'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
'Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick's Share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their Light,
These born to Judge, as well as those to Write.
Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their Wit, 'tis true,
But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?
Yet if we look more closely, we shall find
Most have the Seeds of Judgment in their Mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring Light;
The Lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest Sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill Colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false Learning is good Sense defac'd.
Some are bewilder'd in the Maze of Schools,
And some made Coxcombs Nature meant but Fools.
In search of Wit these lose their common Sense,
And then turn Criticks in their own Defence.
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a Rival's or an Eunuch's spite.
All Fools have still an Itching to deride,
And fain wou'd be upon the Laughing Side;
If Maevius Scribble in Apollo's spight,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write
Some have at first for Wits, then Poets past,
Turn'd Criticks next, and prov'd plain Fools at last;
Some neither can for Wits nor Criticks pass,
As heavy Mules are neither Horse or Ass.
Those half-learn'd Witlings, num'rous in our Isle,
As half-form'd Insects on the Banks of Nile:
Unfinish'd Things, one knows now what to call,
Their Generation's so equivocal:
To tell 'em, wou'd a hundred Tongues require,
Or one vain Wit's, that might a hundred tire.
But you who seek to give and merit Fame,
And justly bear a Critick's noble Name,
Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.
How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;
Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,
And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.
Nature to all things fix'd the Limits fit,
And wisely curb'd proud Man's pretending Wit:
As on the Land while here the Ocean gains,
In other Parts it leaves wide sandy Plains;
Thus in the Soul while Memory prevails,
The solid Pow'r of Understanding fails;
Where Beams of warm Imagination play,
The Memory's soft Figures melt away.
One Science only will one Genius fit;
So vast is Art, so narrow Human Wit;
Not only bounded to peculiar Arts,
But oft in those, confin'd to single Parts.
Like Kings we lose the Conquests gain'd before,
By vain Ambition still to make them more:
Each might his sev'ral Province well command,
Wou'd all but stoop to what they understand.
First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame
By her just Standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang'd and Universal Light,
Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,
At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art
Art from that Fund each just Supply provides,
Works without Show, and without Pomp presides:
In some fair Body thus th' informing Soul
With Spirits feeds, with Vigour fills the whole,
Each Motion guides, and ev'ry Nerve sustains;
It self unseen, but in th' Effects, remains.
Some, to whom Heav'n in Wit has been profuse.
Want as much more, to turn it to its use,
For Wit and Judgment often are at strife,
Tho' meant each other's Aid, like Man and Wife.
'Tis more to guide than spur the Muse's Steed;
Restrain his Fury, than provoke his Speed;
The winged Courser, like a gen'rous Horse,
Shows most true Mettle when you check his Course.
Those RULES of old discover'd, not devis'd,
Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz'd;
Nature, like Liberty, is but restrain'd
By the same Laws which first herself ordain'd.
Hear how learn'd Greece her useful Rules indites,
When to repress, and when indulge our Flights:
High on Parnassus' Top her Sons she show'd,
And pointed out those arduous Paths they trod,
Held from afar, aloft, th' Immortal Prize,
And urg'd the rest by equal Steps to rise;
Just Precepts thus from great Examples giv'n,
She drew from them what they deriv'd from Heav'n
The gen'rous Critick fann'd the Poet's Fire,
And taught the World, with Reason to Admire.
Then Criticism the Muse's Handmaid prov'd,
To dress her Charms, and make her more belov'd;
But following Wits from that Intention stray'd;
Who cou'd not win the Mistress, woo'd the Maid;
Against the Poets their own Arms they turn'd,
Sure to hate most the Men from whom they learn'd
So modern Pothecaries, taught the Art
By Doctor's Bills to play the Doctor's Part,
Bold in the Practice of mistaken Rules,
Prescribe, apply, and call their Masters Fools.
Some on the Leaves of ancient Authors prey,
Nor Time nor Moths e'er spoil'd so much as they:
Some dryly plain, without Invention's Aid,
Write dull Receits how Poems may be made:
These leave the Sense, their Learning to display,
And theme explain the Meaning quite away
You then whose Judgment the right Course wou'd steer,
Know well each ANCIENT's proper Character,
His Fable, Subject, Scope in ev'ry Page,
Religion, Country, Genius of his Age:
Without all these at once before your Eyes,
Cavil you may, but never Criticize.
Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring;
Still with It self compar'd, his Text peruse;
And let your Comment be the Mantuan Muse.
When first young Maro in his boundless Mind
A Work t' outlast Immortal Rome design'd,
Perhaps he seem'd above the Critick's Law,
And but from Nature's Fountains scorn'd to draw:
But when t'examine ev'ry Part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same:
Convinc'd, amaz'd, he checks the bold Design,
And Rules as strict his labour'd Work confine,
As if the Stagyrite o'er looked each Line.
Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy Them.
Some Beauties yet, no Precepts can declare,
For there's a Happiness as well as Care.
Musick resembles Poetry, in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.
If, where the Rules not far enough extend,
(Since Rules were made but to promote their End)
Some Lucky LICENCE answers to the full
Th' Intent propos'd, that Licence is a Rule.
Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take,
May boldly deviate from the common Track.
Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend,
And rise to Faults true Criticks dare not mend;
From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part,
And snatch a Grace beyond the Reach of Art,
Which, without passing thro' the Judgment, gains
The Heart, and all its End at once attains.
In Prospects, thus, some Objects please our Eyes,
Which out of Nature's common Order rise,
The shapeless Rock, or hanging Precipice.
But tho' the Ancients thus their Rules invade,
(As Kings dispense with Laws Themselves have made)
Moderns, beware! Or if you must offend
Against the Precept, ne'er transgress its End,
Let it be seldom, and compell'd by Need,
And have, at least, Their Precedent to plead.
The Critick else proceeds without Remorse,
Seizes your Fame, and puts his Laws in force.
I know there are, to whose presumptuous Thoughts
Those Freer Beauties, ev'n in Them, seem Faults:
Some Figures monstrous and mis-shap'd appear,
Consider'd singly, or beheld too near,
Which, but proportion'd to their Light, or Place,
Due Distance reconciles to Form and Grace.
A prudent Chief not always must display
His Pow'rs in equal Ranks, and fair Array,
But with th' Occasion and the Place comply,
Conceal his Force, nay seem sometimes to Fly.
Those oft are Stratagems which Errors seem,
Nor is it Homer Nods, but We that Dream.
Still green with Bays each ancient Altar stands,
Above the reach of Sacrilegious Hands,
Secure from Flames, from Envy's fiercer Rage,
Destructive War, and all-involving Age.
See, from each Clime the Learn'd their Incense bring;
Hear, in all Tongues consenting Paeans ring!
In Praise so just, let ev'ry Voice be join'd,
And fill the Gen'ral Chorus of Mankind!
Hail Bards Triumphant! born in happier Days;
Immortal Heirs of Universal Praise!
Whose Honours with Increase of Ages grow,
As streams roll down, enlarging as they flow!
Nations unborn your mighty Names shall sound,
And Worlds applaud that must not yet be found!
Oh may some Spark of your Celestial Fire
The last, the meanest of your Sons inspire,
(That on weak Wings, from far, pursues your Flights;
Glows while he reads, but trembles as he writes)
To teach vain Wits a Science little known,
T' admire Superior Sense, and doubt their own!
Of all the Causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind,
What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules,
Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools.
Whatever Nature has in Worth deny'd,
She gives in large Recruits of needful Pride;
For as in Bodies, thus in Souls, we find
What wants in Blood and Spirits, swell'd with Wind;
Pride, where Wit fails, steps in to our Defence,
And fills up all the mighty Void of Sense!
If once right Reason drives that Cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless Day;
Trust not your self; but your Defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry Friend--and ev'ry Foe.
