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An Essay on Criticism by John Oldmixon








John Oldmixon's _Essay on Criticism_, like his _Reflections on Dr. Swift's Letter to the Earl of Oxford, about the English Tongue_,[1] provides evidence to support Dr. Johnson's description of its author as a "scribbler for a party," and indicates that Oldmixon must have been devoted to gathering examples of what appeared to him to be the good and bad in literature.

The story of the appearance of the _Essay on Criticism_ in 1728 should begin in 1724, when Oldmixon published in one volume his _Critical History of England, Ecclesiastical and Civil_. Dr. Zachary Grey's criticism of this book was answered by Oldmixon in 1725 in _A Review of Dr. Zachary Grey's Defence of our Ancient and Modern Historians_. In 1726 a two-volume edition of the _Critical History of England_ appeared with the 1725 edition of the _Review of Dr. Zachary Grey's Defence_ appended to the first volume. In the preface to the second volume of the _Critical History_ Oldmixon referred to the _Essay on Criticism_, stating that it was ready for the press, but that since it would have made the second volume too large, it would be published at a later date. The _Essay_, he stated, was to prepare the public for his translation of Abbe Bouhours' _La ManiA"re De Bien Penser_. It was not, however, until 1728 that the _Essay_ reached the public. Besides appearing separately, it was appended, in place of the now removed answer to Dr. Grey, to the "third" edition of the _Critical History_.[2] There is no reference to the addition of the _Essay_ in the preface to the first volume, but its appearance and addition is referred to in the preface to the second volume.

Oldmixon seems to have had more than one purpose for writing the _Essay_; one of them is made quite clear in the second paragraph:

I shall not, in this _Essay_, enter into the philosophical Part of Criticism which _Corneille_ complains of, and that _Aristotle_ and his Commentators have treated of Poetry, rather as _Philosophers_ than Poets. I shall not attempt to give Reasons why Thoughts are _sublime_, _noble_, _delicate_, _agreeable_, and the like, but content my self with producing Examples of every Kind of right Thinking, and leave it to Authors of more Capacity and Leisure, to treat the Matter _A Fond_, and teach us to imitate our selves what we admire in others.

The remarks concerning the English need for guidance in "right thinking" are obviously intended to prepare a public for Oldmixon's translation of Bouhours' _La ManiA"re De Bien Penser_. Following the method of Bouhours, who was in turn following Longinus, Oldmixon gives examples from English literature of the various divisions of "right thinking" and, also like Bouhours, he includes specimens of failures in this art. The bad examples he presents provide ample evidence that the Essay was also serving a Whig polemical purpose, for they are drawn from such writers as Clarendon, Pope and, in particular, Laurence Echard. The tone and nature of Oldmixon's remarks on Echard, whose History he had already criticized at length in the second volume of the _Critical History_, can be seen in this explanation of his general treatment of that author:

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