Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books
Charles W. Eliot

Part 4 out of 9

Englishman to the Roman: yet, with their leave, I must presume to say
that the things they admire are only glittering trifles, and so far
from being witty, that in a serious poem they are nauseous, because
they are unnatural. Would any man who is ready to die for love
describe his passion like Narcissus? Would he think of _inopem me
copia fecit_,[11] and a dozen more of such expressions, pour'd on the
neck of one another, and signifying all the same thing? If this were
wit, was this a time to be witty, when the poor wretch was in the
agony of death? This is just John Littlewit in _Bartholomew Fair_,[12]
who had a conceit (as he tells you) left him in his misery; a
miserable conceit. On these occasions the poet should endeavor to
raise pity; but instead of this, Ovid is tickling you to laugh. Virgil
never made use of such machines, when he was moving you to commiserate
the death of Dido: he would not destroy what he was building. Chaucer
makes Arcite violent in his love, and unjust in the pursuit of it; yet
when he came to die, he made him think more reasonably: he repents not
of his love, for that had alter'd his character; but acknowledges
the injustice of his proceedings, and resigns Emilia to Palamon. What
would Ovid have done on this occasion? He would certainly have made
Arcite witty on his deathbed. He had complain'd he was farther off
from possession by being so near, and a thousand such boyisms, which
Chaucer rejected as below the dignity of the subject. They who think
otherwise would by the same reason prefer Lucan and Ovid to Homer and
Virgil, and Martial to all four of them. As for the turn of words, in
which Ovid particularly excels all poets, they are sometimes a fault,
and sometimes a beauty, as they are us'd properly or improperly; but
in strong passions always to be shunn'd, because passions are serious,
and will admit no playing. The French have a high value for them;
and I confess, they are often what they call delicate, when they are
introduced with judgment; but Chaucer writ with more simplicity, and
followed nature more closely, than to use them. I have thus far, to
the best of my knowledge, been an upright judge betwixt the parties in
competition, not meddling with the design nor the disposition of it;
because the design was not their own, and in the disposing of it they
were equal. It remains that I say somewhat of Chaucer in particular.

In the first place, as he is the father of English poetry, so I hold
him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer or the
Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense, learn'd in
all sciences, and therefore speaks properly on all subjects as he knew
what to say, so he knows also when to leave off, a continence which
is practic'd by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients,
excepting Virgil and Horace. One of our late great poets[13] is sunk
in his reputation, because he could never forgive any conceit which
came in his way, but swept like a dragnet, great and small. There
was plenty enough, but the dishes were ill sorted, whole pyramids of
sweetmeats for boys and women, but little of solid meat for men.
All this proceeded not from any want of knowledge, but of judgment,
neither did he want that in discerning the beauties and faults of
other poets, but only indulg'd himself in the luxury of writing, and
perhaps knew it was a fault, but hop'd the reader would not find it.
For this reason, tho' he must always be thought a great poet he is
no longer esteem'd a good writer, and for ten impressions, which his
works have had in so many successive years, yet at present a hundred
books are scarcely purchas'd once a twelvemonth for, as my last Lord
Rochester said, tho' somewhat profanely, "Not being of God, he could
not stand."

Chaucer follow'd Nature everywhere, but was never so bold to go beyond
her, and there is a great difference of being _poeta_ and _aimis
poeta_,[14] if we may believe Catullus, as much as betwixt a modest
behavior and affectation. The verse of Chaucer, I confess, is not
harmonious to us, but 'tis like the eloquence of one whom Tacitus
commends it was _auribus istius temporis accommodata_[15] they who
liv'd with him, and some time after him, thought it musical and it
continued so even in our judgment, if compar'd with the numbers of
Lydgate and Gower, his contemporaries there is the rude sweetness of
a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, tho' not perfect.
'Tis true, I cannot go so far as he who published the last edition of
him [16] for he would make us believe the fault is in our ears, and
that there were really ten syllables in a verse where we find but nine
but this opinion is not worth confuting, 'tis so gross and obvious an
error, that common sense (which is a rule in everything but matters
of faith and revelation) must convince the reader that equality of
numbers in every verse which we call heroic was either not known,
or not always practic'd, in Chaucer's age. It were an easy matter to
produce some thousands of his verses, which are lame for want of half
a foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no pronunciation can
make otherwise. We can only say, that he liv'd in the infancy of our
poetry, and that nothing is brought to perfection at the first. We
must be children before we grow men. There was an Ennius, and in
process of time a Lucilius and a Lucretius, before Virgil and Horace;
even after Chaucer there was a Spenser, a Harrington, a Fairfax,
before Waller and Denham were in being: and our numbers were in their
nonage till these last appear'd. I need say little of his parentage,
life, and fortunes;[17] they are to be found at large in all the
editions of his works. He was employ'd abroad and favor'd by Edward
the Third, Richard the Second, and Henry the Fourth, and was poet, as
I suppose, to all three of them. In Richard's time, I doubt, he was
a little dipp'd in the rebellion of the commons, and being
brother-in-law to John of Ghant, it was no wonder if he follow'd the
fortunes of that family, and was well with Henry the Fourth when he
had depos'd his predecessor. Neither is it to be admir'd,[18] that
Henry, who was a wise as well as a valiant prince, who claim'd by
succession, and was sensible that his title was not sound, but was
rightfully in Mortimer, who had married the heir of York; it was not
to be admir'd, I say, if that great politician should be pleas'd to
have the greatest wit of those times in his interests, and to be the
trumpet of his praises. Augustus had given him the example, by the
advice of Maecenas, who recommended Virgil and Horace to him; whose
praises help'd to make him popular while he was alive, and after his
death have made him precious to posterity. As for the religion of
our poet, he seems to have some little bias towards the opinions of
Wycliffe, after John of Ghant his patron; somewhat of which appears in
the tale of Piers Plowman.[19] Yet I cannot blame him for inveighing
so sharply against the vices of the clergy in his age; their pride,
their ambition, their pomp, their avarice, their worldly interest,
deserv'd the lashes which he gave them, both in that and in most of
his _Canterbury Tales_: neither has his contemporary Boccace spar'd
them. Yet both those poets liv'd in much esteem with good and holy
men in orders; for the scandal which is given by particular priests
reflects not on the sacred function. Chaucer's Monk, his Canon, and
his Friar, took not from the character of his Good Parson. A satirical
poet is the check of the laymen on bad priests. We are only to take
care that we involve not the innocent with the guilty in the same
condemnation. The good cannot be too much honor'd, nor the bad too
coarsely us'd: for the corruption of the best becomes the worst. When
a clergyman is whipp'd, his gown is first taken off, by which the
dignity of his order is secur'd: if he be wrongfully accus'd, he has
his action of slander; and 'tis at the poet's peril if he transgress
the law. But they will tell us that all kind of satire, tho' never so
well deserv'd by particular priests, yet brings the whole order into
contempt. Is then the peerage of England anything dishonored, when a
peer suffers for his treason? If he be libel'd or any way defam'd, he
has his _scandalum magnatum_[20] to punish the offender. They who use
this kind of argument seem to be conscious to themselves of somewhat
which has deserv'd the poet's lash, and are less concern'd for their
public capacity than for their private; at least there is pride at the
bottom of their reasoning. If the faults of men in orders are only to
be judg'd among themselves, they are all in some sort parties: for,
since they say the honor of their order is concern'd in every member
of it, how can we be sure that they will be impartial judges? How far
I may be allow'd to speak my opinion in this case, I know not; but I
am sure a dispute of this nature caus'd mischief in abundance betwixt
a king of England and an archbishop of Canterbury,[21] one standing
up for the laws of his land, and the other for the honor (as he call'd
it) of God's Church; which ended in the murther of the prelate, and in
the whipping of his Majesty from post to pillar for his penance.
The learn'd and ingenious Dr. Drake[22] has say'd me the labour of
inquiring into the esteem and reverence which the priests have had
of old, and I would rather extend than diminish any part of it: yet
I must needs say, that when a priest provokes me without any occasion
given him, I have no reason, unless it be the charity of a Christian,
to forgive him: _prior laesit_[23] is justification sufficient in the
civil law. If I answer him in his own language, self-defense, I am
sure, must be allow'd me; and if I carry it farther, even to a sharp
recrimination, somewhat may be indulg'd to human frailty. Yet my
resentment has not wrought so far, but that I have followed Chaucer
in his character of a holy man, and have enlarg'd on that subject with
some pleasure, reserving to myself the right, if I shall think fit
hereafter, to describe another sort of priests, such as are more
easily to be found than the Good Parson; such as have given the last
blow to Christianity in this age, by a practice so contrary to their
doctrine. But this will keep cold till another time. In the mean while
I take up Chaucer where I left him. He must have been a man of a most
wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed
of him, he has taken into the compass of his _Canterbury Tales_ the
various manners and humors (as we now call them) of the whole English
nation, in his age. Not a single character has escap'd him. All his
pilgrims are severally distinguish'd from each other; and not only
in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons.
Bapista Porta[24] could not have described their natures better, than
by the marks which the poet gives them. The matter and manner of
their tales, and of their telling, are so suited to their different
educations, humors, and callings, that each of them would be improper
in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious characters are
distinguished by their several sorts of gravity: their discourses are
such as belong to their age, their calling, and their breeding; such
as are becoming of them, and of them only. Some of his persons are
vicious, and some virtuous; some are unlearn'd, or (as Chaucer
calls them) lewd, and some are learn'd. Even the ribaldry of the
low characters is different: the Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook are
several men, and distinguished from each other, as much as the mincing
Lady Prioress and the broad-speaking gap-tooth'd Wife of Bath. But
enough of this: there is such a variety of game springing up before
me, that I am distracted in my choice, and know not which to follow.
'Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God's
plenty. We have our forefathers and great-grandames all before us,
as they were in Chaucer's days; their general characters are still
remaining in mankind, and even in England, tho' they are call'd by
other names than those of Monks and Friars, and Canons, and Lady
Abbesses, and Nuns: for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out
of nature, tho' everything is alter'd. May I have leave to do myself
the justice--since my enemies will do me none, and are so far from
granting me to be a good poet, that they will not allow me so much as
to be a Christian, or a moral man--may I have leave, I say, to inform
my reader that I have confin'd my choice to such tales of Chaucer as
savor nothing of immodesty. If I had desir'd more to please than
to instruct, the Reeve, the Miller, the Shipman, the Merchant, the
Sumner, and, above all, the Wife of Bath, in the prologue to her tale,
would have procured me as many friends and readers, as there are beaux
and ladies of pleasure in the town. But I will no more offend against
good manners: I am sensible, as I ought to be, of the scandal I have
given by my loose writings; and make what reparation I am able,
by this public acknowledgment. If anything of this nature, or of
profaneness, be crept into these poems, I am so far from defending it,
that I disown it. _Totum hoc indictum volo._[25] Chaucer makes another
manner of apology for his broad speaking, and Boccace makes the like;
but I will follow neither of them. Our countryman, in the end of his
characters, before the _Canterbury Tales_, thus excuses the ribaldry,
which is very gross in many of his novels:

