1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Rev. Charles Burton, in The Bardiad; a Poem (1823) pp. 33, 178-80n.



Then, in the train, the mightier DRYDEN shines,
A Genius form'd for more superb designs;
Soon, at his side, his rival POPE arose,
Whose verse, mellifluent, as sweet nectar flows:
If Dryden's Genius bursts and blazes higher,
The voice of Pope sounds sweetest of the quire:
We rise with Dryden to the starry wain,
But walk with Pope across a velvet plain.

The genius and writings of POPE have received so much disquisition elsewhere, that they need the less here. Of the precocity of his talents, his pastorals, written at the age of sixteen, leave no doubt. In point of polished versification it appears to us that he never exceeded his third pastoral, in all his subsequent performances. His genius possessed rather the subtility of discrimination, and the playfulness of delicacy, than the loftiness and majesty of conception. He has left specimens of high excellence in various kinds. The pastorals are the best of that class, strictly considered, since the time of Virgil; perhaps, the "Calendar" of Spenser may demand exception. The "Messiah," a short but interesting sacred composition, may serve to demonstrate with perfect satisfaction, the superiority of the poetry of ISAIAH to that of Virgil. Of the prophecies of the former the eclogue is a versification; and of the Pollio of the latter, the imitation. The "Essay on Man," if not correct in ethics, is replete with good sense; and the "Essay on Criticism" displays taste in it's highest perfection, and wit in it's brightest corruscations. The English language has probably no works of equal length, that can furnish an equal proportion of sentimental and brilliant quotations. The "Dunciad" was, at the time of it's publication, most popular; but the delicate or poignant character of it's satire could only be felt and appreciated by the individuals concerned, and their cotemporaries. For keenness of ridicule, and potency of expression, it is, however, inferior to Lord Byron's "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." Nor indeed will the "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," (which is quite a kindred work, and of great satiric pungency,) claim superiority to the brilliant pasquinade of Byron. The "Rape of the Lock," (or the stealing of the curl, as it might have been entitled with less danger of misunderstanding, though, perhaps, the homonymy was intentional) is an astonishing example, demonstrating how much may be said about nothing. A more exquisite specimen of elegant ingenuity is not to be found. With all the fairy appendages of Rosicrucian machinery, it exposes the secrets and vexatious of female vanity; but the moral is not introduced with adequate strength, to become convincing and efficient. "Windsor Forest" is a spirited and classical production. The "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day" is very beautiful, but inferior to Dryden's. Upon the "Translation of the ILIAD" we need not animadvert; with respect to some smaller pieces, we decline the task.