The Preface to Aristotle's Art of Poetry

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I have endeavour'd to make the Translation as literal as possible, being perswaded, that I could not do better, than to stick close to the Words of a Man, who wrote with wonderful Exactness, and puts in nothing, but what is to the purpose. I have nevertheless taken the Liberty sometimes, to enlarge his Thoughts, for what was understood in his time, by half a Word, would hardly be Intelligible now, unless some Pains was taken to explain it.

A simple Translation of Aristotle, would be clear enough, and there would be no need of Commentaries, if we were well Instructed in those Poets, from whom he takes his Rules, but as almost all the World is Ignorant of them, and 'tis necessary to explain by Example, what is Obscure in the Rule. This is what I have endeavour'd to do in my Remarks, which will seem short, if you consider the many large Volumes which have been wrote on this little Treatise.

Of all the Latin Commentators, Victorius seems to me the most Wise, Knowing, and Exact, but his Assistance is not sufficient, to give us an Understanding of Poesie. The Italian Castelvetro, has a great deal of Wit, and Knowledge, if we may call that Wit, which is only Fancy, and bestow on much Reading the name of Knowledge. If we recollect all the Qualities of a good Interpreter, we shall have an Idea just contrary to that of Castelvetro. He knew neither the Theatre, the Passions, nor the Characters; he understood neither Aristotle's Reasons, nor his Method, and strove rather to contradict, than explain him. On the other hand, he is so Infatuated with the Author's of his own Country, that he forgot how to Criticise well; he talks without Measure, like Homer's Thersites, and declares War to all that is fine. Indeed he has some good things, but 'tis not worth while to spend our time in looking after them. The French Art of Poetry by Mesnardiere, may pass for a Commentary on some Chapters of Aristotle, but that Work is of little value; for besides that Author's being no good Critick, and perpetually deceiv'd, he did not penetrate into the Meaning of the Philosopher. The Practice of the Theatre by the Abbot D'Aubignac, is infinitely better, but is rather a Sequel and Supplement, than an Explication of Aristotle; on which, a perfect Instruction in the Ancient Rules, will enable you to pass a Judgment. The Treatise of Epick Poem by Father Bossu, is above all the Moderns have done in that Kind, and is the best Commentary Extant, on what Aristotle has wrote concerning that sort of Poem; none ever penetrated deeper into the bottom of that Art, and set in a better Light (according to Aristotle's Rules) Homer's, and Virgil's Beauties, or the Solidity, and Beauty of Aristotle's Rules, by the marvellous Conduct of those two great Poets. If he had Treated of Tragedy, as throughly, as he has done of the Epopœia, he had left almost nothing for me to have done after him; but unfortunately, he omitted the most difficult, which he could have Explain'd much better than my self, had he had spare time. His Work however has done me great Service. I have profited by the good, which others have Wrote, and must confess, that their Faults have been useful to me. But after all, the most excellent Commentators on the Poetick Art, are the Ancient Poems, and as they gave the hint to make Rules, 'tis by them, that these ought to be Explain'd. I hope, I have not followed such good Guides in vain. If I have wander'd, by following them, without a true Understanding, I should be very well pleased to be put in the right way, by any, who would advise me of my Faults, or make them publickly known.

Perhaps some may Reproach me, as Mr. Corneille did all the precedent Commentators. They have Explain'd Aristotle (says that great Man) as Grammarians, or Philosophers, and not as Poets; because they had more of the Study, and Speculation, than Experience of the Theatre. The Reading them may make us more Learned, but can give us no further Insight, how we may succeed. This Reproach is founded on this general Maxim, That every one ought to be believ'd in his own Art. It seems then, that those should not pretend to explain the Rules of Poesie, who never yet made Poems. The Principle is true, but the Consequence is not so, for before that is drawn, we must see to whom the Art of Poetry, and what it produc'd, does property belong. 'Tis not Poesie it self which is produced, for then it would have been, before it was. 'Tis Philosophy that brought it first into play, and consequently, it belongs to Philosophy, to give, and explain its Rules. This is so true, that Aristotle made not these Rules as a Poet, but as a Philosopher: And if he made them as such, why may they not be explain'd that way too? And as it was not necessary to make Dramatick Poems, to give Rules to that Art, so 'tis no more necessary that they should be made, to Explain those Rules.

