Alexander Pope

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopedia of English Literature (1879) 3:173-82.

United with Swift in friendship and in fame, but possessing far higher powers as a poet and more refined taste as a satirist, was ALEXANDER POPE, born in London, May 21, 1688. He claimed to be of "gentle blood," and stated that his father was of a gentleman's family in Oxfordshire, the head of which was the Earl of Downe; his mother was the daughter of William Turner, Esq. of York. To this information, a relative of the poet added that Pope's grandfather was a clergyman in Hampshire, who had two sons, the younger of whom was sent to Lisbon to be placed in a mercantile house, and that there he became a Roman Catholic. Recent researches have been directed to the poet's personal history, and it has been found that at the proper period (from 1631 to 1645), there was a Hampshire clergyman of the name of Alexander Pope, rector of Thruxton, and holding two other livings in the same county; but as there is no memorial of him in the church, and no entry in the register of his having had children, it is still doubtful whether this rector of Thruxton was an ancestor of the poet. The poet's maternal descent has been clearly traced. His grandfather, Mr. William Turner, held property in Yorkshire, including the manor of Towthorpe, which he inherited from his uncle. He was wealthy, but did not take rank amongst the gentry, as there is no mention of the Turner family in the Herald's Visitations. Of the reputed alliance with the Earls of Downe there is no proof; if the poet's family was of the same stock, it must have been two centuries before his birth, when the Popes, afterwards ennobled as Earls of Downe, were in the rank of humble yeomen. In 1677 the poet's father is found carrying on business as a linen-merchant in London, and having acquired a respectable competency by trade, and additional property by his marriage with Edith Turner — who enjoyed 70 per annum, a rent-charge on an estate in Yorkshire — he retired from business about the year 1688, to a small estate which he had purchased at Binfield, near Windsor. The poet was partly educated by the family priest. He was afterwards sent to a Catholic seminary at Twyford, near Winchester, where he lampooned his teacher, was severely whipped, and then removed to a small school in London, where he learned little or nothing. In his twelfth or thirteenth year, he returned home to Binfield, and devoted himself to a course of self-instruction, and to the enthusiastic pursuit of literature. He delighted to remember that be had seen Dryden; and as Dryden died on the 1st of May 1700, his youthful admirer could not have been quite twelve years of age. But Pope was then a poet.

As yet a child, and all unknown to fame,
I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.

At the age of sixteen, he had commenced his Pastorals, translated part of Statius, and written imitations of Waller and other English poets. He soon became acquainted with some of the most eminent persons of the age — with Walsh, Wycherley, Congreve, Lansdowne, and Garth; and from this time his life was that of a popular poet enjoying high social distinction. His Pastorals were published in Tonson's Miscellany in 1709. In 1711 appeared his Essay on Criticism, which is said to have been composed two years before publication, when Pope was only twenty-one. The ripeness of judgment which it displays is remarkable. Addison commended the Essay warmly in the Spectator, and it soon rose into great popularity. The style of Pope was now formed and complete. His versification was that of his master, Dryden, but he gave the heroic couplet a peculiar terseness, correctness, and melody. The Essay was shortly afterwards followed by the Rape of the Lock (1712). The stealing of a lock of hair from a beauty of the day, Miss Arabella Fermor, by her lover, Lord Petre, was taken seriously, and caused an estrangement between the families, and Pope wrote his poem to make a jest of the affair, "and laugh them together again." In this he did not succeed, but he added greatly to his reputation by the effort. The machinery of the poem, founded upon the Rosicrucian theory, that the elements are inhabited by spirits, which they called sylphs, gnomes, nymphs, and salamanders, was added in 1713, and published in the spring of 1714. The addition forms the most perfect work of Pope's genius and art. Sylphs had been previously mentioned as invisible attendants on the fair, and the idea is shadowed out in Shakspeare's Ariel, and the amusements of the fairies in the Midsummer Night's Dream. But Pope has blended the most delicate satire with the most lively fancy, and produced the finest and most brilliant mock-heroic poem in the world. "It is," says Johnson, "most airy, the most ingenious, and the most delightful of all Pope's compositions." In 1713 appeared his Windsor Forest, evidently founded on Denham's Cooper's Hill, which it far excels. Pope was, properly speaking, no mere descriptive poet. He made the picturesque subservient to views of historical events, or to sketches of life and morals. But most of the Windsor Forest being composed in his earlier years, amidst the shades of those noble woods which he selected for the theme of his verse, there is in this poem a greater display of sympathy with external nature and rural objects than in any of his other works. The lawns and glades of the forest, the russet plains, and blue hills, and even the "purple dyes" of the "wild heath," had struck his young imagination. His account of the dying pheasant is a finished picture—

