Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Mark Pattison
Alexander Pope (16881744)
[Alexander Pope was born in Lombard Street, in the city of London, 1688. His father was a wholesale linen-draper, who, having realised a modest competence, retired to the country to live upon it. Popes youth was spent at Binfield in the skirts of Windsor Forest. Pope was brought up a Catholic, his father, though the son of a beneficed clergyman of the Established Church, having become a convert to Catholicism during a residence on the continent. On the death of his father, Pope, who had largely increased his inheritance by the profits of his translation of Homer, established himself at Twickenham. Here he resided till his death in 1744, employing himself in writing, in embellishing his grounds, of five acres, and in intercourse with most of the wits, and other famous men and women of his time, among whom Gay, Swift, Arbuthnot, and Lord Bolingbroke were his especial intimates. Pope was deformed, and sickly from childhood, and his constant ill-health made his temper fretful, waspish, and irritable. Notwithstanding these defects of character he secured the warm attachment of his friends. Bolingbroke said of him that he never knew a man who had so tender a heart for his particular friends. Warburton, after spending a fortnight at Twickenham, said of him, He is as good a companion as a poet, and, what is more, appears to be as good a man. Popes principal works arePastorals, published in 1709; Essay on Criticism, 1711; Pollio, 1712; Rape of the Lock, 1714; Translation of Homers Iliad, 171518; Edition of Shakspeare, 1725; Translation of Homers Odyssey, 1726; Dunciad, 1st form, 1728; Epistle to the Earl of Burlington, 1731; On the Use of Riches, 1732; Essay on Man, Part I, 1732; Horace, Sat. 2. 1. imitated, 1733; Epistle to Lord Cobham, 1733; Epistle to Arbuthnot, 1735; Horace, Epistle 1. 1. imitated, 1737; Dunciad, altered and enlarged, 1742. His works were collected by his literary executor. Bishop Warburton, and published in 9 volumes in 1751.]
POPE is not only the foremost literary figure of his age, but the representative man of a system or style of writing which for a hundred years before and after him pervaded English poetry. The writers in this style are sometimes spoken of as the school of Pope. But the title is a misnomer. A school coexists along with other schools from which it is distinguished by some special characteristics; all the contemporaneous schools taken together bearing the common and more general stamp of their age. During the period now under review, which extends, speaking roughly, from the Restoration to the French Revolution, the whole of English literary effort, but especially poetical effort, has one aim and is governed by one principle. This is the desire to attain perfection of form; a sense of the beauty of literary composition as such. It was the rise within the vernacular language of that idea, which impregnating the Latin language as written and spoken in the fifteenth century had produced the revived, neo-latin literature of the Renaissance. Pope himself (Sat. and Ep. 5), in describing this manner, spoke of it as French, and attributed it to the imitation of French fashions introduced into England at the Restoration.
We conquerd France, but felt our captives charms;
Her arts victorious triumphd oer our arms;
Britain to soft refinements less a foe,
Wit grew polite, and numbers learnd to flow.
De Quincey (Works, vol. 9) expatiates upon the deficiencies of this explanation of a revolution in literary taste. Certainly the court of Louis XIV exercised a great influence in all matters of taste. But this influence of fashion ceased when the ascendency of France was broken by the war of the Spanish succession, while the direction which had been impressed upon English poetry continued to dominate it till towards the close of the eighteenth century.
A better denomination for the period of our literature which extends from the Restoration to the French Revolution is the classical period. And this is not to be taken to mean that English writers now imitated the Greek and Latin writers, or consciously formed themselves upon classical models, as the Latinists of the Renaissance imitated Cicero and Virgil. English writers had begun to perceive that there was such an art as the art of writing; that it was not enough to put down words upon paper anyhow, provided they conveyed your meaning. They found that sounds were capable of modulation, and that pleasure could be given by the arrangement of words, as well as instruction conveyed by their import. The public ear was touched by this new harmony, and began imperatively to demand its satisfaction; and from that moment the rude volubility of the older time seemed to it as the gabble of savages. A poem was no longer to be a story told with picturesque imagery, but was to be a composition in symmetry and keeping. A thought or a feeling was not to be blurted out in the first words that came, but was to be matured by reflection and reduced to its simplest expression. Condensation, terseness, neatness, finishall qualities hitherto unheard of in Englishhad to be studied. It was found to be possible to please by your manner as well as by your matter. And having been shown to be possible, it became necessary. No writer who neglected the graces of style could gain acceptance by the public.