A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th' Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen'd Way,
Th' increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
Hills peep o'er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
A perfect Judge will read each Work of Wit
With the same Spirit that its Author writ,
Survey the Whole, nor seek slight Faults to find,
Where Nature moves, and Rapture warms the Mind;
Nor lose, for that malignant dull Delight,
The gen'rous Pleasure to be charm'd with Wit.
But in such Lays as neither ebb, nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly low,
That shunning Faults, one quiet Tenour keep;
We cannot blame indeed--but we may sleep.
In Wit, as Nature, what affects our Hearts
Is nor th' Exactness of peculiar Parts;
'Tis not a Lip, or Eye, we Beauty call,
But the joint Force and full Result of all.
Thus when we view some well-proportion'd Dome,
The World's just Wonder, and ev'n thine O Rome!)
No single Parts unequally surprize;
All comes united to th' admiring Eyes;
No monstrous Height, or Breadth, or Length appear;
The Whole at once is Bold, and Regular.
Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
In ev'ry Work regard the Writer's End,
Since none can compass more than they Intend;
And if the Means be just, the Conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial Faults, is due.
As Men of Breeding, sometimes Men of Wit,
T' avoid great Errors, must the less commit,
Neglect the Rules each Verbal Critick lays,
For not to know some Trifles, is a Praise.
Most Criticks, fond of some subservient Art,
Still make the Whole depend upon a Part,
They talk of Principles, but Notions prize,
And All to one lov'd Folly Sacrifice.
Once on a time, La Mancha's Knight, they say,
A certain Bard encountring on the Way,
Discours'd in Terms as just, with Looks as Sage,
As e'er cou'd Dennis, of the Grecian Stage;
Concluding all were desp'rate Sots and Fools,
Who durst depart from Aristotle's Rules.
Our Author, happy in a Judge so nice,
Produc'd his Play, and beg'd the Knight's Advice,
Made him observe the Subject and the Plot,
The Manners, Passions, Unities, what not?
All which, exact to Rule were brought about,
Were but a Combate in the Lists left out.
What! Leave the Combate out? Exclaims the Knight;
Yes, or we must renounce the Stagyrite.
Not so by Heav'n (he answers in a Rage)
Knights, Squires, and Steeds, must enter on the Stage.
So vast a Throng the Stage can ne'er contain.
Then build a New, or act it in a Plain.
Thus Criticks, of less Judgment than Caprice,
Curious, not Knowing, not exact, but nice,
Form short Ideas; and offend in Arts
(As most in Manners) by a Love to Parts.
Some to Conceit alone their Taste confine,
And glitt'ring Thoughts struck out at ev'ry Line;
Pleas'd with a Work where nothing's just or fit;
One glaring Chaos and wild Heap of Wit;
Poets like Painters, thus, unskill'd to trace
The naked Nature and the living Grace,
With Gold and Jewels cover ev'ry Part,
And hide with Ornaments their Want of Art.
True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc'd at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind:
As Shades more sweetly recommend the Light,
So modest Plainness sets off sprightly Wit:
For Works may have more Wit than does 'em good,
As Bodies perish through Excess of Blood.
Others for Language all their Care express,
And value Books, as Women Men, for Dress:
Their Praise is still--The Stile is excellent:
The Sense, they humbly take upon Content.
Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.
False Eloquence, like the Prismatic Glass,
Its gawdy Colours spreads on ev'ry place;
The Face of Nature we no more Survey,
All glares alike, without Distinction gay:
But true Expression, like th' unchanging Sun,
Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon,
It gilds all Objects, but it alters none.
Expression is the Dress of Thought, and still
Appears more decent as more suitable;
A vile Conceit in pompous Words exprest,
Is like a Clown in regal Purple drest;
For diff'rent Styles with diff'rent Subjects sort,
As several Garbs with Country, Town, and Court.
Some by Old Words to Fame have made Pretence;
Ancients in Phrase, meer Moderns in their Sense!
Such labour'd Nothings, in so strange a Style,
Amaze th'unlearn'd, and make the Learned Smile.
Unlucky, as Fungoso in the Play,
These Sparks with aukward Vanity display
What the Fine Gentleman wore Yesterday!
And but so mimick ancient Wits at best,
As Apes our Grandsires in their Doublets treat.
In Words, as Fashions, the same Rule will hold;
Alike Fantastick, if too New, or Old;
Be not the first by whom the New are try'd,
Nor yet the last to lay the Old aside.
But most by Numbers judge a Poet's Song,
And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong;
In the bright Muse tho' thousand Charms conspire,
Her Voice is all these tuneful Fools admire,
Who haunt Parnassus but to please their Ear,
Not mend their Minds; as some to Church repair,
Not for the Doctrine, but the Musick there.
These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length along.
Leave such to tune their own dull Rhimes, and know
What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,
Where Denham's Strength, and Waller's Sweetness join.
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World's Victor stood subdu'd by Sound!
The Pow'rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.
Avoid Extreams; and shun the Fault of such,
Who still are pleas'd too little, or too much.
At ev'ry Trifle scorn to take Offence,
That always shows Great Pride, or Little Sense;
Those Heads as Stomachs are not sure the best
Which nauseate all, and nothing can digest.
Yet let not each gay Turn thy Rapture move,
For Fools Admire, but Men of Sense Approve;
As things seem large which we thro' Mists descry,
Dulness is ever apt to Magnify.
Some foreign Writers, some our own despise;
The Ancients only, or the Moderns prize:
(Thus Wit, like Faith by each Man is apply'd
To one small Sect, and All are damn'd beside.)
Meanly they seek the Blessing to confine,
And force that Sun but on a Part to Shine;
Which not alone the Southern Wit sublimes,
But ripens Spirits in cold Northern Climes;
Which from the first has shone on Ages past,
Enlights the present, and shall warm the last:
(Tho' each may feel Increases and Decays,
And see now clearer and now darker Days)
Regard not then if Wit be Old or New,
But blame the False, and value still the True.
Some ne'er advance a Judgment of their own,
But catch the spreading Notion of the Town;
They reason and conclude by Precedent,
And own stale Nonsense which they ne'er invent.
Some judge of Authors' Names, not Works, and then
Nor praise nor blame the Writings, but the Men.
Of all this Servile Herd the worst is He
That in proud Dulness joins with Quality,
A constant Critick at the Great-man's Board,
To fetch and carry Nonsense for my Lord.
What woful stuff this Madrigal wou'd be,
To some starv'd Hackny Sonneteer, or me?
But let a Lord once own the happy Lines,
How the Wit brightens! How the Style refines!
Before his sacred Name flies ev'ry Fault,
And each exalted Stanza teems with Thought!
The Vulgar thus through Imitation err;
As oft the Learn'd by being Singular;
So much they scorn the Crowd, that if the Throng
By Chance go right, they purposely go wrong;
So Schismatics the plain Believers quit,
And are but damn'd for having too much Wit.
Some praise at Morning what they blame at Night;
But always think the last Opinion right.
A Muse by these is like a Mistress us'd,
This hour she's idoliz'd, the next abus'd,
While their weak Heads, like Towns unfortify'd,
'Twixt Sense and Nonsense daily change their Side.
Ask them the Cause; They're wiser still, they say;
And still to Morrow's wiser than to Day.
We think our Fathers Fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser Sons, no doubt, will think us so.
Once School-Divines this zealous Isle o'erspread;
Who knew most Sentences was deepest read;
Faith, Gospel, All, seem'd made to be disputed,
And none had Sense enough to be Confuted.
Scotists and Thomists, now, in Peace remain,
Amidst their kindred Cobwebs in Duck-Lane.
If Faith it self has diff'rent Dresses worn,
What wonder Modes in Wit shou'd take their Turn?
