on what before they knew;
Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.
ESSAY ON MAN.
In Four Epistles to Lord Bolingbroke.
HAVING proposed to write some pieces on human life and manners, such as (to use my Lord Bacon's expression) ' come home to men's business and bosoms,' I thought it more satisfactory to begin with considering man in the abstract, his nature, and his state; since to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection or imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.
The science of human nature is, like all other sciences, reduced to a few clear points; there are not many certain truths in this world. It is therefore in the anatomy of the mind, as in that of the body; more good will accrue to mankind by attending to the large, open, and perceptible parts, than by studying too much such finer nerves and vessels, the conformations and uses of which will for ever escape our observation. The disputes are all upon these last; and, I will venture to say, they have less sharpened the wits than the hearts of men against each other, and have diminished the practice more than advanced the theory of morality. If I could flatter myself that this Essay has any merit, it is in steering betwixt the extremes of
doctrines seemingly opposite; in passing over terms utterly unintelligible; and in forming a temperate, yet not inconsistent, and a short, yet not imperfect, system of ethics.
This I might have done in prose; but I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons. The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts, so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: the other may seem odd, but it is true; I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions depends on their conciseness. I was unable to treat this part of my subject more in detail, without becoming dry and tedious; or more poetically, without sacrificing perspicuity to ornament, without wandering from the precision, or breaking the chain of reasoning. If any man can unite all these without diminution of any of them, I freely confess he will compass a thing above my capacity.
What is now published is only to be considered as a general map of man, marking out no more than the greater parts, their extent, their limits, and their connexion, but leaving the particular to be more fully delineated in the charts which are to follow consequently these epistles in their progress (if I have health and leisure to make any progress) will be less dry, and more susceptible of poetical ornament. I am here only opening the fountains, and clearing the passage: to deduce the rivers, to follow them in their course, and to observe their effects, may be a task more agreeable.