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The details of Pope's life are involved in much obscurity. The part of London in which he was born, his birthday, the circumstances under which several of his works were published, his share in the Odyssey, his rupture with Addison, his relation to various notable persons of his time, are all matters of yet unsolved controversy. Some at least of these difficulties result from a certain want of ingenuousness, or, to speak positively, a certain love of petty diplomacy and intrigue which marked his character.
(1) Alexander Pope was born in London in 1688. In his Prologue to the Satires he says:
“Of gentle blood (part shed in honour's cause,
While yet in Britain honour had applause)
Each parent sprung." Elsewhere (in his Letter to a Noble Lord) he says, his father “was no mechanic, neither a hatter nor a cobbler, but in truth of a very honourable family ; and my mother of an ancient one." His father, at the time of the future poet's birth, was a wholesale linen-merchant in London. As he was a Roman Catholic, he was debarred from giving his son the best educational advantages the country had to offer. What he could do, he did. Alexander was instructed in the rudiments of Latin and Greek by a Roman Catholic priest, then sent to "a Catholic seminary” at Twyford, near Winchester, then to another in London. When he quitted this last school he was not quite twelve years old. “This,” he said to Spence. “was all the teaching I ever had, and God knows it extended a very little way. When I had done with my priests, I took to reading by myself, for which I had a very great eagerness and enthusiasm, especially for poetry; and in a few years I had dipped into a very great number of the English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets,” &c.
His father had retired from business, and settled first at Kensington, and then at Binfield, near Windsor Forest. To Binfield Pope went when his school-days were ended, and there he mainly resided, making occasional visits to London and other places both near and some distance off, till 1716. At an early age he began to write verses ; he
“ Lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came ;” he translated; he imitated. At last in 1709 he commenced his career of fame by publishing his Pastorals. Presently (in 1711) followed his Essay on Criticism; then the Rape of the Lock, in two Cantos, afterwards increased to four. Pope at once took the first place amongst the poets of the day. This rapid success is to be accounted for not only by the excellence of what he produced in the eyes of his age that excellence was of the highest order), but by “the plentiful lack" of writers worthy in any sense of the title of poets which then prevailed. The throne of poetry was in fact empty; it could scarcely be said that there was any one standing even on the steps of it. Pope had no rivals; he was crowned as soon as he appeared.
“ Well-natur'd Garth inflam'd with early praise,
And Congreve loved, and Swift endur'd my lays.
And St. John's self, great Dryden's friend before,
Happier their author when by these belov'd !” He found many friendly neighbours at Binfield ; and he soon became known and sought after in a far wider society. Addison and Steele welcomed him not only as writers of the Tatlers and the Spectators, but personally. He formed, however, his more permanent friendships amongst the Tories. He was himself professedly neither Whig nor Tory: his closest friends were Tories : his views, at least later in life, were thoroughly Whiggish. But Pope, though of a not ungenial nature, was precluded by his physical constitution from any abundant enjoyment of social pleasures. From an early age he was an invalid. At a later period he needed constant nursing. His life was “a long disease ;” see Dr. Johnson's account of his extreme weakness, nis deformity, his helplessness. “The tenement of clay" was “o'er-informed ;” it had its revenge. It is impossible not to connect the irritability and tendency to satire which Pope exhibited from his very schoolboyhood with this distressing condition of his body.
(2) But though he was not to be a great social light, he was pre-eminent elsewhere. The world was delighted to know, in 1713, that he proposed to devote himself to the translation of the Iliad. The publication of this memorable work began in 1715, and ended in 1720. Then proposals were issued for the translation of the Odyssey. In this labour Broome and Fenton assisted him with some classical knowledge which they had gathered at Cambridge, and a mastery of the heroic couplet which they had learnt from himself. This performance seems to have been completed in 1725. Besides these two translations Pope wrote during the ten years, from 1715 to 1725, the Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard, and other minor pieces; and also edited Shakspere, not with much knowledge, but not without taste.
As to his private life, his Homer brought him not only much reputation, but very considerable money profits. “Thanks to Homer,” he lived and thrived,
“ Indebted to no prince or peer alive.” In 1716 he removed with his parents from Binfield to Chiswick. There in the following year his father died:
“Born to no pride, inheriting no strife,
Nor marrying discord in a'noble wife ;” - Pope is reflecting on Addison here
“Stranger to civil and religious rage,
The good man walk'd innoxious thro' his age :
Prol, to the Sat. In 1718 the poet and his mother migrated from Chiswick to Twickenham, or “Twitenham," as he pleased to call it. He beautified his house and little grounds after his heart's content. Within no great distance from him lived, at one time or another, many of his friends-some not always to be somas Lord Bolingbroke, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lord Peterborough, Lord Burlington. Here, varying his devotion to literature with so much social intercourse as his weakly frame permitted him to enjoy, he passed, not quietly or peacefully, nearly a quarter of a century.