Oft, leaving what is Natural and fit,
The current Folly proves the ready Wit,
And Authors think their Reputation safe,
Which lives as long as Fools are pleas'd to Laugh.
Some valuing those of their own, Side or Mind,
Still make themselves the measure of Mankind;
Fondly we think we honour Merit then,
When we but praise Our selves in Other Men.
Parties in Wit attend on those of State,
And publick Faction doubles private Hate.
Pride, Malice, Folly, against Dryden rose,
In various Shapes of Parsons, Criticks, Beaus;
But Sense surviv'd, when merry Jests were past;
For rising Merit will buoy up at last.
Might he return, and bless once more our Eyes,
New Blackmores and new Milbourns must arise;
Nay shou'd great Homer lift his awful Head,
Zoilus again would start up from the Dead.
Envy will Merit as its Shade pursue,
But like a Shadow, proves the Substance true;
For envy'd Wit, like Sol Eclips'd, makes known
Th' opposing Body's Grossness, not its own.
When first that Sun too powerful Beams displays,
It draws up Vapours which obscure its Rays;
But ev'n those Clouds at last adorn its Way,
Reflect new Glories, and augment the Day.
Be thou the first true Merit to befriend;
His Praise is lost, who stays till All commend;
Short is the Date, alas, of Modern Rhymes;
And 'tis but just to let 'em live betimes.
No longer now that Golden Age appears,
When Patriarch-Wits surviv'd thousand Years;
Now Length of Fame (our second Life) is lost,
And bare Threescore is all ev'n That can boast:
Our Sons their Fathers' failing language see,
And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.
So when the faithful Pencil has design'd
Some bright Idea of the Master's Mind,
Where a new World leaps out at his command,
And ready Nature waits upon his Hand;
When the ripe Colours soften and unite,
And sweetly melt into just Shade and Light,
When mellowing Years their full Perfection give,
And each Bold Figure just begins to Live;
The treach'rous Colours the fair Art betray,
And all the bright Creation fades away!
Unhappy Wit, like most mistaken Things,
Attones not for that Envy which it brings.
In Youth alone its empty Praise we boast,
But soon the Short-liv'd Vanity is lost!
Like some fair Flow'r the early Spring supplies,
That gaily Blooms, but ev'n in blooming Dies.
What is this Wit which must our Cares employ?
The Owner's Wife, that other Men enjoy,
Then most our Trouble still when most admir'd,
And still the more we give, the more requir'd;
Whose Fame with Pains we guard, but lose with Ease,
Sure some to vex, but never all to please;
'Tis what the Vicious fear, the Virtuous shun;
By Fools 'tis hated, and by Knaves undone!
If Wit so much from Ign'rance undergo,
Ah let not Learning too commence its Foe!
Of old, those met Rewards who cou'd excel,
And such were Prais'd who but endeavour'd well:
Tho' Triumphs were to Gen'rals only due,
Crowns were reserv'd to grace the Soldiers too.
Now, they who reached Parnassus' lofty Crown,
Employ their Pains to spurn some others down;
And while Self-Love each jealous Writer rules,
Contending Wits becomes the Sport of Fools:
But still the Worst with most Regret commend,
For each Ill Author is as bad a Friend.
To what base Ends, and by what abject Ways,
Are Mortals urg'd thro' Sacred Lust of praise!
Ah ne'er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.
But if in Noble Minds some Dregs remain,
Not yet purg'd off, of Spleen and sow'r Disdain,
Discharge that Rage on more Provoking Crimes,
Nor fear a Dearth in these Flagitious Times.
No Pardon vile Obscenity should find,
Tho' Wit and Art conspire to move your Mind;
But Dulness with Obscenity must prove
As Shameful sure as Importance in Love.
In the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease,
Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv'd with large Increase;
When Love was all an easie Monarch's Care;
Seldom at Council, never in a War:
Jilts rul'd the State, and Statesmen Farces writ;
Nay Wits had Pensions, and young Lords had Wit:
The Fair sate panting at a Courtier's Play,
And not a Mask went un-improv'd away:
The modest Fan was liked up no more,
And Virgins smil'd at what they blush'd before--
The following Licence of a Foreign Reign
Did all the Dregs of bold Socinus drain;
Then Unbelieving Priests reform'd the Nation,
And taught more Pleasant Methods of Salvation;
Where Heav'ns Free Subjects might their Rights dispute,
Lest God himself shou'd seem too Absolute.
Pulpits their Sacred Satire learn'd to spare,
And Vice admir'd to find a Flatt'rer there!
Encourag'd thus, Witt's Titans brav'd the Skies,
And the Press groan'd with Licenc'd Blasphemies--
These Monsters, Criticks! with your Darts engage,
Here point your Thunder, and exhaust your Rage!
Yet shun their Fault, who, Scandalously nice,
Will needs mistake an Author into Vice;
All seems Infected that th' Infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the Jaundic'd Eye.
LEARN then what MORALS Criticks ought to show,
For 'tis but half a Judge's Task, to Know.
'Tis not enough, Taste, Judgment, Learning, join;
In all you speak, let Truth and Candor shine:
That not alone what to your Sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your Friendship too.
Be silent always when you doubt your Sense;
And speak, tho' sure, with seeming Diffidence:
Some positive persisting Fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with Pleasure own your Errors past,
An make each Day a Critick on the last.
'Tis not enough your Counsel still be true,
Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehood do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And Things unknown propos'd as Things forgot:
Without Good Breeding, Truth is disapprov'd;
That only makes Superior Sense belov'd.
Be Niggards of Advice on no Pretence;
For the worst Avarice is that of Sense:
With mean Complacence ne'er betray your Trust,
Nor be so Civil as to prove Unjust;
Fear not the Anger of the Wise to raise;
Those best can bear Reproof, who merit Praise.
'Twere well, might Criticks still this Freedom take;
But Appius reddens at each Word you speak,
And stares, Tremendous! with a threatning Eye
Like some fierce Tyrant in Old Tapestry!
Fear most to tax an Honourable Fool,
Whose Right it is, uncensur'd to be dull;
Such without Wit are Poets when they please.
As without Learning they can take Degrees.
Leave dang'rous Truths to unsuccessful Satyrs,
And Flattery to fulsome Dedicators,
Whom, when they Praise, the World believes no more,
Than when they promise to give Scribling o'er.
'Tis best sometimes your Censure to restrain,
And charitably let the Dull be vain:
Your Silence there is better than your Spite,
For who can rail so long as they can write?
Still humming on, their drowzy Course they keep,
And lash'd so long, like Tops, are lash'd asleep.
False Steps but help them to renew the Race,
As after Stumbling, Jades will mend their Pace.
What Crouds of these, impenitently bold,
In Sounds and jingling Syllables grown old,
Still run on Poets in a raging Vein,
Ev'n to the Dregs and Squeezings of the Brain;
Strain out the last, dull droppings of their Sense,
And Rhyme with all the Rage of Impotence!
Such shameless Bards we have; and yet 'tis true,
There are as mad, abandon'd Criticks too.
The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly read,
With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head,
With his own Tongue still edifies his Ears,
And always List'ning to Himself appears.
All Books he reads, and all he reads assails,
From Dryden's Fables down to Durfey's Tales.
With him, most Authors steal their Works, or buy;
Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
Name a new Play, and he's the Poet's Friend,
Nay show'd his Faults--but when wou'd Poets mend?
No Place so Sacred from such Fops is barr'd,
Nor is Paul's Church more safe than Paul's Church-yard:
Nay, fly to Altars; there they'll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Distrustful Sense with modest Caution speaks;
It still looks home, and short Excursions makes;
But ratling Nonsense in full Vollies breaks;
And never shock'd, and never turn'd aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering Tyde!
