1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

Anonymous, "On the Controversy respecting Pope and his Writings" Gentleman's Magazine 91 (April 1821) 291-94.



Before we proceed to examine the very pleasant Letter which has been transmitted from Italy by Lord Byron on Mr. Bowles's Edition of Pope's writings, it may not be amiss to say a few words respecting the controversy which has given rise to it.

We cannot in the space to which we must necessarily confine ourselves, enter into any detailed criticism upon the qualifications of Mr. Bowles as an Editor of the Works of our English Horace; but we will venture to assert, that notwithstanding all the elaborate invective, which has been poured forth against him, he has still by far the best of the argument. That he is an amiable as well as an able man, even his enemies seem disposed to admit; and with such impressions, it is most extraordinary that they should give themselves so much trouble to injure him in the estimation of the public, by a series of charges as gross as they are unfounded and ridiculous. What motives could Mr. Bowles (or any other reasonable man) have for depreciating the literary reputation, and vilifying the moral character of a poet who had been dead nearly three-fourths of a century, before he began to write about him? The answer must be obvious to all who possess any share either of candour or discrimination. The truth is, that Mr. Bowles's opponents have made him responsible for a variety of opinions which he never advanced; and much criticism of which he appears to have been equally guiltless: thus clamouring with prodigious vehemence against misrepresentations which have originated exclusively with themselves. Lord Byron is the fugleman of this literary warfare. It was he who (in his English Bards) first began to act upon the offensive. Mr. Campbell was the next in succession; but although he differed materially with Mr. Bowles on the subject of Pope's merits, he never descended to personal invective in his criticism. He stated his objections like a gentleman: it would have been well if the rest of the controversialist, had followed his example. Against the Quarterly Review and a Writer in the London Magazine, however, Mr. Bowles would appear to have more serious causes of complaint. By this latter gentleman, he has been attacked in such scurrilous terms as we hardly ever remember to have met with in the annals of criticism; and we cannot but believe that he has made a considerable sacrifice of his dignity, in vouchsafing a reply to this writer.

As for the article on Spence's Anecdotes in the Quarterly Review [anonymously written by Isaac D'Israeli], not to mention its referring several serious charges against the character of Pope to Mr. Bowles, which he distinctly proves never to have originated with him; it seems to have been gotten up, with infinite labour, for the express purpose of prejudicing his edition of Pope's works, in order to prepare the way for a new one (probably by the author of the critique), which, we are advised, is now preparing for publication. That Lord Byron would not lend himself to such a measure, is quite evident. But although he may be sincere, it does not by any means follow that he should be infallible in the many singular opinions which he maintains in the Letter now under consideration. In this slight composition he reiterates for the most part the charges preferred against Mr. Bowles on former occasions in a very smart and jocose style of satire; which requires nothing but plain truth to make it as correct as it is playful and agreeable.

It is not a little remarkable that these indignant defenders of Pope, from the imputed slanders of his modern editor, never thought it worth their while to impugn the credit of Dr. Johnson upon the same account, who has often gone much farther, and shown more decided asperity in his censure of this poet, than Mr. Bowles. But let us examine and weigh the charges brought against this gentleman, at least such of them as are entitled to regard.

I. It is asserted of Mr. Bowles by the Quarterly Reviewer, that he has "aspersed Pope for a sordid money-getting passion."

This is decidedly untrue. He has declared in his biography of the poet, that "none was more prudent." But even if he had thought it necessary to accuse him of love of money, there is evidence enough upon record to justify him in such an opinion. Dr. Johnson, in allusion to Pope's frugality, observes, that it "sometimes appeared in petty artifices of parsimony, such as the practice of writing his compositions on the backs of letters, as may be seen in the remaining copy of the Iliad, by which, perhaps, five shillings were saved; or in a niggardly reception of his friends, and scantiness of entertainment, as when he had two guests in his house, he would set at supper a single pint upon the. table, and having himself taken two small glasses, would retire, and say, 'Gentlemen, I leave you to your wine.' Yet he tells his friends, that he has a heart for all, a house for all, and, whatever they may think, a fortune for all."

And again, "It would he hard to find a man so well entitled to notice by his wit, that ever delighted so much in talking of his money."

Yet after all this, from the pen of Dr. Johnson, Mr. Bowles is assailed as a calumniator of Pope, because he has informed us that "none was more prudent." This is, we must confess, altogether a novel system of criticism.