See from the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings;
Short is his joy; he feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.
Ah! what avail his glossy varying dyes,
His purple crest and scarlet-circled eyes;
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold,
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?

Another fine painting of external nature, as picturesque as any to be found in the purely descriptive poets, is the winter-piece in the Temple of Fame — a vision after Chaucer, published by Pope, in 1715—

So Zembla's rocks-the beauteous work of frost—
Rise white in air, and glitter o'er the coast;
Pale suns, unfelt, at distance roll away,
And on the impassive ice the lightnings play;
External snows the growing mass supply,
Till the bright mountains prop the incumbent sky:
As Atlas fixed, each hoary pile appears,
The gathered winter of a thousand years.

Pope now commenced his translation of the Iliad, for which he issued proposals in 1713. It was published at intervals between 1715 and 1720. At first, the gigantic task oppressed him with its difficulty. He was but an indifferent Greek scholar; but gradually he grew more familiar with Homer's images and expressions, and in a short time was able to dispatch fifty verses a day. Great part of the manuscript was written upon the backs and covers of letters, evincing that it was not without reason Swift called him "paper-sparing" Pope. The poet obtained a clear sum of 320, 4s. by this translation. His exclamation—

And thanks to Homer, since I live and thrive,
Indebted to no prince or peer alive—

was, however, scarcely just, if we consider that this large sum was in part a "benevelence" from the upper classes of society, designed to reward his literary merit. The fame of Pope was not advanced in an equal degree with his fortune by his labours as a translator. The "fatal facility" of his rhyme, the additional false ornaments which he imparted to the ancient Greek, and his departure from the nice discrimination of character and speech which prevails in Homer, are faults now universally admitted. Cowper — though he failed himself in Homer — justly remarks, that the Iliad and Odyssey in Pope's hands "have no more the air of antiquity than if he had himself invented them." They still, however, maintain their popularity with the great mass of readers, and are unequalled in splendid versification.

The Odyssey was not published until 1725, and Pope on this occasion called in the assistance of his poetical friends Broome and Fenton. These two coadjutors translated twelve books, and the notes were compiled by Broome, who received from Pope a sum of 500, besides being allowed the subscriptions collected from personal friends, amounting to 70, 4s. Fenton's share was only 200. Deducting the sums paid to his co-translators, Pope realised by the Odyssey upwards of 3500; and together the Iliad and Odyssey had brought to the poet a fortune of from eight to nine thousand pounds — a striking instance of the princely patronage then extended to literature.

While engaged with the Iliad, Pope removed from Binfield, his father having sold his estate there, and resided, from April 1716 till the beginning of 1718, at Chiswick. Here he collected and published his poetical works; and in this volume first appeared the most picturesque, melodious, and passionate of all his productions, the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, and the Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard. The delicacy of the poet in veiling over the story of Abelard and Eloisa, and at the same time preserving the ardour of Eloisa's passion; the beauty of his imagery and descriptions; the exquisite melody of his versification, rising and falling like the tones of an Eolian harp, as he successively portrays the tumults of guilty love, the deepest penitence, and the highest devotional rapture, have never been surpassed. If less genial tastes and a love of satire withdrew Pope from those fountain-springs of the muse, it was obviously from no want of power in time poet to display the richest hoes of imagination, or the finest impulses of the heart. At Chiswick, Pope's father died (October, 23, 1717), and shortly afterwards the poet removed with his aged mother to Twickenham, where he had taken a lease of a house and grounds, and where he continued to reside during the remainder of his life. This classic spot, which Pope delighted to improve, and where he was visited by ministers of state, wits, poets, and beauties, is now greatly defaced — his house pulled down, and his pleasure-grounds broken up and vulgarised.