But first, I pray you of your courtesy,
That ye ne arrete[26] it nought my villany,
Though that I plainly speak in this mattere
To tellen you her[27] words, and eke her chere:
Ne though I speak her words properly,
For this ye knowen as well as I,
Who shall tellen a tale after a man,
He mote rehearse as nye as ever he can:
Everich word of it been in his charge,
_All speke he never so rudely ne large._
Or else he mote tellen his tale untrue,
Or feine things, or find words new:
He may not spare, altho he were his brother,
He mote as well say o word as another.
Christ spake himself full broad in holy writ,
And well I wote no villany is it.
Eke Plato saith, who so can him rede,
The words mote[28] been cousin to the dede.[29]

Yet if a man should have enquired of Boccace or of Chaucer, what need
they had of introducing such characters, where obscene words were
proper in their mouths, but very undecent to be heard; I know not what
answer they could have made: for that reason such tales shall be left
untold by me. You have here a specimen of Chaucer's language, which
is so obsolete that his sense is scarce to be understood; and you
have likewise more than one example of his unequal numbers, which were
mentioned before. Yet many of his verses consist of ten syllables, and
the words not much behind our present English: as for example, these
two lines, in the description of the carpenter's young wife:

Wincing she was, as is a jolly colt,
Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt.

I have almost done with Chaucer, when I have answer'd some objections
relating to my present work. I find some people are offended that I
have turn'd these tales into modern English; because they think them
unworthy of my pains, and look on Chaucer as a dry, old-fashion'd wit,
not worth reviving. I have often heard the late Earl of Leicester say
that Mr. Cowley himself was of that opinion; who having read him over
at my lord's request, declar'd he had no taste of him. I dare not
advance my opinion against the judgment of so great an author; but
I think it fair, however, to leave the decision to the public: Mr.
Cowley was too modest to set up for a dictator; and being shock'd
perhaps with his old style, never examin'd into the depth of his
good sense. Chaucer, I confess, is a rough diamond, and must first
be polish'd, ere he shines. I deny not, likewise, that, living in our
early days of poetry, he writes not always of a piece, but sometimes
mingles trivial things with those of greater moment. Sometimes also,
tho' not often, he runs riot, like Ovid, and knows not when he has
said enough. But there are more great wits, beside Chaucer, whose
fault is their excess of conceits, and those ill sorted. An author is
not to write all he can, but only all he ought. Having observ'd this
redundancy in Chaucer, (as it is an easy matter for a man of ordinary
parts to find a fault in one of greater,) I have not tied myself to a
literal translation; but have often omitted what I judg'd unnecessary,
or not of dignity enough to appear in the company of better thoughts.
I have presumed farther, in some places, and added somewhat of my
own where I thought my author was deficient, and had not given his
thoughts their true luster, for want of words in the beginning of our
language. And to this I was the more embolden'd, because (if I may be
permitted to say it of myself) I found I had a soul congenial to his,
and that I had been conversant in the same studies. Another poet, in
another age, may take the same liberty with my writings; if at least
they live long enough to deserve correction. It was also necessary
sometimes to restore the sense of Chaucer, which was lost or mangled
in the errors of the press. Let this example suffice at present;
in the story of _Palawan and Arcite_, where the temple of Diana is
describ'd, you find these verses, in all the editions of our author:

There saw I Dane turned unto a tree,
I mean not the goddess Diane,
But Venus daughter, which that hight Dane;

which after a little consideration I knew was to be reformed into this
sense, that Daphne, the daughter of Peneus, was turn'd into a tree. I
durst not make thus bold with Ovid, lest some future Milbourne should
arise, and say I varied from my author, because I understood him not.

But there are other judges, who think I ought not to have translated
Chaucer into English, out of a quite contrary notion: they suppose
there is a certain veneration due to his old language; and that it
is little less than profanation and sacrilege to alter it. They are
farther of opinion that somewhat of his good sense will suffer in this
transfusion, and much of the beauty of his thoughts will infallibly be
lost, which appear with more grace in their old habit. Of this
opinion was that excellent person whom I mention'd, the late Earl of
Leicester, who valued Chaucer as much as Mr. Cowley despis'd him. My
lord dissuaded me from this attempt, (for I was thinking of it some
years before his death,) and his authority prevail'd so far with me
as to defer my undertaking while he liv'd, in deference to him: yet my
reason was not convinc'd with what he urg'd against it. If the first
end of a writer be to be understood, then as his language grows
obsolete, his thoughts must grow obscure:

Multa renascentur quae nunc cecidere; cadentque,
Quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
Quem penes arbitrium est et jus et norma loquendi.[30]

When an ancient word for its sound and significance deserves to be
reviv'd, I have that reasonable veneration for antiquity, to restore
it. All beyond this is superstition. Words are not like landmarks, so
sacred as never to be remov'd; customs are chang'd, and even statutes
are silently repeal'd, when the reason ceases for which they were
enacted. As for the other part of the argument, that his thoughts
will lose of their original beauty, by the innovation of words; in
the first place, not only their beauty, but their being is lost, where
they are no longer understood, which is the present case. I grant
that something must be lost in all transfusion, that is, in all
translations; but the sense will remain, which would otherwise be
lost, or at least be maim'd, when it is scarce intelligible; and
that but to a few. How few are there who can read Chaucer so as to
understand him perfectly! And if imperfectly, then with less profit
and no pleasure. 'Tis not for the use of some old Saxon friends that I
have taken these pains with him: let them neglect my version, because
they have no need of it. I made it for their sakes who understand
sense and poetry as well as they, when that poetry and sense is put
into words which they understand. I will go farther, and dare to add,
that what beauties I lose in some places, I give to others which had
them not originally; but in this I may be partial to myself; let the
reader judge, and I submit to his decision. Yet I think I have just
occasion to complain of them, who, because they understand Chaucer,
would deprive the greater part of their countrymen of the same
advantage, and hoard him up, as misers do their grandam gold, only to
look on it themselves and hinder others from making use of it. In
sum, I seriously protest that no man ever had, or can have, a greater
veneration for Chaucer, than myself. I have translated some part
of his works, only that I might perpetuate his memory, or at least
refresh it, amongst my countrymen. If I have alter'd him anywhere for
the better, I must at the same time acknowledge that I could have done
nothing without him: _facile est inventis addere_,[31] is no great
commendation; and I am not so vain to think I have deserv'd a greater.
I will conclude what I have to say of him singly, with this one
remark: a lady of my acquaintance, who keeps a kind of correspondence
with some authors of the fair sex in France, has been inform'd by
them, that Mademoiselle de Scudery, who is as old as Sibyl, and
inspir'd like her by the same God of Poetry, is at this time
translating Chaucer into modern French. From which I gather that
he has been formerly translated into the old Provencal (for how she
should come to understand old English I know not). But the matter of
fact being true, it makes me think that there is something in it like
fatality; that, after certain periods of time, the fame and memory
of great wits should be renewed, as Chaucer is both in France and
England. If this be wholly chance, 't is extraordinary, and I dare not
call it more, for fear of being tax'd with superstition.

Boccace comes last to be consider'd, who living in the same age with
Chaucer, had the same genius, and follow'd the same studies: both
writ novels, and each of them cultivated his mother tongue. But the
greatest resemblance of our two modern authors being in their familiar
style, and pleasing way of relating comical adventures, I may pass it
over, because I have translated nothing from Boccace of that nature.
In the serious part of poetry, the advantage is wholly on Chaucer's
side; for tho' the Englishman has borrow'd many tales from the
Italian, yet it appears that those of Boccace were not generally of
his own making, but taken from authors of former ages, and by him only
model'd; so that what there was of invention in either of them may be
judg'd equal. But Chaucer has refin'd on Boccace, and has mended the
stones which he has borrowed, in his way of telling; tho' prose
allows more liberty of thought, and the expression is more easy when
unconfin'd by numbers. Our countryman carries weight, and yet wins the
race at disadvantage. I desire not the reader should take my word, and
therefore I will set two of their discourses on the same subject,
in the same light, for every man to judge betwixt them. I translated
Chaucer first, and, amongst the rest, pitch'd on _The Wife of Bath's
Tale_; not daring, as I have said, to adventure on her prologue,
because 't is too licentious: there Chaucer introduces an old woman
of mean parentage, whom a youthful knight of noble blood was forc'd to
marry, and consequently loath'd her; the crone being in bed with him
on the wedding night, and finding his aversion, endeavors to win his
affection by reason, and speaks a good word for herself (as who could
blame her?) in hope to mollify the sullen bridegroom. She takes her
topics from the benefits of poverty, the advantages of old age and
ugliness, the vanity of youth, and the silly pride of ancestry and
titles without inherent virtue, which is the true nobility. When I had
clos'd Chaucer, I returned to Ovid, and translated some more of his
fables; and by this time had so far forgotten _The Wife of Bath's
Tale_, that, when I took up Boccace, unawares I fell on the same
argument of preferring virtue to nobility of blood, and titles, in the
story of Sigismonda; which I had certainly avoided for the resemblance
of the two discourses, if my memory had not fail'd me. Let the reader
weigh them both; and if he thinks me partial to Chaucer, 't is in him
to right Boccace.

I prefer in our countryman, far above all his other stories, the noble
poem of _Palamon and Arcite_, which is of the epic kind, and perhaps
not much inferior to the _Ilias_ or the _AEneis_: the story is more
pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as
poetical, the learning as deep and various, and the disposition full
as artful; only it includes a greater length of time, as taking up
seven years at least, but Aristotle has left undecided the duration of
the action; which yet is easily reduc'd into the compass of a year,
by a narration of what preceded the return of Palamon to Athens. I had
thought for the honor of our nation, and more particularly for his,
whose laurel, tho' unworthy, I have worn after him, that this story
was of English growth, and Chaucer's own; but I was undeceiv'd by
Boccace; for, casually looking on the end of his seventh _Giornata_,
I found Dionco (under which name he shadows himself) and Fiametta
(who represents his mistress, the natural daughter of Robert, King of
Naples), of whom these words are spoken: _Dionco e Fiametta gran pezza
cantarono insieme d'Arcita, e di Palamone_:[32] by which it appears
that this story was written before the time of Boccace; but, the name
of its author being wholly lost, Chaucer is now become an original;
and I question not but the poem has receiv'd many beauties by passing
thro' his noble hands. Besides this tale, there is another of his own
invention, after the manner of the Provencals, call'd _The Flower and
the Leaf_,[33] with which I was so particularly pleas'd, both for the
invention and the moral, that I cannot hinder myself from recommending
it to the reader.

