1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:553-57.



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 22, 1688. His father, a linen draper, having acquired an independent fortune, retired to Binfield, in Windsor Forest. He was a Roman Catholic, and the young 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 punished, and afterwards taken home by his parents. He educated himself, and attended no school after his twelfth year! The whole of his early life was that of a severe student. He was a poet in his infancy.

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

The writings of Dryden became the more particular object of his admiration, and he prevailed upon a friend to introduce him to Will's coffeehouse, which Dryden then frequented, that he might have the gratification of seeing an author whom he so enthusiastically admired. Pope was then not more than twelve years of age. He wrote, but afterwards destroyed, various dramatic pieces, and at the age of sixteen composed his "Pastorals," and his imitations of Chaucer. He soon became acquainted with most of the comment persons of the day both in politics and literature. In 1711 appeared his "Essay on Criticism," unquestionably the finest piece of argumentative and reasoning poetry in the English language. The work is said to have been composed two years before publication, when Pope was only twenty-one. The ripeness of judgment which it displays is truly marvellous. Addison commended the "Essay" warmly in the Spectator, and it instantly 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." 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 at the suggestion of Dr Garth and some of his friends. 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, "the most airy, the most ingenious, and the most delightful of all Pope's compositions." "The Temple of Fame" and the "Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady," were next published; and in 1713 appeared his "Windsor Forest," which was chiefly written so early as 1704. The latter was 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 ho 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"—

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. At first the gigantic task oppressed him with its difficulty, but he grow 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 he was called paper-sparing Pope. The poet obtained a clear sum of £5320, 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 fact a "benevolence" from the upper classes of society, good-naturedly designed to reward his literary merit. The fame of Pope was not advance 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." The success of the Iliad led to the translation of the Odyssey; but Pope called in his friends Broome and Fenton as assistants. These two coadjutors translated twelve beaks, and the notes were compiled by Broome. Fenton received £300, and Broome £500, while Pope had £2885, 5s. The Homeric labours occupied a period of twelve years — from 1713 to 1725. The improvement of his pecuniary resources enabled the poet to remove from the shades of Windsor Forest to a situation nearer the metropolis. He purchased a lease of a house and grounds at Twickenham, to which he removed with his father and mother, 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. Whilst on a visit to Oxford in 1716, Pope commenced, and probably finished, the most highly poetical and passionate of his works, the "Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard." The delicacy of the poet in veiling over the circumstances of the story, and a 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 the poet to display the richest hues of imagination, or the finest impulses of the human mind. The next literary undertaking of our author was an edition of Shakspeare, in which he attempted, with but indifferent success, to establish the text of the mighty poet, and explain his obscurities. In 1733, he published 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 confined, from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds, or bears 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 a 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.
Oh Happiness! our being's end and aim,
Good, Pleasure, Ease, Content, whate'er thy name;
That something still which prompts the 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 thou deign'st to grow?
Fair opening to some court's propitious shine,
Or deep with diamonds in the flaming mine?
Twined with the wreaths Parnsssian 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 even virtue vain;
Or indolent, to each extreme they fall,
To trust in everything, or doubt of all.

Pope's future labours were chiefly confined to satire. In 1727 he published, in conjunction with his friend Swift, three volumes of "Miscellanies," in prose and verse, which drew down upon the authors a torrent of invective, lampoons, and libels, and ultimately led to the "Dunciad," by Pope. This elaborate and splendid satire displays the fertile invention of the poet, the variety of his illustration, and the unrivalled force and facility of his diction; but it is now read with a feeling more allied to pity than admiration — pity that one so highly gifted should have allowed himself to descend to things so mean, and devote the end of a great literary life to the infliction of retributary pain on every humble aspirant in the world of letters. "I have often wondered," says Cowper, "that the same poet who wrote the Dunciad should have written these lines—

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

Alas for Pope, if the mercy he showed to others was the measure of the mercy he received." Sir Walter Scott has justly remarked, that Pope must have suffered the most from these wretched contentions. It is known that his temper was ultimately much changed for the worse. Misfortunes were also now gathering round him. Swift was fast verging on insanity, 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 1733 and 1740, Pope published his inimitable Epistles, Satires, and Moral Essays, addressed to his friends Bolingbroke, Bathurst, Arbuthnot, &c., and containing the most noble and generous sentiments, mixed up with withering invective and the fiercest denunciations. In 1742 be 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 and commentator on Shakspeare; but 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 apart 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, even by the coarse attacks of his opponents, 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. 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 long engage,
To rock the cradle of reposing age;
With lenient arts extend a mother's breath,
Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death;
Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
And keep at least one parent from the sky.
Prologue to the Satires.

As a poet, it would be absurd to rank Pope with the greatest masters of the lyre; with the universality of Shakspeare, or the sublimity of Milton. He was undoubtedly more the poet of artificial life and manners 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 soon through the glass of the Tuscan artist. The 'spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all the 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, he 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 time 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 earths 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."