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WHATEVER objections may be urged against the literary char. acter of the present day, it must, however, be allowed to exhibit an evident improvement in some material points. It is, for instance, no new observation, that vanity and flattery are now less generally ostensible, even in the most indifferent authors, than they were, formerly, in some of the best. The most self-sufficient writer is at length driven, by the prevailing sense of propriety, to be contented with thinking himself the prime genius of the age; but he seldom ventures to tell you that he thinks so. Vanity is compelled to acquire or to assume a better taste.
That spirit of independence also, which has, in many respects, impressed so mischievous a stamp on the public character, has, perhaps, helped to correct the style of prefaces and dedications. Literary patronage is so much shorn of its beams, that it can no longer enlighten bodies which are in themselves opake; so much abridged of its power, that it cannot force into notice a work which is not able to recommend itself. The favor of an individual no longer boasts that buoyant quality which enables that to swim which by its own nature is disposed to sink. The influence of an Augustus, or a Louis Quatorze, of a Mæcenas, a Dorset, or a Halifax, could not now procure readers, much less could it compel admirers, for the panegyrist, if the panegyrist himself could command admiration on no better ground than the authority of the patron. The once dilated preface is shrunk into plain apology, or simple exposition. The long and lofty dedication is, generally speaking, dwindled into a sober expression of respect for public virtue, a concise tribute of affection to private friendship, or an acknowledgment for personal obligation. It is no longer necessary for the dependent to be profane, in order to be grateful. No more are all the divine attributes snatched from their rightful Possessor, and impiously appropriated by the needy writer to the opulent patron. He still makes, indeed, the eulogium of his protector, but not his apotheosis. The vainest poet of our day dares not venture, like him who has, however, so gloriously accomplished his own prediction, to say, in so many words, that his own work is more sublime than the royal height of pyramids. Nor, whatever secret compact he may make for its duration, does he openly undertake to proraise for his verse, that it shall flow coequal with the rivers, and survive the established forms of the religion of his country. The most venal poetic parasite no longer assures his protector, with “ unhappy Dryden,” that mankind can no more subsist without his poetry (the Earl of Middlesex's poetry), than the world can subsist without the daily course of Divine Providence. And it is but justice to the more sober spirit of living literature to observe, that our modesty would revolt, putting our sense and our religion out of the question, were a modern poet to offer even an imperial patron to pick and choose his lodging among the constellations; or, as some author has expressed it on a similar occasion, “ to ask what apartment of the zodiac he would be pleased to occupy."
So far, at least, our taste is reformed. And may we not venture to hope, from the affinity which should subsist between correct
judgment and unadulterated principle, that our ideas of truth and manly integrity are improved also ?
But it is time that I confine myself to the more immediate object of the present address, in which, in avoiding the exploded evil I have been reprobating, I would not affectedly run into the opposite, and perhaps prevailing extreme.
It may not, it is presumed, be thought necessary to apologize for the publication of this collection, by enumerating all the reasons which produced it. “Desire of friends” is now become a proverbial satire; the poet is driven from that once creditable refuge, behind which an unfounded eagerness to appear in print used to shelter itself and is obliged to abandon the untenable forts and fastnesses of this last citadel of affectation. Dr. Johnson's sarcasm upon one plea will apply to all, and put to flight the whole hackneyed train of false excuses“If the book were not written to be printed, I presume it was printed to be read.”
These scattered pieces, besides that they had been suffered to pass through successive editions with little or no correction, were, in their original appearance, of all shapes and sizes, and utterly unreducible to any companionable form. Several new pieces are here added, and most of the old ones considerably altered and enlarged.
I should blush to reproduce so many slight productions of my early youth, did I not find reason to be still more ashamed, that, after a period of so many years, the progress will be found to have been so inconsiderable, and the difference so little apparent.
If I should presume to suggest, as an apology for having still persisted to publish, that, of the latter productions, usefulness has been more invariably the object; whereas, in many of the earlier amusement was more obviously proposed; if I were inclined to palliate my presumption by pleading
That not in fancy's maze I wandered long; it might be retorted, that the implied plea, in favor of the latter publications, exhibits no surer proof of humility in this instance, than in the other: that, if in the first it was no evidence of the modesty of the writer to fancy she could amuse; in the last, it furnishes little proof of the modesty of the woman, to fancy that she can instruct. Now, to amuse, or to instruct, or both, is so undeniably the intention of all who obtrude their works on the public, that no preliminary apology, no prefatory humiliation, can quite
do away the charge of a certain consciousness of talents which is implied in the very undertaking. The author professes his inability, but he produces his book, and, by the publication itself, controverts his own avowal of alleged incapacity. It is to little purpose that the words are disparaging, while the deed is assuming. Nor will that profession of self-abasement be much regarded, which is contradicted by an act that supposes self-confidence.
If, however, there is too seldom found, in the writer of the book, all the humility which the preface announces, he may be allowed to plead a humility which is at least comparative. On this ground may I be permitted to declare, that at no period of my life did I ever feel such unfeigned diffidence at the individual appearance of even the slightest pamphlet (the slenderness of whose dimensions might carry some excuse for the small proportion of profit or pleasure it conveyed), as I now feel at sending this, perhaps too voluminous, collection into the world. This self-distrust may naturally be accounted for, by reflecting that this publication is deliberately made, not only at a time of life when I ought best to know my own faults, and the faults of my writings; but is made also at such a distance from the moment in which the several pieces were first struck out, that the mind has had time to cool from the hurry and heat of composition; the judgment has leisure to operate, and it is the effect of that operation to rectify false notions, and to correct rash conclusions. The critic, even of his own works, grows honest, if not acute, at the end of twenty years. The image which he had fancied glowed so brightly when it came fresh from the furnace, time has quenched; the spirit which he thought fixed and essential, has evaporated; many of the ideas which he imposed not only on his reader, but on himself, for originals, more reading and more observation compel him to restore to their owners. And having detected, from the perusal of abler works, either plagiarisms in his own, of which he was not aware, or coincidences which will pass for plagiarisms; and blending with the new judgment of the critic the old indignation of the poet, who of us in this case is not angry with those who have said our good things before us? We not only discover that what we thought we had invented, we have only remembered; but we find also, that what we had believed to be perfect is full of defects; in that which we had conceived to be pure gold, we discover much tinsel. For the revision, as was observed above, is made at a period when the eye is brought by a due remoteness into that just position which gives a clear and distinct view of things; a remoteness which disperses “the illusions of vision,” scatters the mists of vanity, reduces objects to their natural size, restores them to their exact shape, makes them appear to the sight such as they are in themselves, and such as perhaps they have long appeared to all except the author.
That I have added to the mass of general knowledge by one original idea, or to the stock of virtue by one original sentiment, I do not presume to hope. But that I have labored assiduously to