1824
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Estimate of the Poetical Character and Writings of Pope.

The Works of Alexander Pope, with Notes and Illustrations by himself and others. To which are added a new Life of the Author. [William Roscoe, ed.]. 10 Vols.

William Roscoe


William Roscoe challenges the idea that certain subjects and genres are more poetical than others, an argument used to denigrate Pope by his two previous editors, Joseph Warton and William Lisle Bowles, the latter of whom responded in A Final Appeal Relative to Pope (1825). The quotation is from Roscoe's friend Henry Fuseli.

Roscoe adds, "whatever may be the grounds or principles upon which the decision is founded, it is impossible that whilst Chaucer, and Spenser, and Pope remain, Dryden should retain undisturbed possession of the rank assigned to him [by Sir Walter Scott] as the third in dignity of the British poets" 2:xiii.

John Wilson: "TICKLER. Admirable old Roscoe had edited Pope well, and he rebuts Bowles manfully and successfully. NORTH. He does so. Yet, after all, Bowles is the livelier writer. Here's their healths in a bumper. (Bibunt Omnes.)" Blackwood's Magazine (March 1825) in Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 2:65.

George Taylor: "Mr. Roscoe's selection from his predecessors is also copious and judicious — so copious, indeed, that as far as regards Mr. Bowles's book, which may be considered as a rival publication in the market, we know not how these writers adjust their claims; for he has, without ceremony, taken much of what is valuable in Mr. Bowles's book to add to the value of his own. His original criticism is not much, but is enlightened and liberal; and the candour with which that and the life are written is quite refreshing after the blighting perversity of the preceding editors, whose misrepresentations and calumnies he has industriously examined and patiently refuted, with a lucid arrangement both of facts and arguments. Great industry too is exhibited in the superior arrangement of his materials, especially of the correspondence of Pope and his friends" "Pope's Works and Character" Quarterly Review 32 (October 1825) 276-77.

J. W. Croker: "None of our poets has been so often and so badly edited. Notes upon notes, commentaries on commentaries, tell you all, except just what one wants to know. Warburton has given us razor-edged disquisitions, fine and false, in the Divine Legation style, which are much more difficult to be understood than the text itself. Joe Warton has emptied into his notes all his classical commonplace books, and tells us a great deal about the literature and manners of every age except just Pope's own. Bowles has done little but scent out the taints of Pope's private character; and Roscoe tells nothing, because he knows nothing, beyond what he found before his eyes in former editions. But towards making the author as intelligible to posterity as he was to contemporaries, and putting the reader of 1831 into anything like the position of the reader of 1731 — that, none of them have done, nor (what I complain of) even attempted to do" The Croker Papers, ed. Louis J. Jennings (1884) 1:533-34.

Henry Roscoe: "A few months after the publication of his work Mr. Bowles again entered the field of controversy, and put forth 'A Final Appeal to the Literary Public, relative to Pope, in Reply to certain Observations of Mr. Roscoe, in his Edition of that Poet's Works; to which are added, Some Remarks on Lord Byron's Conversation, so far as they relate to the same Subject and the Author: in Letters to a Literary Friend.' Mr. Roscoe was induced to write and answer, under the title of 'A Letter to the Rev. W. Lisle Bowles, A.M., Prebendary of Sarum, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and former Editor of Pope's Works in ten volumes, in Reply to his Final Appeal to the Literary Public relative to Pope.' In the mean time, the new edition of Pope had been reviewed in the Quarterly Review for October 1825, in which the labours of Mr. Roscoe were commended, and his observations on Mr. Bowles's edition approved. These publications produced from Mr. Bowles 'Lessons in Criticism to William Roscoe, Esq. F.R.S., Member of the Della Crusca Society of Florence, F.R.S.L., in Answer to his Letter to Rev. W. L. Bowles, on the Character and Poetry of Pope. With further Lessons in Criticism, to a Quarterly Reviewer.' With this pamphlet the discussion terminated, Mr. Roscoe being of opinion that it had been already carried to a sufficient length, and feeling confident that, so far as regarded both Pope and himself, it might here be safely left to the candid construction of the the public. He had, indeed, prepared some observations upon Mr. Bowles's last publication; but, upon reflection, he resolved not to prolong the dispute" Life of William Roscoe (1833) 2:259-60.

