The History of Tom Jones
Containing A Portion Of Time Somewhat Longer Than Half A Year.
Of the SERIOUS in writing, and for what purpose it is introduced.
Peradventure there may be no parts in this prodigious work which will give the
reader less pleasure in the perusing, than those which have given the author the
greatest pains in composing. Among these probably may be reckoned those
initial essays which we have prefixed to the historical matter contained in every
book; and which we have determined to be essentially necessary to this kind of
writing, of which we have set ourselves at the head.
For this our determination we do not hold ourselves strictly bound to assign any
reason; it being abundantly sufficient that we have laid it down as a rule
necessary to be observed in all prosai-comi-epic writing. Who ever demanded
the reasons of that nice unity of time or place which is now established to be so
essential to dramatic poetry? What critic hath been ever asked, why a play may
not contain two days as well as one? Or why the audience (provided they travel,
like electors, without any expense) may not be wafted fifty miles as well as five?
Hath any commentator well accounted for the limitation which an antient critic
hath set to the drama, which he will have contain neither more nor less than five
acts? Or hath any one living attempted to explain what the modern judges of our
theatres mean by that word low; by which they have happily succeeded in
banishing all humour from the stage, and have made the theatre as dull as a
drawing-room! Upon all these occasions the world seems to have embraced a
maxim of our law, viz., cuicunque in arte sua perito credendum est: for it seems
perhaps difficult to conceive that any one should have had enough of impudence
to lay down dogmatical rules in any art or science without the least foundation. In
such cases, therefore, we are apt to conclude there are sound and good reasons
at the bottom, though we are unfortunately not able to see so far.
Now, in reality, the world have paid too great a compliment to critics, and have
imagined them men of much greater profundity than they really are. From this
complacence, the critics have been emboldened to assume a dictatorial power,
and have so far succeeded, that they are now become the masters, and have the
assurance to give laws to those authors from whose predecessors they originally
The critic, rightly considered, is no more than the clerk, whose office it is to
transcribe the rules and laws laid down by those great judges whose vast
strength of genius hath placed them in the light of legislators, in the several
sciences over which they presided. This office was all which the critics of old
aspired to; nor did they ever dare to advance a sentence, without supporting it by
the authority of the judge from whence it was borrowed.
But in process of time, and in ages of ignorance, the clerk began to invade the
power and assume the dignity of his master. The laws of writing were no longer
founded on the practice of the author, but on the dictates of the critic. The clerk