This illustrious poet was born at London, in 1688, and was descended from a good family of that name, in Oxfordshire, the head of which was the earl of Downe, whose sole heiress married the earl of Lindsey. His father, a man of primitive simplicity, and integrity of manners, was a merchant of London, who upon the Revolution quitted trade, and converted his effects into money, amounting to near £10,000 with which he retired into the country; and died in 1717, at the age of 75.
Our poet's mother, who lived to a very advanced age, being 93 years old when she died, in 1733, was the daughter of William Turner, Esq; of York. She had three brothers, one of whom was killed, another died in the service of king Charles and the eldest following his fortunes, and becoming a general officer in Spain, left her what estate remained after sequestration, and forfeitures of her family. To these circumstances our poet alludes in his epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, in which he mentions his parents.
Of gentle blood (part shed in honour's cause,
While yet in Britain, honour had applause)
Each parent sprang, — What fortune pray? — their own,
And better got than Bestia's from the throne.
Born to no pride, inheriting no strife,
Nor marrying discord in a noble wife;
Stranger to civil and religious rage,
The good man walked innoxious thro' his age:
No courts he saw, no suits would ever try;
Nor dar'd an oath, nor hazarded a lye:
Unlearn'd, he knew no schoolmen's subtle art,
No language, but the language of the heart:
By nature honest, by experience wise,
Healthy by temp'rance, and by exercise;
His life though long, to sickness past unknown,
His death was instant and without a groan.
The education of our great author was attended with circumstances very singular, and some of them extremely unfavourable; but the amazing force of his genius fully compensated the want of any advantage in his earliest instruction. He owed the knowledge of his letters to an aunt; and having learned very early to read, took great delight in it, and taught himself to write by copying after printed books, the characters of which he could imitate to great perfection. He began to compete verses, farther back than he could well remember; and at eight years of age, when he was put under one Taverner a priest, who taught him the rudiments of the Latin and Greek tongues at the fame time, he met with Ogilby's Homer, which gave him great delight, and this was encreased by Sandys's Ovid: The raptures which these authors, even in the disguise of such translations, then yielded him, were so strong, that he spoke of them with pleasure ever after. From Mr. Taverner's tuition he was sent to a private school at Twiford, near Winchester, where he continued about a year, and was then removed to another near Hyde Park Corner; but was in unfortunate as to lose under his two last masters, what he had acquired under the first.
While he remained at this school, being permitted to go to the play-house, with some of his school fellows of a more advanced age, he was to charmed with dramatic representations, that he formed the translation of the Iliad into a play, from several of the speeches in Ogilby's translation, connected with verses of his own; and the several parts were performed by the upper boys of the school, except that of Ajax by the master's gardener. At the age of 12 our young poet, went with his father to reside at his house at Binfeld, in Windsor forest, where he was for a few months under the tuition of another priest, with as little success as before; so that he resolved now to become his own master, by reading those Classic Writers which gave him most entertainment; and by this method, at fifteen he gained a ready habit in the learned languages, to which he soon after added the French and Italian. Upon his retreat to the forest, he became first acquainted with the writings of Waller, Spenser and Dryden; in the last of which he immediately found what he wanted; and the poems of that excellent writer were never out of his hands; they became his model, and from them alone he learned the whole magic of his versification.
The first of our authors compositions now extant in print, is an Ode on Solitude, written before he was twelve years old: Which, consider'd as the production of to early an age, is a perfect master piece; nor need he have been ashamed of it, had it been written in the meridian of his genius. While it breathes the most delicate spirit of poetry, it at the same time demonstrates his love of solitude, and the rational pleasures which attend the retreats of a contented country life.
Two years after this he translated the first Book of Statius' Thebais, and wrote a copy of verses on Silence, in imitation of the Earl of Rochcester's poem on Nothing. Thus we find him no sooner capable of holding the pen, than he employed it in writing verses, "He lisp'd in Numbers, for the Numbers came."
Though we have had frequent opportunity to observe, that poets have given early displays of genius, yet we cannot recollect, that among the inspired tribe, one can be found who at the age of twelve could produce so animated an Ode; or at the age of fourteen translate from the Latin. It has been reported indeed, concerning Mr. Dryden, that when he was at Westminster-School, the master who had assigned a poetical task to some of the boys, of writing a Paraphrase on our Saviour's Miracle, of turning Water into Wine, was perfectly astonished when young Dryden presented him with the following line, which he asserted was the best comment could be written upon it. "The conscious water saw its God, and blush'd."
This was the only instance of an early appearance of genius in this great man, for he was turn'd of 30 before he acquired any reputation; an age in which Mr. Pope's was in its full distinction.
The year following that in which Mr. Pope wrote his poem on Silence, he began an Epic Poem, intitled Alcander, which he afterwards very judiciously committed to the flames, as he did likewise a Comedy, and a Tragedy; the latter taken from a story in the legend of St. Genevieve; both of these being the product of those early days. But his Pastorals, which were written in 1704, when he was only 16 years of age, were esteemed by Sir William Trumbull, Mr. Granville, Mr. Wycherley, Mr. Walsh and others of his friends, too valuable to be condemned to the same fate.
Mr. Pope's Pastorals are four, viz.
Spring, address'd to Sir William Trumbull,
Summer, to Dr. Garth.
Autumn, to Mr Wycherley.
Winter, in memory of Mrs. Tempest.
The three great writers of Pastoral Dialogue, which Mr. Pope in some measure seems to imitate, are Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser. Mr. Pope is of opinion, that Theocritus excells all others in nature and simplicity.
That Virgil, who copies Theocritus, refines on his original; and in all points in which judgment has the principal part is much superior to his master.
