ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744), was the most famous English poet of his century. His own century dwelt most upon his merits; the 19th century is disposed rather to dwell upon his defects, both as a poet and as a man, with a persistency and minuteness that more than counterbalance any exaggeration in the estimate formed when it was the fashion to admire his verse and treat his moral obliquity as a foible. Substantially, the best judgment of the two centuries is at one, only different sides are prominent in the bulk of current criticism. All are agreed that he was not a poet of the first rank, and nobody can deny that he did certain things in literature in a way that has been the despair of all who have since attempted the same kind of thing. The great point of difference lies in the importance to be assigned to such work as Pope's satires. The polemic against his title to the name of poet would be contemptible were it not that beneath the dispute about the name there is a desire to impress on the public a respect for the highest kinds of poetry. The 19th century takes the poet's mission more seriously than the 18th. Similarly with Pope's moral delinquencies. With the exception of some details recently brought to light with an industry worthy of a better subject, his contemporaries were as well aware of these delinquencies as we are now, only none but his bitter enemies were so earnest in denouncing them. "In this design," Johnson says in his comments on the Dunciad, "there was petulance and malignity enough, but I cannot think it very criminal." And this was the general verdict of his contemporaries about the poet's moral weakness. They knew that he was insincere, intriguing, touchy, and spiteful, but, as nobody was much harmed by his conduct, they could not think it very criminal. Perhaps his physical weakness made them more indulgent to his elfish and sprite-like temper. But, apart from this, intriguing was the way of his world, a fact too much kept out of sight when Pope is denounced for his crooked ways in little matters, as if he had lived in our own straightforward and virtuous age.
If we are to judge Pope, whether as a man or as a poet, with human fairness, and not merely by comparison with standards of abstract perfection, there are two features of his times that must be kept steadily in viewthe character of political strife in those days, and the political relations of men of letters. As long as the succession to the crown was doubtful, and political failure might mean loss of property, banishment, or death, politicians, playing for higher stakes, played more fiercely and unscrupulously than in modern days, and there was no controlling force of public opinion to keep them within the bounds of common honesty. Hence the age of Queen Anne is pre-eminently an age of intrigue. The government was almost as unsettled as in the early days of personal monarchy, and there was this difference that it was policy rather than force upon which men depended for keeping their position. Secondly, men of letters were admitted to the inner circles of intrigue as they had never been before and as they have never been since. A generation later Walpole defied them, and paid the rougher instruments that he considered sufficient for his purpose in solid coin of the realm; but Queen Anne's statesmen, whether from difference of tastes or difference of policy, paid their principal literary champions with social privileges and honourable public appointments. Hence men of letters were directly infected by the low political morality of the unsettled time. And the character of their poetry also suffered. The most prominent defects of our Augustan age in 19th-century eyesthe lack of high and sustained imagination, the genteel liking for "nature to advantage dressed," the incessant striving after witwere fostered if not generated by the social atmosphere. The works of the serious imagination could not thrive in a fashionable society, feverishly interested in the daily chances of intrigue for place and power.
Pope was peculiarly fitted by nature to take the impress of his surroundingsplastic, sensitive, eagerly covetous of approbation. Affection and admiration were as necessary to his life as the air he breathed. " Pope was from his birth," Johnson says, "of a constitution tender and delicate, but is said to have shown remarkable gentleness and sweetness of disposition. The weakness of his body continued through his life; but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood." Perhaps; but certainly to a much less degree with the friends who loved and honoured him. With them he was always more or less sweet and docile; his petulance and malignity were directed as by an instinct of self-preservation against those who baulked him in his craving for admiration, a spiritual food literally and physically essential to the sustenance of his fragile being.