This fastidiousness of the public ear required on the part of writers greatly increased labour. It was no longer possible to take a sheet of paper, and write out your thoughts as fast as the pen would move. The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease were distanced in the race. It was evident that, under the new standard thus set up, the prize would be to him who should be willing to take most trouble about his style. Pope was willing. As a boy he took as his lifes lesson the advice given him by knowing Walsh, who used to tell him there was one way left of excelling; for though we had several great poets, we never had any one great poet that was correct; and desired me to make that my study and aim. De Quincey, misconstruing Walshs meaning, has been at the pains to show that Popes verses abound in grammatical incorrectnesses. The language, he says, does not realise the idea; it simply suggests or hints it. That conveyance by suggestion, instead of a perfect and plenary deliverance, is just what Pope aimed at, and what Walsh inculcated, though he may not have chosen the very best word for what he meant.
Pope at once took the lead in the race of writers because he took more pains than they. He laboured day and night to form himself for his purpose, that viz. of becoming a writer of finished verse. To improve his mind, to enlarge his view of the world, to store up knowledgethese were things unknown to him. Any ideas, any thoughts, such as custom, chance, society or sect may suggest, are good enough, but each idea must be turned over till it has been reduced to its neatest and most epigrammatic expression.
If this definition of the literary aim which dominated all writing during the hundred years which followed 1660 be just, it follows from it that the period would be more favourable to prose than to poetry. What in fact came to pass was that a compromise was effected between poetry and prose, and the leading writers adopted as the most telling form of utterance prosaic verse, metre without poetry. It is by courtesy that the versifiers of this century from Dryden to Churchill are styled poets, seeing that the literature they have bequeathed us wants just that element of inspired feeling, which is present in the feeblest of the Elizabethans.
But if these versifiers are not poets in the noblest sense of the term, it does not follow that what they produced is destitute of value. In the romantic reaction at the beginning of this century, the worthlessness of eighteenth-century poetry was part of the revolutionary creed. Sheer lawlessness was then admired, while labour was disdained as the badge of an unimaginative and artificial school. The sounder judgment of a riper period of criticism can now do justice to the writers of our classical period. What they had not got we know well enough. They wanted inspiration, lofty sentiment, the heroic soul, chivalrous devotion, the inner eye of faithabove all, love and sympathy. They could not mean greatly. But such meaning as they had they laboured to express in the neatest, most terse and pointed form which our language is capable of. If not poets they were literary artists. They showed that a couplet can do the work of a page, and a single line produce effects which in the infancy of writing would require sentences.
Of these masters of literary craft Pope is the most consummate. In two directions, in that of condensing and pointing his meaning, and in that of drawing the utmost harmony of sound out of the couplet, Pope carried versification far beyond the point at which it was when he took it up. Historical parallels are proverbially misleading. Yet the analogy between what Virgil did for the Latin hexameter as he received it from Lucretius, and Popes maturing the ten-syllable couplet which he found as Dryden left it, is sufficiently close to be of use in aiding us to realise Popes merit. Because, after Pope, his trick of versification became common property, and every warbler had his tune by heart, we are apt to overlook the merit of the first invention.
But epigrammatic force and musical flow are not the sole elements of Popes reputation. The matter which he worked up into his verse has a permanent value, and is indeed one of the most precious heirlooms which the eighteenth century has bequeathed us. And here we must distinguish between Pope when he attempts general themes, and Pope when he draws that which he knew, viz. the social life of his own day. When in the Pastorals he writes of natural beauty, in the Essay on Criticism he lays down the rules of writing, in the Essay on Man he versifies Leibnitzian optimism, he does not rise above the herd of eighteenth-century writers, except in so far as his skill of language is more accomplished than theirs. The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad have a little more interest, because they treat of contemporary manners. But even in these poems, because the incidents are trivial and the personages contemptible, Pope is not more than pretty in The Rape of the Lock, and forcible, where force is ludicrously misplaced, in The Dunciad. It is where he comes to describe the one thing which he knew, and about which he felt sympathy and antipathy, viz. the court and town of his time, in the Moral Essays, and the Satires and Epistles, that Pope found the proper material on which to lay out his elaborate workmanship. And even in these capital works we must distinguish between Popes general theorems and his particular portraits. Where he moralises, or deduces general principles, he is superficial, second-hand, and one-sided as the veriest scribbler. For example: in the splendid lines on the Duke of Wharton (Mor. Ess. 1. 174) we must separate the childish theory of the ruling passion from the telling accumulation of epigram on epigram which follows under that spurious rubric. Or again, we might instance his Epistle to Augustus (Ep. 5) sparkling with lines of wit and pregnant sense, and yet offering as our literary history the grotesque theory, that the French style, which came in with the Restoration, was a consequence of the conquest of France in the fifteenth century.