That among the moderns, their success has been greatest who have most endeavoured to make these antients their pattern. The most considerable genius appears in the famous Tasso, and our Spenser. Tasso in his Aminta has far excelled all the pastoral writers, as in his Gierusalemme he has outdone the Epic Poets of his own country. But as this piece seems to have been the original of a new sort of poem, the Pastoral Comedy, in Italy, it cannot so well be considered as a copy of the antients. Spenser's Calendar, in Mr. Dryden's opinion, is the most compleat work of this kind, which any nation has produced ever since the time of Virgil. But this he said before Mr. Pope's Pastorals appeared.
Mr. Walsh pronounces on our Shepherd's Boy (as Mr. Pope called himself) the following judgment, in a letter to Mr. Wycherly.
"The verses are very tender and easy. The author seems to have a particular genius for that kind of poetry, and a judgment that much exceeds the years, you told me he was of. It is no flattery at all to say, that Virgil had written nothing so good at his age. I shall take it as a favour if you will bring me acquainted with him; and if he will give himself the trouble, any morning, to call at my house, I shall he very glad to read the verses with him, and give him my opinion of the particulars more largely than I can well do in this letter."
Thus early was Mr. Pope introduced to the acquaintance of men of genius, and to improved every advantage, that he made a more rapid progress towards a consummation in fame, than any of our former English poets. His Messiah; his Windsor Forest, the first part of which was written at the same time with his pastorals; his Essay on Criticism in 1709, and his Rape of the Lock in 1712, established his poetical character in such a manner, that he was called upon by the public voice, to enrich our language with the translation of the Iliad; which he began at 25, and executed in five years. This was published for his own benefit, by subscription, the only kind of reward, which he received for his writings, which do honour to our age and country: His religion rendering him incapable of a place, which the lord treasurer Oxford used to express his concern for, but without offering him a pension, as the earl of Halifax, and Mr. Secretary Craggs afterwards did, though Mr. Pope declined it.
The reputation of Mr. Pope gaining every day upon the world, he was caress'd, flattered, and railed at according as he was feared, or loved by different persons. Mr. Wycherley was amongst the first authors of established reputation, who contributed to advance his fame, and with whom he for some time lived in the most unreserved intimacy. This poet, in his old age, conceived a design of publishing his poems, and as he was but a very imperfect master of numbers, he entrusted his manuscripts to Mr. Pope, and submitted them to his correction. The freedom which our young bard was under a necessity to use, in order to polish and refine what was in the original, rough, unharmonious, and indelicate, proved disgustful to the old gentleman, then near 70, who, perhaps, was a little ashamed, that a boy at 16 should so severely correct his works. Letters of dissatisfaction were written by Mr. Wycherley, and at last he informed him, in few words, that he was going out of town, without mentioning to what place, and did not expect to hear from him 'till he came back. This cold indifference extorted from Mr. Pope a protestation, that nothing should induce him ever to write to him again. Notwithstanding this peevish behaviour of Mr. Wycherley, occasioned by jealousy and infirmities, Mr. Pope preserved a constant respect and reverence for him while he lived, and after his death lamented him. In a letter to Edward Blount, esq; written immediately upon the death of this poet, he has there related some anecdotes of Wycherly, which we shall insert here, especially as they are not taken notice of in his life.
I know of nothing that will be so interesting to you, at present, as some circumstances of the last act of that eminent comic poet, and our friend, Wycherley. He had often told me, as, I doubt not, he did all his acquaintance, that he would marry, as soon as his life was despaired of: accordingly, a few days before his death, he underwent the ceremony, and joined together those two sacraments, which, wife men say, should be the last we receive for, if you observe, matrimony is placed after extreme unction in our catechism, as a kind of hint of the order of time in which they are to be taken. The old man then lay down, satisfied in the conscience of having, by this one act, paid his just debts, obliged a woman, who, he was told, had merit, and shewn a heroic resentment of the ill usage of his next heir. Some hundred pounds which he had with the lady, discharged those debts; a jointure of four hundred a year made her a recompence; and the nephew he left to comfort himself, as well as he could, with the miserable remains of a mortgaged estate. I saw our friend twice after this was done, less peevish in his sickness, than he used to be in his health, neither much afraid of dying, nor (which in him had been more likely) much ashamed of marrying. The evening before he expired, he called his young wife to the bed side, and earnestly entreated her not to deny him one request, the last he should ever make. Upon her assurance of conferring to it, he told her, my dear, it is only this, that you will never marry an old man again. I cannot help remarking, that sickness, which often destroys both wit and wisdom, yet seldom has power to remove that talent we call humour. Mr. Wycherley shewed this even in this last compliment, though, I think, his request a little hard; for why should he bar her from doubling her jointure on the same easy terms."
One of the most affecting and tender compositions of Mr. Pope, is, his Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, built on a true story. We are informed in the Life of Pope, for which Curl obtained a patent, that this young lady was a particular favourite of the poet, though it is not ascertained whether he himself was the person from whom she was removed. This young lady was of very high birth, possessed an opulent fortune, and under the tutorage of an uncle, who gave her an education suitable to her titles and pretensions. She was esteemed a match for the greatest peer in the realm, but, in her early years, she suffered her heart to be engaged by a young gentleman, and in consequence of this attachment, rejected offers made to her by persons of quality, seconded by the sollicitations of her uncle. Her guardian being surprized at this behaviour, set spies upon her, to find out the real cause of her indifference. Her correspondence with her lover was soon discovered, and, when urged upon that topic, she had too much truth and honour to deny it. The uncle finding, that she would make no efforts to disengage her affection, after a little time forced her abroad, where she was received with a ceremony due to her quality, but restricted from the conversation of every one, but the spies of this severe guardian, so that it was impossible for her lover even to have a letter delivered to her hands. She languished in this place a considerable time, bore an infinite deal of sickness, and was overwhelmed with the profoundest sorrow. Nature being wearied out with continual distress, and being driven at last to despair, the unfortunate lady, as Mr. Pope justly calls her, put an end to her own life, having bribed a maid servant to procure her a sword. She was found upon the ground weltering in her blood. The severity of the laws of the place, where this fair unfortunate perished, denied her Christian burial, and she was interred without solemnity, or even any attendants to perform the last offices of the dead, except some young people of the neighbourhood, who saw her put into common ground, and strewed the grave with flowers.