If Pope had been a man of more robust and self-sufficing constitution, he had one great advantage for resisting the spirit of his age. He was cut off by the religion of his parents from all public employment. His father was a Roman Catholic, a merchant in Lombard Street, London, who retired from business with a small fortune in the year of the Revolution, and fixed his residence at Binfield in Windsor Forest. Pope was born at Lombard Street on May 22, 1688, but his father's retirement to Binfield took place soon after his birth. The delicate child's book education was desultory and irregular. His father's religion excluded him from the public schools, if there was no other impediment to his being sent there. Before he was twelve he got a smattering of Latin and Greek from various masters, from a priest in Hampshire, from a schoolmaster at Twyford near Winchester, from another in Marylebone, from a third at Hyde Park Corner, and finally from another priest at home. "He thought himself the better," Spence says, "in some respects for not having had a regular education. He (as he observed in particular) read originally for the sense, whereas we are taught for so many years to read only for words." This helps to explain his attack on Bentley in the Dunciad. j He afterwards learnt French and Italian, probably to a similar extent. As far as the sense was concerned, he could get a dilution of that at least in translations, for all poets of noteGreek, Latin, French, and Italianhad been translated into English verse in the course of the previous century. Of these translations the precocious boy availed himself voraciously, and by the age of twelve, when he was finally settled at home and left to himself, he was not only a confirmed reader, but an eager aspirant to the highest honours in poetry. When at school in London he had crept into Will's coffee-house to look at Dryden; he had lampooned his schoolmaster, and made a play out of Ogilby's Iliad for his schoolfellows; and, thinking himself the greatest genius that ever was, he retired to the solitude of the forest to write a great epic on a mythological subject, his hero being Alcander, a prince of Bhodes.
Nothing of Pope's was printed till 1709, when he was twenty-one. The detachment from contemporary life in London which his father's religion and retirement might have occasioned was prevented by one of the accidents of that position. Fortunately or unfortunately for him, there were among the Papist families near Binfield men capable of giving a direction to his eager ambition, men of literary tastes, and connexions with the literary world. These families held together as persecuted sects always do, and the family priests were mediums of communication.
Through some such medium the retired merchant's precocious son was brought under the notice of Sir William Trumbull, a retired diplomatist living at Easthampstead, within a few miles of Binfield. At Whiteknights, neai Reading, lived another Roman Catholic, Mr Englefield. "a great lover of poets and poetry." Through him Pope made the acquaintance of Wycherley and Harry Cromwell, and Wycherley introduced him to Walsh, then of great renown as a critic. Thus the aspiring poet, before he was seventeen, was admitted to the society of London " wits " and men of fashion, and he was cordially encouraged as a prodigy. It may be doubted whether the company of these veteran relics of Bestoration manners was much for the benefit of the moral tone of the bookish youth, who learnt from them to speak and write of the fair sex with a very knowing air of rakish gaiety. But he discussed poetry also with them, as was then the fashion, and soon under their influence his own vague aspirations received shape and direction.
Walsh's contribution to his development was the advice to study "correctness," as the one merit that was still possible for an English poet. But before he was introduced to Walsh, which was in 1705, he had already written the first draft of his " Pastorals," a subject on which Walsh was an authority, having written the preface to Dryden's translation of Virgil's Eclogues. Trumbull's influence was earlier and more extensive. For him may fairly be claimed the credit of having been Pope's school-master in poetry. It was he who turned Pope's attention to the French critics, out of the study of whom grew the Essay on Criticism; he suggested the subject of Windsor Forest, and he started the idea of translating Homer. When Trumbull first saw the precocious boy, he was hard at work on his great epic. He had probably chosen his subject on the first impulses of his crude ambition, because it was an established maxim at the time that a great epic is the greatest work of which the human mind is capable. It says something for Pope's docility at this stage that he recognized so soon that a long course of preparation was needed for such a magnum opus, and began steadily and patiently to discipline himself. The epic was put aside and afterwards burnt; versification was industriously practised in shorter " essays"; and an elaborate study was made of accepted critics and models. When we look at the subjects of Pope's juvenile attempts, we cannot fail to be struck by a singular clearness of purpose in his poetic ambition, such as might have come from the judgment of the accomplished man of the world who was his adviser. He not only chose kinds of poetry in which there was an interest at the time, and a consequent likelihood of gaining attention and winning applause, but he had an eye to subjects that had not already been appropriated by great English poets, and in which success was still open to all comers. At the beginning of the 18th century Dryden's success had given great vogue to translations and modernizations. The air was full of theories as to the best way of doing such things. What Dryden had touched Pope did not presume to meddle with, Dryden was his hero and master; but there was much more of the same kind to be done. Dryden had rewritten three of the Canterbury tales; Pope tried his hand at the Merchant's Tale, and the Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale, and produced also an imitation