As a corollary to this preface, in which I have done justice to
others, I owe somewhat to myself: not that I think it worth my time
to enter the lists with one M----,[34] or one B----,[35] but barely
to take notice, that such men there are who have written scurrilously
against me, without any provocation. M----, who is in orders, pretends
amongst the rest this quarrel to me, that I have fallen foul on
priesthood: if I have, I am only to ask pardon of good priests, and
am afraid his part of the reparation will come to little. Let him to
satisfied that he shall not be able to force himself upon me for an
adversary. I contemn him too much to enter into competition with him.
His own translations of Virgil have answer'd his criticisms on mine.
If (as they say he has declar'd in print) he prefers the version of
Ogleby to mine, the world has made him the same compliment: for 't is
agreed on all hands, that he writes even below Ogleby: that, you will
say, is not easily to be done; but what cannot M---- bring about? I am
satisfied, however, that while he and I live together, I shall not be
thought the worst poet of the age. It looks as if I had desir'd him
underhand to write so ill against me; but upon my honest word I have
not brib'd him to do me this service, and am wholly guiltless of his
pamphlet. 'T is true, I should be glad if I could persuade him to
continue his good offices, and write such another critique on anything
of mine for I find by experience he has a great stroke with the
reader, when he condemns any of my poems, to make the world have a
better opinion of them. He has taken some pains with my poetry, but
nobody will be persuaded to take the same with his. If I had taken
to the Church, (as he affirms, but which was never in my thoughts,)
I should have had more sense, if not more grace, than to have turn'd
myself out of my benefice by writing libels on my parishioners. But
his account of my manners and my principles are of a piece with his
cavils and his poetry; and so I have done with him for ever.

As for the City Bard, or Knight Physician, I hear his quarrel to me is
that I was the author of _Absalom and Achitophel_, which, he thinks,
is a little hard on his fanatic patrons in London.

But I will deal the more civilly with his two poems, because nothing
ill is to be spoken of the dead; and therefore peace be to the _manes_
of his _Arthurs_. I will only say that it was not for this noble
knight that I drew the plan of an epic poem on King Arthur, in my
preface to the translation of Juvenal. The guardian angels of kingdoms
were machines too ponderous for him to manage; and therefore he
rejected them, as Dares did the whirlbats of Eryx, when they were
thrown before him by Entellus. Yet from that preface he plainly took
his hint: for he began immediately upon the story, tho' he had the
baseness not to acknowledge his benefactor but, instead of it, to
traduce me in a libel.

I shall say the less of Mr. Collier, because in many things he
has tax'd me justly; and I have pleaded guilty to all thoughts
and expressions of mine which can be truly argued of obscenity,
profaneness, of immorality; and retract them. If he be my enemy,
let him triumph; if he be my friend, as I have given him no personal
occasion to be otherwise, he will be glad of my repentance. It becomes
me not to draw my pen in the defense of a bad cause, when I have so
often drawn it for a good one. Yet it were not difficult to prove
that in many places he has perverted my meaning by his glosses, and
interpreted my words into blasphemy and bawdry, of which they were
not guilty. Besides that, he is too much given to horseplay in his
raillery, and comes to battle like a dictator from the plow. I will
not say: "The zeal of God's house has eaten him up;" but I am sure it
has devoured some part of his good manners and civility. It might also
be doubted whether it were altogether zeal which prompted him to this
rough manner of proceeding: perhaps it became not one of his function
to rake into the rubbish of ancient and modern plays; a divine might
have employ'd his pains to better purpose than in the nastiness of
Plautus and Aristophanes; whose examples, as they excuse not me, so
it might be possibly supposed that he read them not without some
pleasure. They who have written commentaries on those poets, or on
Horace, Juvenal, and Martial, have explain'd some vices which, without
their interpretation, had been unknown to modern times. Neither has he
judg'd impartially betwixt the former age and us.

There is more bawdry in one play of Fletcher's, call'd _The Custom of
the Country_, than in all ours together. Yet this has been often acted
on the stage in my remembrance. Are the times so much more reform'd
now than they were five and twenty years ago? If they are, I
congratulate the amendment of our morals. But I am not to prejudice
the cause of my fellow poets, tho' I abandon my own defense: they have
some of them answer'd for themselves, and neither they nor I can think
Mr. Collier so formidable an enemy that we should shun him. He has
lost ground at the latter end of the day, by pursuing his point too
far, like the Prince of Conde at the battle of Seneffe: from immoral
plays to no plays, _ab abusu ad usum, non valet consequentia_[36]. But
being a party, I am not to erect myself into a judge. As for the rest
of those who have written against me, they are such scoundrels that
they deserve not the least notice to be taken of them, B---- and M----
are only distinguish'd from the crowd by being remember'd to their

--Demetri, teque Tigelli[37]
Discipulorum inter jubeo plorare cathedras.

[Footnote A: John Dryden (1631-1700), the great dramatic and satirical
poet of the later seventeenth century, whose translation of Virgil's
"AEneid" appears in another volume of the Harvard Classics, deserves
hardly less distinction as a prose writer than as a poet. The present
essay, prefixed to a volume of narrative poems, is largely concerned
with Chaucer, and in its genial and penetrating criticism, expressed
with characteristic clearness and vigor, can be seen the ground for
naming Dryden the first of English literary critics, and the founder
of modern prose style.]

[Footnote 1: Scott suggests that the allusion is to the Duke of
Buckingham, who was often satirized for the slow progress of his great
mansion at Chefden.]

[Footnote 2: Boccaccio did not invent this stanza, which had been used
in both French and Italian before his day, but he did constitute it
the Italian form for heroic verse.]

[Footnote 3: Rymer misled Dryden. There is no trace of Provencal
influence on Chaucer.]

[Footnote 4: The foundation layer of color in a painting.]

[Footnote 5: "Verses without content, melodious trifles."--_Ars Poet_.

[Footnote 6: Jeremy Collier, in his _Short View of the Immortality and
Profaneness of the Stage_, 1698.]

[Footnote 7: "Energetic, irascible, unyielding, vehement."--Horace,
_Ars Poet._121.]

[Footnote 8: "Whithersoever the fates drag us to and fro, let us
follow."--Virgil, _AEneid_, v. 709.]

[Footnote 9: The statements that follow as to Chaucer's sources are
mostly not in accord with the results of modern scholarship.]

[Footnote 10: The plot of neither of these poems was original with

[Footnote 11: "Plenty has made me poor."--_Meta._ iii, 466.]

[Footnote 12: By Ben Jonson.]

[Footnote 13: Cowley]

[Footnote 14: 'Too much a poet'--Martial iii 44 (not Catullus)]

[Footnote 15: Suited to the ears of that time]

[Footnote 16: Speght, whom modern scholarship has shown to be right in
this matter.]

[Footnote 17: What follows on Chaucer's life is full of errors.]

[Footnote 18: Wondered at]

[Footnote 19: A spurious "Plowman's Tale" was included in the older
editions of Chaucer.]

[Footnote 20: A law term for slander of a man of high rank, involving
more severe punishment than ordinary slander.]

[Footnote 21: Henry II. and Thomas a Becket.]

[Footnote 22: Dr. James Drake wrote a reply to Jeremy Collier's _Short

[Footnote 23: "He did the first injury"]

[Footnote 24: A Neapolitan physician who wrote on physiognomy.]

[Footnote 25: "I wish all this unsaid."]

[Footnote 26: Reckon.]

[Footnote 27: Their.]

[Footnote 28: Must.]

[Footnote 29: The corrupt state of the text of this passage is enough
to explain why Dryden found Chaucer rough.]

[Footnote 30: "Many words which have now fallen out of use shall be
born again; and others which are now in honor shall fall, if custom
wills it, in the force of which lie the judgement and law and rules of
speech."--Horace _Ars Poet._ 70-72.]

[Footnote 31: "It is easy to add to what is already invented."]

[Footnote 32: Dionco and Fiametta sang together a long time of Arcite
and Palamon.]

[Footnote 33: Not by Chaucer.]

[Footnote 34: Rev. Luke Milbourne, who had attacked Dryden's Virgil.]

[Footnote 35: Sir Richard Blackmore, who had censured Dryden for the
indecency of his writings.]

[Footnote 36: "The argument from abuse to use is not valid."]

[Footnote 37: "You, Demetrius and Tigellius, I bid lament among
the chairs of your scholars." Blackmore had once been a




As it is possible the mere English reader may have a different idea of
romance with the author of these little volumes; and may consequently
expect a kind of entertainment, not to be found, nor which was even
intended, in the following pages; it may not be improper to premise a
few words concerning this kind of writing, which I do not remember to
have seen hitherto attempted in our language.

The EPIC, as well as the DRAMA, is divided into tragedy and comedy.
HOMER, who was the father of this species of poetry, gave us the
pattern of both these, tho' that of the latter kind is entirely lost;
which Aristotle tells us, bore the same relation to comedy which his
Iliad bears to tragedy. And perhaps, that we have no more instances of
it among the writers of antiquity, is owing to the loss of this
great pattern, which, had it survived, would have found its imitators
equally with the other poems of this great original.

And farther, as this poetry may be tragic or comic, I will not scruple
to say it may be likewise either in verse or prose: for tho' it wants
one particular, which the critic enumerates in the constituent parts
of an epic poem, namely, metre; yet, when any kind of writing contains
all its other parts, such as fable, action, characters, sentiments,
and diction, and is deficient in metre only, it seems, I think,
reasonable to refer it to the epic; at least, as no critic hath
thought proper to range it under any other head, nor to assign it a
particular name to itself.

Thus the Telemachus of the archbishop of Cambray appears to me of the
epic kind, as well as the Odyssey of Homer, indeed, it is much fairer
and more reasonable to give it a name common with that species from
which it differs only in a single instance, than to confound it with
those which it resembles in no other. Such are those voluminous works,
commonly called Romances, namely Clelia, Cleopatra, Astraea, Cassandra,
the Grand Cyrus, and innumerable others which contain, as I apprehend,
very little instruction or entertainment.

