1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

George Barrell Cheever, in Studies in Poetry ... A copious Collection of Elegant Extracts (1830) 94-95.



Pope's father was a Roman Catholic, and his son inherited the paternal religion. He was educated till the age of twelve principally under the care of Romish priests, but from that period he formed for himself a plan of study, which lie appears to have pursued with diligence. From his earliest years he fixed upon poetry as his profession, and some of his pieces composed at the age of fourteen are remarkable proofs of his youthful proficiency. His pastorals, though not published till 1709, were written at the age of sixteen in 1704, from which period his life as an author, may he dated.

In 1712 he published the Rape of the Lock, the most truly poetical of all his productions, and the one on which his claim to the power of invention principally rests. In 1712, at the age of twenty-five, he commenced, and in 1720 finished his translation of the Iliad of Homer, the success of which was so great, that the produce of the subscription enabled him to purchase a residence at Twickenham, whither he removed with his father and mother. In 1728 appeared the Dunciad, a poem intended to cover his antagonists with ridicule, and distinguished for its polished versification, and for the gross and offensive nature of its imagery, together with the irritability, malignity, injustice and strength of its satire.

In 1733 and 34 appeared the Essay on Man, as a whole perhaps in the first class of ethical poems, though its philosophy is scarcely christian, and many of its thoughts would appear exceedingly trite, were they not concealed in the point, antithesis, and beauty of the style. He died at the age of fifty-six, in the final ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion, but apparently with neither that anxiety so suitable to the awful close of nature, nor with those calm and glorious anticipations of eternity, which rendered the dying hours of Addison the sublimest period of his existence.

Johnson's life of Pope is one of the most interesting and instructive sketches in the annals of poetical biography. While it displays his literary fame with great prominence, it exhibits his personal character under an aspect for the most part unpleasant and humiliating; though his filial piety is almost sufficient to redeem its defects. His excessive desire of applause brought along with it an unhappy degree of its concomitant passions, pride, envy, and jealousy, and engaged him in an almost uninterrupted series of vexatious literary quarrels. The mind can hardly help reflecting what a different aspect his would have worn, had it been calmed, elevated, and dignified by the spirit of forbearance and piety.

As a poet, Pope stands the first in what has been called the second class of poetry, that which consists in the description of artificial life and manners. Invention and fancy are exhibited in the Rape of the Lock, beauty of natural description in Windsor Forest, and a tender pathos of feeling in some of his other productions, He possessed likewise, great powers of satire, and often exhibits an admirable felicity, acuteness, and delicacy of discrimination in the delineation of character. Elegance, elaborate ease, and the utmost refinement of taste characterise all his compositions; and his style and versification are polished, smooth, and harmonious, almost to a fault of monotony.

Together with the extreme smoothness and polish of his style, good sense is likewise a quality which peculiarly distinguishes his writings. He has been called, indeed, "the most sensible of poets." There is great wisdom and shrewdness of observation in many of his didactic essays, in his Moral Epistles, and generally in his remarks on the characters and manners of the gay world in which he had mingled so much.

The moral character of his poetry is often pure, but not uniformly so, and seldom elevated to the highest degree. He has embalmed in his singular beauty of style and language many false and corrupt principles, and some of his productions contain much, which no man of true piety, benevolence and purity of feeling would have ever written. He sometimes writes in what is merely a strain of refined epicureanisn; and his Elegy to the memory of an unfortunate lady, which has been so long admired and so often quoted, exhibits sentiments in extenuation and even in praise of the crime of suicide, equally unworthy of the Christian and the man.