Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. J. Courthope
Alexander Pope (16881744)
[Alexander Pope was born in 1688 and died in 1744. He published essays in the Guardian in 1713, a Discourse on Pastoral Poetry in 1717; a Preface to the edition of Shakespeare which appeared in 1725; besides various satirical papers which were collected in the Miscellanies of himself and Swift, published in 1728. The so-called spurious Correspondence was published in 1735; the authors version appeared in 1737; to which a sequel was added in 1741. In 1742 he printed the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, the greater part of which, however, was the work of Arbuthnot, though the Introduction was written by Pope.]
POPES prose writings may be classified as essays, satirical miscellanies, and letters. In this arrangement his letters make much the largest part. He was the first Englishman who treated letter-writing as an art, and so far did he carry his practice, that those of his compositions, which might be expected to be most like conversation, are the very ones which show the clearest marks of study and reflection. The series of frauds which accompanied the publication of his correspondence in 1735 is now perfectly understood; but it is plain, both from the judgment of his friends and from his own confession, that, long before he thought of taking the public into his confidence, his letters were written for literary effect. This letter, he writes to Swift, 28th November 1729, like all mine, will be a rhapsody. It is many years ago since I wrote as a wit. How many occurrences or informations must one omit, if one determined to say nothing that one could not say prettily. I find, says Swift, in answer to him, 26th February 172930, you have been a writer of letters almost from your infancy; and by your own confession had schemes even then of epistolary fame. In fact to call anything that he ever wrote a rhapsody, was a mere figure of speech. Whatever he produced, whether prose or verse, from the time when he began to lisp in numbers to the very last day of his life, was weighed, meditated, and corrected before it was submitted to the public, or indeed even to his friends. A vein of fiction ran through his thoughts on all subjects. He was always on the watch for materials of composition within his daily experience. On one occasion he made the trivial domestic troubles of one of his female friends the basis of a romantic elegy. On other occasions he treated actual scenes, persons, and incidents which came under his notice as subjects for epistolary romances. Of this kind are his letters to the Duke of Buckingham and Lady M. W. Montagu describing Stanton Harcourt; the letter about the haymakers struck by lightning, copies of which were sent to Martha Blount, Fortescue, and Lord Bathurst; and the letter to the Earl of Burlington, describing a ride with Lintot to Oxford. Viewed as ideal compositions, the style of these letters, descriptive, humorous, or pathetic, is often admirable. But the charm of a letter is strongest when it may be supposed to afford a real image of the writers mind, a real record of external things. When I sit down to write a letter, says Swift, I never lean upon my elbow until I finish it. Pope, on the contrary, never seems in his letters to be off his guard for a moment: we feel sure that he is always adding to the objects he professes to be painting from nature, the touches required to complete a literary effect.
It is noticeable also that he varies his style according to the ideal which he imagines to be present in the mind of his correspondent. To Cromwell he writes in a vein welcome, as he supposes, to one who had lived with the wits of the Restoration; corresponding with Lady M. W. Montagu, a woman of the highest fashion, he uses the style of gallantry invented by Voiture; but when he is discoursing with a simple country squire like Caryll, who, he knows, will not judge him severely, he reflects and moralises just as the humour takes him. His best letters are those in which the habit of composition is softened by natural affection, or checked by intellectual respect for his correspondent. What he wrote to Martha Blount, for example, as it was often dictated by his heart, is much better than the string of frigid conceits which he thought would be an acceptable offering to Lady M. W. Montagu; while his letters to Swift who, he was aware, could measure his genius as well as admire it, have much of the friendly confidence shown in his correspondence with Caryll, with less of cheap philosophy. Where circumstances favoured him he could write with admirable effect, as we see in his answer to Atterbury, who, after his fathers death, had used persuasion with him to join the Church of England. Occasionally too a letter wrung from him by personal sufferinglike the one written, though not published, as a reply to the attack made on him by Lord Herveyrises to such a height of grief or anger, as to open a view of his real nature. But, as a rule, the revelation of himself in his correspondence is rather a portrait of what he wished himself to be, and others to think him, than of what he actually was.
His essays and critical writings, in which he deals with matters external to himself, are perhaps more simple and natural in manner than his letters, but, as they for the most part follow in other mens footsteps, are less characteristic of his genius. His Discourse on Pastoral Poetry is in the style of the French critics: the Preface to Shakespeare shows traces of the study of Drydens Essay of Dramatic Poesy: the papers in the Guardian are written in the manner of Addison. He is perhaps most successful in light jeux desprit such as the ironical paper in the Guardian in ridicule of Ambrose Phillips; the Key to the Lock; and the Treatise on the Bathos; but from this praise must be excepted the satires on Curll and Dennis, in which the poverty of the wit is no less conspicuous than the grossness of the personality.
On the whole it appears that the qualities which made Pope, in his own department, a great master of English verse, prevented him from reaching the first rank as a writer of English prose. He endeavoured to make the sentence, like the heroic couplet, the vehicle for a succession of points and epigrams. But this method is scarcely suitable to a form of literary expression, which, as it approaches the ordinary modes of unwritten speech, necessarily suffers if the artifice of its construction is allowed to appear. The best styles, like the best manners, are those which have most beauty in themselves, but attract least attention to themselves. Pope, when writing in prose, seldom succeeds in suppressing his self-consciousness so completely as to reach this standard. In his poems like the Epistle to Arbuthnot, where he is, so to speak, dancing in chains, he moves with the perfection of artful ease; but in his essays, and still more in his letters, where he ought above all things to appear natural, familiar, and unaffected, he is unable to disguise the labour of the composer.