But where's the Man, who Counsel can bestow,
Still pleas'd to teach, and not proud to know?
Unbiass'd, or by Favour or by Spite;
Not dully prepossest, nor blindly right;
Tho' Learn'd well-bred; and tho' well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and Humanly severe?
Who to a Friend his Faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the Merit of a Foe?
Blest with a Taste exact, yet unconfin'd;
A Knowledge both of Books and Humankind;
Gen'rous Converse; a Sound exempt from Pride;
And Love to Praise, with Reason on his Side?
Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few,
Athens and Rome in better Ages knew.
The mighty Stagyrite first left the Shore,
Spread all his Sails, and durst the Deeps explore;
He steer'd securely, and discover'd far,
Led by the Light of the Maeonian Star.
Poets, a Race long unconfin'd and free,
Still fond and proud of Savage Liberty,
Receiv'd his Laws, and stood convinc'd 'twas fit
Who conquer'd Nature, shou'd preside o'er Wit.
Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,
And without Method talks us into Sense,
Will like a Friend familarly convey
The truest Notions in the easiest way.
He, who Supream in Judgment, as in Wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Yet judg'd with Coolness tho' he sung with Fire;
His Precepts teach but what his Works inspire.
Our Criticks take a contrary Extream,
They judge with Fury, but they write with Fle'me:
Nor suffers Horace more in wrong Translations
By Wits, than Criticks in as wrong Quotations.
See Dionysius Homer's Thoughts refine,
And call new Beauties forth from ev'ry Line!
Fancy and Art in gay Petronius please,
The Scholar's Learning, with the Courtier's Ease.
In grave Quintilian's copious Work we find
The justest Rules, and clearest Method join'd;
Thus useful Arms in Magazines we place,
All rang'd in Order, and dispos'd with Grace,
But less to please the Eye, than arm the Hand,
Still fit for Use, and ready at Command.
Thee, bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire,
And bless their Critick with a Poet's Fire.
An ardent Judge, who Zealous in his Trust,
With Warmth gives Sentence, yet is always Just;
Whose own Example strengthens all his Laws,
And Is himself that great Sublime he draws.
Thus long succeeding Criticks justly reign'd,
Licence repress'd, and useful Laws ordain'd;
Learning and Rome alike in Empire grew,
And Arts still follow'd where her Eagles flew;
From the same Foes, at last, both felt their Doom,
And the same Age saw Learning fall, and Rome.
With Tyranny, then Superstition join'd,
As that the Body, this enslav'd the Mind;
Much was Believ'd, but little understood,
And to be dull was constru'd to be good;
A second Deluge Learning thus o'er-run,
And the Monks finish'd what the Goths begun.
At length, Erasmus, that great, injur'd Name,
(The Glory of the Priesthood, and the Shame!)
Stemm'd the wild Torrent of a barb'rous Age.
And drove those Holy Vandals off the Stage.
But see! each Muse, in Leo's Golden Days,
Starts from her Trance, and trims her wither'd Bays!
Rome's ancient Genius, o'er its Ruins spread,
Shakes off the Dust, and rears his rev'rend Head!
Then Sculpture and her Sister-Arts revive;
Stones leap'd to Form, and Rocks began to live;
With sweeter Notes each rising Temple rung;
A Raphael painted, and a Vida sung!
Immortal Vida! on whose honour'd Brow
The Poet's Bays and Critick's Ivy grow:
Cremona now shall ever boast thy Name,
As next in Place to Mantua, next in Fame!
But soon by Impious Arms from Latium chas'd,
Their ancient Bounds the banish'd Muses past:
Thence Arts o'er all the Northern World advance,
But Critic Learning flourish'd most in France.
The Rules, a Nation born to serve, obeys,
And Boileau still in Right of Horace sways.
But we, brave Britons, Foreign Laws despis'd,
And kept unconquer'd and unciviliz'd,
Fierce for the Liberties of Wit, and bold,
We still defy'd the Romans as of old.
Yet some there were, among the sounder Few
Of those who less presum'd, and better knew,
Who durst assert the juster Ancient Cause,
And here restor'd Wit's Fundamental Laws.
Such was the Muse, whose Rules and Practice tell,
Nature's chief Master-piece is writing well.
Such was Roscomon--not more learn'd than good,
With Manners gen'rous as his Noble Blood;
To him the Wit of Greece and Rome was known,
And ev'ry Author's Merit, but his own.
Such late was Walsh,--the Muse's Judge and Friend,
Who justly knew to blame or to commend;
To Failings mild, but zealous for Desert;
The clearest Head, and the sincerest Heart.
This humble Praise, lamented Shade! receive,
This Praise at least a grateful Muse may give!
The Muse, whose early Voice you taught to Sing,
Prescrib'd her Heights, and prun'd her tender Wing,
(Her Guide now lost) no more attempts to rise,
But in low Numbers short Excursions tries:
Content, if hence th' Unlearned their Wants may view,
The Learn'd reflect on what before they knew:
Careless of Censure, not too fond of Fame,
Still pleas'd to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
Averse alike to Flatter, or Offend,
Not free from Faults, nor yet too vain to mend.
The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics Foreword
hat, after all, is the point of a compendium of scatology and ontology viz the lyrics of the Grateful Dead? When fans hear a song they like, they internalize it, dance to it, sing along. Tape it, collect it, trade it. When scholars hear a song they like, they annotate it. There is more than one way to love a song. There are as many ways as there are listeners.
The songlist of the Grateful Dead has achieved an anomalous status within the archives of current pop culture. It begins to appear that our output embodied the summation and close of a musical era, rather than heralding the bright new beginning devoutly wished for. But it bears mentioning that our work was a natural and inevitable blending of rock and roll, jazz, and traditional folk culture. It was, in its day, as shockingly innovative as the music of mounting urban psychosis that was to displace it. Its verbal and musical complexity offer little of overwhelming market value to a more intensely stratified current musical culture. I’m optimistically uncertain as to whether it is a dead issue or a ticking time bomb set to detonate long after its progenitors have quit this sphere of commercial sorrow. My own improbable dream was to aid and abet a unified indigenous American, or at least Western, music, drawing on all bona fide traditional currents including pop. Tall order for a bunch of white kids. Big dreams. But jazz wasn’t talking to pop, and bluegrass wasn’t talking to the blues—experimental postclassic soundscape wasn’t talking to anybody.
Most bands can be copied, but bands that have tried to mimic the Grateful Dead in a creative way, other than note-by-note reproduction, tend to fall short of the mark because there is no specific style to mimic, rather a range of styles that the band members have individually mastered and integrated into the music. Pigpen played blues and was accepted as a regular in the black nightclubs of East Palo Alto in his early teens. Phil studied composition with the great Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio to augment his classical training. Garcia’s knowledge and facility with American folk forms and instrumental styles was compendious. Mickey Hart was a titled world-champion rudimental drummer from a family of drummers and studied Indian rhythmic intricacies with Zakir Hussein and Ali Akbar Khan. Several of us were veterans of regular jazz sessions by sterling musicians such as Lester Hellum, Bob Pringle, Rudy Jackson, and Dan Barnett while living at the Chateau. My particular strength was a good memory. I knew the words to most of the popular songs of the forties and fifties and to most of the classics of the swing era, through my parents’ record collection (also strong in folk music) and through playing through “fake books” of the era on my trumpet. I also absorbed the lyrics to an untold number of folk songs during the folk revival of the sixties. Just a knack, but it’s small wonder that my songs are often fraught with allusions.