Having completed the Iliad, the poet's next great undertaking was an edition of Shakspeare, published in 1725, in six quarto volumes. The preface to this work is the best of his prose productions, but Pope failed as an editor. He wanted the requisite knowledge of Elizabethan literature, and the diligence necessary to collate copies and fix and illustrate the text. Fenton gave assistance in this edition of Shakspeare, for which he received 30, 14s. Pope's remuneration as editor was 217, 12s. In 1727 and 1728, Pope published, in conjunction with his friend Swift, three volumes of Miscellanies, which drew down upon the authors a torrent of invective, lampoons, and libels, and led to the Dunciad. This elaborate and splendid satire was first printed in an imperfect form in May 1728, then enlarged with notes, the Prolegomena of Scriblerus, &c. and published in April 1729. The work displays the fertile invention of the poet, the variety of illustration at his command, and the unrivalled force and facility of his diction; but it is often indelicate, and still oftener unjust towards the miserable poets and critics against whom he waged war. "I have often wondered," says Cowper, "that the same poet who wrote the Dunciad should have written these lines:

That mercy I to others shew,
That mercy shew to me.

Alas for Pope, if the mercy he shewed to others was the measure of the mercy he received!" Sir Walter Scott has justly remarked, that Pope most have suffered the most from these wretched contentions. His propensity to satire was, however, irresistible; he was eminently sensitive, vain, and irritable, and implacable in his resentment towards all who had questioned or slighted his poetical supremacy.

His next works were more worthy of his fame. Between the years 1731 and 1735, he had published his Epistles to Burlington, Bathurst, Cobham. and Arbuthnot and also his greatest ethical work, his Essay on Man, being part of a course of moral philosophy in verse which he projected. The Essay is now read, not for its philosophy, but for its poetry. Its metaphysical distinctions are neglected for those splendid passages and striking incidents which irradiate the poem. In lines like the following, he speaks with a mingled sweetness and dignity superior to his great master Dryden:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.
The soul, uneasy and conned from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul, proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple nature to his hope has given
Behind the cloud-topped hill an humbler heaven;
Some safer world in depth of woods embraced,
Some happier island in the watery waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no christians thirst for gold.
To be contents his natural desire,
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire;
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

O Happiness! our being's end and aim,
Good, Pleasure, Ease, Content, whate'er thy name;
That something still which prompts th' eternal sigh,
For which we bear to live, or dare to die;
Which still so near us, yet beyond us lies,
O'erlooked, seen double by the fool and wise!
Plant of celestial seed! if dropped below,
Say, in what mortal soil thon deign'st to grow?
Fair opening to some court's propitious shine,
Or deep with diamonds in the flaming mine?
Twined with the wreaths Parnassian laurels yield,
Or reaped in iron harvests of the field?
Where grows! — where grows it not? If vain our toil,
We ought to blame the culture, not the soil:
Fixed to no spot is Happiness sincere;
'Tis nowhere to be found, or everywhere;
'Tis never to be bought, but always free,
And, fled from monarchs, ST. JOHN! dwells with thee.
Ask of the learned the way! The learned are blind;
This bids to serve, and that to shun mankind;
Some place the bliss in action, some in ease;
Those call it pleasure, and contentment these;
Some, sunk to beasts, find pleasure end in pain;
Some swelled to gods, confess e'en virtue vain;
Or indolent, to each extreme they fall,
To trust in everything, or doubt of all.

The Essay on Man is in four Epistles, the first of which was published anonymously in February 1733, and the second about three months afterwards. The third and fourth appeared in the winter of 1733-4. The right to print these Epistles for one year was bought by a publisher, Gilliver, for 50 an epistle.