The poet in the elegy takes occasion to mingle with the tears of furrow, just reproaches upon her cruel uncle, who drove her to this violation.
But thou, false guardian of a charge too good,
Thou base betrayer of a brother's blood!
See on those ruby lips the trembling breath,
Those cheeks now fading at the blast of death:
Lifeless the breast, which warm'd the world before,
And those love-darting eyes must roll no more.
The conclusion of this elegy is irresistably affecting.
So peaceful rests, without a stone, a name,
Which once had beauty, titles, wealth and fame,
How lov'd, how honoured once, avails thee not,
To whom related, or by whom begot;
A heap of dust alone remains of thee;
'Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be!
No poem of our author's more deservedly obtained him reputation, than his Essay on Criticism. Mr. Addison, in his Specator, No. 253, has celebrated it with such profuse terms of admiration, that it is really astonishing, to find the same man endeavouring afterwards to diminish that fame he had contributed to raise so high.
"The art of criticism (says he) which was published some months ago, is a master-piece in its kind. The observations follow one another, like those in Horace's Art of Poetry, without that methodical regularity, which would have been requisite in a prose writer. They are some of them uncommon, but such as the reader must assent to, when he sees them explained with that elegance and perspicuity in which they are delivered. As for those which are the most known, and the most received, they are placed in so beautiful a light, and illustrated with such apt allusions, that they have in them all the graces of novelty, and make the reader, who was before acquainted with them, still more convinced of their truth and solidity. And here give me leave to mention, what Monsieur Boileau has so well enlarged upon, in the preface to his works that wit and fine writing do not consist so much in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known an agreeable turn. It is impossible for us, who live in the latter ages of the world, to make observations in criticism, morality, or any art and science, which have not been touched upon by others. We have little else left us, but to represent the common sense of mankind in more strong more beautiful, or more uncommon lights. If a reader examines Horace's Art of Poetry, he will find but few precepts in it, which he may not meet with in Aristotle, and which were not commonly known by all the poets of the Augustan age. His way of expressing, and applying them, not his invention of them, is what we are chiefly to admire.—
"Longinus, in his Reflexions, has given us the same kind of sublime, which he observes in the several passages which occasioned them. I cannot but take notice, that our English author has, after the same manner, exemplified several of his precepts, in the very precepts themselves." He then produces some instances of a particular kind of beauty in the numbers, and concludes with saying, that we have three poems in our tongue of the same nature, and each a masterpiece in its kind: The Essay on translated Verse, the Essay on the Art of Poetry, and the Essay on Criticism.
In the Lives of Addison and Tickell, we have thrown out some general hints concerning the quarrel which subsisted between our poet and the former of these gentlemen; here it will not be improper to give a more particular account of it.
The author of Mist's Journal positively asserts, "that Mr. Addison raised Pope from obscurity, obtained him the acquaintance and friendship of the whole body of our nobility, and transferred his powerful influence with those great men to this rising bard, who frequently levied by that means, unusual contributions on the pubic. No sooner was his body lifeless, but this author reviving his resentment, libelled the memory of his departed friend, and what was still more heinous, made the scandal public."
When this charge of ingratitude and dishonour was published against Mr. Pope, to acquit himself of it, he called upon any nobleman, whose friendship, or any one gentleman, whose subscription Mr. Addison had procured to our author, to stand forth, and declare it, that truth might appear. But the whole libel was proved a malicious story, by many persons of distinction, who, several years before Mr. Addison's decease, approved those verses denominated a libel, but which were, 'tis said, a friendly rebuke, sent privately in our author's own hand, to Mr. Addison himself, and never made public, 'till by Curl in his Miscellanies, 12mo. 1727. The lines indeed are elegantly satirical, and, in the opinion of many unprejudiced judges, who had opportunities of knowing the character of Mr. Addison, are no ill representation of him. Speaking of the poetical triflers of the times, who had declared against him, he makes a sudden transition to Addison.
Peace to all such! But were there one whose fires
True genius kindles, and fair fame inspires,
Blest with each talent, and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease;
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no rival near the throne,
View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts, that caus'd himself to rise;
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And, without fretting, others teach to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike;
Alike reserv'd to blame or to commend,
A tim'rous foe, and a suspicious friend;
Dreading even fools; by flatt'rers besieg'd;
And so obliging, that he ne'er oblig'd.
Like Cato give his little senate laws,
And sit attentive to his own applause;
While Wits and Templars ev'ry sentence raise,
And wonder with a foolish face of praise.
Who but mull laugh, if such a man there be!
Who would not weep, if Atticus were he!
Some readers may think these lines severe, but the treatment he received from Mr. Addison, was more than sufficient to justify them, which will appear when we particularize an interview between these two poetical antagonists, procured by the warm sollicitations of Sir Richard Steele, who was present at it, as well as Mr. Gay.
Mr. Jervas being one day in company with Mr. Addison, the conversation turned upon Mr. Pope, for whom Addison, at that time, expressed the highest regard, and assured Mr. Jervas, that he would make use not only of his interest, but of his art likewise, to do Mr. Pope service; he then said, he did not mean his art of poetry, but his art at court, and protested, notwithstanding many insinuations were spread, that it shall not be his fault, if there was not the best understanding and intelligence between them. He observed, that Dr. Swift might have carried him too far among the enemy, during the animosity, but now all was safe, and Mr. Pope, in his opinion, was escaped. When Mr. Jervas communicated this conversation to Mr. Pope, he made this reply: "The friendly office you endeavour to do between Mr. Addison and me deserves acknowledgments on my part. You thoroughly know my regard to his character, and my readiness to testify it by all ways in my power; you also thoroughly knew the meanness of that proceeding of Mr. Phillips, to make a man I so highly value suspect my disposition towards him. But as, after all, Mr. Addison must be judge in what regards himself, and as he has seemed not to be a very just one to me, to I mull own to you, I expect nothing but civility from him, how much soever I wish for his friendship; and as for any offers of real kindness or service which it is in his power to do me, I should be ashamed to receive them from a man, who has no better opinion of my morals, than to think me a party man, nor of my temper, than to believe me capable of maligning, or envying another's reputation as a poet. In a word, Mr. Addison is sure of my respect at all times, and of my real friendship, whenever he shall think fit to know me for what I am."
