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JACK AND GILL, A MOOK CRITICISM.
BY JOSEPH DENNIE.
AMONG critical writers, it is a common remark, that the fashion of the times has often given a temporary reputation to performances of very little merit, and neglected those much more deserving of applause. This circumstance renders it necessary that some person of sufficient sagacity to discover and to describe what is beautiful, and so impartial as to disregard vulgar prejudices, should guide the public taste, and raise merit from obscurity. Without arrogating to myself these qualities, I shall endeavour to introduce to the nation a work, which, though of considerable elegance, has been strangely overlooked by the generality of the world. The performance to which I allude, has never enjoyed that celebrity to which it is entitled, but it has of late fallen into disrepute, chiefly from the simplicity of its style, which in this age of luxurious refinement, is deemed only a secondary beauty, and from its being the favourite of the young, who can relish, without being able to illustrate, its excellence. I rejoice that it has fallen to my lot to rescue from neglect this inimitable poem; for, whatever may be my diffidence, as I shall pursue the manner of the most eminent critics, it is scarcely possible to err. The fastidious reader will doubtless smile when he is informed that the work, thus highly praised, is a poem consisting only of four lines; but as there is no reason why a poet should be restricted in
his number of verses, as it would be a very sad misfortune if every rhymer were obliged to write a long as well as a bad
poem; and more particularly as these verses contain more beauties than we often find in a poem of four thousand, all objections to its brevity should cease. I must at the same time acknowledge that at first I doubted in what class of poetry it should be arranged. Its extreme shortness, and its uncommon metre, seemed to degrade it into a ballad, but its interesting subject, its unity of plan, and, above all, its having a beginning, middle, and an end, decide its claim to the epic rank. I shall now proceed with the candour, though not with the acuteness, of a good critic, to analyze and display its various excellences.
The opening of the poem is singularly beautiful:
Jack and Gill.
The first duty of the poet is to introduce his subject, and there is no part of poetry more difficult. We are told by the great critic of antiquity that we should avoid beginning “ ab ovo,” but go into the business at once. Here our author is very happy: for instead af telling us, as an ordinary writer would have done, who were the ancestors of Jack and Gill, that the grandfather of Jack was a respectable farmer, that his mother kept a tavern at the sign of the Blue Bear; and that Gill's father was a justice of the peace, (once of the quorum), together with a catalogue of uncles and aunts, he introduces them to us at once in their proper persons. I cannot help accounting it, too, as a circumstance honourable to the genius of the poet, that he does not in his opening call upon the muse.
This is an error into which Homer and almost all the epic writers after him have fallen; since by thus stating their case to the muse, and desiring her to come to their assistance, they
necessarily presupposed that she was absent, whereas there can be no surer sign of inspiration than for a muse to come unasked. The choice too of names is not unworthy of consideration. It would doubtless have contributed to the splendor of the poem to have endowed the heroes with long and sounding titles, which, by dazzling the eyes of the reader, might prevent an examination of the work itself. These adventitious ornaments are justly disregarded by our author, who by giving us plain Jack and Gill has disdained to rely on extrinsic support. In the very choice of appellations he is however judicious. Had he, for instance, called the first character John, he might have given him more dignity, but he would not so well harmonize with his neighbour, to whom in the course of the work, it will appear he must necessarily be joined. I know it may be said, that the contraction of names savours too much of familiarity, and the lovers of proverbs may tell us that too much familiarity breeds contempt; the learned, too, may observe, that Prince Henry somewhere exclaims - Here comes lean Jack, here comes bare bones," and that the association of the two ideas detracts much from the respectability of the former. Disregarding these cavils, I cannot but remark that the lovers of abrupt openings, as in the Bard, must not deny their praise to the vivacity, with which Jack breaks in upon us.
The personages being now seen, their situation is next to be discovered. Of this we are immediately informed in the subsequent line, when we are told,
Jack and Gill
Here the imagery is distinct, yet the description concise. We instantly figure to ourselves the two persons travel
ling up an ascent, which we may accomodate to our own ideas of declivity, barrenness, rockiness, sandiness, &c. all which, as they exercise the imagination, are beauties of a high order. The reader will pardon my presumption, if I here attempt to broach a new principle which no critic, with whom I am acquainted, has ever mentioned. It is this, that poetic beauties may be divided into negative and positive, the former consisting of mere absence of fault, the latter in the presence of excellence; the first of an inferior order, but requiring considerable critical acumen to discover them, the latter of a higher rank, but obvious to the meanest capacity. To apply the principle in this case, the poet meant to inform us that two persons were going up a hill. Now the act of going up a hill, although Locke would pronounce it a very complex idea comprehending person, rising ground, trees, &c. &c. is an operation so simple as to need no description. Had the poet, therefore, told us how the two heroes went up, whether in a cart or a wagon, and entered into the thousand particulars which the subject involves, they would have been tedious, because superfluous. The omission of these little incidents, and telling us simply that they went up the hill, no matter how, is a very high negative beauty. These considerations may furnish us with the means of deciding a controversy, arising from a variation in the manuscripts; some of which have it a hill, and others the hill, for as the description is in no other part local, I incline to the former reading. It has, indeed, been suggested that the hill here mentioned was Parnassus, and that the two persons are two poets, who, having overloaded Pegasus, the poor jaded creature was obliged to stop at the foot of the hill, whilst they ascended for water to recruit him. This interpretation, it is true, derives some countenance from the consideration that Jack and Gill
were in reality, as will appear in the course of the poem, going to draw water, and that there was such a place as Hippocrene, that is a horsepond, at the top of the hill; but, on the whole, I think the text, as I have adopted it, to be the better reading.
Having ascertained the names and conditions of the parties, the reader becomes naturally inquisitive into their employment, and wishes to know whether their occupation is worthy of them. This laudable curiosity is abundantly gratified in the succeeding lines; for
Jack aud Gill
Went up a hill
Here we behold the plan gradually unfolding, a new scene opens to our view, and the description is exceedingly beautiful. We now discover their object, which we were before left to conjecture. We see the two friends, like Pylades and Orestes, assisting and cheering each other in their labours, gaily ascending the hill, eager to arrive at the summit, and to—fill their bucket.—Here too is a new elegance. Our acute author could not but observe the necessity of machinery, which has been so much commended by critics, and admired by readers. Instead, however, of introducing a host of gods and godesses, who might have only impeded the journey of his heroes, by the intervention of the bucket, which is, as it ought to be, simple and conducive to the progress of the poem, he has considerably improved on the ancient plan. In the management of it also he has shown much judgment, by making the influence of the machinery and the subject reciprocal: for while the utensil carries on the heroes, it is itself carried on by them. In this part, too, we have a