1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Anonymous, "Notice of the Works of Eminent Authors: Pope" The Minerva [New York] NS 2 (5 March 1825) 346-47.



There has been much idle controversy on the character and genius of Pope. While some sapient critics have denied him any merit, save that of being a clever rhyme-maker; others, not less confident in the justice of their opinions, have deified him, and declared his superiority over all other poets. Lord Byron, in the fervour of his admiration, tells us, that were all the treasures of literature about to be destroyed, and were power given to him to snatch but one single author from the impending ruin, he would, without hesitation, choose Pope. "I'faith — this is excellent fooling." Did his Lordship never hear of Shakspeare or Milton? Bowles and his coadjutors, on the contrary, would prefer to Pope, the veriest sonneteer that ever bepraised the moon or a lady's lap-dog. These gentlemen are evidently in extremes, and we must seek for truth midway between their opposing opinions. That man's reasoning faculties must be miserably defective, who can seriously deny to Pope the praise of a great poet and he must be strangely prejudiced in favour of a particular style in composition, who could calmly suffer Hamlet and Othello to sink into oblivion, for the sake of the Dunciad or the Rape of the Lock. For those who deny the mighty powers of Pope, we have a triumphant answer in his works. Had he no claims on posterity, but as the writer of the Essay on Man, they would be decisive and irresistible. The philosophy and morality of that noble work is embodied in poetry, as sublimely harmonious and powerful as any the language can boast — every couplet is perfect, there are no weak lines, the parts are beautiful — the whole is faultless. "Oh, but," exclaim the detractors of Pope, "he has no imagination, no feeling, no sympathy with nature, his poetry is artificial, he does not write to the affections — he may enlist the judgement, but over the heart he has no empire." Had the author of the Epistle of Eloisa no feeling? Had the writer of the Rape of the Lock no imagination? Had the poet, who breathed his love of the "dear green earth" in that delightful pastoral, "Windsor Forest," no sympathy with nature? Then imagination, and feeling, and nature, are terms of which we cannot guess the meaning, or they do not exist in the works of any author, if Pope is destitute of them. True it is, that his subjects for the most part led him into different walks. Pathos would have been wretchedly misplaced in the Dunciad: descriptions of natural objects would have been extravagant in the Essay on Criticism; imagination would have displayed his rainbow plumes to but little purpose in the Essay on Man: yet when the theme of his muse required fancy or feeling, or sympathy with nature, what asinine dissector of books will assert that they were wanting? Pope, however, is safe without a defence! The silly squabbles of his friends and foes can neither increase nor diminish his reputation. Proudly secure on his pedestal of glory, he looks down on the puny battles of criticism, and regards his prejudiced enemies and his over zealous admirers with equal indifference. That, in the mere mechanical branch of his art, Pope distanced all his competitors, that wonderful effort of genius and industry, the translation of Homer, abundantly proves: and if his original productions do not entitle him to take the first place among the heirs of literary immortality, which of the illustrious dead can justly be ranked above him? — what living author would not be honoured by a seat at his footstool? Of the great spirits, that illustrate the present age, comparatively little will be known to our children. The fame of Byron probably will depend on his Childe Harold. The name of Moore will be perpetuated by his Melodies — of Southey's voluminous works nothing will remain but Don Roderic, and Scott's many octavos will perhaps shrink into a few modest duodecimos: but which of Pope's compositions will posterity be content to lose? Time, that unsparing destroyer of dull books, has only consecrated them by his touch; and what was admired by the reading public of Queen Anne's reign, will, it may be safely asserted, give the same pleasure to the literati of George the Fourth. Need we speak of the faults of Pope — (of course, he is open to criticism) — we might remark, that the perpetual recurrence of the same cadence in his poetry displeases the judgment, while it fatigues the ear; we might say, that he too often forgot the impartial severity of the satirist in the irritation and malice of the man. But what work is free from error? and when was poor human nature without faults? We can only lament that he, who did so much well, should have done any thing amiss.