Now, a comic romance is a comic epic-poem in prose; differing from
comedy, as the serious epic from tragedy: its action being more
extended and comprehensive; containing a much larger circle of
incidents, and introducing a greater variety of characters. It differs
from the serious romance in its fable and action, in this: that as in
the one these are grave and solemn, so in the other they are light and
ridiculous; it differs in its characters, by introducing persons of
inferiour rank, and consequently of inferiour manners, whereas the
grave romance sets the highest before us; lastly in its sentiments and
diction; by preserving the ludicrous instead of the sublime. In the
diction I think, burlesque itself may be sometimes admitted; of which
many instances will occur in this work, as in the description of the
battles, and some other places not necessary to be pointed out to the
classical reader; for whose entertainment those parodies or burlesque
imitations are chiefly calculated.

But tho' we have sometimes admitted this in our diction, we have
carefully excluded it from our sentiments and characters; for there
it is never properly introduced, unless in writings of the burlesque
kind, which this is not intended to be. Indeed, no two species of
writing can differ more widely than the comic and the burlesque:
for as the latter is ever the exhibition of what is monstrous and
unnatural, and where our delight, if we examine it, arises from the
surprising absurdity, as in appropriating the manners of the highest
to the lowest, or _e converso_; so in the former, we should ever
confine ourselves strictly to nature, from the just imitation of
which, will flow all the pleasure we can this way convey to a sensible
reader. And perhaps, there is one reason, why a comic writer should
of all others be the least excused for deviating from nature, since
it may not be always so easy for a serious poet to meet with the great
and the admirable; but life everywhere furnishes an accurate observer
with the ridiculous.

I have hinted this little, concerning burlesque; because I have often
heard that name given to performances, which have been truly of the
comic kind, from the author's having sometimes admitted it in his
diction only; which as it is the dress of poetry, doth like the dress
of men establish characters, (the one of the whole poem, and the other
of the whole man), in vulgar opinion, beyond any of their greater
excellences: but surely, a certain drollery in style, where characters
and sentiments are perfectly natural, no more constitutes the
burlesque, than an empty pomp and dignity of words, where everything
else is mean and low, can entitle any performance to the appellation
of the true sublime.

And I apprehend, my Lord Shaftesbury's opinion of mere burlesque
agrees with mine, when he asserts, "There is no such thing to be found
in the writings of the antients." But perhaps I have less abhorrence
than he professes for it: and that not because I have had some little
success on the stage this way; but rather as it contributes more to
exquisite mirth and laughter than any other; and these are probably
more wholesome physic for the mind, and conduce better to purge away
spleen, melancholy, and ill affections, than is generally imagined.
Nay, I will appeal to common observation, whether the same companies
are not found more full of good-humour and benevolence, after they
have been sweetened for two or three hours with entertainments of this
kind, than soured by a tragedy or a grave lecture.

But to illustrate all this by another science, in which, perhaps, we
shall see the distinction more clearly and plainly: let us examine the
works of a comic history-painter, with those performances which
the Italians call _Caricatura_, where we shall find the greatest
excellence of the former to consist in the exactest copy of nature,
insomuch, that a judicious eye instantly rejects anything _outre_, any
liberty which the painter hath taken with the features of that _alma
mater_. Whereas in the _Caricatura_ we allow all licence. Its aim is
to exhibit monsters, not men, and all distortions and exaggerations
whatever are within its proper province.

Now what Caricatura is in painting Burlesque is in writing, and in the
same manner the comic writer and painter correlate to each other. And
here I shall observe, that as in the former, the painter seems to have
the advantage, so it is in the latter infinitely on the side of the
writer, for the Monstrous is much easier to paint than describe, and
the Ridiculous to describe than paint.

And tho' perhaps this latter species doth not in either science so
strongly affect and agitate the muscles as the other, yet it will be
owned I believe, that a more rational and useful pleasure arises to us
from it. He who should call the ingenious Hogarth a burlesque painter,
would, in my opinion, do him very little honour: for sure it is much
easier, much less the subject of admiration, to paint a man with a
nose, or any other feature of a preposterous size, or to expose him in
some absurd or monstrous attitude, than to express the affections of
men on canvas. It hath been thought a vast commendation of a painter
to say his figures _seem to breathe_, but surely it is a much greater
and nobler applause, _that they appear to think_.

But to return The Ridiculous only, as I have before said, falls within
my province in the present work. Nor will some explanation of this
word be thought impertinent by the reader, if he considers how
wonderfully it hath been mistaken, even by writers who have profess'd
it; for to what but such a mistake, can we attribute the many attempts
to ridicule the blackest villainies, and what is yet worse the most
dreadful calamities? What could exceed the absurdity of an author, who
should write the comedy of Nero, with the merry incident of ripping
up his mother's belly, or what would give a greater shock to humanity
than an attempt to expose the miseries of poverty and distress to
ridicule? And yet, the reader will not want much learning to suggest
such instances to himself.

Besides, it may seem remarkable, that Aristotle, who is so fond and
free of definitions, hath not thought proper to define the Ridiculous.
Indeed, where he tells us it is proper to comedy, he hath remarked
that villainy is not its object: but that he hath not, as I remember,
positively asserted what is. Nor doth the Abbe Bellegarde, who hath
written a treatise on this subject, tho' he shows us many species of
it, once trace it to its fountain.

The only source of the true Ridiculous (as it appears to me) is
affectation. But tho' it arises from one spring only, when we consider
the infinite streams into which this one branches, we shall presently
cease to admire at the copious field it affords to an observer.
Now affectation proceeds from one of these two causes; vanity, or
hypocrisy: for as vanity puts us on affecting false characters, in
order to purchase applause; so hypocrisy sets us on an endeavour to
avoid censure by concealing our vices under an appearance of their
opposite virtues. And tho' these two causes are often confounded,
(for they require some distinguishing;) yet, as they proceed from
very different motives, so they are as clearly distinct in their
operations: for indeed, the affectation which arises from vanity is
nearer to truth than the other; as it hath not that violent repugnancy
of nature to struggle with, which that of the hypocrite hath. It
may be likewise noted, that affectation doth not imply an absolute
negation of those qualities which are affected: and therefore, tho',
when it proceeds from hypocrisy, it be nearly allied to deceit;
yet when it comes from vanity only, it partakes of the nature of
ostentation: for instance, the affectation of liberality in a vain
man, differs visibly from the same affectation in the avaricious; for
tho' the vain man is not what he would appear, or hath not the virtue
he affects, to the degree he would be thought to have it; yet it sits
less awkwardly on him than on the avaricious man, who is the very
reverse of what he would seem to be.

From the discovery of this affectation arises the Ridiculous--which
always strikes the reader with surprize and pleasure; and that in a
higher and stronger degree when the affectation arises from hypocrisy,
than when from vanity: for to discover any one to be the exact
reverse of what he affects, is more surprizing, and consequently more
ridiculous, than to find him a little deficient in the quality he
desires the reputation of. I might observe that our Ben Jonson, who
of all men understood the Ridiculous the best, hath chiefly used the
hypocritical affectation.

Now from affectation only, the misfortunes and calamities of life,
or the imperfections of nature, may become the objects of ridicule.
Surely he hath a very ill-framed mind, who can look on ugliness,
infirmity, or poverty, as ridiculous in themselves: nor do I believe
any man living who meets a dirty fellow riding through the streets in
a cart, is struck with an idea of the Ridiculous from it; but if he
should see the same figure descend from his coach and six, or bolt
from his chair with his hat under his arm, he would then begin to
laugh, and with justice. In the same manner, were we to enter a poor
house and behold a wretched family shivering with cold and languishing
with hunger, it would not incline us to laughter, (at least we must
have very diabolical natures, if it would): but should we discover
there a grate, instead of coals, adorned with flowers, empty plate or
china dishes on the side-board, or any other affectation of riches and
finery either on their persons or in their furniture: we might then
indeed be excused, for ridiculing so fantastical an appearance.
Much less are natural imperfections the object of derision: but when
ugliness aims at the applause of beauty, or lameness endeavours to
display agility; it is then that these unfortunate circumstances,
which at first moved our compassion, tend only to raise our mirth.

The poet carries this very far;

None are for being what they are in fault,
But for not being what they would be thought.

Where if the metre would suffer the word Ridiculous to close the first
line, the thought would be rather more proper. Great vices are the
proper objects of our detestation, smaller faults of our pity: but
affectation appears to me the only true source of the Ridiculous.

But perhaps it may be objected to me, that I have against my own rules
introduced vices, and of a very black kind into this work. To this I
shall answer: First, that it is very difficult to pursue a series of
human actions and keep clear from them. Secondly, that the vices to
be found here, are rather the accidental consequences of some human
frailty, or foible, than causes habitually existing in the mind.
Thirdly, that they are never set forth as the objects of ridicule,
but detestation. Fourthly, that they are never the principal figure at
that time on the scene; lastly, they never produce the intended evil.

[Footnote A: Henry Fielding, dramatist, novelist, and judge, was born
near Glastonbury, Somersetshire, April 22, 1707, and died at Lisbon,
October 8, 1754. Though seldom spoken of as an essayist, Fielding
scattered through his novels a large number of detached or detachable
discussions which are essentially essays, of which the preface
to "Joseph Andrews" on the "Comic Epic in Prose," is a favorable
specimen. The novel which it introduces was begun as a parody on
Richardson's "Pamela," and the preface gives Fielding's conception of
this form of fiction.]



It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to
be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect
of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be
disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would
have been without applause; and diligence without reward.

Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom
mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science,
the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear
obstructions from the paths through which Learning and Genius press
forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble
drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other author may aspire
to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and
even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.

I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a Dictionary of
the English Language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation
of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected;
suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild
exuberance; resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion: and exposed
to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation.

When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech
copious without order, and energetic without rule: wherever I turned
my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled and confusion to be
regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any
established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected,
without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be
rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of
classical reputation or acknowledged authority.

Having therefore no assistance but from general grammar, I applied
myself to the perusal of our writers; and noting whatever might be of
use to ascertain or illustrate any word or phrase, accumulated in time
the materials of a dictionary, which, by degrees, I reduced to
method, establishing to myself, in the progress of the work, such as
experience and analogy suggested to me; experience, which practice and
observation were continually increasing; and analogy, which, though in
some words obscure, was evident in others.

In adjusting the ORTHOGRAPHY, which has been to this time
unsettled and fortuitous, I found it necessary to distinguish those
irregularities that are inherent in our tongue, and perhaps coeval
with it, from others which the ignorance or negligence of later
writers has produced. Every language has its anomalies, which though
inconvenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated
among the imperfections of human things, and which require only to be
registered, that they may not be increased; and ascertained, that
they may not be confounded: but every language has likewise
its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the
lexicographer to correct or proscribe.