In short, Pope, wherever he recedes from what was immediately close to him, the manners, passions, prejudices, sentiments, of his own day, has only such meritlittle enoughwhich wit divorced from truth can have. He is at his best only where the delicacies and subtle felicities of his diction are employed to embody some transient phase of contemporary feeling. Pope has small knowledge of books. Though he was, as Sir W. Hamilton says, a curious reader, he read for style, not for facts. Of history, of science, of nature, of anything except the town he knows nothing. He just shares the ordinary prejudices of the ordinary wit of his day. He was a Tory-Catholic, like any other Tory-Catholic of George IIs day. His sentiments reflect the social medium in which he lived. The complex web of society, with its indefinable shades, its minute personal affinities and repulsions, is the world in which Pope lived and moved, and which he has drawn in a few vivid lines, with the keenness and intensity of which there is nothing in our literature that can compare. Clarendons portraits in his gallery of characters are more complete and discriminating, and infinitely more candid. But they do not flash the personage, or the situation, upon the imagination, and fix it in the memory, as one of Popes incisive lines does. Like all the greatest poets, Pope is individual and local. He can paint with his full power only what he sees. When he attempts abstract truth, general themes, past history, his want of knowledge makes itself felt in feeble and distorted views.
The first production of Pope to appear in print was his Pastorals, published 1709, when the author was twenty-one, but written some years earlier. As the work of a youth of seventeen they are a marvellous feat of melodious versification. In any other respect they are only worthy of mention as already exemplifying the false taste which Pope never got rid of when he attempted any other theme than manners.
Of this false taste his Messiah is an elaborate specimen. This poem is an adaptation of Virgils fourth Eclogue, Pollio, to Christ, grafting upon the lines of the Latin poet the images supplied by the prophecies of Isaiah. The ingenuity with which the double imitation is carried through is only surpassed by the mastery shown over the melody of the couplet, and the exhibition of a complete poetical vocabulary. These brilliant qualities carried by storm the admiration of Popes contemporaries, and continued to command the homage of the eighteenth century down to Johnson. Language experience, enforced by the precept and example of Wordsworth, makes our age too keenly feel that the pathos and sublimity of the Hebrew prophet are destroyed by the artificial embroidery with which Pope has overlaid them. Popes Messiah reads to us like a sickly paraphrase, in which all the majesty of the original is dissipated. Righteousness becomes dewy nectar; sheep are the fleecy care; the call to Jerusalem to arise and shine is turned into an invocation to exalt her towry head. The fir-tree and box-tree of Isaiah are the spiry fir and shapely box. In his translation of the prediction the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice den, Pope makes the cockatrice a crested basilisk, and the asp a speckled snake; they have both scales of a green lustre, and a forky tongue, and with this last the smiling infant shall innocently play. The leopard, says Isaiah, shall lie down with the kid, and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them; Pope could not leave this exquisite picture undecorated, and with him boys in flowery bands the tiger lead. The alternative is an example of the justice of De Quinceys observation that the Arcadia of Popes age was the spurious Arcadia of the opera theatre. (Elwin.)
