Page images











[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors]
[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

ALEXANDER POPE was born in London, May 22, | school at Twyford, near Winchester, and again to 1688, of parents whose rank or station was never another school about Hyde Park Corner; from ascertained; we are informed that they were of which he used sometimes to stroll to the play"gentle blood;" that his father was of a family of house; and was so delighted with theatrical exhiwhich the Earl of Downe was the head; and that bitions, that he formed a kind of play from 'Ogilby's his mother was the daughter of William Turner, Iliad,' with some verses of his own intermixed, Esq. of York, who had likewise three sons, one of which he persuaded his school-fellows to act, with whom had the honour of being killed, and the other the addition of his master's gardner, who personof dying, in the service of Charles the First: the ated Ajax. third was made a general officer in Spain, from whom the sister inherited what sequestrations and forfeitures had left in the family.

This, and this only, is told by Pope; who is more willing, as I have heard observed, to show what his father was not, than what he was. It is allowed that he grew rich by trade; but whether in a shop or on the Exchange, was never discovered, till Mr. Tyers told, on the authority of Mrs. Racket, that he was a linen-draper in the Strand. Both parents were papists.

At the two last schools he used to represent himself as having lost part of what Taverner had taught him; and on his master at Twyford he had already exercised his poetry in a lampoon. Yet under those masters he translated more than a fourth part of the Metamorphoses.' If he kept the same proportion in his other exercises, it cannot be thought that his loss was great.

He tells of himself, in his poems, that "he lisp'd in numbers;" and used to say that he could not remember the time when he began to make verses

Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender In the style of fiction it might have been said of him and delicate; but is said to have shown remarkable as of Pindar, that, when he lay in his cradle, "the gentleness and sweetness of disposition The weak-bees swarmed about his mouth."

ness of his body continued through his life;* but thej About the time of the Revolution, his father, who mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his child-was undoubtedly disappointed by the sudden blast hood. His voice, when he was young, was so of Popish prosperity, quitted his trade, and retired pleasing, that he was called in fondness "the little to Binfield, in Windsor Forest, with about twenty Nightingale." thousand pounds; for which, being conscientiously Being not sent early to school, he was taught to determined not to entrust it to the government, he read by an aunt; and, when he was seven or eight found no better use than that of locking it up in a years old, became a lover of books. He first learn- chest, and taking from it what his expenses reed to write by imitating printed books; a species of quired; and his life was long enough to consume a penmanship in which he retained great excellence great part of it, before his son came to the inherthrough his whole life, though his ordinary hand itance.

was not elegant.


To Binfield, Pope was called by his father when When he was about eight, he was placed in he was about twelve years old; and there he had Hampshire, under Taverner, a Romish priest, who, for a few months the assistance of one Deane, anoby a method very rarely practised, taught him the ther priest, of whom he learned only to construe a Greek and Latin rudiments together. He was now little of Tully's Offices.' How Mr. Deane could first regularly initiated in poetry by the perusal of spend, with a boy who had translated so much of 'Ogilby's Homer,' and ' Sandys' Ovid.' Ogilby's Ovid,' some months over a small part of Tully's assistance he never repaid with any praise; but of Offices,' it is now vain to inquire. Sandys' he declared, in his notes to the Iliad,' that English poetry owed much of its beauty to his translations. Sandys very rarely attempted original composition.

From the care of Taverner, under whom his proficiency was considerable, he was removed to a

Of a youth so successfully employed, and so conspicuously improved, a minute account must be natu rally desired; but curiosity must be contented with confused, imperfect, and sometimes improbable intelligence. Pope, finding little advantage from external help, resolved thenceforward to direct himself, and at twelve formed a plan of study, which he completed with little other incitement than the desire of excellence.

His primary and principal purpose was to be a

*This weakness was so great that he constantly wore stays. His method of taking the air on the water was to have a sedan chair in the boat, in which he sat with the glasses down.

