1749 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

William Melmoth, in Letters of Sir Thomas Fitzosborne on several Subjects (1749) 2:139-41.



The ancient criticks have insisted much upon the propriety of language; and, indeed, one may with great justice say, what the insulted Job does to his impertinent friends, "how forcible are right words!" The truth is, tho' the sentiment must always support the expression, yet the expression must give grace and efficacy to the sentiment; and the same thought shall frequently be admired or condemned, according to the merit of the particular phrase in which it is conveyed. For this reason, J. Caesar, in a treatise which he wrote concerning the Latin language, calls a judicious choice of words, "the origine of eloquence"; as indeed neither oratory nor poetry can be raised to any degree of perfection, where this their principal root is neglected. In this art Virgil particularly excels; and it is in the inimitable grace of his words (as Mr. Dryden somewhere justly observes) wherein that beauty principally consists, which give so inexpressible a pleasure to him, who best understands their force. No man was ever a more skilful master of this powerful art, than Mr. Pope; as he has, upon several occasions throughout this translation, raised and dignified his style with certain antiquated words and phrases, that are most wonderfully solemn and majestick. I cannot, however, forbear mentioning an instance, where he has employed an obsolete term less happily, I think, than is his general custom. It occurs in some lines which I just now quoted for another purpose:

On his broad shoulder fell the forceful brand,
Thence glancing downward lopp'd his holy hand.
V. 105.

"Brand" is sometimes used by Spenser for a sword; and in that sense it is here introduced. But as we still retain this word in a different application, it will always be improper to adopt it in its antiquated meaning, because it must necessarily occasion ambiguity: an error in style of all others most to be avoided. Accordingly, every reader of the lines I have quoted, must necessarily take up an idea very different from that which the poet intends, and which he will carry on with him, till he arrives at the middle of the second verse. And if he happens to be unacquainted with the language of our old writers, when he comes to "lopp'd his sacred hand," he will be lost in a confusion of images, and have absolutely no idea remaining.