Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION I: Of Poetry; or those Compositions which are primarily calculated for mere Entertainment. - An Historical View of the English Government
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SECTION I: Of Poetry; or those Compositions which are primarily calculated for mere Entertainment. - John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government 
An Historical View of the English Government, From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Revolution in 1688, in four volumes, edited by Mark Salber Philips and Dale R. Smith, introduction by Mark Salber Philips (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Of Poetry; or those Compositions which are primarily calculated for mere Entertainment.
We find that from the original constitution of our nature, we derive pleasure from the utterance of certain measured and modulated sounds; and are still more delighted when by the contrivance of language, these pleasing sounds are made to represent or convey the ideas or images of former sensations. These two sources of pleasure, the melody of sounds, and the agreeable representation of ideas or images by words, concur in singing, which, with the accompaniment of dancing, constitutes one of the great amusements of early nations.
A song contains the rudiments of poetry and music, two arts, which, in a state of extreme simplicity, are commonly united. But when the musician on the one hand has<316> invented a rich and varied melody, and the poet, on the other hand has acquired so much experience and knowledge as to introduce a long and intricate series of thoughts, it is no longer possible to enjoy at once the result of their different improvements, and it becomes necessary that the two arts should be separated. The consequence of that separation is the superior cultivation and improvement of each, with regard to all those effects which they are separately capable of producing. As music is thus gradually rendered more intricate, and of more difficult execution, the mechanical part of it requires a longer and more intense application for acquiring a proficiency in the performance, and surpassing more and more the patience and perseverance of the ordinary gentleman performer, is at length abandoned in a great measure to the mere artist, who follows that profession for hire; while poetry, of which the mechanism is more simple and easy, and in which the powers of imagination are less confined in the trammels of art, becomes not so much a professional object as the occa-<317>sional exercise of all those persons to whom inclination or genius happens to recommend that species of amusement.
The pleasure which poetry affords appears to arise primarily from the representation of those natural objects which are great, new, or unexpected, and which are fitted to excite admiration, wonder, and surprise. These emotions are produced in us, not only from the nature of the objects represented, but still more from the mode of representation, which through the surprising medium of language, by an operation like that of enchantment, conveys an exact and lively image of every possible existence.
That admiration, wonder, and surprise, are agreeable feelings, which in different shapes and directions, become the source of a delightful occupation to the mind, is consistent with universal experience. The impressions of admiration are the deepest and most violent. Those of wonder and surprise, are slighter and more transient, but in return, they are more numerous and varied, more susceptible of different forms and mo-<318>difications, and enter more intimately into the ordinary train of our ideas and amusements.
The images communicated by the poet may relate either to external nature or to the passions and operations of the mind. The former are agreeable from the circumstances already suggested. But the latter afford a separate pleasure, which is frequently of much higher importance. When the passions and sentiments of our fellow-creatures correspond with our own, they excite that pleasing sympathy which is the great source of benevolence and friendship; when they are on the other hand, remarkably contrasted with our own feelings, they contribute, in some cases, to our entertainment, by provoking ridicule, and exciting the grateful sensation of laughter.<319>
Of Epic Poetry; or what is related by the Poet in his own Person.
Though the imagery arising from views of external nature, is unavoidably blended with that which springs from the representation of human sentiment, they have given rise to two different forms of poetical composition, more peculiarly adapted to the one or the other, the epic and the dramatic. The former in which the incidents are constantly related by the poet himself, and are thus thrown into a sort of shade and distance, favourable to the exaggerating emotions of admiration, wonder, and surprise, is peculiarly suited to the description of external nature. The latter, in which events are not supposed to be communicated by the intervention of the poet, but to pass in the immediate presence of the spectator, is better calculated to produce that vivacity of colouring, and that visionary conception of<320> reality, without which it is impossible to awaken our sympathetic affections.2
The sublime genius of epic poetry is peculiarly favoured by the manners of that rude and barbarous period which precedes the cultivation of the common arts of life. In proportion as men are ignorant and destitute of civilization, they are the more liable to be impressed with admiration, wonder, and surprise; and the more likely, though without skill or management, to communicate those feelings in their genuine simplicity and force. They are in a world where almost every thing is new and unaccountable, and where their observation is confined to a small number of objects. The great scenes of nature are spread before them, and successively recur in all the various forms which they assume in different seasons and situations. These, dwelling upon the imagination of the uninstructed beholder, and surveyed in a variety of aspects, present new and striking images of grandeur and terror, of contrast, and of resemblance, of unknown causes, magnified and misconceived by fear,<321> or of strange and unexpected events, misrepresented by delusive prepossession. At the approaching light of knowledge, these wonders disappear; the gigantic vanishes; and the multiplied pursuits of society render mankind acquainted with the new, familiar with the great, and conversant in the minute parts of nature. Their poetic imagery of course changes its character, and losing its enthusiastic ardour, sinks gradually into the temper of cool thought and reflection.
In the oriental poetry of a remote period, which is handed down to us, we discover evident proofs of that peculiar style and manner, by which the poetry of a rude people appears to be distinguished. Great force of conception, with little taste or judgment in the distribution of parts: a few features, boldly delineated, without skill or perseverance to finish the picture: grand and sublime images, loosely combined, and often ill asserted: comparisons far-fetched, but lofty and magnificent; with strong, but harsh metaphors, frequently broken and inconsistent; and with language highly figurative rather from a penury of<322> appropriated expression, than from exuberance of fancy, and therefore, in many cases, hyperbolical and uncouth.
The same character of sublimity may be recognised in those relicts of Celtic poetry, ascribed to Ossian; which no credulity can believe to be an entire forgery of the publisher; but from which we may easily suppose that he has removed a great part of their original imperfections.3
That the sublime genius of Homer was greatly indebted to the character of the age in which he lived, will readily be admitted; but the difficulty lies in conceiving, by what means, in so rude an age, he could acquire that correctness of taste and judgment for which he is so conspicuous. What an astonishing phenomenon is the Iliad, if we survey the extensive and regular plan upon which it is composed, the skill and experience with which it is executed, together with the purity of expression, and the harmony of numbers, which every where prevail in that immortal work; and if, at the same time, we consider that the author must have lived before the return of the Heraclidae into Peloponesus<323> otherwise he would undoubtedly have made some allusion to that event of so much importance to all Greece;4 that is, he must have lived within eighty years of the Trojan war,5 when the art of writing was hardly known to the Greeks, and more than three hundred years before their oldest prose-writer, of whom we have any accounts! How much more advanced was the state of arts and sciences in England during the life of Spenser6 than in Greece, during the period when Homer is understood to have lived; but how obsolete is the language of the former compared with that of the latter? If we consider the chronology of Homer’s life to be sufficiently established, one would be tempted to believe that his rhapsodies, as they were called, have not only been arranged and digested in a subsequent period, as has been asserted upon good authority, but have even undergone something similar to the refacciamento, by Berni, of Bogardo’s Orlando.7
The improvement of poetry as an art, so far as it depends upon culture and experience, is naturally progressive; but when this art has attained a certain degree of perfec-<324>tion, like all others derived from the mere exercise of imagination, it is rendered stationary; after which it begins to decline, and hastens to its final extinction, while the impressions of the poet are weakened by the progress of knowledge, and by a familiar acquaintance with the objects of nature, his powers are, doubtless, in another view, increased by storing his mind with a greater number of ideas, by collecting and combining a greater diversity of images and events, and by the capacity he acquires of arranging and disposing them to the best advantage. The poetry of rude nations consists of separate lineaments, and of unconnected incidents; but from the natural advancement of the art, in a civilized and refined age, these disjointed members are united in a regular system, and produce a finished performance. The volume of nature is expanded; the range of imagination is enlarged; the discrimination of what is interesting and agreeable is improved; and by the union and co-operation of many beautiful parts, the mind is detained in a labyrinth of pleasing emotions. But in pro-<325>portion to the degree of excellence that has been attained, the standard of perfection is exalted; and the readers of poetry, tired with the repetition of similar objects and exhibitions, become severe and fastidious critics, quick and expert in discovering and censuring blemishes. Conscious, therefore, of what is expected, every succeeding candidate for fame must endeavour to surpass his predecessors by new images or combinations; by adorning each part with a greater accumulation of beauties, and by enriching the whole with a greater variety of parts. But there is a certain point beyond which the progress of embellishment ceases to be agreeable, and more is lost by deviation from simplicity than is gained by additional decoration. By crowding together a number, even of beautiful objects, the impression of each is diminished, the attention is dissipated in a multiplicity of particulars, and the general effect is proportionably impaired. By excessive ornament, the figures appear loaded with artificial trappings; and the piece becomes gaudy and inelegant. The more interesting and genuine appearances<326> of nature are, at the same time exhausted; and it becomes necessary to substitute others of inferior value. The grand and the sublime are deserted in the pursuit of mere novelty and variety; and a corrupted taste becomes more habituated to factitious and sophisticated embellishments. Despairing to rival the models of a former period, the followers of the muses are at length induced to abandon the higher flights of imagination, and steering, without hazard, in a level and equable course, are content with the humbler attainments of smooth versification, and pointed expression; with figurative language, coined and carefully collected from every quarter; in a word, with prosaic tameness and languor, arrayed according to the fashion of the times, in a pompous artificial diction. In this declining state of poetry, it becomes a natural improvement, to throw aside the mechanism of verse, and in more natural and easy expression, to exhibit such pictures of life and manners as are calculated to please the understanding, and to interest the passions. Compositions of this nature, which, considering that their<327> chief object is mere entertainment, may be called poetical, are capable of being extended and diversified without end; and they seem peculiarly adapted to that combined exercise of the imagination and judgment which is agreeable to a refined and philosophical age.
