Connoisseur No. 67 [On Imitation.]

The Connoisseur No. 67 (8 May 1755).

Robert Lloyd

Robert Lloyd writes anonymously: "The poets, of the present time ... are so far from endeavouring to elevate and surprise by any thing original, that their whole business is imitation; and they jingle their bells in the same road with those that went before them, with all the dull exactness of a packhorse." The verse epistle against imitation appended to the essay imitates Isaac Hawkins Browne's Pipe of Tobacco (1736) which itself burlesqued the popular writers of the day. The result is quite a hall of mirrors: updating Brown, Lloyd burlesques his contemporaries as they themselves imitate Prior, Swift, Milton, Spenser, and Pope. The stanza on Spenserians glances at the "impenetrable cloud" of allegory in those who fail "T' instruct and please in moral tale." Not seen.

James Boswell: "I mentioned the periodical paper called The Connoisseur. He [Johnson] said it wanted matter. — No doubt it has not the deep thinking of Johnson's writings. But surely it has just views of the surface of life, and a very sprightly manner" Life of Johnson (1791) ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 1:487.

Leigh Hunt: "My father, with his usual good-natured impulse, making me a present one day of a set of the British classics, which attracted my eyes on the shelves of Harley, the bookseller in Cavendish-street, the tenderness with which I had come to regard all my school-recollections, and the acquaintance which I now made for the first time with the lively papers of the Connoisseur, gave me an entirely fresh and delightful sense of the merits of essay writing. I began to think that when Boyer crumpled up and chucked away my 'themes' in a passion, he had not done justice to the honest weariness of my anti-formalities, and to their occasional evidences of something better" Autobiography (1850) 1:165.

"Dr. Johnson was the force who encouraged a wave of protest against the Augustan ideal of imitation. Lloyd's poem is not to be seriously reckoned with. He even attacked those who strove to imitate 'Mat Prior's unaffected ease,' a thing which he himself never ceased doing throughout his career" Herbert E. Cory, "Spenser, Thomson, and Romanticism" PMLA 26 (1911) 69n.

O imitatores, servum pecus!—
HOR. EPIST. i. 19. 19.
Dull imitators! like the servile hack,
Still slowly plodding in the beaten track.

To Mr. Town.
Bayes, in The Rehearsal, frequently boasts it as his chief excellence, that he treads on no man's heels, that he soars to follow the steps of others; and, when he is asked the reason of inserting any absurdity in his play, he answers, because it is new. The poets, of the present time, run into the contrary error; they are so far from endeavouring to elevate and surprise by any thing original, that their whole business is imitation; and they jingle their bells in the same road with those that went before them, with all the dull exactness of a packhorse.
The generality of our writers wait till a new walk is pointed out to them by some leading genius; when it immediately becomes so hackneyed and beaten, that an author of credit is almost ashamed to appear in it among such bad company. No sooner does one man of parts succeed in any particular mode of writing, but he is followed by a thousand dunces. A good elegy makes the little scribblers direct their whole bent to subjects of grief; and, for a whole winter, the press groans with melancholy. One novel of reputation fills all the garrets of Grub Street with whole reams of histories and adventures, where volume is spun out after volume, without the least wit, humour, or incident. In a word, as Bayes obviated all objections to his nonsense by saying it was new, if a modern writer was asked why he chose any particular manner of writing, he might reply, because it is the fashion.
True genius will not give into such idle, extravagant flights of imagination as Bayes's; it will not turn funerals into banquets, or introduce armies in disguise; but still, it will not confine itself to the narrow track of imitation. I cannot help thinking, that it is more owing to this servile spirit in the authors of the present times, than to their want of abilities, that we cannot now boast a set of eminent writers; and, it is worthy observation, that whenever any age has been distinguished by a great number of excellent authors, they have, most of them, cultivated different branches of poetry from each other. This was the case in the age of Augustus, as appears from the works of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, &c. And, to come down as late as possible, this is evident from our last famous set of authors, who flourished at the beginning of this century. We admire Swift, Pope, Gay, Bolingbroke, Addison, &c., but we admire each for his particular beauties, separate and distinguished from the rest.
These loose thoughts were thrown together, merely to introduce the following little poem, which, I think, deserves the attention of the public. It was written by a very ingenious gentleman, as a letter to a friend, who was about to publish a volume of miscellanies; and contains all that original spirit, which it so elegantly recommends.