I believe that the lyrics themselves say all that wants saying but acknowledge that scholastic exegesis has a momentum of its own and it’s not my business to impede it, though I always believed we were “historicized” too early for comfort. I also believe, through experience, that beneath the window dressing of metaphor and rhyme, song is a naked, living, and amorphous creature. Where some assume that song is the transcription of self, my more intimate belief is that one goes out in the woods and ketches one, dresses it up, and trains it to talk. How the brute is trained is a matter of personal style, but beneath the window dressing, the song remains elusively itself, prevented from full expression by the limits of its intended use. The writer’s prejudices, blindsides, and occasional strengths are all utilized in the disguising of the primordial beast into form adequate to its specific purpose.
Scatology is the activity of tracking the spoor of the song, detecting borrowings, influences, and/or outright thefts; of uncovering, through internal evidence, the parentage of a particular song, or of repetitive tendencies throughout a body of work—of actual or imagined contingent sources. It is evidence for induction, building a hypothetical dinosaur from fossil traces. Looking for what species of fire causes such and such a spiral of smoke. Sometimes, there is indeed a flame; other times, the writer was just stretching for a rhyme, accepting something convenient with a deadline impending, no further significance intended. At other times, evidence is ironically removed from normal context and bespeaks influence less than sheer serendipitous proximity. All practice is acceptable practice! Who arbitrates this stuff anyway? It isn’t the artist’s sworn duty to be easily or accurately traceable. I grudgingly admit that prior knowledge of select sources can establish a context for a song that might positively increase the effectiveness of the allusions. One of my conscious goals as a songwriter is to provide a connective thread to the ongoing project of Western music, when and if it feels natural and right.
Ontology is an examination of causative factors, of intent. What was the impulse that seemed to require certain images to be duly expressed? Love, carnal or spiritual? Irony? Sentiment? Contempt? Patriotism? Existential devaluation? Self-advertisement? Revenge? Paranoia? Romance? Annoyance? Deconstruction? Revolution? Peer status? Exuberance? Broken-heartedness? Grief? Indomitability? Salvation? Sales? Sacrilege? Inanity? Responsibility or the lack of? Need of another song for the album? Discontent? Protest? Inspiration from another song? Disaster, personal or worldwide? There are prime models for each of these impulses in the literature of song, in the musical ocean in which we swim.
Who stands behind the mask of a song? Anyone willing and able to provide the voice can wear the mask and intone the metaphors. Song, a series of tones enhanced by metaphor, coalesces into a visage in the act of performance. Why just exactly metaphor? What is metaphor? Metaphor is that which stands for something that cannot stand for itself, since all else stands upon it. Philosophy is metaphor, war is metaphor, and, oh yes, dear sweet love itself. A broad term. What lies outside the capacity of imagining, by way of metaphor, is undefined because indefinable. The something I speak of is evocable, in a limited sense of emotional repercussion, by appropriate metaphor. It is surmisable though not contained by it. The juxtaposition of one metaphor to another yields relation; a juxtaposition of relations, a situation. A juxtaposition of situations provides narrative. Is music also metaphor? Yes, but you lose the value of both words by saying so. Invocation and evocation are classically terms of magic. You don’t evoke your dog, you call him. Spirit, however, you must invoke, coax with metaphor. A song, successfully invoked, evokes person, place, time, and condition.
Sometimes the singer becomes the song. This can be dangerous because the metaphoric mask, fitting too well, can be difficult to remove. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Red Shoes” is the scarifying metaphor of this situation. But when the metaphor supplants the mediator in less than tragic circumstances, mere make-believe becomes magic theater. We buy our tickets hoping this will happen and are disappointed when it doesn’t. But when it does—the audience, as well as the artist, assimilated by metaphor exalted by music—performance becomes ceremony. Words are no longer strictly necessary, they have done their duty toward the primary evocation; rhythm and tonality alone prolong the experience until it’s time to haul it back down to earth and bid you goodnight.
The Grateful Dead was, is, the master metaphor for our group situation. And yes, the shoes have run away with the feet at times. The evocative power of that strange, not at all comical name is considerable, for grace and ill. I know that my own input into the scene, my words, were heavily conditioned by that powerful name. It called sheaves of spirits down on us all. It expressed a deep and mystic hope about the nature of eternity. Our shows were ceremonies and our people, celebrants, in the most archaic sense of the term. There was no place else on God’s green earth that I, for one, fitted. Now that it is gone, there is no place else I fit so exactly as to shape and size. But that I fit once, and well, into something that fit me, that had a piece exactly my size missing, gives hope, in that such things may be at all, that thus it may be so again. Madly in love with metaphor, I took a lover’s liberties with it, crushing unlikely relations into strange situations, letting it summon a sense of its own, or none, or to be continued. . . . Crazy? By all means, whatever that peculiar metaphor of relative sanity portends. The attempt to speak on as many levels at once as is humanly possible, considering the limitations of language (which is also its condition of freedom), can invite the worried concern of more orderly minds.
The components of metaphor that can’t be so easily isolated or identified are those that have nothing to do with image per se, but rather the arrangement of the articles of the image. Say the image of the metaphor is, for example, a red silk banner in the rain. The same metaphor can be expressed as: in the rain, a silken banner of red. Or: silken, red, a banner in the rain. Same metaphor, different emphases and rhythmic pulses. In the context of rhyme, the same metaphor in different inversions could provoke many different shades of feeling.
Weeping tears of crimson pain
silken, red, a banner in the rain.
A certain elegance is provided by rhythmic contrast that would be lost in the doggerel rhythm of:
Weeping tears of crimson pain
a red silk banner in the rain.
All I mean to imply by examining this scrap of suspect metaphor is that there is a point where we leave scatology and ontology behind and enter the sphere of poetics, the land of measured feet, onomatopoeia, and rhythmic accent.
There are songs of such enduring stature that they have become part of the common mind, from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to “Happy Birthday to You,” from “Stardust” to “Auld Lang Syne,” from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” They seem like natural forces (as indeed they are)—unequivocal as the moon and perennial as grass—but in each case, oddly enough, somebody wrote the piece, wrote it or made it up, and passed it along, always around a fire—somebody whose name has come down through the ages along with his song, somebody like King David or Cab Calloway, or, more commonly, somebody forgotten. I like to acknowledge some of these works (it’s called allusion), borrowing a bit of their pizzazz or charm, certain of their authority if not my own. People ask me who my major influences are, and I have to smile, thinking, “You mean other than Walt Disney?” All qualitative assumptions aside, what music first moved us? Got down deep in there before we’d erected any barriers of taste and sophistication? An apt allusion can act like a magnet among the iron filings of a verse, making them all coalesce and decisively point north. One seeks the point in the soul that has already been touched in an undeniable way, only to proceed in directions of one’s own. A four-leaf clover on Mars is the desired item. A scrap of Stephen Foster or a bow to Mother Goose pleases the Muse who watches over such things. She likes us when we borrow, loves us when we steal. All of what song is ventures from and flies home to the same place: soul to soul. Copyright is an interesting and fairly new idea, but I don’t think it’ll ever rule the creative sphere where all things interpenetrate and cross-fertilize. A song is only ever fully realized when it belongs to everyone whose language it inhabits. Which is as much as to say: Few songs are ever fully realized. More than simple creative acts, they are acts of accretion, moss-covered and lichen-bearing bits of interstellar matter, living beings of word and harmony.
