1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Henry Ireland

Henry James Pye, "Prologue intended for Vortigern" The Oracle, Public Advertiser (7 March 1796).



The story of this business is briefly as follows: The worthy Laureat went to see the Shakspeare MSS. in company with one of our most consummate Antiquaries. In doing this he was perfectly right. But his own preferable studies lying among the Greek and Roman Writers, he was wrong even for a moment to allow himself to believe against the absolute fiat of the gentleman alluded to, a person more intimately acquainted with the state of our ancient MS. and printed Literature than any we can name.

Some doubts, however, hung about his mind, and at length he thought it a violation of conscience to affirm the thing in question to be Shakspeare's. In consequence he has written a Prologue with the feeling of distrust flowing with his ink into every line, and submitted the discussion of an antiquarian question to the last tribunal in the world competent to decide upon it — namely, a theatrical audience. For it is clear that, should a great genius indeed arise among us, he might write with considerable resemblance, and correct knowledge of Nature and the Stage. — The audience would tell him his play was admirable; but if it were equal to Shakspeare's Macbeth, the admiration would ascertain nothing as to its being his: that must at last be judged by the Critics — it is an affair of language.

PROLOGUE INTENDED FOR VORTIGERN.
BY HENRY JAMES PYE, ESQ.
The cause with learned litigation fraught,
Behold at length to this tribunal brought.
No fraud your penetrating eyes can cheat,
None here can Shakespear's writing counterfeit.—
As well the taper's base unlustrous ray
Might try to emulate the orb of day,
As modern bards, whom venal hopes inspire,
Can catch the blaze of his celestial fire.—
If in our scenes your eyes delighted find
Marks that denote the mighty Master's mind;
If at his words the tears of pity flow,
Your breasts with horror thrill, with rapture glow;
Demand no other proof — your souls will feel
The stamp of Nature's uncontested seal.—
But if these proofs should fail; — if in the strain
Ye seek the Drama's awful Sire in vain;
Should Critics, Heralds, Antiquaries join
To give their fiat to each doubtful line;
Believe them not. — Tho' to the nicest eye
The coiner imitate the royal dye,
The Touchstone shall detect the specious mould,
Nor let base metal pass for sterling gold.
This cause then in the last resort you try,
From this tribunal no appeal can lie.
Turn from the frigid rules of critic art
To read the Code of Nature in the heart:
Consult her laws, from partial favour free,
And give, as they decide, your just decree.

The preceding Prologue to VORTIGERN received the full approbation of the Manager, but was objected to by the owner of the MSS. as not being strong enough in asserting the authenticity of the Play.