Amelia by Henry Fielding - HTML preview

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Comments Upon Authors

Having left Amelia in as comfortable a situation as could possibly be expected, her immediate distresses relieved, and her heart filled with great hopes from the friendship of the colonel, we will now return to Booth, who, when the attorney and serjeant had left him, received a visit from that great author of whom honourable mention is made in our second chapter.

Booth, as the reader may be pleased to remember, was a pretty good master of the classics; for his father, though he designed his son for the army, did not think it necessary to breed him up a blockhead. He did not, perhaps, imagine that a competent share of Latin and Greek would make his son either a pedant or a coward. He considered likewise, probably, that the life of a soldier is in general a life of idleness; and might think that the spare hours of an officer in country quarters would be as well employed with a book as in sauntering about the streets, loitering in a coffee-house, sotting in a tavern, or in laying schemes to debauch and ruin a set of harmless ignorant country girls.

As Booth was therefore what might well be called, in this age at least, a man of learning, he began to discourse our author on subjects of literature. "I think, sir," says he, "that Dr Swift hath been generally allowed, by the critics in this kingdom, to be the greatest master of humour that ever wrote. Indeed, I allow him to have possessed most admirable talents of this kind; and, if Rabelais was his master, I think he proves the truth of the common Greek proverb-- that the scholar is often superior to the master. As to Cervantes, I do not think we can make any just comparison; for, though Mr. Pope compliments him with sometimes taking Cervantes' serious air--" "I remember the passage," cries the author;

"O thou, whatever title please thine ear, Dean, Drapier, Bickerstaff, or Gulliver; Whether you take Cervantes' serious air, Or laugh and shake in Rabelais' easy chair--"

"You are right, sir," said Booth; "but though I should agree that the doctor hath sometimes condescended to imitate Rabelais, I do not remember to have seen in his works the least attempt in the manner of Cervantes. But there is one in his own way, and whom I am convinced he studied above all others--you guess, I believe, I am going to name Lucian. This author, I say, I am convinced, he followed; but I think he followed him at a distance: as, to say the truth, every other writer of this kind hath done in my opinion; for none, I think, hath yet equalled him. I agree, indeed, entirely with Mr. Moyle, in his Discourse on the age of the Philopatris, when he gives him the epithet of the incomparable Lucian; and incomparable, I believe, he will remain as long as the language in which he wrote shall endure. What an inimitable piece of humour is his Cock!" "I remember it very well," cries the author; "his story of a Cock and a Bull is excellent." Booth stared at this, and asked the author what he meant by the Bull? "Nay," answered he, "I don't know very well, upon my soul. It is a long time since I read him. I learnt him all over at school; I have not read him much since. And pray, sir," said he, "how do you like his Pharsalia? don't you think Mr. Rowe's translation a very fine one?" Booth replied, "I believe we are talking of different authors. The Pharsalia, which Mr. Rowe translated, was written by Lucan; but I have been speaking of Lucian, a Greek  writer,  and, in  my  opinion,  the  greatest  in  the humorous way that ever the world produced." "Ay!" cries the author, "he was indeed so, a very excellent writer indeed! I fancy a translation of him would sell very well!" "I do not know, indeed," cries Booth. "A good translation of him would be a valuable book. I have seen a wretched one published by Mr. Dryden, but translated by others, who in many places have misunderstood Lucian's meaning, and have nowhere preserved the spirit of the original." "That is great pity," says the author. "Pray, sir, is he well translated in the French?" Booth answered, he could not tell; but that he doubted it very much, having never seen a good version into that language out of the Greek." To confess the truth, I believe," said he, "the French translators have generally consulted the Latin only; which, in some of the few Greek writers I have read, is intolerably bad. And as the English translators, for the most part, pursue the French, we may easily guess what spirit those copies of bad copies must preserve of the original."

"Egad, you are a shrewd guesser," cries the author. "I am glad the booksellers have not your sagacity. But how should it be otherwise, considering the price they pay by the sheet? The Greek, you will allow, is a hard language; and there are few gentlemen that write who can read it without a good lexicon. Now, sir, if we were to afford time to find out the true meaning of words, a gentleman would not get bread and cheese by his work. If one was to be paid, indeed, as Mr. Pope was for his Homer--Pray, sir, don't you think that the best translation in the world?"

