1720 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Giles Jacob, in Historical Account of the Lives and Writings of our most considerable English Poets (1720) 145.



This excellent Poet, whose Fame exceeds not his Merit, was born in London, the year 1688. His Parents being of the Roman Catholic Persuasion, educated him by a private Tutor, of whom he learned Latin and Greek at one and the same time. He passed through some Seminaries, with little Improvement, till twelve years of Age, after which, I have been informed, he perfected his Studies by his own Industry; and so considerable a Progress he made therein, as to be sufficiently qualified for that great Undertaking, the Translation of Homer. The celebrated Mr. Addison has declared to the Publick, that if Mr. Pope should die, and leave his Translation unfinished, there would be found no Successor to compleat it. There appears not only great Ease but Strength in his Compositions; his Numbers flow with great Facility, and his Thoughts are sublime; these with a ready Wit, quick Fancy, and good Judgment, have deservedly gained him a Reputation equal to any of this Age. Almost all his pieces are universally applauded, and, tho' some few of them have been cavilled at by the Criticks, what can Criticisms avail when the great Sheffield asserts his Work? A Name which alone would secure him Immortality. And, as Mr. Prior observes, in his Alma: or, the Progress of the Mind.

Happy the Poet, bless'd the Lays,
Which Buckingham has deign'd to praise.

His private Character is the best, being summ'd up in a good Companion and a firm Friend: His Talents are rightly applied, in industrious Endeavours to illustrate Merit: It is not in his Nature to debase Poetry with Flattery, (a Practice too incident to great Writers) and he is always the same. He has obliged the World with the following Performances.

I. Pastorals, with a Discourse on Pastorals; written in the Year 1704, when the Author was but Sixteen Years old. These Pastorals are four in Number, alluding to the four Seasons of the Year; And they are extremely well done, especially for a Poet of so youthful an Age.

II. Messiah, a sacred Eclogue, in Imitation of Virgil's Pollio. In this Piece there are these Lines on the coming of our Saviour;

Lo! Earth receives him from the bending Skies!
Sink down ye Mountains, and ye Vallies rise:
With Heads declin'd, ye Cedars, Homage pay;
Be smooth ye Rocks, ye rapid Floods give way;
The Saviour comes! by ancient Bards foretold—

III. Windsor Forest, to the Right Honourable George Lord Lansdown. This Poem chiefly consists of rural Description, the Sports and Exercises belonging to a Country Life, Hunting, Fishing, &c. intermixed with curious History, fine Allusions and Similies. In the Beginning are these Verses to my Lord Lansdown;

Granville commands, your Aid, O Muses bring!
What Muse for Granville can refuse to sing?

IV. An Essay on Criticism. This Piece is justly admired for its great Wit, beautiful Times, Variety of Metaphors, and Observations on Poetry and Criticism: It begins with these Lines;

'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 mislead our Sense.
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss.

And in another Place the Author has these Verses on Wit.

True Wit is Nature to Advantage dress'd,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd;
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.
And true Expression like th' unchanging Sun,
Clears and improves whate'er it shines upon,
It gilds all Objects, but it alters none.

V. The Rape of the Lock: A Poem, in Five Canto's. This Piece has a great deal of Fancy and fine Humour; it was writ to expose the little unguarded Follies of the Fair Sex. The Passages are fabulous, and the Machines raised on the Foundation of the Rosicrucian Doctrine of Spirits; according to which, the four Elements are supposed to be inhabited by Sylphs, Gnomes, Nymphs and Salamanders. The Poem begins with a Vision, and ends with an agreeable Transformation. The Lock is taken from the Lady's Neck, and the Fair One thus bewails the Loss of it;

Oh, hadst thou, cruel, been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these.

These Lines being thought a little ludicrous by the Fair Se, and censured by some of them, an ingenious Gentleman has this Couplet in Vindication of the Author:

Who censure most, more precious Hairs would lose,
To have the Rape recorded by his Muse.

VI. The Temple of Fame. A Poem full of Invention, describing the Addresses of all Sorts of Persons to the Goddess, wherein the Learned are first brought in, in this Manner;

First at the Shrine the learned World appear,
And to the Goddess thus prefer their Pray'r:
Long have we sought t' instruct and please Mankind,
With Studies pale, with Midnight Vigils blind;
But thank'd by few, rewarded yet by none,
We here appeal to thy superior Throne:
On Wit and Learning the just Prize bestow,
For Fame is all we must expect below.

The Hint of this Piece was taken from Chaucer's House of Fame; but the Design is entirely altered, the Descriptions and most of the Thoughts being perfectly new.

VII. January and May; or, The Merchant's Tale, from Chaucer.

The Theme is an old Knight married to a young Lady, who has an amorous Intrigue with his 'Squire. The Poet makes the aged Knight pronounce these Lines to recommend himself to the Lady.

