1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Anonymous, in "The Augustan Age in England" The Album 1 (1822) 184-85.



The merits of POPE are a "vexata questio" — but we must be allowed to say a few words concerning them. We are the farthest in the world from under-rating him; — we have, on the contrary, the highest admiration of his powers; — but we cannot allow that he was a great poet. The ethical nature of his subjects prevented any display of poetical genius. "Thoughts that breathe and words that burn" — pathos — passion — all the great elements of poetry — could not be employed in moral disquisition. The "estro," which is the essence of poetical composition, could find no place in writings on such themes. The Eloisa, and other scattered indications, prove that Pope had the wherewithal to form a poet of the highest order, — that is, a poet who excels in painting the workings of human passion; — but we do not speak of what might have been, but of what is. The Essay on Man — the Moral Essays — and all the satirical writings, are not, and from their nature could not be, poetry. The sentiments they contain would be equally fitted for prose, were it not that the form of verse gives pithiness to the expression, and fixed the idea more quickly and permanently in the mind. The aphorisms of the moral writings would not be, as they are, in every mouth, were they not condensed into the easily remembered form of a line, or at most a couplet, of verse. The sly inuendo, — the caustic remark, — the bitter invective — would lose half their sting, if the satires had been written as a pamphlet. For these reasons these works are better in verse, but they cannot, in our mind, be called poetry: — they have as much merit as writings of the kind can have; but that merit is of an order far below the triumphs of poetical genius. The Rape of the Lock has been cited to entitle Pope to the appellation of a poet. A poet we do not deny him to be; but we cannot concede that he is a great one. The Rape of the Lock is the perfection of that style of composition; — it has fancy, imagination, elegance, brilliancy; but to class it in the higher ranks of poetry is absurdity, and injustice to the work itself. We concede every praise to a beautiful yacht, as such; but whoever thinks of its being a production of art equal to a line-of-battle ship? With the exception of Pope, the age of Anne had no poet — absolutely none; for no one dreams in these days of calling Cato, — or the Letter from Italy — or Cadenus and Vanessa, — or Gay's Fables — poetry.