The Essay on Criticism appeared in 1711. This is a didactic poem of which the remote prototype is Horaces Ars poetica, and the immediate, Boileaus Art poétique. It differs from these models in its subject, which is the Art of Criticism. To Dr. Johnson this production appeared to display such extent of comprehension, such nicety of distinction, such acquaintance with mankind, and such knowledge both of ancient and modern learning, as are not often attained by the matured age and the longest experience. This verdict of Johnson may be cited to show the great advance which criticism has made in England in the course of a century. We should now say that the precepts of Popes Essay are conventional truisms, the ordinary rules of composition which may be found in all school manuals, and which are taught to boys as part of their prosody. The Essay, says De Quincey, is a mere versification, like a metrical multiplication table, of commonplaces the most mouldy with which criticism has baited its rat-traps. It required very little reading of the French textbooks to find the maxims which Pope has here strung together. But he has dressed them so neatly, and turned them out with such sparkle and point, that these truisms have acquired a weight not their own, and they circulate as proverbs among us in virtue of their pithy form rather than their truth. They exemplify his own line What oft was thought, but neer so well expressed. Pope told Spence that he had gone through all the best critics, specifying Quintilian, Rapin and Le Bossu. But whatever trouble he took in collecting what to say, his main effort is expended upon how to say it. The Essay on Criticism abounds in those striking couplets which have lodged in all our memories, and given their last and abiding shape to dicta which have been extant in substance since literature began. A good example of this art is supplied by the couplet which has just been quoted from;
True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft was thought, but neer so well expressed.
which is Popes compressed form of the following prose of Boileau; Quest-ce quune pensée neuve, brillante, extraordinaire? Ce nest point comme se le persuadent les ignorants, une pensée que personne na jamais eue, ni dû avoir. Cest au contraire une pensée qui a dû venir à tout le monde, et que quelquun savise le premier dexprimer. Un bon mot nest bon mot quen ce quil dit une chose que chacun pensoit, et quil la dit dune manière vive, fine, et nouvelle.
But though the Essay abounds with sparkle and point and memorable lines, it is very far from being composed throughout of nothing but such. Besides the general fault, which pervades all Popes longer efforts, of want of coherent texture and consecutiveness of argument, the Essay on Criticism offers too many weak lines, obscure expressions, and monotonous rhymes. Negligences of versification, such as no piece of Popes composition is entirely free from, abound in the Essay. One instance of this slovenliness is the want of variety in his endings. There are twelve couplets rhyming to wit, and ten rhyming to sense.
Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things,
Atones not for that envy which it brings.
Mistaken things here means things wrongly taken by others, which is not the natural sense of the words; and atones stands for compensates.
But sense survived when merry jests were passed.
It requires explanation that were passed here means had passed away.
Form short ideas, and offend in arts
As most in manners, from a love to parts.
In this one couplet are three expressions, short ideas, offend in arts, and love to parts, the meaning of which has to be guessed, or gathered from the context; it is not apparent on the face of the words used. In some styles of poetry enigmatical expression is not a fault; in an Aeschylean chorus it is of the essence of the charm that the revelations should be shrouded in clouds. But Popes verse, like French prose, is constructed on the principle of being immediately intelligible; the moment it is not so, its raison dêtre is gone.
The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic poem, the style of which was suggested to Pope by Boileaus Lutrin. Pope followed his model in entitling his work An heroicomical poem, the epithet employed by Boileau in the 1709 edition of his Lutrin. It was founded upon an incident which had caused great commotion in the circle of Catholic families in which Pope, though not himself a member of it, had friends. Lord Petre, in a moment of youthful frolic, had cut off a lock of hair from Miss Arabella Fermors head, a liberty which was keenly resented, and had caused a violent quarrel between the families. Mr. Caryll, a Sussex squire, nephew to the Mr. John Caryll who had been Secretary to Mary, James IIs Queen, suggested to Pope to write a poem, which by treating the incident playfully, might induce the offended family to take a more lenient view of what they regarded as an outrage. This was the motive of the first draft of the poem, as it was printed in Tonsons Miscellany, 1712, in two cantos, and no more than 330 lines. This first sketch was written off in a fortnight, but its author, pleased with the success of his work, elaborated it afterwards, and enlarged it especially by the introduction of what he calls the machinery, or the agency of supernatural beings of the fairy species, whom he calls sylphs. It is universally admitted that the later additions, and this invention especially, are great improvements, thus forming an exception to the rule that a poet should never recast, or supplement, a piece which he has turned out well in the first instance.