These observations are confirmed by the history of all those nations who have made progress in the arts, and in polite literature. The sublimity of the poetical genius among the early Greeks, not only in what is commonly called epic poetry, but in the serious compositions intended for the accompaniment of music, has been universally acknowledged; and its decline in the later periods, after it had risen to a high degree of eminence, is not less conspicuous.
When the poetical talent, from despair of equalling the models already exhibited, and from the corruption of taste produced by the incessant study of novelty and variety, has been extinguished in one country, it is not likely, ever after, to revive among the same people; but it may easily be introduced into another country, where the<328> same natural beauties, not yet faded by time, are still fresh and agreeable; and where those images and descriptions, which had become tiresome by repetition, assume, when imitated in a different language, a new and interesting appearance, and may even acquire, in some degree, an air of originality.8 Thus the Roman poets, towards the end of the commonwealth, and about the beginning of the despotism, rose to high reputation by a judicious imitation of the Greek writers; though, in the latter period, the career of Roman poetry was very similar to that of the Grecian; with this difference, that, as the Roman government lasted longer, it afforded more time to mark the steps of descending genius, and those affectations which the growing corruption of taste had a tendency to produce.
When the nations of modern Europe, after a long interval of desolation and disorder, had begun to enjoy peace and tranquillity, and acquired some degree of opulence, they applied themselves to the arts of entertainment, and imitated with success the poetical compositions of the<329> Greeks and Romans. Their attempts of this nature were, however, peculiarly modified by two circumstances.
In imitating the Greek and Roman writers, they at first preferred the affected brilliancy, and tinsel ornaments of a later age, to the simple and genuine beauties of the preceding period. Though, in the infancy of the fine arts, mankind, as has been remarked by Mr. Hume, when left without direction or instruction, will commonly follow the dictates of nature and truth; and, in their compositions, will endeavour to express their thoughts with plainness and simplicity, yet they are easily misled by false guides, and have too little experience and taste to reject the gaudy and affected embellishments of a vitiated style. From this injudicious imitation of ancient models, the first poetical compositions of modern Italy, and of other European countries, exhibited all those defects which are usual in a declining state of the fine arts. The tendency, however, of subsequent improvements, was not only to produce that correctness which is derived from observa-<330>tion, and from rules of criticism, but to restore that simplicity which is commonly the peculiar character of early compositions.
The Gothic manners, on the other hand, by introducing such romantic love, and such exalted notions of military honour, as were unknown to the Greeks and Romans, afforded a new and rich field for the display of heroic sentiments, and of striking adventures. The admiration and gallantry of which, in the age of chivalry, the ladies were uniformly the objects, and the humanity and generosity, with which all those gentlemen, who had acquired distinction in arms, thought it incumbent on them to behave towards one another, furnish a remarkable contrast with the spirit and behaviour of the principal personages in the Iliad; where a country is praised, in the same breath, for producing fine horses and beautiful women; and where Hector,9 who first runs away from Achilles, is afterwards dragged at the chariot wheels of that brutal conqueror. The advantages, however, derived from this modern refinement, were so counteracted by the false taste which pre-<331>vailed, as to render the poetical compositions, which appeared upon the revival of letters, a set of motley performances, not less disgraced by childish and extravagant conceits, than they were often distinguished by uncommon strength of imagery and wildness of imagination. The Italian poets, who set the example to all Europe, were most remarkable both for the beauties and the defects which have been mentioned;10 though, in the course of near two centuries, when they continued to flourish, they seem to have availed themselves more and more of an acquaintance with the purer classics of Greece and Rome. The French, who, after the states of Italy, came next into the situation of a polished people, appear to have turned their chief attention to supply the defect which was most wanting in the Italian poets, by substituting order, method, and regularity; and, as every new attempt is commonly pushed into extremities, the exuberance of imagination in the latter gave rise, in the former, to excessive restraints, to a rigid observance of critical rules, and to feeble and languid compositions. In<332> England, the progress of civilization was much later than in France; and as the people, for this reason, advanced more slowly in their ideas of correctness, the poets did not abandon the Italian models until, by the force of custom, and by the practice of several eminent writers, the national taste was invariably fixed and determined. The irregularity and bold imagery of Spenser, and the sublime genius of Milton, not to mention our great writer in the dramatic walk,11 who has no pretensions to correctness, have given a peculiar bias to the poetical taste of Englishmen, and directed their admiration almost exclusively to the powers of invention and fancy.
In all these European countries however, it should seem, that the poetic spirit has greatly declined, and that in two of them it is almost extinct. In Italy, the Gierusalemmé Liberata12 may be accounted the last great exertion of the epic muse. In France, the Henriade of Voltaire,13 which is, in that country, the most considerable poem of the same class, appears, notwithstanding the<333> celebrity of its author, to have sunk into the shade.
That in England too, epic poetry is already long past its summit, and has been declining for more than half a century, will, from the slightest examination, appear abundantly evident. The late adventurers in this field discover, indeed, few marks of a corrupted taste; but they seem greatly inferior to their predecessors, in original genius, in fertility of invention, and in richness of imagery. They are a sort of minor poets, destitute of that creative power which enlivens every object, and without effort converts all nature to their purposes; but straining to be sublime, tiring their fancy by endless and rapid excursions to the most remote and opposite corners of the universe, painfully collecting and skilfully appropriating the labours of preceding authors, and after all producing, at best, a few fragments of beautiful passages.
In reality, considering the state of society at present, both in France and England, it may be doubted, whether an epic poem, of great length, and highly finished in all its<334> parts, embellished with the harmony of versification, and the splendour of diction, and enriched with metaphors and figures of all sorts, be an entertainment suited to the general taste of the people. It should seem, that a short composition of this nature may give a delightful exercise to the imagination; but that a long work becomes tedious, and demands from the reader an alertness, and intensity of application, which few persons are capable of maintaining. We find, accordingly, that the modern novels, which, in a plainer style, comprehend a wider field of adventures, have now, in great measure, superseded the ancient modes of epic poetry, and become the chief amusement of almost all those individuals who are exempted from bodily labour. The multiplication of these compositions, which were scarcely known to the Greeks and Romans, and their endless diversity of shapes, whether serious or comic, in which they have appeared, may be regarded as one of the great varieties in the history of polite literature.<335>
Of Dramatic Poetry.
Dramatic performances are, in all countries, of a later origin than epic. It is a more natural and obvious thought, that one should express his own ideas and sentiments, than that, by means of actors, or representatives, he should endeavour to communicate the ideas and sentiments of others. The latter supposes two very difficult, and, in some degree, inconsistent operations: First, that, by the warmth of sympathetic emotion, a man should enter so completely into the mind of others, as to conceive in what manner they will be affected on any particular occasion; and, in the second place, that he should distinguish and discriminate so nicely their peculiar feelings and affections, as never to confound them with his own. The exhibition of dramatic representations is, at the same time, attended with an expence, which may suit the cir-<336>cumstances of an opulent nation, but in which a rude people have neither the inclination nor the capacity to indulge.
This observation is confirmed both by the ancient and modern history of the drama. Sophocles and Euripides, among the Greeks, as well as Menander, and the other writers of the new comedy, flourished at the time of the highest Athenian opulence and politeness.14 The Romans, indeed, in a ruder age, appear to have made considerable exertions in comedy; but they were little more than mere translators from the Greeks, and imported those foreign productions when the state of Rome did not permit the rearing of them at home. The Roman taste began to degenerate before there was leisure for much internal improvement in theatrical representations. This was likewise the fate of modern Italy. In France, the flourishing state of the theatre was not prior to the age of Lewis XIV.; nor in England to that of William III.
