James Russell Lowell.

The writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) online

. (page 3 of 28)
Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 3 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

sions and innate motives, so truly is Pope the poet
of society, the delineator of manners, the exposer
of those motives which may be called acquired,
whose spring is in institutions and habits of purely
worldly origin.

The " Rape of the Lock " was written in Pope's


twenty - fourth year, and the machinery of the
Sylphs was added at the suggestion of Dr. Garth,
a circumstance for which we can feel a more
unmixed gratitude to him than for writing the
"Dispensary." The idea was taken from that
entertaining book "The Count de Gabalis," in
which Fouque afterward found the hint for his
*' Undine " ; but the little sprites as they appear
in the poem are purely the creation of Pope's

The theory of the poem is excellent. The heroic
is out of the question in fine society. It is per
fectly true that almost every door we pass in the
street closes upon its private tragedy, but the mo
ment a great passion enters a man he passes at
once out of the artificial into the human. So long
as he continues artificial, the sublime is a conscious
absurdity to him. The mock-heroic then is the
only way in which the petty actions and sufferings
of the fine world can be epically treated, and the
contrast continually suggested with subjects of
larger scope and more dignified treatment, makes
no small part of the pleasure and sharpens the
point of the wit. The invocation is admirable :

" Say, what strange motive, Goddess, could compel,
A well-bred lord to assault a gentle belle ?
O say what stranger cause, yet unexplored,
Could make a gentle belle reject a lord ? "

The keynote of the poem is here struck, and we
are able to put ourselves in tune with it. It is not
a parody of the heroic style, but only a setting it
in satirical juxtaposition with cares and events and


modes of thought with which it is in comical antip
athy, and while it is not degraded, they are shown
in their triviality. The "clouded cane," as com
pared with the Homeric spear, indicates the differ
ence of scale, the lower plane of emotions and pas
sions. The opening of the action, too, is equally
good :

"Sol through white curtains shot a timorous ray,
And oped those eyes that must eclipse the day,
Now lapdogs give themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers just at twelve awake ;
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knocked the ground,
And the pressed watch returned a silver sound."

The mythology of the Sylphs is full of the most
fanciful wit; indeed, wit infused with fancy is
Pope's peculiar merit. The Sylph is addressing
Belinda :

" Know, then, unnumbered spirits round thee fly,
The light militia of the lower sky ;
These, though unseen, are ever on the wing,
Hang o'er the box and hover round the ring.
As now your own our beings were of old,
And once enclosed in woman's beauteous mould ;
Think not, when woman's transient breath is fled,
That all her vanities at once are dead ;
Succeeding vanities she still regards,
And, though she plays no more, o'erlooks the cards.
For when the fair in all their pride expire,
To their first elements their souls retire ;
The sprites of fiery termagants in flame
Mount up and take a salamander's name ;
Soft yielding nymphs to water glide away
And sip, with nymphs, their elemental tea ;
The graver prude sinks downward to a gnome,
In search of mischief still on earth to roam ;
The light coquettes in sylphs aloft repair
And sport and flutter in the fields of air."


And the contrivance by which Belinda is awakened
is also perfectly in keeping with all the rest of the
machinery :

** He said : when Shock, who thought she slept too long,
Leaped np and waked his mistress with bis tongue ;
'T was then, Belinda, if report say true,
Thy eyes first opened on a billet-doux"

Throughout this poem the satiric wit of Pope peeps
out in the pleasantest little smiling ways, as where,
in describing the toilet-table, he says :

" Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux"

Or when, after the fatal lock has been severed,

" Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend the affrighted skies,
Not louder shrieks to pitying Heaven are cast
When husbands or when lapdogs breathe their last ;
Or when rich china- vessels, fallen from high,
In glittering dust and painted fragments lie ! "

And so, when the conflict begins :

" Now Jove suspends his golden scales in air ;
Weighs the men's wits against the ladies 1 hair ;
The doubtful beam long nods from side to side ;
At length the wits mount np, the hairs subside."