The heroine of the poem, Belinda, is Miss Fermor; the Baron is Lord Petre; Thalestris is Mrs. Morley; Sir Plume is Mrs. Morleys brother, Sir George Brown of Keddington. Pope obtained permission to dedicate the poem to Miss Fermor; but notwithstanding that he takes care to tell her that Belinda resembles her in nothing but in beauty, the lady was more offended than flattered by the representation given of her. Sir George Brown was indignant at being made to talk nothing but nonsense. In bringing about its professed aim, the reconciliation of the two families, the poem was entirely unsuccessful.
But with the public it was otherwise. On its first publication Addison pronounced it a delicious little thing; merum sal. Criticism the most hostile to Pope, of which there has been abundance in the modern reaction against his influence, has agreed to spare the Rape. Macaulay pronounces it his best poem. De Quincey, who never spares Pope when he is weak, goes beyond Macaulay, and declares it the most exquisite monument of playful fancy that universal literature offers. The Rape of the Lock, writes Hazlitt, is the most exquisite specimen of filigree work ever invented. It is made of gauze and silver spangles. The most glittering appearance is given to everything; to paste, pomatum, billets-doux, and patches. Airs, languid airs breathe around; the atmosphere is perfumed with affectation. A toilet is described with the solemnity of an altar raised to the goddess of vanity, and the history of a silver bodkin is given with all the pomp of heraldry. No pains are spared, no profusion of ornament, no splendour of poetic diction to set off the meanest things . It is the triumph of insignificance, the apotheosis of foppery and folly. It is the perfection of the mock-heroic. And Professor Conington thinks there can be little to say about a poem so exquisite in its peculiar style of art as to make the task of searching for faults almost hopeless, that of commending beauties simply impertinent.
Such warmth of encomium as this is at least testimony to the admiration which the skill of the poet can still excite in the reader. But it is criticism which touches the workmanship rather than the work. Popes execution is so clever as always to charm us even when his subject is most devoid of interest. The secret of the peculiar fascination of The Rape of the Lock lies, I believe, not merely in the art and management, but in the fact that here, for the first time, Pope is writing of that which he knew, of the life he saw and the people he lived with. For Windsor Forest, though he lived in it, he had no eyes; but a drawing-room, a fop, and a belle, these were the objects which had struck his young fancy when he emerged from the linendrapers villa, and he had studied them. About these things he can be real and truthful; when he writes of Abelard and Heloise he is making believe, he is an actor trying to think himself into his part. Only in his Satires and Epistles and in the characters of his Moral Essays will he again succeed in hitting upon congenial matter on which to lay out his extraordinary power of versification.
Nor is the reflection of social life and manners which the Rape offers confined to superficial forms only. The most intimate sentiments of the time find their representation here. As an instance we may point to the mean estimation of women. Contempt veiled under the show of deference, a mockery of chivalry, its form without its spirit,this is the attitude assumed towards women by the poet in this piece. The world of fashion is displayed in its most gorgeous and attractive hues, and everywhere the emptiness is visible beneath the outward splendour. The beauty of Belinda, the details of her toilet, her troops of admirers, are all set forth with unrivalled grace and fascination, and all bear the impress of vanity and vexation. Nothing can exceed the art with which the satire is blended with the pomp, mocking without disturbing the unsubstantial gewgaw. The double vein is kept up with sustained skill in the picture of the outward charms and the inward frivolity of women.
With varying vanities from every part
They shift the moving toyshop of their heart;
this is the tone throughout. Their hearts are toyshops. They reverse the relative importance of things; the little with them is great, and the great little. (Elwin.) This feeling towards women is not the poets idiosyncrasy; here he is but the representative of his age. The degradation of woman in England does not date from the Restoration. It was complete before the Commonwealth, and is aptly symbolised in the behaviour of James I, who compelled all ladies to kneel on being presented to him. But the combination of the forms of chivalrous devotion with the reality of cynical contempt, was the peculiar tone of manners which came in with the court of Charles II, and gradually spread downwards through the lower social strata. The poem in our literature which gives the most finished representation of this sentiment is The Rape of the Lock.
