Page images
PDF

THE

LIFE OF POPE,

BY DR. JOHNSON.

ALEXANDER POPE was born in London`, May 22, 1688, of parents whose rank or station was never ascertained : we are informed, that they were of “gentle blood;" that his father was of a family of which the earl of Downe was the head; and that his mother was the daughter of William Turner, esquire, of York, who had likewise three sons, one of whom had the honour of being killed, and the other of dying, in the service of Charles the First; the 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 be 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 linendraper in the Strand. Both parents were papists.

Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate ; but is said to hare 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. His voice, when he was young, was so pleasing, that he was called in fondness “ the little Nightingale.”

Being not sent early to school, he was taught to read by an aunt; and when he was seven or eight years old, became a lover of books. He first learned to write by imitating printed books; a species of penmanship in which he retained great exs cellence through his whole life, though his ordinary hand was not elegant.

When he was about eight he was placed in Hampshire, under Taverner,

? In Lombard-street, according to Dr. Warton. C. * This weakness was so great, that he constantly wore stays, as I have been assured by a waterman at Twickenham, who, in lifting him into his boat, had often felt them. 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. H.

a Romish priest, who, by a method very rarely practised, taught him the Greek and Latin rudiments together. He was now first regularly initiated in poetry by the perusal of Ogilby's Homer, and Sandys's Ovid. Ogilby's assistance he never repaid with any praise : but of 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 school at Twyford, near Winchester, and again to another school about Hyde-park Corner ; from which he used sometimes to stroll to the playhouse ; and was so delighted with theatrical exhibitions, that he formed a kind of play from Ogilby's Iliad, with some verses of his own intermixed, which he persuaded his school-fellows to act, with the addition of his master's gardener, who personated Ajax.

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. In the style of fiction it might have been said of him as of Pindar, that, when he lay in his cradle, “ the bees swarmed about his mouth.”

About the time of the Revolution, his father, who was undoubtedly disappointed by the suèden blast of Popish prosperity, quitted his trade, and retired to Binfield in Windsor Forest, with about twenty thousand pounds : for which, being conscientiously determined not to intrust it to the government, he found no better use than that of locking it up in a chest, and taking from it what his expenses required; and his life was long enough to consume a great part of it, before his son came to the inheritance.

- To Binfield Pope was called by his father when he was about twelve years old; and there he had for a few months the assistance of one Deane, another priest, of whom be learned only to construe a little of Tully's Offices. How Mr. Deane could spend, with a boy who had translated so piuch of Ovid, some months over a small part of Tully's Offices, it is now vain to inquire.

Of a youth so successfully employed, and so conspicuously improved, a minute account must be naturally desired; but curiosity must be contented with confused, imperfect, and sometimes improbable intelligence. Pope, finding little advantage from external help, resolved thence forward 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 poet, with which his father accidentally concurred, by proposing subjects, and obliging him to correct his performances by many revisals; after which the old gentleman, when he was satisfied, would say, " these are good rhymes.”

In his perusal of the English poets he soon distinguished the versification of Dryden, which he considered as the model to be studied, and was impressed with such veneration for his instructor, that he persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee-house which Dryden frequented, and pleased himself with having seen him.

Dryden died May 1, 1701, some days before Pope was twelve; so early must he therefore have felt the power of harmony, and the zeal of genius. Who does not wish that Dryden could have known the value of the homage that was paid him, and foreseen the greatness of his young admirer.

The earliest of Pope's productions is his Ode on Solitude, written before he was. twelve, in which there is nothing more than other forward boys have attained, and which is not equal to Cowley's performances at the same age.

His time was now wholly spent in reading and writing. As he read the Classics, he amused himself with translating them; and at fourteen made a version of the first book of the Thebais, which, with some revision, he afterwards published. He must have been at this time, if he had no help, a considerable proficient in the Latin tongue.

By Dryden's Fables, which had then been not long published, and were much in the hands of poetical readers, he was tempted to try his own skill in giving Chaucer a more fashionable appearance, and put January and May, and the Prologue of the Wife of Bath, indo modern English. He translated likewise the Epistle of Sappho to Phaon from Ovid, to complete the version which was before imperfect; and wrote some other small piecess which he afterwards printed.

He sometimes imitated the English poets, and professed to have written at fourteen his poem upon Silence, after Rochester's Nothing. He had now formed his versification, and the smoothness of his numbers surpassed his original : but this is a small part of his praise; he discovers such acquaintance both with human life and public affairs, as is not easily conceived to have been attainable by a boy of fourteen in Windsor Forest.

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 Italian, which, as he desired nothing more than to read them, were by diligent application soon dispatched. Of Italian learning he does not appear to have ever made much use in his subsequent studies.,

He then returned to Binfield, and delighted himself with his own poetry. He tried all styles, and many subjects. He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an epic poem, with panegyrics on all the princes of Europe; and, as he confesses, “ thought himself the greatest genius that ever was.” Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings. He,' indeed, who forms his opinion of himself in solitude, without knowing the powers of other men, is very liable to errour : but it was the felicity of Pope to rate himself at his real value.

Most of his puerile productions were, by his inaturer judgment, afterwards destroyed; Alcander, the epic poem, was burnt by the persuasion of Atterbury. The tragedy was founded. on the legend of St. Genevieve. Of the comedy there is no account.

