I have given you quotations from a great critick, and from a learned critick. Will you permit me, for the sake of a little variety, to show you what porpoise-gambols your heavy compilers play, when they presume to appreciate the performances of genius. — "It is a common observation" (say the writers of the Biographia Britannica) "that some seeds of vanity, and self-conceit, are necessary ingredients in the composition of a poet. Accordingly our authour was not without a proper share of these qualities; and now thought himself able to undertake an epick poem. In that spirit, he set about writing his Alcander, this year: [in the year 1703] and the performance, as might be expected, was a glaring proof of his childish folly. However, he had either sense, or modesty enough, or both, to keep it in his study; and in his riper years, spoke of it with an ingenuity, that does more than atone for the forwardness of the attempt; and the following year, 1704, he entered upon a task more suitable to his age. This was his pastorals; which brought him into the acquaintance of some of the most eminent wits of that time. He communicated these, first to Mr. Wycherley, who was highly pleased with them; and sent a copy to Mr. Walsh, Gentleman of the Horse to Queen Anne; and authour of several ingenious pieces, both in prose, and verse. This introduced him into the acquaintance of that gentleman; who proved a very sincere friend to him; and having immediately discerned that our poet's chief talent lay, not so much in striking out new thoughts of his own, as in improving those which he borrowed from the ancients; and an easy versification; told him, among other things, that there was one way left open for him to excell his predecessours, and that, was correctness; observing, that though we had several great poets, yet none of them were correct. He, therefore, advised him to make that his study." — Biog. Brit. article, Pope. Pp. 3405, 3406; text. — The same gentlemen observe, in a note, that "The principal merit of his pastorals consists in their correct, and musical versification; musical, to a degree, of which rhyme could hardly be thought capable; and in giving the first specimen of that harmony, in English verse, which is now become indispensably necessary; and which has so forcibly influenced the publick ear, as to have rendered every moderate rhymer melodious. Thus music-charmed, the reader becomes blind to the great defect in this poem; the want of invention." — Ibid; note g.
By this quotation you will see that the mental faculties of the most numerous class of men, are not formed to apprehend, and to estimate the attempts, and the atchievements of superiour souls. How these mechanical biographers; these pupils of the Wartonian school, expose their own dullness, and insensibility, while they are industrious to smother, under their intellectual rubbish, the puerile, yet vigorous efforts, of a great mind; the luxuriant vegetation of germinating genius; the prophetical pantings after glory! Let us contrast with some light ethereal this darkness visible; let us vindicate the character of these beautiful pastorals. It is in this part of my Lecture, that I intended to consider them. But an extract from Johnson will be a substitute, with advantage to you, for any observations on the subject that I could have offered. "From the age of sixteen, (says he) the life of Pope, as an authour, may be properly computed. He now wrote his Pastorals, which were shown to the poets, and criticks of that time; as they well deserved, they were read with admiration; and many praises were bestowed upon them, and upon the preface; which is both elegant, and learned, in the highest degree; they were, however, not published, till five years afterwards." P. 12. — "To charge these Pastorals with want of invention, is to require what never was intended. The imitations are so ambitiously frequent, that the writer evidently means rather to show his learning than his wit. It is surely sufficient for an authour of sixteen not only to be able to copy the poems of antiquity with judicious selection; but to have obtained sufficient power of language, and skill in metre, to exhibit a series of versification, which had, in English poetry, no precedent; nor has, since, had an imitation."
I have already given the Rape of the Lock my particular attention; but I am conscious that you will be more forcibly struck with its excellence, if I remind you of the observations with which it is favoured by Johnson. He pronounces it the most airy; the most ingenious; the most delightful of all his compositions." P. 26. A little farther, he says, that "The Rape of the Lock stands forward in the classes of literature, as the most exquisite example of ludicrous poetry." — "He tells us that Berkley congratulated him on the display of powers more truly poetical than he had shown before; with elegance of description, and justness of precepts, he had now exhibited boundless fertility of invention." P. 29th. Where he particularly criticizes this poem are the following paragraphs. — "Pope is said by an objector, not to have been the inventor of this petty nation: a charge, which might, with more justice, have been brought against the authour of the Iliad; who, doubtles, adopted the religious system of his country; for what is there but the names of his agents which Pope has not invented? Has he not assigned them characters and operations, never heard of before? Has he not, at least, given them their first poetical existence?" — "In this work are exhibited, in a very high degree, the two most engaging powers of an authour. New things are made familiar; and familiar things are made new. A race of aerial people, never heard of before, is presented to us, in a manner so clear, and easy, that the reader seeks for no further information, but immediately mingles with his new acquaintance; adopts their interests, and attends their persuits; loves a sylph, and detests a gnome. — "That familiar things are made new, every paragraph will prove. The subject of the poem is an event below the common incidents of common life; nothing real is introduced that is not seen so often as to be no longer regarded; yet the whole detail of a female day is here brought before us, invested with so much art of decoration, that though nothing is disguised, every thing is striking; and we feel all the appetite of curiosity for that from which we have, a thousand times, turned fastidiously away." — Pp. 187, 188, 189. — "He always considered the intertexture of the machinery with the action, as his most successful exertion of poetical art. He, indeed, could never afterwards produce any thing of such unexampled excellence. Those performances which strike with wonder are combinations of skilful genius with happy casualty; and it is not likely that any felicity like the discovery of a new race of preternatural agents should happen twice to the same man." — Page 29th.
This is excellent criticism. It is, however, impossible for me to think that the Rape of the Lock is superiour to all the other poems of Pope. I desire only to have the Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard excepted. Let us impartially inquire a little into the transcendent merit of invention. I do not mean to detract from its real merit; it is an indispensable, and capital faculty in a truly great poet; but let us not give it any romantick and imaginary glory. It appears to me that the criticks of every age, and nation, have raised it, in fancy, even above its natural, and absolute excellence; deluded by its appellation, and by the idea which it contains. No poet can invent what will astonish, or what will please, without an elevated, vigorous, and comprehensive soul. But Johnson himself, acknowledges that the objects of invention may rise, by casualty, in the imagination of the poet; and none of all the various gifts of fortune throw such a respectable lustre around the possessour, as the honours which he owes to himself; as the effects of his own powers, and exertion. But whatever may be the constituents; whatever may be the causes, of the objects of his inventive poetry; I think it a more arduous, and, therefore, a more glorious task, to conduct them properly after they are presented to us; to animate them; to make them highly interesting, than to invent; or, if you please, to create them. It is not even the scenes; it is not even the machinery, of the divine Milton; it is not his Chaos, and his Eden; his Heaven, and his Hell; it is not Satan, as he is by him personified; — no; — it is not his chariot, and his thunders of the Almighty which exalt him above all poets; and the readers who are worthy of him, above all common mortals: — no: — it is the art, and genius, and enthusiasm, by which his fair scenes glow with the novelty of description; from which his regions of confusion, and of woe, take a tremendous horrour, unimpressed before; by which his grand, and astonishing images are launched, and governed; are thrown into new energy, and action; — by which they strike, and charm the understanding; move, and melt the tender affections; and inflame, and tear along with them, the violent passions of human nature. For the best poetry, then, give me a burning, and absorbing eloquence; that eloquence which gains a complete victory over the soul of man. In the Eloisa to Abelard, it is difficult to say, whether the poet was more happy in the choice, or in the execution of his subject; The Eloisa to Abelard flows with such a tenderness, and warmth of sentiment; with such a propriety, elegance, and force of language; with such an exquisite harmony of versification; with such picturesque, and animated imagery; that wherever we are, when we read it, we are immediately transported to the Paraclete, and devoted to the fate of the lady. All the transitions; the tumults, and the falls, of her soul, are our own: her hopes, and fears; her wishes, and expectations; her griefs, and torments; her ecstasies, and raptures! No wonder that we feel so variously, and so strongly; for, inert matter; the surrounding objects of nature, and of art; the cumbrous solemnity, and pomp of superstition, catch a spirit, and a feeling, from the mighty magick of the poet. The groves; the streams; the altars; the tapers; the temples, are interested in her passion; they give her their sympathy, and consolation! Even the priests themselves seem to relax from their hypocritical austerity; and to show some indulgence to ardent, and unfortunate love! The Rape of the Lock captivates the imagination; the Eloisa to Abelard ravishes the heart. For my own part; I would rather have been the authour of the Eloisa to Abelard than of any of the rhapsodies of Homer: may the former kind of poetry ever be my entertainment; and let our great Grecians enjoy the wonderful machinery, and the sublime flights, of their old, and venerated bard: let them feel, or feign, the astonishment of admiration; while Juno scolds the thunderer; while heroes, before their combat, tell a long Canterbury tale; while the gallant Diomede (surely, by a strange confusion, even in the oeconomy of the Pagan universe) wounds a divine lady, first; and the god of war, afterwards; and sends the one, weeping; and the other, bellowing, to Heaven. Let them, for me, keep up this admiration; while poor Patroclus is mangled to death by two brave gods, and a mortal — while their poetical oracle particularizes the wounds of his warriours, to a minuteness that would turn the stomach even of a military surgeon; and while he presents to them, in the character of Achilles, every thing that is savage, barbarous, and detestable, in man. Let us, like fair criticks, make all reasonable allowances for the simplicity, and rudeness of the times in which Homer lived; but let us not; for the sake of taste! for the sake of poetry! for the sake of common sense! let us not, with a doating bishop, and a conceited French-woman; endeavour to pass upon the world, for, the beautiful, and the sublime; let us not endeavour to vindicate, what is eternally mean, absurd, and ridiculous. I hope that you will excuse me for the freedom which I have taken with Homer; who hath, certainly, been honoured, through very many ages with too prescriptive, implicit, and undistinguishing an admiration. The freedom which I have taken, has been totally unshackled by prejudice; but it had not the least connexion with a dictatorial, spirit; it flowed from the genuine impressions, which were in my heart, and in my imagination. If, in our language, we payed more regard to these impressions; as human nature is very fallible, we should, undoubtedly, very often expose our errours; but in a large result, society would be more valuable, and literature would be more improved. I have not yet learned the contemptible moderation of speaking my mind by halves. But however explicitly I have enounced my sentiments on Homer; I most ingenuously assure you, that my own private, and full conviction, loses, to myself, not a little of its force, when I recollect that my opinion of the father of poetry, very probably differs from that of many who now hear me; and that it diametrically opposes the authority of Pope.