Some years after this conversation, at the desire of Sir Richard Steele, they met. At first, a very cold civility, and nothing else appeared on either side, for Mr. Addison had a natural reserve and gloom at the beginning of an evening, which, by conversation and a glass, brightened into an easy chearfulness. Sir Richard Steele, who was a most social benevolent man, begged of him to fulfill his promise, in dropping all animosity against Mr. Pope. Mr. Pope then desired to be made sensible how he had offended; and observed, that the translation of Homer, if that was the great crime, was undertaken at the request, and almost at the command of Sir Richard Steele. He entreated Mr. Addison to speak candidly and freely, though it might be with ever so much severity, rather than by keeping up forms of complaisance, conceal any of his faults. This Mr. Pope spoke in such a manner as plainly indicated he thought Mr. Addison the aggressor, and expected him to condescend, and own himself the cause of the breach between them. But he was disappointed; for Mr. Addison, without appearing to be angry, was quite overcome with it. He began with declaring, that he always had wished him well, had often endeavoured to be his friend, and in that light advised him, if his nature was capable of it to divest himself of part of his vanity, which was too great for his merit; that he had not arrived yet to that pitch of excellence he might imagine, or think his most partial readers imagined; that when he and Sir Richard Steele corrected his verses, they had a different air; reminding Mr. Pope of the amendment (by Sir Richard) of a line, in the poem called The MESSIAH. "He wipes the tears for ever from our eyes." Which is taken from the prophet Isaiah,
The Lord God will wipe all tears from off all faces.
From every face he wipes off ev'ry tear.
And it stands so altered in the newer editions of Mr. Pope's works. He proceeded to lay before him all the mistakes and inaccuracies hinted at by the writers, who had attacked Mr. Pope, and added many things, which he himself objected to. Speaking of his translation in general, he said, that he was not to be blamed for endeavouring to get so large a sum of money, but that it was an ill-executed thing, and not equal to Tickell, which had all the spirit of Homer. Mr. Addison concluded, in a low hollow voice of feigned temper, that he was not sollicitous about his own fame as a poet; that he had quitted the muses to enter into the business of the public, and that all he spoke was through friendship to Mr. Pope, whom he advised to have a less exalted sense of his own merit.
Mr. Pope could not well bear such repeated reproaches, but boldly told Mr. Addison, that he appealed from his judgment to the public, and that he had long known him too well to expect any friendship from him; upbraided him with being a pensioner from his youth, sacrificing the very learning purchased by the public money, to a mean thirst of power; that he was sent abroad to encourage literature, in place of which he had always endeavoured to suppress merit. At last, the contest grew so warm, that they parted without any ceremony, and Mr. Pope upon this wrote the foregoing verses, which are esteemed too true a picture of Mr. Addison.
In this account, and, indeed, in all other accounts, which have been given concerning this quarrel, it does not appear that Mr. Pope was the aggressor. If Mr. Addison entertained suspicions of Mr. Pope's being carried too far among the enemy, the danger was certainly Mr. Pope's, and not Mr. Addison's. It was his misfortune, and not his crime. If Mr. Addison should think himself capable of becoming a rival to Mr. Pope, and, in consequence of this opinion, publish a translation of part of Homer; at the same time with Mr. Pope's, and if the public should decide in favour of the latter by reading his translation, and neglecting the other, can any fault be imputed to Mr. Pope? could he be blamed for exerting all his abilities in so arduous a province? and was it his fault that Mr. Addison (for the first book of Homer was undoubtedly his) could not translate to please the public? Besides, was it not somewhat presumptuous to insinuate to Mr. Pope, that his verses bore another face when he corrected them, while, at the same time, the translation of Homer, which he had never seen in manuscript, bore away the palm from that very translation, he himself asserted was done in the true spirit of Homer? In matters of genius the public judgment seldom errs, and in this case posterity has confirmed the sentence of that age, which gave the preference to Mr. Pope; for his translation is in the hands of all readers of taste, while the other is seldom regarded but as a foil to Pope's.
It would appear as if Mr. Addison were himself so immersed in party business, as to contract his benevolence to the limits of a faction: Which was infinitely beneath the views of a philosopher, and the rules which that excellent writer himself established. If this was the failing of Mr. Addison, it was not the error of Pope, for he kept the strictest correspondence with some persons, whose affections to the Whig-interest were suspected, yet was his name never called in question. While he was in favour with the duke of Buckingham, the lords Bolingbroke, Oxford, and Harcourt, Dr. Swift, and Mr. Prior, he did not drop his correspondence with the lord Hallifax, Mr. Craggs, and most of those who were at the head of the Whig interest. A professed Jacobite one day remonstrated to Mr. Pope, that the people of his party took it ill that he should write with Mr. Steele upon ever so indifferent a subject; at which he could not help smiling, and observed, that he hated narrowness of soul in any party; and that if he renounced his reason in religious matters, he should hardly do it on any other, and that he could pray not only for opposite parties, but even for opposite religions. Mr. Pope considered himself as a citizen of the world, and was therefore obliged to pray for the prosperity of mankind in general. As a son of Britain he wished those councils might be suffered by providence to prevail, which were most for the interest of his native country: But as politics was not his study, he could not always determine, at least, with any degree of certainty, whose councils were best; and had charity enough to believe, that contending parties might mean well. As taste and science are confined to no country, so ought they nor to be excluded from any party, and Mr. Pope had an unexceptionable right to live upon terms of the strictest friendship with every man of parts, to which party soever he might belong. Mr. Pope's uprightness in his conduct towards contending politicians, is demonstrated by his living independent of either faction. He accepted no place, and had too high a spirit to become a pensioner.
