Friday, 11th December, 2009

The mind of a man of Genius is a fertile and pleasant field, pleasant as Elysium, and fertile as Tempe; it enjoys a perpetual Spring. Of that Spring, Originals are the fairest Flowers: Imitations are of two kinds; one of Nature, one of Authors: The first we call Originals, and confine the term Imitation to the second. I shall not enter into the curious enquiry of what it, or is not, strictly speaking, Original, content with what all must allow, that some Compositions are more so than others; and the more they are so, I say, the better. Originals are, and ought to be, great Favourites, for they are great Benefactors; they extend the Republic of Letters, and add a new province to its dominion: Imitators only give us a sort of Duplicates of what we had, possibly much better, before; increasing the mere Drug of books, while all that makes them valuable, Knowledge and Genius, are at a stand. The pen of an Original Writer, like Armida’s wand, out of a barren waste calls a blooming Spring: Out of that blooming Spring an Imitator is a transplanter of Laurels, which sometimes die in a foreign soil.

But suppose an Imitator to be most excellent (and such there are), yet still he but nobly builds on another’s foundation; his Debt is, at least, equal to his Glory; which therefore, on the balance, cannot be very great. On the contrary, an Original, tho’ but indifferent (its Originality being set aside,) yet has something to boast; it is something to say with him in Horace,

Meo Sum Pauper in ære;

And to share ambition with no less than Cæsar, who declared he had rather be the First in a Village, than the Second at Rome.

Still farther: An Imitator shares his crown, if he has one, with the chosen Object of his Imitation; an Original enjoys an undivided applause. An Original may be said to be of vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously from the vital root of Genius; it grows, it is not made: Imitations are often a sort of Manufacture wrought up by those Mechanics, Art, and Labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own.

Again: We read Imitation with somewhat of his languor, who listens to a twice-told tale: Our spirits rouze at an Original; that is a perfect stranger, and all throng to learn what news from a foreign land: And th’ it comes, like an Indian Prince, adorned with feathers only, having little of weight; yet of our attention it will rob the more Solid, if not equally New: Thus every Telescope is lifted at a new-discovered star; it makes a hundred Astronomers in a moment, and denies equal notice to the sun. But if an Original, by being as excellent, as new, adds admiration to surprise, then we are at the Writer’s mercy; on the strong wing of his Imagination, we are snatched from Britain to Italy, from Climate to Climate, from Pleasure to Pleasure; we have no Home, no Thought, of our own; ’till the Magician drops his Pen: And then falling down in ourselves, we awake to flat Realities, lamenting the change, like the Beggar who dreamt himself a Price.

It is with Thoughts, as it is with Words; and with both, as with Men; they may grow old, and die. Words tarnished, by passing thro’ the mouths of the Vulgar, are laid aside as inelegant, and obsolete. So Thoughts, when become too common, should lose their Currency; and we should send new metal to the Mint, that is, new meaning to the Press. The Division of tongues at Babel did not more effectually debar men from making themselves a name (as the Scripture speaks,) than the too great Concurrence, or Union of tongues will do for ever. We may as well grow good by another’s Virtue, or fat by another’s Food, as famous by another’s Thought. The world will pay its Debt of Praise but once; and instead of applauding, explode a second Demand, as a Cheat.

Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition, (Dublin: P. Wilson, 1759), pp 7-10.

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