1711 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dennis

Alexander Pope to John Caryll, 25 June 1711; Works of Pope, ed. Elwin and Courthope (1871-1889) 6:146-47.



I send you Mr. Dennis's remarks on the Essay [on Criticism], which equally abound in just criticisms and fine railleries. The few observations in my hand in the margin are what only a morning's leisure permitted me to make, purely for your perusal; for I am of opinion that such a critic as you will find him by the latter part of his book is no way to be properly answered but by a wooden weapon, and I should perhaps have sent him a present from Windsor Forest of one of the best and toughest oaken plants between Sunninghill and Oakingham, if he had not informed me in his preface that he is at this time persecuted by fortune. This I protest I knew not the least of before; if I had, his name had been spared in the Essay for that only reason. I cannot conceive what ground he has for so excessive a resentment, nor imagine how these three lines ["'Twere well might Critics still this freedom take, | But Appius reddens at each word you speak, | And stares, tremendous, with a threat'ning eye, | Like some fierce Tyrant in old tapestry"] can be called a reflection on his person which only describe him subject a little to colour and stare on some occasions, which are revolutions that happen sometimes in the best and most regular faces in Christendom. I have heard of combatants so very furious as to fall down themselves with that very strength which they designed to lay so heavy on their antagonists. But if Mr. Dennis's rage proceeds only from a zeal to discourage young and unexperienced writers from scribbling, he should frighten us with his verse, not prose; for I have often known, that when all the precepts in the world would not reclaim a sinner, some very sad example has done the business. Yet to give this man his due, he has objected to one or two lines with reason, and I will alter them in ease of another edition. I will make my enemy do me a kindness where he meant an injury, and so serve instead of a friend. What he observes at the bottom of page 20 of his Reflections, was objected to by yourself at Ladyholt, and had been mended but for the haste of the press. It is right Hibernian, and I confess it what the English call a bull, in the expression, though the sense be manifest enough. Mr. Dennis's bulls are seldom in the expression, they are almost always in the sense.

You will see by this, that whoever sets up for wit in these days ought to have the constancy of a primitive christian, and be prepared to suffer even martyrdom in the cause of it. But sure this is the first time that a wit was attacked for his religion, as you will find I am most zealously in this treatise. And you know, sir, what alarms I have had from the opposite side on this very account. Have I not reason to cry out with the poor fellow in Virgil,

Quid jam misere mihi denique restat?
Cui neque apud Danaos usquam locus, et super ipsi
Dardanidae infensi poenas cum sanguine poscunt.

It is, however, my happiness that you, sir, are impartial.

Jove was alike to Trojan and to Phrygian,
For you well know, that wit's of no religion.

The manner in which Mr. Dennis takes to pieces several particular lines detached from their natural places, may show how easy it is to any one to give a new sense, or a new nonsense, to what the author intended, or not intended. And indeed his constructions are not more wrested from the genuine meaning than theirs, who objected to the heterodox parts, as they call them.