of the House of Fame. Dryden had translated Virgil; Pope experimented on the Thebais of Statius, Ovid's Heroides and Metamorphoses, and the Odyssey. He knew little Latin and less Greek, but there were older versions in English whose metre he could improve upon and from which he could get a clue to the sense ; and, when the correspondents to whom he submitted his versions pointed out mistranslations, he could answer that he had always agreed with them, but that he had deferred to the older translators against his own judgment. It was one of Pope's little vanitiesvery venial in a nature requiring such support to try to give the impression that his metrical skill was more precocious even than it was, and we cannot accept his published versions of Statius and Chaucer (published in "miscellanies" at intervals between 1709 and 1714) as indisputable evidence of his proficiency at the age of fifteen or sixteen, the date, according to his own assertion, of their composition. But it is indisputable that at the age of sixteen his skill in verse was such as to astonish a veteran critic like Walsh, and. that his verses were handed about in manuscript and admired by men then in the foremost rank in literature. There is no better proof of his dexterity than his imitations, or rather parodies, of Chaucer, Spencer, Bochester, and Dorset, though dexterity is their only merit. His metrical letter to Cromwell, which Mr Elwin dates in 1707, when Pope was nineteen, is also a brilliant feat of versification, and has turns of wit in it as easy and spirited as any to be found in his mature satires. Pope was twenty-one when he sent the " Ode to Solitude" to Cromwell, and said it was written before he was twelve years old. He may have retouched this; in all probability he did; perhaps every line of it was written when he was twenty-one; but there is abundance of external evidence of his extraordinary precocity as a metrician. He was vain enough to try to make it appear still more extraordinary than it was; but the attempt was hardly more puerile and comically superfluous than the solemn efforts of criticism to reduce his pretensions. They are too solidly founded to be shaken either by his own vain superstructure or by the outraged critic's vindictive undermining.
Precocious Pope was, but he was also industrious; and he spent some eight or nine years in arduous and enthusiastic discipline, reading, studying, experimenting, taking the advice of some and laughing in his sleeve at the advice of others, "poetry his only business," he said, " and idleness his only pleasure," before anything of his appeared in print. In these preliminary studies he seems to have guided himself by the maxim formulated (after a French model) in a letter to Walsh (written at the date he gives, or later) that " it seems not so much the perfection of sense to say things that have never been said before, as to express those best that ha,ve been said oftenest." His first publication was his " Pastorals." Tonson the bookseller had heard these pastorals highly spoken of, and he sent a polite note to Pope asking that he might have them for one of his miscellanies. They appeared accordingly in May 1709 at the end of a volume containing contributions from Philips, Sheffield, Garth, and Bowe, besides Pope's version of Chaucer's Merchant's Tale. We have not space to show what can be said on both sides about these artificial compositions, avowedly designed to represent the manners of an imaginary golden age, when men of " wit and refinement " were shepherds. The worst that can be said of them was said by implication in the Guardian in 1713, when a case, which was afterwards justified by Allan Bamsay, was made out for the representation of real English country life. Johnson, though he did not approve of pastorals in the abstract, said a word of common sense against exaggerated depreciation of Pope's attempt. Few persons are likely nowadays to put themselves in a position for making a fair historical estimate of Pope's pastorals. There was a passing fashion for the kind of thing at the time, and possibly he wrote them under the impression that they offered a new field for poetic ambition in English, not knowing or forgetting what had been done by Giles Fletcher and Milton. Or he may have thought that a great poet should begin as Virgil began with pastorals. At any rate his pastorals, though Johnson was right in remarking the " closeness of thought" shown in their composition, cannot be ranked high as poetry, however much superior to everything else written in a passing fashion.
Pope's next publication was the Essay on Criticism. " In every work regard the writer's end," is one of its sensible precepts, and one that is often neglected by critics of the essay, who comment upon it as if Pope's end had been to produce an original and profound treatise on first principles. His aim was much less loftybeing simply to condense, methodize, and give as perfect and novel expression as he could to floating opinions about the poet's aims and methods, and the critic's duties, to " what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." " The town " was interested in belles lettres, and given to conversing on the subject; Pope's essay was simply a brilliant contribution to the fashionable conversation. The youthful author said with delicious loftiness that he did not expect the sale to be quick because " not one gentleman in sixty, even of liberal education, could understand it." But he misjudged his audience. The town was fairly dazzled by itsuch learning, such comprehensiveness of judgment, such felicity of expression, was indeed a marvel in one so young. Many of its admirers, doubtless, like Lady Mary Montague, would have thought less of it if they had not believed all the maxims to be original; but people of fashion are seldom wide readers, and they gave Pope credit for much that they might have found, where he found it, in Quintilian, Rapin, and Bossu. " The truth is," Mr Elwin says, "that Addison, by his encomiums and authority, brought into vogue the exaggerated estimate entertained of the essay." Nothing could be more preposterously far from " the truth."
