|Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.|
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
|The Wits of King Charles II.s Days|
|By John Dryden (16311700)|
From Epistle Dedicatory to The Assignation
CERTAINLY the poets of that age enjoyed much happiness in the conversation and friendship of one another. They imitated the best way of living, which was, to pursue an innocent and inoffensive pleasure, that which one of the ancients called eruditam voluptatem. We have, like them, our genial nights, where our discourse is neither too serious nor too light, but always pleasant, and for the most part, instructive; the raillery, neither too sharp upon the present, nor too censorious on the absent; and the cups only such as will raise the conversation of the night, without disturbing the business of the morrow. And thus far not only the philosophers, but the fathers of the Church have gone, without lessening their reputation of good manners or of piety. For this reason, I have often laughed at the ignorant and ridiculous descriptions which some pedants have given of the wits, as they are pleased to call them; which are a generation of men as unknown to them as the people of Tartary or the Terra Australis are to us. And therefore, as we draw giants and anthropophagi in those vacancies of our maps, where we have not travelled to discover better; so those wretches paint lewdness, atheism, folly, ill-reasoning, and all manner of extravagancies amongst us, for want of understanding what we are. Oftentimes it so falls out, that they have a particular pique to some one amongst us, and then they immediately interest heaven in their quarrel; as it is an usual trick in courts, when one designs the ruin of his enemy, to disguise his malice with some concernment of the kings, and to revenge his own cause, with pretence of vindicating the honour of his master. Such wits as they describe, I have never been so unfortunate as to meet in your company; but have often heard much better reasoning at your table, than I have encountered in their books. The wits they describe are the fops we banish. For blasphemy and atheism, if they were neither sin nor ill-manners, are subjects so very common, and worn so threadbare, that people who have sense avoid them, for fear of being suspected to have none. It calls the good name of their wit in question, as it does the credit of a citizen when his shop is filled with trumperies and painted titles, instead of wares; we conclude them bankrupt to all manner of understanding; and that to use blasphemy, is a kind of applying pigeons to the soles of the feet; it proclaims their fancy, as well as judgment, to be in a desperate condition. I am sure, for your own particular, if any of these judges had once the happiness to converse with you, to hear the candour of your opinions; how freely you commend that wit in others of which you have so large a portion yourself; how unapt you are to be censorious; with how much easiness you speak so many things, and those so pointed, that no other man is able to excel, or perhaps to reach by study, they would, instead of your accusers, become your proselytes. They would reverence so much sense and so much good nature in the same person; and come, like the satyr, to warm themselves at that fire, of which they were ignorantly afraid when they stood at a distance. But you have too great a reputation to be wholly free from censure; it is a fine which fortune sets upon all extraordinary persons, and from which you should not wish to be delivered until you are dead.