Concluding Observations on the Poetic Character of Pope.

The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. In Prose and Verse, containing the principal Notes of Drs. Warburton and Warton. 10 Vols [William Lisle Bowles, ed.]

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

William Lisle Bowles concludes his edition of Pope with "Observations" intended to answer objections to Joseph Warton's Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (1756) made by Samuel Johnson in his Life of Pope (1781). The first half of the essay attempts to clarify and amplify Warton's judgment that Pope belonged to a second order of poets based on his subject; the second half challenges Johnson's high judgment of Pope's versification. Writing 1806, Bowles was expressing what the majority of the public believed, that satire and didactic poetry were by their nature inferior to poems of passion and natural description. Not until the 1820s did this essay become the subject of controversy, after Thomas Campbell, in his Specimens of the British Poets (1819) demurred from Bowles's opinion that descriptions of natural objects are more "poetical" than descriptions of artificial life.

Headnote: "The Essay on the life and genius of Pope, by the late Editor, Dr. Warton, raised a sort of literary outcry against him, as if he meant to deny to Pope his fair and just pretensions to the name of a Poet. He seems particularly to have been misunderstood by Johnson. I have endeavoured to state the grounds of this difference, upon principles which I think will be easily recognised; and as I have no other object than to do justice, I am guided by nothing but a regard to truth, and fair criticism, when I venture to state my own ideas of the general poetic character of Pope" 10:362.

Isaac D'Israeli: "Joseph Warton had the merit of first declaring of Pope, that 'he did not think him at the head of his profession, and that his species of poetry was not the most excellent one of the art.' Many years after, Johnson interrogating this critic, inquired, 'If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found? To circumscribe poetry, he added, by a definition will only shew the narrowness of the definer.' Yet such a definer arose in the disciple of Warton, the Rev. W. L. Bowles, who has distinguished himself in this idle controversy by his 'Observations on the Poetic Character of Pope;' and his recent pamphlet on 'The Invariable Principles of Poetry,' in reply to Mr. Campbell's masterly vindication of Pope. Mr. Bowles has adopted a system which terminates in an exclusion of a great poet from the highest order of poets" in "Spence's Anecdotes of Books and Men" Quarterly Review 23 (July 1820) 408.

George Taylor: "The same or a bitterer feeling [than motivated Joseph Warton] seems to have actuated Mr. Bowles; every part of his performance is pervaded by a spirit so decidedly hostile, that we know not how to account for its being felt towards a man who has been dead nearly a century, and towards a fame so resplendent, that even the fondest aspirations of Mr. Bowles's youthful muse could never have hoped to eclipse it. We repeat that we cannot account for it. But there the evil spirit is — evinced in the festive delight with which he seizes on every thing that can vilify the man or depreciate his works; in conjecturing what he cannot find, and insinuating what he dares not assert. Where these purposes, however, are not concerned, Mr. Bowles's notes (though sometimes borrowed without acknowledgment from Warton, especially in the illustrations cited from other authors) have added much both of information and judicious criticism; and he has made a good selection, for the same objects, from the annotations of his predecessors" "Pope's Works and Character" Quarterly Review 32 (October 1825) 276.

David Macbeth Moir: "In the famous Bowles, Campbell, and Byron controversy regarding the principles of poetry, I have always felt convinced that Bowles had distinctly the better of his two more celebrated antagonists, both of whom were not only indifferent logicians, but were ever arguing directly in the teeth of their own practice" Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 58.

Henry A. Beers: "It was over the body of Pope that the quarrel between classic and romantic was fought out in England, as it was fought out in France, a few years later, over the question of the dramatic unities and the mixture of tragedy and comedy in the 'drame.' In 1806, just half a century after Joseph Warton published the first volume of his Essay on Pope, Bowles' edition of the same poet appeared. In the life of Pope which was prefixed, the editor made some severe strictures on Pope's duplicity, jealousy, and other disagreeable traits.... The edition contained likewise an essay on The Poetical Character of Pope, in which Bowles took substantially the same ground that had been taken by his master, Joseph Warton, fifty years before. He asserted in brief, that, as compared with Spenser, Shakspere, and Milton, Pope was a poet of the second order.... The admirers of Pope were not slow in joining issue with his critic, not only upon his general estimate of the poet, but upon the principle here laid down" Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century (1901) 63-64.

I presume it will readily be granted, that "all images drawn from what is beautiful or sublime in the works of NATURE, are more beautiful and sublime than any images drawn from ART;" and that they are therefore, per se, more poetical.