A better illustration could not be found of the critical vice that Pope censures of " forming short ideas" by attending to parts to the neglect of the whole. If the whole of Addison's paper is read, it stands out in its true colours as a kindly gentle attempt to throw cold water on the enthusiasm about a work which had been published for some months and was already, as the paper admits, " highly esteemed by the best judges." It is " a master-piece in its kind" ; but people expect too much from the kindoriginality, for instance. And again, it is " a masterpiece in its kind," worthy of a place beside Roscommon's Essay on Translated Verse and Mulgrave's Essay on the Art of Poetry! Most exaggerated encomiums these ! How kindly, too, the paper opens by giving prominence to trivial incidents in the essay, one or two passing strokes of satire at Blackmore and Dennis. Bad poets are given to detraction; they try to raise themselves by pulling down the reputation of their brothers in the art. A third of the whole paper is devoted to warning the young poet against a spirit of envy and detraction, all because he had thrown a stone in passing at two of the common butts of their generation. But this was Addison's kindliness; he wished to give the promising youth a lesson against a bad habit. Read the whole paper (Spectator, No. 253) and judge.
The Rape of the Lock in its first form appeared in 1712 in Linton's Miscellany ; the " machinery " of sylphs and gnomes was an afterthought, and the poem was republished as we now have it early in 1714. This was his first poem written on an inspiration from real life, from nature and not from books. A gentleman had in a frolic surreptitiously cut off a lock of a young lady's hair, and the liberty had been resented; Pope heard the story from his friend Caryll, who suggested that it might be a subject for a mock-heroic poem like Boileau's Lutrin. Pope caught at the hint; the mock-heroic treatment of the pretty frivolities of fashionable life just suited his freakish sprightliness of wit, and his studies of the grand epic at the time put him in excellent vein. The Rape of the Lock is almost universally admitted to be his masterpiece. English critics from his own time to the present have competed in lauding its airiness, its ingenuity, its exquisite finish. But M. Taine's criticism shows how much depends upon the spirit in which such humorous trifles are approached. The poem strikes M. Taine as a piece of harsh, scornful, indelicate buffoonery, a mere succession of oddities and contrasts, of expressive figures unexpected and grinning, an example of English insensibility to French sweetness and refinement. Mr Leslie Stephen objects on somewhat different grounds to the poet's tone towards women. What especially offends the French critic's delicate sense is the bearishness of Pope's laughter at an elegant and beautiful woman of fashion. Pope describes with a grin of amusement all the particulars of the elaborate toilet with which Belinda prepared her beauty for conquest, and all the artificial airs and graces with which she sought to bewitch the heart of susceptible man. The Frenchman listens without sympathy, without appreciation, with the contemptuous wonder of a well-bred man at clownish buffoonery. What is there to laugh at 1 Is she not preparing a beautiful picture? She cannot do this without powders and washes and paint-pots. What is there to laugh at in this 1 It is mere matter of fact The entire surrender of the female heart to little artifices for little ends does not apparently strike the Frenchman as ludicrous. Mr Stephen's laughter is checked by the serious thought that this is a misrepresentation of women, o that women are spoken of in the poem as if they were all like Belinda. But the Frenchman is not moved to laughter at all; it would seem as if his delight in the finished picture, the elegant graceful captivating woman, hallowed every ingredient used in the making of it. Such are the differences in national humour. With English readers the change of manners since the fashionable party rowed up the river to spend a happy day at Hampton is more likely to be an obstacle to the enjoyment of Pope's airy extravagance.