I don't know indeed, whether he who has made Pieces for the Theatre, is so proper to explain the Rules of this Art, as he that never did, for 'twould be a Miracle if one was not biass'd by self-Love, when the other is a dis-interested Judge, who has no other Aim, than discovering the Truth, and making it known. Mr. Corneille himself may be an Example of this. All that he would Establish in his new Discourse of Dramatick Poetry, is less founded on Nature, than his own proper Interest. It appears by his own Words, that the design he had of defending what he had ventured on the Stage, obliged him to forsake Aristotle's Rules, and to Establish new ones, which should be more favourable to himself; we shall see in the Remarks, whether they can bear the Test. 'Tis therefore no ways necessary to have made Poems, to prescribe Rules for Poesie, and yet much less to explain them. If it was so, I would say there were none, for of all those which have given any, I knew but one that was a Poet; Horace himself never made an Epick Poem or a Tragedy, but to prescribe Rules for Poesie, as also to explain them; it is sufficient to know the Origine, and Scope of the Art Treated of; to have examin'd those Poems, which are the Basis and Foundation, to have made Reflections on what is agreeable, and disagreeable, and rightly to discover the Causes; this is the only necessary Knowledge I have endeavour'd to acquire, and Philosophy alone can lead me thither.

I shall add once more, that if we make a Man more Learned, by explaining the Rules as a Philosopher, 'tis Impossible, but he must attain a surer Knowledge, to succeed in this Art. 'Tis true, we can't give a Genius, that's not done by Art, but we can shew the Path a Genius ought to Tread in, and that is the only Design of all Rules.

I have not made the Apology of Commentators, to praise my self, for although I am no Poet, it does not follow that I cannot be a good Philosopher; I leave it to the Publick, and time, to Judge of my Work, for I will neither Court, nor slight their Favours.

I have spoken very freely, in what I have pass'd my Judgment on, and in so doing, Imitated the ancient Criticks, who spared neither Demosthenes, nor Thucidides, nor Plato, nor any that was Great, or Venerable in Antiquity. A flattering Criticism would be a pleasant sort of one, when we should seek to Applaud, and the Respect due to the Name, should check the Censure due to the Fault. I am not so scrupulous, and if any one be offended, I shall Answer him as Dionysius Halicarnassæus answered Pompey the Great, who wrote to him, to complain, that he had tax'd Plato with some Faults. The Veneration you have for Plato is Just, (says that excellent Critick,) but the Blame you lay on me, is not so. When any one writes on a Subject, to shew what is Good or Bad in it, he ought to discover, and mark very exactly all its Virtues, and Vices, for that is a sure way to find out the Truth, which is more valuable than all things else whatever. If I had written against Plato with a Design to Decry his Works, I should be as Impious as[21] Zoilus, but on the contrary, I would praise him, and if in doing so I have Improved any of his Defects, I have done nothing worthy of Complaint, and which was not necessary for my Design. Notwithstanding this, I have put some Bounds to this Liberty, and if I have discovered some Faults, I have conceal'd some others, that seem'd to me not so considerable. I had respect in them, to the Approbation of many Persons of Merit, for I would not run Counter to an almost Universal Consent, which always is of great Weight, and ought at least to oblige us to be cautious. But that I might give to those Persons, an Opportunity of recollecting themselves, I have endeavoured to explain the Rule, in such a manner, that they may perceive those very Faults, if they will Read the Remarks with attention. As for the rest, I had no design to offend any Body; if there are some things which make them uneasie, 'tis impossible to write any Work of this nature, without disgusting some. 'Tis also the Mark of good Criticism, as well as good Philosophy. From hence it proceeded, that Plato was blamed for having taught his Philosophy a long time, without displeasing any one Person; and they pretended by that, to say that either his Doctrine was not good, or his Method defective, since none had by Hearing him been made sensible of that Uneasiness, which People naturally have, when they perceive themselves to be Vitious.

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