But more than the wit and fancy, I think, the per
fect keeping of the poem deserves admiration. Ex
cept a touch of grossness, here and there, there is
the most pleasing harmony in all the conceptions
and images. The punishments which he assigns to
the sylphs who neglect their duty are charmingly
appropriate and ingenious :

" Whatever spirit, careless of his charge,
His post neglects, or leaves the fair at large,


Shall feel sharp vengeance soon o'ertake his sins;
Be stopped in vials or transfixed with pins,
Or plunged in lakes of bitter washes lie,
Or wedged whole ages in a bodkin's eye ;
Gums and pomatums shall his flight restrain,
While clogged he beats his silver wings in vain ;
Or alum styptics with contracting power,
Shrink his thin essence like a rivelled flower ;
Or as Ixion fixed the wretch shall feel
The giddy motion of the whirling wheel,
In fumes of burning chocolate shall glow,
And tremble at the sea that froths below ! "

The speech of Thalestris, too, with its droll cli
max, is equally good :

" Methinks already I your tears survey,
Already hear the horrid things they say,
Already see you a degraded toast,
And all your honor in a whisper lost !
How shall I then your helpless fame defend ?
'T will then be infamy to seem your friend I
And shall this prize, the inestimable prize,
Exposed through crystal to the gazing eyes,
And heightened by the diamond's circling rays,
On that rapacious hand forever blaze ?
Sooner shall grass in Hydepark Circus grow,
And wits take lodging in the sound of Bow,
Sooner let earth, air, sea, in chaos fall,
Men, monkeys, lapdogs, parrots, perish all ! "

So also Belinda's account of the morning omens :

" 'T was this the morning omens seemed to tell ;
Thrice from my trembling hand the patch-box fell ;
The tottering china shook without a wind ;
Nay, Poll sat mute, and Shock was most unkind."

The idea of the goddess of Spleen, and of her
palace, where

" The dreaded East is all the wind that blows,"

was a very happy one. In short, the whole poem


more truly deserves the name of a creation than
anything Pope ever wrote. The action is confined
to a world of his own, the supernatural agency is
wholly of his own contrivance, and nothing is al
lowed to overstep the limitations of the subject.
It ranks by itself as one of the purest works of hu
man fancy ; whether that fancy be strictly poetical
or not is another matter. If we compare it with
the " Midsummer-night's Dream," an uncomforta
ble doubt is suggested. The perfection of form in
the " Rape of the Lock " is to me conclusive evi
dence that in it the natural genius of Pope found
fuller and freer expression than in any other of his
poems. The others are aggregates of brilliant pas
sages rather than harmonious wholes.

It is a droll illustration of the inconsistencies of
human nature, a more profound satire than Pope
himself ever wrote, that his fame should chiefly
rest upon the " Essay on Man." It has been
praised and admired by men of the most opposite
beliefs, and men of no belief at all. Bishops and
free-thinkers have met here on a common ground
of sympathetic approval. And, indeed, there is
no particular faith in it. It is a droll medley of
inconsistent opinions. It proves only two things
beyond a question, that Pope was not a great
thinker ; and that wherever he found a thought,
no matter what, he could express it so tersely, so
clearly, and with such smoothness of versification
as to give it an everlasting currency. Hobbes's un
wieldy Leviathan, left stranded there on the shore
of the last age, and nauseous with the stench of its


selfishness, from this Pope distilled a fragrant
oil with which to fill the brilliant lamps of his phi
losophy, lamps like those in the tombs of alche
mists, that go out the moment the healthy air is let
in upon them. The only positive doctrines in the
poem are the selfishness of Hobbes set to music,
and the Pantheism of Spinoza brought down from
mysticism to commonplace. Nothing can be more
absurd than many of the dogmas taught in this
" Essay on Man." For example, Pope affirms ex -
plicitly that instinct is something better than rea
son :

" See him from Nature rising slow to art,
To copy instinct then was reason's part ;
Thus, then, to man the voice of nature spake ;
Go, from the creatures thy instructions take ;
Learn from the beasts what food the thickets yield ;
Learn from the birds the physic of the field ;
The arts of building from the bee receive ;
Learn of the mole to plough, the worm to weave ;
Learn of the little nautilus to sail,
Spread the thin oar, or catch the driving gale."