In the interval between the first and the enlarged edition of the Rape of the Lock, Pope gave the finishing touches to his Windsor Forest, and published it in March 1713, with a flattering dedication to the secretary at war and an opportune allusion to the peace of Utrecht. This was a nearer approach to taking a political side than Pope had yet made. His principle had been to keep clear of politics, and not to attach himself to any of the sets into which literary men were divided by party. Although inclined to the Jacobite party by his religion, he was on friendly terms with the Whig coterie, so friendly indeed as to offend some of his co-religionists. He had contributed his poem " The Messiah " to the Spectator ; he had written an article or two in the Guardian; and he' wrote a prologue for Addison's Cato. But Pope's advances had not been received in a way to satisfy a man of his petulant and exacting temper. Mr Elwin is much mistaken in supposing that Addison helped to bring Pope into notice in the Spectator. We have seen how he treated the Essay on Criticism. When the Rape of the Lock was published, Addison is said to have praised it to Pope himself as merum sal, but he was much more guarded in the Spectator. There he dismissed one of the gems of English literature with two sentences of patronizing faint praise to the young poet whom he rejoiced to see getting on, coupled it with TickelPs " Ode on the Prospect of Peace," and devoted the rest of the article to an elaborate puff of " the pastorals of Mr Philips." We have only to look at the shameless puffery of the members of the little senate, not only in this article but throughout all the periodicals of the coterie, to see how little the young Mr Pope owed to Addison.
When Pope showed a leaning to the Tories in Windsor Forest, the coterie, so far from helping him, made insidious war on himnot open war but underhand war. Within a few weeks of the publication of the poem, and when it was the talk of the town, there began to appear in the Guardian a series of articles on " Pastorals." Not a word was said about Windsor Forest, but everybody knew to what the general principles referred. Modern pastoral poets were ridiculed for introducing Greek moral deities, Greek flowers and fruits, Greek names of shepherds, Greek sports and customs and religious rites. They ought to make use of English rural mythologyhobthrushes, fairies, goblins, and witches; they should give English names to their shepherds; they should mention flowers indigenous to English climate and soil; and they should introduce English proverbial sayings, dress, and customs. All excellent principles, and all neglected by Pope in Windsor Forest. The poem was fairly open to criticism in these points; there are many beautiful passages in it, showing close though somewhat professional observation of nature, but the mixture of heathen deities and conventional archaic fancies with modern realities is incongruous, and the comparison of Queen Anne to Diana was ludicrously infelicitous. But the sting of the articles did not lie in the truth of the oblique criticisms. " The pastorals of Mr Philips," published four years before, were again trotted out. Here was a true pastoral poet, the eldest born of Spenser, the worthy successor of Theocritus and Virgil! Pope's pastorals have their defects, great defects, but it was an unkind cut to him to prefer such trash, and with such audacious emphasis. It was an affront, but so contrived that the sufferer could not retaliate without putting himself in the wrong, a mean backbiting provocation, the action of a critic " willing to wound and yet afraid to strike."
Pope took an amusing revenge, which turned the laugh against his assailants. He sent Steele an anonymous paper in continuation of the articles in the Guardian on pastoral poetry, reviewing the poems of Mr Pope by the light of the principles laid down. Ostensibly Pope was censured for breaking the rules, and Philips praised for conforming to them, quotations being given from both. The quotations were sufficient to dispose of the pretensions of poor Philips, and Pope did not choose his own worst passages, accusing himself of actually deviating sometimes into poetry. Although the Guardian's principles were also brought into ridicule by burlesque exemplifications of them after the manner of Gay's Shepherd's Week, Steele, misled by the opening sentences, was at first unwilling to print what appeared to be a direct attack on Pope, and asked Pope's consent to the publication, which was graciously granted.
The relations between Pope and his Whig friends were further strained by one or two little incidents about the same time. The truculent Dennis attacked both Pope's Rape of the Lock and Addison's Cato. Pope said nothing in his own defence, butwe were very obliging in those daysdefended his friend Addison in a Narrative of the Frenzv of John Dennis. The attack was so coarse that Addison sent Steele to Dennis to disclaim all connexion with it. Then Pope asked his friend Addison's advice about the enlargement of the Rape of the Lock, and Addison advised him to leave it as it was, which advice the man who had asked it attributed to jealousy.
