1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Isaac D'Israeli, in Review of Spence's Anecdotes, Quarterly Review 23 (July 1820) 433-34.



Pope wrought to its last perfection the classical vein of English poetry; he inherited, it is true, the wealth of his predecessors, but the splendour of his affluence was his own. Whenever any class, or any form of literature has touched its meridian, Art is left without progressive power; there are no longer inventors or improvers; excellence is neutralised by excellence, and hence a period of languor succeeds a period of glory. At such a crisis we return to old neglected tastes, or we acquire new ones which in their turn will become old; and it is at this critical period that we discover new concurrents depreciating a legitimate and established genius whom they cannot rival, and finally practising the democratic and desperate arts of a literary Ostracism. In vain, however, would the populace of poets estrange themselves from Pope, and teach that he is deficient in imagination and passion, because, in early youth

He stoop'd to truth, and moralised his song.

It is not the shadows of the imagination and the spectres of the passions only which are concerned in our poetic pleasures; other sources must be opened, worthy of the dignity and the pride of the Muse; and to instruct and reform, as well as to delight the world by the charm of verse, is only to "reassert her ancient prerogative," and to vindicate her glory. A master-poet must live with the language in which he has written, for his qualities are inherent, and independent of periodical tastes. The poet of our age, as well as of our youth, is one on whom our experience is perpetually conferring a new value; and Time, who will injure so many of our poets, will but confirm the immortality of Pope.