Many effects however were made to proselyte him from the Popish faith, which all proved ineffectual. His friends conceived hopes from the moderation which he on all occasions expressed, that he was really a Protestant in his heart, and that upon the death of his mother, he would not scruple to declare his sentiments, notwithstanding the reproaches he might incur from the Popish party, and the public observation it would draw upon him. The bishop of Rochester strongly advised him to read the controverted points between the Protestant and the Catholic church, to suffer his unprejudiced reason to determine for him, and he made no doubt, but a separation from the Romish communion would soon ensue. To this Mr. Pope very candidly answered, "Whether the change would be to my spiritual advantage, God only knows: This I know, that I mean as well in the religion I now profess, as ever I can do in any other. Can a man who thinks so, justify a change, even if he thought both equally good? To such an one, the part of joining with any one body of Christians might perhaps be easy, but I think it would not be so to renounce the other.
"Your lordship has formerly advised me to read the best controversies between the churches. Shall I tell you a secret? I did so at 14 years old (for I loved reading, and my father had no other books) there was a collection of all that had been written on both sides, in the reign of King James II. I warmed my head with them, and the consequence was, I found myself a Papist or a Protestant by turns, according to the last book I read. I am afraid most seekers are in the same case, and when they stop, they are not so properly converted, as outwitted. You see how little glory you would gain by my conversion and after all, I verily believe, your lordship and I are both of the same religion, if we were thoroughly understood by one another, and that all honest and reasonable Christians would be so, if they, did but talk enough together every day, and had nothing to do together but to serve God, and live in peace with their neighbours.
"As to the temporal side of the question, I can have no dispute with you; it is certain, all the beneficial circumstances of life, and all the shining ones, lie on the part you would invite me to. But if I could bring myself to fancy, what I think you do but fancy, that I have any talents for active life, I want health for it; and besides it is a real truth. I have, if possible, less inclination, than ability. Contemplative life is not only my scene, but is my habit too. I begun my life where most people end theirs, with a disgust of all that the world calls ambition. I don't know why it is called so, for, to me, it always seemed to be rather stooping than climbing. I'll tell you my politic and religious sentiments in a few words. In my politics, I think no farther, than how to preserve my peace of life, in any government under which I live nor in my religion, than to preserve the peace of my conscience, in any church with which I communicate. I hope all churches, and all governments are so far of God, as they are rightly understood, and rightly administered; and where they are, or may be wrong, I leave it to God alone to mend, or reform them, which, whenever he does, it must be by greater instruments than I am. I am not a Papist, for I renounce the temporal invasions of the papal power, and detest their arrogated authority over Princes and States. I am a Catholic in the strictest sense of the word. If I was born under an absolute Prince, I would be a quiet subject; but, I thank God, I was not. I have a due sense of the excellence of the British constitution. In a word, the things I have always wished to see, are not a Roman Catholic, or a French Catholic, or a Spanish Catholic, but a True Catholic; and not a King of Whigs, or a King of Tories, but a King of England."
These are the peaceful maxims upon which we find Mr. Pope conducted his life, and if they cannot in some respects be justified, yet it must be owned, that his religion and his politics were well enough adapted for a poet, which entitled him to a kind of universal patronage, and to make every good man his friend.
Dean Swift sometimes wrote to Mr. Pope on the topic of changing his religion, and once humorously offered him twenty pounds for that purpose. Mr. Pope's answer to this, lord Orrery has obliged the world by preserving in the life of Swift. It is a perfect master-piece of wit and pleasantry.
We have already taken notice, that Mr. Pope was called upon by the public voice to translate the Iliad, which he performed with so much applause, and at the same time, with so much profit to himself, that he was envied by many writers, whose vanity perhaps induced them to believe themselves equal to so great a design. A combination of inferior wits were employed to write The Popiad, in which his translation is characterized, as unjust to the original, without beauty of language, or variety of numbers. Instead of the justness of the original, they say there is absurdity and extravagance. Instead of the beautiful language of the original, there is solecism and barbarous English. A candid reader may easily discern from this furious introduction, that the critics were actuated rather by malice than truth, and that they must judge with their eyes shut, who can fee no beauty of language, no harmony of numbers in this translation.
But the most formidable critic against Mr. Pope in this great undertaking, was the celebrated Madam Dacier, whom Mr. Pope treated with less ceremony in his Notes on the Iliad, than, in the opinion of some people, was due to her sex. This learned lady was not without a sense of the injury, and took an opportunity of discovering her resentment.
"Upon finishing (says she) the second edition of my translation of Homer, a particular friend sent me a translation of part of Mr. Pope's preface to his Version of the Iliad. As I do not understand English, I cannot form any judgment of his performance, though I have heard much of it. I am indeed willing to believe, that the praises it has met with are not unmerited, because whatever work is approved by the English nation, cannot be bad; but yet I hope I may be permitted to judge of that part of the preface, which has been transmitted to me, and I here take the liberty of giving my sentiments concerning it. I must freely acknowledge that Mr. Pope's invention is very lively, though he seems to have been guilty of the fame fault into which he owns we are often precipitated by our invention, when we depend too much upon the strength of it; as magnanimity (says he) may run up to confusion and extravagance, so may great invention to redundancy and wildness.
"This has been the very case of Mr. Pope himself; nothing is more overstrained, or more false than the images in which his fancy has represented Homer; sometimes he tells us, that the Iliad is a wild paradise, where, if we cannot see all the beauties, as in an ordered garden, it is only because the number of them is infinitely greater. Sometimes he compares him to a copious nursery, which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind; and, lastly, he represents him under the notion of a mighty tree, which rises from the most vigorous seed, is improved with industry, flourishes and produces the finest fruit, but bears too many branches, which might be lopped into form, to give it a more regular appearance.
