1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Robert Story, in Love and Literature; being the Reminiscences, Literary Opinions, and Fugitive Pieces of a Poet in Humble Life (1842) 127-33.



I recalled him to the poets. "POPE was among the first English poets that I met with," said he. "The smooth flow of his numbers, the beauty of his images, and the sustained grace of his diction, had, contrasted with my former models, a thousand delightful attractions. His satire possessed a poignancy I had never seen surpassed, and a polish I had never seen approximated. His descriptions of external nature — though I have since learned to estimate them at a lower rate — recommended themselves to me at the time in the alluring dress of novelty — their tameness, their conceit, and their common-place, equally lost in the brilliance of the versification. But it was his translation of Homer that wound my admiration to its height. There he was still Pope, indeed, but Pope superior to himself. He seemed to rise with his original, to identify himself with the Bard of Greece; and the 'tale of Troy divine,' according to the best judges, came from his hands, divested, certainly, of its Homeric simplicity, but with no diminution of its dignity or grandeur. The heathen mythology which, with all its absurdities and immoralities, has something extremely fascinating to the imagination experienced no degradation from the elegant mind of Pope. His Jupiter displays his attributes, and asserts his sovereignty, in a manner worthy of the god — impressing us, in fact, with ideas of his power which approach very near to our juster notions of Deity.

"Do you recollect the speech to the assembled gods, in which he forbids them to intermeddle with the Greeks and Trojans? I think I can give it you from memory:—

Celestial states, immortal gods, give ear;
Hear our decree, and reverence what ye hear!
What god but enters yon forbidden field,
Who yields assistance, or but wills to yield,
Back to his native skies he shall be driven,
Gashed with dishonest wounds — the scorn of heaven!
Or, from our sacred hill with fury thrown,
Deep in the dark Tartarean gulf shall groan,
With burning chains fixed to the brazen floors,
And locked by hell's inexorable doors,—
As far beneath th' infernal centre hurled,
As from that centre to th' etherial world.
Let all who tempt me dread those dire abodes,
And know th' Almighty is the God of gods!...

Let down our golden, everlasting chain,
Whose strong embrace holds heaven, and earth, and main;
Strive all, of mortal and immortal birth,
To drag, by this, the Thunderer down to earth;
Ye strive in vain! If I but stretch this band,
I heave the gods, the ocean, and the land!
I fix the chain to great Olympus' height,
And the vast world hangs trembling in my sight!
For such I reign, unbounded and above,
And such are men and gods compared with Jove!

Th' Almighty spoke; nor durst the powers reply;
A sacred horror silenced all the sky!

"I have insinuated that my opinion of Pope's descriptive powers is not so high as formerly but I must not be understood by this as denying them to be very considerable, and still less as coinciding with those who refuse him the name of a poet.

Poets themselves must fall, like those they sung
Deaf the praised ear, and mute the tuneful tongue.
E'en he, whose soul now melts in mournful lays,
Shall shortly want the generous tear he pays.
Then from his closing eyes thy form shall part,
And the last pang shall tear thee from his heart;
Life's idle business, at one gasp, be o'er,
The Muse forgot, and thou beloved no more!

"The writer of these lines not a poet!" said the bard. "The thing is absurd! The whole controversy is puerile! Pope has not the sublimity of Milton, the variety of Shakspeare, or the energy even of Dryden; but he leaves at an immeasurable distance Waller, Cowley, Shenstone, and a whole host of others, whom we class, and justly class, with the poets of Britain. Is he not then a poet? — But at the time I speak of, this controversy had not been agitated, or it had not reached my solitude; and I held the undisturbed opinion that the translator of Homer was one of the greatest poets that ever lived. I projected an epic poem. The narrative which Josephus has given of the life and actions of Moses, previous to his becoming the Jewish leader, had inflamed my imagination; and I chose those apocryphal exploits for my subject. I remember only two lines of the commencement, but these are enough:—

The deeds of Moses in the well-fought fields,
Where crashed the helmets, and where rung the shields,
I sing; &c.

This was the mountain in labour — and the mouse most assuredly would have made its appearance; but the project was soon abandoned for less ambitious themes. I composed pastorals, delightfully free from everything connected with real life or rural manners; and wrote descriptions that were descriptive of nothing. My mountains, vales, and streams, passed, indeed, in rapid succession before the eye; but that very rapidity made it impossible to catch a distinct image of any one of them. My flowers were the common ornaments of common poetry — they bloomed in my landscape, without lending beauty to sentiment, or point to morality. My versification, founded on that of Pope, was not deficient either in rhythm or rhyme; but its uniformity at length palled on my own ear; and I longed to set the example of a freer or less measured style of composition. I was not aware that that example had been already set; I knew not that Cowper had written and Shenstone sung; or, to come to later names, I was ignorant that a new race of bards had arisen, and were charming the world with a wilder and a bolder minstrelsy. At the very time when I was lamenting the lack of poets in the nineteenth century, and almost fancying that I should myself be the oasis in the desert — Wordsworth had produced his 'Lyrical Ballads,' Rogers his 'Pleasures of Memory,' and Campbell his 'Pleasures of Hope;' the strains of Scott were still in all their freshness; Byron had just wrapped himself in the mantle of 'Childe Harold;' Moore had displayed — or was displaying — the riches of oriental imagery; and Southey, by tale upon tale, each more brilliant than the last, was continuing a climax that was to terminate in 'Roderick!' — It might be poetically said, that the gales of Britain were alive with harmony; but the sound was turned aside by the mountains that sheltered my cottage; and it rolled away into distance — unheard and unenjoyed!

"I shall not recite you any of my imitations of Pope; unless you should consider this as one. It is an epitaph on my father, and I give it you in the hope that you may think it worth preservation."

EPITAPH.
Here lie the ruins of a Man, whose name
Is reverenced yet by voice of rustic fame.
Of blameless life; to honour firmly true,
Although the word, perchance, he hardly knew;
For all mankind he felt the friendly glow,
And, save in Fortune, never saw his foe!
Here lie the ruins — but the spirit, where?
The brunt of rudest blasts that nobly bare;
That often, struggling with the gathered storm,
Broke through the severing clouds with brightest form,
Or calmly smiled, superior to its woe,
At the wild mingling of the glooms below?
Where, but in bliss? with Him be honoured here,
Enjoying Heaven's interminable year—
A summer year, where tempests never roar,
Where Fortune frowns, and Troubles vex, no more!