II. This charge assumes that Mr. Bowles has accused Pope of "taking bribes to suppress satires!"

This is equally untrue. Mr. B. relates the anecdote mentioned by Horace Walpole, of Pope's receiving a thousand guineas from the Duchess of Marlborough to suppress the character of Atossa, which was afterwards printed; but expressly refuses to place any reliance on the tale, and explicitly suggests that candour requires we should reject a circumstance so derogatory to the character of Pope. In short, he concludes with this positive declaration, viz. "that the ipse dixit of an adversary is entitled to NO REGARD!" Could any thing but the most determined malice torture into aught of invidiousness or slander, so plain, and fair a statement? Yet this, and more than this, has been attempted.

III. Upon the same authority (the Quarterly Review) Mr. Bowles is described as having attributed to Pope the most "rankling envy."

This also is false. He speaks of his jealousy, which must be evident to all to have taken the trouble minutely to investigate his character. It is remarked by Dr. Johnson, that in the letters of Pope there appears much narrowness of mind, as makes him insensible of any excellence but his own, &c. The opponents of Mr. Bowles are willing to admit, upon the representation of their idol, that Addison was envious, &c.; and in commenting upon his character, descend from all consistency into the most extra-critical arguments we ever recollect to have seen advanced. As they will listen to no statement of Pope that does not come immediately from his friends; so they will take nothing for granted of Addison, but the slanders that were propagated by his enemies. In Spence's Anecdotes, there is a good deal of ill-natured remark respecting Addison, for some of which Pope is given as the authority. Indeed, the much-talked of story of Addison's ungenerous treatment of Steele seems to have originated with the same envious detractor.

Dr. Johnson believed that Pope was envious of the fame of his contemporaries; and has acknowledged as much on more occasions than one. So did Warton; so, in fact, have all who have written at large upon his life and writings. But Lord Byron informs us that it was no such thing; and endeavours, somewhat ingeniously, to define the precise nature of His Lordship contends that Pope could not envy Phillips his Pastorals, because they were so much inferior to his own; and immediately afterwards destroys the consistency of this argument by mentioning that Goldsmith envied even "puppets for their dancing, and broke his shins in an attempt at rivalry." Goldsmith did not, it may be presumed, desire to exchange his identity for that of a puppet, but simply to be able to attract as much attention. This was reasonable enough, as coming from a man who "was jealous of the civilities which pretty women received in his presence." He wished to be as much an object of admiration as the handsomest lady in the room. But his envy went no further. Pope was jealous of Phillips whom, (as Dr. Johnson his informed us,) he had first made ridiculous, and then hated for being angry even to "malignity." It was the success, and not the positive genius, of this writer of pastorals that he envied.

IV. Mr. Bowles is censured, for having pronounced Pope to be "the worst of tempers."

The same system of exaggeration is pursued throughout. Mr. B. speaks of the "irritable temper" of the poet, and so does Dr. Johnson; nay more, he says, he was "resentful," and under certain circumstances "malignant!"

V. Mr. Bowles has mentioned Pope's duplicity. Dr. Johnson bears testimony as to the truth of this charge, on more occasions than one. The artful publication of his letters; — his affected "scorn of the great," when he was doing all in his power to secure their attention and good offices; — his pretended insensibility to criticism, when the slightest censure had power to make him "writhe in his chair with anguish;" — his repeatedly expressed contempt for his own poetry, in which, as Johnson has remarked, "he was certainly not sincere," are all proofs potential that the modern editor has not exceeded the bounds either of justice or propriety in hazarding the assertion that his practice was often at variance with his professions.

VI. The charge, however, which seems to have given the admirers of Pope the greatest offence, would appear to be that of a libertine sort of love and conduct, which Mr. Bowles declares to have implied licentiousness of character as it regards women. Who that has glanced over Pope's abominably obscene letters to Martha Blount; his correspondence with Cromwell; his translation of the epistle of Horace (given in Warton's edition), and many other productions universally admitted to be his, can wonder that an editor, in duly weighing the moral character of the poet whose merits he is discussing, should find occasion to advert to the weak as well as to the nobler qualities of his nature. But Lord Byron would seem to contend, that obscenity, and other similar sins against the holy ghost are of trifling importance, and ought not to be taken into consideration in estimating the character of a poet. He informs us, and we are disposed to believe him, that he has seen the correspondence of a deceased "eminent, nay pre-eminent poet," and that it abounds in "grossiertes" far more culpable than any that are to be met with in the writings of Pope. But this is no defence of the fact, which becomes far more censurable in a moral, or as his Lordship will have it, an ethic poet. We do not think that any editor of common honesty of feeling, would venture to pronounce a man a purist, if he knew him upon undeniable evidence to be entirely the reverse.