With respect to tragedy in particular, of which the great object is to excite compassion, by a display of the natural feelings of<337> distress, we may remark, that its improvement has been chiefly retarded from the difficulty of separating the ideas and sentiments, proper to the persons introduced, from those of the poet himself. To that source we may trace the most conspicuous blemishes which are discernible in this kind of composition.
In a dramatic representation, though the incidents are in reality intended to pass before a set of spectators, they are supposed to be carried on without any witnesses. But this fundamental supposition the poet is frequently tempted to overlook, by making the persons of the drama explain to the audience those parts of the plot which he finds himself unable otherwise to communicate. This indirect address to the spectators is to be met with, less or more, in the best tragedies of every country; but, in the infancy of the drama, a great part of the plot is unfolded in that manner. In the fragments of a Chinese tragedy, published by Du Halde,15 every person informs the spectators who he is, what he has done, and what he intends to do. In the tragedies<338> of Euripides, the author generally supersedes the necessity of this, by employing some deity, or intelligent person, at the outset of the performance, to give the audience a full account of whatever is to happen. As, in the regular compositions of modern Europe, this clumsy contrivance is totally rejected; the information of this nature which they sometimes contain, appears to escape the writer from mere inadvertence, and from his confounding, in some measure, his own situation and views with those of the persons whom he exhibits.
From a similar inadvertence, we may account for those formal and set speeches, of unnatural, and apparently measured length, which abound in our most correct tragedies. In the conduct of his plot, the poet has occasion to introduce a certain train of ideas and sentiments, but, losing sight of the characters to whom they should be appropriated, he becomes himself the speaker, and endeavouring to do full justice to his friends, is anxious that they should omit no topic which the occasion may suggest. Hence, instead of the natural<339> turns of conversation, with such various and sudden reciprocations of dialogue, as frequently occur in real life, the piece is loaded with verbose and tedious harangues, resembling the declamatory pleadings of hireling orators. It is wonderful, how universally this unnatural style has become prevalent both in France and England, and how much the influence of custom has prevented even the most fastidious critics from being disgusted with it.
These defects are so gross and palpable, that they might easily be avoided; but there is another, derived from the same source, where the difficulty appears much greater. The person who is violently affected by any particular event, is apt to feel and act very differently from another who is merely a witness of his situation and emotions; and the passions excited in the former may not only be dissimilar, but often perfectly repugnant, to those which are produced in the latter. Thus, he who is under the dominion of anger, or of resentment, gives way to the boisterous expression of those passions, while the spectators may be affected<340> with apprehension or disgust;16 and he who is instigated, by avarice or ambition, to commit an act of injustice, is probably buoyed up with the immediate prospect of gratifying his desires, and disposed to palliate or justify the measure; while those who behold the commission of the crime, are likely to feel indignation, hatred, or contempt. When a poet, therefore, endeavours to represent the behaviour of his dramatic personages, he must, by an effort of imagination, enter, as it were, into their situation, in order to conceive the feelings that are suited to their character and circumstances. It is extremely difficult, however, to remain in this artificial station, and steadily to retain that view of things which it is calculated to present. His own situation incessantly obtrudes itself upon him, and shifting the visionary scene, disposes him to regard the several incidents through the medium of a by-stander. Thus the persons exhibited in tragedy, instead of expressing the passions natural to their situation, are made to describe those passions, to explain their various appearances, to<341> point out the movements which they have a tendency to produce, to moralize upon their consequences; in a word, to become a sort of spectators of their own conduct.
The imperfections and blemishes in this respect, which occur in the best dramatic performances, are innumerable. Few poets appear to have conceived the idea of avoiding them; but the immortal Shakespear, from the mere force of his genius, has done so more successfully than any other writer, ancient or modern; and it is this circumstance alone, which, in the midst of a thousand irregularities and defects, forms the great superiority of his dramas.17
To the difficulties which are unavoidable in dramatical compositions, there was added, in modern Europe, another, from those forms of versification which fashion had introduced and established. The melody arising from the recurrence of similar sounds, with which modern ears were peculiarly delighted, gave birth, first of all, to the stanza, which became fashionable in Italy, and in those other European nations who made any progress in the fine arts. But<342> the intricacy of this measure was found so inconsistent with the form of dialogue required in dramatic writings, that in these it was abandoned, and gave place to a more manageable kind of verse, by the regular adoption of couplet-rhymes. Even this versification, however, according to the mode which it assumed, more especially in France, with a pause constantly in the middle of each line, with alternate male and female couplets, and with the indispensible requisite, that every speaker shall finish the verse left incomplete by his predecessor, proved a considerable incumbrance to the poet, and, by demanding so much attention to the mere form of expression, exhausted, in some degree, that vigour which ought to be employed in the more important parts of the composition. To write good verses came thus to be held a distinct species of excellence, capable of compensating, in many cases, and even concealing the poverty of the matter contained in them; and an artificial diction, like the gait of a man walking upon stilts, was preferred to the<343> plain easy movements of a more natural expression.
The English, among whom a critical taste in poetry advanced more slowly than in France, and who began to study the art at a period when old prejudices were more dissipated by the light of knowledge, were less attached to the Gothic beauty of rhyme; and in tragedy, as well as in other kinds of poetical composition, were led to indulge themselves in a species of verse which admitted greater freedom and variety. The fortunate example of an Italian writer, which, in a short time, found a successful imitator in England, delivered the dramatic poets of this country from the fetters of the rhyming couplet, and introduced the measure of blank verse, which is at once capable of approaching the looseness and facility of prose, and of being adapted to the most exalted and heroic sentiments.18 The consequences were such as might be expected; and if the English writers of tragedy have been commonly more happy than their neighbours upon the Continent, in delineating the simple and genuine feelings of the<344> human heart, it may be attributed more to the convenient mode of their versification than to any other circumstance.
Their merit in this respect has also taught their countrymen to distinguish and to admire this particular excellence, and to undervalue any other where this is wanting. It should seem, therefore, that in this instance, the standard of taste, in France and in Britain, has become remarkably different; and to those who adopt the one or the other, it appears equally inconceivable that the merit of Racine and of Shakespear should admit of a comparison. Voltaire observes, that the question is decided by the other countries of Europe, who may be considered as impartial, and who unanimously give the preference to Racine.19 But French literature is better understood through the greater part of Europe, and is more fashionable than English. Besides, a foreigner is better qualified to judge of merit in the conduct of the plot, in which the superiority of the French writers is admitted, than with regard to the natural expression of sentiment and passion, which constitutes the peculiar excellence of<345> the English. Thus the Italians are said to look upon the Orlando Furioso as their greatest epic poem, while foreigners generally prefer the Gierusalemmé liberata; because the merit of the former, which consists in its fine verses, none but a native of Italy can feel; but the regularity and good conduct of the fable, which forms the chief recommendation of the latter, is perceived by every smatterer in the language. It was perhaps, for a similar reason, that Euripides, was the favourite writer of tragedy among the Greeks themselves, and that Sophocles is more commonly admired by the moderns.
Among the other differences between epic and dramatical compositions, we may remark, that the latter, being the subject of public spectacles, in which mankind become highly interested, are easily modified into a variety of shapes, to suit the prevailing inclination; and consequently, they are less liable, by length of time, or frequent repetition, to be exhausted, or to lose their attractions. Of this a striking instance occurred not long since in France; where, though the general style of tragedy had been long settled by<346> custom, an entirely new species of drama, under the name of the weeping comedy,* has been introduced; as in cenie, Le Pere de Famille, Le Philosophe sans scavoir, and the dramatic works of Mercier.20 In these compositions, by laying aside altogether the restraints of versification, together with all pomp of imagery or of expression, and by founding the plot, not upon the misfortunes peculiar to princes and heroes, but upon such domestic afflictions and calamities as are incident to the greater part of mankind, there is opened a direct avenue to the heart, equally inviting and attractive to every spectator. By this improvement, tragedy being stript of all foreign ornaments, and exhibiting a more simple and genuine picture of nature, is likely to excite more powerfully the movements of pity and sympathy, and consequently to attain more completely her proper object.
Some attempts of the same nature have of late been made successfully in England,<347> though in this country they are not so absolutely necessary, as the old models, in that species of composition which had deviated less from the true standard. But in Germany, where the drama has hitherto made but small advances, and where the writers of this class are therefore, less hampered by former habits and prejudices, the late examples of a new composition in France have produced a general imitation, and have had suitable influence in forming the national taste.
