LETTER XXI.--ON THE EARL OF ROCHESTER AND MR. WALLER
The Earl of Rochester's name is universally known. Mr. de St.
Evremont has made very frequent mention of him, but then he has
represented this famous nobleman in no other light than as the man
of pleasure, as one who was the idol of the fair; but, with regard
to myself, I would willingly describe in him the man of genius, the
great poet. Among other pieces which display the shining
imagination, his lordship only could boast he wrote some satires on
the same subjects as those our celebrated Boileau made choice of. I
do not know any better method of improving the taste than to compare
the productions of such great geniuses as have exercised their
talent on the same subject. Boileau declaims as follows against
human reason in his "Satire on Man:"
"Cependant a le voir plein de vapeurs legeres,
Soi-meme se bercer de ses propres chimeres,
Lui seul de la nature est la baze et l'appui,
Et le dixieme ciel ne tourne que pour lui.
De tous les animaux il est ici le maitre;
Qui pourroit le nier, poursuis tu? Moi peut-etre.
Ce maitre pretendu qui leur donne des loix,
Ce roi des animaux, combien a-t'il de rois?"
"Yet, pleased with idle whimsies of his brain,
And puffed with pride, this haughty thing would fain
Be think himself the only stay and prop
That holds the mighty frame of Nature up.
The skies and stars his properties must seem,
Of all the creatures he's the lord, he cries.
And who is there, say you, that dares deny
So owned a truth? That may be, sir, do I.
This boasted monarch of the world who awes
The creatures here, and with his nod gives laws
This self-named king, who thus pretends to be
The lord of all, how many lords has he?"
OLDHAM, a little altered.
The Lord Rochester expresses himself, in his "Satire against Man,"
in pretty near the following manner. But I must first desire you
always to remember that the versions I give you from the English
poets are written with freedom and latitude, and that the restraint
of our versification, and the delicacies of the French tongue, will
not allow a translator to convey into it the licentious impetuosity
and fire of the English numbers:-
"Cet esprit que je hais, cet esprit plein d'erreur,
Ce n'est pas ma raison, c'est la tienne, docteur.
C'est la raison frivole, inquiete, orgueilleuse
Des sages animaux, rivale dedaigneuse,
Qui croit entr'eux et l'Ange, occuper le milieu,
Et pense etre ici bas l'image de son Dieu.
Vil atome imparfait, qui croit, doute, dispute
Rampe, s'eleve, tombe, et nie encore sa chute,
Qui nous dit je suis libre, en nous montrant ses fers,
Et dont l'oeil trouble et faux, croit percer l'univers.
Allez, reverends fous, bienheureux fanatiques,
Compilez bien l'amas de vos riens scholastiques,
Peres de visions, et d'enigmes sacres,
Auteurs du labirinthe, ou vous vous egarez.
Allez obscurement eclaircir vos misteres,
Et courez dans l'ecole adorer vos chimeres.
Il est d'autres erreurs, il est de ces devots
Condamne par eux memes a l'ennui du repos.
Ce mystique encloitre, fier de son indolence
Tranquille, au sein de Dieu. Que peut il faire? Il pense.
Non, tu ne penses point, miserable, tu dors:
Inutile a la terre, et mis au rang des morts.
Ton esprit enerve croupit dans la molesse.
Reveille toi, sois homme, et sors de ton ivresse.
L'homme est ne pour agir, et tu pretens penser?" &c.
The original runs thus:-
"Hold mighty man, I cry all this we know,
And 'tis this very reason I despise,
This supernatural gift that makes a mite
Think he's the image of the Infinite;
Comparing his short life, void of all rest,
To the eternal and the ever blest.
This busy, puzzling stirrer up of doubt,
That frames deep mysteries, then finds them out,
Filling, with frantic crowds of thinking fools,
Those reverend bedlams, colleges, and schools;
Borne on whose wings each heavy sot can pierce
The limits of the boundless universe.
So charming ointments make an old witch fly,
And bear a crippled carcase through the sky.
'Tis this exalted power, whose business lies
In nonsense and impossibilities.
This made a whimsical philosopher
Before the spacious world his tub prefer;
And we have modern cloistered coxcombs, who
Retire to think, 'cause they have naught to do.
But thoughts are given for action's government,
Where action ceases, thought's impertinent."