In like manner, those Passions of the human heart, which belong to Nature in general, are, per se, more adapted to the higher species of Poetry, than those which are derived from incidental and transient MANNERS. A description of a Forest is more poetical, than a description of a cultivated Garden: and the Passions which are pourtrayed in the Epistle of an Eloisa, render such a Poem more poetical (whatever might be the difference of merit in point of execution), intrinsically more poetical, than a Poem founded on the characters, incidents, and modes of artificial life; for instance, the Rape of the Lock.

If this be admitted, the rule by which we would estimate Pope's general poetical character would be obvious.

Let me not, however, be considered as thinking that the subject alone constitutes poetical excellency. — The execution is to be taken into consideration at the same time; for, with Lord Harvey, we might fall asleep over the "Creation" of Blackmore, but be alive to the touches of animation and satire in Boileau.

The subject, and the execution, therefore, are equally to be considered; — the one respecting the Poetry, — the other, the art and powers of the Poet. The poetical subject, and the art and talents of the Poet, should always be kept in mind; and I imagine it is for want of observing this rule, that so much has been said, and so little understood, of the real ground of Pope's character as a Poet.

If you say he is not one of the first Poets that England, and the polished literature of a polished aera can boast,

Recte necne crocos floresque perambulat Atti
Fabula si dubitem, clamant periisse pudorem
Cuncti pene patres.

If you say, that he stands poetically pre-eminent, in the highest sense, you must deny the principles of criticism, which I imagine will be acknowledged by all.

In speaking of the poetical subject, and the powers of execution; with regard to the first, Pope cannot be classed among the highest orders of Poets; with regard to the second, none ever was his superior. It is futile to affect to judge of one composition by the rules of another. To say that Pope, in this sense, is not a Poet, is to say that a didactic Poem is not a Tragedy, and that a Satire is not an Ode. Pope must be judged according to the rank in which he stands, among those of the French school, not the Italian; among those whose delineations are taken more from manners, than from Nature. When I say that this is his predominant character, I must be insensible to every thing exquisite in Poetry, if I did not except, instanter, the Epistle of Eloisa: but this can only be considered according to its class; and if I say that it seems to me superior to any other of the kind, to which it might fairly be compared; such as the Epistles of Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus (I will not mention Drayton, and Pope's numerous subsequent Imitations); but when this transcendent Poem is compared with those which will bear the comparison, I shall not be deemed a giving reluctant praise, when I declare my conviction of its being infinitely superior to every thing of the kind, ancient or modern.

In this Poem, therefore, Pope appears on the high ground of the Poet of Nature; but this certainly is not his general character. In the particular instance of this poem, how distinguished and superior does he stand! It is sufficient, that nothing of the kind has ever been produced equal to it for pathos, painting, and melody.

From this exquisite performance, which seems to stand as the boundary between the Poetry derived from the great and primary feelings of Nature, and that derived from Art, to Satire, whose subject wholly concerns existing manners, the transition is easy, but the idea painful. Nevertheless, as Pope has chosen to write Satires and Epistles, they must be compared, not as Warton has, I think, injudiciously done, with pieces of genuine Poetry, but only with things of the same kind. To say that the beginning of one of Pope's Satires is not poetical; to say that you cannot find in it, if the words are transposed, the "disjecti membra poetae," — is not criticism. The province of Satire is totally wide; its career is in artificial life; and therefore, to say that Satire is not poetry, is to say an Epigram is not an Elegy. Pope has written Satires; that is, confined himself chiefly, as a Poet, to those subjects with which, as it has been seen, he was most conversant; subjects taken from living man, from habits and manners, more than from principles and passions.

The career, therefore, which he opened to himself was in the second order in Poetry; but it was a line pursued by Horace, Juvenal, Dryden, Boileau; and if in that line he stands the highest; upon these grounds we might fairly say, with Johnson, "it is superfluous to ask whether Pope were a Poet."

From the Poetry, which, while it deals in local manners, exhibits also, as far as the subject would admit, the most exquisite embellishments of fancy, such as the machinery of the Rape of the Lock, we may proceed to those subjects which concern "living man."

The abstract philosophical view is first presented, as in the Essay on Man. The ground of such a Poem is Philosophy, not Poetry: the Poetry is only the colouring, if I may say so; and to the colouring the eye is chiefly attentive. We hardly think of the Philosophy, whether it is good or bad; whether it is profound or specious; whether it evinces deep thinking, or exhibits only in new and pompous array the "babble of the Nurse." Scarcely any one, till a controversy was raised, thought of the doctrines; but a thousand must must have been warmed by the pictures, the addresses, the sublime interspersions of description, and the nice and harmonious precision of every word, and of almost every line. Whether, as a system of Philosophy, it inculcated Fate or not, no one paused to inquire; but every eye read a thousand times, and every lip, perhaps, repeated,

"Lo, the poor Indian!" &c.
"The Lamb thy riot," &c.
"O Happiness!" &c.

and many other passages.