The end of comedy, properly so called, is to excite laughter; an emotion arising from a contrast in the mind between certain objects of an opposite description. Grand, solemn, or important objects are beheld with admiration, and with respect, or at least with serious attention. Mean, light, or trivial objects appear contemptible, insignificant, or frivolous. The ideas and sentiments, therefore, which arise from these two sources are so totally inconsistent and repugnant, that they cannot be blended together in our thoughts; and even when they are forced upon us in succession, we find a difficulty in passing very quickly from the one to the<348> other. The respective impressions appear to contend for the preference; and while they rouse our attention to alternate and opposite views, we are conscious of an effort or struggle, which occasions the pleasant, but somewhat uneasy convulsion of laughter.
To produce this emotion, therefore, a sudden contrast of dignity and meanness is always necessary. But it makes no difference, whether this contrast occur in the several parts of an idea presented to us, or from comparing what is presented, with something suggested by the previous train of our own thoughts. Provided there be a sudden transition from the one sort of impression to the other, the manner in which it is produced is of no consequence. Even in the ordinary course of our thoughts, the sudden occurrence of a light and trivial incident will frequently excite mirth. The mind passes readily, by a natural spring, from grave and solemn occupations, to the utmost levity and frivolity; but the transition in the opposite direction is more slow and difficult. The most insignificant avocation at church will sometimes discompose our gravity, and<349> mar our devotions by an ill-timed jocularity; but in our idle amusements, and in a playful humour, we are seldom provoked to laughter by the intrusion of an important and wise reflection.*
From the immense number of ideas, of different sorts, which pass through the mind, and frequently in rapid succession, there cannot fail to arise numerous instances of that contrast which tends to mirth and pleasantry. These are varied without end in the degree of their intensity, from such as produce the most violent horse-laugh, to such as awaken a mere smile that is hardly perceptible, and which may be considered as expressing little more than the simple feeling of pleasure, a feeling, however, which is light and volatile, in contra-distinction to what is important and solemn.21
It may not be unworthy of remark, that, as the pleasurable convulsion of laughter arises not only from the influence of certain mental emotions, but also from the mechanical operations of corporeal objects, it is attended, in this latter case, with circumstances a good deal analogous to those which take place in the former. When, by the rubbing of certain irritable parts of the body, we become no longer able to suppress the risible agitation, we are sensible of a conflict between opposite sensations, resembling what arises from a contrast of ideas or sentiments; and are with difficulty able to resist the attacks of pleasure and pain, which appear alternately to obtain the superiority.
Of all the examples of contrast which are conducive to laughter, the richest and most extensive is, that which appears in the character and manners of men. As nothing is more constantly the object of attention than the behaviour of our fellow-creatures, there is no subject which more frequently employs our judgment, and awakens our feelings. When their behaviour is consistent with<351> propriety, it excites approbation and esteem, and is always attended with the appearance of dignity in the person in whom it is displayed. As every man wishes to be esteemed by others, he endeavours on all occasions, to exhibit such a view of himself as will tend to that purpose.
This we know, from experience, to be the general aim of mankind; and according to this standard we examine the behaviour of each individual. When it happens, therefore, that the conduct of our fellow-creatures, instead of exhibiting that propriety which we look for, and which we suppose to be intended, is foolish, absurd and despicable, and when this conduct is presented to our view in a manner so unexpected as to excite surprise; it affords a strong and sudden contrast of dignity and meanness, and becomes the natural object of scorn and ridicule.
It is unnecessary to add, that such improprieties of conduct as fall under the denomination of crimes, or great vices, are not properly ridiculous; as they do not excite contempt but indignation and resentment;<352> feelings which have no resemblance to such as are produced by mean or trivial objects.
The talent of exciting laughter, by the exhibition of any impropriety or absurdity in human character and conduct, seems to be what is properly called humour; as wit seems to be the talent of exciting mirth by any contrast which has no dependence on the behaviour of mankind.
Considering humour and wit as distinguished in this manner, it must be evident that the former has a much greater tendency than the latter, to excite hearty and violent laughter; and constitutes, for that reason, the chief province of comedy. The ideas of dignity, which we not only refer to every rational creature, but which we see that he still more strongly refers to himself, render us peculiarly sharp-sighted in marking every instance of absurdity, weakness, or impropriety of which he is guilty, and dispose us to exaggerate those imperfections, from the secret gratification which our vanity obtains by diminishing the rank and consequence of others. Human nature is a great laughing-<353>stock, which we are pleased to see tossed about, and turned in all shapes, and with whose ridiculous appearance we are never tired. The pleasure we derive from the ludicrous combinations of other objects is more slight and transitory. The flushes of wit excite commonly no more than a smile, and are not so much the objects of mirth, as of admiration and surprise.23
From what has been observed, it should seem, that, though comic writing cannot be successfully cultivated until the liberal arts and sciences have, in general, made considerable progress, it is likely to attain its highest improvement, at a period which precedes the most refined and correct state of taste and literature.
Among simple and ignorant people, it is not difficult to provoke laughter, because they have too little experience and reflection to distinguish what has real dignity or meanness from what may assume the appearance of either; and because they are so little acquainted with the various connections of objects, that any assemblage, in the least out of the common road, is apt to surprise them.<354>
According as men acquire comprehensive and liberal views of things, they become fastidious and sparing of their merriment. They are more discriminating in regard to the objects which afford the necessary contrast, and they are more capable of preconceiving those occasions and situations which give rise to it. A man is never much tickled with a story which he has heard before, and which he distinctly remembers; and upon the same principle he is not apt to laugh heartily at those pleasantries which depend upon associations already familiar to him, or which have a great similarity to those which he has foreseen or imagined.25
In Turkey, and in some other eastern countries, the contrast between a tall and short man is thought to be a reasonable cause of laughter; and a dwarf is, therefore, a necessary appendage in the retinue of princes.
False and inconsistent reasonings which have an air of speciousness, bulls and blunders of expression, even errors of pronuncia-<355>tion, or improprieties of dress unperceived by the wearer, are sources of mirth and jocularity in all countries.
Among our forefathers in Europe, the behaviour of a mere idiot was viewed in a similar light; and a person in those unfortunate circumstances was commonly kept by men of wealth, as an object of ridicule. When people become too polite to laugh at a real idiot, they substitute in his place an artificial one with a motley coat, and with a cap and bells, to imitate the behaviour of a simpleton, but with occasional strokes of shrewdness and sagacity. This personage afforded entertainment, by appearing, according to the proverb, more knave than fool; and became at last a professed jester, upon whom the family in which he lived, and their guests, were accustomed to exercise their talents; but who, at the same time, like the clown of a pantomime could shew by his occasional sallies, that he was himself no mean performer in the scene.
Persons of education, however, becoming gradually more expert in this kind of diversion, began to undervalue the studied jokes<356> of these pretended fools, and endeavoured to improve the entertainment by jesting with one another, and by assuming upon occasion any sort of character which might contribute to the mirth of the company. The practice of masquerading, which came to be universal through a great part of Europe, arose from this prevailing disposition, and gave individuals a better opportunity of exercising their talents, by enabling them to use more freedom with each other, and to appear unexpectedly in a variety of situations. Such was the style of amusement, which having prevailed in that period of European manners described by Shakespear, makes a conspicuous figure in the comic works of that author. As fashion is apt to produce fantastical imitation, it appears that the folly of individuals led them, in those times, to assume or counterfeit those humours in real life; an affectation which had become so general as to fall under the notice of the stage, and to produce a ridicule of the cheating humour, the bragging humour, the melancholy humour, the quarrelling humour, exhibited by Shakespear and John-<357>son, in the characters of Nym, of Pistol, of Master Stephen, or Master Matthew, and the Angry Boy.26
The higher advances of civilization and refinement contributed, not only to explode these ludicrous pastimes which had been the delight of a former age, but even to weaken the propensity to every species of humorous exhibition. Although humour be commonly productive of more merriment than wit, it seldom procures to the possessor the same degree of respect. To shew in a strong light the follies, the defects, and the improprieties of mankind, they must be exhibited with peculiar colouring. To excite strong ridicule, the picture must be changed; and the features, though like, must be exaggerated. The man who in conversation, aims at the display of this talent, must endeavour to represent with peculiar heightening the tone, the aspect, the gesture, the deportment of the person whom he ridicules. To paint folly, he must for the time, appear foolish. To exhibit oddity and absurdity, he must himself become odd and absurd. There is, in this attempt, something low and buf-<358>foonish; and a degree of that meanness which appeared in the person thus exposed, is likely by a natural association, to remain with his representative. The latter is beheld in the light of a player, who degrades himself for our entertainment, and whom nothing but the highest excellence in his profession can save from our contempt.
