VIII. There is yet another mischievous principle which prevails among some persons in passing a judgment on the writings of others, and that is, when from the secret stimulations of vanity, pride, or envy, they despise a valuable book, and throw contempt upon it by wholesale: and if you ask them the reason of their severe censure, they will tell you, perhaps, they have found a mistake or two in it, or there are a few sentiments or expressions not suited to their tooth and humour.
Bavius* cries down an admirable treatise of philosophy, and says there is atheism in it, because there are a few sentences that seem to suppose brutes to be mere machines. Under the same influence, Momus will not allow Paradise Lost to be a good poem, because he has read some flat and heavy lines in it; and he thought Milton had too much honour done him.
*(Wikipedia says Bavius and Maevius (or Mevius) were two poets in the age of Augustus Caesar, whose names became synonymous with bad verse and malicious criticism of superior writers. Both are named together in Virgil’s Eclogues.)
It is a paltry humour that inclines a man to rail at any human performance, because it is not absolutely perfect. Horace would give us a better example: — Sunt delicta tamen quibua ignovisse velimus,
Nam neque chorda sonum reddit quern vult manus et mens,
Ace semper feriet quodcunque minabitur areas:
Verum ubi plura nitent in carmine, non ego paucis
Oflendar maculis, quas aut incuria fudit,
Aut humana parum cavit natura. Hor. de Art. Poet.
Thus Englished: — Be not two rigidly censorious:
A string may jar in the best master’s hand, And the most skilful archer miss his aim: So in a poem elegantly writ, I will not quarrel with a small mistake, , Such as our nature’s frailty may excuse. Rascommon. This noble translator of Horace, whom I here cite, has a very honourable opinion of Homer in the main;
yet he allows him to be justly censured for some spots and blemishes in him: — For who without aversion ever looked On holy garbage, though by Homer cooked; Whose railing heroes, and whose wounded gods, Make some suspect he snores as well as nods.
Such wise and just distinctions ought to be made when we pass a judgment on mortal things; but Envy condemns by wholesale. Envy is a cursed plant; some fibres of it are rooted almost in every man’s nature, and it works in a sly and imperceptible manner, and that even in some persons who in the main are men of wisdom and piety. They know not how to bear the praises that are given to an ingenious author, especially if he be living, and of their profession; and therefore they will, if possible, find some blemish in his writings, that they may nibble and bark at it. They will endeavour to diminish the honour of the best treatise that has been written on any subject, and to render it useless by their censures, rather than suffer their envy to lie asleep, and the little mistakes of that author to pass unexposed. Perhaps they will commend the work in general with a pretended air of candour; but pass so many sly and invidious remarks upon it afterwards, as shall effectually destroy all their cold and formal praises.*
** I grant when Wisdom itself censures a weak and foolish performance, it will pass its severe sentence, and yet with an air of candour, if the author has any thing valuable in him: but Envy will sometimes imitate the same favourable airs, in order to make its false cavils appear more just and credible, when it has a mind to snarl at some of the brightest performances of a human writer.