Think not my Virtue lost, tho' Time has shed
These rev'rend Honours on my hoary Head;
Thus Trees are crown'd with Blossoms white as Snow,
The vital Sap then rising from below:
Old as I am, my lusty Limbs appear
Like Winter Greens, that flourish all the Year.

VIII. The Wife of Bath, from Chaucer. An Emblem of Matrimony, displayed in the Tale of a Woman who had five Husbands. It begins thus:

Behold the Woes of matrimonial Life,
And hear with Rev'rence an experienc'd Wife!
To dear-bought Wisdom give the Credit due,
And think, for once, a Woman tells you true.

IX. Sapho to Phaon, from Ovid.
X. Vertumnus and Pomona, from the 14th Book of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
XI. The Fable of Dryope: From the Ninth Book of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
XII. The first Book of Statius his Thebais, translated in the Year 1703.
XIII. Part of the 13th Book of Homer's Odysses.
XIV. The Gardens of Alcinous, from the 7th Book of Homer's Odysses.
XV. Ode for Musick on St. Cecilia's Day.
XVI. Two Chorus's to the Tragedy of Brutus, not yet publick; one of the Athenians, and the other of Youths and Virgins.
XVII. Verses to the Memory of an unfortunate Lady.
XVIII. To Mr. Jervas, with Mr. Fresnoy's art of Painting, translated by Mr. Dryden.
XIX. To a young Lady with the Works of Voiture.
XX. On a Fan of the Author's Design, in which was painted the Story of Cephalus and Procris, with the Motto "Aura veni."
XXI. On Silence; in Imitation of the Style of the late E. of R.
XXII. An Epitaph.

XXIII. Prologue to Mr. Addison's Tragedy of Cato. This is one of the best Prologues in the English Language, and perfectly agreeable to the celebrated Piece to which it is prefix'd. It begins,

To wake the Soul by tender Strokes of Art,
To raise the Genius, and to mend the Heart;
To make Mankind, in conscious Virtue bold,
Live o'er each Scene, and be what they behold:
For this the Tragick Muse first trod the Stage—

And lower are these Lines;

While Cato gives his little Senate Laws,
What Bosom beats not in his Country's Cause?

XXIV. Epilogue to Jane Shore.

XXV. Occasioned by some Verses of his Grace the Duke of Buckingham.

XXVI. Eloisa to Abelard. The Poet has touched the Passion of Love very finely in this Poem, where he causes Eloisa (in a Convent) thus to express her self.

What Scenes appear where'er I turn my View,
The dear Ideas, where I fly, pursue,
Rise in the Grove, before the Altar rise,
Stain all my Soul, and wanton in my Eyes!
I waste the Matin Lamp in Sighs for thee,
Thy Image steals between my God and me:
Thy Voice I seem in ev'ry Hymn to hear,
With ev'ry Bead I drop too Soft a Tear.
When from the Censer Clouds of Fragrance roll,
And swelling Organs lift the rising Soul;
One Thought of thee puts all the Pomp to flight,
Priests, Tapers, Temples, swim before my Sight.
In Seas of Flame my plunging Soul is drown'd,
While Altars blaze, and Angels tremble round.

And, in another Place, are these Verses.

Oh happy State! when Souls each other draw,
When Love is Liberty, and Nature Law.

All these Pieces are lately published in one Volume, Folio, and in Quarto, at London; and so great are their Fame in foreign Countries, that they have been Re-printed in Octavo, both in Holland and Ireland.

XXVII. Homer's Iliad, translated in six Volumes, Folio, printed for Bernard Lintott. This is an excellent Translation; and to shew that Mr. Pope has Fire and Spirit equal to this important Undertaking, I shall conclude with some of his Lines describing the Conclusion of a Battel.

Now Shield with Shield, with Helmet Helmet clos'd,
To Armour Armour, Lance to Lance oppos'd:
Host against Host with shadowy Squadrons drew;
The sounding Darts in Iron Tempests flew:
Victors and vanquish'd join promiscuous Cries,
And shrilling Shouts and dying Groans arise:
With streaming Blood the slipp'ry Fields are dy'd,
And slaughter'd Heroes swell the dreadful Tide.
As Torrents roll, increas'd by num'rous Rills,
With Rage impetuous down their echoing Hills;
Rush to the Vales, and pour'd along the Plain,
Roar thro' a Thousand Channels to the Main;
The distant Shepherd trembling hears the Sound;
So mix both Hosts, and so their Cries rebound.

The Horse and Foot in mingled Deaths unite,
And Groans of Slaughter mix with Shouts of Fight;
Hurl'd from their Cars the bravest Chiefs are kill'd,
And Rage and Death and Carnage load the Field.

This Translation has an admirable Preface, which shews, the Author excellent in Prose as well as Verse. He finish'd this great Work in the Year, 1720. It is also Reprinted in Holland.