But though the circumstances and manners of a polished nation are adverse to the cultivation of humour, they are peculiarly calculated to promote the circulation and improvement of wit. The entertainment arising from the latter has no connection with those humiliating circumstances which are inseparable from the former; but is deviated from such occasional exertions of the fancy as may be consistent with the utmost elegance and correctness. The man of wit has no occasion to personate folly, or to become the temporary butt of that ridicule which he means to excite. He assumes no grotesque attitude; he employs no buffoonish expression; nor appears in any character but his own. Unlike the man of humour, he is never prolix or tedious, but<359> passing with rapidity from one object to another, selects from the group whatever suits his purpose. He sees with quickness those happy assemblages, those unexpected oppositions and resemblances with which the imagination is delighted and surprised; and by a sudden glance, he directs the attention to that electrical point of contact by which the enlivening stroke is communicated.
Persons in the higher sphere of life, who are exempted from manual labour, and spend a great part of their time in meetings of pleasure and amusement, are captivated by the brilliancy of this talent, and become fond of displaying it. By reciprocal efforts to entertain one another, and by hazarding the free exercise of their mental powers, their understandings are sharpened, their knowledge is extended, the range of their fancy is enlarged, their conceptions become clear and lively, and they acquire a facility and command of expression. As their minds are thus filled with a greater store of ideas and sentiments, and as their habits of communication are improved in proportion; their conversation is, of course, enriched and<360> diversified; it assumes a higher tone of sprightliness and vivacity, and is more productive of those new and uncommon turns of thought which are the sources of wit and pleasantry.
While true comedy, therefore, which is conversant in theatrical representation, and which is possessed of the higher powers of ridicule, experiences the discouraging influence of refined and elegant manners, it is apt, in most countries, to be succeeded by a kindred species of composition, more airy and volatile, but less forcible; which is equally calculated to exhibit the mere playfulness of a sportive imagination, and to become the pointed instrument of satire and invective.
It may, however, be remarked that the display of comic humour, in any country, will depend very much on the varieties which occur in the characters of the inhabitants. According to the diversity which prevails in the real characters of mankind, more numerous instances of impropriety and absurdity will arise, and a wider field of ridicule will be presented to those who have the capacity to make use of it.<361>
One of the chief causes of this diversity is the advancement of commerce and manufactures, and the consequent separation and multiplication of trades and professions. In commercial and manufacturing countries, all the active and industrious part of the inhabitants, that is, the great body of the people are divided and subdivided, by an endless variety of occupations, which produce corresponding differences, in their education and habits, in their sentiments and opinions, and even in the configuration of their bodies as well as in the temper and disposition of their minds.
It also merits attention, that the same varieties in character and situation, which furnish the materials of humour and ridicule, dispose mankind to employ them for the purpose of exciting mirth. The standard of dignity and propriety is different according to the character of the man who holds it, and is therefore contrasted with different improprieties and foibles. Every person, though he may not be so conceited as to consider himself in the light of a perfect model,<362> is yet apt to be diverted with the apparent oddity of that behaviour which is very different from his own. Men of robust professions, the smith, the mason, and the carpenter, are apt to break their jests upon the weakness and effeminacy of the barber, the weaver, or the taylor. The poet, or the philosopher in his garret, condemns the patient industry, and the sordid pursuits of the merchant. The silent, mysterious, practitioner in physic, is apt to smile at the no less formal but clamorous ostentation of the barrister. The genteel military man, who is hired, at the nod of his superior, to drive his fellow-creatures out of this world, is ready to sneer at the zeal, and starch-deportment of the Divine, whose profession leads him to provide for their condition and enjoyments in the next. The peculiarities of each individual are thus beheld through a mirror, which magnifies their ludicrous features, and by continually exciting that “itching to deride,” of which all mankind are possessed, affords constant exercise to their humorous talents.<363>
Rude and barbarous nations are placed in opposite circumstances. They have no such division of labour as gives rise to separate employments and professions, but are engaged, promiscuously and successively, in all those kinds of work with which they are acquainted. Having all, therefore, the same pursuits and occupations, and consequently the same objects of attention, they undergo a similar education and discipline, and acquire similar habits and ways of thinking. From the accounts of travellers and historians, we accordingly find, that however such people may happen to be distinguished by singular institutions and whimsical customs, they discover a wonderful uniformity in the general outline of their character and manners; an uniformity no less remarkable in different nations the most remote from each other, than in the different individuals of the same tribe or nation. As barbarians and savages have, at the same time, little opportunity for cultivating the powers of imagination, they are apt to be no less destitute of the inclination, than of the materials, for the exercise of humour. They<364> have, it is said, no turns of mirth and pleasantry. Their aspect is gloomy and severe. Their complexion, adust, and melancholy.
From the different circumstances attending the cultivation of the arts in different countries we may discover, in the article now under consideration, some varieties that seem worthy of notice. Among the ancient Greek states, the advancement of commerce and manufactures was, doubtless, much inferior to that which, during the present century, has taken place in modern Europe. But even so far as it went, its effects, in occasioning a diversity of characters among the people, were limited by the institution of domestic slavery, which was pushed to a great extent. The character of a slave, whatever be the employment in which he is engaged, must always be affected by his degrading situation, and by the arbitrary treatment to which he is exposed. “The world is not his friend, nor the world’s law.”27 It is no wonder that he should endeavour to elude those rules of justice, which appear to be established for the advantage merely of the free people, and from the benefit of<365> which he is totally excluded. It is no wonder that he should study to over-reach an unfeeling master, by whom he is regarded as no better than a brute animal, and denied the common rights and privileges of humanity; or that he should boil with indignation and resentment at those injuries to which he is continually subjected, and, when restrained by fear from expressing a sense of his wrongs, should be disposed to treasure up vengeance against his cruel oppressors. The greater part of slaves, therefore, are unable to resist the powerful contagion of the vices which are engendered in their miserable and humiliating circumstances; and the entire destruction of their morals is not the least injury of which they have reason to complain. In all ages and countries they discover nearly the same temper and dispositions—jealous, vindictive, and cruel; weak, fickle, and pusillanimous; cunning, selfish, and dishonest.
As in the most commercial of the Greek states, almost all the departments of trade and manufactures, and even many of those<366> which in modern times are accounted liberal, were filled with slaves, the uniformity of character so prevalent in that class of men, was, in a great measure, extended to the whole body of the people, and produced a proportional deficiency of those objects which afford the chief materials, as well as the chief excitements of humour and ridicule. This was probably the reason why the Athenians, notwithstanding their eminence in all the other productions of genius, discover so remarkable a deficiency in comic or ludicrous compositions. The comedies of Aristophanes,28 written at a period when the nation had attained a high pitch of civilization, are mere farces, deriving the whole of their pleasantry, not from nicely discriminated and well-supported characters, but from the droll and extravagant situations in which the persons of the drama are exhibited. It is true that the style of what is called the new comedy, is said to have been very different; but of this we can form no judgment, unless from the translations or imitations of it by Plautus and Terence;29 from<367> which the originals, in the article which we are now considering, do not appear in a very favourable light.
The comedies of those two Roman writers are also very deficient in the representation of character. An old avaricious father, a dissolute extravagant son, a flattering parasite, a bragging cowardly soldier, a cunning intriguing rascal of a slave; these, with a few trifling variations, make the dramatis personae in all the different compositions of those authors. But though neither Plautus nor Terence appear to have much merit in describing those nice combinations of affectation and folly, which may be regarded as the foundation of true comedy, they seem happy in the expression of common feelings, and in exhibiting natural pictures of ordinary life.
The Romans, independent of their close imitation of the Greeks, had scarce any comic writing of their own. After the destruction of the commonwealth, we meet with few writers in this department; and none of any eminence. The age of elegant literature at Rome was very short: there<368> was no commerce: the number of slaves was immense, as no free citizen would engage in any profession but those of the camp or the bar; and therefore it is probable that the Romans were still more deficient, than the Greeks, in that variety of original characters which is the great spur to ridicule.