Of almost every great genius, we have a supereminent master-piece. The Eloisa to Abelard is the capital production of Pope. It has not obtained from Johnson the very high eulogy which it deserved. It seems that Pope himself refused it the post of honour which he should have assigned it. In all paternal affection, there is often a capricious, and blind partiality. The best, and the brightest son, does not always stand the first in his father's love.
I should wish not to omit one observation that might tend, in any degree, to enlarge the knowledge of poetry, and of the divinity of the human mind. Whoever criticizes Pope, must, undoubtedly lay great stress on the elegance of his diction; on the harmony of his verse. He, who thinks elegantly, and with feeling generally produces an elegant, and flowing style. But there are exceptions to this rule. Southerne had a very tender, pathetick mind; but his diction is bald, and slovenly.
The elegy to the memory of an unfortunate lady, has been highly, and justly praised. In that elegy, a humane, and generous melancholy is expressed in the most pathetick eloquence; in the most liquid numbers. It is marked with a generous indignation; with animated remonstrance; with fine moral reflections; and moral admonition; successive, and sable funereal imagery is pictured to the descendants of the unfeeling guardian, with a poetical pomp and solemnity; earth, air, and heaven, are interested in the fate of the unhappy fair one; the earliest dews of the morning drop on her grave; it is adorned with the first roses of the year; and it is overshadowed with wings of angels. There are, however, sullen men, or sullen humours, that will not listen to the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.
"It does not appear" (says Dr. Johnson) "that the lady had any claim to praise; or much to compassion. She seems to have been impatient, violent, and ungovernable. Her uncle's power could not have lasted long; the hour of liberty, and choice would have come in tune; but her desires were too hot for delay; and she liked self-murder better than suspense.
"Nor is it discovered that the uncle, whoever he was, is, with much justice, delivered to posterity as a false guardian: he seems to have done only that for which a guardian is appointed; he endeavoured to direct his niece till she should be able to direct herself. Poetry has not often been worse employed, than in dignifying the amorous fury of a raving girl." — Pp. 25, 26. Though some parts of Johnson's moral, and literary character are highly respectable, I am here almost tempted to exclaim, with Falstaff (and the callous prejudices from which this barbarous language proceeded, would justify the exclamation) "Why what a Herod of jury is this!" Could a heart, that, in its better dispositions, melted at a tale of woe, whatever was the cause of that woe; thus inflexibly persecute the memory of an accomplished female; who must have suffered as much as fancy can conceive; and more than tongue can express? Are souls of sensibility, and humanity; are the disciples of true religion insulted with these remarks by a poet, and a christian philosopher; or by a mere commercial father or uncle; who would marry his daughter, or his niece to the devil, for title, and fortune; and who fancies that dignity and happiness are the inseparable concomitants of the possession of wealth? I trust in the God of mercy, and forgiveness, that the bulls of popes, and the frowns, and anathemas of priests, are, by this time, equally insignificant; therefore, I likewise trust that the present company will allow me tenderly to compassionate the suicide; and, with a particular tenderness, to compassionate the suicide who falls a victim to love.
But we can easily account for the severity of this passage by that inquisitorial spirit which too largely characterized the life, and the writings of Johnson. For, at another part of his observations on Pope, he informs us, that "the verses on the unfortunate lady have drawn much attention by the illaudable singularity of treating suicide with respect." p. 177. — Here the secret is out: the fair sufferer was to be rigorously condemned for committing; and the poet was to be severely censured, for affectionately, and beautifully deploring, an act, for which no mercy was to be found, in the code of his gloomy superstition. Whether or no the elegy, and the catastrophe, which occasioned it, are properly viewed by Dr. Johnson, or by me; I appeal — by no means, to mere narrow-spirited formalists in religion; who were warmly rebuked by our Saviour himself; but to the truly good, to those who are good, with an elevation of moral character; I mean; — to real christians.
Pope shows, in his ethick epistles, a masterly knowledge of mankind; which he displays, and enforces, with his usual ease, and strength, arid lustre of poetry. In these epistles, and, indeed, through the tenour of his moral poetry, he supposes an innate ruling, or predominant passion; which influences, and decides, the strain, and colour of human life. I do not lay such a stress on this ruling passion as was given to it by Pope; but I do not think that it should have so little weight as Johnson allows it. Let us hear what he advances on this important subject. — "It must be, at least, allowed, that this ruling passion, antecedent to reason, or observation, must have an object independent on human contrivance; for there can he no natural desire of artificial good. No man, therefore, can be born, in the strict acceptation, a lover of money; for he may be born where money does not exist; nor can he be born, in a moral sense, a lover of his country; for society, politically regulated, is a state, contradistinguished from a state of nature; and any attention to that coalition of interests which makes the happiness of a country, is possible only to those whom inquiry, and reflexion have enabled to comprehend it. — This doctrine is, in itself, pernicious as well as false; its tendency is, to produce the belief of a kind of moral predestination, or overruling principle, which cannot be resisted; he that admits it is prepared to comply with every desire that caprice, or opportunity shall excite; and to flatter himself that he submits only to the lawful dominion of nature, in obeying the resisfiess authority of his ruling passion." — Pp. 115, 116.