Whether these ideas are true or false, it is certain they are
expressed with an energy and fire which form the poet. I shall be
very far from attempting to examine philosophically into these
verses, to lay down the pencil, and take up the rule and compass on
this occasion; my only design in this letter being to display the
genius of the English poets, and therefore I shall continue in the
The celebrated Mr. Waller has been very much talked of in France,
and Mr. De la Fontaine, St. Evremont, and Bayle have written his
eulogium, but still his name only is known. He had much the same
reputation in London as Voiture had in Paris, and in my opinion
deserved it better. Voiture was born in an age that was just
emerging from barbarity; an age that was still rude and ignorant,
the people of which aimed at wit, though they had not the least
pretensions to it, and sought for points and conceits instead of
sentiments. Bristol stones are more easily found than diamonds.
Voiture, born with an easy and frivolous, genius, was the first who
shone in this aurora of French literature. Had he come into the
world after those great geniuses who spread such a glory over the
age of Louis XIV., he would either have been unknown, would have
been despised, or would have corrected his style. Boileau applauded
him, but it was in his first satires, at a time when the taste of
that great poet was not yet formed. He was young, and in an age
when persons form a judgment of men from their reputation, and not
from their writings. Besides, Boileau was very partial both in his
encomiums and his censures. He applauded Segrais, whose works
nobody reads; he abused Quinault, whose poetical pieces every one
has got by heart; and is wholly silent upon La Fontaine. Waller,
though a better poet than Voiture, was not yet a finished poet. The
graces breathe in such of Waller's works as are writ in a tender
strain; but then they are languid through negligence, and often
disfigured with false thoughts. The English had not in his time
attained the art of correct writing. But his serious compositions
exhibit a strength and vigour which could not have been expected
from the softness and effeminacy of his other pieces. He wrote an
elegy on Oliver Cromwell, which, with all its faults, is
nevertheless looked upon as a masterpiece. To understand this copy
of verses you are to know that the day Oliver died was remarkable
for a great storm. His poem begins in this manner:-
"Il n'est plus, s'en est fait, soumettons nous au sort,
Le ciel a signale ce jour par des tempetes,
Et la voix des tonnerres eclatant sur nos tetes
Vient d'annoncer sa mort.
"Par ses derniers soupirs il ebranle cet ile;
Cet ile que son bras fit trembler tant de fois,
Quand dans le cours de ses exploits,
Il brisoit la tete des Rois,
Et soumettoit un peuple a son joug seul docile.
"Mer tu t'en es trouble; O mer tes flots emus
Semblent dire en grondant aux plus lointains rivages
Que l'effroi de la terre et ton maitre n'est plus.
"Tel au ciel autrefois s'envola Romulus,
Tel il quitta la Terre, au milieu des orages,
Tel d'un peuple guerrier il recut les homages;
Obei dans sa vie, sa mort adore,
Son palais fut un Temple," &c.
"We must resign! heaven his great soul does claim
In storms as loud as his immortal fame;
His dying groans, his last breath shakes our isle,
And trees uncut fall for his funeral pile:
About his palace their broad roots are tost
Into the air; so Romulus was lost!
New Rome in such a tempest missed her king,
And from obeying fell to worshipping.
On OEta's top thus Hercules lay dead,
With ruined oaks and pines about him spread.
Nature herself took notice of his death,
And, sighing, swelled the sea with such a breath,
That to remotest shores the billows rolled,
Th' approaching fate of his great ruler told."
It was this elogium that gave occasion to the reply (taken notice of
in Bayle's Dictionary), which Waller made to King Charles II. This
king, to whom Waller had a little before (as is usual with bards and
monarchs) presented a copy of verses embroidered with praises,
reproached the poet for not writing with so much energy and fire as
when he had applauded the Usurper (meaning Oliver). "Sir," replied
Waller to the king, "we poets succeed better in fiction than in
truth." This answer was not so sincere as that which a Dutch
ambassador made, who, when the same monarch complained that his
masters paid less regard to him than they had done to Cromwell.
"Ah, sir!" says the Ambassador, "Oliver was quite another man--" It
is not my intent to give a commentary on Waller's character, nor on
that of any other person; for I consider men after their death in no
other light than as they were writers, and wholly disregard
everything else. I shall only observe that Waller, though born in a
court, and to an estate of five or six thousand pounds sterling a
year, was never so proud or so indolent as to lay aside the happy
talent which Nature had indulged him. The Earls of Dorset and
Roscommon, the two Dukes of Buckingham, the Lord Halifax, and so
many other noblemen, did not think the reputation they obtained of
very great poets and illustrious writers, any way derogatory to
their quality. They are more glorious for their works than for
their titles. These cultivated the polite arts with as much
assiduity as though they had been their whole dependence.
They also have made learning appear venerable in the eyes of the
vulgar, who have need to be led in all things by the great; and who,
nevertheless, fashion their manners less after those of the nobility
(in England I mean) than in any other country in the world.