In modern Italy, the rise of mercantile towns was followed by the revival of letters, and by the introduction of ludicrous and somewhat licentious compositions; but the Italians lost their trade, and their literature began to decline, before it had risen to that height at which the improvement of comedy was to be expected. They displayed, however, in a sort of pantomimic entertainments, a vein of low humour, by grotesque exhibitions, which are supposed to characterize the citizens of different states; and in this inferior species of drama, they are said to possess irresistible powers of exciting laughter.30
In France, the country which, after Italy made the first advances in civilization, the state of society has never been very favourable to humorous representation. In<369> that country, the fashion has had more influence, than in any other part of Europe to suppress the oddities and excentricities of individuals. The gentry, by their frequent intercourse, are induced to model their behaviour according to a common standard; and the lower orders think it incumbent upon them to imitate the gentry. Thus a greater degree of uniformity of character and behaviour is propagated through all ranks, from the highest to the lowest; and a French beggar is a gentleman in rags. Individuals, at this rate, have little temptation to laugh at each other; for this would be nearly the same thing as to laugh at themselves. From refinement of manners, at the same time, their attention has been directed to elegant sallies of pleasantry, more than to ludicrous and buffoonish representation; and the nation has at length come to occupy the superior regions of wit, without passing through the thicker and more vulgar medium of humour.
It may, accordingly, be remarked, that among the numerous and distinguished men<370> of genius whom France has produced, Le Sage, and Moliere, are perhaps the only examples that can be adduced of eminent humourous writers. The high and deserved reputation of the latter, as a writer of comedy, is universally admitted; though I think it can hardly be denied, that his characters are commonly overcharged and farcical.
There is, perhaps, no country in which manufactures and commerce have been so far extended as in England, or consequently in which the inhabitants have displayed such a multiplicity and diversity of characters. What is called a humourist, that is, a person who exhibits particular whims and oddities, not for the sake of producing mirth, but to gratify his own inclination, is less known in any other country. The English are regarded by their neighbours as a nation of humourists; a set of originals, moulded into singular shapes, and as unlike the rest of mankind as each other.
Political reasoners have ascribed this wonderful diversity of character among the<371> English to the form of their government, which imposes few restraints upon their conduct. It is obvious, however, that, though an absolute government may prevent any great singularity of behaviour, a free constitution will not alone produce it. Men do not acquire an odd or whimsical character, because they are at liberty to do so, but because they have propensities which lead them to it. In the republican states of antiquity, which enjoyed more political freedom, and among mere savages, who are almost under no government at all, nothing of this remarkable excentricity is to be observed.
But, whatever be the cause of that endless diversity of characters which prevails in England, it certainly gives encouragement to sarcastic mirth and drollery, and has produced a general disposition to humour and raillery, which is the more conspicuous from the natural modesty, reserve, and taciturnity of the people. In delineating the most unaccountable and strange appearances of human nature, they require not the aid of fiction; to conceive what is ridiculous,<372> they have only to observe it. Each individual, according to the expression of a famous buffoon, is not only humourous in himself, but the cause of humour in other men. The national genius, as might be expected, has been moulded and directed by these peculiar circumstances, and has produced a greater number of eminent writers, in all the branches of comic and ludicrous composition, than are to be found in any other country. To pass over the extraordinary genius of Shakespeare, in this as well as in other departments, with those other comic writers who lived about the commencement of English manufactures; and to mention only a few instances, near our own times, it will be difficult for any country, at one period, to match the severe and pointed irony of Swift; the lighter, but more laughable satire of Arbuthnot; the gentle raillery of Gay; the ludicrous and natural, though coarse, representations of low life, by Fielding; the strong delineations of character, together with the appropriate easy dialogue of Vanbrugh; the rich vein of correct pleasantry, in ridiculing the va-<373>rieties of studied affectation, displayed by Congreve; and, above all, the universal, equable, and creative humour of Addison.31
It cannot, however, escape observation, that the number of adventurers in this province, has of late been greatly diminished; and few of them have risen to eminence. With all the partiality which national prepossession can inspire, we are unable to name above one comic writer of the present day, who deserves to be mentioned along with his illustrious predecessors. Our late theatrical exhibitions, under the title of comedy, are, for the most part, either decent and regular, but cold and spiritless performances, or poor farces, interlarded with common place sentiment, and often accompanied by music, which creates a sort of interest with the greater part of an audience.
Whether this alteration is merely accidental, or proceeds from permanent causes; whether it is produced by the mere love of novelty, or by a general decline in the powers of exciting laughter, it is not easy to determine. That the present deficiency of talents may originate in permanent cir-<374>cumstances, depending upon gradual changes in the state of society, is far from being improbable. Though, in a country where trade and manufactures continue to flourish, the divisions of labour are endless, yet the new professions to which they give occasion come, at length, to be so minutely separated from each other, as to produce very little peculiarity of temper or disposition in those who exercise them. The person who rounds the head, and he who sharpens the point of a pin, though labouring in separate departments, present nothing different to the view of the comic observer. The field of humour and ridicule, therefore, ceases to encrease; while, by constant employment, it may be worn out and exhausted.
On the other hand, it cannot be doubted, that the inhabitants of this island, though they have long retained the “vestigia ruris,” are now, from an intercourse with their neighbours, and in the natural course of things, laying aside their former prejudices, and advancing with rapidity in all those refinements which contribute to the embellishment of society; and it may be expected<375> that when they attain a certain pitch of elegance and correctness of manners, they will become less desirous of figuring in the walks of humourous representation. Whether they are likely to become eminent in wit, in proportion as they decline in humour, may still be a question. There may be some reason to apprehend, that their application to serious business will preserve that saturnine complexion by which they have long been distinguished, and prevent their acquiring that quickness and flexibility of imagination, that never-failing vivacity and pleasantry, which are so conspicuous in their more volatile neighbours.
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———. Original Papers; containing the secret history of Great Britain, from the Restoration, to the accession of the House of Hanover; to which are prefixed extracts from the life of James II, as written by himself. 2 vols. London, 1775.
Madox, Thomas. Firma Burgi, or, An Historical Essay Concerning the Cities, Towns and Buroughs of England. London, 1726.
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Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de. De l’esprit des loix. 2 vols. Geneve, 1748.
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Muratori, Ludovico Antonio. Antiquitates Italicae Medii Aevi. 6 vols. Milano, 1738–42.
Nennius. Nennii Banchorensis Coenobiarchiae Eulogium Britanniae sive Historia Britonum. Edited by Thomas Gale and Charles Bertram. The Hague, 1758.
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Pasquier, Etienne. Les recherches de la France. Paris, 1621.
Petyt, William. The Antient Rights of the Commons of England Asserted. London, 1680.
Pfeffel, Christian Friedrich. Nouvel abrégé chronologique de l’histoire et du droit public d’Allemagne. Paris, 1777.
Prynne, William. Preface to An Exact Abridgement of the Records in the Tower of London ... Collected by Sir R. Cotton. London, 1657.
Rapin-Thoyras, Paul de. The History of England. Translated by Nicholas Tindal. 15 vols. London, 1725–31.
[Ridpath, George]. A Discourse upon the Union of Scotland and England; ... Humbly submitted to the Parliament of Scotland by a Lover of his Country. Edinburgh, 1702.
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Robertson, William. History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V. 3 vols. London, 1769.
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Russell, Rachel, Lady. Letters of Lady Rachel Russell. London, 1773.
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Sarpi, Paulo. A Treatise of Beneficiary Matters: or, A history of ecclesiastical benefices and revenues. Translated from the most correct copy in Italian extant. Westminster, 1727.
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Spenser, Edmund. A View of the State of Ireland. Dublin, 1633.
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Main Historiographical Sources for Millar’s Narrative to 1688
Bacon, Nathaniel (1593–1660): An Historical and Political Discourse of the Laws and Government of England, from the first times to the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Collected from some manuscript notes of John Selden, Esq. (London, 1689).
Bacon was a Puritan and supporter of Oliver Cromwell, and accordingly his historical writings are pervaded by a strong spirit of hostility to the claims of the royal prerogative and to hierarchical pretensions. The Historical Discourse, originally published in 1665, was suppressed by the Restoration government and reissued in 1689 with the addition of a new title page, claiming the work to have been “collected” from some notes by John Selden (on Selden, see below).
Bede, the Venerable (ca. 672–735): Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731).
Characterized as the “father of English history,” Bede spent most of his life in the monastery of Jarrow. Combining church history with other facets of British history up to 731, the Historia provides a narrative based upon both written documents and oral tradition. It is the primary source of historical knowledge for the early Anglo-Saxon period.
Robert Brady (d. 1700): A Complete History of England (1685).