All these illustrative and secondary images are painted from the source of genuine Poetry; from NATURE, not from ART. They therefore, independent of powers displayed in the versification, raise the Essay on Man, considered in the abstract, into genuine Poetry; although the poetical part is subservient to the philosophical.

The Moral Essays depart much farther from Poetry so defined, as they exhibit particular casts and characters of Man, according to different habits of existing society; that is, of artificial life.

Pope, however, apparently leaves habits and manners, and reverts to general Nature, when he talks of a Passion,

That, like Aaron's serpent, swallows all the rest:

There is no reason to suppose that Pope, of the general internal feelings of Nature, could be more ignorant, or less capable of pourtraying them by vividness of expression and colours, than others; but we must estimate what he has done, not what he might have done. Many, perhaps, may regret with me, that if he disdained,

—in Fancy's fields to wander long,
But stoop'd to Truth, and moraliz'd his song;"

that he had not at least wandered somewhat longer among scenes that were congenial to the feelings of every heart; and that he should leave them for the thorns and briars of ineffectual satire and bitterness; quitting for these such scenes as

The Paraclete's white walls and silver springs;

like his great predecessor in Poetry, Milton, who left the "Pastures of Peneus, and the Pines of Aetna," to write "Tetrachordon," and to mingle in the malignant and puritanical turbulence of the times.

When we speak of the poetical character, derived from passions of general Nature, two obvious distinctions must occur, without regard to Aristotle; — those which, derived from the passions, may be called pathetic, and those which, derived from the same source, may be called sublime.

Of the Pathetic, no one (considering the Epistle of Eloisa alone) has touched the chords so tenderly, so pathetically, and so melodiously. As far as this goes, Pope, therefore, in poetical and musical expression, has no competitor.

We will now proceed to confider those passions which are equally the subject of genuine Poetry, and on which are founded (I do not say, Epic or Tragic excellence, for these Pope declined), but that species of poetic sublimity, which gives life and animation to the Ode.

In this respect, I believe, no one who ever thought of Alexander's Feast, or the Bard of Gray, could for a moment imagine Pope pre-eminent. Before these he sinks, as much as any other writer, whose subject was pathetic, sinks before him. His Odes for the Duke of Buckingham, though elegant, are wholly unworthy to be classed as the compositions of a superior Lyric Poet.

In what has been said, I have avoided the introduction of picturesque description; that is, accurate representations from external objects of Nature: but if the premises laid down in the commencement of these Reflections are true, no one can stand pre-eminent as a great Poet, unless he has not only a heart susceptible of the most pathetic or most exalted feelings of Nature, but an eye attentive to, and familiar with, every external appearance that she may exhibit, in every change of season, every variation of light and shade, every rock, every tree, every leaf, in her solitary places. He who has not an eye to observe these, and who cannot with a glance distinguish every diversity of every hue in her variety of beauties, must so far be deficient in one of the essential qualities of a Poet.

Here Pope, from infirmities, and from physical causes, was particularly deficient. When he left his own laurel circus at Twickenham, he was lifted into his chariot or his barge; and with weak eyes, and tottering strength, it is physically impossible he could be a descriptive Bard. Where description has been introduced among his Poems, as far as his observation could go, he excelled; more could not be expected. In the descriptions of the Cloister, the scenes surrounding the melancholy Convent, as far as could be gained by books, or suggested by imagination, he was eminently successful; but even here, perhaps, he only proved that he could not go far: and

The streams that shine between the hills,
The grotts that echo to the tinkling rills,

were possibly transcripts of what he could most easily transcribe, — his own views and scenery.

But how different, how minute is his description, when he describes what he is master of: for instance, the game of Ombre, in the Rape of the Lock? This is from artificial life; and with artificial life, from his infirmities, he must have been chiefly conversant: But if he had been gifted with the fame powers of observing outward Nature, I have no doubt he would have evinced as much accuracy in describing the appropriate and peculiar beauties, such as Nature exhibits in the Forest where he lived, as he was able to describe, in a manner so novel, and with colours so vivid, a Game of Cards.