It appears to me, that this reasoning is very weak, and futile; that it may be annihilated, without the metaphysical acuteness, and stretch of thought of a Berkley, or a Hume. It is easy for us to conceive that a man may be born with the physical cause, or causes of this ruling passion; and that it may have no dependence on human arts, and institutions, before he converses with the world. It is easy to imagine; for, in truth; it is evident from facts, that one man has a stronger natural propensity to sensual pleasure, than another. A man may be born with a cold, and selfish nature; such a person will be totally ignorant of the use, and value of money, while he is a child; the selfishness, however, of his temperature, may be remarked by attentive observers, even in his tender years; he will be churlish, and ungenerous to his play-fellows; and he will anxiously hoard his toys. As he grows up, the charms of gold will principally attract, and captivate him; and he will be, through life, a tenacious, unfeeling miser. We can as easily conceive that another marl may be born with a happier constitution of soul. Its native essence may be fraught with the embryo-sparks of ardour, and generosity. Among school-boys this disposition often asserts its future eminence; there, a variety of tempers, passions, habits, and characters, are palpably distinguishable, in a numerous society, who are subject to the same discipline; and there, the Joneses are strikingly contrasted with the Blyfils. A person of the generous disposition whom I have last introduced, will, naturally, and most probably, act in the world, in a closely connected consequence of that disposition; and agreeably to the rank, and department, which he may hold in life; or in other words, as external objects may meet, and impress him. Such a man, in a private station, will be a good father of a family; a good friend; a benefactor to his poor neighbours; or, he will be a zealous, and determined patriot, in the senate, or in the field. I am far from asserting, that such natural, constitutions of the mind will always persue their natural and powerful tendency; for we may be thrown into situations; we may be entangled with connexions, which are, too often destructive of virtue, and the love of fame. There is, however, a sufficient foundation to show, that the ruling passion is not a groundless, and chimerical moral axiom. I can likewise easily conceive that, from the variety with which the stamina of the soul may be formed, and modified; different men, who are, all, naturally selfish; and different men, who are, all, naturally generous; and though of each kind, in appearance, with exactly similar dispositions, will prosecute, through life, different selfish, and different generous persuits; or, to vary my manner of expressing myself: they will, from native, and physical causes, be differently affected with the different objects of their respective natures. It will not be incumbent on me to recede from this theory, on the authority, or from the opposition, of any man; unless he can prove to me, that he is acquainted, in some degree, with the substance of the human mind, and with the process of its operations. But of these effects of the Divine power, and wisdom, we are totally ignorant. Of this, however, we may be satisfied; that there is a natural disposition which often directs the tenour, and determines the fortune, of our lives. There is a great diversity of this disposition in different men: it decides our talents; it influences our conduct far more than education; it exercises its powerful dominion over persons who have been educated in the same way; and who, through life, move in situations which are almost exactly similar to one another. This disposition displays itself, not only on important, and trying occasions; but in the common, and daily manner of deportment; of conversation; and of action.
It cannot be asserted, without the most unguarded, and palpable sophistry, that the doctrine of a ruling passion produces the belief of an overruling principle that cannot be resisted; and that, therefore, any man, who is capable of thinking at all, may have a strong argument for the palliation, or excuse, of his vices. For what is reason; for what is revelation given to us, but by their united assistance, to subject our minds to the laws of virtue, and religion; whether we have to contend with one violent passion, or with many? When Pope applies the doctrine of his ruling passion, he does not say, that it is invincible; he only shows its too frequent, and prevailing influence. One who is inclined to desert the standard of virtue, and to be a slave under that of vice, may find an obvious, and stronger, palliative (though it will be but a palliative) for his defection, than any inference which he can draw from the philosophy of Pope by reflecting how little mankind are, in general, governed by reason; and how much they are the victims of passion. It is a part of the bigot's practice, to take a false alarm in the cause of God. and virtue; to insult, and to rail, when no disrespect is meant to either. In this paroxysm of their holy zeal, they fancy that they are of service to morality, and religion, when on their altar, they sacrifice justice, and truth. I wish that these gentlemen would leave the vindication of the Deity to himself rather than defend him so iniquitously. Complicated, and mysterious, in our present state must his oeconomy be, to the very limited faculties of man: but the time will come, when his elucidation of himself will supercede, will annihilate all our miserable controversies.
If you have given your attention to my Lecture, you have done me honour; especially, if you have attended to this drier part. Permit me to relieve you with our poet's description of the power of the ruling passion. It is his rare province, to enrich with flowers the metaphysical heath; to, give persons, and characters, to reason, and the passions.
As man perhaps, the moment of his breath,
Receives the lurking principle of death;
The young disease that must subdue at length,
Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength;
So, cast, and mingled with his very frame,
The mind's disease, its ruling passion came.
Each vital humour, which should feed the whole,
Soon flows to this, in body, and in soul.
Whatever warms the heart, or fills the head;
As the mind opens, and its functions spread;
Imagination plies her dangerous art
And pours it all upon the peccant part.
Nature its mother; habit is its nurse;
Wit; spirit; faculties, but make it worse;
Reason itself but lends it edge, and power;
As Heaven's blest beam turns vinegar more sour
We, wretched subjects, though to lawful sway,
In this weak queen, some favourite still obey.
Ah! if she lend not arms as well as rules,
What can she more than tell us we are fools;
Teach us to mourn our nature, not to mend;
A sharp accuser, but a helpless friend;
Or, from a judge, turn pleader, and persuade
The choice we make; or justify it made:
Proud of an easy conquest all along;
She but removes weak passions for the strong:
So, when small humours gather to a gout,
The Doctor fancies he has driven them out.
Essay on Man, Epistle IId. v. 133.
The epitaphs which were written by Pope, are certainly inferiour to his other poetry: this, I believe, is the general opinion. An epitaph is a serious epigram; and we see by the failure of numerous attempts, that it is very difficult to attain excellence in the epigrammatick species of writing. Johnson, however treats these epitaphs in a very captious hypercritical manner. Many of his objections are quibbling; and to evident merit he refuses the praise which it deserves. On these instances of his illiberality I shall be concise; for the trifling spurts of petulance are not worthy of much examination. I shall here observe that Pope's epitaphs would have been much more esteemed, if we did not unfortunately recollect what might have been expected from Pope.
The following are the two first lines of the epitaph on the Earl of Dorset.
Dorset, the grace of courts, the muse's pride;
Patron of arts, and judge of nature, died.
"The first distich of this epitaph" (says Johnson) "contains a kind of information which few would want; that the man, for whom the tomb was erected, died." — It was undoubtedly Pope's meaning that this expression should amount to "Here lies Dorset." — "What he meant" (says our critick) by, 'judge of nature,' is not easy to say." I do not think that this is the happiest expression that Mr. Pope might have chosen; but I cannot think that the sense of it is obscure. He means that the Earl of Dorset, as a poet, was conversant with the scenes of nature, and with good composition.
The scourge of pride; though sanctified, or great
Of fops, in learning; and of knaves in state.
"Of this couplet" (says Johnson) "the second line is not what is intended, an illustration of the former. Pride, in the great, is, indeed, well enough connected with knaves in state; though knave is a word rather too ludicrous and light; but the notion of sanctified pride will not lead the thoughts to fops in learning." — I think that this couplet, too, may be defended without elaborate reasoning; and without the uncandid spirit of opposition. The second line appears to me to be an evident illustration of the former. Most of the fops in learning have been in the priesthood: the learned men of that class have often been pedants; but a priest, especially a powerful dignitary, is sanctified by his office. If he is, therefore, a pedant; as it is probable that he may be; and as every pedant is a literary fop; such a dignitary may, with propriety be termed a sanctified fop in learning. My poetical taste is not so squeamish as to have any objection to the word knave, as it is here applied.
Blest courtier! who could King, and country please;
Yet sacred kept his friendship, and his ease!
"Cavil" (say the good old translators of the bible) "where it does not find a hole, will make one." We should hardly apprehend that a fault would be found in these lines by the severest critick. But our Doctor is very much offended with the application of the epithet, "sacred," to "ease." For my part, I can see no profaneness; no impropriety, in the application. Ease; or leisure; or the independent use of our own time; is, to every wise, and good man, one of the most sacred objects in the world. Nothing, if it is well employed, can so much contribute to the preservation of our health; to our improvement in knowledge, and virtue; and consequently, to our happiness. It was ease thus enjoyed, and thus illuminated, that Pope, undoubtedly, had in his view; when he mentions it as one of the blessings which the Earl of Dorset possessed; not the stupid, and animal ease of indolence, and sensuality. I have always admired the elegant conclusion of this epitaph:
Blest peer! his great forefathers' every grace
Reflecting, and reflected on his race;
Where other Buckhursts; other Dorsets shine;
And patriots, still, or poets, deck the line.