There is an approach that allows a song to achieve multiple personal evocations of déjà vu. Not amenable to recognizable formulation (like metric, rhyme, or allusion), it fits the facts of many lives, typifying a variety of situations, and seems to each of many listeners as though written for them alone. I mean specifically written for them, not just generically, but personally. I’ve run across too many testimonials to the phenomenon regarding my own work to doubt it—and have experienced it myself (who hasn’t?) in the lyric works of others that touch me most. A lyric that places its situation too restrictively in a particular time and place may fail in this regard but, on the other hand, might just redouble in such associative power to the ears of those from the same time and place. Usually New York City in the not-too-distant past. Mostly it’s the trusty love song, specifically new love and love disappointed, that takes you there. When the parallels get a little too exact, it’s just uncanny, and there’s not much more to say about that. It’s a bit more difficult to find subjects other than romantic love that partake of the particular and the universal at the same time, which is what a song must do to make any difference in the life of the listener. By report, I’ve done this with a few songs, such as “Ripple” and “Box of Rain” (neither love songs in the conventional sense), but I can’t tell how it’s done, only how it feels: like I’ve just spoken clearly to myself and survived the experience. Exalted. Satisfied. Though the facts of the writing of many lyrics are forgotten, I don’t forget the moments that define and validate my choice of professions.
The truths of song are not the truths of prose or those of nonlyric poetry. Poetry much finer than your garden-variety song lyric can fail entirely to accomplish what rhymed couplets of suspiciously nil content can pull off with mere emotional conviction. Denigrate the art of Hank Williams who dare! What speaks to the head most often misses the heart, since song is above all else and beyond all else, a language of direct emotion, which to be powerful must be simple. Elements of abstraction are added at peril, but in the instances where a mix of brain and heart doesn’t flat-out fail, it can work memorably well. Most studied attempts provide satisfactory fodder for neither mind nor heart; successful linkage is a gift of the moment’s Muse—it comes out of the blue or it doesn’t come.
The sheer dinkiness of rhyming (which the heart enjoys), besides providing an easy key to memorization for the performer, can be a distinct impediment to the free exercise of poetic flexibility. One of the great free-verse poets of our time, Allen Ginsberg (whose attempts at song lyric suffer from the constriction of a vast soul into iambic pentameter) asked me, “Does a song lyric have to rhyme?” I answered impulsively from the apparent truth of the matter that, yes, it must. He didn’t ask for elucidation but nodded gravely and simply accepted the pronouncement. I’ve made a kind of trademark of seeing how far I could push lyric into abstraction without losing touch with the heart. Just so far and no further. I’ve pushed it too far several times and lived to lick my critical bruises. To test the limit and miss, should the work suffer recording and release, is to be labeled pretentious and henceforth beneath notice. “Too bad,” they shake their heads, “he almost had us fooled.” The best way past that misfortune is to collaborate with someone with strong populist instincts. A song needn’t be bone-dumb, mind you, but it must strike past its quanta of intellection to the quiddity (thatness, thereness, suchness) of feeling, music itself being the most direct route to the big red pump.
The extasis of a song lyric is not particularly evident on the printed page, though I confess to being more attentive than strictly necessary about how my work appears to the eye, what’s called symmetry and enjambment, but this is just a personal foible that has no bearing whatsoever on the viability of a lyric, which must be sounded and settled into the nest of its melody, serving not only exposition but the chords and pulses of the arrangement. At best, it should seem like a tune could have no other words and the words, no other tune. In most cases, that’s probably a delusion, as I’ve discovered by hearing hard-core rap lyrics set to Grateful Dead records with the original words electronically erased. The thought that someday my version of how those fine old tracks go will be only one of many that gives pause to consider.
Songwriting is 51 percent craft and 49 percent feel. After a few years in the business, I developed a rhyming dictionary in my head and didn’t even bother to write an end word that would provide a too-limited scope and palette of rhyme. One learns early to tuck the word love into the middle of the line rather than deal with shove, glove, dove, of, and above. Wind is one of the most beautiful and multi-expressive words in the language, but has no usable consonant word except the false rhyme begin. So engrained is this acquired facility that I can literally listen to nearly any modern pop song and tell you what the next line will be more than 50 percent of the time. Most lyric writers telegraph their punches, especially when plowing over well-turned fields for the first time. But hey, it’s all good. There are so many aspects involved in successfully matching a lyric to a set track, it’s a wonder when it expresses anything coherent at all. There’s more liberty to writing a lyric destined to be set to music than in “scoring.” Then the struggle is on the musician’s side, but at least there’s a framework for composition rather than raw air and the buzz of an amp. Since I write faster than most musicians compose, I generally got my way if only because I had something to present and they didn’t. For most full-time musicians, composition is the most dreaded thing of all. I reckon three-quarters of the collaborative output I’ve been involved in originated in my own head. In my experience, it’s much easier to write a lyric than to create a supple and convincing tune. But the only way to write a song is to begin. No songs, to my knowledge, were ever performed that were not first begun. Small point, but not all that obvious. It could be that songs whose lyrics originated in my head are better in sum than those written for the compositions of others, though that is far from a safe generalization and I wouldn’t like to put it to the test. Insofar as writing to composed music can utilize the music’s own juice, the words are subordinated to the composer’s intent. For a lyric to be interesting enough in its own right, to tempt a composer to score, a lot of juice must be present in the words to begin with.
I wonder if there are half a dozen other people in the English-speaking world who’ve made their long-term living solely as lyricists. Pretty small fraternity this. I was granted a rare chance to develop my craft in the public eye, in conjunction with a band of rare longevity. Fortunately, I had a lot to say and, equally fortunate, in retrospect, there was not enough “profile” to the shadowy writer’s gig to turn my head. Not too much anyway. I lived lyric year in and year out for decades and never lost my taste for it. I ascribe this less to raw talent than to a fortuitous pairing of coincidences: suitable cohorts and the unique cultural ferment of the sixties. I don’t know how many songs I wrote, thousands; they were forever getting lost, snatched up by pixies and transported to the land of lost socks or folded in somebody’s back pocket and put through the wash with no duplicate copy. And I wrote reams of bad songs, bitching about everything under the sun, which I kept to myself: Cast not thy swines before pearls. And once in a while something would sort of pop out of nowhere. The sunny London afternoon I wrote “Brokedown Palace,” “To Lay Me Down,” and “Ripple,” all keepers, was in no way typical, but it remains in my mind as the personal quintessence of the union between writer and Muse, a promising past and bright future prospects melding into one great glowing apocatastasis in South Kensington, writing words that seemed to flow like molten gold onto parchment paper. The only similar moment came while conceiving “Terrapin Station” in a lightning-split thunderstorm overlooking the lashing bay at China Camp. That I spent so many sessions trying to add to “Terrapin” in subsequent years was perhaps more an effort to recapture the magic of the moment than because the piece really needed completion. The moment lives on in the song; there’s no need to repeat it. One would think that the culminating moment of a song’s creation would culminate in hearing it performed for the first time, but in my experience this is seldom so; the nexus of eternity achieved in instants of assured and fluent creation reign supreme. The pudding is in the proof, so to speak.
Back in the day, I didn’t allow my lyrics to be published with the recordings so people could dub in their own mishearings, adding a bit of themselves to the song. Stone Age recording technique assured a certain amount of verbal blur, particularly if the band was dynamic in the mid and bass ranges. Though the recordings of the Grateful Dead have been remastered so that lyrics can be heard without suppressing the bass drum, there was a time when the words could be accurately deciphered neither on record nor in concert. Since they weren’t printed, very few people other than the singers knew what I was saying in any detail. Not that this state of things influenced my writing, but I’ve generally found that the words to songs I thought I heard in the works of others were more colorful and enigmatically apt than the words I eventually discovered were intended. More to my personal taste. I assume the same is true of my own work. Mishearing can be as much a strength as a liability. People, accidentally overhearing their own thoughts, are inclined to like what they hear, self-recognized at a distance and mistaken for another.
