1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 3:37-38.



The life of Pope, who has been called the great poet of reason, and prince of rhyme, has been written with a degree of copiousness and accuracy which has seldom fallen to the lot of less distinguished writers.

Alexander Pope was born in London, May 22, 1688. His parents were of the catholic persuasion, and both respectably connected; but the religion they professed, and to which their son adhered through life, prevented them from improving their fortune, and they retired to Binfield, in Windsor Forest, about the Revolution, turning their whole property into money, and living on the principal, which it is said was 20,000.

From his infancy, Pope was remarkable for delicacy of taste and constitution. According to his own account, "he lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came." In fact, he was born a poet; and though he derived little assistance from the masters under whom he was placed, such was his desire for learning, and his aptitude for acquiring it, that he gained by his own industry that which can never be taught, where talents and inclination are wanting.

Pope, as if it were intuition, saw the road that would conduct him to fame: he studied correctness and harmony of numbers, in which all our poets had been deficient; and he carried his art to a pitch which has never yet been rivalled.

His pastorals first introduced him to notice, and while still very young, he produced his Essay on Criticism, which raised his character very high. This was succeeded by the Rape of the Lock, one of the most beautiful original poems in our language.

It is impossible, however, in this place, to enumerate the various effects of his muse. Suffice it to say, that he succeeded in all; and having become the object of universal admiration, and being patronized by some of the first names in rank and literature, he wisely determined to render his talents subservient to his interest, and published proposals for a translation of the works of Homer. How well he executed this arduous task, it is needless for us to speak. By the undertaking, he cleared about 10,000 when he purchased his celebrated villa at Twickenham, and retired to the enjoyment of what few poets can boast ease and independence. Still, however, he continued to write, probably, as he says himself, "to help him through that long disease, his life." His health had always been precarious, and his person wag not only weak, but deformed. These misfortunes, combining with too much sensibility, naturally prompted that satirical vein, which he sometimes indulged to the amusement of his friends, and the terror of his foes; yet seldom, it must be confessed, without repeated provocation. His Dunciad may be adduced as a proof of this; for it was not written till envy, malice, and all uncharitableness had applied to him every opprobrious epithet that unprincipled scriblers and defamers could devise. Ape, ass, owl, dunce, knave, fool, frog, and coward, were among the names bestow'd on Pope, before he used his exterminating weapon of retaliation: as indeed they have been on Dryden, prior to his writing Mac Flecnoe. But the celebrated couplet in the Essay on Criticism is applicable to both:

Envy will merit like its SHADE pursue
But like the shadow proves the SUBSTANCE true.

We might add, in the words of WYCHERLEY to our author:

Live and enjoy their spite! nor mourn that fate,
Which would, if Virgil liv'd, on Virgil wait.

Pope died May 30, 1744, at the age of 56, and was buried at Twickenham, where a monument has been erected to his memory. He was sincerely beloved by his friends.