But Johnson, a severer critick than Swift, cannot endure these lays. He tells us that "the blessing ascribed to the peer has no connexion with his peerage. It might happen to any other man whose ancestors were remembered; or whose posterity was likely to be regarded." Pp. 216, 217, 218. — This is really shutting the eyes of the mind against the light of common sense. The peer must be particularly happy who is conscious that his ancestors were good, and great men; and that neither he, nor his family, degenerate from their worth, and their accomplishments: for it is presumed that honours have been, at first conferred, as the rewards of virtue; with which, when they are connected, they give it lustre; when they are the concomitants of its reverse, they inflict an additional infamy on vice.
I shall not waste more of our time in examining his petulant criticisms on these epitaphs: the employment would be uninteresting, because it would he superfluous. I beg leave, however, to take some notice of the epitaph on Gay. It is not without its faults; but take it altogether, it is a fine epitaph. But nothing can please a critick who is determined to be supercilious; and if he has acquired a high reputation in the literary world, even his absurdities, and extravagances easily obtain a servile acquiescence, and approbation.
In wit, a man; simplicity, a child.
I cannot but think this a good line; but it has, unfortunately incurred the contempt of Dr. Johnson. — "That Gay was a man, in wit, is" (it seems) "a very frigid commendation: to have the wit of a man, is not much for a poet. The wit of a man, and the simplicity of a child make a poor, and vulgar contrast, and raise no ideas of excellence, either intellectual, or moral. P. 235. — I must, in the first place, observe, that the poet uses the word, "wit," here, in the modern acceptation of the term; though Johnson seems to imply, that he made it synonimous with sense, or understanding. And I must likewise observe, that the wit of a man, as it is applied in this epitaph, signifies manly, energetick, poignant wit. Let us, then, fairly see the nature, and merit of the compliment; and we may see them in a moment. To unite with such wit, "the simplicity of a child;" that is, an inoffensive, and ingenuous disposition; and inoffensive and ingenuous manners; is not a very frigid, but a very warm commendation: it is very much, for a poet; it is very much for any human being. The union makes it not a poor, and vulgar; but an elegant, and a striking contrast; and raises high ideas of excellence, both moral, and intellectual.
In criticizing these epitaphs, Dr. Johnson makes the following remark. — "I think it may be observed that the particle O!" [or, oh! for they are of the same import] "used at the beginning of a sentence, always offends." — There is not the least foundation, in nature, or effect, for this silly observation. A few examples will evince its futility.
Oh! could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
O! just beheld, and lost; admired, and mourned;
With softest manners; gentlest arts adorned!
Oh! while along the stream of time thy name
Expanded flies, and gathers all its fame;
Say, shall my little bark attendant sail
Pursue the triumph; and partake the gale!
Before I dismiss the present subject, I shall quote him, far more to his advantage, on the difficulty which a poet has to encounter, in writing an epitaph. — "The difficulty in writing an epitaph, is, to give a particular, and appropriate praise. This, however, is not always to be performed, whatever be the diligence or ability of the writer. For the greater part of mankind have no character at all; have little that distinguishes them from others equally good, or bad; and therefore, nothing can be said of them, which may not be applied, with equal propriety, to a thousand more. It is, indeed, no great panegyrick, that there is inclosed in this tomb, one who was horn in one year, and died in another
yet many useful, and amiable lives, have been spent, which yet leave little materials for any other memorial. These are, however, not the proper subjects of poetry; and whenever friendship, or any other motive, obliges a poet to write on such subjects, he must be forgiven, if he sometimes wanders in generalities; and utters the same praises over different tombs." P. 9.
But a far more important object than his epitaphs now presses itself on my mind; I mean, his translation of the Iliad; one of the most arduous and glorious atchievements that ever was completed by human industry, and by human genius. I must beg leave to introduce my remarks with a large quotation from Johnson; you will find it replete with judicious, elegant, and masterly criticism. — "The train of my disquisition has now conducted me to that poetical wonder, the translation of the Iliad; a performance which no age or nation can pretend to equal. * * * The chief help of Pope, in this arduous undertaking, was drawn from the versions of Dryden. Virgil had borrowed much of his imagery from Homer; and part of the debt was now payed by his translator. Pope searched the pages of Dryden for happy combinations of heroick diction; but it will not be denied that he added much to what he found. He cultivated our language with so much diligence, and art, that he has left, in his Homer, a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity. His version may be said to have tuned the English tongue; for since its appearance, no writer, however deficient in other powers, hath wanted melody. Such a series of lines, so elaborately corrected, and so sweetly modulated, took possession of the public ear; the vulgar were enamoured of the poem; and the learned wondered at the translation.
"But in the most general applause, discordant voices will always be heard. It has been objected by some, who wish to be numbered among the sons of learning, that Pope's version of Homer is not Homerical; that it exhibits no resemblance of the original, and characteristick manner of the father of poetry; as it wants his awful simplicity; his artless grandeur; his unaffected majesty. This cannot be totally denied; but it must be remembered that, 'necessitas, quod cogit, defendit;' — that may be lawfully done which cannot be forborne. Time, and place will always enforce regard. In estimating this translation, consideration must be had of the nature of our language; the form of our metre; and above all of the change which two thousand years have made, in the modes of life, and the habits of thought. Virgil wrote in a language of the same general fabrick with that of Homer; in verses of the same measure; and in an age nearer to Homer's time by eighteen hundred years. Yet he found, even then, the state of the world so much altered, and the demand for elegance so much increased, that mere nature would be endured no longer; and perhaps, in the multitude of borrowed passages, very few can be shown which he has not embellished.
"There is a time when nations, emerging from barbarity, and falling into regular subordination, gain leisure to grow wise; and feel the shame of ignorance, and the craving pain of unsatisfied curiosity. To this hunger of the mind plain sense is grateful; that which fills the void removes uneasiness; and to be free from pain for awhile, is pleasure; but repletion generates fastidiousness; a saturated intellect soon becomes luxurious; and knowledge finds no willing reception, till it is recommended by artificial diction. Thus it will be found, as learning advances, that in all nations, the first writers are simple; and that every age improves in elegance. One refinement always makes way for another; and what was expedient to Virgil, was necessary to Pope.
"I suppose, many readers of the English Iliad, when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer, doubtless, owes to his translator many Ovidian graces, not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expence of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved as well as to be reverenced.
"To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient. The purpose of a writer is to be read; and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing, must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age, and his own nation; he knew that it was necessary to colour the images, and point the sentiments of his author; he, therefore, made him graceful; but lost him some of his sublimity." Pages 192, 193, 194, 195, 196. I thought it incumbent on me to give you this copious extract, from our celebrated biographer of Pope; because I wish conscientiously to perform the task which I have undertaken; to give you as much literary entertainment as is, every way, in my power; and likewise literary instruction, and information; if, indeed, you can want any. I should suppose that there cannot be a happier quotation, for both the purposes which I have now mentioned; it exhibits a distinct, and bold view, of the gradual progress, and refinement, of language, and of learning; it justly, warmly, and incontrovertibly defends, and proves, the propriety; the necessity of Pope's polished, and expanded manner of translating Homer: and the style, in accuracy, and vigour, is worthy of the matter. It is Longinus exemplifying his precepts by himself.
This eulogy on Pope's translation will have a double weight when we consider that Johnson was a superstitious idolater of Homer. And from that idolatry, in two parts of the quotation which I have now read, I think that he has been very injurious to Pope, in favour of Homer. For I must observe, that not only the lighter, but the more magnificent graces, often charm, and strike us in Pope; though they are not to be found in the original. And if any cold critick objects to these additions, I shall reply to him, in the words of Johnson, that "to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away." — Johnson asserts that "Pope's translation has many Ovidian graces." — Here, he seems totally to mistake the character of Pope, as a poet; which is, simplicity, without langour; and elegance, without affectation. If he had been profuse of Ovidian graces; of running down a spirited thought to flatness; of the childish approximation, and opposition of images that should ever be kept remote from each other; he must have injudiciously enlarged, or corrupted his original. To such a meretricious glitter, the rude simplicity of Homer was preferable. His good taste would always reject, and despise the tinsel of Ovid; that he did reject, and despise it, is proved by his translation of the Iliad, as well as by his other works. He never needed to have recourse to such petty ornaments; he had always the purest gold at command, .to give relief to the poetical poverty of Homer.