As language was at its beginning merely oral, all words of necessary
or common use were spoken before they were written; and while they
were unfixed by any visible signs, must have been spoken with great
diversity, as we now observe those who cannot read to catch sounds
imperfectly, and utter them negligently. When this wild and barbarous
jargon was first reduced to an alphabet, every penman endeavored to
express, as he could, the sounds which he was accustomed to pronounce
or to receive, and vitiated in writing such words as were already
vitiated in speech. The powers of the letters, when they were applied
to a new language, must have been vague and unsettled, and
therefore different hands would exhibit the same sound by different

From this uncertain pronunciation arise in a great part the various
dialects of the same country, which will always be observed to grow
fewer, and less different, as books are multiplied; and from this
arbitrary representation of sounds by letters proceeds that diversity
of spelling observable in the Saxon remains, and I suppose in the
first books of every nation, which perplexes or destroys analogy,
and produces anomalous formations, which, being once incorporated can
never be afterward dismissed or reformed.

Of this kind are the derivatives _length_ from _long_, _strength_ from
_strong_, _darling_ from _dear_, _breadth_ from _broad_, from _dry_,
_drought_, and from _high_, _height_, which Milton, in zeal for
analogy, writes highth. 'Quid te exempta juvat spinis de pluribus
una?' To change all would be too much, and to change one is nothing.

This uncertainty is most frequent in the vowels, which are so
capriciously pronounced, and so differently modified, by accident or
affectation, not only in every province, but in every mouth, that to
them, as is well known to etymologists, little regard is to be shown
in the deduction of one language from another.

Such defects are not errors in orthography, but spots of barbarity
impressed so deep in the English language, that criticism can
never wash them away: these, therefore, must be permitted to remain
untouched; but many words have likewise been altered by accident, or
depraved by ignorance, as the pronunciation of the vulgar has been
weakly followed; and some still continue to be variously written,
as authors differ in their care or skill: of these it was proper
to inquire the true orthography, which I have always considered as
depending on their derivation, and have therefore referred them to
their original languages; thus I write _enchant_, _enchantment_,
_enchanter_, after the French, and _incantation_ after the Latin; thus
_entire_ is chosen rather than _intire_, because it passed to us not
from the Latin _integer_, but from the French _entier_.

Of many words it is difficult to say whether they were immediately
received from the Latin or the French, since at the time when we had
dominions in France, we had Latin service in our churches. It is,
however, my opinion that the French generally supplied us; for we
have few Latin words, among the terms of domestic use, which are not
French; but many French, which are very remote from Latin.

Even in words of which the derivation is apparent, I have been often
obliged to sacrifice uniformity to custom; thus I write, in compliance
with a numberless majority, _convey_ and _inveigh_, _deceit_ and
_receipt_, _fancy_ and _phantom_; sometimes the derivative varies
from the primitive, as _explain_ and _explanation_, _repeat_ and

Some combinations of letters having the same power, are used
indifferently without any discoverable reason of choice, as in
_choak, choke; soap, sope; fewel, fuel_, and many others; which I have
sometimes inserted twice, that those who search for them under either
form, may not search in vain.

In examining the orthography of any doubtful word, the mode of
spelling by which it is inserted in the series of the dictionary, is
to be considered as that to which I give, perhaps not often rashly,
the preference. I have left, in the examples, to every author his own
practice unmolested, that the reader may balance suffrages, and
judge between us: but this question is not always to be determined
by reputed or by real learning; some men, intent upon greater things,
have thought little on sounds and derivations; some, knowing in the
ancient tongues, have neglected those in which our words are commonly
to be sought. Thus Hammond writes _fecibleness_ for _feasibleness_,
because I suppose he imagined it derived immediately from the
Latin; and some words, such as _dependant, dependent; dependance,
dependence_, vary their final syllable, as one or other language is
present to the writer.

In this part of the work, where caprice has long wantoned without
control, and vanity sought praise by petty reformation, I have
endeavored to proceed with a scholar's reverence for antiquity, and a
grammarian's regard to the genius of our tongue. I have attempted few
alterations, and among those few, perhaps the greater part is from
the modern to the ancient practice; and I hope I may be allowed to
recommend to those, whose thoughts have been perhaps employed too
anxiously on verbal singularities, not to disturb, upon narrow views,
or for minute propriety, the orthography of their fathers. It has been
asserted, that for the law to be _known_, is of more importance
than to be _right_. 'Change,' says Hooker, 'is not made without
inconvenience, even from worse to better.' There is in constancy
and stability a general and lasting advantage, which will always
overbalance the slow improvements of gradual correction. Much less
ought our written language to comply with the corruptions of oral
utterance, or copy that which every variation of time or place makes
different from itself, and imitate those changes, which will again be
changed, while imitation is employed in observing them.

This recommendation of steadiness and uniformity does not proceed from
an opinion that particular combinations of letters have much influence
on human happiness; or that truth may not be successfully taught by
modes of spelling fanciful and erroneous; I am not yet so lost in
lexicography as to forget that 'words are the daughters of earth, and
that things are the sons of heaven.' Language is only the instrument
of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however,
that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might
be permanent, like the things which they denote.

In settling the orthography, I have not wholly neglected the
pronunciation, which I have directed, by printing an accent upon the
acute or elevated syllable. It will sometimes be found that the accent
is placed by the author quoted, on a different syllable from that
marked in the alphabetical series; it is then to be understood, that
custom has varied, or that the author has, in my opinion, pronounced
wrong. Short directions are sometimes given where the sound of letters
is irregular; and if they are sometimes omitted, defect in such minute
observations will be more easily excused, than superfluity.

In the investigation, both of the orthography and signification of
words, their ETYMOLOGY was necessarily to be considered, and they were
therefore to be divided into primitives and derivatives. A primitive
word is that which can be traced no further to any English root;
thus _circumspect, circumvent, circumstance, delude, concave_, and
_complicate_, though compounds in the Latin, are to us primitives.
Derivatives, are all those that can be referred to any word in English
of greater simplicity.

The derivatives I have referred to their primitives, with an accuracy
sometimes needless; for who does not see that _remoteness_ comes
from _remote_, _lovely_ from _love_, _concavity_ from _concave_, and
_demonstrative_ from _demonstrate_? But this grammatical exuberance
the scheme of my work did not allow me to repress. It is of great
importance, in examining the general fabric of a language, to trace
one word from another, by noting the usual modes of derivation and
inflection; and uniformity must be preserved in systematical works;
though sometimes at the expense of particular propriety.

Among other derivatives I have been careful to insert and elucidate
the anomalous plurals of nouns and preterites of verbs, which in the
Teutonic dialects are very frequent, and, though familiar to those
who have always used them, interrupt and embarrass the learners of our

The two languages from which our primitives have been derived, are
the Roman and Teutonic: under the Roman, I comprehend the French and
provincial tongues; and under the Teutonic, range the Saxon, German,
and all their kindred dialects. Most of our polysyllables are Roman,
and our words of one syllable are very often Teutonic.

In assigning the Roman original, it has perhaps sometimes happened
that I have mentioned only the Latin, when the word was borrowed
from the French; and considering myself as employed only in the
illustration of my own language, I have not been very careful to
observe whether the Latin would be pure or barbarous, or the French
elegant or obsolete.

For the Teutonic etymologies, I am commonly indebted to Junius and
Skinner, the only names which I have forborne to quote when I copied
their books; not that I might appropriate their labors or usurp their
honors, but that I might spare perpetual repetition by one general
acknowledgment. Of these, whom I ought not to mention but with the
reverence due to instructors and benefactors, Junius appears to
have excelled in extent of learning, and Skinner in rectitude of
understanding. Junius was accurately skilled in all the northern
languages, Skinner probably examined the ancient and remoter dialects
only by occasional inspection into dictionaries; but the learning of
Junius is often of no other use than to show him a track by which he
may deviate from his purpose, to which Skinner always presses forward
by the shortest way. Skinner is often ignorant, but never ridiculous:
Junius is always full of knowledge; but his variety distracts his
judgment, and his learning is very frequently disgraced by his

The votaries of the northern muses will not perhaps easily restrain
their indignation, when they find the name of Junius thus degraded
by a disadvantageous comparison; but whatever reverence is due to
his diligence, or his attainments, it can be no criminal degree of
censoriousness to charge that etymologist with want of judgment, who
can seriously derive _dream_ from _drama_, because 'life is a drama
and a drama is a dream'; and who declares with a tone of defiance,
that no man can fail to derive _moan_ from [Greek: monos], _monos,
single_ or _solitary_, who considers that grief naturally loves to be

Our knowledge of the northern literature is so scanty, that of words
undoubtedly Teutonic, the original is not always to be found in
an ancient language; and I have therefore inserted Dutch or German
substitutes, which I consider not as radical, but parallel, not as the
parents, but sisters of the English.

The words which are represented as thus related by descent or
cognation, do not always agree in sense; for it is incident to words,
as to their authors, to degenerate from their ancestors, and to change
their manners when they change their country. It is sufficient, in
etymological inquiries, if the senses of kindred words be found such
as may easily pass into each other, or such as may both be referred to
one general idea.

The etymology, so far as it is yet known, was easily found in the
volumes, where it is particularly and professedly delivered, and, by
proper attention to the rules of derivation, the orthography was
soon adjusted. But to COLLECT THE WORDS of our language was a task
of greater difficulty the deficiency of dictionaries was immediately
apparent, and when they were exhausted, what was yet wanting must be
sought by fortuitous and unguided excursions into books and gleaned
as industry should find, or chance should offer it, in the boundless
chaos of a living speech. My search, however, has been either skilful
or lucky, for I have much augmented the vocabulary.

As my design was a dictionary, common or appellative, I have omitted
all words which have relation to proper names, such as _Arian,
Socinian, Calvinist, Benedictine, Mahometan_, but have retained those
of a more general nature, as _Heathen, Pagan_.

Of the terms of art I have received such as could be found either in
books of science or technical dictionaries, and have often inserted,
from philosophical writers, words which are supported perhaps only by
a single authority, and which, being not admitted into general use,
stand yet as candidates or probationers, and must depend for their
adoption on the suffrage of futurity. The words which our authors have
introduced by their knowledge of foreign languages or ignorance of
their own, by vanity or wantonness, by compliance with fashion or lust
of innovation, I have registered as they occurred, though commonly
only to censure them, and warn others against the folly of
naturalizing useless foreigners to the injury of the natives.

