1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

William Lisle Bowles, "Observations on the Character of Pope" Works of Pope, ed. Bowles (1806) 1:cxix-cxxxi



I shall say little concerning Pope's person, which, it is well known, was diminutive and ill-formed. His voice was melodious; his eye brilliant and penetrating. Of the few personal recommendations he possessed he was sufficiently vain. In his dress, when he appeared in public, he was particular, that he might appear to as much advantage as possible. His "dress of ceremony," Warton says, was a small sword, and black suit of velvet: to this account I may add, that he was often seen with a basket of fruit from his own garden, or a bouquet of flowers, as a present to the Miss Blounts.

I would willingly have avoided the task, by no means grateful, of attempting any delineation of his general character. The reader has been left to make his own reflections on the several passages of the life as they occurred; and after the luminous and masterly summary of the leading qualities of his mind by Johnson, any thing I could add might appear useless, as well as presumptuous.

Some account of character, however, is considered as almost a necessary appendage to the life of an author; and I shall therefore hope to be excused, if I endeavour to mark, as I have done in the life, some of those traits which have been less particularly noticed by Johnson.

That he was a most dutiful and affectionate son, a kind master, a sincere friend, and, generally speaking, a benevolent man, is undoubted.

In speaking of other parts of his character, I would advance no opinion but that which I think can be directly proved; and, at the fame time, I trust I should never forget the sentiment that "I would so judge as I would wish to be judged."

The first and most obvious feature in the character of Pope was his predominant and insatiable love of praise. From this one source almost all his other defects may be derived: such as his jealousy, particularly excited when his own fame was considered in collision; his animosity, implacable to all who denied his superiority; and an habitual bent of mind towards art and stratagem, by which he constantly endeavoured to promote, extend, and confirm his own reputation.

With respect to the avidity and lust of praise, which began in his childhood, strengthened with his strength, and ended only with his life, the cause of it may be found in the indulgence, partiality, and VANITY of his parents.

His weakness in infancy required the greatest indulgence: as years increased, the marks which he displayed of intellectual superiority were acknowledged with the more partial regard, as his childhood had been barren of promises gratifying to a parent. Hence, by degrees, he became a kind of little Lama in the household at Binfield .

The effect of early indulgence was experienced when he was sent to school. He made scarcely any progress: he wanted the voice whose gentle adulation made him first proud: he vented his impatience, though so young, in the way which strongly designated his future character, by writing his first lisping lampoon on his schoolmaster.

From this school, instead of being corrected and punished he was removed, probably in consequence of maternal solicitude, generally, in regard to the advantages of education, as ill-judging as it is amiable.

At the school where he fabricated the play from Ogilby's Homer, he seems to have contemplated his little self with most complacency. Still, however, a school was a school, and he made very slow progress in learning, till he returned to his father's house, and was left without a competitor.

If he had received a more enlarged education, whether he would have been so great a poet I know not but I do not fear to say, he would have been a more estimable member of society; a more complacent, and a more happy man. He would have known the exact point which his abilities reached: he would have excelled without vanity, and viewed competitors for fame without alarm.

The contrary to this was visible in his character through life.

When he publicly appeared as an author, the voices of Trumbull, Wycherley, Garth, &c. were in unison with those of his family. But it happened, at the same time, that the first step he made as an author into the world was attended with a wound to his feelings. I allude to Phillips's Pastorals.

I need not repeat what has been said concerning the criticism in the Guardian: but Gay, who had gained Pope's kindness by the flattering address in the beginning of Rural Sports, now came in aid of his friend, with the ridicule, called the "Shepherd's Week."

The three first letters Pope wrote to Gay, I think, will attest the nature of his feelings. The first begins with "Sir;" the next, "Dear Sir;" and the next after the burlesque Pastorals, "Dear Mr. Gay," and concludes, "Thine, divine Bucoliast!"

Gay gained his lasting love, and Phillips his lasting resentment, in consequence of that excessive love of superiority which he imbibed from the nursery.

It was this paramount idea which made him also so bitter an enemy.

Wrapt up in a fastidious contemplation of himself, he was persuaded that all those who did not join the number of his professed adulators were actuated by jealousy and envy at his rising fame. Hence his own jealousy and suspicion were constantly on the watch, and were ready to interpret, as in the case of Addison, many things into a direct attack upon himself. For instance, what but such jealousy could make him apply to himself these observations of Welsted?

"As to the numerous treatises, essays, arts, &c. both in verse and prose, that have been written by the moderns on this ground-work, they do but hackney the same thoughts over again, making them still more trite. Most of their pieces are nothing but a most insipid heap of common-place. Horace has even, in his Art of Poetry, thrown out several things, which plainly shew, he thought an art of poetry was of no use, even whilst he was writing one."

This Pope ostentatiously quotes as a "glance at" his essay; though it is no more than Swift, and almost all writers of all ages, (generously excepting themselves,) have said of the age in which they lived. This, which an unsuspicious man would not have thought of, and which a wise man would not have regarded, was the first cause of his hostility to Welded.

Mr. Cumberland, who will receive from posterity the applause which his muse so well deserves, clearly proves that the cause of Pope's contemptuous description of Bentley, was an expression used by Bentley, respecting the translation of Homer. It was the same with regard to Theobald, and, I have no doubt, Dr. Woodward, and many others, concerning whom the cause of Pope's animosity is not known.

