The Author of the foregoing Work has been favoured, in the course of its Publication, with many Anonymous Letters, in which the Writers have differently expressed their wishes as to what they apprehended of the Catastrophe.
Most of those directed to him by the gentler Sex turn in favour of what they call a fortunate Ending ; and some of them, enamoured, as they declare, with the principal Character, are warmly solicitous to have her happy .
These Letters having been written on the perusal of the first Four Volumes only, before the complicated adjustment of the several parts to one another could be seen, or fully known, it may be thought superfluous, now the whole Work is before the Public, to enter upon this argument, because it is presumed, that the Catastrophe necessarily follows the natural progress of the Story: But as the Notion of Poetical Justice seems to have generally obtained among the Fair Sex, and must be confessed to have the appearance of Good Nature and Humanity, it may not be amiss to give it a brief consideration.
Nor can it be deemed impertinent to touch upon this subject at the Conclusion of a Work which is designed to inculcate upon the human mind, under the guise of an Amusement, the great Lessons of Christianity, in an Age like the present ; which seems to expect from the Poets and Dramatic Writers (that is to say, from the Authors of Works of Invention) that they should make it one of their principal Rules, to propagate another Sort of Dispensation, under the Name of Poetical Justice, than that with which God, by Revelation, teaches us, he has thought fit to exercise Mankind; whom, placing here only in a State of Probation, he hath so intermingled Good and Evil, as to necessitate them to look forward for a more equal Distribution of both.
The History, or rather, The Dramatic Narrative of Clarissa, is formed on this Religious Plan; and is therefore well justified in deferring to extricate suffering Virtue till it meets with the Completion of its Reward.
But we have no need to shelter our Conduct under the Sanction of Religion (an Authority, perhaps, not of the greatest weight with modern Critics) since we are justified in it by the greatest Master of Reason, and the best Judge of Composition, that ever was. The learned Reader knows we must mean Aristotle ; whose Sentiments in this matter we shall beg leave to deliver in the words of a very amiable Writer of our own Country.
‘The English Writers of Tragedy, says Mr. Addison, are possessed with a Notion, that when they represent a virtuous or innocent person in distress, they ought not to leave him till they have delivered him out of his troubles, or made him triumph over his enemies.
‘This Error they have been led into by a ridiculous Doctrine in Modern Criticism, That they are obliged to an equal distribution of Rewards and Punishments, and an impartial Execution of Poetical Justice .
‘Who were the first that established this Rule, I know not; but I am sure it has no Foundation in Nature, in Reason, or in the Practice of the Antients .
‘We find, that [ in the dispensations of Providence ] Good and Evil happen alike to ALL MEN on this side the grave: And as the principal design of Tragedy is to raise Commiseration and Terror in the minds of the Audience, we shall defeat this great end, if we always make Virtue and Innocence happy and successful.
‘Whatever crosses and disappointments a good man suffers in the Body of the Tragedy, they will make but small impression on our minds, when we know, that, in the last Act, he is to arrive at the end of his wishes and desires.
‘When we see him engaged in the depth of his afflictions, we are apt to comfort ourselves, because we are sure he will find his way out of them, and that his grief, how great soever it may be at present, will soon terminate in gladness.
‘For this reason, the antient Writers of Tragedy treated men in their Plays, as they are dealt with in the World, by making Virtue sometimes happy and sometimes miserable, as they found it in the Fable which they made choice of, or as it might affect their Audience in the most agreeable manner.
‘Aristotle considers the Tragedies that were written in either of those kinds; and observes, that those which ended unhappily had always pleased the people, and carried away the Prize, in the public disputes of the Stage, from those that ended happily.
‘Terror and Commiseration leave a pleasing anguish in the mind, and fix the Audience in such a serious composure of thought, as is much more lasting and delightful, than any little transient Starts of Joy and Satisfaction.
‘Accordingly we find, that more of our English Tragedies have succeeded, in which the Favourites of the Audience sink under their calamities, than those in which they recover themselves out of them.
‘The best Plays of this kind are The Orphan, Venice Preserved, Alexander the Great, Theodosius, All for Love, Oedipus, Oroonoko, Othello,& c.
‘King Lear is an admirable Tragedy of the same kind, as Shakespeare wrote it: But as it is reformed according to the chimerical notion of Poetical [ or, as we may say, Anti-Providential ] Justice, in my humble opinion it has lost half its beauty.
‘At the same time I must allow, that there are very noble Tragedies, which have been framed upon the other Plan, and have ended happily; as indeed most of the good Tragedies which have been written since the starting of the above-mentioned Criticism, have taken this turn: As The Mourning Bride, Tamerlane, Ulysses, Phædra and Hippolytus, with most of Mr. Dryden’s. I must also allow, that many of Shakespeare’s, and several of the celebrated Tragedies of Antiquity, are cast in the same form. I do not therefore dispute against this way of writing Tragedies; but against the Criticism that would establish This as the only method; and by that means would very much cramp the English Tragedy, and perhaps give a wrong bent to the Genius of our Writers.’