Dr. Johnson observes of Pope and Swift, that they "had an unnatural delight in ideas, physically impure, such as every other tongue utters with unwillingness, and of which every ear shrinks from the mention." Lord Byron may defend obscenity because he is the author of Don Juan, and trust that an equal portion of charity will be extended towards himself by some future commentator; but we are not, therefore, compelled to take our standard of moral virtue from his oracles, however inclined we may be to appreciate his perfection as a poet. It is beyond doubt that Pope was, as Dr. Johnson has it, "physically impure;" and Mr. Bowles would have been censurable in the highest degree, if he had glossed over the evidences of this fact without a comment. But in this, as in most other instances, he has said nothing more than had been already insisted upon by others.

Of the vanity and self-importance of Pope, we have repented mention in Dr. Johnson's Life, and abundant evidence elsewhere. Mr. Bowles refers this to the faults of his early education, his having lived in the 'sunshine of flattery,' &c.; and out of this attempt to remove whatever blame might attach to the poet to the injudicious indulgence of his friends, Mr. Bowles's opponents create a charge of injustice and want of candour.

After numerous other misrepresentations, more or less important, the Quarterly Reviewer and his Echo charge Mr. Bowles with "exulting over the poet," because he had not received the advantages of an academical education; and with "indulging in a sort of splenetic pleasure" over his foibles, &c. But let the following extract from Mr. Bowles's life of Pope refute this scandalous misrepresentation.

"If these and other parts of his character appear less amiable, let the reader constantly keep in mind the physical and moral causes which operated on a mind like his. Let him remember his 'one long diverse' [disease?], his confined education, entrusted chiefly to those who were narrow-minded; his being used to listen, from his cradle, to the voice of tenderness almost maternal, in all who contemplated his weakness and incipient talents. When he has weighed these things, and attended to every alleviating circumstance that his knowledge of the world or his CHARITY may suggest, then let him not hastily condemn what truth compels me to state; but let him rather, with. out presuming on his own virtues, lament the imperfections of our common nature, and leave the judgment to Him who knoweth 'whereof we are made'."

This is surely any thing but the language of EXULTATION, and this charge of the Quarterly Reviewer against Mr. Bowles, proves as fallacious when fairly investigated as all the rest. The winding up of the critique already alluded to, is devoted to the declaration that Mr. Bowles has "aggravated" Pope's "infirmities" into "viciousness;" and, incredible as it may appear, "surmised away EVERY AMIABLE CHARACTERISTIC."

Let the Reader, when he has perused the following extracts from Mr. Bowles's "Life of Pope," decide what degree of credit is due to such assertions.

"This year he (Pope), lost his aged mother, who had gradually sunk before his eyes into the extremest imbecility of age, and whose cradle of parting repose he had so long rocked with solicitude and affection, &c. Whatever irritation he might sometimes have experienced, he no sooner turned his eyes on those he loved, but his passions seemed to subside, and his spirt became gentle. Hence in his severest denunciations of satirical indignation, he so often and so delightfully interests us by unexpected touches of domestic tenderness." Life of Pope, p. 92.

"No poet, perhaps, ever left the world with greater general testimonies to his VIRTUES, and his genius." Ibid p. 118.

"Whatever might have been his defects, he could not have had many bad qualities who never lost a friend, and whom Arbuthnot, Gay, Bathurst, Lyttleton, Fortescue, and Murray esteemed and loved through life." p. 131.

"That he was a most dutiful and affectionate son, a kind master, a sincere friend, and, generally speaking, a benevolent man, is undoubted." p. 120.

Does this, we would ask, look like an attempt to "surmise away every amiable characteristic," and accuse him of "contrary dispositions?" Is this the language of hate? Yet such it must be, if we are to put any faith in the asseverations of Mr. Bowles's antagonists.

The true state of the case, however, is, that Mr. Bowles has actually rather softened than exaggerated the disagreeable traits of Pope's character, as we have already shown by a comparison of what he has said with the report of Dr. Johnson. What the lexicographer has termed "parsimony" and "meanness," the modern editor has softened into "prudence;" and what the Doctor calls "sneaking and shuffling," Mr. Buwles refines into "evasion;" and so on, indeed, with all the principal features of the poet's character on which he takes occasion to comment.

We therefore see but little wit, and still less candour, in reiterating charges so fallacious and uncalled for as those adduced against Mr. Bowles, by Lord Byron and the Quarterly Review. The criticism of the former, however, is in a far more generous and gentlemanly tone of argument than that of the latter; his Lordship's analysis of the difference between poetry of art and that of nature, is curious and interesting; but we have only room in this number to advert to the character of Pope as a man. We shall hereafter offer a few observations on the rank which we conceive he is entitled to hold in Literature, as a Poet.