It was to the translation of Homer, undertaken as a commercial speculation, that Pope owed, more than to anything else he produced, the great reputation he attained in his lifetime. The verdict of later times has reversed the decision of an age little versed in Greek, and whose artificial manners were alien from the primitive simplicity and savagery of Homer. Pope translated from the Latin version, from the French of Dacier, from the English of Chapman. But it was less his ignorance of Greek, than his theory of poetical expression, which led him astray. His solicitude is entirely spent upon the words he is using, and not upon the thing he is describing. He introduced ornaments which are not only foreign, but false and out of keeping. He reproduced neither the naiveté nor the dignity of the original. Popes moonlight scene provoked Wordsworths remark that the eye of the poet had never been steadily fixed upon its object, and that it shows to what a low state knowledge of the most obvious and important phenomena had sunk. Yet no selection from Pope would be complete which did not offer a specimen of the Homer. We give the moonlight scene from the 8th Book, partly for the sake of comparison with Chapmans rendering of the same lines, and also because it is a striking example of both the faults and excellences of the translation. We have in these few lines more than average infidelity to the original; we have unhomeric embroidery, such as refulgent lamp of night; but we have at the same time twenty-four lines (eleven in the Greek) of finished versification, the rapid, facile, and melodious flow of which, concentrating all the felicities of Popes higher style, has never been surpassed in English poetry.
The translation of Homer occupied Pope during the ten best years of his life. The Odyssey was finished in 1725, and Pope turned to very different work, the composition of The Dunciad. The Dunciad is a personal satire, or lampoon, directed against the small authors of the day, who are bespattered with much mud and little wit, without any pretence of disguise, and under their own names. The Dunciad has been the parent of a numerous progeny, The Scribleriad, The Baviad, The Pursuits of Literature, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, all of which have had much vogue in their day, and lost their savour when the generation they libelled has passed away. It must not be concealed that critics of reputation have spoken with approbation of this amalgam of dirt, ribaldry and petty spite. De Quincey has allowed himself to say that The Dunciad is Popes greatest work. Thackeray, who had no toleration for similar offences when Swift was the offender, thought that the conclusion of The Dunciad shows the author to be the equal of all poets of all times; and Conington considers the poem as unquestionably a very great satire. It certainly shows Popes peculiar skill as an artist in its perfection. He has now (1727) attained a complete mastery over the couplet, and can compel it to do the work he requires of it. To the literary historian the value of The Dunciad is great, as a chapter of contemporary life, a record of small celebrities, otherwise lost to fame. But of its absolute merit as a poem, a just taste must agree with Taine (Litt. Angl. t. 4), that seldom has so much talent been expended to produce so much ennui. The motive of the satire is not the desire of the moral reformer to improve mankind, but the rancour and malevolence of literary jealousy. And against whom is this petty irritation felt? Against feeble journalists, brutal pamphleteers, starving rhymesters, a crew of hackney authors, bohemians of ink and paper below literature. To sting and wound these unfortunates gave Pope pleasure as he sate, meditating stabs, in his elegant villa, the resort of the rich and the noble! By attacking these, he lowers himself to their level. The first poet of the ageof the centurychooses to hand himself down to posterity as bandying scurrilities with the meanest scribblers, hired defamers, the banditti of the printing-office, ready at the shortest notice to deliver half a crowns worth of slander. To be even with these miserable outcasts Pope condescended to employ one of the worst of them, Savage, as a spy and informer to bring him gossip from their haunts. When every other taunt fails him Pope can gibbet the poverty of these unsuccessful authors as a crime, and turn them into ridicule for wanting a dinner. The superfluous vehemence with which he rails against these insignificant enemies betrays the hollowness of the pretence that the satire was aimed not at individuals, but at the spirit of dullness or stupid conservatism. Of Popes ignorance of everything, except society and the art of versifying, The Dunciad offers one signal instance. The first scholar in Europe, one possessing a genius for criticism to which philologians of all countries still pay admiring homage, was an Englishman, and a contemporary of Pope. Pope looked on Richard Bentley but knew him not. The lines (included in our selection) in which the great critic is quizzed, are a typical specimen of the fatal flaw in Popes writings, viz. that the workmanship is not supported by the matter; a palpable falsehood is enshrined in immortal lines.
The composition of The Dunciad had revealed to Pope where his true strength lay, in blending personalities with moral reflection. During the next decade, 173040, he confined himself to the one style of composition upon which his reputation as an English poet must rest, and in which he has never had a rival. The pieces which appear in his collected works under the various titles of Moral Essays, Essay on Man, Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Imitations of Horace, Epilogue to the Satires, were brought out singly at various times during these ten years.