Pope's future labours were chiefly confined to satire. Misfortunes were also now gathering round him. Swift was fast verging on imbecility, and was lost to the world; Atterbury and Gay died in 1732; and next year his venerable mother, whose declining years he had watched with affectionate solicitude, also expired. Between the years 1735 and 1739, Pope published his inimitable Imitations of Horace, satirical, moral, and critical, containing the most noble and generous sentiments, mixed up with withering invective and the fiercest denunciations. In 1742, he added a fourth book to the Dunciad, displaying the final advent of the goddess to destroy order and science, and to substitute the kingdom of the dull upon earth. The point of his individual satire, and the richness and boldness of his general design, attest the undiminished powers and intense feeling of the poet. Next year, Pope prepared a new edition of the four books of the Dunciad, and elevated Colley Cibber to the situation of hero of the poem. This unenviable honour had previously been enjoyed by Theobald, a tasteless critic but successful commentator on Shakspeare; and in thus yielding to his personal dislike of Cibber, Pope injured the force of his satire. The laureate, as Warton justly remarks, "with a great stock of levity, vanity, and affectation, had sense, and wit, and humour; and the author of the Careless Husband was by no means a proper king of the dunces." Cibber was all vivacity and conceit — the very reverse of personified dulness, "Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound."

Political events came in the rear of this accumulated and vehement satire to agitate the last days of Pope. The anticipated approach of the Pretender led the government to issue a proclamation prohibiting every Roman Catholic from appearing within ten miles of London. The poet complied with the proclamation; and he was soon afterwards too ill to be in town. This "additional proclamation from the Highest of all Powers," as he terms his sickness, he submitted to without murmuring. A constant state of excitement, added to a life of ceaseless study and contemplation, operating on a frame naturally delicate and deformed from birth, had completely exhausted the powers of Pope. He complained of his inability to think; yet, a short time before his death, he said: "I am so certain of the soul's being immortal, that I seem to feel it within me as it were by intuition." Another of his dying remarks was: "There is nothing that is meritorious but virtue and friendship; and, indeed, friendship itself is only a part of virtue." He died at Twickenham on the 30th of May, 1744.

The character and genius of Pope have given rise to abundance of comment and speculation. The occasional fierceness and petulance of his satire cannot be justified, and must be ascribed to his extreme sensibility, to over-indulged vanity, and to a hasty and irritable temper. His sickly constitution debarring him from active pursuits, he placed too high a value on mere literary fame, and was deficient in the manly virtues of sincerity and candour. There was no artifice to which he was not willing to stoop to elevate his own reputation or lower that of an opponent. The most elaborate of his stratagems was that by which he published his correspondence, charging the publication upon some unknown literary burglar in alliance with Curll the bookseller. The whole of his literary history is indeed full of small plots and manoeuvring, and no reliance can be placed on his statements. He appreciated moral excellence — the feeling and the admiration were there — but the lower part of his nature was constantly dragging him down to little meannesses and duplicity. At the same time he was a public benefactor, by stigmatising the vices of the great, and lashing the absurd pretenders to taste and literature. He was a fond and steady friend; and in all our literary biography, there is nothing finer than his constant undeviating affection and reverence for his venerable parents.

Me let the tender office song engage,
To rock the cradle of reposing age;
With lenient arts extend a mother's breath,
Make languor smite, and smooth the bed of death;
Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
And keep at least one parent from the sky.

