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If Mr. Voltaire should translate these words, he would triumph much that one of our most elegant poets talked of drubbing sacred order. The translator seems not even to know the English prosodia; for in translating Porcia's words,
If it be no more,
Porcia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife,
he puts in a note upon harlot, to assure us that the word in the original is w―; which, if he understood our blank-verse, he would know could not make up the
Mr. Voltaire formerly understood the English language tolerably well. His translation of part of Antony's speech to the people, in his own play of the death of Julius Cæsar, though far inferior to the original, is pretty good; and in his tragedy of Junius Brutus he has improved upon the Brutus of our old poet Lee: he has followed the English poet in making the daughter of Tarquin seduce the son of Junius Brutus
into a scheme for the restoration of her father; but with great judgment has imitated only what was worthy of imitation; and by the strength of his own genius, has rendered his piece much more excellent than that of Mr. Lee.
It must be allowed that Mr. Voltaire, in his translation of Shakspeare, has nobly emulated those interpreters of Homer, who, Mr. Pope tells us, misunderstand the text, and then triumph in the awkwardness of their own translations. To shew he decides with the same judgment and candour with which he translates, it will be necessary to present the sentence he has pronounced upon the genius of our great Poet. Speaking of Corneille he says, he was unequal like Shakspeare, and like him full of genius; mais le genie de Corneille était à celui de Shakespear, ce qu'un seigneur est à l'egard d'un homme au peuple né avec le même esprit que lui. I have given his own words, because they do not carry any determinate sense. I conjecture they may be thus translated; "The genius of Corneille is to that of Shakspeare,
speare, what a man of great rank is to one of the lower sort born with the same talents of mind.”—When we speak of genius, we always mean that which is original and inherent, not any thing produced or derived from what is external. But Mr. Voltaire, by saying the genius of Corneille has that superiority over our countryman, which a person of rank has over a man in a low station, born with the same talents, perplexes the thing very much. It seems to carry the comparison from the genius, to the manner, of the writers.
If that manner is preferable, which gives the most becoming sentiments and the noblest character to the principal person of his drama, there is no doubt but our Poet has perfectly established his superiority over his competitor; for it cannot be denied, that Cinna is un homme du peuple (a low fellow), compared to Brutus.
Mr. Voltaire, in all the comparisons he has made between these authors, has not taken into theaccount that Shakspeare has written
written the best comedy in our language: that the same man should have had such variety of talents, as to have produced Macbeth and the Merry Wives of Windsor, is astonishing. Where is there an instance, among the ancients or moderns, of one poet's uniting the sublime and pathetic, the boldest inventions of fiction, and the most just and accurate delineation of characters; and also possessing the vis comica in its highest perfection? The best French poets have been those
Who from the ancients like the ancients writ;
and who have aspired to the secondary praise of good imitators: but all our critics allow Shakspeare to be an original. Mr. Pope confesses him to be more so than even Homer himself. It has been demonstrated with great ingenuity and candour, that he was destitute of learning: the age was rude and void of taste; but what had a still more pernicious influence on his works, was, that the court and the universities, the statesmen and scholars, affected a scientific jargon. An obscurity of expression
was thought the veil of wisdom and knowledge and that mist common to the morn and eve of literature, which in fact provés it is not at its high meridian, was affectedly thrown over the writings, and even the conversation of the learned, who often preferred images distorted or magnified, to a simple exposition of their thoughts. Shakspeare is never more worthy of the true critic's censure, than in those instances in which he complies with this false pomp of manner. It was pardonable in a man of his rank, not to be more polite and delicate than his contemporaries; but we cannot so easily excuse such superiority of talents for stooping to any affectation.
I may perhaps be charged with partiality to my author, for not having indulged that malignant spirit of criticism, which delights in exposing every blemish. I have passed over beauties and defects, in the same silence, where they have not essentially affected the great purposes of the Drama. They are of so palpable a nature, that the most inattentive reader must perceive them: the splendour of