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No. 070 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

No. 70
Monday, May 21, 1711.

‘Interdum vulgus rectum videt.’


When I travelled, I took a particular Delight in hearing the Songs and Fables that are come from Father to Son, and are most in Vogue among the common People of the Countries through which I passed; for it is impossible that any thing should be universally tasted and approved by a Multitude, tho’ they are only the Rabble of a Nation, which hath not in it some peculiar Aptness to please and gratify the Mind of Man. Human Nature is the same in all reasonable Creatures; and whatever falls in with it, will meet with Admirers amongst Readers of all Qualities and Conditions. Moliere, as we are told by Monsieur Boileau, used to read all his Comedies to [an [1]] old Woman [who [2]] was his Housekeeper, as she sat with him at her Work by the Chimney-Corner; and could foretel the Success of his Play in the Theatre, from the Reception it met at his Fire-side: For he tells us the Audience always followed the old Woman, and never failed to laugh in the same Place. [3]

I know nothing which more shews the essential and inherent Perfection of Simplicity of Thought, above that which I call the Gothick Manner in Writing, than this, that the first pleases all Kinds of Palates, and the latter only such as have formed to themselves a wrong artificial Taste upon little fanciful Authors and Writers of Epigram. Homer, Virgil, or Milton, so far as the Language of their Poems is understood, will please a Reader of plain common Sense, who would neither relish nor comprehend an Epigram of Martial, or a Poem of Cowley: So, on the contrary, an ordinary Song or Ballad that is the Delight of the common People, cannot fail to please all such Readers as are not unqualified for the Entertainment by their Affectation or Ignorance; and the Reason is plain, because the same Paintings of Nature which recommend it to the most ordinary Reader, will appear Beautiful to the most refined.

The old Song of Chevey Chase is the favourite Ballad of the common People of England; and Ben Johnson used to say he had rather have been the Author of it than of all his Works. Sir Philip Sidney in his ‘Discourse of Poetry’ [4] speaks of it in the following Words;

I never heard the old Song of Piercy and Douglas, that I found not my Heart more moved than with a Trumpet; and yet it is sung by some blind Crowder with no rougher Voice than rude Stile; which being so evil apparelled in the Dust and Cobweb of that uncivil Age, what would it work trimmed in the gorgeous Eloquence of Pindar?

For my own part I am so professed an Admirer of this antiquated Song, that I shall give my Reader a Critick upon it, without any further Apology for so doing.

The greatest Modern Criticks have laid it down as a Rule, that an Heroick Poem should be founded upon some important Precept of Morality, adapted to the Constitution of the Country in which the Poet writes. Homer and Virgil have formed their Plans in this View. As Greece was a Collection of many Governments, who suffered very much among themselves, and gave the Persian Emperor, who was their common Enemy, many Advantages over them by their mutual Jealousies and Animosities, Homer, in order to establish among them an Union, which was so necessary for their Safety, grounds his Poem upon the Discords of the several Grecian Princes who were engaged in a Confederacy against an Asiatick Prince, and the several Advantages which the Enemy gained by such their Discords. At the Time the Poem we are now treating of was written, the Dissentions of the Barons, who were then so many petty Princes, ran very high, whether they quarrelled among themselves, or with their Neighbours, and produced unspeakable Calamities to the Country: [5] The Poet, to deter Men from such unnatural Contentions, describes a bloody Battle and dreadful Scene of Death, occasioned by the mutual Feuds which reigned in the Families of an English and Scotch Nobleman: That he designed this for the Instruction of his Poem, we may learn from his four last Lines, in which, after the Example of the modern Tragedians, he draws from it a Precept for the Benefit of his Readers.