The estrangement was completed in connexion with Pope's translation of Homer. This enterprise was definitively undertaken in 1713. The work was to be published by subscription as Dryden's Virgil had been. Men of all parties subscribed, their unanimity being a striking proof of the position Pope had attained at the age of twenty-five. It was as if he had received a national commission as by general consent the first poet of his time. But the unanimity was broken by a discordant note. A member of the Addison clique, Tickell, attempted to run a rival version. There was nothing criminal in this, but it was an irritating continuation of the cold grudging treatment that Pope had all along received from the same quarter. Pope suspected Addison's instigation ; Tickell had at least Addison's encouragement. Pope's famous character of Addison, if not true in the main, is at least a strictly fair description, inspired not by malignity but by legitimate resentment, if resentment is ever legitimate, of Addison's treatment of himself as he was rising into fame. Pope afterwards claimed to have been magnanimous, and he is suspected of having supported this claim by petty inventions in his account of the quarrel. Magnanimity he could not fairly claim ; but he did not attack without provocation for twelve years. The new pieces in the miscellanies published in 1717, his "Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady" and his "Eloisa to Abelard," were probably written some years before their publication. The Iliad was delivered to the subscribers in instalments in 1715, 1717, 1718, and 1720. For the translation of the Odyssey he took Fenton and Broome as coadjutors, who between them translated twelve out of the twenty-four books. It was completed in 1725. The profitableness of the work was Pope's chief temptation to undertake it. He cleared more than .£8000 by the two translations, after deducting all payments to coadjutorsa much larger sum than had ever been received by an English author before. Pope, with his economical habits, was rendered independent by it, and enabled to live nearer London. The estate at Binfield was sold, and he removed with his parents to Chiswick in 1716, and in 1718 to Twickenham, to the residence with which his name is associated. Here he held his little court, and was visited by his intimates Arbuthnot, Gay, Bolingbroke (after his return in 1723), and Swift (during his brief visits to England in 1726 and 1727), and by many other friends of political eminence. Martha Blount, after his mother's death in 1733, was occasionally domiciled in his house.
The translation of Homer established Pope's reputation with his contemporaries, and has endangered it ever since it was challenged. It was the Homer chiefly that Wordsworth and Coleridge had in their eye when they began the polemic against the "poetic diction" of the 18th century, and struck at Pope as the arch-corruptor. They were historically unjust to Pope, who did not originate this diction, but only furnished the most finished examples of it. Mr Leslie Stephen has asked in what the much abused pseudo-poetic diction consists. A long analysis would be required to answer the question in detail, but in substance it consisted in an ambition to " rise above the vulgar style," to dress nature to advantagea natural ambitionwhen the arbiters of literature were people of fashion. If one compares Pope's "Messiah," or "Eloisa to Abelard," or an impassioned passage from the Iliad, with the originals that he paraphrased, one gets a* more vivid idea of the consistence of pseudo-poetic diction than could be furnished by pages of analysis. But Pope merely used the established diction of his time. A passage from the Guardian, in which Philips was commended as against him, shows in a single example the great aim of fashionable poets in those days. " It is a nice piece of art to raise a proverb above the vulgar style and still keep it easy and unaffected. Thus the old wish, ' God rest his soul,' is very finely turned:
" Then gentle Sidney liv'd, the shepherd's friend, Eternal blessings on his shade attend."
Pope would have despised so easy a metamorphosis as this, for, just as dress is often valued for what it cost the wearer, so the poetic dress of nature was esteemed in proportion to the poet's labour and ingenuity in devising it. The work of his coadjutors and imitators in the Odyssey may be distinguished by this comparative cheapness of material. Broome's description of the clothes-washing by Nausicaa and her maidens in the sixth book may be compared with the original as a luminous specimen.
The year 1725 may be taken as the beginning of the third period of Pope's career, when he made his fame as a moralist and a satirist. In point of sheer literary power the works then composed are his greatest, but the subjects chosen belong essentially to the lower levels of poetry. Why did Pope, when his independence was secured and he was free to choose, " take to the plains," to use Wordsworth's phrase, " when the heights were within his reach " His choice was determined partly by character and partly by circumstances. It may be doubted whether Pope had the staying power necessary for the composition of a great imaginative work, whether his crazy constitution would have held together through the strain. He toyed with the idea of writing a grand epic. He told Spence that he had it all in his head, and gave him a vague (and it must be admitted not very promising) sketch of the subject and plan of it. But he never put any of it on paper. He shrank as with instinctive repulsion from the stress and strain of complicated designs. Even his prolonged task of translating weighed heavily on his spirits, and this was a much less formidable effort than creating an epic. He turned rather to designs that could be accomplished in detail, works of which the parts could be separately laboured at and put together with patient care, into which happy thoughts could be fitted that had been struck out at odd moments and in ordinary levels of feeling.
