1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Thomas Campbell, in "Essay on the English Poets" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1841) lxxxvi-cx.



Pope gave our heroic couplet its strictest melody and tersest expression.

D'un mot mis en sa place il enseigne is pouvoir.

If his contemporaries forgot other poets in admiring him, let him not be robbed of his just fame on pretence that a part of it was superfluous. The public ear was long fatigued with repetitions of his manner; but if we place ourselves in the situation of those to whom his brilliancy, succinctness, and animation were wholly new, we cannot wonder at their being captivated to the fondest admiration. In order to do justice to Pope, we should forget his imitators, if that were possible; but it is easier to remember than to forget by an effort — to acquire associations than to shake them off. Every one may recollect how often the most beautiful air has palled upon his ear, and grown insipid from being played or sung by vulgar musicians. It is the same thing with regard to Pope's versification. That his peculiar rhythm and manner are the very best in the whole range of our poetry need not be asserted. He has a gracefully peculiar manner, though it is not calculated to be an universal one; and where, indeed, shall we find the style of poetry that could be pronounced an exclusive model for every composer? His pauses have little variety, and his phrases are too much weighed in the balance of antithesis. But let us look to the spirit that points his antithesis, and to the rapid precision of his thoughts, and we shall forgive him for being too antithetic and sententious.

Pope's works have been twice given to the world by editors who cannot be taxed with the slightest editorial partiality towards his fame. The last of these is the Rev. Mr. Bowles, in speaking of whom I beg leave most distinctly to disclaim the slightest intention of undervaluing his acknowledged merit as a poet, however freely and fully I may dissent from his critical estimate of the genius of Pope. Mr. Bowles, in forming this estimate, lays great stress upon the argument, that Pope's images are drawn from art more than from nature. That Pope was neither so insensible to the beauties of nature, nor so indistinct in describing them as to forfeit the character of a genuine poet, is what I mean to urge, without exaggerating his picturesqueness. But before speaking of that quality in his writings, I would beg leave to observe, in the first place, that the faculty by which a poet luminously describes objects of art is essentially the same faculty which enables him to be a faithful describer of simple nature; in the second place, that nature and art are to a greater degree relative terms in poetical description than is generally recollected; and, thirdly, that artificial objects and manners are of so much importance in fiction, as to make the exquisite description of them no less characteristic of genius than the description of simple physical appearances. The poet is "creation's heir." He deepens our social interest in existence. It is surely by the liveliness of the interest which he excites in existence, and not by the class of subjects which he chooses, that we most fairly appreciate the genius or the life of life which is in him. It is no irreverence to the external charms of nature to say, that they are not more important to a poet's study, than the manners and affections of his species. Nature is the poet's goddess; but by nature, no one rightly understands her mere inanimate face however charming it may be — or the simple landscape painting of trees, clouds, precipices, and flowers. Why then try Pope, or any other poet, exclusively by his powers of describing inanimate phenomena? Nature, in the wide and proper sense of the word, means life in all its circumstances — nature moral as well as external. As the subject of inspired fiction, nature includes artificial forms and manners. Richardson is no less a painter of nature than Homer. Homer himself is a minute describer of works of art; and Milton is full of imagery derived from it. Satan's spear is compared to the pine that makes "the mast of some great ammiral," and his shield is like the moon, but like the moon artificially seen through the glass of the Tuscan artist. The "spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war," are all artificial images. When Shakspeare groups into one view the most sublime objects of the universe, he fixes first on "the cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples." Those who have ever witnessed the spectacle of the launching of a ship of the line, will perhaps forgive me for adding this to the examples of the sublime objects of artificial life. Of that spectacle I can never forget the impression, and of having witnessed it reflected from the faces of ten thousand spectators. They seem yet before me — I sympathise with their deep and silent expectation, and with their final burst of enthusiasm. It was not a vulgar joy, but an affecting national solemnity. When the vast bulwark sprang from her cradle, the calm water on which she swung majestically round gave the imagination a contrast of the stormy element on which she was soon to ride. All the days of battle and the nights of danger which she had to encounter, all the ends of the earth which she had to visit, and all that she had to do and to suffer for her country, rose in awful presentiment before the mind; and when the heart gave her a benediction, it was like one pronounced on a living being.

Pope, while he is a great moral writer, though not elaborately picturesque, is by no means deficient as a painter of interesting external objects. No one will say that he peruses Eloisa's Epistle without a solemn impression of the pomp of catholic superstition. In familiar description, nothing can be more distinct and agreeable than his lines on the Man of Ross, when he asks,

Whose causeway parts the vale with shady rows?
Whose seats the weary traveller repose?
Who taught that heaven-directed spire to rise?
The Man of Ross, each lisping babe replies.
Beheld the market-place with poor o'erspread—
The Man of Ross divides the weekly bread:
He feeds yon almshouse, neat, but void of state,
Where Age and Want sit smiling at the gate:
Him portion'd maids, apprenticed orphans blest,
The young who labour, and the old who rest.

Nor is he without observations of animal nature, in which every epithet is a decisive touch, as,

From the green myriads in the peopled grass,
What modes of sight betwixt each wide extreme,
The mole's dim curtain, and the lynx's beam;
Of smell, the headlong lioness between,
And hound sagacious, on the tainted green;
Of hearing, from the life that fills the flood,
To that which warbles through the vernal wood;
The spider's touch, how exquisitely fine,
Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.

His picture of the dying pheasant is in every one's memory, and possibly the lines of his winter piece may by this time [1819] have crossed the recollection of some of our brave adventurers in the polar enterprise.

So Zembla's rocks, the beautious work of frost,
Rise white in air, and glitter o'er the coast;
Pale suns, unfelt at distance, roll away,
And on the impassive ice the lightnings play;
Eternal snows the growing mass supply,
Till the bright mountains prop th' incumbent sky;
As Atlas fix'd, each hoary pile appears,
The gather'd winter of a thousand years.

I am well aware that neither these nor similar instances will come up to Mr. Bowles's idea of that talent for the picturesque which he deems essential to poetry. "The true poet," says that writer, "should have an eye attentive to and familiar with every change of season, every variation of light and shade of nature, every rock, every tree, and every leaf in her secret places. He who has not an eye to observe these, and who cannot with a glance distinguish every hue in her variety, must be so far deficient in one of the essential qualities of a poet." Every rock, every leaf, every diversity of hue in nature's variety! Assuredly this botanising perspicacity might be essential to a Dutch flower-painter; but Sophocles displays no such skill, and yet he is a genuine, a great, and affecting poet. Even in describing the desert island of Philoctetes, there is no minute observation of nature's hues in secret places. Throughout the Greek tragedians there is nothing to show them more attentive observers of inanimate objects than other men. Pope's discrimination lay in the lights and shades of human manners, which are at least as interesting as those of rocks and leaves. In moral eloquence he is for ever "densus of instans sibi." The mind of a poet employed in concentrating such lines as these descriptive of creative power, which

Builds life on death, on change duration founds,
And bids th' eternal wheels to know their rounds,

might well be excused for not descending to the minutely picturesque. The vindictive personality of his satire is a fault of the man, and not of the poet. But his wit is not all his charm. He glows with a passion in the Epistle of Eloisa, and displays a lofty feeling, much above that of the satirist, and the man of the world, in his Prologue to Cato, and his Epistle to Lord Oxford. I know not how to designate the possessor of such gifts but by the name of a genuine poet—

—qualem vix repperit unum
Millibus in multis hominum consultus Apollo.
AUSONIUS.