Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. III. Addison to Blake
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
 
Prologue Spoken at the Opening of the Drury Lane Theatre, 1747
By Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)
 
WHEN Learning’s triumph o’er her barbarous foes
First reared the stage, immortal Shakespeare rose:
Each change of many-colour’d life he drew,
Exhausted worlds and then imagined new:
Existence saw him spurn her bounded reign,        5
And panting Time toiled after him in vain:
His powerful strokes presiding Truth impressed
And unresisted Passion stormed the breast.
  Then Jonson came, instructed from the school,
To please in method and invent by rule;        10
His studious patience and laborious art,
By regular approach assailed the heart:
Cold approbation gave the lingering bays,
For those who durst not censure scarce could praise.
A mortal born, he met the general doom,        15
But left, like Egypt’s kings, a lasting tomb.
  The wits of Charles found easier ways to fame,
Nor wished for Jonson’s art or Shakespeare’s flame;
Themselves they studied, as they felt they writ;
Intrigue was plot, obscenity was wit.        20
Vice always found a sympathetic friend;
They pleased their age and did not aim to mend.
Yet bards like these aspired to lasting praise,
And proudly hoped to pimp in future days.
Their cause was general, their supports were strong,        25
Their slaves were willing and their reign was long,
Till Shame regained the post that Sense betrayed,
And Virtue called Oblivion to her aid.
  Then crushed by rules, and weakened as refined,
For years the power of Tragedy declined:        30
From bard to bard the frigid caution crept,
Till Declamation roared, whilst Passion slept.
Yet still did Virtue deign the stage to tread,
Philosophy remained though Nature fled.
But forced at length her ancient reign to quit,        35
She saw great Faustus lay the ghost of Wit;
Exulting Folly hailed the joyful day,
And Pantomime and Song confirmed her sway.
  But who the coming changes can presage,
And mark the future periods of the Stage?        40
Perhaps if skill could distant times explore,
New Behns, new Durfeys yet remain in store;
Perhaps, where Lear has raved, and Hamlet died,
On flying cars new sorcerers may ride:
Perhaps (for who can guess th’ effects of chance?)        45
Here Hunt may box, or Mahomet may dance.
  Hard is his lot that, here by Fortune plac’d,
Must watch the wild vicissitudes of taste;
With ev’ry meteor of caprice must play,
And chase the new-blown bubbles of the day.        50
Ah! let not Censure term our fate our choice,
The stage but echoes back the public voice;
The drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give,
For we that live to please, must please to live.
  Then prompt no more the follies you decry,        55
As tyrants doom their tools of guilt to die;
’Tis yours, this night, to bid the reign commence
Of rescued Nature and reviving Sense;
To chase the charms of sound, the pomp of show,
For useful mirth and salutary woe;        60
Bid scenic Virtue form the rising age,
And Truth diffuse her radiance from the stage.
 
 
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