"Indeed, sir," cries Booth, "I think, though it is certainly a noble paraphrase, and of itself a fine poem, yet in some places it is no translation at all. In the very beginning, for instance, he hath not rendered the true force of the author. Homer invokes his muse in the five first lines of the Iliad; and, at the end of the fifth, he gives his reason:


For all these things," says he, "were brought about by the decree of Jupiter; and, therefore, he supposes their true sources are known only to the deities. Now, the translation takes no more notice of the [Greek] than if no such word had been there.”

"Very possibly," answered the author; "it is a long time since I read the original. Perhaps, then, he followed the French translations. I observe, indeed, he talks much in the notes of Madam Dacier and Monsieur Eustathius."

Booth had now received conviction enough of his friend's knowledge of the Greek  language;  without  attempting,  therefore,  to  set  him  right,  he  made  a sudden transition to the Latin. "Pray, sir," said he, "as you have mentioned Rowe's translation of the Pharsalia, do you remember how he hath rendered that passage in the character of Cato?–

----Venerisque huic maximus usus

Progenies; urbi Pater est, urbique Maritus.

For I apprehend that passage is generally misunderstood."

"I really do not remember," answered the author. "Pray, sir, what do you take to be the meaning?"

"I apprehend, sir," replied Booth, "that by these words, Urbi Pater est, urbique

Maritus, Cato is represented as the father and husband to the city of Rome."

"Very true, sir," cries the author; "very fine, indeed.--Not only the father of his country, but the husband too; very noble, truly!"

"Pardon me, sir," cries Booth; "I do not conceive that to have been Lucan's meaning. If you please to observe the context; Lucan, having commended the temperance of Cato in the instances of diet and cloaths, proceeds to venereal pleasures; of which, says the poet, his principal use was procreation: then he adds, Urbi Pater est, urbique Maritus; that he became a father and a husband for the sake only of the city."

"Upon my word that's true," cries the author; "I did not think of it. It is much finer than the other.--Urbis Pater est--what is the other?--ay--Urbis Maritus.--It is certainly as you say, sir."

Booth was by this pretty well satisfied of the author's profound learning; however, he was willing to try him a little farther. He asked him, therefore, what was his opinion of Lucan in general, and in what class of writers he ranked him?

The author stared a little at this question; and, after some hesitation, answered, "Certainly, sir, I think he is a fine writer and a very great poet."

"I am very much of the same opinion," cries Booth; "but where do you class him-- next to what poet do you place him?”

"Let me see," cries the author; "where do I class him? next to whom do I place him?--Ay!--why--why, pray, where do you yourself place him?"

"Why, surely," cries Booth, "if he is not to be placed in the first rank with Homer, and Virgil, and Milton, I think clearly he is at the head of the second, before either Statius  or  Silius  Italicus--though  I  allow  to  each  of  these  their  merits;  but, perhaps, an epic poem was beyond the genius of either. I own, I have often thought, if Statius had ventured no farther than Ovid or Claudian, he would have succeeded better; for his Sylvae are, in my opinion, much better than his Thebais."

"I believe I was of the same opinion formerly," said the author. "And for what reason have you altered it?" cries Booth.

"I have not altered it," answered the author; "but, to tell you the truth, I have not any opinion at all about these matters at present. I do not trouble my head much with poetry; for there is no encouragement to such studies in this age. It is true, indeed, I have now and then wrote a poem or two for the magazines, but I never intend to write any more; for a gentleman is not paid for his time. A sheet is a sheet with the booksellers; and, whether it be in prose or verse, they make no difference; though certainly there is as much difference to a gentleman in the work as there is to a taylor between making a plain and a laced suit. Rhimes are difficult things; they are stubborn things, sir. I have been sometimes longer in tagging a couplet than  I  have  been  in  writing  a  speech  on  the  side  of  the opposition which hath been read with great applause all over the kingdom."