"He made him graceful" (says Johnson) "but lost him some of his sublimity." — Here, again, a great mind is darkened by its early habits of thinking; by its prejudices in favour of Greek, and of antiquity. In making him graceful, he preserved every particle of his sublimity. Nay, that sublimity made its way more directly to our souls; it struck more forcibly by the grace with which it was conveyed. That sublimity was even improved; it was exalted by our divine translator. In Homer you have sublimity; in Pope, you have more sublimity; adorned and made celestial, by beauty. But encomium is no proof: and there is no proof so unequivocal; so decisive, to a sensible, and distinguishing audience, as a fair citation of passages. You will be convinced, by a quotation, or two, that Pope raises, and invigorates the sublime of Homer; and when you have judged of what I shall quote, you will give me some credit when I assure you that Homer is as much obliged to his great English translator, in the tender, and pathetic, as in the grand, and sublime parts of his work. I shall give you the passages in English blank verse; and in Pope's translation. They are celebrated passages; I shall be as faithful as possible, and particularly, on this occasion, to the original. Therefore if you meet with less of what is Vigorous, and astonishing, than you expect, I hope that the fault will not be mine, but Homer's.
Towards the end of the first book of the Iliad, Thetis ascends to Heaven; and requests Jupiter that the short life of her son may be filled with fame, and glory. Jupiter grants her petition; and ratifies his promise with an awful sanction. The following lines contain the description of that majestick scene; and they convey the substance of their original:
Saturnius said; and with his sable eye-brows,
Gave sign of his assent; his curls ambrosial
Waved, as the eternal king, his head inclining,
Confirmed his words; the nod shook great Olympus.
Pope thus translates the passage:
He spoke; and awful, bends his sable brows;
Shakes his ambrosial curls; and gives the nod;
The stamp of fate; the sanction of the God:
High Heaven with trembling the dread signal took;
And all Olympus to the centre shook.
Iliad. B. 1st. v. 683.
My other specimen of Homer, and of Pope, shall be taken from the end of the eighth book of the Iliad; where we have the famous night-piece; a beautiful, and noble simile, by which the fires of the nocturnal camp of the Trojans, and their effects are illustrated, and aggrandized. I shall endeavour to be faithful to the original:
As, in the Heavens: when round the glorious moon
The stars with all their lustre shine; when Ether
Smiles, in a calm serene; when groves, and towers;
When tops of hills illumined charm the eye: —
Light placid, but immense, pours down on earth;
All the stars beam; the shepherd's soul exults.
This, I trust, is the sense; these are the images of Homer. But how are they expressed; how are they arranged; — what colouring; what animation is given to them, by Pope?
As when the moon, refulgent lamp of night,
O'er Heaven's clear azure spreads her sacred light;
When not a breath disturbs the deep serene;
And not a cloud o'ercasts the solemn scene:
Around her throne the vivid planets roll;
And stars unnumbered gild the glowing pole;
O'er the dark trees a yellower verdure shed;
And tip with silver every mountain's head;
Then shine the vales; the rocks in prospect rise;
A flood of glory bursts from all the skies:
The conscious swains, rejoicing in the sight,
Eye the blue vault, and bless the useful light.
Iliad. B. VIIIth. v. 687.
I will not be so impertinent as to presume particularly to show you how Pope has, here, excelled his master. The passages which I have translated, and quoted, speak distinctly for themselves. But I will acknowledge that if they were translated better than I can translate them, the flowing, and melodious Greek must always suffer, as far as language goes, in an English version, that is meant to be literal.
I am sorry that there is a dull speck in the beautiful translation of this beautiful simile. The swains bless the "useful" light. It appears that Pope had frequently altered his epithet to light: and it is to be regretted that he was satisfied with so lifeless a word, at last. All the other lines are excellent, to the highest degree, without an imperfection. I can hardly recollect such a falling off; in a great writer, except in Johnson; where he sins against the soul of Shakespeare, transmigrated into Garrick, by terming its effects (for which language has not an epithet sufficiently spirited, and ethereal) a harmless pleasure!
Of the Odyssey I shall say little. It has uncommon; it has great merit: but in reading it, we may perceive that Pope was fatigued with translating; and we may perceive the inequality of his companions. I wish, indeed, to turn away my thoughts from a long poem, which abounds with the most inelegant, absurd, and monstrous tales.
You will think me but consistent with myself, if I declare that I heartily agree with Lord Lyttleton, who, in his Dialogues of the Dead, wishes that Pope had employed the five years (a very long time, in a life invaluable!) which he devoted to the Iliad, in his own original composition. To do more for Homer than he did for him, was, and ever will be, beyond the ability of man. But what fine moral numbers; what brilliant, and expressive imagery; what captivating and enchanting pathos, have we probably lost, for, comparatively, mere rhapsodical poetry!
I could likewise wish that his mind had been exerted on objects of more dignity, and duration, when he wrote the Dunciad. It abounds with fertility of imagination; with powerful satire; and with vigour, and magnificence of verse; but the perishable dramatis personae are not worthy of the muse of its authour: they will be less and less known, or remembered; and therefore it will continue to be read, with decreasing pleasure. It must likewise be objected to the Dunciad, that some of its heroes deserved a better station. I have no doubt, however, that they had been very impertinent or insolent to Pope; and, therefore, they deserved punishment. A poet has not more resentment than other people; it only appears that he has, because he can show it more eminently. As to presumptuous blockheads, he is a good citizen who exposes them to their merited contempt. And if he can cure them of their "cacoethes," he both serves them, and the community. So thought Swift; so thought Atterbury; who warmly encouraged, and stimulated their friend to write the Dunciad; and I would rather be of their poetical creed, than adopt the affected opinion of those, who loudly condemn all satire, because they fear its arrows.
The epistolary correspondence of Pope consists of the most entertaining, and interesting letters in the English language. It may easily be allowed that they merit this character; for several men, who were more illustrious by their talents, than by their rank, and high offices (and the times in which he lived, were eminently distinguished by intellectual glory) — were his familiar companions; his intimate friends.
In the year 1721, he published his edition of the works of Shakespeare. To that edition he prefixed a preface, which is eminently distinguished by elegance of writing; animated criticism; and a masterly display of the genius of Shakespeare. Let the pioneers of literature toil on, in earth; let them triumph in their persevering labours; and rail at the conduct of our great general. But let us hear the liberality of Johnson to Pope, on this publication. — "Pope, in his edition" [of Shakespeare] "undoubtedly did many things wrong; and left many things undone; but let him not be defrauded of his due praise. He was the first that knew; at least the first that told, by what helps the text might be improved. If he inspected the early editions negligently, he taught others to be more accurate. In his preface, he expanded, with great skill, and, elegance, the character which had been given of Shakespeare, by Dryden; and he drew the publick attention upon his works, which, though often mentioned, had been little read." — P. 74. — This is the gentle, and tender censure; and the just, and generous praise, which is always payed by one writer of genius to another, dead, or living; when his mind is not clouded with any baleful prejudice, or passion. And this respect from Johnson to Pope, ought to suggest a more humble veneration of superiour talents, to those, whose writings convince us that they may apprehend the grammatical sense; but that they cannot feel the spirit of a great authour; to those whose abilities rise not above a painful history of old words, and of old ballads.