As Pope loved flattery so much, and was stung to exasperation by the slightest word of detraction, so in bestowing praise himself, no one was more happy. In fact, judging from his own feelings, he knew the value of praise; and though he cannot be accused of gross personal flattery, yet no one had such consummate art in bestowing this kind of homage.

In his own Epitaph, he affects to say he never flattered the great:

Heroes and kings, your distance keep,
In peace let one poor Poet sleep,
Who never flattered folks like you:
Let Horace blush, and Virgil too.

Kings he certainly never flattered, but no one understood the art better when he chose; and to this art may be attributed his connexion with Buckingham, whose poem he mentioned with sufficient adulation in the Essay on Criticism.

The self-love which made him so alive to praise, and so impatient of censure, operated in confirming his disposition to "stratagem."

He contrived to promulgate his private letters, that he might shew how amiable he was in life, as well as superior in talents. Hence he makes Cleland declare, "It was not his capacity, or writings, but the honest, open, and beneficent man, that we esteemed and loved in him." (Letter on the Dunciad.)

This duplicity, which in the first instance was caused by vanity, became by degrees habitual. On all occasions, when attacked, he almost instinctively resorted to it. He never seemed inclined to speak the "truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." — In one of his letters he even says, he had asserted nothing false, but "equivocated pretty genteelly."

Mr. Cooper Walker, the elegant author of the Essay on the Italian Drama, says, that when the Marquis de Maffei visited Pope, he found him busied in a translation of the Drama of Merope, written by the Marquis. Mr. Walker wonders nothing was ever heard of this translation. My opinion is, (I give it merely as an opinion,) that when the Marquis saw Pope at Twickenham, Pope had before him Aaron Hill's Merope, which, knowing the Marquis had written a play on the same subject, he was not unwilling he should suppose was a translation by himself of Maffei's play. The play was never heard of, and the account is not inconsistent with Pope's character: but of this no one can speak with certainty.

His professions were equally at variance with his conduct: he talks of writing with freedom and carelessness, when no one wrote with so much caution; he describes himself as totally indifferent to the state of his pecuniary affairs, when no one was more prudent. Yet it would be hard to say he meant to deceive. The avenues to self-love are so many and imperceptible, it is possible he might have thought, and even felt a conscious pride, that he was such as he described himself.

If he sometimes contradicted himself, particularly in speaking at one time disrespectfully of those whom he had at other times exalted, it ought in charity to be attributed more to the acuteness of feeling at the time, than to wayward and unmanly caprice. So, if he means his friend Warburton, when in the letters now published he says, "W— is a sneaking parson," it is to be attributed to the impression of the moment, when he conceived that the woman he loved had been insulted.

In the last volume will be found some general observations on his poetic character. In this outline of his general moral character, I think I have said nothing but what palpable facts, will justify.

If any thing should have been advanced, which upon farther consideration, may appear groundless or hasty, I shall be more happy to retract it,

(—to mark the passage into a blot,
And hate the line where candour was forgot,)

than any of his most sanguine admirers.

One part of his character I approach with reluctance, but it is too striking to be passed over; the nature of his attachment to Martha Blount.

Many facts tend to prove the peculiar susceptibility of his passions; nor can we implicitly believe that the connexion between him and Martha Blount was of a nature "so pure and innocent," as his panegyrist Ruffhead would make us believe. But whatever there might be of criminality in the connexion, it did not take place till the "hey-day" of youth was over, that is, after the death of her brother (1726); when he was thirty-eight, and she thirty-six. Teresa was of the same age with Pope, being born at Paris, 1688.

Martha three years younger, was born at Maple-Durham 1691: consequently the was thirty-six, when the connexion between her and Pope became more avowed and explicit. At this time of life there was perhaps no great danger of a "false step." Certainly she became by degrees more indifferent to the opinion of the world. At no time, could she have regarded Pope personally with attachment; and when other views were past, she might have acquiesced in her situation, rather than have been gratified by any reciprocities of kindness or affection.

But the most extraordinary circumstance, in regard to his connection with female society, was the strange mixture of indecent, and sometimes profane, levity, which his conduct and language often exhibited. The cause of this particularity may be sought perhaps in his consciousness of physical defect, which made him affect a character uncongenial, and a language opposite to the truth.

This levity, to call it by its slightest name, I wish to consider, though it is no palliation, as palpable and gross affectation, from which he was in no instance free.

It may seem strange that such language could be endured; but we must consider the character of the times. As to the Ladies, they were probably proud (particularly Martha) of the attentions of so celebrated a poet, and allowed the licentiousness of his expressions, that they might boast the honour of his correspondence.

In many instances he appears to have felt a sort of libertine love, which his passions continually prompted him to declare; but which the consciousness of his infirmities, and we ought to add his moral feelings, corrected and restrained.

If these and other parts of his character appear less amiable, let the reader constantly keep in mind the physical and moral causes which operated on a mind like his: let him remember his life, "one long disease," the natural passions, which he must have felt in common with all the world, disappointed: his tenderness thrown back on his heart, only to gather there, with more force, and more ineffectual wishes: his confined education, intrusted chiefly to those who were themselves narrow-minded: his being used from the cradle to listen only to the voice of partial indulgence; of tenderness, almost maternal, in all who contemplated his weakness and his incipient talents. — When he has duly weighed these things, and attended to every alleviating circumstance that his, knowledge of the world, or his charity, may suggest, then let him not hastily condemn what truth compels me to state; but let him rather, without presuming on his own virtues, lament the imperfection of our common nature, and leave the judgment to HIM, "who knoweth whereof we are made, who remembereth we are but dust."