A historian and physician, Brady was appointed regius professor of physics at Cambridge and twice represented the university in the House of Commons. As keeper of the records at the Tower of London, he developed a profound interest in studying the documents under his charge. His historical works are marked by a sympathy with the royal prerogative and a positive account of the feudal state, a political structure that in his view was introduced by the Normans.
Henry, Robert (1718–90): The History of Great Britain, from the First Invasion of It by the Romans Under Julius Caesar. Written on a new plan. 6 vols. (London, 1771–93).
Henry’s “new plan” involved an ambitious narrative structure that attracted attention well into the nineteenth century. While divided by time period, it is further subdivided into seven thematic narratives that parallel each epoch of British history to the Tudor period. Each of the seven narratives relates a particular strand of history, namely the history of politics, the church, the law and the constitution, learning, the arts, commerce, and manners.
Spelman, Sir Henry (ca. 1564–1641): Glossarium Archaiologium (London, 1664).
Spelman was an antiquarian and historian whose works concentrated on the Anglo-Saxon and early medieval periods. He attempted to write a history of English law from original records but was forced to abandon the exercise due to the difficulty of assigning proper meanings to Anglo-Saxon terms. Out of this experience he wrote his Glossarium, a dictionary of Anglo-Saxon and Latin legal terms. Spelman argued that feudal law was introduced to England in fully developed form only by the Norman Conquest, and that English law had not developed without interruption since the Anglo-Saxon period.
Wilkins, David (1685–1745): Leges Anglo-Saxonicae (London, 1721).
Wilkins, who became archdeacon of Suffolk in 1724, was a scholar of wide-ranging interests with a facility in a number of languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. His knowledge of Anglo-Saxon was put to use in his Leges Anglo-Saxonicae, a collection and translation of Anglo-Saxon laws.
Bacon, Francis (1561–1626): The Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seuenth(London, 1622).
The philosopher and politician’s only completed political history was a flattering portrait of the first Tudor monarch. The work was dedicated to James I and intended as a model of virtuous political conduct for Prince Charles. As a work of historical analysis, it long remained a fundamental source for the history of the early Tudor period.
Blackstone, Sir William (1723–80): Commentaries on the Laws of England. 4 vols. (London, 1765–69).
A jurist and professor of law at Oxford, Blackstone wrote commentaries that cover the whole field of law, including a chapter on the “rise, progress and gradual improvements of the laws of England.” The most influential of eighteenth-century English legal texts, it ran to some nine editions during the author’s own lifetime. Blackstone also prepared important editions of the Magna Carta and other charters for the Clarendon Press at Oxford.
Burnet, Gilbert (1643–1715): History of the Reformation of the Church of England. 3 vols. (London, 1679–1715).
A Scottish theologian and historian, the staunchly Protestant Burnet was appointed bishop of Salisbury in 1689 after returning from exile during the reign of James II. His History of the Reformation was one of the first accounts of the English Reformation based on primary sources, and was written largely as an answer to Nicholas Sanders’s De Origine ac Progressu Schismatis Anglicani (Cologne, 1585), a work that had formed the basis of most Roman Catholic histories of the English Reformation.
Carte, Thomas (1686–1754): A General History of England. 4 vols. (London, 1747–55).
Carte was a historian of decidedly Jacobite sympathies, and these inform parts of his History. While not very well known during his lifetime, the work remains a careful and important collection of information and documentary material.
Fortescue, Sir John (ca. 1385–1476): De Laudibus Legum Angliae (London, 1600).
Fortescue was chief justice of the King’s Bench and an ardent adherent of the house of Lancaster. Having been attainted for treason by Edward IV, he was in exile 1463–71. De Laudibus Legum Angliae, though concerned more with politics than with law, sheds much light on trial by jury and other English legal institutions. It was written 1468–70 in the form of a dialogue for the instruction of Edward, son of Henry VI, and it compares the law of England favorably with the civil law of France. His chief object was to emphasize the advantages of a mixed constitution and a limited monarchy.
Gilbert, Sir Geoffrey (1674–1726): The History and Practice of the High Court of Chancery (London, 1758).
Published from Gilbert’s private papers, the History is a treatise on the origins and workings of chancery, and includes a discussion of Roman law. Gilbert was a Whig lawyer, serving as lord chief baron of the Court of Exchequer in Ireland 1714–22. He was appointed to a seat on the English Exchequer Bench in 1722 and then elevated to lord chief baron of the Court of Exchequer in 1724.
Hume, David (1711–76): The History of England. 6 vols. (London, 1754–62).
In this work by the foremost philosopher and historian of eighteenth-century Britain, Hume’s initial concentration was on the reigns of the Stuart monarchs James I and Charles I, because this was when the “great constitutional struggle had first manifested itself.” Hume’s philosophically polished History was wildly successful and became the standard history of England, even if disliked by many Whigs for its apparent royalism and sharp critique of Puritanism.
Madox, Thomas (1666–1727): The History and Antiquities of the Exchequer of the Kings of England (London, 1711).
Madox was an English antiquarian and historian. His History and Antiquities of the Exchequer was the first serious study of that institution and shed much light on the financial structure of medieval England. Before his death in 1727, Madox had been compiling a general history of medieval England, the remains of which are now in the British Library.
Selden, John (1584–1654): Eadmeri Monachi Cantuariensis Historiae Novorum (London, 1623).
Selden, an English antiquary and jurist, edited the six books of Eadmer (a twelfth-century monk and chronicler), giving an account of the courts of the first two Williams and Henry I. To this text he appended his Notae et Spicilegium, a commentary on Eadmer’s writings. Selden was also the author of several legal and constitutional works, including an edition of Fortescue’s De Laudibus Legum Angliae, and A Brief Discourse Touching the Office of Lord Chancellor.
Smith, Sir Thomas (1513–77): De Republica Anglorum (London, 1583).
Smith’s work was the most important and influential description of the constitution and government of England produced during the Tudor period—indeed produced from within the system which it described. Smith was a moderate Protestant, a scholar (appointed regius professor of civil law at Cambridge in 1543 and vice-chancellor in 1545), and statesman (a member of the Privy Council 1548–50 and 1570–77).
Tyrrell, James (1642–1718): Bibliotheca Politica (London, 1694).
Conceived as a series of fourteen political dialogues, the Bibliotheca deals with parliamentary rights and the royal prerogative through a careful examination of the constitutional questions raised during the reigns of the later Stuarts. The dialogues form a valuable part of the Whig theory of the English constitution.
Willis, Browne (1682–1760): Notitia Parliamentaria. 3 vols. (London, 1730).
Willis was an antiquarian who published widely, including a series of works on English cathedrals. The first two volumes of the Notitia treat parliamentary representation in a very detailed way, addressing the counties alphabetically (but reaching only as far as Durham). The third volume provides brief notes for borough representation, as well as valuable lists of members of Parliament 1542– 1660.
Clarendon, Edward Hyde, Earl of. The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. 3 vols. (Oxford, 1702–4).
A staunch supporter of Charles I upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Hyde was made an earl after the Restoration. After serving as lord chancellor, he was exiled in the aftermath of the Dutch War. His History was a contemporary account of the Civil War that was originally written during the 1640s, augmented in exile, and published posthumously early in the eighteenth century as the standard royalist account of the conflict.
Dalrymple, Sir John (1726–1810): Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland. 3 vols. (London, 1771–73).
A lawyer trained in both Scottish and English law, Dalrymple served as baron of the exchequer 1776–1807. His Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland, which were illustrated by collections of state papers from Versailles and London, were criticized by David Hume for being too concerned with the “biographical and anecdotical.”
Hailes, Sir David Dalrymple, Lord (1726–92): Annals of Scotland. 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1776) and An Examination of some of the Arguments for the High Antiquity of Regiam Majestatem; and an enquiry into the authenticity of Leges Malcolmi (Edinburgh, 1769).
A Scottish judge, Dalrymple was a friend and correspondent of both Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson. His publications were chiefly related to early Scotland, as well as to Christian antiquities, which he deemed the best defense against the skeptical tendencies of the age. The Annals of Scotland, which soon became a standard work on the subject, lamented the loss of Scottish independence, while his Examination delved into early Scottish law, particularly the extent to which it was borrowed from English sources.
Harris, William (1720–70): An Historical and Critical Account of the Life and Writings of Charles I (London, 1758) and An Historical and Critical Account of the Life of Charles II. 2 vols. (London, 1746).
Harris was the son of a Nonconformist tradesman in Salisbury, and himself became a Nonconformist minister in Devonshire. His biographies of the Stuart kings are chiefly concerned with detailing the struggles of the Nonconformists and the establishment of various dissenting churches during the early seventeenth century.