As a poet, it would be absurd to rank Pope with the greatest masters of the lyre. He was the poet of artificial life and manners rather than the poet of nature. He was a nice observer and an accurate describer of the phenomena of the mind and of the varying shades and gradations of vice and virtue, wisdom and folly. He was too fond of point and antithesis, but the polish of the weapon was equalled by its keenness. "Let us look," says Campbell, "to the spirit that points his antithesis, and to the rapid precision of his thoughts, and we shall forgive him for being too antithetic and sententious." His wit, fancy, and good sense are as remarkable as his satire. His elegance has never been surpassed, or perhaps equalled: it is a combination of intellect, imagination, and taste, under the direction of an independent spirit and refined moral feeling. If he had studied more in the school of nature and of Shakspeare, and less in the school of Horace and Boileau; if he had cherished the frame and spirit in which he composed the Elegy, and the Eloisa, and forgot his too exclusive devotion to that which inspired the Dunciad, the world would have hallowed his memory with a still more affectionate and permanent interest than even that which waits on him as one of our most brilliant and accomplished English poets. Mr. Campbell in his Specimens has given an eloquent estimate of the general powers of Pope, with reference to his position as a poet: "That Pope was neither so insensible to the beauties of nature, nor so indistinct in describing them, as to forget the character of a genuine poet, is what I mean to urge, without exaggerating his picturesqueness. But before speaking of that quality in his writings, I would beg leave to observe, in the first place, that the faculty by which a poet luminously describes objects of art, is essentially the same faculty which enables him to be a faithful describer of simple nature; in the second place, that nature and art are to a greater degree relative terms in poetical description than is generally recollected; and, thirdly, that artificial objects and manners are of so much importance in fiction, as to make the exquisite description of them no less characteristic of genius than the description of simple physical appearances. The poet is 'creation's heir.' He deepens our social interest in existence. It is surely by the liveliness of the interest which he excites in existence, and not by the class of subjects which he chooses, that we most fairly appreciate the genius or the life of life which is in him. It is no irreverence to the external charms of nature to say, that they are not more important to a poet's study than the manners and affections of his species. Nature is the poet's goddess; but by nature, no one rightly understands her mere inanimate face, however charming it may be, or the simple landscape painting of trees, clouds, precipices, and flowers. Why, then, try Pope, or any other poet, exclusively by his powers of describing inanimate phenomena? Nature, in the wide and proper sense of the word, means life in all its circumstances — nature, moral as well as external. As the subject of inspired fiction, nature includes artificial forms and manners. Richardson is no less a painter of nature than Homer. Homer himself is a minute describer of works of art; and Milton is full of imagery derived from it. Satan's spear is compared to the pine that makes 'the mast of some great ammiral;' and his shield is like the moon, but like the moon artificially seen through the glass of the Tuscan artist. The 'spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all time quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war,' are all artificial images. When Shakspeare groups into one view the most sublime objects of the universe, be fixes on 'the cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples.' Those who have ever witnessed the spectacle of the launching of a ship-of-the-line, will perhaps forgive me for adding this to the examples of the sublime objects of artificial life. Of that spectacle I can never forget the impression, and of having witnessed it reflected from the faces of ten thousand spectators. They seem yet before me. I sympathise with their deep and silent expectation, and with their final burst of enthusiasm. It was not a vulgar joy, but an affecting national solemnity. When the vast bulwark sprang from her cradle, the calm water on which she swung majestically round, gave the imagination a contrast of the stormy element in which she was soon to ride. All the days of battle and nights of danger which she had to encounter, all the ends of the earth which she had to visit, and all that she had to do and to suffer for her country, rose in awful presentiment before the mind; and when the heart gave her a benediction, it was like one pronounced on a living being."

Pope has had numerous editors and annotators. Warburton's authorized edition, containing the poet's last corrections, was published in nine volumes, 1751. In 1797 appeared an enlarged edition, with memoir, notes, and illustrations, by Joseph Warton, in nine volumes; in 1806, the Rev. W. Lisle Bowles edited another edition, in ten volumes, which contained some additional letters and notes, and an original memoir of the poet, which led to some controversy; and in 1871, the Rev. Whitwell Elwin commenced an edition, also to extend to ten volumes, and to include several hundred unpublished letters and other new materials, collected in part by the Right Hon. John Wilson Croker. Of the poetical works (apart from the prose treatises and correspondence) editions have been published by the Rev. A Dyce (1835), the Rev. Dr. George Croly (1835), the Rev. H. F. Cary (1853), and Adolphus W. Ward, M.A. (1869). Of these, the last is incomparably the best.