(3) His next great work after the Iliad and Odyssey were completed was the Dunciad. In 1727 he had ridiculed, in his Treatise on the Bathos, or Art of Sinking in Poetry, many of the poetasters of the day. Not unnaturally, these gentlemen retaliated to the best of their ability. Pope-not, probably, without hints and instigations from Swift-replied, in 1728, with his famous Satire epic. In the following year he re-issued it with copious notes, that secured his sarcasms their proper application. From 1730-7 he continued his war with the Dunces by various contributions to the Grub Street Journal. In 1742 he republished the Dunciad, with the addition of another book. In 1743 appeared another edition, with Cibber substituted for Theobald as the hero-a change not made without damage to the unity or the poem.
Meanwhile, he had been more nobly busy. The earliest of his Moral Essays (the one usually printed last) was published in 1731 ; the latest (the one printed as Epistle II.) in 1735. In 1732 came out the first two books of the Essay on Man; in 1733 and 1734 the third and fourth books. To this same period belong the Satires, the earliest of which appeared in 1733; the Epilogue came out in 1738. In 1737 and in 1741 Pope issued his Letters, copies of which had already in some mysterious way been procured and published without authority.
Besides this list of works there is not much more to record. The friends whose successive influence is especially discernible in his post-Homeric works are Swift, Bolingbroke, and Warburton. All these survived him ; but the “thin partition” which latterly divided Swift's “great wit” from madness was broken down in 1740, and converse between the two foremost geniuses of their time for ever closed. Gay and Arbuthnot had passed away some years before. Pope's mother died in 1733. Pope, though not old as years go, began to find himselı alone. He saw a new race springing up around him. In 1738, the year in which Pope finished his last poem-the fourth book of the Dunciad-appeared Johnson's London. In 1741 commenced with Pamela the æra of the modern novel.
Pope died on May 30, 1744.
Perhaps no poet ever expressed more successfully what he had to express than Pope.* Many have been gifted with a loftier imagination, with a profounder intuition, with nobler and more passionate sentiments; but in few have their gifts been more clearly understood and represented. Pope knew his strength, and acted accordingly. He did not waste many long years of his life, as did Dryden, on a kind of literature in which he was not competent to excel; he scarcely essayed the drama. He quickly abandoned lyric poetry, in spite of injudicious praises given to his Ode for Musick on St. Cecilia's Day.
His great aim was to express himself clearly and smoothly. He was ready to receive subjects from his friends, or from preceding writers. He did not care to originate. His business was attractive and lucid expression ; it was to “set” gems, not to create them. When he was yet a youth, his friend Walsh remarked to him that “though we had several great poets, we never had any one great poet that was correct ;” “and he desired me," Pope told Spence, “to make that my study and aim.” And so Pope made it ; and few men have succeeded in their “study and aim " as Pope succeeded. Nor is the lesson which Pope's literary life conveys to be undervalued—the lesson of careful and conscientious workmanship. Pope gave always his best. His view of the poetic art may have been narrow, but he acted up to it with a most dutiful observance.
He adopted at an early time one particular metrical form the heroic couplet, and adhered to it to the end. Perhaps no poet has been so completely a man of one metre. He is said to
* Comp. Browning's Andrea del Sarto:
“I can do with my pencil what I know,
I do not boast perhaps.”
have contemplated writing an epic poem on Brutus, the mythical colonizer of Britain, in blank verse. There are some few blank verses of his composing in Thomson's Seasons. But he never really quitted the one vehicle of which he had made himself so famous a master.
Dryden was his great model. Perhaps his highest excellence lies in the same direction as that of Dryden lay-in the power of sketching characters. He, too, was a skilful, portraitpainter; but his style is very different from Dryden's. In one instance he has ventured to challenge comparison with his master, in his picture of Villiers, of Zimri, forlorn and dying. A careful juxtaposition of the two masterpieces will well illustrate the affinities and the differences of their authors.
RAPE OF THE LOCK.
INTRODUCTION. A QUARREL had arisen between the family of Miss Arabella Fermor and that of Lord Petre “on the trifling occasion of his having cut off a lock of her hair.” One of their and of Pope's friends, a Mr. Caryl, laid the matter before the poet, that his wit might laugh away the clouds that had gathered. The result was a poem of two cantos, describing in a mock-heroic
manner the circumstances of the robbery and the battle which ensued. This was published in na Miscellany of Bernard Lintot's in 1711.