To ****.
Since now, all scruples cast away,
Your works are rising into day,
Forgive, though I presume to send
This honest counsel of a friend.

Let not your verse, as verse now goes,
Be a strange kind of measur'd prose;
Nor let your prose, which sure is worse,
Want nought but measure to be verse.
Write from your own imagination,
Nor curb your Muse by Imitation:
For copies shew, howe'er exprest,
A barren genius at the best.
—But Imitation's all the mode—
Yet where one hits, ten miss the road.

The mimic bard with pleasure sees
Mat. Prior's unaffected ease:
Assumes his style, affects a story,
Sets every circumstance before ye,
The day, the hour, the name, the dwelling,
And mars a curious tale in telling:
Observes how easy Prior flows,
Then runs his numbers down to prose.

Others have sought the filthy stews
To sind a dirty slip-shod Muse.
Their groping genius, while it rakes
The bogs, the common-sew'rs, and jakes,
Ordure and filth in rhyme exposes,
Disgustful to our eyes and noses;
With many a dash — that must offend us,
And much ——*———*———*———
———*———*—— Hiatus non deflendus.
O Swift! how wouldst thou blush to see,
Such are the bards who copy Thee?

This Milton for his plan will chuse:
Wherein resembling Milton's Muse?
Milton, like thunder, rolls along
In all the majesty of song;
While his low mimics meanly creep,
Not quite awake, nor quite asleep:
Or, if their thunder chance to roll,
'Tis thunder of the mustard bowl.
The stiff expression, phrases strange,
The epithet's preposterous change,
Forc'd numbers, rough and unpolite,
Such as the judging ear affright,
Stop in mid verse. Ye mimics vile!
Is't thus ye copy Milton's style?
His faults religiously you trace,
But borrow not a single grace.

How few, (say, whence can it proceed?
Who copy Milton, e'er succeed!
But all their labours are in vain:
And wherefor so? — the reason's plain.
Take it for granted, 'tis by those
Milton's the model mostly chose,
Who can't write verse, and won't write prose.

Others, who aim at fancy, chuse
To woo the gentle Spenser's Muse.
This poet fixes for his theme
An allegory, or a dream;
Fiction and truth together joins
Though a long waste of flimsy lines;
Fondly believes his fancy glows,
And image upon image glows;
Thinks his strong Muse takes wond'rous flights,
Whene'er she sings of peerless wights,
Of dens, of palfreys, spells and knights:
'Till allegory, Spenser's veil
T' instruct and please in moral tale,
With him's no veil the truth to shroud,
But one impenetrable cloud.

Others, more daring, fix their hope
On rivaling the fame of Pope.
Satyr's the word against the times—
These catch the cadence of his rhymes,
And borne from earth by Pope's strong wings,
Their Muse aspires, and boldly flings
Her dirt up in the face of kings.
In these the spleen of Pope we find;
But where the greatness of his mind?
His numbers are their whole pretence,
Mere strangers to his manly sense.

Some few, the fav'rites of the Muse,
Whom with her kindest eye she views;
Round whom Apollo's brightest rays
Shine forth with undiminish'd blaze;
Some few, my friend, have sweetly trod
In Imitation's dang'rous road.
Long as Tobacco's mild perfume
Shall scent each happy curate's room,
Oft as in elbow-chair he smokes,
And quaffs his ale, and cracks his jokes,
So long, O Brown, shall last thy praise,
Crown'd with Tobacco-leaf for bays;
And whosoe'er thy verse shall see,
Shall fill another Pipe to thee.

[British Essayists (1856) 26:13-15; Poetical Works (1774) 1:104-08]