"What! is Homer's poem then, according to Mr. Pope, a confused heap of beauties, without order of symmetry, and a plot whereon nothing but seeds, nor nothing perfect or formed is to be found; and a production loaded with many unprofitable things which ought to be retrenched, and which choak and disfigure those which deserve to be preserved? Mr. Pope will pardon me if I here oppose those comparisons, which to me appear very false, and entirely contrary to what the greatest of ancient, and modern critics ever thought.
"The Iliad is so far from being a wild paradise, that it is the most regular garden, and laid out with more symmetry than any ever was. Every thing herein is not only in the place it ought to have been, hot every thing is fitted for the place it hath. He presents you at first with that which ought to be first seen; he places in the middle what ought to be in the middle, and what would be improperly placed at the beginning or end, and he removes what ought to he at a greater distance, to create the more agreeable surprize; and, to use a comparison drawn from painting, he places that in the greatest light which cannot be too visible, and sinks in the obscurity of the shade, what does not require a full view; so that it may be said, that Homer is the Painter who best knew how to employ the Shades and lights. The second comparison is equally unjust; how could Mr. Pope say, 'that one can only discover seeds, and the first productions of every kind in the Iliad?' every beauty is there to such an amazing perfection, that the following ages could add nothing to those of any kind; and the ancients have always proposed Homer, as the most perfect model in every kind of poetry.
"The third comparison is composed of the errors of the two former; Homer had certainly an incomparable fertility of invention, but his fertility is always checked by that just sense, which made him reject every superfluous thing which his vast imagination could offer, and to retain only what was necessary and useful. Judgment guided the hand of this admirable gardener, and was the pruning hook he employed to lop off every useless branch."
Thus far Madam Dacier differs in her opinion from Mr. Pope concerning Homer; but these remarks which we have just quoted, partake not at all of the nature of criticism; they are meer assertion. Pope had declared Homer to abound with irregular beauties. Dacier has contradicted him, and asserted, that all his beauties are regular, but no reason is assigned by either of these mighty geniuses in support of their opinions, and the reader is left in the dark, as to the real truth. If he is to be guided by the authority of a name only, no doubt the argument will preponderate in favour of our countryman. The French lady then proceeds to answer some observations, which Mr. Pope made upon her Remarks on the Iliad, which she performs with a warmth that generally attends writers of her sex. Mr. Pope, however, paid more regard to this fair antagonist, than any other critic upon his works. He confessed that he had received great helps from her, and only thought she had (through a prodigious, and almost superstitious, fondness for Homer) endeavoured to make him appear without any fault, or weakness, and stamp a perfection on his works, which is no where to be found. He wrote her a very obliging letter, in which he confessed himself exceedingly sorry that be ever should have displeased so excellent a wit, and she, on the other hand, with a goodness and frankness peculiar to her, protested to forgive it, so that there remained no animosities between those two great admirers and translators of Homer.
Mr. Pope, by successful translation of the Iliad, as we have before remarked, drew upon him the envy and raillery of a whole tribe of writers. Though he did not esteem any particular man amongst his enemies of consequence enough to provoke an answer, yet when they were considered collectively, they offered excellent materials for a general satire. This satire he planned and executed with so extraordinary a mastery, that it is by far the most compleat poem of our author's; it discovers more invention, and a higher effort of genius, than any other production of his. The hint was taken from Mr. Dryden's Mac Flecknoe, but as it is more general, to it is more pleasing. The Dunciad is so universally read, that we reckon it superfluous to give any further account of it here and it would be an unpleasing task to trace all the provocations and resentments, which were mutually discovered upon this occasion. Mr. Pope was of opinion, that next to praising good writers, there was a merit in exposing bad ones, though it does not hold infallibly true, that each person stigmatized as a dunce, was genuinely so. Something must be allowed to personal resentment; Mr. Pope was a man of keen passions; he felt an injury strongly, retained along remembrance of it, and could very pungently repay it. Some of the gentlemen, however, who had been more severely lashed than the rest, meditated a revenge, which redounds but little to their honour. They either intended to chastize him corporally, or gave it out that they had really done so, in order to bring shame upon Mr. Pope, which, if true, could only bring shame upon themselves.
While Mr. Pope enjoyed any leisure from severer applications to study, his friends were continually solliciting him to turn his thoughts towards something that might be of lasting use to the world, and engage no more in a war with dunces who were now effectually humbled. Our great dramatic poet Shakespear had pass'd through several hands, some of whom were very reasonably judged not to have understood any part of him tolerably, much less were capable to correct or revise him.
The friends of Mr. Pope therefore strongly importuned him, to undertake the whole of Shakespear's plays, and, if possible, by comparing all the different copies now to be procured, restore him to his ancient purity. To which our poet made this modest reply, that not having attempted any thing in the Drama, it might in him be deemed too much presumption. To which he was answered, that this did not require great knowledge of the foundation and disposition of the drama, as that must stand as it was, and Skakespear himself had not always paid strict regard to the rules of it; but this was to clear the scenes from the rubbish with which ignorant editors had filled them.
His proper business in this work was to render the text so clear as to be generally understood, to free it from obscurities, and sometimes gross absurdities, which now seem to appear in it, and to explain doubtful and difficult passages of which there are great numbers. This however was an arduous province, and how Mr. Pope has acquitted himself in it has been differently determined: It is certain he never valued himself upon that performance, nor was it a task in the least adapted to his genius; for it seldom happens that a man of lively parts can undergo the servile drudgery of collecting passages, in which more industry and labour are necessary than persons of quick penetration generally have to bestow.