"I am glad you are pleased to confirm that," cries Booth; "for I protest it was an entire secret to me till this day. I was so perfectly ignorant, that I thought the speeches published in the magazines were really made by the members themselves."

"Some of them, and I believe I may, without vanity, say the best," cries the author, "are all the productions of my own pen! but I believe I shall leave it off soon, unless a sheet of speech will fetch more than it does at present. In truth, the  romance-writing  is  the  only  branch  of  our  business  now  that  is  worth following. Goods of that sort have had so much success lately in the market, that a bookseller scarce cares what he bids for them. And it is certainly the easiest work in the world; you may write it almost as fast as you can set pen to paper; and if you interlard it with a little scandal, a little abuse on some living characters of note, you cannot fail of success."

"Upon my word, sir," cries Booth, "you have greatly instructed me. I could not have imagined there had been so much regularity in the trade of writing as you are pleased to mention; by what I can perceive, the pen and ink is likely to become the staple commodity of the kingdom.”

"Alas! sir," answered the author, "it is overstocked. The market is overstocked. There is no encouragement to merit, no patrons. I have been these five years soliciting a subscription for my new translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, with notes  explanatory,  historical,  and  critical;  and  I  have  scarce  collected  five hundred names yet."

The mention of this translation a little surprized Booth; not only as the author had just declared his intentions to forsake the tuneful muses; but, for some other reasons which he had collected from his conversation with our author, he little expected to hear of a proposal to translate any of the Latin poets. He proceeded, therefore, to catechise him a little farther; and by his answers was fully satisfied that he had the very same acquaintance with Ovid that he had appeared to have with Lucan.

The  author then pulled  out  a  bundle  of papers  containing  proposals  for  his subscription, and receipts; and, addressing himself to Booth, said, "Though the place in which we meet, sir, is an improper place to solicit favours of this kind, yet, perhaps, it may be in your power to serve me if you will charge your pockets with some of these." Booth was just offering at an excuse, when the bailiff introduced Colonel James and the serjeant.

The unexpected visit of a beloved friend to a man in affliction, especially in Mr. Booth's situation, is a comfort which can scarce be equalled; not barely from the hopes of relief or redress by his assistance, but as it is an evidence of sincere friendship which scarce admits of any doubt or suspicion. Such an instance doth indeed make a man amends for all ordinary troubles and distresses; and we ought  to  think  ourselves  gainers  by  having  had  such  an  opportunity of discovering that we are possessed of one of the most valuable of all human possessions.

Booth was so transported at the sight of the colonel, that he dropt the proposals which the author had put into his hands, and burst forth into the highest professions of gratitude to his friend; who behaved very properly on his side, and said everything which became the mouth of a friend on the occasion.

It is true, indeed, he seemed not moved equally either with Booth or the serjeant, both whose eyes watered at the scene. In truth, the colonel, though a very generous man, had not the least grain of tenderness in his disposition. His mind was formed of those firm materials of which nature formerly hammered out the Stoic, and upon which the sorrows of no man living could make an impression. A man of this temper, who doth not much value danger, will fight for the person he calls his friend, and the man that hath but little value for his money will give it him; but such friendship is never to be absolutely depended on; for, whenever the favourite passion interposes with it, it is sure to subside and vanish into air. Whereas the man whose tender disposition really feels the miseries of another will endeavour to relieve them for his own sake; and, in such a mind, friendship will often get the superiority over every other passion.

But, from whatever motive it sprung, the colonel's behaviour to Booth seemed truly amiable; and so it appeared to the author, who took the first occasion to applaud it in a very florid oration; which the reader, when he recollects that he was a speech-maker by profession, will not be surprized at; nor, perhaps, will be much more surprized that he soon after took an occasion of clapping a proposal into the colonel's hands, holding at the same time a receipt very visible in his own.

The colonel received both, and gave the author a guinea in exchange, which was double the sum mentioned in the receipt; for which the author made a low bow, and very politely took his leave, saying, "I suppose, gentlemen, you may have some  private  business  together;  I  heartily  wish  a  speedy  end  to  your confinement, and I congratulate you on the possessing so great, so noble, and so generous a friend.”