My purpose in writing song lyrics, besides having nothing better to do and making a living, is the exaltation of my spirit through the exaltation of other spirits. Traditional tools and forms are often apt for the purpose, such as the “Come All Ye” form so popular in sailor songs and union ballads. When I recommend others “come hear Uncle John’s Band,” I verbalize, in a way deeply meaningful to me, one of the ongoing agendas of life, the coaxing and cajoling of the forces of generational unity. I don’t say we, the purveyors of the song, are Uncle John’s Band (though anything was possible on a good night in the late sixties)—the truth is that we as a group also wanted to come hear “UJB,” and to come home, too, if it’s not too much to ask. When I’m lucky, what is meant to me by the gnomic phrases that rise from the reverie of writing is found equally meaningful to others. When asked who specifically Uncle John—or St. Stephen—is, I have to think someone’s missed the point. They’re you or they’re no one. I once got a midnight phone call on my listed number from Uncle John and St. Stephen, which caused me to yank the cord out of the wall and go phoneless for the next year. I can’t tell you why my reaction was so severe—I only know that it was.
The images and themes of “Uncle John’s Band” are more than normally allusive, even for me. It was, incidentally, the first lyric I wrote with the aid of that newfangled gadget, the cassette tape recorder. I taped the band playing the arrangement and was able to score lyrics at leisure rather than scratch away hurriedly at rehearsals, waiting for particular sections to come around again. Few of their songs (“Box of Rain” is an exception) were so fully realized as “UJB” before the incorporation of lyrics. “UJB” (many Grateful Dead songs are known to fans by their initials) is a celebration of folk themes played “down by the riverside,” hailing from a peculiar place where Appalachia met immigrant Scottish, English, Welsh, and Irish folk traditions, to my mind the mythic territory of Fennario, where Sweet William courted “Pretty Peggy-O” with such romantically disastrous consequences. I wanted to supercharge that ethos as something of ultimate value into the public consciousness. You can swallow a song like “UJB” whole for what it evokes in you, mystery and all—or you can track down the resources I selected while stumbling through the dark of composition, toward some kind of light, and achieve a gnostic synthesis of the song that may forever change the way you hear it. It may deepen the experience, or just explain it away. As with the language of love, the meaning of a song often lies less in what is said than in how it’s said, the scan of the rhythm relative to counterweight of color and image. And mystery has a color all its own. But there’s something other than those retrievable devices that’s necessary: a uniqueness of overall character—that the song be that song, borrowings and all, and not any other. Not a copy of anything. A representative example of a genre that doesn’t even exist, if it comes to that! A China Cat Sunflower. Avoidance of popular genres does not make for a commercially successful music; there’s no formula for the cultural froth to fix on, but it does invite a long-term following. With only one hit in thirty years, I’m not even sure the Grateful Dead belong in the pop music section of the record store. But it definitely found its domain in the tape machines of an army of bootleggers. Due to the setlist–free creative variety of the performances, there are probably more hours in private circulation, of taped Grateful Dead music than of any musical group in history. What you lose on one side, you gain on another.
I realized some time ago that I’ve unwittingly given myself to the world. Maybe that’s why the phone call from my characters disturbed me so deeply. The keys to my cloud are out there, and almost anybody can know more about me than I’ll ever know about them. I don’t think that thought often; it’s a bit too uncanny for comfort. Obversely, it can lead to a feeling that anybody but me has a right to interpret the meanings of the songs. Well, yes, I know exactly what every line of my work was meant to mean, its sources or lack of them, and what it’s trying to prove—if not the subconscious motivations all artists keep hidden from themselves, the tinder to ignite their dreams. So why don’t I say it all for once and for good, and fatten this book up a bit? I’ll say it again: The songs themselves say everything I personally want to say about them. The melodies of the unstrung harp are meant to be felt, not heard.
There were other lyricists involved in the writing of the Grateful Dead canon. Had I not joined, by invitation, as lyricist in residence a year after they chose the name and nailed down the job through sheer prolixity, the band would have developed differently. It might have been less odd and more popular, for one thing. It would likely have remained more blues- based. The passing rage of psychedelia would have happened regardless. “The Other One” is a band-generated example of that, lyrics by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. In flipping through the draft pages of this book, I was surprised at the number of early lyrics by Garcia and by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, songs that got an airing or two but apparently rang no bells for them. Both writers show distinct lyric promise. Their skills would have developed in proportion to the effort they exerted in songwriting, though both were first and foremost musicians. Words tend to be a chore when your first love is the performing of music. Penning and chord-combing don’t have the same charge. I know from personal experience that when I perform much, my writing dwindles. In my opinion, most bands could benefit from a lyricist able to devote full time to the task. Musicianship and lyric acuity seldom dwell in the same body—different brain configurations, I figure. There are, of course, profound exceptions to this rule.
Another scenario might have found the weight put on Bobby Petersen and Peter Zimels, aka Peter Monk, both literate, interested, and available. Peter, once a Zen monk, was spiritual, political, and properly pissed off, lyrically articulate. Not a bad combination. Bobby was a masterfully poetic outlaw and a man of vast experience, much behind bars of both sorts. Both were gifted and serious poets trying their hand at lyric. I never considered myself a poet. I was into literature (as awed by James Joyce as were my friends by Coltrane), novel-writing, and folk music. Previous to “Alligator,” I’d written only three songs, in 1957, for a rock-and-roll quartet I had in high school, but they were pop-style dreck with no resources beyond the pop-culture mind of the day, just something to sing. In 1967, I mailed to my old chum and fellow folkie Garcia three lyrics from New Mexico, extracted from songs I wrote and played at parties with some success, expecting no reply. I got the first and only letter I ever received from him, almost by return mail, asking me to come out and join the band. The lyrics were “Saint Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower,” and “Alligator.”
Bobby Petersen said to me, near the end of his life, “I could have done what you did.” I wouldn’t be qualified to judge, since fate granted me the chance to develop my craft in the public arena and denied it to him by penal circumstance and a savagely prodigious thirst that took its toll on health and ability. As testament to what might have been, he bequeathed the band “New Potato Caboose” and “Unbroken Chain,” the latter a delicately beautiful poetic evocation of sorrow and loss. His youthful poetic prowess is demonstrated in his posthumous book of poetry, Alleys of the Heart. Had circumstance allowed, his old friend Phil would probably have come more forward in the solo vocal output, though this was something Phil didn’t seem particularly keen to do, not liking the sound of his own voice, which is unfortunate because, given confidence, he would have been just dandy, as his vocal on our cowritten “Box of Rain” demonstrates. His tenor harmonies define the GD vocal blend.
In different circumstances, Bob Weir’s collaboration with his school friend John Barlow might have begun earlier. Weir himself was capable of writing a nice breezy lyric to witness “Born Cross-eyed” and his part of “The Other One” lyrics—but had no confidence in his abilities and didn’t develop the talent. The folk elements that characterized the recorded output were a function of Garcia and my mutual deep and tolerably well-informed interests, developed by having played as a folk duet, Bob & Jerry (with matching shirts!), and later in several old-timey and bluegrass bands prior to Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, which transmogrified into the Warlocks, which became, and stayed, the Grateful Dead. Invited to play jug in Mother McCree’s, I just couldn’t get a sound out of the damned thing and dropped out of the band scene to pursue my novel- writing. Fate apparently had plans for me other than musicianship, or I would have made that jug ring! In the end, all those mutual folk elements got me the job of providing Garcia with the type of song he could sing with righteous authority. The others were a little worried about the folk direction, but agreeable; the band was, after all, desperate for material and, wonder of wonders, it clicked! Our albums went from the bottom of the charts to the upper reaches, consistently. Folk-biased music would never top the charts; that was for the Beatles, the Captain and Tennille, James Brown, the Monkees, and the Rolling Stones (Dylan had sort of disappeared from public view at this time due to his accident), but we did pretty well. We would have done better with a hit, three of which we had until they got banned from the airwaves by FCC warning, and two for mentioning cocaine: “Truckin’ ” (later declared “a national treasure” by an act of Congress—some Deadhead in the House, no doubt) and “Casey Jones.” “Uncle John’s Band” got kicked off the airwaves for swearing “God Damn! I declare / Have you seen the like?” Strangled in our infant cradle by the evil Nixon! He’ll never know what a favor he did us. We needed another decade of hard-work-just-to-survive to temper our metal. Burnout was providentially deferred.