Thus far Mr. Addison.
Our fair Readers are also desired to attend to what a celebrated Critic of a neighbouring nation says on the nature and design of Tragedy, from the Rules laid down by the same great Antient.
‘Tragedy, says he, makes man modest, by representing the great Masters of the Earth humbled; and it makes him tender and merciful, by shewing him the strange accidents of life, and the unforeseen disgraces to which the most important persons are subject.
‘But because Man is naturally timorous and compassionate, he may fall into other extremes. Too much Fear may shake his Constancy of Mind, and too much Compassion may enfeeble his Equity. ‘Tis the business of Tragedy to regulate these two weaknesses. It prepares and arms him against Disgraces, by shewing them so frequent in the most considerable persons; and he will cease to fear extraordinary accidents, when he sees them happen to the highest [And still more efficacious, we may add, the example will be, when he sees them happen to the best ] part of mankind.
‘But as the End of Tragedy is to teach men not to fear too weakly common Misfortunes, it proposes also to teach them to spare their Compassion for Objects that deserve it . For there is an Injustice in being moved at the afflictions of those who deserve to be miserable . We may see, without pity, Clytemnestra slain by her son Orestes in Æschylus, because she had murdered Agamemnon her husband; and we cannot see Hippolytus die by the plot of his stepmother Phædra, in Euripides, without Compassion, because he died not but for being chaste and virtuous.’
These are the great Authorities so favourable to the Stories that end unhappily: Yet the Writer of the History of Clarissa is humbly of Opinion, that he might have been excused referring to them for the vindication of his Catastrophe, even by those who are advocates for the contrary opinion; since the notion of Poetical Justice, founded on the Modern Rules, has hardly ever been more strictly observed in works of this nature, than in the present performance, if any regard at all be to be paid to the Christian System, on which it is formed.
For, Is not Mr. Lovelace, who could persevere in his villainous views, against the strongest and most frequent convictions and remorses that ever were sent to awaken and reclaim a wicked man—Is not this great, this wilful Transgressor, condignly punished ; and his punishment brought on thro’ the intelligence of the very Joseph Leman whom he had corrupted ; and by means of the very women whom he had debauched —Is not Mr. Belton, who has an uncle’s hastened death to answer for —Are not the whole Harlowe family — Is not the vile Tomlinson —Are not the infamous Sinclair, and her wretched Partners —And even the wicked Servants, who, with their eyes open, contributed their parts to the carrying on of the vile schemes of their respective principals— Are they not All likewise exemplarily punished ?
On the other hand, Is not Miss Howe, for her noble Friendship to the exalted Lady in her calamities–Is not Mr. Hickman, for his unexceptionable Morals, and Integrity of Life—Is not the repentant and not ungenerous Belford —Is not the worthy Norton — made signally happy ?
And who that are in earnest in their Profession of Christianity, but will rather envy than regret the triumphant death of Clarissa, whose Piety, from her early Childhood; whose diffusive Charity; whose steady Virtue; whose Christian Humility; whose Forgiving Spirit; whose Meekness, whose Resignation, HEAVEN only could reward?
The Length of the piece has been objected to by some, who had seen only the first four Volumes, and who perhaps looked upon it as a mere Novel or Romance ; and yet of these there are not wanting works of equal length.
They were of opinion, that the Story moved too slowly, particularly in the first and second Volumes, which are chiefly taken up with the Altercations between Clarissa and the several persons of her Family.
But is it not true, that those Altercations are the Foundation of the whole, and therefore a necessary part of the work? The Letters and Conversations, where the Story makes the slowest progress, are presumed to be characteristic . They give occasion likewise to suggest many interesting Personalities, in which a good deal of the Instruction essential to a work of this nature, is conveyed. And it will, moreover, be remembred, that the Author at his first setting out, apprised the Reader, that the Story was to be looked upon as the Vehicle only to the Instruction.
To all which we may add, that there was frequently a necessity to be very circumstantial and minute, in order to preserve and maintain that Air of Probability, which is necessary to be maintained in a Story designed to represent real Life; and which is rendered extremely busy and active by the plots and contrivances formed and carried on by one of the principal Characters.
In a word, If, in the History before us, it shall be found, that the Spirit is duly diffused throughout; that the Characters are various and natural; well distinguished, and uniformly supported and maintained: If there be a variety of incidents sufficient to excite Attention, and those so conducted, as to keep the Reader always awake; the Length then must add proportionably to the pleasure that every Person of Taste receives from a well-drawn Picture of Nature. But where the contrary of all these qualities shock the understanding, the extravagant performance will be judged tedious, tho’ no longer than a Fairy-Tale.