This, I apprehend, is the proper place where I should take notice of Mr. Pope's writings in prose. His preface to his translation of the Iliad; his preface to his edition of Shakespeare; and all his other productions which are not in verse; are spirited, elegant, and accurate; they are, evidently, the prose of a poet. I must own, however, that the prose of Pope is inferiour to the prose of Dryden. There is that heat, and rapidity of genius; that stream of fire; that felicity; richness, and variety of images; in the unmeasured eloquence of Dryden; which are wanting in that of Pope. I do not think that Johnson has been fortunate in the positions by which he estimates the prose of those two great poets; nor in the similes by which he means to illustrate its respective merits. I believe, that I have paid considerable attention to this comparative object, in my Lecture on the works of Dryden. Permit me, then, to make the Wear, or the Wye, a representative of the prose of Pope; it flows in gentle, and charming meanders; through banks that bloom with the varied luxuriance of art, and nature. The prose of Dryden is the precipitate, and sounding Rhone; impatient of restraint; often driving along. with a fervid impetuosity, which, at once, delights, and awes us; and sometimes expanding a large, and transparent surface; through lofty regions; whose landscapes are romantically picturesque; whose grandeur is inexpressibly sublime, and infinitely protracted.
I do not like to prosecute the good endeavours of the mind, by halves. Permit me to produce two or three striking examples, from very many that might be transcribed, of Pope's poetical excellence. Though I am conscious that I must request great candour, and indulgence, to my imperfect recital of them. In his imitation of one of the satires of Horace, he breaks out into that generous flame of independence; of his love of virtue; and of his indignation against vice; which inspired, and directed the flame of his poetry.
What, armed for virtue, when I point the pen;
Brand the bold front, of guilty, shameless men;
Dash the proud gamester, in his gilded car;
Bare the mean heart that lurks beneath a star;
Can there be wanting to defend my cause,
Lights of the church, or guardians of the laws?
Could pensioned Boileau lash, in honest strain,
Flatterers, and bigots, even in Louis' reign;
Could laureat Dryden pimp, and friar engage;
And neither Charles, nor James, be in a rage;
And I not strip the gilding off a knave;
Unplaced; unpensioned; no man's heir or slave?
I will; or perish in the generous cause;
Hear this, and tremble, you who 'scape the laws
Yes; while I live, no rich, or noble knave,
Shall walk the world in credit to his grave.
Know, all the distant din that world can keep,
Rolls o'er my grotto, and but soothes my steep.
There, my retreat the best companions grace;
Chiefs, out of war; and statesmen, out of place:
There, St. John mingles with my friendly bowl,
The feast of reason, and the flow of soul;
And he, whose lightning pierced the Iberian lines,
Now forms my quincunx, and now ranks my vines;
Or tames the genius of the stubborn plain,
Almost as quickly as he conquered Spain.
Imitation of Horace: B. IId. Sat. 1st, v. 105.
It is justly observed by Warburton, that the well-known close of the Essay on Man, addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, is gloriously distinguished with poetical diction; with imagery; pathos; dignity, and sublimity.
Come, then, my friend; my genius, come along!
Oh! master of the poet, and the song!
And while the muse now stoops, or, now, ascends
To man's low passions, or his glorious ends;
Teach me, like thee, in various nature wise,
To fall, with dignity; with temper, rise;
Formed by thy converse, happily to steer
From grave to gay; from lively to severe;
Correct, with spirit; eloquent, with ease;
Intent to reason; or polite to please.
Oh! while along the stream of time, thy name
Expanded flies, and gathers all its fame;
Say, shall my little bark attendant sail;
Pursue the triumph; and partake the gale?
When statesmen; heroes; kings, in dust repose,
Whose sons shall blush their fathers were thy foes;
Shall, then, this verse, to future age pretend
Thou wert my guide, philosopher, and friend;
That urged by thee, I turned the tuneful art
From sounds, to things; from fancy to the heart:
For wit's false mirrour, held up nature's light;
Showed erring pride, whatever is, is right;
That reason; passion, answer one great aim;
That true self-love, and social, are the same;
That virtue only makes our bliss below;
And all our knowledge is, ourselves to know.
Conclusion of the Essay on Man.
At the conclusion of the Rape of the Lock, the ascent of the Lock to the skies; its metamorphosis into a star, and the consequences of that metamorphosis, are described with the utmost elegance of fancy, and of wit. The passage is dignified with an awful moral apostrophe. — "Some thought it mounted to the lunar sphere." The poet thus announces its more exalted fate.
But trust the muse; size saw it upward rise;
Though marked by none but quick, poetick eyes;
(So Rome's great founder to the Heavens withdrew,
To Proculus alone confessed in view;)
A sudden star it shot, through liquid air;
And drew, behind, a radiant trail of hair;
Not Berenice's locks, first rose, so bright;
The Heavens bespangling with dishevelled light;
The sylphs behold it, kindling, as it flies;
And pleased, pursue its progress through the skies.
This, the beau monde shall from the mall survey;
And hail with musick its propitious ray:
This the blest lover shall for Venus take;
And send up vows from Rosamonda's lake;
This Partridge soon shall view, in cloudless skies;
When next he looks through Galileo's eyes;
And hence the egregious wizard shall foredoom
The fate of Louis, and the fall of Rome.
Then cease, bright nymph, to mourn thy ravished hair;
Which adds new glory to the shining sphere;
Not all the tresses that fair head can boast,
Shall draw such envy as the lock you lost.
For after all the murders of your eye;
When after millions slain, yourself shall die;
When those fair suns shall set; as set they must;
And all those tresses shall be laid in dust;
This lock the muse shall consecrate to fame;
And 'midst the stars inscribe Belinda's name.
End of the Rape of the Lock.
The last quotation from Pope, to which I request your attention, I shall take from his Eloisa to Abelard. I doubt not that you will agree with me, that it cannot he excelled in strong, and impressive painting; in pathetic morality; and in corrected, and refined passion.
See, in her cell, sad Eloisa spred;
Propt on some tomb, a neighbour of the dead.
In each low wind, methinks, a spirit calls;
And more than echoes talk along the walls.
Here, as I watched the dying lamps around;
From yonder shrine I heard a hollow sound:
"Come, sister come; (it said, or seemed to say;)
Thy place is here, sad sister, come away!
Once, like thyself, I trembled; wept, and prayed;
Love's victim, then; though now a sainted maid.
But all is calm in this eternal sleep;
Here grief forgets to groan; and love to weep;
Even superstition loses every fear;
For God, not man, absolves our frailties here."
I come; I come; prepare your roseate bowers;
Celestial palms; and ever-blooming flowers!
Thither, where sinners may have rest, I go;
Where flames refined in breasts seraphick glow.
Thou, Abelard, the last sad office pay;
And smooth my passage to the realms of day.
See my lips tremble, and my eye-balls roll;
Suck my last breath, and catch my flying soul!
Ah! no: in sacred vestments may'st thou stand;
The hallowed taper trembling in thy hand;
Present the cross before my lifted eye;
Teach me, at once, and learn of me, to die!
Ah! then, thy once loved Eloisa see;
It will be, then, no crime to gaze on me!
See, from my cheek the transient roses fly;
See the last sparkle languish in my eye;
Till every motion, pulse, and breath be o'er;
And even my Abelard, be loved no more.
Oh! death all eloquent! You only prove
What dust we doat on when 'tis man we love!
Then, too, when fate shall thy fair frame destroy;
(The cause of all my guilt, and all my joy!)
In trance ecstatick may thy pangs be drowned;
Bright clouds descend; and angels watch thee round!
From opening skies may streaming glories shine;
And saints embrace thee with a love like mine!
May one kind grave unite each hapless name;
And graft my love immortal on thy fame!
Then, ages hence, when all my woes are o'er;
When this rebellious heart shall beat no more;
If ever chance two wandering lovers brings
To Paraclete's white walls, and silver springs;
O'er the pale marble shall they join their heads;
And drink the falling tears each other sheds;
Then sadly say, with mutual pity moved;—
Oh! may we never love as these have loved!
From the full choir, when loud Hosanna's rise;
And swell the pomp of dreadful sacrifice;
Amid that scene, if some relenting eye
Glance on the stone where our cold relicks lie;
Devotion's self shall steal a thought from Heaven;
One human tear shall drop, and be forgiven.
And sure, if fate some future bard shall join
In sad similitude of griefs to mine;
Condemned whole years, in absence, to deplore;
And image charms he must behold no more;
Such if there be, who loves so long; so well;
Let him our sad; our tender story tell:
The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost;
He best can paint them who shall feel them most.
The sixty-four last lines of the Eloisa to Abelard.