As I see it, in my absence the Grateful Dead would have tended toward a balance between the Garcia, McKernan, Weir, and Lesh vocal and writing base, drawing moderately from outside the group for lyric material, most likely supplied by Barlow, Petersen, Zimmels, and, not inconceivably by Richard Brautigan, Lew Welch, and, Allen Ginsberg, requiring, as the band did, a dozen or more new songs a year to record. Folk-style repertoire would still have been evident, as with “Viola Lee Blues,” but it would more likely have been covers than originals. But as it actually happened, my affinity with Garcia’s interest in Americana conspired to provide the band with a resource not easily laid aside. The songs fit the times and helped to define them. For several years, the Garcia-Hunter song machine dominated the proceedings, with perhaps predictable results. With the impetus of Rolling Stone’s decision to recast the GD as “Jerry & his band” with two big cover shots of his truly and interviews, not all of which were flattering to the band, Garcia’s public persona decisively overshadowed his bandmates. McKernan’s presence dwindled to feature spots, and Weir began to stand uncomfortably in the big guy’s increasingly solid shadow. The drummers didn’t care one way or another, but Phil’s progressive tastes, at a guess, might well have been hampered by the verse-chorus-bridge song oriented approach so suitable to the 33 1/3 RPM, double-sided record format. Whatever the details, and there were many, the “resource not easily laid aside” showed signs of becoming “the monster who ate the band,” and I felt conflicting pressures directed at my role, Garcia’s position of eminence being unassailable. Weir voiced a desire, in collaboration, to have my words be more textural and less central to his compositions. Lyrics that didn’t call attention to themselves. “The sound of thick air,” as he once requested from engineer Dave Hassinger, who promptly quit. Probably a reasonable enough request, but I wasn’t prone to minimize my skills, nor he to be overridden in matters of his own musical inclinations. Truth is, I wrote the same for him as I did for Garcia. It was how I wrote; I wasn’t involved in a program of putting words in singers’ mouths or defining their personae; I was simply expressing my own creative daemon. But it was the first indication that my little boat was shipping water and that continued clear sailing might not be in the cards.
I’m often asked what it takes to become a songwriter. Either those who write the majority of memorable songs are hypocrites or this is pretty much the recipe. No one ever said it’d be easy. You can either get a guitar, a pencil, and some paper and do it, or proceed to violate your mind and body to a certain degree to prove the worth of your salt as an artist. You should maybe stop short of running right over a cliff, though one or two major falls do you no harm if you survive intact. Beware creative-writing programs. It is well if you have your heart broken many times and break the hearts of others through your creative self-indulgence. It’s de rigueur to do a certain number of foolhardy things with a fair degree of regularity, or, if a coward by nature (which is perfectly fine), you should learn to cringe at things that cannot possibly harm you and to fear where there is no reason to fear. If you are so base as to have money, it is recommended you spend it foolishly and make no provision whatsoever for your old age, unlikely as it is you’ll have one. Above all, recognize that everything you know is a flat-out lie or only relatively true in certain restricted and unpleasant situations. Trust only in how you feel about things, not in their so-called reality. Love God ferociously and live like the very devil. Always count your chickens before they’ve hatched. Compromise on the larger picture but never on details. Remember that deadlines are for dummies. If you can’t neglect an appointment, at least be late. Be of good cheer where others moan, and strike a glum face in the midst of merriment. Remember, you’re an artist and it’s your proud tradition to be difficult.
An explosion of unresolved ambition and creatively frustrating circumstances loomed over us like a cloud of dirty dishwater. Enter John Barlow in Pecos Bill getup, silk kerchief, and Stetson hat, as befit a Wyoming ranch boss and author of the lyrics to “Mexicali Blues.” Billy goats together, only he knew Weir well enough to butt horns with him, part friends, and do it again. Barlow didn’t want to write thick air, either. Nor did he make an attempt to aid Weir in developing his own sense of direction. He rejected, as soundly as I had, Weir’s tendency to wantonly rewrite the fruits of your Muse. It was good to see that road show at a distance, realizing they would both survive and even come up with some tunes that would be a credit to the repertoire. Though less than delighted at relinquishing part of my hard-earned dominion to another, becoming Garcia’s lyricist rather than lyricist to the Grateful Dead, catastrophe was averted. In hindsight, any more time spent as sovereign wordbird of the immense lyrical heights of all Deaddom might have melted the wax in my wings. As it was, the jolt of the landing only fired my Muse to react with “Promontory Rider” and “Terrapin,” where I make my stand upon the promontories of my own heart, in the shadow of the moon, and recover meaning. Deep down, Weir made the only choice both of us could live with, and there are no hard feelings on either side. He remains my brother, but creatively we were just oil and water, “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Jack Straw,” and “Playing in the Band” notwithstanding.
With songwriting to spare, enter Weir’s vehicle Kingfish and a string of Garcia solo bands. Phil and Ned Lagin’s sophisticated sound sculpture Seastones was miles ahead of its time and decidedly not geared to a pop audience. So much music from so few. My usual prolixity unabated, I wrote more songs than I knew what to do with and began handing them out to solo projects, notably Mickey Hart’s tremendously enjoyable house parties on record, such as Rolling Thunder. A stream of Garcia solo albums took up more of the slack. I even began putting out records of my own: Tales of the Great Rumrunners and Tiger Rose, thanks to Mickey, who generously provided unlimited freedom of his studio and infectious creative input. Fortunately, none of the side projects bid seriously to displace the parent project. Through one accommodation or another, we managed to keep the group going as an active entity for an unheard-of three decades with only one year-long vacation from touring. The critics of the 1980s were not well disposed to like anything but the dynamically emerging sound of punk; whatever we created was old-school by definition. Despite them, and punk’s rendezvous with musical history, we continued to accumulate the biggest steady draw in rock-and-roll history. We weathered the tides of reggae, new wave, goth, glam glitter, Madonna, and rap and resolved the internal difficulties that destroy other bands in short order. How? Because we made a solemn, spoken agreement early on that we were in this for life. Come what may. We pledged.
After 1974’s From the Mars Hotel, more Garcia-Hunter material ended up on Jerry’s solo albums than on the Grateful Dead song list, as he relinquished compositional tasks to others. This culminated in the 1980 Go to Heaven album (originally titled Go to Hell) which contained only two of our collaborations, featuring instead the driving songs of new keyboard player Brent Mydland.
The Garcia-Hunter songwriting flower put forth its last bloom in 1987. Though only four of our songs appeared on the album In the Dark, one was our first hit single, “Touch of Grey.” Though there were still good songs to come, they were fewer as Garcia’s dwindling interest in songwriting turned to painting. During the recording of In the Dark, something extremely uncharacteristic of the Grateful Dead—and deeply meaningful to me—happened. Bill Kreutzmann took me aside and said, “We love you. Don’t ever leave us.” The only acknowledgment that ever equaled that in my heart of hearts came one August afternoon, when Garcia called me, out of the blue, to say, “Your lyrics never once stuck in my throat.” Cool.
Been there, done that, wrote about it. What else? Glance over the shoulder. Next? Ever wonder what thick air in the words to a song might actually sound like? Hasn’t been done yet, to my knowledge. . . .
San Rafael, California
The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
Commentaries by: David G. Dodd