1831 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

John Wilson Croker to John Murray, 1831; The Croker Papers, ed. Louis J. Jennings (1884) 1:533-34.



I am ready and willing to undertake Hume, but before I tie down your liberality to so large an engagement I should like to be satisfied that it is likely to answer your purpose as well as it would answer mine. Think of it in this light, and if you see your way, I am ready to set out upon mine. I only hesitate on your account; for having so often chidden you for extravagant liberality, I do not like to become a "particeps criminis."

But there is a small matter which I have been for years thinking of, and which John tells me you also have lately thought of. I mean a new edition of Pope. None of our poets has been so often and so badly edited. Notes upon notes, commentaries on commentaries, tell you all, except just what one wants to know. Warburton has given us razor-edged disquisitions, fine and false, in the Divine Legation style, which are much more difficult to be understood than the text itself. Joe Warton has emptied into his notes all his classical commonplace books, and tells us a great deal about the literature and manners of every age except just Pope's own. Bowles has done little but scent out the taints of Pope's private character; and Roscoe tells nothing, because he knows nothing, beyond what he found before his eyes in former editions. But towards making the author as intelligible to posterity as he was to contemporaries, and putting the reader of 1831 into anything like the position of the reader of 1731 — that, none of them have done, nor (what I complain of) even attempted to do.

Then what bookmaking! Pope was a poet. Yet every line of poetry he ever wrote might be contained in the first volume of Bowles's ten, in the same type and form that he has given. All the rest is taken up with notes which explain nothing, commentaries which no one reads or could understand, and letters from most of the ladies and gentlemen of the literary circles of the reign of George I. This is all very well in its own way; that is to say, the letters are, for the notes and commentaries are really waste paper; but it is not what an edition of Pope for common use ought to be.

If you ask me what I would have, or, if I undertook the work, what I should do, I answer generally, endeavour to put the reader of 1831 back into the place of the reader of 1731; leave the brilliancy and beauty of Pope's poetry to speak for itself, and only try to exhibit the persons and the facts, on which the poetry employed itself, and without some knowledge of which we can no more understand the poetry than the folks in the gallery do the Italian opera without the help of the book.

A few critical notes might be admitted when they tended to explain the meaning; and all the notes on the Dunciad, because they are all either explanatory or part of the fun. For the same reason, I should not be disinclined to add the memoirs of P. P. and of Scriblerus and some other small prose pieces.

Yours ever,

J. W. C.