The most celebrated of these poems are the four epistles addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and known by the collective title of the Essay on Man. It is a didactic or argumentative poem, not on Man, as the title bears, but a théodicée or vindication of the ways of Providence. The view attempted to be presented is that of Leibnitzian optimism; the end of the universe is the general good of the whole; it was impossible to realise this without admitting partial evil. Man is not the end of creation, but only one in a graduated scale of beings; it is his pride which leads him to complain when he finds that everything has not been ordered for his benefit. The reasoning of the Essay on Man is feeble, the philosophy either trite or inconsistent, or obscure. But the less the intrinsic value of the argument, the more is our admiration excited by the literary skill and brilliant execution displayed in the management. The particular illustrations, the episodes and side-lights, always sparkle with wit, and are sometimes warm with feeling, when the main thesis is jejune and frigid. Whilst Pope frequently wastes his skill in gilding refuse, he is really most sensitive to the noblest sentiments of his contemporaries, and when he has good materials to work upon, his verse glows with unusual fervour. (Leslie Stephen.) Ruskin points to the couplet
Never elated, while one mans oppressed;
Never dejected whilst another s blessed
as the most complete, concise, and lofty expression of moral temper existing in English words. If the Essay on Man were shivered into fragments, it would not lose its value; for it is precisely its details which constitute its moral as well as literary beauties. (A. W. Ward.)
The Moral Essays, from which our next specimen is taken, consist of five epistles composed at different times, and placed in the works under a common title. Of these the same may be said as of the Essay on Man, that the ethical doctrine is not worthy of the exquisite workmanship. Our extract is from the first epistle, and includes the celebrated character of Philip Lord Wharton, a piece of portraiture which ranks with those of Addison, the Duchess of Marlborough, Lord Hervey, and the death-bed of Villiers Duke of Buckingham. They are masterpieces of English versification, medals cut with such sharp outlines and such vigour of hand that they have lost none of their freshness by lapse of time. When the poet engraves one of these figures, his compendious imagery, the surprises of his juxtaposition, the sustained and multiplied antitheses, the terse texture of each line, the incessant shocks from the play of his eloquence directed and concentrated continually upon one point, from these things the memory receives an impression which it never loses. (Taine.)
Popes peculiar powers found their most perfect development in the pieces, which in the collected works are entitled Satires and Epistles of Horace imitated. Casually suggested by Bolingbroke in the course of conversation, and calling themselves an imitation, these satires and epistles are the most original of Popes writings, and the most natural and spontaneous outcome of his genius. These pieces, nine in number, including a Prologue, and two Epilogues, form a total of some 2000 lines, and were the product of the four years 17358, and therefore of Popes meridian period between his fortieth and fiftieth year. The ferocity of Popes invective and the malice of his antipathies are here subdued, and though the coarser horse-laugh of the old time breaks out every now and then, yet on the whole the finer play of sarcasm and witty innuendo has taken the place of hard names and slander.
The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, or Prologue to the Satires may be singled out as Popes most characteristic piece. We give it entire in our selections. It contains the two famous portraits, that of Lord Hervey (Sporus) and that of Addison (Atticus). The libel, for such it is, on Lord Hervey cannot be excused even by the rancour of political party. This accomplished nobleman was Vice-Chamberlain in the court of George II, a position easy enough to a mere fribble, but which was sure to mark out a man of parts and wit such as Lord Hervey, as the object of hatred to the tory and jacobite opposition. Even as art, Pope must be considered in this sketch to have failed from overcharging his canvas with odious and disgusting images. Yet it is impossible not to admire, however we may condemn, the art by which acknowledged wit, beauty and gentle manners, the Queens favour, and even a valetudinary diet are travestied into the most odious defects and offences. (Croker.) The satire on Addison, in a more refined style, but not less unjust in fact, had been written twenty years before, during Addisons lifetime. Pope regarded the piece with the affection with which an author regards the product of much time and labour; and he had meditated each stab in this finished lampoon for years. Having printed it separately in 1727, he now finally adapted it into this Prologue to the Satires, only suppressing the real name, but not concealing it under the thin disguise of Atticus. The art of these malignant lines is much greater than that of those on Lord Hervey. Pope here not only avoids any images which were in themselves offensive, but allows his victim many virtues and accomplishments.