It is for this reason that his Windsor Forest, and his Pastorals, must ever appear so defective to a lover of Nature.

Pope, therefore, wisely left this part of his art, which Thomson, and many other Poets since his time, have cultivated with so much more success, and turned to what he calls the "Moral" of the Song.

I need not go regularly over his Works; but I think they may be generally divided under the heads I have mentioned; — Pathetic, Sublime, descriptive, Moral, and Satirical.

In the Pathetic, poetically considered, he stands highest; in the Sublime, he is deficient; in descriptions from Nature, for reasons given, still more so. He therefore pursued that path in Poetry, which was more congenial to his powers, and in which he has shone without a rival.

We regret that we have little more, truly pathetic, from his pen, than the Epistle of Eloisa, the Elegy to the unfortunate Lady; and let me not forget one of the sweetest and most melodious of his pathetic effusions, the Address to Lord Oxford:

Such were the notes thy once-lov'd Poet sung.

With the exception of these, and the Prologue to Cato, there are few things in Pope, of the order I have mentioned, to which the recollection recurs with particular tenderness and delight.

When he left these regions, to unite the most exquisite machinery of fancy with the descriptions of artificial life, the Rape of the Lock will, first and last, present itself; — a composition, as Johnson justly observes, the "most elegant, the most airy," of all his Works; a composition, to which it will be in vain to compare any thing of the kind. He stands alone, unrivalled, and possibly never to be rivalled. All Pope's successful labour of correct and musical versification, all his talents of accurate description, though in an inferior province of Poetry, are here consummately displayed; and as far as artificial life, that is, Manners, not passions, are capable of being rendered poetical, they are here rendered so, by the fancy, the propriety, the elegance, and the poetic beauty of the Sylphic machinery.

This "delightful" Poem, as I have said, appears to stand conspicuous and beautiful, in that medium where Poetry begins to leave Nature, and approximates to local manners. The Muse has, indeed, no longer her great characteristic attributes, pathos or sublimity; but she appears so interesting, that we almost doubt whether the garb of elegant refinement is not as captivating, as the most beautiful appearances of Nature.


After what I have taken the liberty of suggesting, I hope I shall be excused if I say a few words respecting Pope's versification. I know in this point he is considered as invulnerable; and Johnson asserts, "that, to attempt any further improvement of versification will be dangerous. Art and diligence have done their best; and what shall be added will be the effort of tedious toil, and needless curiosity."

This is a decision, ex cathedra, stronger, I think, than Johnson has ventured to lay down in any other instance. In this respect, may I presume to doubt, whether Johnson was a competent judge? He had professedly no ear for music; and though I am aware, that some, who have also no ear for musical sounds, have yet a capacity of writing blank verse with intonation and variety, yet I cannot help being of opinion that there is a great analogy between musical and poetical rhythm.

That Pope has made the versification of English couplets infinitely more smooth, I will readily allow; but I cannot so readily assent to the "dictum" of a Writer, however eminent, who had no "music in his soul," when he asserts that, because Pope's numbers were highly polished, therefore "art and diligence had done their best; and what should be added would be tedious toil, and needless curiosity."

Johnson seems to have depreciated, or to have been ignorant of, the metrical powers of some Writers prior to Pope. His ear seems to have been caught chiefly by Dryden; and as Pope's versification was more equably (couplet with couplet being considered, not passage with passage) connected than Dryden's, he thought therefore that nothing could be added to Pope's versification. May I be permitted to express my opinion, that Johnson either did not feel, or was unwilling to grant, the powers of versification exhibited by one Poet in particular before Dryden, I mean Sandys, who has been often mentioned? When I say this, I do not think of setting up my own opinion. On a subject like this, we can only speak as we feel. There are those who cannot relish the noble Diapasons of Milton, and who prefer Pope's Couplets, as more harmonious.

For myself, I mean merely to say, that I should think it the extreme of arrogance and folly, to make my own ear the criterion of music; but I cannot help thinking, that Dryden, and of later days Cowper, are much more harmonious in their general versification, than Pope. I ought also to mention a neglected Poem, not neglected on account of its versification, but on account of its title and subject, "Prior's Solomon."

Whoever candidly compares these Writers together, unless his ear be habituated to a certain recurrence of pauses precisely at the end of a line, will not (though he will give the highest praise for compactness, skill, precision, and force, to the undivided Couplets of Pope, separately considered), will not, I think, assent to the proposition, that in versification, "what he found brick-work, he left marble."