I have not rejected any by design, merely because they were
unnecessary or exuberant, but have received those which by different
writers have been differently formed, as _viscid_, and _viscidity,
viscous_, and _viscosity_.

Compounded or double words I have seldom noted, except when they
obtain a signification different from that which the components have
in then simple state.

Thus _highwayman, woodman_, and _horsecourser_, require an
explanation, but of _thieflike_, or _coachdriver_, no notice was
needed, because the primitives contain the meaning of the compounds.

Words arbitrarily formed by a constant and settled analogy, like
diminutive adjectives in _ish, as greenish, bluish_; adverbs in _ly_,
as _dully, openly_; substantives in _ness_, as _vileness, faultiness_;
were less diligently sought, and many sometimes have been omitted,
when I had no authority that invited me to insert them; not that they
are not genuine, and regular offsprings of English roots, but
because their relation to the primitive being always the same, their
signification cannot be mistaken.

The verbal nouns in _ing_, such as the _keeping_ of the _castle_,
the _leading_ of the _army_, are always neglected, or placed only to
illustrate the sense of the verb, except when they signify things as
well as actions, and have therefore a plural number, as _dwelling,
living_; or have an absolute and abstract signification, as _coloring,
painting, learning_.

The participles are likewise omitted, unless, by signifying rather
habit or quality than action, they take the nature of adjectives; as a
_thinking_ man, a man of prudence; a _pacing_ horse, a horse that
can pace: these I have ventured to call _participial adjectives_. But
neither are these always inserted, because they are commonly to be
understood without any danger of mistake, by consulting the verb.

Obsolete words are admitted when they are found in authors not
obsolete, or when they have any force or beauty that may deserve

As composition is one of the chief characteristics of a language, I
have endeavored to make some reparation for the universal negligence
of my predecessors, by inserting great numbers of compounded words,
as may be found under _after, fore, new, night, fair_, and many more.
These, numerous as they are, might be multiplied, but that use and
curiosity are here satisfied, and the frame of our language and modes
of our combination amply discovered.

Of some forms of composition, such as that by which _re_ is
prefixed to note _repetition_, and _un_ to signify _contrariety_ or
_privation_, all the examples cannot be accumulated, because the use
of these particles, if not wholly arbitrary, is so little limited,
that they are hourly affixed to new words as occasion requires, or is
imagined to require them.

There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language
than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the
greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many verbs by a
particle subjoined; as to _come off_, to escape by a fetch; to _fall
on_, to attack; _fall off_, to apostatize; to _break off_, to stop
abruptly; to _bear out_, to justify; _to fall in_, to comply; to _give
over_, to cease; to _set off_, to embellish; to _set in_, to begin a
continual tenor; to _set out_, to begin a course or journey; to _take
off_, to copy; with innumerable expressions of the same kind, of which
some appear wildly irregular, being so far distant from the sense of
the simple words, that no sagacity will be able to trace the steps by
which they arrived at the present use. These I have noted with great
care; and though I cannot flatter myself that the collection is
complete, I believe I have so far assisted the students of our
language that this kind of phraseology will be no longer insuperable;
and the combinations of verbs and particles, by chance omitted, will
be easily explained by comparison with those that may be found.

Many words yet stand supported only by the name of Bailey, Ainsworth,
Philips, or the contracted _Dict._ for Dictionaries, subjoined; of
these I am not always certain that they are read in any book but the
works of lexicographers. Of such I have omitted many, because I had
never read them; and many I have inserted, because they may perhaps
exist, though they have escaped my notice: they are, however, to be
yet considered as resting only upon the credit of former dictionaries.
Others, which I considered as useful, or know to be proper, though I
could not at present support them by authorities, I have suffered to
stand upon my own attestation, claiming the same privilege with my
predecessors, of being sometimes credited without proof.

The words, thus selected and disposed, are grammatically considered;
they are referred to the different parts of speech; traced when they
are irregularly inflected, through their various terminations;
and illustrated by observations, not indeed of great or striking
importance, separately considered, but necessary to the elucidation
of our language, and hitherto neglected or forgotten by English

That part of my work on which I expect malignity most frequently to
fasten, is the EXPLANATION; in which I cannot hope to satisfy those,
who are perhaps not inclined to be pleased, since I have not always
been able to satisfy myself. To interpret a language by itself is very
difficult; many words cannot be explained by synonimes, because the
idea signified by them has not more than one appellation; nor by
paraphrase, because simple ideas cannot be described. When the nature
of things is unknown, or the notion unsettled and indefinite,
and various in various minds, the words by which such notions are
conveyed, or such things denoted, will be ambiguous and perplexed. And
such is the fate of hapless lexicography, that not only darkness, but
light impedes and distresses it; things may be not only too little,
but too much known, to be happily illustrated. To explain, requires
the use of terms less abstruse than that which is to be explained, and
such terms cannot always be found; for as nothing can be proved but by
supposing something intuitively known, and evident without proof, so
nothing can be defined but by the use of words too plain to admit a

Other words there are, of which the sense is too subtle and evanescent
to be fixed in a paraphrase; such are all those which are by the
grammarians termed expletives, and, in dead languages, are suffered
to pass for empty sounds, of no other use than to fill a verse, or to
modulate a period, but which are easily perceived in living tongues to
have power and emphasis, though it be sometimes such as no other form
of expression can convey.

My labor has likewise been much increased by a class of verbs too
frequent in the English language, of which the signification is so
loose and general, the use so vague and indeterminate, and the senses
detorted so widely from the first idea, that it is hard to trace them
through the maze of variation, to catch them on the brink of utter
inanity, to circumscribe them by any limitations, or interpret them
by any words of distinct and settled meaning; such are _bear, break,
come, cast, full, get, give, do, put, set, go, run, make, take, turn,
throw_. If of these the whole power is not accurately delivered,
it must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and
variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, these words are
hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in
a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be
accurately delineated from its picture in the water.

The particles are among all nations applied with so great latitude,
that they are not easily reducible under any regular scheme of
explication: this difficulty is not less, nor perhaps greater, in
English, than in other languages. I have labored them with diligence,
I hope with success; such at least as can be expected in a task, which
no man, however learned or sagacious, has yet been able to perform.

Some words there are which I cannot explain, because I do not
understand them; these might have been omitted very often with little
inconvenience, but I would not so far indulge my vanity as to
decline this confession: for when Tully owns himself ignorant whether
_lessus_, in the twelve tables, means a _funeral song_, or _mourning
garment_; and Aristotle doubts whether [Greek: ourous] in the _Iliad_
signifies a _mule, or muleteer_, I may surely without shame, leave
some obscurities to happier industry, or future information.

The rigor of interpretative lexicography requires that _the
explanation_, and _the word explained should be always reciprocal_;
this I have always endeavoured, but could not always attain. Words are
seldom exactly synonymous; a new term was not introduced, but because
the former was thought inadequate: names, therefore, have often many
ideas, but few ideas have many names. It was then necessary to use the
proximate word, for the deficiency of single terms can very seldom
be supplied by circumlocution; nor is the inconvenience great of such
mutilated interpretations, because the sense may easily be collected
entire from the examples.

In every word of extensive use, it was requisite to mark the progress
of its meaning, and show by what gradations of intermediate sense
it has passed from its primitive to its remote and accidental
signification; so that every foregoing explanation should tend to that
which follows, and the series be regularly concatenated from the first
notion to the last.

This is specious, but not always practicable; kindred senses may be so
interwoven, that the perplexity cannot be disentangled, nor any
reason be assigned why one should be ranged before the other. When
the radical idea branches out into parallel ramifications, how can a
consecutive series be formed of senses in their nature collateral?
The shades of meaning sometimes pass imperceptibly into each other, so
that though on one side they apparently differ, yet it is impossible
to mark the point of contact. Ideas of the same race, though not
exactly alike, are sometimes so little different, that no words can
express the dissimilitude, though the mind easily perceives it when
they are exhibited together; and sometimes there is such a confusion
of acceptations, that discernment is wearied and distinction puzzled,
and perseverance herself hurries to an end, by crowding together what
she cannot separate.

These complaints of difficulty will, by those that have never
considered words beyond their popular use, be thought only the jargon
of a man willing to magnify his labors, and procure veneration to his
studies by involution and obscurity. But every art is obscure to those
that have not learned it; this uncertainty of terms, and commixture of
ideas, is well known to those who have joined philosophy with grammar;
and if I have not expressed them very clearly, it must be remembered
that I am speaking of that which words are insufficient to explain.

The original sense of words is often driven out of use by their
metaphorical acceptations, yet must be inserted for the sake of a
regular origination. Thus I know not whether _ardor_ is used for
_material heat_, or whether _flagrant_, in English, ever signifies the
same with _burning_; yet such are the primitive ideas of these words,
which are therefore set first, though without examples, that the
figurative senses may be commodiously deduced.

Such is the exuberance of signification which many words have
obtained, that it was scarcely possible to collect all their senses;
sometimes the meaning of derivatives must be sought in the mother
term, and sometimes deficient explanations of the primitive may
he supplied in the train of derivation. In any case of doubt or
difficulty, it will be always proper to examine all the words of
the same race; for some words are slightly passed over to avoid
repetition, some admitted easier and clearer explanation than others,
and all will be better understood, as they are considered in greater
variety of structures and relations.

All the interpretations of words are not written with the same skill,
or the same happiness: things equally easy in themselves, are not all
equally easy to any single mind. Every writer of a long word commits
errors, where there appears neither ambiguity to mislead, nor
obscurity to confound him; and in a search like this, many felicities
of expression will be casually overlooked, many convenient parallels
will be forgotten, and many particulars will admit improvement from a
mind utterly unequal to the whole performance.

But many seeming faults are to be imputed rather to the nature of
the undertaking, than the negligence of the performer. Thus some
explanations are unavoidably reciprocal or circular, as _hind, the
female of the stag; stag, the male of the hind_: sometimes easier
words are changed into harder, as _burial_ into _sepulture, or
interment, drier_ into _desiccative, dryness_ into _siccity_ or
_aridity, fit_ into _paroxysm_; for the easiest word, whatever it
be, can never be translated into one more easy. But easiness and
difficulty are merely relative; and if the present prevalence of our
language should invite foreigners to this Dictionary, many will be
assisted by those words which now seem only to increase or produce
obscurity. For this reason I have endeavoured frequently to join a
Teutonic and Roman interpretation, as to _cheer_, to _gladden_ or
_exhilarate_, that every learner of English may be assisted by his own

The solution of all difficulties, and the supply of all defects must
be sought in the examples, subjoined to the various senses of each
word, and ranged according to the time of their authors.