It has been the opinion of some critics, that Mr. Pope's talents were not adapted for the drama, otherwise we cannot well account for his neglecting the most gainful way of writing which poetry affords, especially as his reputation as so high, that without much ceremony or mortification, he might have had any piece of his brought upon the stage. Mr. Pope was attentive to his own interest, and if he had not either been conscious of his inability in that province, or too timid to wish the popular approbation, he would certainly have attempted the drama. Neither was he esteemed a very competent judge of what plays were proper or improper for representation. He wrote several letters to the manager of Drury-Lane Theatre, in favour of Thomson's Agamemnon, which notwithstanding his approbation, Thomson's friends were obliged to mutilate and shorten; and after all it proved a heavy play. — Though it was generally allowed to have been one of the best acted plays that had appeared for some years.
He was certainly concerned in the Comedy, which was published in Mr. Gay's name, called Three Hours after Marriage, as well as Dr. Arbuthnot. This illustrious triumvirate, though men of the most various parts, and extensive understanding, yet were not able it seems to please the people, tho' the principal parts were supported by the best actors in that way on the stage. Dr. Arbuthnot and Mr. Pope were no doubt solicitous to conceal their concern in it; but by a letter which Gay wrote to Pope, published in Ayre's Memoirs, it appears evident (If Ayre's authority may be depended on) that they, both assisted in the composition.
Too late I see, and confess myself mistaken in relation to the Comedy; yet I do not think, had I followed your advice, and only introduced the mummy, that the absence of the crocodile had saved it. I can't help laughing myself (though the vulgar do not consider it was designed to look ridiculous) to think how the poor monster and mummy were dashed at their reception, and when the cry was loudest, I thought that if the thing had been written by another, I should have deemed the town in some measure mistaken; and as to your apprehension that this may do us future injury, do not think of it; the Dr. has a more valuable name than can be hurt by any thing of this nature; and your's is doubly safe. I will, if any shame there be, take it all to myself, and indeed I ought, the motion being first mine, and never heartily approved by you."
Of all our poet's writings none were read with more general approbation than his Ethic Epistles, or multiplied into more editions. Mr. Pope who was a perfect oeconomist, secured to himself the profits arising from his own works; he was never subjected to necessity, and therefore was not to be imposed upon by the art or fraud of publishers.
But now approaches the period in which as he himself expressed it, he stood in need of the generous tear he paid,
Poets themselves must fall like those they sung,
Deaf the prais'd ear, and mute the tuneful tongue.
Ev'n he whose soul now melts in mournful lays,
Shall shortly want the generous tear he pays.
Mr. Pope who had been always subjected to a variety of bodily infirmities, finding his strength give way, began to think that his days, which had been prolonged past his expectation, were drawing towards a conclusion. However, he visited the Hot-Wells at Bristol, where for some time there were small hopes of his recovery; but making too free with purges he grew worse, and seemed desirous to draw nearer home. A dropsy in the breast at last put a period to his life, at the age of 56, on the 30th of May 1744, at his house at Twickenham, where he was interred in the same grave with his father and mother.
Mr. Pope's behaviour in his last illness has been variously represented to the world: Some have affirmed that it was timid and peevish; that having been fixed in no particular system of faith, his mind was wavering, and his temper broken and disturb'd. Others have asserted that he was all chearfulness and resignation to the divine will: Which of these opinions is true we cannot now determine; but if the former, it must be regretted, that he, who had taught philosophy to others, should himself be destitute of its assistance in the most critical moments of his life.
The bulk of his fortune he bequeath'd to Mrs. Blount, with whom he lived in the strictest friendship, and for whom he is said to have entertained the warmest affection. His works, which are in the hands of every person of true taste, and will last as long as our language will be understood, render unnecessary all further remarks on his writings. He was equally admired for the dignity and sublimity of his moral and philosophical works, the vivacity of his satirical, the clearness and propriety of his didactic, the richness and variety of his descriptive, and the elegance of all, added to an harmony of versification and correctness of sentiment and language, unknown to our former poets, and of which he has set an example which will be an example or a reproach to his successors. His prose-stile is as perfect in its kind as his poetic, and has all the beauties proper for it, joined to an uncommon force and perspicuity.
Under the profession of the Roman-Catholic religion, to which he adhered to the last, he maintained all the moderation and charity becoming the most thorough and consistent Protestant. His conversation was natural, easy and agreeable, without any affectation of displaying his wit, or obtruding his own judgment, even upon subjects of which he was so eminently a master.
The moral character of our author, as it did not escape the lash of his calumniators in his life; so have there been attempts since his death to diminish his reputation. Lord Bolingbroke, whom Mr. Pope esteemed to almost an enthusiastic degree of admiration, was the first to make this attack. Not many years ago, the public were entertained with this controversy immediately upon the publication of his lordship's Letters on the Spirit of Patriotism, and the Idea of a Patriot King. Different opinions have been offered, some to extenuate the fault of Mr. Pope, for printing and mutilating these letters, without his lordship's knowledge; others to blame him for it as the highest breach of friendship, and the greatest mark of dishonour. It would exceed our proposed bounds to enter into the merits of this controversy; the reader, no doubt, will find it amply discussed in that account of the life of this great author, which Mr. Warburton has promised this public.
This great man is allowed to have been one of the first rank amongst the poets of our nation, and to acknowledge the superiority of none but Shakespear, Milton, and Dryden. With the two former, it is unnatural to compare him, as their province in writing is so very different. Pope has never attempted the drama, nor published an Epic Poem, in which these two distinguished genius's have to wonderfully succeeded. Though Pope's genius was great, it was yet of so different a cast from Shakespear's, and Milton's, that no comparison can be justly formed. But if this may be said of the former two, it will by no means hold with respect to the latter, for between him and Dryden, there is a great similarity of writing, and a very striking coincidence of genius. It will not perhaps be unpleasing to our readers, if we pursue this comparison, and endeavour to discover to whom the superiority is justly to be attributed, and to which of them poetry owes the highest obligations.