poet, with which his father accidently concurred, Most of his puerile productions were, by his ma-
by proposing subjects, and obliging him to correct turer judgment, afterwards destroyed; ' Alcander,'
his performances by many revisals: after which the the epic poem, was burned by the persuasion of
old gentleman, when he was satisfied, would say, Atterbury. The tragedy was founded on the legend
"these are good rhymes."
of St. Genevieve. Of the comedy there is no ac-
In his perusal of the English poets he soon distin-count.
guished the versification of Dryden, which he con- Concerning his studies, it is related, that he
sidered as the model to be studied, and was impres- translated Tully on Old Age; and that, besides his
sed with such veneration for his instructer, that he books of poetry and criticism, he read Temple's
persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee- Essays, and Locke on Human Understanding. His
house which Dryden frequented, and pleased him-reading, though his favourite authors are not known,
self with having seen him.
appears to have been sufficiently extensive and
Dryden died May 1, 1701, some days before Pope multifarious; for his early pieces show, with suf-
was twelve; so early must he therefore have felt ficient evidence, his knowledge of books.
the power of harmony, and the zeal of genius. He that is pleased with himself easily imagines
Who does not wish that Dryden could have known that he shall please others. Sir William Trum-
the value of the homage that was paid him, and ball, who had been ambassador at Constantinople,
foreseen the greatness of his young admirer? and secretary of state, when he retired from busi-
The earliest of Pope's productions is his Ode on ness fixed his residence in the neighbourhood of
Solitude,' written before he was twelve, in which Binfield. Pope, not yet sixteen, was introduced
there is nothing more than other forward boys have to the statesman of sixty, and so distinguished him-
attained, and which is not equal to Cowley's per- self, that their interviews ended in friendship and
formances at the same age.
correspondence. Pope was, through his whole
His time was now wholly spent in reading and life, ambitious of splendid acquaintance; and he
writing. As he read the classics, he amused him- seems to have wanted neither diligence nor success
self with translating them; and at fourteen made a in attracting the notice of the great; for, from his
version of the first book of the Thebais,' which, first entrance into the world, and his entrance was
with some revision, he afterwards published. He very early, he was admitted to familiarity with
must have been at this time, if he had no help, a those whose rank or station made them most con-
considerable proficient in the Latin tongue.
By Dryden's Fables,' which had then been not From the age of sixteen, the life of Pope, as an
long published, and were much in the hands of author, may be properly computed. He now wrote
poetical readers, he was tempted to try his own his 'Pastorals,' which were shown to the Poets and
skill in giving Chaucer a more fashionable appear-critics of that time; as they well deserved, they
ance, and put January and May,' and the Pro-were read with admiration, and many praises were
logue of the Wife of Bath,' into modern English. bestowed upon them and upon the Preface, which
He translated likewise the Epistle of 'Sappho to is both elegant and learned in a high degree; they
Phaon' from Ovid, to complete the version which were, however, not published till five years after-
was before imperfect; and wrote some other small wards.
pieces, which he afterwards printed.




Cowley, Milton, and Pope, are distinguished He sometimes imitated the English poets, and among the English poets by the early exertion of professed to have written at fourteen his poem upon their powers; but the works of Cowley alone were 'Silence,' after Rochester's 'Nothing.' He had now published in his childhood, and therefore of him formed his versification, and the smoothness of his only can it be certain that his puerile performances numbers surpassed his original; but this is a small received no improvement from his maturer studies. part of his praise; he discovers such acquaintance both with human and public affairs, as is not easily conceived to have been attainable by a boy of fourteen in Windsor Forest.

At this time began his acqu intance with Wycherley, a man who seems to have had among his contemporaries his full share of reputation, to have been esteemed without virtue, and caressed without good humour. Pope was proud of his notice: Wycherley wrote verses in his praise, which he was charged by Dennis with writing to himself;

Next year he was desirous of opening to himself new sources of knowledge, by making himself acquainted with modern languages; and removed for a time to London, that he might study French and and they agreed, for a while, to flatter one another. Italian, which, as he desired nothing more than to It is pleasant to remark how soon Pope learned the read them, were by diligent application soon de- cant of an author, and began to treat critics with spatched. Of Italian learning he does not appear contempt, though he had yet suffered nothing from to have ever made much use in his subsequent them. studies.

But the fondness of Wycherley was too violent He then returned to Binfield, and delighted him- to last. His esteem of Pope was such, that he subself with his own poetry. He tried all styles and mitted some poems to his revision; and when Pope, many subjects. He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an perhaps proud of such confidence, was sufficiently epic poem, with panegyrics on all the princes of bold in his criticisms, and liberal in his alterations, Europe; and, as he confesses, "thought himself the the old scribbler was angry to see his pages degreatest genius that ever was." Self-confidence is faced, and felt more pain from the detection, than the first requisite to great undertakings. He, in- content from the amendment of his faults. They deed, who forms his opinion of himself in solitude, parted; but Pope always considered him with kindwithout knowing the powers of other men, is very ness, and visited him a little time before he died. liable to error: but it was the felicity of Pope to rate himself at his real value

Another of his early correspondents was Mr
Cromwell, of whom I have learned nothing par

[merged small][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »