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To follow this Method, 'tis necessary to trace Poetry from its Original, to shew that 'twas the Daughter of Religion, that at length 'twas vitiated, and debauch'd, and lastly, brought under the Rules of Art, which assisted, in Correcting the defaults of Nature.
God touch'd with Compassion for the Misery of Men, who were obliged to toil and labour, ordain'd Feasts to give them some rest; the offering of Sacrifices to himself, by way of Thanksgiving, for those Blessings they had received by his Bounty. This is a Truth which the Heathens themselves acknowledged; they not only imitated these Feasts, but spake of them as a Gift of the Gods, who having granted a time of Repose, requir'd some tokens of their grateful remembrance.
The first Feasts of the Ancients were thus, They assembled at certain times, especially in Autumn, after the gathering in their Fruits, for to rejoyce, and to offer the choicest of them to God; and this 'tis, which first gave birth to Poetry: For Men, who are naturally inclined to the imitation of Musick, employ'd their Talents to sing the praises of the God they worshipped, and to celebrate his most remarkable Actions.
If they had always kept to that Primitive Simplicity, all the Poesie we should have had, would have been, only Thanksgivings, Hymns, and Songs, as amongst the Jews. But 'twas very difficult, or rather impossible, that Wisdom and Purity, should reign long in the Heathen Assemblies; they soon mingl'd the Praises of Men, with those of their Gods, and came at last, to the Licentiousness of filling their Poems with biting Satyrs, which they sung to one another at their drunken Meetings; Thus Poetry was entirely Corrupted, and the present scarce retains any Mark of Religion.
The Poets which followed, and who were (properly speaking,) the Philosophers and Divines of those Times, seeing the desire the People had for those Feasts, and Shows, and impossibility of retrieving the first Simplicity; took another way to remedy this Disorder, and making an advantage of the Peoples Inclinations, gave them Instructions, disguis'd under the Charmes of Pleasure, as Physicians gild and sweeten the bitter Pills they administer to their Patients.
I shall not recount all the different Changes, which have happen'd in Poetry, and by what degrees it has arrived to the Perfection, we now find it; I have spoken of it already in my Commentaries on Horace's Art of Poetry, and shall say more in explaining, what Aristotle writes in this Treatise.
Homer was the first that invented, or finished, an Epick Poem, for he found out the Unity of the Subject, the Manners, the Characters, and the Fable. But this Poem could only affect Customes, and was not moving enough to Correct the Passions, there wanted a Poem, which by imitating our Actions, might work in our Spirits a more ready and sensible effect. 'Twas this, which gave occasion for Tragedy, and banished all Satyrs, by this means Poetry was entirely purg'd from all the disorders its Corruption had brought it into.
This is no proper place to shew, that Men who are quickly weary of regulated Pleasures, took pains to plunge themselves again into their former Licentiousness by the invention of Comedy. I shall keep my self to Tragedy, which is the most noble Imitation, and principal Subject of this Treatise, all the Parts of an Epick Poem are comprized in a Tragedy.
However short this account may be, it suffices to let you see that Poesie is an Art, for since it has a certain End, there must necessarily be some way to arrive there: No body doubts of this constant Truth, that in all concerns where you may be in the right, or the wrong, there is an Art and sure Rules to lead you to the one, and direct you, how to avoid the other.
The question then is, whether the Rules of this Art are known, and whether they are those which Aristotle gives us here? This question is no less doubtful, than the former, I must also confess that this cannot be determined, but by the unlearned; who because they are the greater number, I shall make my Examination in their favour. To do this with some sort of Method, there are four Things to be consider'd, who gives the Rules, the time when he gives them; the manner in which he gives them, and the effects they have in divers times wrought on different People: For I believe from these four Circumstances, I can draw such Conclusions, that the most obstinate shall not be able to gainsay.
He who gives these Rules, is one of the greatest Philosophers that ever was, his Genius was large, and of vast extent, the great Discoveries he made in all Sciences, and particularly in the Knowledge of Man, are certain Signs, that he had a sufficient insight into our Passions, to discover the Rules of the Art of Poetry, which is founded on them. But I shall suspend my Judgment, and pass on to the time in which he gave these Rules.
I find that he was born in the Age in which Tragedy first appear'd, for he lived with the Disciples of Æschylus, who brought it out of Confusion; and he had the same Masters with Sophocles, and Euripides, who carried it to its utmost Perfection: Besides he was witness of the Opinion the most nice and knowing People of the World had of this Poem. 'Tis therefore impossible that Aristotle should be ignorant of the Origine, Progress, Design and Effects of this Art; and consequently even before I examine these Rules, I am well assur'd upon his account who gives them, that they have all the Certainty, and Authority, that Rules can possibly have.
But when I come to examine the Manner in which Aristotle delivers them, I find them so evident and conformable to Nature, that I cannot but be sensible they are true; for what does Aristotle? He gives not his Rules as Legisltors do their Laws, without any other reason than their Wills only; he advances nothing but what is accompanied with Reason, drawn from the common Sentiment of Mankind, insomuch that the Men themselves become the Rule and Measure of what he prescribes. Thus without considering that the Rules are of almost equal Date with the Art they Teach, or any prejudice, in favour of Aristotle's Name, (for 'tis the Work which ought to make the Name valued, and not the Name the Work) I am forced to submit to all his Decisions, the Truth of which I am convinc'd of in my self, and whose Certainty I discover by Reason and Experience, which never yet deceiv'd any body.
To this I shall add, the Effects which these Rules have produc'd in all Ages, on different sort of People, and I see, that as they made the Beauty of Homer's Sophocles, and Euripides Poems in Greece, from which they were drawn; so four or five Hundred Years after, they adorn'd the Poems of Virgil and other famous Latin Poets, and that now after Two Thousand Years they make the best Tragedies we have, in which all that pleases, only does so, as 'tis conformable to these Rules, (and that too without our being aware of it,) and what is displeasing, is such, because it is contrary to them, for good Sense, and right Reason, is of all Countries and Places, the same Subjects which caus'd so many Tears to be shed in the Roman Theatre, produce the same Effects in ours, and those Things which gave distaste then, do the same now, from whence I am convinced, that never any Laws had either so much Force, Authority, or Might. Humane Laws expire or Change very often after the Deaths of their Authors, because Circumstances Change, and the Interests of Men, whom they are made to serve, are different; but these still take new vigor, because they are the Laws of Nature, who always acts uniformly, renews them incessantly, and gives them a perpetual Existence.