When I first collected these authorities, I was desirous that every
quotation should be useful to some other end than the illustration of
a word; I therefore extracted from philosophers principles of science;
from historians remarkable facts; from chymists complete processes;
from divines striking exhortations; and from poets beautiful
descriptions. Such is design, while it is yet at a distance from
execution. When the time called upon me to range this accumulation
of elegance and wisdom into an alphabetical series, I soon discovered
that the bulk of my volumes would fright away the student, and was
forced to depart from my scheme of including all that was pleasing or
useful in English literature, and reduce my transcripts very often to
clusters of words, in which scarcely any meaning is retained; thus
to the weariness of copying, I was condemned to add the vexation of
expunging. Some passages I have yet spared, which may relieve the
labor of verbal searches, and intersperse with verdure and flowers the
dusty deserts of barren philology.

The examples, thus mutilated, are no longer to be considered as
conveying the sentiments or doctrine of their authors; the word for
the sake of which they are inserted, with all its appendant clauses,
has been carefully preserved; but it may sometimes happen, by hasty
detruncation, that the general tendency of the sentence may be
changed: the divine may desert his tenets, or the philosopher his

Some of the examples have been taken from writers who were never
mentioned as masters of elegance, or models of style; but words must
be sought where they are used; and in what pages, eminent for purity,
can terms of manufacture or agriculture be found? Many quotations
serve no other purpose than that of proving the bare existence of
words, and are therefore selected with less scrupulousness than those
which are to teach their structures and relations.

My purpose was to admit no testimony of living authors, that I might
not be misled by partiality, and that none of my contemporaries might
have reason to complain; nor have I departed from this resolution, but
when some performance of uncommon excellence excited my veneration,
when my memory supplied me, from late books, with an example that was
wanting, or when my heart, in the tenderness of friendship, solicited
admission for a favorite name.

So far have I been from any care to grace my pages with modern
decorations, that I have studiously endeavored to collect examples
and authorities from the writers before the Restoration, whose works
I regard as the 'wells of English undefiled,' as the pure sources
of genuine diction. Our language, for almost a century, has, by the
concurrence of many causes, been gradually departing from its original
Teutonic character and deviating towards a Gallic structure and
phraseology, from which it ought to be our endeavor to recall it, by
making our ancient volumes the groundwork of style, admitting
among the additions of later times, only such as may supply real
deficiencies, such as are readily adopted by the genius of our tongue,
and incorporate easily with our native idioms.

But as every language has a time of rudeness antecedent to perfection,
as well as of false refinement and declension, I have been cautious
lest my zeal for antiquity might drive me into times too remote,
and crowd my book with words now no longer understood. I have fixed
Sidney's work for the boundary, beyond which I make few excursions.
From the authors which rose in the time of Elizabeth, a speech might
be formed adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance. If the
language of theology were extracted from Hooker and the translation of
the Bible, the terms of natural knowledge from Bacon, the phrases of
policy, war, and navigation from Raleigh, the dialect of poetry and
fiction from Spender and Sidney, and the diction of common life from
Shakespeare, few ideas would be lost to mankind, for want of English
words in which they might be expressed.

It is not sufficient that a word is found, unless it be so combined
as that its meaning is apparently determined by the tract and tenor
of the sentence, such passages I have therefore chosen, and when
it happened that any author gave a definition of a term, or such
an explanation as is equivalent to a definition, I have placed
his authority as a supplement to my own, without regard to the
chronological order that is otherwise observed.

Some words, indeed, stand unsupported by any authority, but they are
commonly derivative nouns or adverbs, formed from their primitives by
regular and constant analogy, or names of things seldom occurring in
books, or words of which I have reason to doubt the existence.

There is more danger of censure from the multiplicity than paucity
of examples, authorities will sometimes seem to have been accumulated
without necessity or use, and perhaps some will be found, which
might, without loss, have been omitted. But a work of this kind is not
hastily to be charged with superfluities; those quotations, which to
careless or unskillful perusers appear only to repeat the same sense,
will often exhibit, to a more accurate examiner, diversities of
signification, or, at least, afford different shades of the same
meaning: one will show the word applied to persons, another to things;
one will express an ill, another a good, and a third a neutral sense;
one will prove the expression genuine from an ancient author;
another will show it elegant from a modern: a doubtful authority
is corroborated by another of more credit; an ambiguous sentence is
ascertained by a passage clear and determinate: the word, how
often soever repeated, appears with new associates and in different
combinations, and every quotation contributes something to the
stability or enlargement of the language.

When words are used equivocally I receive them in either sense; when
they are metaphorical, I adopt them in their primitive acceptation.

I have sometimes, though rarely, yielded to the temptation of
exhibiting a genealogy of sentiments, by showing how one author copied
the thoughts and diction of another: such quotations are indeed little
more than repetitions, which might justly be censured, did they not
gratify the mind, by affording a kind of intellectual history.

The various syntactical structures occurring in the examples have been
carefully noted; the license or negligence with which many words have
been hitherto used, has made our style capricious and indeterminate;
when the different combinations of the same word are exhibited
together, the preference is readily given to propriety, and I have
often endeavored to direct the choice.

Thus have I labored by settling the orthography, displaying the
analogy, regulating the structures, and ascertaining the
signification of English words, to perform all the parts of a faithful
lexicographer: but I have not always executed my own scheme, or
satisfied my own expectations. The work, whatever proofs of diligence
and attention it may exhibit, is yet capable of many improvements; the
orthography which I recommend is still controvertible, the etymology
which I adopt is uncertain, and perhaps frequently erroneous; the
explanations are sometimes too much contracted, and sometimes too much
diffused, the significations are distinguished rather with subtlety
than skill, and the attention is harassed with unnecessary minuteness.

The examples are too often injudiciously truncated, and perhaps
sometimes--I hope very rarely--alleged in a mistaken sense; for in
making this collection I trusted more to memory, than, in a state of
disquiet and embarrassment, memory can contain, and purposed to supply
at the review what was left incomplete in the first transcription.

Many terms appropriated to particular occupations, though necessary
and significant, are undoubtedly omitted, and of the words most
studiously considered and exemplified, many senses have escaped

Yet these failures, however frequent, may admit extenuation and
apology. To have attempted much is always laudable, even when the
enterprise is above the strength that undertakes it: to rest below
his own aim is incident to every one whose fancy is active, and whose
views are comprehensive; nor is any man satisfied with himself because
he has done much, but because he can conceive little. When first I
engaged in this work, I resolved to leave neither words nor things
unexamined, and pleased myself with a prospect of the hours which I
should revel away in feasts of literature, the obscure recesses of
northern learning which I should enter and ransack, the treasures with
which I expected every search into those neglected mines to reward my
labor, and the triumph with which I should display my acquisitions
to mankind. When I had thus inquired into the original of words, I
resolved to show likewise my attention to things; to pierce deep into
every science, to inquire the nature of every substance of which
I inserted the name, to limit every idea by a definition strictly
logical, and exhibit every production of art or nature in an accurate
description, that my book might be in place of all other dictionaries
whether appellative or technical. But these were the dreams of a poet
doomed at last to wake a lexicographer. I soon found that it is too
late to look for instruments, when the work calls for execution, and
that whatever abilities I had brought to my task, with those I must
finally perform it. To deliberate whenever I doubted, to inquire
whenever I was ignorant, would have protracted the undertaking without
end, and, perhaps, without much improvement; for I did not find by
my first experiments, that what I had not of my own was easily to be
obtained: I saw that one inquiry only gave occasion to another, that
book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and
to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue
perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the
sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest,
was still beheld at the same distance from them.

I then contracted my design, determining to confide in myself, and
no longer to solicit auxiliaries which produced more incumbrance than
assistance; by this I obtained at least one advantage, that I set
limits to my work, which would in time be ended, though not completed.

Despondency has never so far prevailed as to depress me to negligence;
some faults will at last appear to be the effects of anxious diligence
and persevering activity. The nice and subtle ramifications of meaning
were not easily avoided by a mind intent upon accuracy, and convinced
of the necessity of disentangling combinations, and separating
similitudes. Many of the distinctions which to common readers appear
useless and idle, will be found real and important by men versed
in the school philosophy, without which no dictionary can ever be
accurately compiled, or skillfully examined.

Some senses, however, there are, which, though not the same, are
yet so nearly allied, that they are often confounded. Most men
think indistinctly, and therefore cannot speak with exactness; and
consequently some examples might be indifferently put to either
signification: this uncertainty is not to be imputed to me, who do not
form, but register the language; who do not teach men how they should
think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts.

The imperfect sense of some examples I lamented, but could not remedy,
and hope they will be compensated by innumerable passages selected
with propriety, and preserved with exactness; some shining with sparks
of imagination, and some replete with treasures of wisdom.

The orthography and etymology, though imperfect, are not imperfect
for want of care, but because care will not always be successful, and
recollection or information come too late for use.

That many terms of art and manufacture are omitted, must be frankly
acknowledged; but for this defect I may boldly allege that it is
unavoidable; I could not visit caverns to learn the miner's language,
nor take a voyage to perfect my skill in the dialect of navigation,
nor visit the warehouses of merchants, and shops of artificers, to
gain the names of wares, tools, and operations, of which no mention is
found in books; what favorable accident or easy inquiry brought within
my reach, has not been neglected; but it had been a hopeless labor to
glean up words, by courting living information, and contesting with
the sullenness of one, and the roughness of another.

To furnish the Academicians _della Crusca_ with words of this kind, a
series of comedies called _La Fiera_, or _The Fair_, was professedly
written by Buonaroti; but I had no such assistant, and therefore was
content to want what they must have wanted likewise, had they not
luckily been so supplied.

Nor are all words which are not found in the vocabulary, to be
lamented as omissions. Of the laborious and mercantile part of the
people, the diction is in a great measure casual and mutable; many of
their terms are formed for some temporary or local convenience, and
though current at certain times and places, are in others utterly
unknown. This fugitive cant, which is always in a state of increase
or decay, cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of
a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things
unworthy of preservation.

Care will sometimes betray to the appearance of negligence. He that is
catching opportunities which seldom occur, will suffer those to pass
by unregarded, which he expects hourly to return; he that is searching
for rare and remote things, will neglect those that are obvious and
familiar: thus many of the most common and cursory words have
been inserted with little illustration, because in gathering the
authorities, I forebore to copy those which I thought likely to occur
whenever they were wanted. It is remarkable that, in reviewing my
collection, I found the word _sea_ unexemplified.