Hume, David (1711–76): The History of England. 6 vols. (London, 1754–62).
(See entry on p. 850.) Millar’s narrative of the Stuart period engages heavily with Hume’s account in the first two volumes of his History.
Rapin-Thoyras, Paul de (1661–1725): History of England. Translated by Nicholas Tindal. 15 vols. (London, 1725–31).
A Huguenot (French Protestant), Rapin left France to avoid persecution following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. He soon joined the armies of William of Orange and was involved in the invasion of 1688 as well as the Irish campaigns. Early in the eighteenth century he began to write his Histoire, and it became the standard Whig account of English history from the Anglo-Saxons to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (until Hume’s History). In later translations, Tindal continued the narrative to the accession of George I in 1727.
Rushworth, John (1612?–90): Historical Collections. 8 vols. (London, 1659).
A lawyer, member of Parliament, and historian, Rushworth was appointed secretary to General Fairfax. His Historical Collections is composed, for the most part, of his own notes of speeches and debates over the period 1640–48. It was vehemently attacked by royalist writers for its partiality and inaccuracy, but for later historians, his notes were a valuable source for the later years of the reign of Charles I.
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[2. ]Millar’s discussion of “vivacity of colouring” and its ability to produce “sympathetic affections” echoes Kames’s doctrine of “ideal presence” in his Elements of Criticism (1762).
[3. ]Millar’s continued desire to believe in the fundamental authenticity of Macpherson’s Ossianic publications no doubt owed something to his interest in the poem as a portrait of early manners.
[4. ]The myth of the return of the descendants of Heracles to the Peloponnese functioned as a charter myth for the division of the Peloponnese between different Dorian states. According to the myth, Zeus granted Sparta to the Heraclidae who had left the Dorian heartland of northern Greece.
[5. ]The assumed date of the Trojan War falls in the thirteenth century , toward the end of the Mycenean Age, thus leaving a gap of some four and a half centuries between the date of composition of the Iliad and the legendary past in which it is set.
[6. ]Edmund Spenser (1552?–99): Elizabethan poet, author of The Faerie Queen, begun ca. 1579 and published 1590–96.
[7. ]Matteo Maria Boiardo (Bojardo) (1440?–94): Italian humanist, poet, and aristocrat, best known for his Orlando innamorato (Roland in Love), a chivalric romance. After its initial appearance in the late fifteenth century, it was reworked by the Florentine poet Francesco Berni (1497?–1535) in an attempt to bring it up to the (Tuscan) purity of Lodovico Ariosto’s (1474–1533) Orlando furioso, a more celebrated continuation which first appeared in 1516.
[8. ]As Millar indicates more clearly below, he has in mind the modern novel as the successor of the epic.
[9. ]In Greek myth, the son of Priam, king of Troy, and the greatest of the Trojan warriors described in the Iliad. He is killed by Achilles in vengeance for the slaying of Patroclus.
[10. ]Millar presumably has in mind the excesses of European Petrarchism, with its taste for extravagant oxymorons and far-fetched love imagery.
[11. ]William Shakespeare (1564–1616): the contrast between the “incorrectness” of Shakespeare and the rule-bound classicism of the great French dramatic poets (especially Jean Racine, 1639–99) was a frequent theme of eighteenth-century criticism.
[12. ]Torquato Tasso (1544–95) published Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) in 1581.
[13. ]The Henriade, an epic poem on Henry IV, was begun in 1717 and published 1726–29.
[14. ]Sophocles (ca. 496–405 ): Athenian tragedian who wrote over a hundred satirical plays, as well as seven major tragedies including Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus; Euripides (ca. 480–406 ): the latest of the prominent Greek tragedians; his major plays included Medea,Hippolytus,Andromache,Orestes, and The Bacchae; Menander (ca. 343–291 ): Athenian poet, the greatest writer of Attic comedy.
[15. ]The French Jesuit Jean-Baptiste du Halde (1674–1743) wrote the hugely influential Description geographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’Empire de la Chine (1735; English trans. 1736), based upon seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries’ reports, in which he has an account of a thirteenth-century opera, L’orphelin de la famille Zhao, by Ji Junxiang, a work that inspired Voltaire’s L’orphelin de la Chine (1755).
[16. ]Millar makes use of Smith’s observations on the differences between the emotions of the agent and those of the spectator—a difference which Smith argues is a force for moderation in social exchange. “But he can only hope to obtain this [i.e., the sympathy of spectators] by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him.” TMS, 22.
[17. ]Drawing on Kames’s doctrine of “ideal presence,” Millar voices a view of Shakespeare that resembles what the Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821) would later call “negative capability.”
[18. ]Millar presumably has in mind the blank verse translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (1517–47).
[19. ]Jean Racine (1639–99): French dramatist and poet; his major works include Andromaque (1667), Iphigénie (1675), and Phèdre (1677). Voltaire’s strictures on Shakespeare had become notorious among British writers; see his Dissertation sur la tragédie (1748).
[* ]Comedie Larmayante. [[Comédie larmoyante: a form of sentimental and domestic tragedy in which the traditional boundaries between the genres of tragedy and comedy were blurred.]]
[20. ]Cénie (1750) by Mme. de Graffigny (1695–1758); Le père de famille (1758) by Denis Diderot (1713–84); Le philosophe sans savoire (1765) by Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719–97); Louis Sebastien Mercier (1740–1814): author of An 2440 (1770) and the plays Jean Hennuyer (1772) and La destruction de la ligue (1782).
[* ]See Akenside’s Pleasures of Imagination. Note on Book III.
[21. ]Millar ascribes his thoughts on incongruity and comic effect to Akenside’s very popular poem “Pleasures of the Imagination” (1744), a poetic reworking of Addison’s famous consideration of the same subject in the Spectator.
[22. ]“This smiling father of both men and gods,” Virgil, Aeneid, bk. 12, line 829; the English is from Milton’s Paradise Lost, bk. 4, line 499.
[23. ]Compare Smith’s discussion of ridicule in Lectures on Rhetoric: “Whatever we see that is great or noble excites our admiration and amazement, and whatever is little or mean on the other hand excites our contempt. A great object never excites our laughter, neither does a mean one, simply as being such. It is the blending and joining of those two ideas which alone causes that Emotion. The foundation of Ridicule is either when what is in most respects Grand or pretends to be so or is expected to be so, has something mean or little in it.” Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ed. J. C. Bryce (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), 43.
[24. ]James Thomson (1700–48): Anglo-Scottish poet and dramatist. The line is from The Seasons (1730), lines 622ff.
[25. ]In the “Deserted Village” (1770), Oliver Goldsmith (1730?–74) famously wrote of “The loud laugh that spoke the vacant mind.”
[26. ]Pistol and Nym are from Shakespeare’s Henry V and Merry Wives of Windsor. Master Stephen is from Ben Jonson’s (1572–1637) Every Man in His Humour. The Angry Boy is from Jonson’s The Alchemist.
[27. ]Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet, act 5, scene 1.
[28. ]Aristophanes (ca. 448–ca. 388 ): Greek comic playwright, best known for The Acharnians, The Knights, The Clouds, Lysistrata, and The Frogs.
[29. ]Greek comedy written from the last quarter of the fourth century onward, but generally regarded as ending its creative heyday in the mid-third century Titus Maccius Plautus (ca. 250–184 ): Roman comic dramatist, author of the Amphytryon, Bacchides, Trinummus, and other works. Most of his plays are held to be revisions and improvements of earlier works, particularly the Attic New Comedy. Terence, or Publius Terentius Afer (ca. 190–159 ): Roman comic dramatist and a freed Carthaginian slave whose plays were based mostly on Menander.
[30. ]Commedia dell’arte (“comedy of art” or “comedy of the profession”) means unwritten drama; it was a form of improvisational comedy which began in Italy and flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
[31. ]John Arbuthnot (1667–1735): Scottish physician and writer, a member of Pope and Swift’s circle; he wrote The History of John Bull (1712), an allegorical satire which originated the popular image of John Bull as the typical Englishman, and he was the main author of the Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus (1741); John Gay (1685–1732): English poet and dramatist, author of Fables (1727) and The Beggar’s Opera (1728); Henry Fielding (1707–54): English novelist, playwright, journalist and magistrate, author of Joseph Andrews (1742) and The History of Tom Jones (1749); Sir John Vanbrugh (1664–1726): English playwright and architect who was comanager of Haymarket Theatre; William Congreve (1670–1729): English dramatist and manager of Haymarket with Vanbrugh; Joseph Addison (1672–1719): English essayist, dramatist, and politician who cofounded the Spectator.