1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 345-46.



ALEXANDER POPE, an English poet of great eminence, was born in London in 1688. His father, who appears to have acquired wealth by trade, was a Roman Catholic, and being disaffected to the politics of King William, he retired to Binfield, in Windsor Forest, where he purchased a small house with some acres of land, and lived frugally upon the fortune he had saved. Alexander, who was from infancy of a delicate habit of body, after learning to read and write at home, was placed about his eighth year under the care of a Romish priest, who taught him the rudiments of Latin and Greek. His natural fondness for books was indulged about this period by Ogilby's translation of Homer, and Sandys's of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which gave him so much delight, that they may be said to have made him a poet. He pursued his studies under different priests, to whom he was consigned. At length he became the director of his own pursuits, the variety of which proved that he was by no means deficient in industry, though his reading was rather excursive than methodical. From his early years poetry was adopted by him as a profession, for his poetical reading was always accompanied with attempts at imitation or translation; and it may be affirmed that he rose at once almost to perfection in this walk. His manners and conversation were equally beyond his years; and it does not appear that he ever cultivated friendship with any one of his own age or condition.

Pope's Pastorals were first printed in a volume of Tonson's Miscellanies in 1709, and were generally admired for the sweetness of the versification, and the lustre of the diction, though they betrayed a want of original observation, and an artificial cast of sentiment: in fact, they were anything rather than real pastorals. In the mean time he was exercising himself in compositions of a higher class; and by his Essay on Criticism, published two years afterwards, he obtained a great accession of reputation, merited by the comprehension of thought, the general good sense, and the frequent beauty of illustration which it presents, though it displays many of the inaccuracies of a juvenile author. In 1712 his Rape of the Lock, a mock heroic, made its first appearance, and conferred upon him the best tide he possesses to the merit of invention. The machinery of the Sylphs was afterwards added, an exquisite fancy-piece, wrought with unrivalled skill and beauty. The Temple of Fame, altered from Chaucer, though partaking of the embarrassments of the original plan, has many passages which may rank with his happiest efforts.

In the year 1713, Pope issued proposals for publishing a translation of Homer's Iliad, the success of which soon removed all doubt of its making an accession to his reputation, whilst it afforded an ample remuneration for his labour. This noble work was published in separate volumes, each containing four books, and the produce of the subscription enabled him to take that house at Twickenham which he made so famous by his residence and decorations. He brought thither his father and mother; of whom the first parent died two years afterwards. The second long survived, to be comforted by the truly filial attentions of her son. About this period he probably wrote his Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard, partly founded upon the extant letters of these distinguished persons. He has rendered this one of the most impressive poems of which love is the subject; as it is likewise the most finished of all his works of equal length, in point of language and versification. The exaggeration, however, which he has given to the most impassioned expressions of Eloisa, and his deviations from the true story, have been pointed out by Mr. Berrington in his lives of the two lovers.

During the years in which he was chiefly engaged with the Iliad, he published several occasional works, to which he usually prefixed very elegant prefaces, but the desire of farther emolument induced him to extend his translation to the Odyssey, in which task he engaged two inferior hands, whom he paid out of the produce of a new subscription. He himself, however, translated twelve books out of the twenty-four, with a happiness not inferior to his Iliad, and the transaction, conducted in a truly mercantile spirit, was the source of considerable profit to him. After the appearance of the Odyssey, Pope almost solely made himself known as a satirist and moralist. In 1728 he published the three first books of the Dunciad, a kind of mock heroic, the object of which was to overwhelm with indelible ridicule all his antagonists, together with some other authors whom spleen or party led him to rank among the dunces, though they had given him no personal offence. Notwithstanding that the diction and versification of this poem are laboured with the greatest care, we shall borrow nothing from it. Its imagery is often extremely gross and offensive, and irritability, ill-nature, and partiality are so prominent through the whole, that whatever he gains as a poet he loses as a man. He has, indeed, a claim to the character of a satirist in this production, but none at all to that of a moralist.

The other selected pieces, though not entirely free from the same defects, may yet be tolerated; and his noble work called the Essay on Man, which may stand in the first class of ethical poems, does not deviate from the style proper to its topic. This piece gave an example of the poet's extraordinary power of managing argumentation in verse, and of compressing his thoughts into clauses of the most energetic brevity, as well as of expanding them into passages distinguished by every poetic ornament. The origin of this essay is however generally ascribed to Lord Bolingbroke; who was adopted by the author as his "guide, philosopher and friend," and there is little doubt that, with respect to mankind in general, Pope adopted without always fully understanding, tho system of Bolingbroke.

On his works in prose, among which a collection of letters appear conspicuous, it is unnecessary here to remark. His life was not prolonged to the period of old age: an oppressive asthma indicated an early decline, and accumulated infirmities incapacitated him from pursuing the plan he had formed for new works. After having complied, through the instigation of a catholic friend, with the ceremonies of that religion, he quietly expired on May 30th, 1744, at the age of fifty-six. He was interred at Twickenham, where a monument was erected to his memory by the commentator and legatee of his writings, bishop Warburton.

Regarded as a poet, while it is allowed that Pope was deficient in invention, his other qualifications will scarcely be disputed; and it will generally be admitted that no English writer has carried to greater degree correctness of versification, strength and splendour of diction, and the truly poetical power of vivifying and adorning every subject that he touched. The popularity of his productions has been proved by their constituting a school of English poetry, which in part continues to the present time.