You ask me how I spend my time. I answer, Chiefly at home; partly from the badness of the weather to avoid colds, and partly from my not having a servant's horse, — for I have been again disappointed. When the season will permit I busy myself in my garden, where these late winds have made great havock, by tearing up some trees which were of a size not to be replaced in half an age. Among other mischiefs these tempests have done me, I cannot help mentioning one, as it gave me a real concern, which I know you will not laugh at me for. All this season's labours of the poor rooks are in a few hours quite lost, and both nests and eggs torn out of the trees, and scattered all about the ground. You cannot easily imagine the trepidation and terror they were in during the tempest; but though the winds continue high, they are at intervals busy about repairs, and I hope will lay a fresh stock of eggs with better luck.
This impertinent episode of the rookery interrupted the account I was giving of my employment, which I was going to tell you is chiefly reading the choicest authors my little library affords; which, as they are few, I go over and over again; and indeed I almost read my eyes out. What I write is mostly by way of amusement. I send you a sample by obeying in part the commands of your last letter; for I exhort instead of chiding, and address the advice to the sex in general, since a particular application, if the accident has left marks behind it, might make the lady ridiculous, whom I am really concerned, for I commend it to your candour to do with it what you please, with absolute power of life and death.
Wednesday, March 18th.
I come now to the paragraph in your letter where you exhort me to vindicate Pope and Milton from their editors; to which I answer, I do not like fighting-work, unless upon a just and reasonable provocation. Now I think I have not this in either of these cases. As to Mr. Pope, though I had some acquaintance with him, and admired him as a poet, yet I must own I never had any great opinion of him in any other light; nor do I see reason to alter my judgment, from what has appeared of his character since his death. With all his affectation of humanity and a general benevolence, he was certainly a very ill-natured man; and can such a one easily be a good man?
But were I ever so disposed, what can I vindicate? Not the morality of his essays, for I think it very faulty. Mr. Warburton has, indeed, tinkered it in some places to make it look orthodox, but yet it will not hold water: what then will become of it, when these patches are taken off? Would it not be ruining the poet to chastise his commentator? And as to any alterations in the text, who can prove against him, who has all Mr. Pope's papers, what is and what is not genuine? Upon the whole, whatever the consequences may be as to Mr. Pope's reputation, I think he deserves them for his ill-judged confidence; and I fear my attacking Mr. Warburton in his defence would look like spleen and resentment for his unworthy treatment of me, rather than an honest justification of a cause perhaps not very defensible. But I really believe he will not suffer much from his commentator; and that he, as well as a much better man, Shakespeare, will soon get rid of the lumber which at present encumbers them, and emerge to posterity clear of their heavy annotator. And this very much cools the expectations you flatter me with, of what may hereafter be thought of the author of the Canons. That pamphlet has already done for me more than I could reasonably expect. I have in some measure vindicated the reputation of the divine Shakespeare; and (but you must not let Miss S. hear this) in some measure represented the insolence of his over bearing commentator: and though in this engagement I have been a little bitten by the blatant beast of Spenser, yet I have gained so much of the regard and countenance of so many of the most worthy of both sexes, as makes me ample amends for what I have suffered, or can suffer, in this cause. But I think I should be very much mistaken, if I should depend upon being known to posterity by such a work as this, since, if it should escape the fate which most pamphlets of that size are liable to, of falling into the pastry-cook's hands, it must be in a great measure unintelligible, unless by ill luck the bad edition of Shakespeare, which it was written to expose, should go down to posterity with it.
As to the other gentleman you mention, his case I think is very different: his crime seems to be rather chance-medley than wilful murder; and what he has done, if it proceed not from want of genius, is rather an imposition on his subscribers than an injury to the poet; and perhaps the chief blame ought to be laid on his noble patron, who with ill judgment put him upon the work, and probably solicited subscriptions for him. But were I to undertake the correction of all enormities of this sort, I should be reckoned the scourge of authors, and the ruin of the booksellers, whose whole fraternity would look askew upon me, as Paul Knapton has done ever since the Canons.
As for the Trial [of the Letter Y], if it be not too small (and I think it not easily practicable to make it much larger on that plan), I am very willing it should be made public, as a specimen of some reformation in our spelling, and to stir up others of learning and leisure to attend to it; for, if any thing is done to the purpose in this matter, it must, I think, be by a number of people. At least, for my own part, I acknowledge I am far from being able to produce a complete system on that head. I am perpetually learning something, and meet with frequent difficulties; nor do I expect to be quite master of our language before I shall have no longer occasion for it. However, as every little helps, I am willing to contribute all I can towards ascertaining it, for the use of those who shall come after me.
But of this I hope to talk with you ere it be long; for I design to surprise you one of these days at North-End, where perhaps I may have the good luck to find some of your Muses or Graces with you. But my prospect of this pleasure is not so near as that I can fix the time, and therefore I beg it may not hinder my hearing from you when your health and leisure will permit.
The lady's remark, in your postscript, on those lines of Pope, is, I think, very just. I own I always looked upon that passage in the same light; and there is in my opinion as great an objection against another line in the Essay, where speaking of the angels, he says they may
—show a Newton as we show an ape.
For, what pains soever his commentator may take to cover or disguise the real meaning of the words, the thought I think is false; since none, no not the highest order of beings, can look upon a fellow creature, who has improved the faculties of human reason, and exerted them in the most noble manner, — the pursuit and discovery of truth, — otherwise than with honour and approbation, not in a ridiculous and contemptible light; which is the obvious meaning of the image given us above.
Turrick, March 20, 1752.