I say nothing of the quiet way in which the gen
eral term " nature " is substituted for God, but
how unutterably void of reasonableness is the the
ory that Nature would have left her highest prod
uct, man, destitute of that instinct with which she
had endowed her other creatures ! As if reason
were not the most sublimated form of instinct.
The accuracy on which Pope prided himself, and
for which he is commended, was not accuracy of
thought so much as of expression. And he can
not always even claim this merit, but only that of
correct rhyme, as in one of the passages I have


already quoted from the " Rape of the Lock " he
talks of casting shrieks to heaven, a performance
of some difficulty, except when cast is needed to
rhyme with last.

But the supposition is that in the " Essay on
Man " Pope did not himself know what he was
writing. He was only the condenser and epigram-
inatizer of Bolingbroke, a very fitting St. John
for such a gospel. Or, if he did know, we can
account for the contradictions by supposing that
he threw in some of the commonplace moralities
to conceal his real drift. Johnson asserts that
Bolingbroke in private laughed at Pope's having
been made the mouthpiece of opinions which he did
not hold. But this is hardly probable when we
consider the relations between them. It is giving
Pope altogether too little credit for intelligence to
suppose that he did not understand the principles
of his intimate friend. The caution with which he
at first concealed the authorship would argue that
he had doubts as to the reception of the poem.
When it was attacked on the score of infidelity, he
gladly accepted Warburton's championship, and
assumed whatever pious interpretation he contrived
to thrust upon it. The beginning of the poem is
familiar to everybody :

" Awake, my St. John, leave all meaner things
To low ambition and the pride of kings ;
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man,
A mighty maze, but not without a plan " ;

To expatiate o'er a mighty maze is rather loose


writing, but the last verse, as it stood in the orig
inal editions, was,

" A mighty maze of walks without a plan ; "

and perhaps this came nearer Pope's real opinion
than the verse he substituted for it. Warburton
is careful not to mention this variation in his notes.
The poem is everywhere as remarkable for its con
fusion of logic as it often is for ease of verse and
grace of expression. An instance of both occurs
in a passage frequently quoted :

" Heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate ;
All but the page prescribed, their present state ;
From brutes what men, from men whai; spirits know,
Or who would suffer being here below ?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play ?
Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food,
And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood.
O, blindness to the future kindly given
That each may fill the circle meant by heaven !
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world ! "

Now, if " heaven from all creatures hides the book
of fate," why should not the lamb " skip and play,"
if he had the reason of man ? Why, because he
would then be able to read the book of fate. But
if man himself cannot, why, then, could the lamb
with the reason of man ? For, if the lamb had
the reason of man, the book of fate would still
be hidden, so far as himself was concerned. If
the inferences we can draw from appearances are
equivalent to a knowledge of destiny, the know-


ing enough to take an umbrella in cloudy weather
might be called so. There is a manifest confu
sion between what we know about ourselves and
about other people ; the whole point of the pas
sage being that we are always mercifully blinded
to our own future, however much reason we may
possess. There is also inaccuracy as well as inele
gance in saying,


Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish or a sparrow fall."

To the last verse Warburton, desirous of reconcil
ing his author with Scripture, appends a note re
ferring to Matthew x. 29 : " Are not two sparrows
sold for one farthing ? and one of them shall not
fall to the ground without your Father." It would
not have been safe to have referred to the thirty-
first verse : " Fear ye not, therefore, ye are of more
value than many sparrows."

To my feeling, one of the most beautiful pas
sages in the whole poem is that familiar one :

" Lo, the poor Indian whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind,
His soul proud science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way :
Yet simple Nature to his hope has given
Behind the cloud-topt hill a humbler heaven ;
Some safer world in depth of woods embraced,
Some happier island in the watery waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold.
To be contents his natural desire,
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire,
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company."


But this comes in as a corollary to what went just
before :

" Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Mau never is but always to be blest ;
The soul, uneasy, and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come."