“It was received so well,” says Pope, in his note to the poem, “that he (the author] made it more considerable the next year by the addition of the machinery of the Sylphs, and extended it to five cantos.” The game at Ombre was also inserted, as also the picture of the Cave of Spleen. The piece grew, in fact, from an amusing sketch into an epic on a small scale. Pope's models for this work were Tassoni's Rape of the Bucket, and Boileau's Lectern; but indeed there is no work of his that belongs inore truly to his age than this one. The exquisite raillery with which the poem perpetually sparkles, the familiarity which it exhibits with the epics of antiquity, and the use to which that familiarity is turned, the finished ease of its style, all at once connect it with the age which produced it. Addison called it merum sal, that is, “pure wit,” in its earlier form. Certainly the additions made, if they do in some degree impair its unity, must not be allowed to deprive it of that happy title.
The spirit of that age found its most complete embodiment in burlesque poetry. It was then in perfect accordance with that spirit that Pope developed and expanded his jeu d'esprit into its fuller form. It was thought that supernatural agents were essential to an epic poem. Pope was particularly happy in his selection of such beings. He made use, with certain modifications, of the spiritual system of the Rosicrucians, a sect well known throughout Western Europe in the seventeenth century. This, too, he used with the characteristic liglit mockery of his age.
The idea of the game at Ombre was suggested by Vida's Scacchia Ludus.* Vida was a Latinwriting poet who flourished under the smile of Leo X. See Essay on Criticism, 697-708. Pope's age, in the somewhat indiscriminate ardour of its Roman classicism, embraced even the Latin poets of the Renaissance. The game Ombre was introduced into England about the middle of the seventeenth century from Spain, as its name and the names of its cards show. In Queen Anne's time it was the favourite ladies' game, as Piquet was the gentlemen's, Whist or Whisk that of clergymen and country squires. When it fell into disuse Quadrille, which was a species of it, “obtained vogue, which it maintained till Whisk was introduced, which now," says Barrington, writing in 1787 (quoted in Chatto's Facts and Speculations on the Origin and History of Playing Cards), “prevails not only in England, but in most of the civilized parts of Europe.”
* Vida was not the first verse-maker who celebrated the favourite old game of Chess. A catalogue of the library of Peterborough Abbey mentions“ Versus de ludo Scaccorum." See Warton's Hist. Eng. Poetry, i. 81, note, Ed. 1840.
Canto I. 39. 1. Comp. beginning of Pope's translation of the Iliad.
3. This verse, &c. See Introd. 39. 4. (What is the force of ev'n here? What part of speech is it ?]
5. Comp. Virg. Georg. iv. 6, 7.
6. [Would there be any difference in the sense if he had written inspires and approves ?]
8. Belle. Beau (l. 23, &c.) is almost fallen out of use.
12. Sol. The tendency to classical names and titles was beginning to be excessive in the early part of the eighteenth century. Phæbus, Titan, Sol, were superseding the simple sun: Chloe, Mary, &c. Cowper may be said to have commenced for us that deliverance from such classicism which Wordsworth completed.
14. must = are ordained. See Lycidas, 38.
15. lap-dogs. There are many references in our literature to these pets of the ladies, from Chaucer's Prologue (see the description of the Prioress) downwards.
What is the force of the here ?]
16. (What part of speech is just here? How can he say they awake, if they were sleepless ?]
17. It would seem that three rings of the bell with a tap on the floor were the signal that the sleeper had arisen.
rung. See note on blow, Hymin Nat. 130.
23. a Birth-night Beau, i.e. a finę gentleman, such as were to be seen at the state ball given on the anniversary of the royal birthday. See Satires of Dr. Donne versified, iv. 130 :
“ Mere household trash! of birthnights, balls, and shows
When the Queen frown'd or smiled, he knows." Spectator, No. 15: “A ball is a great help to discourse, and a birthnight furnishes conversa. tion for a twelvemonth after.” See Spectator, No. 294, for Feb. 6 (Queen Anne's birthday).
27. He is parodying Paradise Lost, v. 35 et seq.
care. See note on sorrow, in Lycidas, 166. 40. 29. touch'd. Comp. Lat. tango; e.g. Hor. A. P. 98.
30. the Nurse, &c., the Priest, &c. This conjunction is not insignificant of the age Comp. Dryden's Hind and Panther, Part III. 1686:
“ The priest continues what the nurse began,
And thus the child imposes on the man."
[What is the force of by here ?)
“And though they sweepe the hearths no lesse
Than maides were wont to doe,
Findes sixpence in her shoe ?"