The Dunciad (1728) was the first work of the new period. Circumstances turned him to satire when he was free from the Odyssey, and from his edition of Shakespeare, a bookseller's commission completed in the same year. Young's satire, The Universal Passion, had just appeared and been received with more enthusiasm than anything published since Pope's own early successes. This alone would have been powerful inducement to Pope's emulous temper. Swift was finishing Gulliver's Travels, and came over to England in 1726. The survivors of the Scriblerus ClubSwift, Pope, Arbuthnot, and Gay resumed their old amusement of parodying and otherwise ridiculing bad writers, especially bad writers in the Whig interest. A volume of their jeux d'esprit was published in 1727. According to Pope's own history of the Dunciad, the idea of it grew out of this. Among the miscellanies was a " Treatise on the Art pf Sinking," in which poets were classified, with illustrations, according to their eminence in the various arts of debasing instead of elevating their subject. No names were mentioned, but the specimens of bathos were assigned to various letters of the alphabet, most of them taken at random. But no sooner was the treatise published than the infatuated scribblers proceeded to take the letters to themselves, and in revenge to fill the newspapers with the most abusive falsehoods and scurrilities they could possibly devise. " This gave Mr Pope the thought that he had now some opportunity of doing good, by detecting and dragging into light these common enemies of mankind," who for years had been anonymously aspersing almost all the great characters of the age.
The truth probably lies between this account and that adopted by those who take the worst view of Pope's character. This is that he was essentially vindictive and malignant, and that, as soon as his hands were free from Homer, he proceeded to settle old scores with all who had not spoken as favourably as he liked about himself and his works. The most prominent objects of his satire can be shown to have given him personal offenceTheobald, . Cibber, Dennis, Lintot, and others. This indeed was avowed by Pope, who claimed that it was their attacks on himself that had given him a right to their names. We may admit that personal spite influenced Pope at least as much as disinterested zeal for the honour of literature, but in the dispute as to the comparative strength of these motives, a third is apt to be overlooked that was probably stronger than either. This was an unscrupulous elfish love of fun, and delight in the creations of a humorous imagination. Certainly to represent the Dunciad as the outcome of mere personal spite is to give an exaggerated idea of the malignity of Pope's disposition, and an utterly wrong impression of the character of his satire. He was not a morose, savage, indignant satirist, but airy and graceful in his malice, writing more in fun than in anger, revengeful perhaps and excessively sensitive, but restored to good-humour as he thought over his wrongs by the ludicrous conceptions with which he invested his adversaries. We do not feel the bitterness of wounded pride in his writings, but the laughter with which that pride was consoled. He loved his own comic fancies more than he hated his enemies. His fun at the expense of his victims was so far cruel that he was quite regardless of their sufferings, probably enjoyed them; but it was an impish and sprite-like cruelty, against which we cannot feel any real indignation because it is substantially harmless, while its ingenious antics never fail to amuse. Even when he exults in the poverty and material distresses of his victims, the coarseness of the matter is redeemed by the irresponsible gaiety of the manner. Such things should not be taken too seriously, if a Scotsman may say so. Further, even if Pope is regarded as a bitter malignant, it must be with two important qualifications. His plea that he was never the aggressor in a quarrel, in spite of all Mr Elwin's special pleadings to the contrary, was a truthful plea, though his sensitiveness to criticism was such as to make him fancy slights, and the withholding of praise where praise was due would have been construed by him as a positive offence. And his literary conscience was so strong that not one of his attacks on literary grounds was unjust. Pope was a most generous critic of real merit. The only doubtful exception is the case of Bentley, whom he satirized in the reconstruction and enlargement of the Dunciad made in the last years of his life at the instigation, it is said, of Warburton. Looked at apart from personal questions, the Dunciad is the greatest feat of the humorous imagination in English poetry.