Then follows immediately the passage about the
poor Indian, who, after all, it seems, is contented
with merely being, and whose soul, therefore, is
an exception to the general rule. And what have
the " solar walk " (as he calls it) and " milky
way " to do with the affair ? Does our hope of
heaven depend on our knowledge of astronomy ?
Or does he mean that science and faith are neces
sarily hostile ? And, after being told that it is
the " untutored mind " of the savage which " sees
God in clouds and hears him in the wind," we are
rather surprised to find that the lesson the poet in
tends to teach is that

" All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul,
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in the ethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees."

t$o that we are no better off than the untutored
Indian, after the poet has tutored us. Dr. War-
burton makes a rather lame attempt to ward off
the charge of Spinozism from this last passage.
He would have found it harder to show that the
acknowledgment of any divine revelation would
not overturn the greater part of its teachings. If
Pope intended by his poem all that the bishop


takes for granted in his commentary, we must
deny him what is usually claimed as his first merit,
clearness. If he did not, we grant him clear
ness as a writer at the expense of sincerity as a
man. Perhaps a more charitable solution of the
difficulty would be, that Pope's precision of thought
was no match for the fluency of his verse.

Lord Byron goes so far as to say, in speaking
of Pope, that he who executes the best, no matter
what his department, will rank the highest. I
think there are enough indications in these letters
of Byron's, however, that they were written rather
more against Wordsworth than for Pope. The
rule he lays down would make Voltaire a greater
poet, in some respects, than Shakespeare. Byron
cites Petrarch as an example ; yet if Petrarch had
put nothing more into his sonnets than execution,
there are plenty of Italian sonneteers who would
be his match. But, in point of fact, the depart
ment chooses the man and not the man the depart
ment, and it has a great deal to do with our esti
mate of him. Is the department of Milton no
higher than that of Butler ? Byron took especial
care not to write in the style he commended. But
I think Pope has received quite as much credit in
respect even of execution as he deserves. Surely
execution is not confined to versification alone.
What can be worse than this ?

" At length Erasmus, that great, injured name^
(The glory of the priesthood and the shame,)
Stemmed the wild torrent of a harbarous age,
And drove those holy vandals off the stage. ' '


It would have been hard for Pope to have found a
prettier piece of confusion in any of the small
authors he laughed at than this image of a great,
injured name stemming a torrent and driving van
dals off the stage. And in the following verses
the image is helplessly confused :

" Kind self-conceit to some her glass applies,
Which no one looks 'in with another's eyes,
But, as the flatterer or dependant paint,
Beholds himself a patriot, chief, or saint."

The use of the word "applies" is perfectly un-
English ; and it seems that people who look in this
remarkable glass see their pictures and not their
reflections. Often, also, when Pope attempts the
sublime, his epithets become curiously unpoetical,
as where he says, in the Dunciad,

" As, one hy one, at dread Medea's strain,
The sickening stars fade off the ethereal plain.'"

And not seldom he is satisfied with the music of
the verse without much regard to fitness of im
agery ; in the " Essay on Man," for example :

" Passions, like elements, though born to fight,
Yet, mixed and softened, in his work unite ;
These 't is enough to temper and employ ;
But what composes man can man destroy ?
Suffice that Keason keep to Nature's road,
Subject, compound them, follow her and God.
Love, Hope, and Joy, fair Pleasure's smiling train,
Hate, Fear, and Grief, the family of Pain,
These, mixed with Art, and to due bounds confined,
Make and maintain the balance of the mind. ' '

Here reason is represented as an apothecary com
pounding pills of "pleasure's smiling train" and
the " family of pain." And in the Moral Essays,


" Know God and Nature only are the same ;
In man the judgment shoots at flying game,
A bird of passage, gone as soon as found,
Now in the moon, perhaps, now under ground. "

The " judgment shooting at flying game " is an odd
image enough ; but I think a bird of passage, now
in the moon and now under ground, could be found
nowhere out of Goldsmith's Natural History, per
haps. An epigrammatic expression will also tempt
him into saying something without basis in truth,
as where he ranks together " Macedonia's madman
and the Swede," and says that neither of them
" looked forward farther than his nose," a slang
phrase which may apply well enough to Charles
XII., but certainly not to the pupil of Aristotle,
who showed himself capable of a large political
forethought. So, too, the rhyme, if correct, is a
sufficient apology for want of propriety in phrase,
as where he makes " Socrates bleed."