Thus it happens, that in things difficult there is danger from
ignorance, and in things easy, from confidence; the mind, afraid of
greatness, and disdainful of littleness, hastily withdraws herself
from painful searches, and passes with scornful rapidity over tasks
not adequate to her powers; sometimes too secure for caution, and
again too anxious for vigorous effort; sometimes idle in a plain path,
and sometimes distracted in labyrinths, and dissipated by different

A large work is difficult because it is large, even though all its
parts might singly be performed with facility; where there are many
things to be done, each must be allowed its share of time and labor,
in the proportion only which it bears to the whole; nor can it be
expected, that the stones which form the dome of a temple, should be
squared and polished like the diamond of a ring.

Of the event of this work, for which; having labored it with so much
application, I cannot but have some degree of parental fondness, it
is natural to form conjectures. Those who have been persuaded to think
well of my design, will require that it should fix our language, and
put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto
been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence
I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin
to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor
experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain
time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the
elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with
equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to
produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and
phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm
his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in
his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from
folly, vanity, and affectation.

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard
the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse
intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain;
sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain
syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of
pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength. The French
language has visibly changed under the inspection of the Academy;
the style of Amelot's translation of Father Paul is observed by Le
Courayer to be _un peu passe_; and no Italian will maintain that the
diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of
Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro.

Total and sudden transformations of a language seldom happen;
conquests and migrations are now very rare: but there are other causes
of change, which, though slow in their operation, and invisible in
their progress, are perhaps as much superior to human resistance, as
the revolutions of the sky, or intumescence of the tide. Commerce,
however necessary, however lucrative, as it depraves the manners,
corrupts the language; they that have frequent intercourse with
strangers, to whom they endeavor to accommodate themselves, must
in time learn a mingled dialect, like the jargon which serves the
traffickers on the Mediterranean and Indian coasts. This will not
always be confined to the exchange, the warehouse, or the port, but
will be communicated by degrees to other ranks of the people, and be
at last incorporated with the current speech.

There are likewise internal causes equally forcible. The language most
likely to continue long without alterations, would be that of a nation
raised a little, and but a little, above barbarity, secluded from
strangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniences of life;
either without books, or, like some of the Mahometan countries, with
every few: men thus busied and unlearned, having only such words as
common use requires, would perhaps long continue to express the same
notions by the same signs. But no such constancy can be expected in a
people polished by arts, and classed by subordination, where one part
of the community is sustained and accommodated by the labor of the
other. Those who have much leisure to think, will always be enlarging
the stock of ideas; and every increase of knowledge, whether real or
fancied, will produce new words, or combination of words. When the
mind is unchained from necessity, it will range after convenience;
when it is left at large in the fields of speculation, it will shift
opinions; as any custom is disused, the words that expressed it must
perish with it; as any opinion grows popular, it will innovate speech
in the same proportion as it alters practice.

As by the cultivation of various sciences a language is amplified, it
will be more furnished with words deflected from their original sense;
the geometrician will talk of a courtier's zenith or the eccentric
virtue of a wild hero, and the physician, of sanguine expectations and
phlegmatic delays. Copiousness of speech will give opportunities to
capricious choice, by which some words will be preferred, and others
degraded; vicissitudes of fashion will enforce the use of new, or
extend the signification of known terms. The tropes of poetry will
make hourly encroachments, and the metaphorical will become the
current sense: pronunciation will be varied by levity or ignorance,
and the pen must at length comply with the tongue; illiterate writers
will, at one time or other, by public infatuation, rise into renown,
who, not knowing the original import of words, will use them with
colloquial licentiousness, confound distinction, and forget propriety.
As politeness increases, some expressions will be considered as
too gross and vulgar for the delicate, others as too formal and
ceremonious for the gay and airy; new phrases are therefore adopted,
which must for the same reasons be in time dismissed. Swift, in his
petty treatise on the English language, allows that new words must
sometimes be introduced, but proposes that none should be suffered
to become obsolete. But what makes a word obsolete, more than general
agreement to forbear it? and how shall it be continued, when it
conveys an offensive idea, or recalled again into the mouths of
mankind, when it has once become unfamiliar by disuse, and unpleasing
by unfamiliarity?

There is another cause of alteration more prevalent than any other,
which yet in the present state of the world cannot be obviated. A
mixture of two languages will produce a third distinct from both, and
they will always be mixed, where the chief parts of education, and
the most conspicuous accomplishment, is skill in ancient or in foreign
tongues. He that has long cultivated another language, will find
its words and combinations crowd upon his memory; and haste and
negligence, refinement and affectation, will obtrude borrowed terms
and exotic expressions.

The great pest of speech is frequency of translation. No book was ever
turned from one language into another, without imparting something
of its native idiom; this is the most mischievous and comprehensive
innovation; single words may enter by thousands, and the fabric of the
tongue continue the same; but new phraseology changes much at once;
it alters not the single stones of the building, but the order of the
columns. If an academy should be established for the cultivation of
our style--which I, who can never wish to see dependence multiplied,
hope the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy--let them,
instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavor, with all
their influence, to stop the license of translators, whose idleness
and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble
a dialect of France.

If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to
acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses
of humanity? It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we
palliate what we cannot cure. Life may be lengthened by care, though
death cannot be ultimately defeated: tongues, like governments, have
a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our
constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.

In hope of giving longevity to that which its own nature forbids to be
immortal, I have devoted this book, the labor of years, to the honor
of my country, that we may no longer yield the palm of philology,
without a contest, to the nations of the continent. The chief glory of
every people arises from its authors: whether I shall add any thing by
my own writings to the reputation of English literature, must be left
to time: much of my life has been lost under the pressures of
disease; much has been trifled away; and much has always been spent in
provision for the day that was passing over me; but I shall not think
my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations,
and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and
understand the teachers of truth; if my labors afford light to the
repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to
Milton, and to Boyle.

When I am animated by this wish, I look with pleasure on my book,
however defective, and deliver it to the world with the spirit of a
man that has endeavored well. That it will immediately become popular
I have not promised to myself: a few wild blunders, and risible
absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free,
may for a time furnish folly with laughter, and harden ignorance into
contempt; but useful diligence will at last prevail, and there never
can be wanting some who distinguish desert; who will consider that no
dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since, while it
is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling
away; that a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and
that even a whole life would not be sufficient; that he, whose design
includes whatever language can express, must often speak of what
he does not understand; that a writer will sometimes be hurried by
eagerness to the end, and sometimes faint with weariness under a task
which Scaliger compares to the labors of the anvil and the mine; that
what is obvious is not always known, and what is known is not always
present; that sudden fits of inadvertency will surprise vigilance,
slight avocations will seduce attention, and casual eclipses of the
mind will darken learning; and that the writer shall often in vain
trace his memory at the moment of need, for that which yesterday he
knew with intuitive readiness, and which will come uncalled into his
thoughts to-morrow.

In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not
be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was
ever spared out of tenderness to the author, and the world is
little solicitous to know whence proceed the faults of that which it
condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English
Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and
without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities
of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amidst
inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow. It may
repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our
language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt
which no human powers have hitherto completed. If the lexicons of
ancient tongues, now immutably fixed, and comprised in a few volumes,
be yet, after the toil of successive ages, inadequate and delusive;
if the aggregated knowledge, and co-operating diligence of the Italian
academicians, did not secure them from the censure of Beni; if the
embodied critics of France, when fifty years had been spent upon
their work, were obliged to change its economy, and give their second
edition another form, I may surely be contented without the praise of
perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what
would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I
wished to please have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage
are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity,
having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.


February 7, 1755.


I have lately been informed by the proprietor of _The World_, that two
papers, in which my _Dictionary_ is recommended to the public, were
written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished is an honor which,
being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not
well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I
was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your
address; and I could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself 'Le
vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre'; that I might obtain that regard
for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so
little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to
continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I
had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly
scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well
pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, my Lord, have now passed, since I waited in your outward
rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been
pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to
complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication,
without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile
of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron

The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found
him a native of the rocks.

Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man
struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground,
encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to
take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has
been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am
solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.
I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations
where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public
should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has
enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any
favorer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should
conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long
wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with
so much exultation,

My Lord, Your Lordship's most humble,

Most obedient servant, SAM. JOHNSON.

[Footnote A: For a sketch of Johnson's life, see the Introduction to
"Life of Addison" in the volume of English Essays. The interest of his
preface to the great Dictionary need hardly be pointed out, since the
work itself is a landmark in the history of our language. The letter
to Chesterfield, short though it is is a document of great importance
in the freeing of literature from patronage, and is in itself a
notable piece of literature. The preface to Johnson's edition of
Shakespeare's plays not only explains the editor's conception of
his task, but contains what is perhaps the best appreciation of the
dramatist written in the eighteenth century.]



That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the
honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint
likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing
to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those,
who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients,
are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and
flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will
be at last bestowed by time.

Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of
mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason,
but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever
has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes
co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past
than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the
shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity.
The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the
moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet
living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is
dead, we rate them by his best.

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and
definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon
principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to
observation and experience, no other test can he applied than
length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long
possessed they have often examined and compared; and if they persist
to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have
confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no
man can properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the
knowledge of many mountains, and many rivers; so in the productions of
genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared with
other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately displays its
power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but
works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion
to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a
long succession of endeavours. Of the first building that was raised,
it might be with certainty determined that it was round or square; but
whether it was spacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The
Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but
the poems of _Homer_ we yet know not to transcend the common limits
of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and
century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose
his incidents, new-name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises
therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of
past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is
the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what
has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most
considered is best understood.

The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now
begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of
established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived
his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit.
Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions,
local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost;
and every topick of merriment, or motive of sorrow, which the modes of
artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they
once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end;
the tradition of his friendships and his enemies has perished; his
works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with
invectives; they can neither indulge vanity nor gratify malignity; but
are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are
therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unassisted
by interest or passion, they have past through variations of taste
and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to
another, have received new honours at every transmission.

But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon
certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long
continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion;
it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence
_Shakespeare_ has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.

Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of
general nature. Particular manner, can be known to few, and therefore
few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular
combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that
novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but
the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can
only repose on the stability of truth.

_Shakespeare_ is above all writers, at least above all modern writers,
the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful
mirrour of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the
customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world;
by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate
but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or
temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity,
such as the world will always supply, and observation will always
find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general
passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole
system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets
a character is too often an individual; in those of _Shakespeare_ it
is commonly a species.

It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction
is derived. It is this which fills the plays of _Shakespeare_ with


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