I have dwelt long on this great, and immortal poet; who will always highly interest English readers of sentiment, and taste; till the English language is no more: it was greatly improved, and refined by him; therefore I hope that for his sake; and for the sake of our country, it will be of infinite duration! I have, with the greater confidence prolonged my Lectures on this extensive poetical object, because I have largely interspersed them with authority more respectable than my own. I shall say something more; to establish, if I can, beyond all possibility of doubt, or sophistry, the very rare poetical excellence of which I am treating: and I will endeavour to strengthen its establishment by the full sanction of one, whose dictatorial absurdities are balanced, and atoned for, by many pages of acute, vigorous, and comprehensive thought. Permit two inferiour beings, Dr. Warton, and myself, to usher in our great emperour of the criticks.
Dr. Warton asks, in the tenth page of his dedication, — "what there is, transcendently sublime, in Pope?" In my little book, I give the following direct answer to the question. — "Pope's universal prayer is transcendently sublime. His prologue to the tragedy of Cato is transcendently sublime. So are many parts of his Essay on Man. In his address to Lord Bolingbroke, at the conclusion of that excellent poem, he displays, as Dr. Warburton justly observes, all the characteristicks, and ornaments, which Longinus gives to the sublime; in a spirit; in a symmetry; and in a language, perhaps unequalled by man." — Pp. 124; 125,
I shall beg your attention to another passage of my book; to which, I fear that I have, in these Lectures, too frequently referred. I wrote that book in the year 1777; and I wish nothing expunged from it but my too warm resentment against the worthy Dr. Warton, in my zeal for Pope. I there observe that — "A critick seldom attempts to degrade established, and high reputation, without timidity, hesitation, and inconsistency. The writer, who tells us, in one part of his book, that Pope is rather a sensible, and elegant, than a vigorous, and great poet, in another place throws a French veil over that adventurous opinion; and acknowledges that he is unwilling to speak out in plain English. The writer who denies that Pope was master of the pathetick, and the sublime, calls him our last great poet. He, who with an unaccountable degradation classes the abilities of Pope in the didactick degree, asserts, that his prologue to Cato is far superiour to any of the prologues of Dryden; that it is more lofty than any thing in the tragedy itself; that it is, what the subject required it to be, solemn and sublime. He, who, with an extravagance, and futility of observation, which are really contemptible, would persuade us that Pope's close, and constant reasoning had impaired, and crushed the faculty of imagination; yet ventures to declare, that The Rape of the Lock is a poem which cannot be too much admired, and applauded; and that Pope has, in that poem, excelled any thing in Shakespeare; or perhaps, in any other authour." — Pp. 137; 138; 139; 140.
It is my wish; as it was my engagement, to give you as full an idea as possible of poetical excellence; and of the means by which it is acquired. Allow me, therefore to produce one more copious extract from Johnson; as I shall give it in a direct, and honest prosecution of my plan. He is far less inconsistent with himself in his ardent praises of Pope, than in his enthusiastick encomiums on Milton; for the man who gives the latter homage often grossly contradicts it by the most licentious expressions of insolence, and contempt. I flatter myself that this extract will strongly, and completely close the extensive view which I have endeavoured to take of the writings, and genius of our poet. No small part of it will certainly be very instructive, and edifying to young poets; or to those who fancy that they are poets; if they give it its due consideration and weight. It will show them that they must not think of acquiring glory without previously submitting to toil; and that vanity, or inspiration, will never give to them the fame which emblazons the memory of Pope, in consequence of gradual cultivation, and intense exertion of the mind. With the perfection of good sense; or with an excellent judgement, and with great strength, and exactness of memory; — "Pope" (says Johnson) "had likewise genius; a mind, active, ambitious, and adventurous; always investigating; always aspiring; in its widest searches, still longing to go forward; in its highest flights, still wishing to be higher; always imagining something greater than it knows; always endeavouring more than it can do." * * * * These benefits of nature he improved by incessant, and unwearied diligence; he had recourse to every source of intelligence; and lost no opportunity of information; he consulted the living as well as the dead; he read his compositions to his friends; and was never content with mediocrity, when excellence could be obtained. He considered poetry as the business of his life; and however he might seem to lament his occupation, he followed it with constancy; to make verses was his first labour; and to mend them was his last." * * * * He was one of those few whose labour was their pleasure; he was never elevated to negligence; nor wearied to impatience; he never passed a small fault unamended, by indifference; nor quitted it by despair; he laboured his works first to gain reputation; and afterwards to keep it. * * * * His publications, therefore, were never hasty. He is said to have sent nothing to the press till it had lain two years under his inspection. It is, at least, certain, that he ventured nothing without nice examination. He suffered the tumult of imagination to subside; and the novelties of invention to grow familiar. He knew that the mind is always enamoured of its own productions; and did not trust his first fondness. He consulted his friends; and listened, with great willingness, to criticism; and what was of more importance, he consulted himself; and let nothing pass against his own judgement. * * * * Pope was not content to satisfy; he desired to excell; and therefore always endeavoured to do his best: he did not court the candour, but dared the judgement of his reader; and expecting no indulgence from others, he showed none to himself. He examined lines, and words, with minute, and punctilious observation; and retouched every part with indefatigable diligence, till he had left nothing to be forgiven.
"His declaration that his care for his works ceased at their publication, is not strictly true. His parental attention never abandoned them; what he found amiss in the first edition, he silently corrected in those that followed. * * * * It will seldom be found that he altered, without adding clearness, elegance, or vigour. Pope had perhaps the judgement of Dryden; but Dryden certainly wanted the diligence of Pope. * * * * Pope had, in proportions very nicely adjusted to each other, all the qualities that constitute genius. He had invention; by which new trains of events are formed, and new scenes of imagery displayed; as in the Rape of the Lock; or extrinsic, and adventitious embellishments, and illustrations are connected with a known subject; as in the Essay on Criticism. He had imagination, which strongly impresses on the writer's mind, and enables him to convey to the reader, the various forms of nature; incidents of life; and energies of passion; as in his Eloisa; Windsor-Forest; and the Ethic Epistles. He had judgement, which selects from life or nature, what the present purpose requires; and by separating the essence of things from its concomitants, makes the representation more powerful than the reality: and he had colours of language always before him, ready to decorate his matter with every grace of elegant expression; as he accommodates his diction to the wonderful multiplicity of Homer's sentiments, and descriptions. * * * * Poetical expression includes sound as well as meaning. Musick, says Dryden, is inarticulate poetry. Among the excellences, therefore, of Pope, must be mentioned the melody of his metre. By perusing the works of Dryden, he discovered the most perfect fabrick of English verse; and habituated himself to that only which he found the best; in consequence of which restraint, his poetry has been censured, as too uniformly musical; and as glutting the ear with unvaried sweetness. I suspect this objection to be the CANT of those who judge by principles rather than perception; and who would, even themselves, have less pleasure in his works, if he had tried to relieve attention by studied discords; or affected to break his lines, and vary his pauses. * * * * After all this, it is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, whether Pope was a poet? If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found? To circumscribe poetry by a definition, will only show the narrowness of the definer; though a definition Which shall exclude Pope, will not easily be made. Let us look round upon the present time, and back upon the past; let us inquire to whom the voice of mankind has decreed the wreath of poetry; and the pretensions of Pope will be no more disputed. Had he given the world only his version, the name of poet must have been allowed him; if the writer of the Iliad were to class his successours, he would assign a very high place to his translator, without requiring any other evidence of genius." — Pp. 164, 165, 166, — 168, 169, 170, 171, — 206, 207, — 210, 211.