But it is in his Moral Essays and parts of his
Satires that Pope deserves the praise which he
himself desired :

" Happily to steer

Prom grave to gay, from lively to severe,
Correct with spirit, eloquent with ease,
Intent to reason, or polite to please."

Here Pope must be allowed to have established a
style of his own, in which he is without a rival.
One can open upon wit and epigram at any page.

" Behold, if Fortune or a mistress frowns,

Some plunge in business, other shave their crowns ;
To ease the soul of one oppressive weight,
This quite an empire, that embroils a state ;


The same adust complexion has impelled,
Charles to the convent, Philip to the field."

Indeed, I think one gets a little tired of the in
variable this set off by the inevitable that, and
wishes antithesis would let him have a little quiet
now and then. In the first couplet, too, the con
ditional " frown " would have been more elegant.
But taken as detached passages, how admirably the
different characters are drawn, so admirably that
half the verses have become proverbial. This of
Addison will bear reading again :

" Peace to all such ; but were there one whose fires
True genius kindles and fair fame inspires ;
Blest with each talent and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease ;
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear like the Turk no brother near the throne,
View Jiim with scornful yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts that caused himself to rise,
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer ;
Willing to wound and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike,
Alike reserved to blame or to commend,
A timorous foe and a suspicious friend ;
Dreading e'en fools, by flatterers besieged,
And so obliging that he ne'er obliged ;
Like Cato give his little Senate laws,
And sit attentive to his own applause,
While wits and templars every sentence raise,
And wonder with a foolish face of praise ;
Who but must laugh if such a man there be ?
Who would not weep if Atticus were he ? "

With the exception of the somewhat technical im
age in the second verse of Fame blowing the fire
of genius, which too much puts us in mind of the


frontispieces of the day, surely nothing better of
its kind was ever written. How applicable it was
to Addison I shall consider in another place. As
an accurate intellectual observer and describer of
personal weaknesses, Pope stands by himself in
English verse.

In his epistle on the characters of women, no one
who has ever known a noble woman, nay, I should
almost say no one who ever had a mother or sister,
will find much to please him. The climax of his
praise rather degrades than elevates.

" 0, blest in temper, whose unclouded ray
Can make to-morrow cheerful as to-day,
She who can love a sister's charms, or hear
Sighs for a daughter with unwounded ear,
She who ne'er answers till a husband cools,
Or, if she rules him, never shows she rules,
Charms by accepting, by submitting sways,
Yet has her humor most when she obeys ;
Lets fops or fortune fly which way they will,
Disdains all loss of tickets or codille,
Spleen, vapors, or smallpox, above them all
And mistress of herself, though china fall."

The last line is very witty and pointed, but con
sider what an ideal of womanly nobleness he must
have had, who praises his heroine for not being
jealous of her daughter. Addison, in commending
Pope's " Essay on Criticism," says, speaking of us
" who live in the latter ages of the world " : " We
have little else to do left us but to represent the
common sense of mankind, in more strong, more
beautiful, or more uncommon lights." I think he
has here touched exactly the point of Pope's merit,
and, in doing so, tacitly excludes him from the


position of poet, in the highest sense. Take two of
Jeremy Taylor's prose sentences about the Coun
tess of Carbery, the lady in Milton's " Comus " :
" The religion of this excellent lady was of another
constitution : it took root downward in humility,
and brought forth fruit upward in the substantial
graces of a Christian, in charity and justice, in
chastity and modesty, in fair friendships and sweet
ness of society. . . . And though she had the great
est judgment, and the greatest experience of things
and persons I ever yet knew in a person of her
youth and sex and circumstances, yet, as if she
knew nothing of it, she had the meanest opinion of
herself, and like a fair taper, when she shined to all

Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 3 of 28)