Hartley Coleridge: "In the year 1824, Mr. Roscoe appeared as the editor and biographer of Pope, an office which he executed with his wonted ability, and with the zeal of a disciple. Had Pope been his own bosom friend, he could not have dilated his virtues more fondly, or touched his failings with greater tenderness. In the court of fame Roscoe was always counsel for the panel, and has pleaded in mitigation of sentence for some very desperate reputations, such as Pope Alexander VI., Lucretia Borgia, and Bonaparte. It must therefore have been a delightful employment to him to vindicate the memory of a poet whose style of excellence was highly congenial to his sympathies, whose literary merit he thought unjustly depreciated, and whose moral character had been most ungently handled" Worthies of Yorkshire and Lancashire (1836) 541.

Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "William Roscoe's edition and life of Pope appeared in 1824, and though it appreciates the genius of the poet and defends his character as a man, scarcely merits the eulogy here given ['Admirable old Roscoe has edited Pope well, and he rebuts Bowles manfully and successfully']. The biography is well intended, but feebly executed" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 2:65n.




But it may be asked whether a poet or a painter, who undertakes a great subject, and executes it in a suitable and efficient manner, must not on that account be esteemed a greater artist, than he who undertakes an inferior subject, and executes it in an inferior manner. The answer is, there are not great subjects but such as are made so by the genius of the artist. The descriptions of Milton present to us objects of sublimity which exalt and dignify our feelings; we wander with Ariosto, or Spenser, through enchanted castles, and interest ourselves in the stories of adventurous knights and distressed damsels; we weep over the fate of Desdemona, or of Juliet; we enjoy with a smile the nature and wit displayed in the character of Sir Roger de Coverley; and we relax our features into a broad laugh on the appearance of Sir John Falstaff, or of Tony Lumpkin; but the preference we may give to one of these over another, is a moral preference, and has no relation whatever to their merits as works of genius and imagination. Those who perceive in themselves a sympathy with high and dignified feelings, will be most gratified with those elevated subjects which are best calculated to excite them. Those who are what is called sentimental, may indulge their tenderness in the works of Rousseau or Richardson; whilst others may prefer the bolder pictures of human life and manners exhibited in the writings of Fielding or Smollet, and willingly relinquish the ideas of grandeur and sublimity, for the accurate representations of truth and nature which they there discover. But with these distinctions poetry has no concern. Genius can enoble the lowest subject, as the want of it may debase the highest. It would be endless to recapitulate the Epic Poems which have either been strangled in birth, or have perished as soon as born. The Italians, alone, in the sixteenth century, produced an incredible quantity, and every nation has its limbo of poets, fluentes in limine primo; whilst, on the other hand, poems on the most unfavourable and trivial subjects have, through the mere genius of their authors, been engraven on the tablets of immortality. Thus we have the Battle of the Frogs and Mice of Homer; the Georgics of Virgil; the Chess-play of Vida; the Bees of Rucellai; the Syphilis of Fracastoro; the Capitoli of Berni and his followers; the Malmantile of Lippi; the Secchia of Tassoni; the Lutrin of Boileau; the Dispensary of Garth; the Rape of the Lock, by Pope; the School-mistress of Shenstone; the Task, by Cowper; the Deserted Village, by Goldsmith; the Cotter's Saturday Night, by Burns; and the humorous, or ludicrous compositions of Butler and Swift. Instances sufficient to shew, that "nothing is trifling in the hand of genius, and that importance itself becomes a bauble in that of mediocrity. The Shepherd's staff of Paris would have been an engine of death in the grasp of Achilles; the ash of Peleus could only have dropt from the effeminate fingers of the curled archer."...


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