I have great esteem for a true critic, such as Aristotle and Longinus among the Greeks; Horace and Quintilian among the Romans; Boileau and Dacier among the French. But it is our misfortune, that some, who set up for professed critics among us, are so stupid, that they do not know how to put ten words together with elegance or common propriety; and withal so illiterate, that they have no taste of the learned languages, and therefore criticise upon old authors only at second hand. They judge of them by what others have written, and not by any notions they have of the authors themselves. The words unity, action, sentiment and diction, pronounced with an air of authority, give them a figure among unlearned readers, who are apt to believe they are very deep because they are unintelligible. The ancient critics are full of the praises of their contemporaries; they discover beauties which escaped the observation of the vulgar, and very often find out reasons for palliating and excusing such little slips and oversights as were committed in the writings of eminent authors. On the contrary, most of the smatterers in criticism, who appear among us, make it their business to vilify and depreciate every new production that gains applause, to descry imaginary blemishes, and to prove, by farfetched arguments, that what pass for beauties in any celebrated piece are faults and errors. In short, the writings of these critics, compared with those of the ancients, are like the works of the sophists compared with those of the old philosophers.
Envy and cavil are the natural fruits of laziness and ignorance; which was probably the reason that in the heathen mythology Momus is said to be the son of Nox and Somnus, of darkness and sleep. Idle men, who have not been at the pains to accomplish or distinguish themselves, are very apt to detract from others; as ignorant men are very subject to decry those beauties in a celebrated work which they have not eyes to discover. Many of our sons of Momus, who dignify themselves by the name of critics, are the genuine descendants of these two illustrious ancestors. They are often led into these numerous absurdities in which they daily instruct the people, by not considering that, first, there is sometimes a greater judgment shown in deviating from the rules of art than in adhering to them; and, secondly, that there is more beauty in the works of a great genius, who is ignorant of all the rules of art, than in the works of a little genius, who not only knows but scrupulously observes them.
First, we may often take notice of men who are perfectly acquainted with all the rules of good writing, and notwithstanding choose to depart from them on extraordinary occasions. I could give instances out of all the tragic writers of antiquity who have shown their judgment in this particular; and purposely receded from an established rule of the drama, when it has made way for a much higher beauty than the observation