These are admirable passages; whether we consider the just, and spirited account of the mental application of Pope; or the holder, and brighter strokes, which paint the elevation of his genius. While I am so frank and warm to the great merit of Dr. Johnson; when I as freely, and warmly animadvert on the reverse of his literary character; I am sure you will not think that I am under the influence of envy, and resentment; that I am actuated by any other motive than my love of truth. Most faintly to apprehend that you think so hardly of me, would be injustice, and ingratitude to your liberality. Emboldened by this confidence in your equity, and generosity, I shall here take notice of a literary anecdote, which is certainly curious in itself; though not of much consequence as it relates to me. Johnson had given me his promise that he would make a particular, and honourable mention of my inquiry into the poetical character of Pope, in his life of that poet. This promise he made, in favour of a book which he read to his friends, with approbation, and pleasure; and of which he spoke in terms, which it becomes not me to repeat. To those friends he declared that he would publickly support my defence of Pope. But he not only broke his promise, but meanly purchased his quiet liberty to publish his high opinion of that authour, by a trimming, and obtruded passage of encomium on Dr. Warton; whose book on Pope is in diametrical opposition to the theory of Johnson. He is unjust to one who felt, and thought exactly with himself on this important subject; and he pays an unmerited compliment to another; the substance of which betrays its insincerity. Dr. Warton had pretended that the machinery of the Rape of the Lock was taken from the mystick writers; Dr. Johnson felicitates him on the discovery; and ascribes gaiety, and elegance to a book which is characterized with errour, and pedantry. The reference to the mystick writers is despised by Dr. Johnson himself; and with very good reason; for surely, as he observes, the unexampled merit of the machinery of the Rape of the Lock is not at all diminished merely because its names were adopted.
This was a common, and a very unphilosophical habit of Dr. Johnson. To gratify his prejudices, social, or religious, he would, at any time desert the bounds of his theoretical morality. From this partiality we are told that the meanest passage of Pope's prologue to his Satires, is the satire upon Sporus. — P. 205. And that his long, and celebrated Letter to Lord Hervey, "to a cool reader of the present time, exhibits nothing but a tedious malignity." — It is well known that both the poetical passage, in the prologue to the Satires, and the prose-letter, dart, from beginning to end, the keenest, and most brilliant shafts of satire. Because Dr. Johnson entertained a respect; probably, a well-grounded respect, for the family of the Herveys; was it, therefore, his duty, to endeavour to mislead the publick; was it his duty to pass a sentence, which he knew to be iniquitous, on departed genius? Besides; let me do justice to the memory of the poet, by reminding you, that the provocations for all this poignant satire had been great, and repeated. I should be proud to write Johnson's morality; but many, perhaps, as my faults are, I should be sorry; I should scorn, in some respects, to live his morality. I hope, at least, I shall always practically consider that the merited fame of a man of genius is as dear to him as his property, and his life. Indeed, if his genius has that ardent enthusiasm which is the inseparable, and irresistible mover of a great mind; than property; than life, his fame is dearer.
I am afraid that I have already been prolix. Be pleased, however, to indulge me with my custom, in these Lectures, of saying something on the moral character of the different poets. It is commonly asserted that Mr. Pope was a splenetick, petulant, ill-natured man. This opinion of him has been very prevalent; and it has been adopted by those from whom we might expect more candour; more discrimination of characters; more knowledge of human nature. I shall begin this part of my defence of Pope by endeavouring to show the perversion, and absurdity, of the application of two English expressions; "good," and "ill nature." It is really to be regretted that two such positive, and fertile terms, as "good," and "nature," should in their immediate connexion, be prostituted to the insignificant beings whom they commonly distinguish. Those beings, by the coldness of their constitutions, are exempted from dangerous vice; as they are incapable of generous virtue. But they are caressed by the selfishness of mankind; who are sure of being neither eclipsed by the lustre; nor wounded by the strength of their talents; and who love to have human vassals; or human playthings, in their train. Pope, a most elegant master of the English language, was so sensible of the mortifying abuse of this expression, that where he mentions Garth's encouragement of his juvenile poetry, he changes the humiliating epithet:
Well-natured Garth inflamed with early praise.
So much for your good-natured men. The satire of Pope is severe; and but deservedly severe, on profligate and shameless men; or on dunces, who obtruded themselves on the publick for men of genius; and who publickly lampooned, and insulted abilities and virtues that were infinitely superiour to their own. From Lord Hervey; from Cibber; from Theobald; from all those whom he satirizes most indignantly, he had received gross, and repeated provocation. I have often observed that our good-natured men, or our good sort of men, when they have once taken a pique, ever after, obstinately persevere in a timorous implacability. The generous soul of Pope completely possessed the christian, and celestial spirit of forgiveness: witness his liberality, and his beautiful prologue, for the benefit of poor old Dennis; a prologue, in which the irony is so gently; so artfully; so charmingly conducted; that it actually conspires with the benevolent aim of the poet; and enforces the feelings of humanity.
Yet this great poet; whose writings, and whose life were friendly to mankind; and who was never publickly warm, in his own cause, but when the warmth was warrantable; has been branded with one of the worst of characters; that of an ill-natured man. I have observed how good-natured men obtain their title from the selfishness of the world. The same selfishness, from contrary causes, and with contrary operations, misapplies ill-nature to Pope.
Dr. Johnson, very unjustly, and cynically, accuses him of a frequent, and ostentatious mention of his affluent circumstances, and elegant accommodations; of his contempt of poor men; and of the pride, or vanity, with which he reminds the publick of his intimacy with the great. If ever there was sincerity in an authour, it was in Pope; and the whole manly; independent; humane strain of his writings, contradicts this crimination. Indeed he introduces his chariot, and his barge; his grotto; and his gardens; but never superfluously, and ostentatiously; he introduces them when they are pertinent to his immediate subject; when they give it prominence, and decoration. When the mind of a poet is in a propitious flow; he adorns his thoughts with such objects, or images, as are presented to his fancy, with a fortunate aptitude; without a frigid caution. He cannot foresee; he disdains to foresee, the captious, and invidious remarks, of every misanthropical caviller. The charge brought against him of contempt of the poor, is refuted by an anecdote which is related by Johnson himself; who informs us that Pope contributed twenty of the subscription of forty pounds per annum, for the support of Savage. By this active benevolence, he showed a warm compassion for poverty, and a great esteem for talents, in the most wretched indigence. Nor does he ever impertinently introduce his easy, and respectable connexions with the great; though if any man had a right to boast those connexions; it was he; for he lived with the great on essentially equal terms. If the petty qualities with which he is taxed injuriously, had really made a part of his character, they would certainly have come forth in his life; they would have showed themselves in action; to the disgust of his acquaintance; whose constant, and invariable esteem (as Johnson relates) he had long acquired; and which he retained while he lived. What says Thomson of him?
—Though not sweeter his own Homer sings,
Yet is his life the more endearing song.
What says Swift of him, in verse?
A soul, with every virtue fraught,
By patriots, priests, and poets taught.
What says he of him, in prose? — "I never yet knew any person, one tenth part so heartily disposed as you are, to do good offices to others, without the least private view." — Letter 38th. Vol. Xth. P. 176. I would give infinitely more credit to the testimony of this great, and proud man; and to the testimony of Bolingbroke, another great, and proud man; whose generous tribute of praise to his dying friend was pathetically interrupted by tears; I would give infinitely more credit to these evidences; and to the corresponding suffrages of Atterbury, Young, Thomson; and many of his other illustrious cotemporaries; than to the selfish resentment of conscious, and vulnerable guilt; and to the arbitrary censure of a severe, and gloomy biographer.
If Pope had been blest with good health, he would have been one of the most fortunate of men; for where the soul is so graceful, the form is a trifle. Few poets have had so many advantages as he enjoyed: early in life, he became acquainted with instructive, and agreeable society. His circumstances, which were always easy, were made affluent by the exertions of his poetical talents. The statesmen of the times who were distinguished by their intellectual eminence, were his patrons, and his friends: their attachment, and their zeal stimulated, and demonstrated his genius. With these great external aids, his internal powers, and his virtue, still more effectually co-operated. Our moral dispositions, and habits, as they are generous, or depraved, give a languid, or elastick tone, to our intellectual faculties. Therefore the mind of Pope was not only preserved in moral excellence, but it was kept in noble preparation for the greatest poetical exploits; — by his piety to God; — his duty to his parents; — his affection for, his friends; — his love of mankind; — but above all by his divine spirit of independence; which, while it stretches before us the whole field of poetry, unobstructed, and free; at the same time, invigorates our powers of various, and sublime atchievement.