In variety, and in variety only, let it be remembered, I think Pope deficient. I do not lay down my opinion as the criterion: I am sure I should not have the consummate haridhood to say of Pope, what Mr. Knight has said of Milton [author's note: See Essay on the Principles of Taste, in which Mr. Knight expresses the utmost contempt of Milton as a musical writer, and, unfortunately for his own argument, produces some couplets of Pope.]

Such language every person, though he presumes to judge for himself, surely ought to disdain: he should recollect that, whatever he may think himself, many have thought otherwise; and the highest deference is due to the general decision. I do not complain of Mr. Knight's not feeling Milton's music: but I think neither Mr. Knight or myself have a right to make our own feelings the test and standard of taste and feeling in numbers.

We may, however, fairly and candidly give our opinion; and though I would not speak of Pope's versification, as Knight has spoken of Milton's, I am not afraid to own that, with the exception of the Epistle to Abelard (as musical as it is pathetic), the Verses of Pope want variety; and on this account, in some instances, they want force and harmony.

It has been doubted whether Couplet Verses ought ever to be broken. I will appeal to Pope himself: whenever he has done so, is there a judge of poetical cadence, who will not say it is harmonious? The instances are few; but where they occur, are they not beautiful? If they had been too often repeated, the effect would be destroyed, — "commendat rarior usus." But in long compositions, might not a greater variety of pauses have effect? Does not the ear feel a lassitude at times? The Epistle of Eloisa is more varied in pauses, than all his Works. Does any one dispute the beauty of this? If Pope had oftener tried the effect, I am satisfied what would have been the result.

Upon this point, an idea has been started by some Critics, that "you might as well have unequal columns to your house, as unequal couplets in verse." This comparison, however, if it proves any thing, proves too much; for no one will say that every two verses in a long Poem should in quantity be exactly the same, the syllables the same, the pause the same: the "rule and line" are very necessary, that one pillar in a building should exactly answer to another; but this will not hold a moment in versification if it did, then Johnson's assertion falls to the ground; for then Dr. Darwin is a better versifier than Pope; and a very little pains would make a much more consummate versificator than Dr. Darwin, if Mr. Higgins has not already done it, in his "Loves of the Triangles."

Shakespeare uses an expressive word, "tuneable." If I were called on to say what I thought the most tuneable of all verses in rhyme, I should answer, Milton's Lycidas; but the general structure of its verse would be totally incompatible with such subjects as Pope has chosen. We must keep in mind only the Couplet; and though in this kind of verse Pope has done a great deal, I cannot, for the reasons given, agree with Johnson; but I beg the reader to confider, that in what I have ventured to say, I have thrown out suggestions, not presumed to hazard decisions.

In speaking of the chief criterion of poetical talents, invention, we must remember Pope's line was chiefly in Morals and Satire; and what has been said will, I should think, determine the poetical rank of all those Poems which apply more immediately to existing manners.

Let us grant that Pope's are the best moral and satirical Poems, the very best of the kind: more than this cannot be asked; but this places them only according to their proper rank in Poetry.

I can hardly think that Johnson intended purposely to obscure the question: but his definition on this subject seems to bear so little on the point, that I am sure it proves nothing.

"Pope," he says, "had invention, by which new trains of events are formed, new scenes of imagery displayed, as in the Rape of the Lock," &c.

Granted. There is also in Don Quixote "invention, by which new trains of events are formed, and new scenes of imagery displayed;" but no one will say Don Quixote is poetical; and yet Johnson's definition will suit the one as well as the other.

Again, Johnson says, Pope had "imagination;" which enabled him to "convey to the reader the various forms of Nature, the incidents of life, and the energies of passion." For reasons already given, Pope was incapable of giving, in their various shapes and shades and colourings, the forms of Nature: "the incidents of life" may be poetical or unpoetical; the "energies of passion" are not disputed; and the greatest powers have been granted to him in this respect, when we spoke of Eloisa. I shall say nothing about "judgment," because that is necessary to all Writers, whether of Verse or Prose, of Comedy or Tragedy. I am only speaking of Pope's Poetry; his judgment was undoubted. To the latter part of Johnson's opinion there is no Critic but must heartily subscribe, that "Pope had colours of language always before him, ready to decorate his matter with every grace of elegant expression."

I trust, in this brief summary, I have said nothing contrary to fair, and liberal, and equitable criticism. I have merely wished to place upon its true foundations a question which seems to have been misunderstood. "No definition of Poetry, which should exclude Pope," was ever intended: his place among Poets was merely endeavoured to be ascertained by Warton. I have stated my own opinion without prejudice; the Reader of course will judge.