When Dryden came into the world, he found poetry in a very imperfect state; its numbers were unpolished; its cadences rough, and there was nothing of harmony or mellifluence to give it a graceful of flow. In this harsh, unmusical situation, Dryden found it (for the refinements of Waller were but puerile and unsubstantial) he polished the rough diamond, he taught it to shine, and connected beauty, elegance, and strength, in all his poetical compositions. Though Dryden thus polished our English numbers, and thus harmonized versification, it cannot be said, that he carried his art to perfection. Much was yet left undone; his lines with all their smoothness were often rambling, and expletives were frequently introduced to compleat his measures. It was apparent therefore that an additional harmony might still he given to our numbers, and that cadences were yet capable of a more musical modulation. To effect this purpose Mr. Pope arose, who with an ear elegantly delicate, and the advantage of the finest genius, so harmonized the English numbers, as to make them compleatly musical. His numbers are likewise so minutely correct, that it would be difficult to conceive how any of his lines can be altered to advantage. He has created a kind of mechanical versification; every line is alike; and though they are sweetly musical, they want diversity, for he has not studied so great a variety of pauses, and where the accents may be laid gracefully. The structure of his verse is the best, and a line of his is more musical than any other line can he made, by placing the accents elsewhere; but we are not quite certain, whether the ear is not apt to be soon cloy'd with this uniformity of elegance, this sameness of harmony. It must be acknowledged however, that he has much improved upon Dryden in the article of versification, and in that part of poetry is greatly his superior. But though this must be acknowledged, perhaps it will not necessarily follow that his genius was therefore superior.
The grand characteristic of a poet is his invention, the surest distinction of a great genius. In Mr. Pope, nothing is so truly original as his Rape of the Lock, nor discovers so much invention. In this kind of mock-heroic, he is without a rival in our language, for Dryden has written nothing of the kind. His other work which discovers invention, fine designing, and admirable execution, is his Dunciad which, tho' built on Dryden's Mac Flecknoe, is yet so much superior, that in satiric writing, the Palm must justly be yielded to him. In Mr. Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel, there are indeed the most poignant strokes of satire, and characters drawn with the melt masterly touches; but this poem with all its excellencies is much inferior to the Dunciad, though Dryden had advantages which Mr. Pope had not; for Dryden's characters are men of great eminence and figure in the state, while Pope has to expose men of obscure birth and unimportant lives only distinguished from the herd of mankind, by a glimmering of genius, which rendered the greatest part of them more emphatically contemptible. Pope's was the hardest task, and he has executed it with the greatest success. As Mr. Dryden must undoubtedly, have yielded to Pope in satyric writing, it is incumbent on the partizans of Dryden to name another species of composition, in which the former excells so as to throw the ballance again upon the side of Dryden. This species is the Lyric, in which the warmest votaries of Pope must certainly acknowledge, that he is much inferior; as an irresistable proof of this we need only compare Mr. Dryden's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, with Mr. Pope's; in which the disparity is so apparent, that we know not if the most finished of Pope's compositions has discovered such a variety and command of numbers.
It hath been generally acknowledged, that the lyric is a more excellent kind of writing than the Satiric; and consequently he who excells in the most excellent species, must undoubtedly be esteemed the greatest poet. — Mr. Pope has very happily succeeded in many of his occasional pieces, such as Eloisa to Abelard, his Elegy on an unfortunate young Lady, and a variety, of other performances deservedly celebrated. To these may he opposed Mr. Dryden's Fables, which though written in a very advanced age, are yet the most perfect of his works. In these Fables there is perhaps a greater variety than in Pope's occasional pieces. Many of them indeed are translations, but such as are original shew a great extent of invention, and a large compass of genius.
There are not in Pope's works such poignant discoveries of wit, or such a general know ledge of the humours and characters of men, as in the Prologues and Epilogues of Dryden, which are the best records of the whims and capricious oddities of the times in which they are written.
When these two great genius's are considered in the light of translators, it will indeed be difficult to determine into whose scale the ballance should be thrown: That Mr. Pope had a more arduous province in doing justice to Homer, than Dryden with regard to Virgil is certainly true; as Homer is a more various and diffuse poet than Virgil; and it is likewise true, that Pope has even exceeded Dryden in the execution, and none will deny, that Pope's Homer's Iliad, is a finer poem than Dryden's Aeneis of Virgil: Making a proper allowance for the disproportion of the original authors. But then a candid critic should reflect, that as Dryden was prior in the great attempt of rendering Virgil into English; so did he perform the task under many disadvantages, which Pope, by a happier situation in life, was enabled to avoid; and could not but improve upon Dryden's errors, though the authors translated were not the same: And it is much to be doubted, if Dryden were to translate the Aeneid now, with that attention which the correctness of the present age would force upon him, whether the preference would he due to Pope's Homer.
But supposing it to be yielded (as it certainly must) that the latter bard was the greatest translator; we are now to throw into Mr. Dryden's scale all his dramatic works; which though not the most excellent of his writings, yet as nothing of Mr. Pope's can be opposed to them, they have an undoubted right to turn the ballance greatly in favour of Mr. Dryden. — When the two poets are considered as critics, the comparison will very imperfectly hold. Dryden's Dedications and Prefaces, besides that they are more numerous, and are the best models for courtly panegyric, shew that he understood poetry as an art, beyond any man that ever lived. And he explained this art so well, that he taught his antagonists to turn the tables against himself; for he so illuminated the mind by his clear and perspicuous reasoning, that dullness itself became capable of discerning; and when at any time his performances fell short of his own ideas of excellence; his enemies tried him by rules of his own establishing; and though they owed to him the ability of judging, they seldom had candour enough to spare him.
Perhaps it may be true that Pope's works are read with more appetite, as there is a greater evenness and correctness in them; but in perusing the works of Dryden the mind will take a wider range, and be more fraught with poetical ideas: We admire Dryden as the greater genius, and Pope as the most pleasing versifier.