Concerning his studies it is related, that he translated Tully on Old Age; and that, besides his books of poetry and criticism, he read Temple's Essays, and Locke on Hunnan Understanding. His reading, though his favourite authors are not

known, appears to have been sufficiently extensive and multifarious ; for his early pieces show, with sufficient evidence, his knowledge of books,

He that is pleased with himself easily imagines that he shall please others. Sir William Trumbull, who had been ambassador at Constantinople, and secretary of state, when he retired from business, fixed his residence in the neighbourhood of Binfield. Pope, not yet sixteen, was introduced to the statesman of sixty, and so distinguished himself, that their interviews ended in friendship and correspondence. Pope was, through his whole life, ambitious of splendid acquaintance; and he seems to have wanted neither diligence nor success in attracting the notice of the great; for, from his first entrance into the world, and his entrance was very early, he was admitted to familiarity with those whose rank or station made them most con: spicuous,

Froin the age of sixteen the life of Pope, as an author, may be properly com. puted. He now wrote his pastorals, which were shown to the poets and critics of that time : as they well deserved, they were read with admiration, and many praises were bestowed upon them and upon the Preface, which is both elegant and learned in a high degree; they were, however, not published till five years afterwards.

Cowley, Milton, and Pope, are distinguished among the English poets by the early exertion of their powers; but the works of Cowley alone were published in his childhood, and therefore of him only can it be certain, that his puerile performances received no improvement from his maturer studies.

At this time began his acquaintance with Wycherley, a man who seems to have had among his contemporaries bis 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, and they agreed for a while to fatter one another. It is pleasant to remark how soon Pope learned the cant of an author, and began to treat critica witli contempt, though he had yet suffered nothing from them.

But the fondness of Wycherley was too violent to last. His esteem of Pope was such, that he submitted some poems to his revision; and when Pope, perhaps proud of such confidence, was sufficiently bold in his criticisms, and liberal in his altera, tions, the old scribbler was angry to see his pages defaced, and felt more pain from the detection, than content from the amendment of his faults. They parted; but Pope always considered him with kindness, and visited him a little time before he dicd.

Another of his early correspondents was Mr. Cromwell, of whom I have learned nothing particular, but that he used to ride a hunting in a tye-wig. He was fond, and perhaps vain, of ainusing himself with poetry and criticism; and sometimes sent his performances to Pope, who did not forbear such remarks as were now-and-then unwelcome. Pope, in his turn, put the juvenile version of Statius into his hands for correction.

Their correspondence afforded the public its first knowlege of Pope's epistolary powers; for his letters were given by Cromwell to one Mrs. Thomas; and she, many years afterwards, soid them to Curll, who inserted them in a volume of his Misc cellanies.

Walsh, a name yet preserved among the minor poets, was one of his first ene

couragers. His regard was gained by the Pastorals, and from him Pope received

the counsel by which he seems to have regulated bis studies. Walsh advised him 'to correctness, which, as he told him, the English poets had hitherto neglected,

and which therefore was left to him as a basis of fame; and being delighted with rural poems, recommended to him to write a pastoral comedy, like those which are read so eagerly in Italy; a design which Pope probably did not approve, as he did not follow it.

Pope had now declared himself a poet; and thinking himself entitled to poetical conversation, began at seventeen to frequent Will's, a coffee-house on the north side of Russel-street, in Covent-garden, where the wits of that time used to assemble, and where Dryden had, when he lived, been accustomed to preside.

During this period of his life he was indefatigably diligent, and insatiably curious ; wanting health for violent, and money for expensive pleasures, and having excited in himself very strong desires of intellectual eminence, he spent much of his time over bis books; but he read only to store his mind with facts and images, seizing all that his authors presented with undistinguishing voracity, and with an appetite for knowledge too eager to be nice. In a mind like his, however, all the faculties were at once involuntarily improving. Judgment is forced upon us by experience. He that reads many books must compare one opinion or one style with another; and, when he compares, must necessarily distinguish, reject, and prefer. But the account given by himself of his studies was, that from fourteen to twenty he read only for amusement, from twenty to twenty-seven for improvement and instruction; that in the first part of his time he desired only to know, and in the second he endeavoured to judge. · The pastorals, which had been for some time handed about among poets and critics, were at last printed (1709) in Tonson's Miscellany, in a volume which began with the Pastorals of Philips, and ended with those of Pope. · The same year was written the Essay on Criticism; a work which displays 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 maturest age and longest experience. It was published about two years afterwards; and, being praised by Addison in the Spectators with sufficient liberality, met with so much favour as enraged Dennis, “ who," he says, “ found himself attacked, without any manner of provocation on his side, and attacked in his person, instead of his writings, by one who was wholly a stranger to him, at a time when all the world knew he was persecuted by fortune; and not only saw that this was attempted in a clandestine manner, with the utmost falsehood and calumny, but found that all this was done by a little affected hypocrite, who had nothing in his mouth at the same time but truth, candour, friendship, goodnature, humanity, and magnanimity."

How the attack was clandestine is not easily perceived, nor how his person is depreciated; but lie seems to have known something of Pope's character, in whom may be discovered an appetite to talk too frequently of his own virtues.

The pamphlet is such as rage might be expected to dictate. He supposes himself

No. 253. But, according to Dr. Warton, Pope was displeased at one passage, in which Ade dison censures the admission of “ some strokes of ill-nature." C

« PreviousContinue »