Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
By Alexander Pope (16881744)
From The Guardian, 16th March 1713
It matters not how false or forcd,
So the best things be said o th worst
It goes for nothing when t is said.
Only the arrows drawn to the head,
Whether it be a swan or goose
They level at; so shepherds use
To set the same mark on the hip
Both of their sound and rotten sheep.
THOUGH most things which are wrong in their own nature are at once confessed and absolved in that single word Custom; yet there are some which, as they have a dangerous tendency, a thinking man will the less excuse on that very account. Among these I cannot but reckon the common practice of dedications, which is of so much the worse consequence, as it is generally used by people of politeness, and whom a learned education ought to have inspired with nobler and juster sentiments. This prostitution of praise is not only a deceit upon the gross of mankind, who take their notion of characters from the learned; but also the better sort must by this means lose some part at least of that desire of fame which is the incentive to generous actions, when they find it promiscuously bestowed on the meritorious and undeserving. Nay, the author himself, let him be supposed to have ever so true a value for the patron, can find no terms to express it but what have been already used, and rendered suspected by flatterers. Even truth itself in a dedication is like an honest man in a disguise, or vizor-mask, and will appear a cheat by being dressed so like one. Though the merit of the person is beyond dispute, I see no reason that because one man is eminent, therefore another has a right to be impertinent, and throw praises in his face. Tis just the reverse of the practice of the ancient Romans, when a person was advanced to triumph for his services: as they hired people to rail at him in that circumstance to make him as humble as they could, we have fellows to flatter him, and make him as proud as they can. Supposing the writer not to be mercenary, yet the great man is no more in reason obliged to thank him for his picture in a dedication, than to thank a painter for that on a sign-post; except it be a less injury to touch the most sacred part of him, his character, than to make free with his countenance only. I should think nothing justified me in this point, but the patrons permission beforehand, that I should draw him as like as I could; whereas most authors proceed in this affair just as a dauber I have heard of, who, not being able to draw portraits after the life, was used to paint faces at random, and look out afterwards for people whom he might persuade to be like them. To express my notion of the thing in a word: to say more to a man than one thinks, with a prospect of interest, is dishonest; and without it, foolish. And whoever has had success in such an undertaking must of necessity, at once, think himself in his heart a knave for having done it, and his patron a fool for having believed it.
I have sometimes been entertained with considering dedications in no very common light. By observing what qualities our writers think it will be most pleasing to others to compliment them with, one may form some judgment which are most so to themselves; and in consequence, what sort of people they are. Without this view one can read very few dedications but will give us cause to wonder, either how such things came to be said at all, or how they were said to such persons? I have known a hero complimented upon the decent majesty and state he assumed after victory, and a nobleman of a different character applauded for his condescension to inferiors. This would have seemed very strange to me, but that I happened to know the authors. He who made the first compliment was a lofty gentleman, whose air and gait discovered when he had published a new book; and the other tippled every night with the fellows who laboured at the press while his own writings were being worked off. It is observable of the female poets and ladies dedicatory, that here (as elsewhere) they far exceed us in any strain or rant. As beauty is the thing that sex are piqued upon, they speak of it generally in a more elevated style than is used by the men. They adore in the same manner as they would be adored. So when the authoress of a famous modern romance begs a young noblemans permission to pay him her kneeling adorations, I am far from censuring the expression, as some critics would do, as deficient in grammar or sense; but I reflect that adorations paid in that posture are what a lady might expect herself, and my wonder immediately ceases. These, when they flatter most, do but as they would be done unto; for as none are so much concerned at being injured by calumnies as they who are readiest to cast them upon their neighbours; so it is certain none are so guilty of flattery to others, as those who most ardently desire it themselves.
What led me into these thoughts was a dedication I happened upon this morning. The reader must understand that I treat the least instances or remains of ingenuity with respect, in what places soever found, or under whatever circumstances of disadvantage. From this love to letters I have been so happy in my searches after knowledge, that I have found unvalued repositories of learning in the lining of bandboxes. I look upon these pasteboard edifices, adorned with the fragments of the ingenious, with the same veneration as antiquaries upon ruined buildings, whose walls preserve divers inscriptions and names, which are nowhere else to be found in the world. This morning, when one of Lady Lizards daughters was looking over some hoods and ribands, brought by her tirewoman, with great care and diligence, I employed no less in examining the box which contained them; it was lined with certain scenes of a tragedy, written (as appeared by part of the title there extant) by one of the fair sex. What was most legible was the dedication; which, by reason of the largeness of the characters, was least defaced by those Gothic ornaments of flourishes and foliage, wherewith the compilers of these sort of structures do often industriously obscure the works of the learned. As much of it as I could read with any ease, I shall communicate to the reader, as follows:
Though it is a kind of profanation to approach your grace with so poor an offering, yet when I reflect how acceptable a sacrifice of first fruits was to heaven, in the earliest and purest ages of religion, that they were honoured with solemn feasts, and consecrated to altars by a divine command, upon that consideration, as an argument of particular zeal, I dedicate . It is impossible to behold you without adoring; yet dazzled and awed by the glory that surrounds you, men feel a sacred power, that refines their flames, and renders them pure as those we ought to offer to the Deity . The shrine is worthy the divinity that inhabits it. In your grace we see what woman was before she fell, how nearly allied to the purity and perfection of angels. And we adore and bless the glorious work!
Undoubtedly these, and other periods of this most pious dedication, could not but convince the duchess of what the eloquent authoress assures her at the end, that she was her servant with most ardent devotion. I think this a pattern of a new sort of style, not yet taken notice of by the critics, which is above the sublime, and may be called the celestial; that is, when the most sacred phrases appropriated to the honour of the Deity are applied to a mortal of good quality. As I am naturally emulous, I cannot but endeavour, in imitation of this lady, to be the inventor, or, at least, the first producer of a new kind of dedication, very different from hers and most others, since it has not a word but what the author religiously thinks in it. It may serve for almost any book, either prose or verse, that has been, is, or shall be published, and might run in this manner:
Most honoured Sir, These labours, upon many considerations, so properly belong to none as to you: first, as it was your most earnest desire alone that could prevail upon me to make them public: Then, as I am secure (from that constant indulgence you have ever shown to all that is mine) that no man will so readily take them into protection, or so zealously defend them. Moreover, there is none can so soon discover the beauties; and there are some parts which it is possible few beside yourself are capable of understanding. Sir, the honour, affection, and value I have for you are beyond expression; as great, I am sure, or greater, than any man else can bear you. As for any defects which others may pretend to discover in you, I do faithfully declare I was never able to perceive them; and doubt not but those persons are actuated purely by a spirit of malice or envy, the inseparable attendants on shining merit and parts, such as I have always esteemed yours to be. It may perhaps be looked upon as a kind of violence to modesty, to say this to you in public; but you may believe me, it is no more than I have a thousand times thought of you in private. Might I follow the impulse of my soul, there is no subject I could launch into with more pleasure than your panegyric. But since something is due to modesty, let me conclude by telling you, that there is nothing so much I desire as to know you more thoroughly than I have yet the happiness of doing. I may then hope to be capable to do you some real service; but till then can only assure you that I shall continue to be, as I am more than any man alive, dearest Sir, your affectionate Friend, and the greatest of your Admirers.