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Letters on England

22. On Mr. Pope And Some Other Famous Poets
I intended to treat of Mr. Prior, one of the most amiable English poets, whom you
saw Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary at Paris in 1712. I also designed to
have given you some idea of the Lord Roscommon's and the Lord Dorset's
muse; but I find that to do this I should be obliged to write a large volume, and
that, after much pains and trouble, you would have but an imperfect idea of all
those works. Poetry is a kind of music in which a man should have some
knowledge before he pretends to judge of it. When I give you a translation of
some passages from those foreign poets, I only prick down, and that imperfectly,
their music; but then I cannot express the taste of their harmony.
There is one English poem especially which I should despair of ever making you
understand, the title whereof is "Hudibras." The subject of it is the Civil War in the
time of the grand rebellion, and the principles and practice of the Puritans are
therein ridiculed. It is Don Quixote, it is our "Satire Menippee" blended together. I
never found so much wit in one single book as in that, which at the same time is
the most difficult to be translated. Who would believe that a work which paints in
such lively and natural colours the several foibles and follies of mankind, and
where we meet with more sentiments than words, should baffle the endeavours
of the ablest translator? But the reason of this is, almost every part of it alludes to
particular incidents. The clergy are there made the principal object of ridicule,
which is understood but by few among the laity. To explain this a commentary
would be requisite, and humour when explained is no longer humour. Whoever
sets up for a commentator of smart sayings and repartees is himself a
blockhead. This is the reason why the works of the ingenious Dean Swift, who
has been called the English Rabelais, will never be well understood in France.
This gentleman has the honour (in common with Rabelais) of being a priest, and,
like him, laughs at everything; but, in my humble opinion, the title of the English
Rabelais which is given the dean is highly derogatory to his genius. The former
has interspersed his unaccountably-fantastic and unintelligible book with the
most gay strokes of humour; but which, at the same time, has a greater
proportion of impertinence. He has been vastly lavish of erudition, of smut, and
insipid raillery. An agreeable tale of two pages is purchased at the expense of
whole volumes of nonsense. There are but few persons, and those of a
grotesque taste, who pretend to understand and to esteem this work; for, as to
the rest of the nation, they laugh at the pleasant and diverting touches which are
found in Rabelais and despise his book. He is looked upon as the prince of
buffoons. The readers are vexed to think that a man who was master of so much
wit should have made so wretched a use of it; he is an intoxicated philosopher
who never wrote but when he was in liquor.
Dean Swift is Rabelais in his senses, and frequenting the politest company. The
former, indeed, is not so gay as the latter, but then he possesses all the delicacy,