There was much more of unjust judgment in Pope's Satires and Epistles of Horace Imitated, published at intervals between 1733 and 1738, because in them he oftener wrote of what he did not personally know, and was the mouthpiece of the animus of his political friends. These friends were all in opposition to Walpole, who was then at the height of his power, and the shafts of Pope's satire were directed at the adherents of the great minister. Pope's satires give the concentrated essence of the bitterness of the opposition. We see gathered up in them the worst that was thought and said' about the court party when men's minds were heated almost to the point of civil war. To appreciate fully the point of his allusions requires of course an intimate acquaintance with the political and social gossip of the time. But apart from their value as a brilliant strongly-coloured picture of the time Pope's satires have a permanent value as literature. It is justly remarked by Pattison that " these Imitations are among the most original of his writings." The felicity of the versification and the diction is universally admired.
The Essay on Man (1732-34) was also intimately connected with passing controversies. It belongs to the same intellectual movement with Butler's Analogythe effort of the 18th century to put religion on a rational basis. But Pope was not a thinker like Butler. The subject was suggested to him by Bolingbroke, who is said alsoand the statement is supported by the contents of his posthumous worksto have furnished most of the arguments. Pope's contribution to the controversy consisted in brilliant epigram and illustration. In this didactic work, as in his Essay on Criticism, he put together on a sufficiently simple plan a series of happy sayings, separately elaborated, picking up the thoughts as he found them in miscellaneous reading and conversation, and trying only to fit them with perfect expression. The want of logical coherence in his system was shown by the very different interpretations put upon it. Dealing as it did in incomparably brilliant fashion with a subject of living interest, the Essay at once attracted attention both at home and abroad, and Pope was attacked by a Swiss professor as an ally of the freethinkers. But a champion of his orthodoxy was found in Warburton. Pope was so delighted with the pugnacious paradoxist's reply to De Crousaz that he made Warburton's acquaintance. The readiness with which Pope allowed Warburton to take possession of himself and his works in his old age was not a symptom of senile weakness. It was an act of that characteristic business-like acuteness which he showed throughout in the management of his reputation. He saw that as long as Warburton was the authorized commentator on his works there was not likely to be any lack of critical debate about him and about them.
Pope died on the 30th May 1744, and was buried in the church of Twickenham. His own ruling passion was what a poet of his generation described as the universal passion, the love of fame. Under the influence of this passion he tried to support his reputation by intrigues such as the statesmen of his time used in climbing the ladder and keeping themselves in place. He had no moral scruple where this was concernedeverything gave way before the ruling passion. For some of these intrigues, so incongruous with our idea of a poet's character, he has suffered severe retribution. Especially of late years he has been violently denounced as little better than a common swindler for his petty manoeuvres in connexion with the publication of his lettersletters designed to exhibit him as a pattern of friendship, magnanimity, and all the virtues. These manoeuvres, which were first tracked with great patience and ingenuity by Mr Dilke,1 are too intricate to be recorded in short space. This, in effect, is what he seems to have done. He collected his letters from his friends, retouched them, changed dates and passages to suit the picture of himself which he wished to present, deposited the collection thus manipulated in the safekeeping of the earl of Oxford, then sent a printed book of them to Curll, and intrigued to make it appear that they had been fraudulently published without his consent. It was a ridiculously petty action, but to characterize it as Mr Elwin has done will be fair when it is customary to use similar language about the intrigues of statesmen and diplomatists. To apply it to Pope at present is not to call a spade a spade, but a molehill a mountain. Becent revelations have not affected by one iota Johnson's judgment of his character. The man who 1 See Papers of a Critic.
The Essay on Man, which may be said to contain the essence of the thought of men of the world in his generation on its subjectsuch was the poet's skill and judgment in collecting the substance of floating opinionwas announced by Pope as part of a system of "pieces on human life and manners." Whether Warburton was authorized or not in his sketch of Pope's intentions, the so-called Moral Essays (published at intervals between 1731 and 1735) which Warburton connected with the general plan have each an independent interest. They contain some of the most brilliant of Pope's satirical portraits, and his famous theory of " the ruling passion." If space permitted it might easily be shown that in this theory Pope proved himself a better psychologist than Macaulay, who subjects it to much misunderstanding ridicule.
"played the politician about cabbages and turnips," and "hardly drank tea without a stratagem," was not likely to be straightforward in a matter in which his ruling passion was concerned. Against Pope's petulance and "general love of secrecy and cunning " have to be set, in any fair judgment of his character, his exemplary conduct as a son, the affection with which he was regarded in his own circle of intimates, and many well-authenticated instances of genuine kindliness to persons in distress. (W. M.)
The above article was written by: Prof. William Minto.